The greatest philosopher of all time is offering to sell his soul to the Devil. All he wants is twenty more years to complete his life’s work. After that, he really doesn’t care.
But the assistant demon assigned to the case has his suspicions, because the philosopher is Saloninus—the greatest philosopher, yes, but also the greatest liar, trickster and cheat the world has yet known; the sort of man even the Father of Lies can’t trust. He’s almost certainly up to something; but what?
K.J. Parker’s The Devil You Know is available March 1st from Tor.com Publishing.
I don’t do evil when I’m not on duty, just as prostitutes tend not to have sex on their days off. My ideal off-shift day starts with a hot bath and the scent of black tea, followed by an hour on my balcony with a good book; then a stroll through the busy streets to view an art exhibition, hear a sermon or a philosophical debate, or simply admire the mosaics in the Blue Temple; lunch on the terrace beside the river with a friend or two (not work colleagues); an afternoon with no plans or commitments, so I can be totally spontaneous; a light supper; then to the theatre or the opera, and so to bed.
A really bad off-shift day starts before sunrise, with an urgent message to say that something’s come up, it’s so delicate and important that the other shift can’t handle it, and I’m to report to some hick town thirty miles away, dressed, shaved, and ready for business in twenty minutes. You may argue that I get days like that because I’m so good at what I do, better than anyone else in the department, so really it’s the nearest our organisation can get to a pat on the back and a well-done. Maybe. It doesn’t make it any less annoying when it happens.
You don’t have to enjoy your work to be good at it. Frankly, I don’t like what I do. It offends me. But I’m the best in the business.
* * *
“Quite a catch,” the briefing officer told me. “We need more intellectuals.”
That was news to me. “Do we? Why?”
“To maintain the balance. And to demonstrate the perils of intellectual curiosity taken to excess.”
“Is that possible?” I asked, but he just grinned.
“That’s the line to take,” he said. “And you say it like you mean it. I guess that’s what makes you such a star.”
Of course, I have no input into policy. “From what the brief says he doesn’t need any persuading,” I said. “Do you really need me for this? Surely it’s just a case of witnessing a signature and writing out a receipt.”
“You were asked for. Specifically. By name.”
I frowned. “By Divisional Command?”
“By the customer.”
I don’t like it when they call them that. “Are you sure?”
“By name,” he repeated. “A well-informed man, evidently.”
“Nobody’s heard of me.”
I changed my mind about the assignment. I’ve remained obscure and pseudonymous all this time for a reason. “And he’s all ready to sign?”
“We didn’t approach him. He came to us.”
Oh dear. “Has it occurred to you,” I said, “that the whole thing could be a setup? A trick? Entrapment?”
He smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Take care, now. Have a nice day.”
* * *
Oh dear cubed.
Entrapment is not unknown in my line of work. As witness Fortunatus of Perimadeia, a great sage who was active about four hundred years ago. Fortunatus conjured a demon, trapped him in a bottle, and distilled him into raw energy. Likewise the stories about Tertullian, who challenged the Prince of Darkness to a logic contest and won. Both apocryphal, needless to say, but stories like that give people ideas. What more prestigious scalp to nail to your tent-post, after all, than one of us?
I read the brief again. I insist on having one, written on real parchment with real ink; physical, material. It’s regarded as an eccentricity, but because of my outstanding record I’m allowed to have them. I find that reading words with mortal eyes gets me into the right mind-set for dealing with human beings. Attention to detail, you see. Proverbially I’m in it, so why not?
* * *
The appointment wasn’t till two o’clock, which gave me the morning. I decided to make the most of it. I walked up the Catiline Way to see the spring flowers in the Victory Gardens, then spent a delightful hour or so at the Emilian House, where a very promising young artist sponsored by the duchess had put on a show; stand-alone icons, diptychs and triptychs, very classical but with an elusive hint of originality; above all, genuine feeling, such as only comes through genuine faith. The artist was there, a shy, unassuming young man with long, dark hair woven into knots. I commissioned an icon from him for forty nomismata—the Invincible Sun and military saints standing facing, holding labarum and globus cruciger. The poor boy looked stunned when I suggested the price, but then it’s the duty of those who are in a position to do so to support the fine arts.
I still had an hour to kill, so I wandered down into the Tanner’s Quarter, sharp left at the Buttermarket cross into Bookbinders’ Street; nosed around the booksellers’ stalls, picked up a few early editions. “You wouldn’t happen to have,” I asked, “the latest Saloninus?”
The man looked at me. “What do you mean, latest? He hasn’t written anything for years.”
“Ah. What’s his most recent?”
The man shrugged. “Probably the Institutes. I haven’t got that one,” he added. “We don’t get much call for that sort of thing.” He looked at me, making a professional assessment. “I’ve got a very nice late edition of the Perfumed Garden of Experience.”
