Speaking in a loud, ringing voice, Azzie said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I am indeed a demon. But I hope no one will hold this against me. What, after all, is a demon? Merely a name for one who serves one of the two sides whose struggles govern all existence, human and superhuman. I refer, of course, to the principles of Good and Bad, Light and Dark, as they are called. Let me point out first the absolute necessity that there should be two sides to everything, for things are impossibly flat without that. I will point out also that these two sides should be locked in more or less equal struggle. For if only Good existed, as some seem to feel would be desirable, no one could make that moral effort toward self-improvement that is the very essence of human progress. There would be no contrast between things, no way to differentiate the greater from the lesser or the desirable from the reprehensible."
"Having established the propriety of a contest between these two great qualities, it follows that one side cannot win all of the time. Otherwise, our contest is no contest at all. The outcome must remain in doubt, now one side showing the preponderance, now the other, and no final result may be discerned until the whole thing is nearly over. In this we follow a law as old as any, the law of dramaturgy, which gets its best effects from an equalizing of forces. Good is not even supposed to be that much more powerful than Bad, because once the issue is no longer in doubt, the contest is no longer interesting.
"If we can accept this, we can proceed to the next point which from it flows. If it is permissible for there to be a Dark to oppose Light, or a Bad to oppose Good, then those who serve one side or the other are not to be despised. We must not let partisanship cloud our reason! If Bad is necessary, then those who serve Bad cannot be considered superfluous, despicable, unlawful, inconsequential. I do not say that they need to be followed, but they should at least be heard.
"Next I'll point out that Bad, once you discount its bad press, has a lot going for it, in terms of sprightliness, if nothing else. That is to say, the principle of Bad, like that of Good, has an inherent desirability about it that men may choose of their own free will. To put it more simply still, Bad can be a whole lot of fun, and no one should feel bad about choosing it since it is as venerable and respectable a principle as Good.
"But will a person not be punished for having anything to do with Bad? My friends, that is mere propaganda on the part of Good, and not a true statement of the position at all. If it is all right for Bad to exist, then it must be all right to serve it."
Azzie took a sip of wine and looked at his audience. Yes, he had their attention.
"I am prepared now to get directly into my offer. Ladies and gentlemen, I am Azzie Elbub, a demon of some antiquity, and an entrepreneur from very far away. What I have come here to do, my friends, is to put on a play. I'd like seven volunteers. You'll find your tasks pleasant, and not at all onerous. As your reward, you will get to have whatever it is you most desire in the world. In fact, that's the whole point of my play: to demonstrate to the world that a person can have his or her dearest wish without having to do anything much to get it. Isn't that a nice moral? I really think it holds up hope for all of us, and is more indicative of the way things really work than the converse — having to work for something and to have certain qualities of character that will bring the desired thing into your orbit. In my play we prove that you don't have to be virtuous, or even particularly effective, to achieve reward. So think about it, ladies and gentlemen. Your souls, by the way, will not be in any jeopardy whatsoever.
"I am now going to retire to my room. Anybody who is interested can come and visit me during the night and I'll lay out the exact conditions. I look forward to discussing this more with you later, on an individual basis."
Azzie made a sweeping bow and went back upstairs. He had time for a light dinner of cheese and bread, and a glass of wine to finish it off. He poked up the fire in the grate and settled back.
He didn't have long to wait.
Azzie sat in his room, half listening to the murmurs of the night while reading a fusty old manuscript of the sort that was always available on the shelves of Hell's more popular libraries. He loved the classics.
Despite his gifts for innovation, which were responsible for his present adventure, Azzie was a traditionalist. There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," Azzie said.
The door opened and Sir Oliver entered. The knight was unarmored now, and appeared to have no weapon on his person. Perhaps he knew better than to go armed into the presence of a fiend from Hell.
"Hope I'm not disturbing you…"
"No," Azzie said, "come on in. Take a chair. Glass of wine? What can I do for you?"
"I've come about that offer of yours…"
"Intriguing, wasn't it?"
"Indeed. You said, unless I misheard you, that you could see to it that a man got his dearest wish."
"I did indeed say that."
"And you pointed out that he needed no special quality to get that wish."
"That's exactly the point," Azzie said. "For look you, if he had a special ability to begin with, what would he need with my help?"
"A point most excellently made," Oliver said.
"You are too kind. Now, how may I help you?"
"Well, sir, what I want most of all is to become known far and wide as a great soldier, the peer of my namesake, that Oliver who fought the rear guard for Roland back in the days of Charlemagne."
"Yes," Azzie said, "go on."
"I want to win a notable victory, against overwhelming odds and at no great risk to myself."
Azzie produced a small parchment pad and a stylus with a self-sharpening point. He wrote, "No risk to self."
