The Duke of Saxe-Weimar’s hunting preserve

“Yuck!” Seth Turski stared morosely into the pot he’d just snatched off the campfire. The hot cereal didn’t look all that bad, but the burned smell was enough to give the dry heaves to a coyote. He was probably going to need sandpaper to get the pot clean again.

Dave Mora looked up from the plate balanced on his knees, where he perched on a chunk of firewood in front of his tent. “Oh, boy, you gonna eat that?”

“Guess so. I didn’t bring anything else. It’s that or hike back to town without any breakfast.”

Jan Brinker went on washing up. “Be glad you have a choice. Plenty of times I didn’t. What happened, anyway?”

“Didn’t stir it enough. I got busy breaking camp, and forgot it for half a minute too long. The heat goes through that tin pot’s bottom before you can blink. It doesn’t weigh anything in my pack, but I swear, this thing’s an invention of Stan.” He took a spoonful and made a face.

“Stan? Who’s Stan?”

Seth snorted. “You never heard of Stan? Well, there’s Satan, and then there’s Stan. Stan is the lesser of the two evils. The Prince of Dimness. Lord of the Fleas. Perpetrator of petty plagues. The wannabe of wickedness.”

Jan looked back at him. “I don’t think I ever saw anything like that in scripture. Do they preach that at your up-time Sunday school?”

“Oh, heck, no. It’s just something Grandpa used to come out with back up-time, when stupid things went wrong. Just a tall tale of his. He blamed stuff on Stan, to get it off his chest, I guess.”

Dave waved his fork. “Oh, like they talk about gremlins and kobolds over at the labs? What’s Stan supposed to do?”

“Well, you remember when your folks would be driving down the main drag in Fairmont, and every traffic light you came to, it’d turn yellow just before you got close enough to go through? One of the works of Stan.”

“Oh, yeah. Hey, I can think of one. How about when I was late getting started on a book report last month, and they thought some guy from Flanders had it checked out, but it was really in a pile waiting to get checked back in?”

Jan grinned. “Perhaps he put something slippery on the steps of the school bus. My sister went flying off and caught the hem of her dress on the hinge. She spent sewing class repairing the rip, instead of working on her lesson.”

Saint Martin’s in the Fields, Rudolstadt

“Pastor Kastenmayer! Do you know what’s going on at that heretical Methodist church this time?”

So much for an uninterrupted daylight hour in his study to outline a sermon. Kastenmayer looked up at his parishioner. Jacob Blohm tended to be excitable at the best of times.

“Generally I do, yes. I’ve learned that it’s necessary to keep in touch with the other clergy in this town, odd as some of them are. What are you referring to?”

“An evil being they’re talking about! One called Stan, completely unsupported by any Biblical authority I can find!”

“Ah, yes, I do know about that. It has nothing to do with theology, and nobody actually believes in him. It’s merely a tale for the entertainment of children, like the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy. The Boy Scouts who meet there like to make up campfire stories. Compared to some of the things I’ve heard of Scouts doing, this is by far the lesser of the evils. So you can set your mind at rest. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

Venice

The door opened, revealing the bright sunlight dancing across the gentle ripples on the canal below.

“Monsignor, this is a travesty! It’s one thing after another. I knew the appearance of Grantville was a danger to the true faith.”

“You refer to . . . ?”

“Not contented with appropriating the name of Saint Phillip for a society embracing those of any faith or none at all, now those interlopers are making up theology out of whole cloth and spreading it on the wind! Travelers coming from there tell of a malicious spirit called Stan being spoken of in the streets, never before heard of anywhere! The name sounds English. Possibly a corruption of one of the ancient Norse legends.”

“Really? That might bring trouble. Do they venerate this one in any way, or seek to league with him?”

“No, by all reports they only heap scorn on him.”

“Hmmm. That’s something, at least. But thinking of the Society of Saint Phillip”•and I really wish they would be more explicit about who Captain Ed Murphy was, what he actually said in a moment of exasperation, and why he said it”•perhaps you might write to Father Nicholas Smithson. Calmly, of course. He would certainly get to the bottom of it and send us an honest report.

“Such a thing is error, certainly, but far less serious a matter than this open warfare against the Holy Father that we must deal with. At this moment I’d have to say it’s the lesser of the two evils.”

****