“Of course with pictures.”
I didn’t ask the price. A book of no interest whatsoever to me, naturally, except in a broad professional sense; but the late editions are very rare, and the quality of the artwork is actually very good, regardless of the subject matter. Money changed hands; then I said, “So what Saloninus have you got?”
“Hold on, let’s see. I’ve got two old Moral Dialogues and—oh, you’ll like this. Forgot I had it. Limited numbered edition, best white vellum, illuminated capitals, the whole nine yards.”
“Sounds good. Which book?”
“What? Oh, right.” He squinted at the tiny letters on the brass tube. “Beyond Good and Evil.”
“Perfect,” I said. “I’ll have it.”
* * *
At two o’clock precisely by the Temple bell (it’s five minutes fast, in fact, but since all the time in the Empire is officially taken from it, who gives a damn?) I turned down a narrow alley, found a small door in a brick wall, and knocked. No answer. I counted to ten, then gently rearranged the position of the wards inside the lock. “Hello,” I called out, and went through into a charming little knot-garden, with diamond-shaped herb beds bordered with box and lavender. In the middle was a sundial; beside it was a handsome carved rosewood chair; in the chair was an old man, sleeping.
I stood over him and carefully nudged his brain back to consciousness. He looked up at me and blinked. “Who the hell are you?”
I smiled. “You wanted to see me.”
“Oh.” He frowned. “You’re him, then.”
“You’re not—” He stopped. I grinned. “I expect they all say that.”
“Most of them.”
He stood up. It cost him some effort and pain. I eased the pain slightly; not enough to be obvious. “You might as well come inside,” he said.
His study opened onto the garden. I imagine he liked to sit with the doors open, in the spring and summer. It was a stereotypical scholar’s room; books and papers everywhere, walls floor-to-ceiling with bookshelves; an ornately carved oak desk with a sort of ebony throne behind it, a low three-legged stool on the other side. I got the stool, naturally. I made myself comfortable. I can do that, just by shortening a few small bones in my spine.
“First things first,” I said, and pulled out the book I’d just bought. Not the Perfumed Garden. “Could you autograph it for me, please?”
He peered down a very long nose at it. “Oh, that,” he said.
He sighed and flipped the lid off a plain brass inkwell. “I remember that edition,” he said. “Tacky. Full of spelling mistakes. Still, they gave me thirty nomismata for it, so what the hell.” He pulled it out of its tube, unrolled the first six inches, and scrawled what I assume was his signature diagonally across the top. “You shouldn’t buy secondhand books, you know,” he said, pushing it back across the desk at me. “You’re taking the bread out of the writer’s mouth. Worse than stealing.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” I said.
He was bald, with a huge fat tidal wave of a double chin and liver spots on the backs of his hands. Once, though, he’d have been strikingly handsome. Not a tall man, but stocky. Probably physically strong, before he went to seed. “It’s an honour to meet you,” I said. “Of course, I’ve read everything you’ve written.”
He blinked at me, then said, “Everything?”
“Oh yes. The Dialogues, the Consolation of Philosophy, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Principles of Mathematics. And the other stuff. The forged wills, the second sets of books, the IOUs, the signed confessions—”
“Extracted,” he pointed out, “under duress.”
“Yes,” I said, “but true nevertheless. Everything you ever wrote, every last scrap. You might be amused to hear, incidentally, that in four hundred years’ time a promissory note written by you to honour a gambling debt of twelve gulden will sell at auction in Beal Bohec for eighteen thousand nomismata. The buyer will be an agent acting for the Duke of Beloisa, the foremost collector of his day.” I smiled. “You never paid back the twelve gulden.”
He shrugged. “Didn’t I? Can’t remember. And anyway, the game was rigged.”
“By you. Loaded dice. Thank you for that,” I said, holding up the book he’d just signed. “For what it’s worth, I think it’s the very best thing you’ve done.”
“Coming from you—” He hesitated. “You are him, aren’t you? About the—”
“About the contract, yes.”
He looked at me as though for the first time. “You’ve read my books.”
He took a deep breath. “What did you think of them? Honestly.”
“You’re capable of being honest?”
I sighed. “Yes, of course. And honestly, I think they’re simply brilliant. You ruthlessly deconstruct conventional morality, proving it to be the garbled echoes of long-dead superstitions and tribal expedients, and call for a new, rational reevaluation of all values. You demonstrate beyond question that there is no such thing as absolute good or absolute evil. That, together with your revolutionary doctrine of sides, is probably your greatest legacy, surpassing even your seminal scientific and artistic achievements, though personally I believe your Fifth Symphony is the supreme artistic accomplishment of the human race and on its own entirely answers the question, what was Mankind for? So, yes, I liked them. Honestly.”
He considered me for a while. “Yes, well. You would say that.”
