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The Lesson

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My name is Iago and I am a demon. In my many millennia of service to the Arch Fiends of Hell I have had the honour and privilege to serve the most exalted devils. Like many demons, I specialise in Law and I suppose I have spent most of my existence in one legal role or another. Of course nowadays it's mostly no-win no-fee accident compensation work (spurious claims against BP in Louisiana have kept me very busy lately, but it has been most rewarding). For relaxation I always enjoy taking my turn towing a caravan at 28 mph up and down the A82 besides Loch Lomond on busy weekends.

But now an improbable chain of events has led to the debasement of our Glorious and Ancient Institution of Hell by the elevation of Gort, an absurd little mortal, to the elite brotherhood of the rulers of Hell. Of course I am not questioning the wisdom of our Great Overlord, Asmodeus, Lord of the Ninth Hell, in replacing Lord Baal with Gort as Lord of the Seventh. In part he did it to annoy Mephistopheles, the Ruler of the Eighth, but mostly he was indulging the whim of his daughter, which is the prerogative of fathers everywhere and is no more arbitrary than most of the rationales large institutions use when they reorganise. Whatever the reason, Lord Gort is now my Overlord and it is my duty to serve him to the best of my abilities. This unexceptional little amateur, having raised a few armies and burned down a few villages, styles himself 'Lord of Hell-fire', even though his idea of being an Arch Fiend consists of no more than running around shouting and burning things down with his one fireball spell. All very laudable of course, but it hardly qualifies as Ultimate Evil. Still, it is not my place to instruct my Masters. Then, one day, the opportunity arose to give him a lesson in what it really means to be a Devil.

It all started in the World of Darken, when I had been summoned to assist My Lord Gort's “close companion”, the half-dragon Queen Mink of Haziela, sort out a variety of legal tangles. Personally, I am not in favour of this current fad for sexual equality that allows women to hold positions of authority. In these days of political correctness we even have a token woman, well a female, in charge of a Level of Hell. At least Lady Tiamat is kept securely above the glass floor of the First Circle of Hell, and at board meetings my Lord Asmodeus always insists that she is the one that makes and serves the tea. But I digress.

Officially Lord Gort and Queen Mink are old friends and adventuring companions. No one would ever suggest there was anything more to their relationship, even if the Queen's pyromaniac daughter does have the same blonde hair and blue eyes as Lord Gort. However everyone can't help noticing that when the 'Lord of Hellfire' is due to visit her castle the Queen suddenly swaps her purposeful warrior's stride for a mincing walk with each foot placed directly in front of the other so her hips swing. Her practical armour is replaced by a tight bodice that squeezes her waist in and her chest out leaving her shoulders bare, with a long skirt that becomes very short at the front, leaving gaps above the tops of her matching stockings to show an unwise amount of scaly thigh. I suppose she imagines this makes her look alluring. If nothing else, it reminds the Keeper of the Royal Kennels to get the dogs' dinner before he goes home at night.

Queen Mink came to the throne of Haziela by a series of fortuitous events that we don't need to revisit, but suffice to say that a previous King had been busy running the Kingdom into the ground; passing land reforms, granting rights to peasants, abolishing indenture, and all those other unnecessary sickening acts of goodness. Of course, once propelled to unexpected queen-hood by the actions of Lord Baal (for which I have always thought she has never shown proper gratitude) the Queen began immediately to make the necessary reforms and restore the Kingdom to its proper state. Lord Gort wanted to use Haziela's strong army to rain down fire and sword on the peasants until they did what they were told. “If they want their own piece of land, fine! Let's give it to them! Six foot long by three foot wide and four feet deep, hahahaha!” His idea of diabolical laughter is, quite frankly, an embarrassment.

