My name is not Finnegan... continued.

My awakening in the morning was late enough that after I'd done my business in the privy and gotten some beer, I thought, “oh, no! I need to leave right now so as to make it to the house!”

“Yes, if you were walking,” said the soft voice. “There's time for a bath and clean clothing, both of which you need badly.”

“What is that smell?” muttered Anna from somewhere nearby. “Something smells like a burn-pile, only...”

“It's me, dear,” I muttered sleepily as I set my water to boiling in the bathroom. “I was riding last night.”

Only then did I realize just what time it actually was. While it was after sunrise, it was still 'early morning'; and as I went about my bath, I noted the need for more beer so as to wake up entirely. I'd gotten perhaps two hours sleep.

“Closer to four, actually, but yes, you do need more rest,” said the soft voice.

I ended up sleeping while riding, though not intentionally; and I jolted awake as we came up over the rise within a mile of the house proper. I could now feel not merely my fatigue, but also that of Jaak; but with this knowledge, I wondered...

“No, she isn't,” I thought. “She can't be.”

“She has indeed,” said the soft voice, “and she left just after you did. You'll have genuine Benzina for the hall's wrecking.”

“What?” I gasped. This time, it was audible.

Real 'southern cleaning solution', which is made by the Veldters,” said the soft voice. “It is called Benzina, and is everything – and then some – that Sarah named it.”

“Is it as bad as what we mixed up?” I asked.

“No, which is why Sarah is planning on dosing it with niter and that one chemical,” said the soft voice, “and that brew...”

There was a pause. The house proper had hove into sight, and Jaak was moving fast. There'd be time for exploring, I now realized, but I was tired enough to just sit and soak up some beer in the refectory.

“Will not merely mature a good deal faster, but explode harder yet,” said the soft voice. “Only some of the more exotic chemicals used in that war were worse than what she's plotting to cook up for the hall.”

“Does, she, uh, know about its fortified nature?” I asked.

“By direct encounter, no,” said the soft voice. “By interview of multiple people, yes – and Sarah's ability, when it comes to getting hard data out of vague-speaking witnesses who can otherwise barely recall what they happen to hear or see, borders on the fabled effects of truth-drugs.”

“Those were thought to be, uh, useless,” I thought, as I passed through the gate. I barely noticed it, and almost did not acknowledge the single guard present in time. I was glad there weren't any passwords or other 'military' matters I but vaguely recalled. I then realized why there weren't any.

“Duh, people here don't think like that,” I thought – and hard on the heels of that thought, there came another. This one was not preceded with 'duh', however.

“Every guard that's still alive, save for those new people, knows the others by sight,” I thought, “and those survivors are indeed that.”

“Indeed they are,” said the soft voice. “I'd get a jug in the refectory, as you're going to need it – and not merely to stay awake.”

“Uh, why,” I asked. “I got to set with someone?” My tone – and words – had begun to finally pick up some of the local 'vernacular' peculiar to the region.

“Yes, though that 'someone' is not a trainee,” said the soft voice. “Lukas got back late last night, and he's about primed for news regarding witches and thugs.”

However, my first speech to Lukas was a question, and it had nothing to do with witches or thugs.

“How hard are turnips to grow?” I asked.

“Turnips are about the easiest things a farmer can grow, 'cept maybe some weeds,” said Lukas. “Now why is it you're asking about turnips, seeing as how everyone and his uncle says farming is about the worst thing you could choose to do?”

“Uh, I was riding last night,” I said, “and as I came up toward the house from the west and south I traveled through some farmer's fields on the way to look at what the hall was doing, and one of those fields had a path running through it.” I paused to drink. I was as thirsty as Lukas, I now noticed; and he'd lost weight while he was gone. Like me, I now realized, he had none to spare. “This path had these thick bushy things in long rows on each side of it, and that field was filled with rows of those things, and the other fields to each side of it just barely had sprouts going.”