“Yes. But as it so happens, I mean it.”
“Maybe.” Without looking down, he reached for the horn cup on the left side of the desk. It was empty; I surreptitiously half-filled it with apple brandy, his favourite. He took a sip, didn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary. “I set out to prove that you and your kind don’t exist.”
“Define my kind.”
“Gods.” Another sip; a slight frown. “Devils. Goblins, ghosts, elves, and sprites. But you liked my books.”
“You’re seeking to enter into a contractual relationship with someone you regard as a myth.”
“I write stuff,” he said. “I don’t necessarily believe it myself.”
“Yes, well.” He shrugged. “You’re the public. And anyway, how can you possibly believe it? You’re living proof it’s wrong.”
“I’m convinced by your arguments about the origins of conventional morality. Which happen, by the way, to be true.”
“Are they?” He looked surprised. “Well, that’s nice. Look,” he said. “About the other stuff.”
“It’s true,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of bad things.”
He looked at me, then nodded. “A lot of illegal things,” he amended. “I’ve told a lot of lies, defrauded a lot of people out of money, cheated, stolen. Never killed anyone—”
I cleared my throat.
“Deliberately,” he amended, “except in self-defence.”
“That’s a broad term,” I said.
“No it’s not. I got them before they got me.”
“Yes, but—” I checked myself. “Sorry,” I said. “We have a saying in our business, the customer is always right. Strictly speaking, preemptive defence is still defence. Of a sort. Besides, I don’t make moral judgements.”
He laughed. “Like hell you don’t.”
“No,” I said. “I just execute them.”
That sort of sobered him up a bit. “About the illegal stuff,” he said. “I repented, years ago. And I haven’t done anything like that since. I’m clean.”
“You are indeed,” I said. “You mended your ways and gave up illegal and antisocial activity, round about the time you made your big score and no longer needed the money. As far as we’re concerned, you’re fully redeemed and we have nothing against you.”
He nodded. “Good,” he said. “I’m glad about that.”
He seemed sincere; which begged the question. So I asked it. “In which case,” I said, “why exactly do you want to sell us your soul?”
He gave me a stern look; mind your own beeswax. “I just want to make sure,” he said, “that as far as you’re concerned, my soul’s worth buying. You don’t pay good money for something that’s coming to you anyway.”
“Indeed. And I’m here, ready and willing to do business. I trust that answers your query.”
He nodded. “Just say it one more time, to humour me,” he said.
“As far as we’re concerned, you’re the driven snow. All right?”
“Thank you.” He paused; I think he was feeling tired. At his age, no surprise there. “The contract,” he said.
“Ah yes.” I took a gold tube from my sleeve and handed it to him. He hesitated before taking it, then pinched out the roll of parchment and spread it out. He used a flat glass lens to help him read; his own invention. Very clever. “You should go into business with that,” I said.
He looked up. “What?”
“The reading lens. In a few centuries’ time, everyone’ll have one. You could make a fortune.”
“I no longer need the money.”
I shrugged. “Suit yourself. I was only trying to be helpful.”
He clicked his tongue and went back to reading the contract. He moved his lips as he read, which surprised me.
Saloninus—well, you probably know this; after writing all those amazing books and inventing all that amazing stuff, he finally became rich as a result of discovering how to make synthetic blue paint. A great blessing to artists everywhere, and a dagger to the heart of the poor devils in Permia who used to make a precarious living mining lapis lazuli. It’s a filthy job and the dust rots your lungs, but when the alternative is starvation, what can you do?
“This seems to be in order,” he said. “Where do I sign?”
“Now just a moment,” I said. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? It really does mean what it says. When you die—”
“I can read.”
“Yes, but—” I hesitated. I have a duty to ensure that signatories understand the nature and meaning of their actions, and the inevitable consequences. I’m supposed to recommend that they take qualified independent advice first; but who could possibly be qualified to advise Saloninus?
“If you sign this,” I said, “you’re going to go to hell. Which exists. And is not pleasant.”
He looked at me. “I’d gathered that.”
“Fine. So what on Earth do you think you’re playing at? Why would you want to do such an incredibly stupid thing?”
He looked at me some more. Then he laughed.
* * *
He was such a funny little man. So conscientious.
I’ve had more than my share of bargaining with government. Most people will tell you it can’t be done. Actually it can. True, they have absolute power; so what do they do? As often as not, they tie one hand behind their back. They strive to be fair, to be reasonable. I, of course, suffer from no such inhibitions.
“You say you’ve read my books,” I said to him. “So, you tell me. Why would I want to do such an incredibly stupid thing?”
He went all thoughtful. “I suppose,” he said, “that there’s something you want which you sincerely believe is worth paying such a price for.”
He looked so very uncomfortable. “You’re seventy-seven years old,” he said.