Fortunately the Queen and I were able to persuade him that this was not really a practical solution. Armies are not good for maintaining order within your own borders, especially if it is a large conscript army like this one. When you send the troops in to enforce the will of the Queen, it is their own families, or people just like their own families, that they are doing the enforcing on. Before you know it, you have an army revolt backed by the peasants on your hands, the 'peace-keeping forces' sent in by your neighbours are being welcomed as liberators and you are fleeing to asylum in Ecuador disguised in lady's clothes. Of course you can always recruit special squads of callous hardened professionals to pacify individual trouble spots, but to reform an entire country you either need an army of professional mercenaries (too expensive), orcs (unreliable, difficult to control and cause too much collateral damage to property) or you do it peacefully and legally (cheaper and, if done correctly, nastier).

Even then it was difficult to get Queen Mink to do things properly. She just could not see the importance of the legal process. She was all for passing new laws to repair the damage or just repealing the offending legislation. I had to explain that just taking something away like that would be almost as damaging as sending in the army. What I had in mind was much more fiendish. It left all the reforms in place and at a casual glance kept all the little people's new found rights and privileges. It just imposed a few conditions that meant it was impossible for them to be exercised. Although I say it myself, it really was rather clever.

I had just finished the first draft of the document and I took it straight to Lord Gort and the Queen, who had gone to the top of the tallest tower of Haziela Castle to 'take the evening air'. I had no more wish to be with them than they had any desire to be with me, but of course, that was exactly the point. As I diplomatically rattled the latch before I opened the door that led to the flat roof there was a sudden gasp, a flurry of movement and a rustle of cloth from the other side. By the time I opened the door and walked out, Gort and Mink were at opposite corners of the parapet, casually admiring the view. The Queen was surreptitiously rearranging her hair. I was pleased to see that despite all her ill-advised attempts at femininity, she still had her signature weapon, a four foot long maul. I unrolled the documents and began to explain exactly what the new legislation was designed to do. They did not show a great deal of enthusiasm.

“For instance,” I explained, “here we have a new bill enforcing the rights of tenants. If a tenant has been farming the land for a certain number of years, then he will have the right to buy it from the landowner at a price that is set by the tenant.”

“And how is that supposed to help restore the land?” Gort sneered. “It will just mean that all the peasants can just grab more land.”

“You'd think so wouldn't you? I'm sure they will and they'll be no trouble at all when you pass the law. Why they'll probably proclaim the Queen as a hero and Friend of the People. It is just that they are forgetting that the reforms of the late and unlamented King gave them the land, and then obliged the true owners to pay money to them to farm the land and that the peasants then retained a scandalous amount of the profits?”

The Queen didn't even bother to hide her her disdain.

“Hurry up Iago, this is getting boring already.”

It's always rather dispiriting when people are unimpressed by your cleverness and hard work. I hoped she was doing it on purpose, but I doubted it.

“Yes, but if you look at the definition of 'tenant' and 'landowner' in your new law you will see that the peasants are now 'landowners' and the true owners are now 'tenants'. So in a few years the true owners will be able to buy back all their land for a pittance and the peasants will have no choice but to enter into indentured slavery, a much more stable and easier managed system than your old tenant system.”

Their lack of enthusiasm at my cunning was annoying. I persevered in the face of adversity.

“And here are my new measures to reform the system of poor relief. Remember that it is now the duty of the exchequer to provide basic hardship support for all your majesty's subjects.”

“Appalling.” snorted Mink. “I could have a new company of siege engines with the amount we spend. And it just encourages the feckless to laze around and do no work.”

Now there is someone who has never had to live on 71 copper pieces a week, I thought.
“Many of your subjects feel the same way, your Majesty, which is why there will be little objection to the requirement that any recipients of the allowance must demonstrate that they are actively seeking employment. However with the correct wording in the new clause 17, detailed on page 9 (hardly anyone is still paying attention after page 4), you will see that the conditions are almost impossible to meet, for instance...”

“Why are you bothering us with all this?” Gort interrupted. “Why are you bothering with all this? Why does it all have to be so complicated, mean and petty?”

Even if Mink and Gort are the sort of rulers who leave all the minutia to henchmen like me, you would think at least they would be able to see the big picture.

“Well, because the people will not realise what is happening until it is too late. In fact they will have forgotten what happened that caused things to get so bad. One morning they'll wake up and find all their new found freedom will have gone and they will wonder how it happened. Most of them won't even realise it was you who took it.”