“Them who say you'd be worthless for farming don't know much about you or farming,” spat Lukas, “as anyone who could tell that on a night like last could manage farming easy.” A pause, then, “now was this field in the shape of a triangle?”

I nodded.

“I been through it a bunch o' times, and that farmer does decent – both for farming in general, and turnips in particular,” said Lukas. “He gets prime money for turnips, in fact.” Another pause, then, “about the hall – it still wrecked, or them witches been working?”

“It is not wrecked,” I said. “I was close enough to that place to feel its outermost walls with my hands, and that place isn't like the Swartsburg was. Not even close.” I paused to suck down some beer. Lukas had brought his own jug, and we both were obviously 'dried out'. I wasn't sure if I was as 'depleted' as he was, save perhaps in the matter of sleep. “I also stopped by this one town that thinks it's a witch-hole, and while doing that place isn't going to be that hard, the hall...”

“I might need to get onto some cannon-masters, then,” said Lukas. “Now does that place have its gate up?”

“That gate looked like it was stolen from the southeast corner of the Swartsburg,” I spat. “Looks just like it, only fresh thick timber and lots of iron straps, and it has the same accursed gate-topping rubbishy iron mess.”

“Now that's bad,” said Lukas. “The old gate was about rotten, and I know that 'cause I poked what was left of it with my awl the day after they were trading shells.” Another pause, then, “that building in back – does it got windows?”

I nodded, then muttered, “I was told I could center those.”

“I don't doubt that much,” said Lukas. “I've seen you shoot.”

“No,” I muttered. “With a wine-bottle.”

Lukas looked at me in amazement, and asked, “how?”

“By throwing them,” I said. “Sarah thought I could toss those things...”

“No, Catrijn,” said Sarah's voice faintly. I could hear steps coming closer, though from which direction was impossible for me to say. “I saw him toss that thing, and God strike me dead if it did not center that buggy. If you do not believe me, ask August himself. He saw that bottle strike.”

Another female voice, this one a trifle deeper in tone and totally disbelieving in guise, “the length of Roos? Fletched like an arrow?”

“How those things fly?” asked Lukas.

“Uh, that one flew like, uh, uh, a mortar shell,” I muttered, “only it was really noisy.”

“I cannot tell you how horrible that thing sounded,” spat Sarah. She was getting closer – and the way she said 'horrible' seemed to ring and howl like that wine bottle in flight. “The Gustaaf itself does not have words enough to speak of that noise.”

“Is that like a rotten cannon?” asked Lukas. “I've heard of mortars, but I doubt you're talking of what chemists use. These things you call mortars like some things I've seen on tapestries?”

“Uh, a short-barreled cannon,” I said. “It fires its shells at a high angle so as to drop them on...”

Lukas nodded, then, “if you tossed a wine-bottle that far... Was this thing full?”

The idea of tossing a wine-bottle full of wine was beyond my endurance, and it was all I could do to not laugh hysterically – both at the resulting mess upon impact, and also how 'wine lovers' – Gabriel came to mind – would think of my doing so. The resulting noise 'startled' Lukas.

“I take it that means yes,” he said. “Now wine, water, and distillate weigh about the same for a volume, and I know that distillate don't just burn if you get it in the right mood.”

“Does it explode?” I asked.

“I suspect it does, and not just if it's spread around so it's fumes,” said Lukas. “It might not be blasting oil, but I've heard of using caps on fire-jugs, and...”

“What happens?” I asked.

“It doesn't just start a bigger fire,” said Lukas. “Those things go off like powder-jugs for blast, too, and that's with a cap. If you put dynamite to it, though – I've heard what happens then.”

“Uh, I did that once,” I murmured, as I recalled the bombs I'd used upon the witch-caravan when they came for us and the fever-bark trees.

“So it was you,” said Lukas. “Hans told me like he'd came up with the idea, but I know him – and about nine for ten o' his ideas are accidents or him hearing gossip and then working with what he hears.”

