Bian -26- Hero of the Zero

I glared at him when he called me "our little princess."

Bian -26-
Hero of the Zero
by Erin Halfelven


“You’re publishing a newspaper? Here-and-now?” I boggled a bit.

We were still in the inner room at the inn, a fire in one corner, Kilda my servant sitting by the door while Lillakatye and I questioned Lord Kelvan Apdegrote, a slippery customer who had just admitted to publishing a newspaper called The London Tides, or Tyddingr ap Lundenna. Except we were in a world that seemed firmly medieval.

Kelvan grinned and nodded, laying the charm on thick. He played the lovable rascal as well as anyone ever did. “The hardest part has been inventing paper. Ink was easier. Workable type and a press weren’t too hard. Took me most of thirty years to get my paper-making up to a volume to be able to put out an eight page tabloid once a week.”

He made a face. “I had to invent advertising and stock companies and all kinds of other things along the way to make it all work.” He was definitely a person out of their own time, similar to myself. Would I have the gumption to spend thirty years on such a project. I doubted it.

My tall blonde companion, Lillakatye, another anachronistic traveler apparently, laughed out loud. “I think I read this in a book somewhere? Guy falls into a pothole in a thunderstorm and when he climbs out he’s in Ancient Rome?” A big girl who I had seen both fight with axe and spear and use magic to heal, she looked much like the legends of Valkyries but denied being one.

Kelvan nodded again. “I read that one back, uh, back home?” He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Sure was a lot easier for the character in the story than it has been for me. And he was working with more primitive tech. It’s been a long time, I don’t remember the title or the author but it was where I got the idea.”

He mused a moment. “I tried the first thing he did, double entry bookkeeping. One, I wasn’t all that sure, myself, how to make it work and two, seems someone already invented that here, maybe a thousand years ago.” He grinned and shrugged. “So no easy fortune for me showing people how to draw a zero and write it down twice.”

Katye laughed again. “Maybe it was him? Mysterious Martinus?” That was what the locals in ancient Rome had called the main character.

I remembered the book, too. I had read a lot of science fiction, both as a boy and during down times in the Navy. I even remembered the title and author: Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp.

I remembered something else, too. “Kelvan?” I squeaked. Damn teenage girl voice. But another book I had read. “Did you ever read Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen?” By H. Beam Piper, I was pretty sure.

Kelvan nodded, a bit sheepishly. “Uh, that one too. That’s why I picked Kelvan as my name. Uh, Kalvan means bald, here, by the way. I was young, I guess I jinxed myself.” He rubbed his bald spot, “Prophetic.”

“Wait,” said Katye. “I remember that one, Kalvan invents gunpowder doesn’t he?” Another science fiction reader falls into an alternate universe? Three-for-three, what are the odds?

“Dunkel med detta skaite,” Kelvan said, dropping back into Bloddish to curse. Thump that shit. Then back into English. “Martinus didn’t invent it either, too destabilizing on the world. But it’s actually too late, the Chinese probably have black powder already. It just hasn’t spread this far west yet. Is that what you have in your little bell?” he asked, looking at me.

The bell referred to my police-issued Glock from my home time; glock being the local word for bell.

I shook my head, not as a no but as a refusal to talk about that. It had occurred to me that now I had one more thing to worry about: the Crosstime Police. The guys who regulated technology across timelines. It wasn’t stupid to think that they or something like them might exist. After all, I had already had conversations with gods.

And speaking of gods, this began to look more and more like some of their doing. Three anachronistic travelers in one place? Dunnar and Idunn might not be subtle enough for some plan that would use a fact like that, but I had just talked to Hlokki and that red-headed weasel was certainly crooked enough to do it, all while pretending he knew nothing about what was going on.

But, the fewer people who knew about the Baby Glock in my pocket, the better. Plus, Kelvan was a newspaperman and I was myself a cop. Cops traditionally have good reason to distrust the rumormongers that many reporters turn out to be.

Kelvan still looked like he wanted an answer but I didn’t have to try to out-stubborn him.

“A weekly tabloid newspaper?” mused Lillakatye, taking the focus off me. “In a town of 50,000, Lundenna’s that big isn’t it? You could probably support a full-size daily.”

Kelvan snorted but looked amused. “If I could produce that much paper and sell that much advertising, I might. Maybe someday. Right now, I’m thinking of myself as Ben Franklin putting out the Saturday Evening Post. Besides, half or more of the paper my plant produces goes to other things, like books and documents. I’m trying to build another plant but there is only one of me.”

“Books?” I said. I hadn’t seen any since I got here but I might not have been in the company of someone likely to have one. “You mean real printed books?”

He nodded and did another of his magic tricks, pulling a small book from somewhere inside his robe. He presented it to me with a flourish. “Signed by the author, which is myself,” he said, grinning at my expression.