“But why go to all this trouble...”

“Because it will cause your subjects more pain and suffering in the long run. Living under tyranny is bad enough, but to glimpse freedom and then to have it taken away piece by piece...”

Lord Gort was starting to get impatient.

“I don't understand why we need to go to all this trouble just to upset a whole load of worthless peasants.”

That did it. I just could not believe an Arch Fiend, and the Lord of the Seventh Circle no less, could say such a thing.

“Well, my Lord Gort, the reason that you do not understand is because you are not really Evil.”

“NOT EVIL?! GORT IS EVIL! Gort is Ruler of the Seventh! Gort is Lord of Hellfire! Gort is Slayer of Thousands! Gort is the Vanquisher of Baal! Gort is the Slayer of Dragons! Gort is the Despoiler of the Citadel of Light! Gort is the Wielder of the Regalia of Evil. Gort is...!” He continued in that vein for some time, but I had tuned out by then. The adoration on the Queen's face as he boasted was, frankly, sickening. Eventually, he stopped, and I could continue with my lesson.
“My pardon my Lord, but every sentence related to yourself. All the very laudable actions you mentioned were all performed for your own benefit.”
“What of it?”

Honestly, it's like talking to a Buddhist.

“Because my Lord Gort, that is not the true nature of Evil. Look, perhaps a practical demonstration would help you understand my point.” I turned to the Queen. “Your Majesty, please could you send for Elizabeth?”

Mink looked puzzled. “Who?” How can this woman have any pretensions to be an evil despot if she doesn't even know her servants' names, let alone all the details of their pathetic little lives? I had difficulty keeping the sarcasm out of my voice.

“The third chamber maid?” Blank look. “The girl who gets up before dawn every day to light the fires in your rooms?” Blank look. “The girl... Look, just humour me and send for Elizabeth would you please? Someone will come. Trust me on this.”

With a scowl, Mink opened the door to the stairs down from the tower and rang a small brass bell in an alcove just inside the staircase, which brought a scared footman running. At least the servants always look scared in Castle Haziela, but I suspect this is more from the memory of the late Queen Silvadore than any real respect for her daughter.

“Didn't realise that they even had names of their own.” Gort told Mink with a smirk as the footman departed on his errand with speed.

Within five minutes a strikingly pretty girl arrived at the top of the tower, rather out of breath and a little apprehensive. I've always approved of the threadbare, cheap and ugly uniforms worn by the servants. They make it perfectly clear who is the master and who is the servant. The dress made even Elizabeth look frumpy and uninteresting. A lot of imagination, thought and effort had gone into that design. You can be certain they were not created by anyone in the current royal family.

“Good evening Elizabeth. There is no need to be frightened.” I lied. “I was just wondering. How is your poor widowed mother?”

This was clearly not the question she was expecting, but I’d already talked to her and had found out all about her personal life. Although she continued to cast apprehensive glances at the Queen and Lord Gort, she started to relax.

“Well sir, thank you for asking. I am happy to say that now I have the job here in the castle and can provide for her, her health is much improved. We hope that if she continues to get better, she may be able to start taking in laundry again.”

“And your little brother? Has he started school yet?”

“He will begin when the new term starts, sir. I have been able to put a little away each month to pay for his fees and if mother can also start working again, we will have more than enough to pay for his schooling. It is so exciting to think that there will be someone in the family who can actually read and write. The teacher says he shows so much promise. It would be such a waste of talent if he was just to spend his life toiling in the fields like my father and grandfather.”

She looked nervously across at Gort's snort of contempt. Clearly, he still didn't understand. I kept Elizabeth's attention with a question I knew she would want to answer.

“And your forthcoming marriage? I trust everything is going according to plan?”

Immediately her face lit up and she was enthused with life and joy.

“Yes, yes Sir, I am so excited! My finance Albert has just finished his training in the Castle Guard. He looks so handsome in his new uniform! I am so proud of him! I am so lucky that he is mine! Now he is getting paid we will be married in the Spring! I am to have a new dress for the ceremony with red ribbons.....”