“Or I tell him about them,” said Sarah as she suddenly showed to my left. It was all I could do to not jump in startlement. “Good, you have beer. I'm about due for a jugful myself.”

“Uh, that other woman?” I asked.

“Is a scribe I know,” said Sarah. “She works here.” A sudden change in voice, then, “I fetched three jugs of that stuff, and that man spoke of their freshness.”

“What jugs, dear?” asked Lukas.

True southern cleaning solution, not the fifth kingdom's well-sold falsehood,” said Sarah emphatically. “I can speak that name, but around here it might be unwise.” A brief pause, then, “some think it a curse, which it is not.”

“You're speaking 'o Benzina, then,” said Lukas. “I've used it in the mines.”

“I am surprised you are still alive,” said Sarah. “The fumes are most flammable, and they are not good to breathe. It speaks of that on the jugs I've seen.”

“It makes light distillate seem like beer that way,” said Lukas, “which is why I always got outside with a little covered metal cup and a brush when I had to use it, and I made sure the wind was blowing away from me decent.” A brief pause, then, “I've seen what happens when that stuff goes.”

“Uh, big explosion?” I asked.

“Remember that one drink-house?” asked Lukas. “The one that exploded on us?” Sarah was listening raptly. “Now if that place had been running that Benzina stuff, we would have been cooked to a turn when it went up, and the ground would have had a hole big enough to hide a freight wagon and a hitched eight horse team.” A brief pause, then “three jugs of it?”

“For the hall's destruction, sir,” said Sarah softly. “I've cleaned more niter, and I've ample of this one fluid remaining, and a certain someone spoke to me about using that material for bombing.”

Lukas' eyes abruptly bugged out, then he began muttering.

“Yes, I know about the hall,” said Sarah. “My sources spoke to me of its laborers, and how Gilbertus only saw what the witches were showing him.”

“Slaves,” I said. “Five slaves for every witch, and every one of them picked carefully for his task.”

“That also,” said Sarah. “Witches tend to ignore itinerant tailors, save when they are inclined toward sport or sacrifice, so it was easy to learn of what they were doing.” A brief pause, then, “which is why I have also been on the hunt for empty wine-bottles.”

Lukas looked at Sarah with admiration, then said, “now is that true about him tossing them things?”

“Four hundred paces, or I'm a fool-hen,” said Sarah, “and I saw that bottle fly straighter than any arrow made and strike square in the bed of that buggy.” Another pause, then, “and so far, I have collected nearly twenty of them – and that before coming here. I know of at least a dozen empty ones here, and that is if I do not ask Gabriel.”

“Twenty?” I asked.

“And suitable string that I can tie well, and a bag of quoll-feathers for fletching,” said Sarah. “I hope that I can find sufficient distillate to fill them, as we have this material similar to vlai...”

I could just feel the crushing headaches of the last evening creeping up upon me at the mere mention of that sunny yellow 'lemon meringue'.

“Vlai?” asked Lukas. “That's decent if it's made right, but it tends to gripe me 'most all of the time.”

“This material is not vlai,” said Sarah. “It has a similar consistency, has a stronger and more pure color, is as sticky when at room temperature as the best hide glue when hot and freshly applied, and is the most potent explosive one might think of. More, it is quite sensitive to impact, or so I heard.”

“Like blasting oil,” said Lukas.

“It is not that sensitive,” said Sarah archly. “I was thinking if a distillate-filled bottle, fully fletched and suitably corked, were but anointed with that material just before tossing...”

The world seemed to come to a screeching halt as my mind boiled with the possibilities. I had spoken of 'breaking down the hall' prior to delivering the goods, and now Sarah had more or less done much of the hard labor as to 'how' to accomplish the matter.

“If it's tossed hard, then it'll explode like a shell when it hits,” said Lukas. “I'm not certain if it will do much against a place built up like the second kingdom house's border station.”

“Against the walls themselves, such bombs would do little,” said Sarah. “Those walls would need siege guns firing round-shot, and many of them, to reduce the place the way it currently is.” Another brief pause, then, “however, if the bombs are delivered to the inside by way of the windows, then...”