I took the little volume, about five by eight inches I judged, though it appeared larger in my small hands. The cover was leather, stretched over thin wood. An illustration had been worked into the front side in colored inks or dyes. It showed a green hill above a blue lake or bay, with flowers dotting the hill. A title in gold above the illustration read, “varforr ∂e he∂o bin blodde.” Why the Sea Is Wet. Except for the two funny-looking ‘d’s, the letters looked like modern English lower case. I had no trouble reading it but I wondered why Blodde was spelled with regular ‘d’s.

“It’s the story of the funeral journey from Lundenna to Yorvik to bury Henrik Blodde. The chose a gravesite on a hill so he could look out on the shallow bay where he and his men waded ashore. I was there,” Kelvan said simply.

“En boeke,” said Kilda from her stool with a bit of wonder in her voice. A book. She had probably seen very few.

Katye moved to look over my shoulder as I opened to the first page. Here the author was identified as “kelvan yien ∂e grote” but the signature under it was æpdegrote. Both were appellations I realized, not really last names the way I thought of them. A grote was the quarter-sized four penny coin in Blodsey, so “yien ∂e grote” was “given the four pennies,” while “æpdegrote” was “of the four pennies.” Again with two different kinds of ‘d’s, and a funny looking ‘a’ — a puzzle, but for later.

“He died here in the city,” Lillakatye said, as if she had already known that.

Kelvan nodded. “Poisoned by the Apothecaries Guild. The guilds were and are the enemies of most progress, here-and-now.” He made a face. “The cover is made of leather instead of cloth as a sop to the Tanners Guild because my paper is replacing vellum for a lot of things.” He shrugged. “I have to travel with guards lately.”

I glanced at Kelda who had once described Lundenna as reeking from the fumes of the leather industry but then, paper-making was pretty stinky, too. I remembered that from driving through Eureka, California. Not that a medieval city didn’t have other reasons to smell bad.

But guards for the man who invented paper?

When I looked a question at him he added, “I left my men out in the street.” He flashed another grin, “The Scribes Guild is mad at me too, since I can produce a thousand books with no more labor than they require to make two. Paper’s still expensive, but much cheaper than vellum, so I can sell my books for a tenth what they have to charge.”

Katye pointed at the book in my hands. “How much?”

“Free for our little princess.” He continued despite my glare, “But normally two krone.” A krone was sixteen pennies which made a coin about the size of an old silver dollar. A day’s wage for someone skilled like a smith or a scribe was a just a grote, four pennies. Fourpence?

Eight days’ labor for a bargain book? No wonder books were rare if they normally cost ten times as much. My eyes got bigger while I thought about the impact printing had had on my own world. And Kelvan had jumped from that revolutionary idea to another: newspapers.

“How much do you charge for your Tyddingr?” I asked.

“Half a penny, it would be a loss except for the advertising.”

“Who advertises?” I wondered aloud.

“Right now, the biggest advertisers are the used horse dealers, the wineshops, and the Apothecaries Guild.” He grinned again. “I charge them extra.”

“Used horse dealers,” Katye snorted. She wasn’t from the West Coast of my world so she didn’t immediately think of Cal Worthington and his dog Spot that might be any sort of animal from LA commercials back when I had been a kid. I had to grin, too, and Kelvan seemed to appreciate our amusement.

“I’ve been building a small classified section. Lonely hearts, estate sales, rooms to let. Eleven words for a farthing,” Kelvan seemed proud and dismissive of his accomplishments, both at the same time. “Odd, but I’ve had to make a rule, you can’t take out a classified just to insult someone.” He raised his eyebrows.

Katye laughed out loud. “The personals were getting personal?”

Kelvan nodded, suppressing another grin.

Something else occurred ot me to ask him. “You came here fifty years ago as a child? How do you know about newspapers, printing, advertising? How young were you?” I asked.

“I arrived as a child but I had lived nearly a whole lifetime back in the Other Earth.” He shook his head like a horse getting rid of a fly. “I don’t think time is congruent between the worlds. And if I’d known I was coming I would have studied the sort of things I needed. How to make sulfuric acid in quantity, why you don’t make paper out of wood until you have a big enough industrial base, how to make paper white without poisoning your workers.” He shook his head again, frowning at the memory of his failures.

“Congruent?” I blinked at the mathematically flavored word. But he had arrived younger than he had been in his own world? So had I, plus I wasn’t the same sex. Was he? I didn’t ask just then.

He explained himself a bit more. “Time is relative, didn’t Einstein say something similar? I don’t think it flows at the same speed, maybe not even in the same direction all the time,” he amplified his meaning, making it even more complicated and strange.

Katye and I looked at each other, the implications of that speculation beginning to soak in.

“So,” I said, “if and when I find a way to go back home, the time there might be a lot longer or shorter than it was here?”

“Why would you want to go back?” Katye asked and Kelvan’s look seemed to hold the same question.

Maybe they were both where and when they wanted to be but they weren’t living in the body of a reluctant princess who was supposed to marry Duke Evil.

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