"I want to be known to men far and wide, to be as renowned as Alexander or Julius Caesar. I want to be commander of a small company of very good men, peerless champions all, and what they lack in numbers they must more than make up for in sheer ferocity and skill."
"Ferocity and skill," Azzie noted, and underlined "ferocity" because it seemed a good thing to underline.
"I, of course," Oliver went on, "would be the finest fighter of them all. My skills would be matchless. I want to acquire those skills, my dear demon, but at no personal cost or hardship. I'd also like a pretty and compliant young lady, a princess if possible, to be my wife and bear my sons, and I would like to retire to my own kingdom, which someone would give me, free, and there I would live happily ever after.
That last is important, by the way. I don't want any surprise endings making me bitter or sad."
"That's the general idea, sir," Oliver said. "Can you take care of all that?"
Azzie read over the list. "No risk to self. Ferocity and skill. Must live happily ever after."
He frowned over it. Then he looked up. "I can cover some of your points, my dear Sir Oliver, but not all of them. Not that I'm not capable of it, of course, but simply because this play I'm putting on deals with others as well as you, and to take care of your points in their entirety would take a Heavenful of miracles and a Hellish amount of time. No, my dear sir, I'll find a way in which you can, without danger to yourself, win a notable victory and get rewarded richly for it and stand high in men's eyes. After that, you'll be on your own."
"Well," Sir Oliver said, "I was hoping for everything, but what you can do for me won't be a bad position to start from. If I begin as a rich and famous hero, I'm sure I can take care of everything else myself. I accept your offer, my dear demon! And let me tell you, I am nowhere as against the powers of Bad as so many of my fellows. I've often felt the Devil has quite a few points in his favor, and is no doubt a much jollier fellow to be with than his dour Opponent in Heaven."
"I appreciate your wish to please me," Azzie said. "But I'll hear no slander against our worthy Opponent.
We qualities of Good and Bad work too closely together to wish to slander each other. Both Dark and Light have to live in the same cosmos, you understand."
"No offense meant," Sir Oliver said. "I have, of course, nothing against Good."
"No offense taken, at least none by me," Azzie said. "Shall we begin, then?"
"Yes, my lord. Do you wish me to sign my name to a parchment in blood?"
"That'll not be necessary," Azzie said. "You have signified your assent, and it is so registered. As I explained, your soul is not forfeit for your participation."
"What do I do now?" Sir Oliver asked.
"Take this." Azzie reached into his cloak and removed a small, intricately made silver key. Sir Oliver held it up to the light and wondered at its workmanship.
"What does it open, sir demon?"
"Nothing. It's a Moronia double-barreled spell. Put it away in a safe place. Continue your pilgrimage. At some moment—perhaps a few seconds from now, perhaps a few hours, but possibly even so much as several days ahead — you will hear the sound of a gong. That will be the sound the Moronia spell makes when it turns itself on to the Ready position. Then you must take the spell and urge it to join its other half.
The thing is internally programmed to do that, of course, but it never does any harm to repeat the command. It will take you to its other half, which is located near a magic horse. The magic horse will have saddlebags, and in one of them you will find a golden candlestick. Am I clear so far?"
"Quite clear," Sir Oliver said. "Find candlestick."
"Then you must go to Venice—if you're not there already. Soon upon your arrival, maybe earlier, you'll find that your wish has been granted. There will be a ceremony with appropriate pomp when everyone has finished. You're released after that to enjoy your good fortunes."
"It sounds all right," Oliver said. "What's the catch?"
"Catch? There's no catch!"
"There's usually a catch in matters of this sort," Sir Oliver said dourly.
"How on Earth would you know what's usual in the matter of magical stories? Look, do you want to do this or not?"
"Oh, I'll do it, I'll do it," Sir Oliver said. "I'm just trying to be careful about what I'm getting into. But it seems, sir, if you'll pardon my saying so, a lot of fooling around. Why can't I go straight to the magical candlestick?"
"Because there are a few things you will need to do between the turning on of the spell and the final acclaiming of your great victory."
"These things—they won't be too difficult?" Sir Oliver asked.
"Now, look here." Azzie's tone was rough. "You'd better be ready to do whatever is required. If there's any doubt about that, give me back the key. It'll go very hard on you if you default."
"Oh, fear not," Sir Oliver said, holding up the key as though to reassure himself.
"As I said, you will receive further instructions."
"Can you give me a hint?"
"You'll have some decisions to make."
"Decisions? Oh, dear," said Sir Oliver. "I'm not entirely sure I like that. Well, never mind. I merely need to do what comes up and it'll all work out well for me, is that correct?"
"That's what I've been telling you," Azzie said. "Evil expects nothing more of a man save that he do his duty and try his best. More cannot be asked in the annals of Bad."
"That's fine," Sir Oliver said. "I'll be off then, eh?"
"Good night," Azzie said.