“That might just do what you want,” said Lukas. “Now that gate's going to be tricky, and...”

“That will wish bottles with different filling, sir,” said Sarah. She was thinking ahead of the conversation, and had obviously been doing no small amount of thinking before meeting us. “If that yellow material is mingled with prepared sawdust and niter, it becomes similar to a loathsome species of animal glue...”

“Glue won't do much to that gate, not if it's like he's told me,” interrupted Lukas.

“This 'glue' is a most powerful explosive, sir,” said Sarah. “I have seen what it does, and a bottle filled with it and anointed with that 'vlai' prior to tossing would most likely demolish that gate.”

And drop the towers, and ruin the front part of the hall itself,” said the soft voice. “Flaming rubble is not a suitable pathway for a would-be sapper.” A pause, then, “use less of that 'loathsome glue' and much more of the other materials, and put a squirt of the pure material on the bottom of the bottle just before tossing. Then have him toss it at the gate.”

“What would that do?” asked Lukas.

“It would not drop the towers or make for an unduly cluttered ingress path,” said the soft voice. “It would turn the gate to flaming splinters and blast them inward in a huge burning cloud mingled with soot and scrap iron.”

“And smoke the place up good, no doubt,” I muttered.

“Especially if you follow that 'gate-crasher bomb' with more of the distillate-bottles,” said the soft voice. “The flames of those will keep the witches at bay passably while you set the jugs in the proximal center of the courtyard and then 'pull' the fuses.”

“You got to be a preacher to understand him sometimes,” muttered Lukas. “Either that, or a lecturer at the west school.”

“That was one of the chief reasons why I went where I did,” said Sarah. “I recall needing to speak to my mother after prayer when I was small and was not able to understand much of what I heard, and it took me some time to learn to pray with a word-book on the bed next to me while I knelt beside it.”

Lukas muttered about 'loathsome glue', and I thought to show him what was 'meant' by its likely effects. I stood, left my things on the bench, and extracted one of the recently-made bombs from my possible bag. Lukas looked at it with great interest.

“I remember those things,” he said. “I've been wanting some of 'em bad.”

I did not hear him, as I had begun walking toward the main area. I could feel a gathering of Generals, including three 'especially annoying' imported-from-elsewhere examples, and they were all quietly 'plotting' something or another. I stopped, looked, then 'found' the door closest to this grouping with particular abruptness; and with rapid steps, I drew closer to it. I could feel one of those foul-smelling people about to open the door, and when I came within six feet of the door itself, it opened a crack.

I lunged for the door, then leaped high to then deliver a flying kick. The door flew open with a snapping bang as I landed inside General's Row with a stunned General but three feet away, and amid the brilliant and glaring bright-dim-bright of a huge number of smoke-billowing firebomb lanterns and a ceiling totally obscured with roiling clouds of thick and sooty black smoke, I saw tall iron shields, these covered with rivets and obviously reinforced...

Which were leaning against the rear walls of the room some thirty feet from where I stood.

And draped around and over and parked behind a collection of dark and shiny new-looking desks of massive size, a vast crowd of surprised and argumentative black-dressed men were earnestly engaged in becoming trashed by consuming much strong drink. The reek of burning datramonium was profound, and when I glanced at what was in my hand, I noted that not merely had its fuse ignited, but that fuse was burning fast and I had about an inch remaining clear of the cap. I tossed the thing at the clustered thugs, then about-turned and ran like a hare – and but a handful of feet after I cleared the doorway, the thundering explosion threw me amid a blazing orange-red cloud of sooty smoke to land face-down and sliding on the slick and glossy floor some twenty feet downrange.

I picked myself up, then crawled rapidly for the hallway that led to my post. I was hoping to get there before anyone important was present to ask about what I had just done, but when I arrived at my seat, I found it occupied by Gabriel. Lukas was looking at me in utter shock and surprise.