That was everything I needed my pupils to hear. It was time for the practical part of the lesson. I grabbed the servant's blouse with both hands while she was in mid-prattle and before she could react threw her over the parapet. We demons are surprisingly strong so I was able to get a good bit of extra altitude and put on a bit of a spin. Elizabeth twisted in the air as she plummeted to the ground, her initial surprised squeal turning into a most gratifying scream of pure terror that ended abruptly with a splintering crack as she hit the courtyard far below. I do so love the sound of screaming. There was a deathly silence for about two seconds. Then the sound of crying, shouting and the bleating of little children began, rising in volume as it spread like a shock wave through the castle. Mink and Gort had rushed to the parapet to watch her fall.

“Of course I will meet the cost of the repair of any cracked flagstones and a new servants' uniform if the laundry can't get the stains out.” I assured them. “I'll even act pro bono for you should any grasping relatives try and sue you for her unpaid salary.”

They turned to me with stupid, bovine faces, eyes wide and mouths open.

“Go on.” I thought. “Which one of you cretins is going to say it?” It was Mink.

“Wh- why did you do that?”

I sighed. After all they had just heard they still didn't understand at all.

“Because it was Evil you idiots! Didn't you just hear what she said? Didn't you understand a word? Tonight there will be a young man whose heart will be broken just when he thought he had found happiness. A sick mother will be without her only daughter with no-one to look after or provide for her. A little brother will be denied an education and a chance for a better life. Even the little children who were playing happily in the courtyard and are now screaming hysterically after their impromptu lesson in practical anatomy will be having nightmares for weeks and will, with a bit of luck, be traumatised for life. ”

“So what? Why should Gort, Lord of Hellfire, care about these little people?”

“Because you are supposed to be EVIL! You are Lord of the Seventh! Ruining people's lives is what you are supposed to do! If either of you were truly Evil you would not be asking all these stupid questions.”

“What, Gort, Lord of Hellfire is Evil! Evil I say! Gort is Conquerer of Thousands! Lord of the Seventh! Vanquisher of Baal! Is not Gort the Evilest of the Lords of Hell?”

“No, no you are not. Not at all. You see, all the examples you gave of your achievements are things you did to help yourself. Gain treasure, defeat your enemies, accumulate power and influence. Sins like greed and anger and avarice are all very laudable in their way, but you should not confuse them with real Evil. Would your actions have been any different if you had been merely an amoral thief looking to line his own pockets? The entire point of Evil is that it isn't about you at all. It isn't an action performed for your own benefit, any more than a paladin saves a life for his own benefit. Just as the whole point of being good is to help others, so the whole point of evil is to hurt others. It has nothing to do with what you want or need.”

“What, just hurting people for the sake of it? Petty, spiteful, mean-spirited little acts that spoil someone's day, wipes the smile from their face, blights their life, little acts of random unkindness, just for the sake of it?”

“Yes, yes! You are finally starting to get the idea! Excellent!”

“But that's... that's so petty and small-minded and... and.... vile!” exclaimed Mink.

“It's what being evil is, you moron. It's the petty and small-minded things that are important.” Looking back that probably wasn't the most diplomatic response, but honestly, I was finally losing my patience. “Evil is all about hurting others for no other reason other than to hurt them.”

Mink swung her maul with a fast, practised action and shattered my right knee.

“Like that do you mean?” she snarled as I rolled on the ground in agony.

“No.” I gasped through the pain. “You did that because you are angry and wanted to hurt me because I lectured you and didn't show respect and broke one of your possessions and insulted you. True evil is when you hurt someone just to hurt them, without any personal stake.” Sometimes I really should think of the consequences before I speak truth to power. Mink took a step back, placed her maul in an at ease position and closed her eyes.

“Fine. I breathe deeply and allow the cleansing power of Great Haziel to flow through me. My anger drains away as rain flows to the river and the river flows to the sea. I am calm. I am at one with Haziel and hatred is stilled. I am at peace. I bear no malice.”

Then she opened her eyes, swung her maul with all her considerable strength and broke my other knee. There's hope yet for her at least.

Gort, Mink and the World of Darken are copyright Kate Ashwin.