“No, seventy-seven. I’m guessing you’re conscious of the fact that you don’t have all that much time left. I think that possibly you believe you’re on to something—some fantastic new discovery, something like that—and only you would be able to make it, so it’s no good leaving it to posterity to do the job, you’ve got to do it yourself. In desperation—”
“All right, not desperation. But resolved as you are to finish what you’ve started, you cast about for a way to gain yourself that extra time.” He paused. “Am I close?”
I did my gesture of graceful acknowledgement. “In the blue.”
“Two rings out.”
He steepled his fingers. It can be a dignified gesture betokening intelligence. I do it myself sometimes. It made him look like a clown. “Would you care to tell me what you’re working on?”
I smiled at him. “No.”
That displeased him. “I ask,” he said, “not in any professional capacity but as your greatest fan.”
“I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”
“Then in my professional capacity—”
I shook my head slightly. “I walk into your shop and ask to buy a twelve-inch double-edged knife. Do you ask me what I want it for?”
“No,” I said. “You don’t ask. You’re selling, I’m buying. Or do you want to report back to your superiors and tell them you blew the deal?”
He gave me a funny little frown. “Why so secretive?”
“Why so inquisitive?”
“Uh-huh.” Little shake of the head. “Bear in mind we know all about you, everything, every last indiscretion, every nasty little secret, everything you ever did when you were absolutely sure nobody was looking. And we aren’t shocked. Nothing shocks us. We are incapable of disapproval. The only possible reason, therefore, for not telling us is that you’re up to something.”
I laughed in his face. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Is it?” he gave me a cool, level look. “You’re a clever man, probably the cleverest who ever lived. And you’re treacherous, and cunning, and entirely without scruple.”
“I resent that. Bitterly.”
“Oh come on. You proved there’s no such thing as right and wrong.”
“I have my own rules,” I said. “I stick to them.”
He breathed out slowly through his nose. A total sham, of course; he didn’t breathe air. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This has got to be the deal-breaker. Either you tell me what you have in mind, or I go to my superiors and tell them I can’t trust you enough to contract with you.”
(He’d never kept pigs, that’s for sure. If he had, he’d have known how you get pigs into the cart, to take them to market. You can put a rope round their necks and pull till your arms get tired or you strangle the pig; they won’t shift. They just keep backing away. They simply won’t go in the direction you try and force them to go in. So the trick is, you try and drag them in the other direction, away from the cart. Next thing you know, they’ve backed away right up the ramp, and all you have to do is drop the tailgate.)
I held up my hands. “Really,” I said, “there’s no big secret. You were quite right. I wish to continue with my philosophical studies. I’m convinced I’ve found the key to a whole new way of understanding the universe, through scientific observation and mathematical representation. I believe the universe is a machine—a huge, complex machine, but no more than that. I believe that, given time, I can figure out how the machine works; not completely, of course, but to the extent where others will believe me and carry on the work. In doing so, I can free Mankind of the chains of superstition, cast down the false idols of Good and Evil, and allow the human race to grow uncramped, unfettered and undistorted by self-imposed restraints. If I can do this, my immortal soul is a small price to pay.”
He squinted at me, as though I had the Invincible Sun standing directly behind me. “But you know that’s garbage,” he said.
“You said you liked my books.”
“I do. I believe the stuff about conventional morality. I know it’s true. I was on the team that set all that stuff up in the first place. But false superstitions and a completely mechanistic universe with no gods or devils—come on, look at me. I’m real. I exist. Therefore—”
I smiled at him. “I didn’t say I believed it myself,” I said.
I’d shocked him. You see? Not so unshockable after all.
“But that’s beside the point,” I went on. “The point is, given time and resources, I can prove my hypothesis, beyond all reasonable doubt.” I paused. “Nobody else could, but I can. Because I’m Saloninus, the greatest ever. I can phrase arguments to make them unanswerable, I can bend the truth like hot steel until it’s exactly the shape I want it to be. I can prove it so that future generations will believe it without question. They will follow my precepts and revere me, and my name will be on every man’s lips and I shall live forever in their praises. The greatest philosopher, the wisest man who ever lived. Now, what more could an old, egotistical man want?”
His eyes were very wide. “That’s insane.”
“No, just extremely selfish.”
“But millions of people will live by your teachings, die, and be damned to hell.”
“Omelettes and eggs.” I paused for effect. “And, from your point of view, exceptionally good for business.”
His lips moved noiselessly for a moment. Then he said, “I knew you were devious.”
“And very, very selfish. And an artist, a creative. What could be better for an artist than to spin a fiction so convincing that it deceives the whole world?”
He shrank back a little. “You’re up to something,” he said.
“Yes. And I’ve just shared it with you. Now, do we have a deal?”
Excerpted from The Devil You Know, © K.J. Parker, 2016
This excerpt originally appeared on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.