“Chemicals?” Gabriel asked innocently upon seeing my sooty clothing and face.

“Gabriel, you wretch,” spat Sarah as she returned. I suspected she had just visited the nearest privy, and her 'shaky' demeanor indicated she had run for the place with all possible haste. “He just put a stop to a treason-plot, unless my guess is very far off.”

“What?” I gasped. “There were a bunch of those people in there, all gathered around these big shiny dark wood desks...”

“If they were doin' that,” said Lukas gravely, “then what they were saying was no good. I know that much about those stinking thugs.” A brief pause, then, “how is it you know about a treason-plot?”

“First, the Annals,” said Sarah. “I have gone through the ones here – with the last instance being quite recently – and about every two ten-years, someone attempts treason in the house proper.” Sarah paused to drink, then said, “and then, there is what those people speak of, and of that I have heard well.”

“That one room?” I asked.

“Karl has some of his things in there,” said Sarah, “and Sepp is thinking about using it as well once it's fully cleaned and properly furnished. There is work remaining regarding cleaning at the least, and it still smells badly.” She sounded as if she'd been inside the place so as to speak of it with accuracy. “It was neither of those men who spoke of treason, however. It was Andreas who told me, and he has heard them speak of the matter himself.”

“Then that's most likely...”

Lukas stopped speaking as the smoke cloud began to slowly make its way into the hallway.

“No, go smoke up those Generals, and give each man a good coating of soot,” I asked. “Dust those stinky traitors good.”

“Those of them that still live, you mean,” said the soft voice, as the smoke vanished from sight with a sudden soft whooshing noise. “You stopped that plot cold.”

“Plot?” I asked dumbly. I was still a bit 'numb' from being tossed by the explosion, and when I looked down at my clothing, I noted much of its soot had vanished – and my hands were no longer dusted with black beyond traces that would easily clean up when I bathed. However, I wondered about

my face – and a touch showed no soot whatsoever to be upon it.

“Those men were gathered for the purpose spoken of by Sarah, complete with their loaded weapons next to them, and were within minutes of trying to take the house proper,” said the soft voice.

“Any of those thugs from the hall?” I asked shakily.

“About half of them,” said the soft voice, “including all of the leaders.”

“Did those, uh, lanterns go up when that bomb exploded?” I asked. Again, my voice shook, and my ears rang like chimes.

“Every witch in that room was incinerated or blown apart,” said the soft voice. “The combined blasts sent fiery shockwaves down the various corridors and ignited various jugs of strong drink – some of which were open and being consumed.” I had the impression those people were now nursing serious burns.

“And those firebomb lanterns?” I asked.

“The witches had not merely brought in a great many more 'appropriately-marked' fetish-grade examples, but all of the existing ones in General's Row were in that room.”

“So they are now no longer present in usable form,” said Sarah softly. “Good.” Her voice now had a distinctly harder edge. “Hendrik does not want those things in here, and now I am altogether certain as to why he is thusly inclined.”

“You are certain now?” asked Gabriel.

“I wondered if he was concerned because of their markings,” said Sarah. “Markings or not, those things are dangerous to burn if they have distillate in them, and that irrespective of what is done to that distillate.”

“Boiled distillate...”

Gabriel's voice was squelched abruptly by Sarah, who said sharply, “that type might not be nearly as dangerous as that distillate spoken of as being 'well-dried', but if you want a wick-lantern to give light and not set you alight while it is doing so, you must buy one from an Eisernije tinker, and use Veldter's lamp-fuel in it – and that only. Otherwise, wick-lanterns are ready accidents that but wait for the smallest excuse to send you to hell.”

“Now that's news,” said Lukas. “There are wick-lanterns that aren't waiting to blow up?”

“Yes, in Eisernije,” said Sarah. “They are commonly used in some of the larger dwellings, and they smoke very little and give decent light – and as long as they remain upright while burning, they are as safe as a good wax candle.”

“And if they fall over?” I asked.

“The fuel puddles, but it does not burn,” said Sarah, “and the lantern's flame soon goes out.”

