Azazel - By Isaac Asimov

The Two-Centimeter Demon

I met George at a literary convention a good many years ago, and was struck by the peculiar look of innocence and candor upon his round middle-aged face. He was the kind of person, I decided at once, to whom you would give your wallet to hold while you went swimming.

He recognized me from my photographs on the back of my books and greeted me gladly, telling me how much he liked my stories and novels which, of course, gave me a good opinion of his intelligence and taste.

We shook hands cordially and he said, "My name is George Bitternut."

"Bitternut," I repeated, in order to fix it in my mind. "An unusual name."

"Danish," he said, "and very aristocratic. I am descended from Cnut, better known as Canute, a Danish king who conquered England in the early eleventh century. An ancestor of mine was his son, born on the wrong side of the blanket, of course."

"Of course," I muttered, though I didn't see why that was something that should be taken for granted.

"He was named Cnut for his father," George went on, "and when he was presented to the king, the royal Dane said, 'By my halidom, is this my heir?' "

"'Not quite,' said the courtier who was dandling little Cnut, 'for he is illegitimate, the mother being the launderwoman whom you '

"'Ah,' said the king, 'That's better.' And Bettercnut he was known from that moment on. Just that single name. I have inherited that name in the direct male line except that the vicissitudes of time have changed the name to Bitternut.And his blue eyes looked at me with a kind of hypnotic ingenuousness that forbade doubt.

I said, "Would you join me for lunch?" sweeping my hand in the direction of the ornate restaurant that was clearly intended only for the fat-walleted.

George said, "Don't you think that that bistro is a bit garish and that the lunch counter on the other side might - "

"As my guest," I added.

And George pursed his lips and said, "Now that I look at the bistro in a better light, I see that it has a rather homelike atmosphere. Yes, it will do."

Over the main course, George said, "My ancestor Bettercnut had a son, whom he named Sweyn. A good Danish name."

"Yes, I know," I said, "King Cnut's father's name was Sweyn Forkbeard. In modern times, the name is usually spelled Sven."

George frowned slightly and said, "There is no need, old man, to parade your knowledge of these things. I accept the fact that you have the rudiments of an education."

I felt abashed. "Sorry."

He waved his hand in grand forgiveness, ordered another glass of wine and said, "Sweyn Bettercnut was fascinated by the young women, a characteristic all the Bitternuts have inherited, and he was very successful with them, I might add - as we have all been. There is a well-attested tale that many a woman after leaving him would shake her head admiringly and say, 'Oh, what a Sweyn that is.' He was an archimage, too.He paused, and said abruptly, ?o you know what an archimage is?

"No," I lied, not wishing to parade my knowledge offensively yet again. "Tell me."

"An archimage is a master magician," said George, with what certainly sounded like a sigh of relief. "Sweyn studied the arcane and hidden arts. It was possible to do it then, for all that nasty modern skepticism had not yet arisen. He was intent on finding ways of persuading the young ladies to behave with that kind of gentle and compliant behavior that is the crown of womanhood and to eschew all that was froward and shrewish."

"Ah," I said, sympathetically.

"For this he needed demons, and he perfected means for calling them up by burning certain sweet shrubs and calling on certain half-forgotten names of power."

"And did it work, Mr. Bitternut?"

"Please call me George. Of course it worked. He had demons in teams and shoals working for him for, as he often complained, the women of the time were mule-headed and obstinate who countered his claim to be the grandson of a king, with unkind remarks about the nature of the descent. Once a demon did his thing, however, they could see that a natural son was only natural."

I said, "Are you sure this is so, George?"

"Certainly, for last summer I found his book of recipes for calling up demons. I found it in an old English castle that is in ruins now but that once belonged Copyright 2016 - 2024