“That's decent, then,” said Lukas. “Now what is this fuel?”

“A dark brown oily substance with a faint musty odor,” said Sarah. “It tends to escape from anything not particularly well-sealed, but it is very hard to get it to burn unless you use a wick of some sort or set it to fuming.” Sarah paused, then said, “and getting fumes from that stuff is not easily done.”

“And if the lanterns fall upon, uh, rugs?” I asked.

“I never saw one of those in Eisernije,” said Sarah. “The floors I saw were commonly of packed earth, or in some cases earth-laid broken stone for the older or more-wealthy places.”

“Ain't none of them people wealthy,” said Lukas.

“In money, no,” said Sarah, “at least by the standards of the fifth kingdom house. However, if some of them were able to come to the first kingdom, they might manage smaller or older houses in the far-hinterlands to the north and east if they used the whole of what they had managed to save for purchase.”

“Given the fifth kingdom house's prices are three for our one...” said Gabriel.

Lukas glared at him, then spat, “now who told you that prime rubbish?”

“They're more than that,” I murmured. “I could tell that during my trip with Liza.” I then recalled just who Liza looked like. Sarah was next to me, so I had a potent – and nice-smelling, I now realized – reminder.

“She tell you?” asked Lukas. “She'd know about such things.”

“Who is this woman?” asked Sarah.

“She could pass for your sister,” said Lukas. “About two inches taller, same build, same hair for color if not length – she even sounds like you, save she ain't gone to the higher schools if I go by her speech.”

There was silence, and for an instant, I wondered why – until I wondered for a moment about when I had seen Sarah's form superimposed upon Liza's. I suspected 'now' was not a good time to ask Sarah if she had had a sister. Lukas then looked at me.

“So how did you know them prices are higher than he spoke of?” he asked.

“I could tell just by looking at the places we were passing,” I said, “and in some cases, just by the 'feeling' I was getting as we traveled.” A brief pause, then, “I am not certain if there is anywhere more expensive to live on the continent, but I do know that the fifth kingdom house has the highest prices for the neccessities of life of anywhere I've actually been in the five kingdoms.” A pause, then, “any place that routinely runs that many slaves has to have a high cost of living.”

“So that's why,” muttered Sarah. “I thought it was otherwise.” An abrupt change in tone, this one of consternation: “how do slaves raise the cost of living for those otherwise?”

“I'm not certain if they directly do that,” I said, “but I am certain their presence does indeed...” I slapped my knee, then spat, “those people got to eat, don't they? They don't get work out of those poor wretches without feeding them something – even if it's cheap stuff...”

I ceased speaking with the fast-blooming realization of the enormity of what I had said: 'slave food' was relatively cheap, cheaper even than that of Eisernije; but those owning the slaves had the fruits of their labor far cheaper than regular hired workmen, and often slaves produced more 'product' per day than hired workmen as well. This meant prodigious incomes for their owners, if they had any real number of such slaves; and the practices and income of the fortune hundreds set the tone – and prices – for all of that realm.

“Now I know why such that I can explain it,” I said. “Those owning slaves tend to be very wealthy, especially if they're combine-heads.”

“There are a number of such people, and many otherwise who own large numbers of slaves,” said Sarah.

“And slave-labor produces products very cheaply,” I said. “At least, cheaply in terms of money. It is not cheap at all for the slaves themselves.”

I had the rapt attention of the others.

“Cheap labor means that the whole of the cost of the item can be less,” I said, “which means it sells readily in most circles, and that with substantial profit for the maker.” A pause, then, “this means that between low prices, high profit margins, and high volume, slave-owners tend to be especially wealthy...”

“Not as cheaply as you think, given that most fifth kingdom products are used locally,” said the soft voice. “The profit margins of slave labor are typically several times that of honest labor, and any fifth kingdom thug who owns more slaves than he has fingers has 'ample funds' – and given the large number and substantial wealth of such people in that region, and their willingness to spend their money freely, the results are the prices are much higher than anywhere else on the continent – and that is the case for everything.”

“The suffering implicit in slavery?” I asked. “Isn't that why they do what they do..?”

“That is especially the case, and that black book speaks of 'slavemasters being the favorites of Brimstone',” said the soft voice. “Beyond that, though, everything a true-witch might want or need typically is a fetish in both name and cost – and hence every witch desires to own and 'run' gangs of slaves so as to most-readily achieve the needed income.”

“And that stinking black book and what it says...” I spat. I knew that there were entire chapters speaking of the benefits of wealth achieved by inflicting suffering and torment upon innocents.

Gabriel abruptly stood and walked back down the hall, all the while softly muttering to himself. Sarah was glaring at him, I then realized, and I wondered as to why. Was it rudeness to leave without speaking?

“He came here to ask you something, and he would not speak of it to either of us in the slightest,” said Sarah, “and when you do not read his mind and grant his fondest wish, he walks off.” Her tone implied she was irritated. “I wonder if he's merely cursed sometimes.” Another pause, then a change of subject: “I am most glad for that buggy, as it seems to be loosening up.”

“L-loosening up?” I asked. I was afraid it was about to need extensive repairs due to my 'faulty workmanship'.

“Its wheels, for one,” said Sarah. “Such sleeves tend to need some road-miles before they become fully free as to their turning, and then the springs are becoming freer as well.”

“That thing jolt you much?” asked Lukas.

“Yes, if you drive it into and out of a ditch or over a kettle-hole at speed,” said Sarah. “I nearly had it on two wheels repeatedly while driving today until I learned how to take turns with it while trotting.”

“You what?” I gasped.

“Normal buggies are not merely less precise, but have much play in their steering,” said Sarah, “and I speak of ones like the one at home when I say that.” A pause to drink, then, “that one, and those two others you worked on, have next to no play, and hence they ride as if they were mining carts on rails when running in a straight line.”

“And they need care if you...” Lukas paused, then asked, “how fast were you going?”

“I think I was managing at least a third more than a postal buggy, sir,” said Sarah, “save when I thought to cross fields. I slowed then.”

“Cross f-fields?” I asked.

“I did not do that much,” said Sarah, “and I was careful about which fields I attempted, but if one must drive off of roads, that buggy will manage it readily if one has little in it and the horses are not winded.”

“And if the driver don't weigh much,” said Lukas. “Now why is it you went 'cross fields?”

“To save time, sir,” said Sarah. “I stayed well clear of all save the least-used roads, but those tend to wind some in places, so then I cut across fields and through the roadside ditches.” Sarah's face then adopted a look of consternation, then she whispered, “and how that thing leaves no trace of its passage in fields is a mystery.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“It does not leave tracks behind it,” said Sarah. “That, or they are quite faint.”

“The horses leave tracks?” asked Lukas.

They seem to,” said Sarah, “but that buggy does not.”

“I think I got an answer for that,” said Lukas. “That thing's the smallest buggy I ever seen, and I think it's about the lightest one, too – or I don't know them people out back much. Then, how wide are those tires?”

“The width of a finger narrower than the usual,” said Sarah. “The rims are most unusual, as not merely are they thinner by half compared to the common for rims of that size, but they're especially hard and smooth, with carefully rounded edges.”

“Your husband-to-be did 'em, right?” asked Lukas.

I nodded, then said, “they aren't particularly soft, or at least they weren't when I tested the metal after forming them.” I paused, then said, “and I spent no small time at the grinding wheel smoothing those things up, especially where they were welded.” Grinding the inside smooth had been no mean trick, even once I had fitted one of the two smaller grinding wheels that had arrived to the grinder's shaft, and I was glad for the steam engine's steady turning of the wheel.

“They did something else to them, then,” said Sarah, “as they are like the best springs made in the fourth kingdom for toughness, and a file will but barely touch them.”

“They doused them when putting the wheels together,” said Lukas, “and they needed to put some color in the rims doing it.”

“Color?” I asked.

“If you want a tight wheel,” said Lukas, “you need a good rim, and good wood parts, and get the wood damp and that wheel-iron so's it's almost glowing red – and then drown the whole mess good once it's right.” A pause to drink, then, “and then that wheel will stand anything you can drive over, almost.”

“So that's why those spokes are so thin,” murmured Sarah. “That rim provides much of the wheel's strength.”

“That's when wheels are done right,” said Lukas. “Most wheelwrights hereabouts fit their iron pieces cold and just drive them on with hammers, so they need a thick rim and thick wood so as to not go to pieces in a ten-mile stretch.”

“And then they break if you drive into a hole,” I said, as I recalled the night of my 'arrival'.

“That's common,” said Lukas, “especially if the work's done in some of the places up around the middle of the first kingdom.” A pause. “There's some places that do decent work, but most of them figure if the wheel lasts long enough for the customer to get out of the town they do business in, they did a good job.”

Lukas then left for parts unknown, or so I thought until I faintly heard 'snoring' at the edge of my hearing. I then suspected he was in one of the guard-rooms – and as Sarah sat by me on the bench, I understood that to be where he had gone.

“That or the refectory,” I murmured while suppressing a faint yawn.

“Now how shall we do that town?” asked Sarah softly. “I'm glad you tossed that bomb in that place, as I doubt many of those stinkers are up to listening.”

“Ringing ears,” I muttered. Mine still rang, though faintly enough for me to need careful attention so as to notice it.

“One does not listen well when one's skin is red from the burning of strong drink,” said Sarah. “I seriously doubt there are many of those people in there who are up to assaying spying.”

Those people have left the building,” said the soft voice. “They'll return when they think it safe.”

“And the others?” I asked.

“The 'lucky' ones are drinking themselves into a stupor so as to kill the pain of third degree burns,” said the soft voice. “Most of those Sarah spoke of do not have red skin.”

“Blisters?” I asked.

“Charcoal, with bones showing in some places,” said the soft voice. “Some of them are starting to go rotten.”

“And Gabriel is not present,” I thought. “He won't warn... What am I thinking?”

Sarah looked at me, then, “I'm not sure it is wise to have him close by for this matter, either.” A pause, then, “the fewer people that know of the matter beforehand, the better.”

“Especially those who are, uh, less than trustworthy,” I muttered. “I'm thinking I'll slow that buggy down if I sit in back of it while you drive, so I'll need to ride Jaak.”

“I hope I can keep up with him, then,” said Sarah. “The jugs will need wrapping thickly with rags, which I can find here readily along with the other empty wine-bottles. Then, there is cleaning solution of a sort upstairs, though it is well-hidden in one of those disused rooms. We'll want that for the filling of those bottles.”

“Of a sort?” I asked. “Do you want me to help you find it?”

“That would save time if you did so,” said Sarah. “Andreas has some idea as to where it is hid, and he's given me a map showing where he suspects it to lie.”

“As in?” I asked. “The fourth floor above this one, down this one really dusty corridor two over from landing joining the one fronting on the main area here, in one of these really disused dust-filled rooms in an old crate covered with cloths that are older than you, me, and him put together?”

“I was hoping you would know about it to that degree,” said Sarah.

“Especially given what's in those jugs isn't the usual for what's called 'southern cleaning solution',” said the soft voice. “It was formulated by an escaped Veldter chemist working in the fourth kingdom, and his 'copy' is quite close to what was then produced in the Valley.” A brief pause, then, “and those jugs are wax-sealed, so the material is still 'fresh'.”

Then produced?” I asked.

“Those jugs are likely to be quite old,” said Sarah. A brief pause, then, “is the material similar to what I purchased today?”

“I'm not sure if this stuff is worse or not for smell,” I said. “He didn't have the exact same materials the Veldters use, nor their equipment, so he had to make do with what he could get then.”

“Including the use of Roesmaan's chemicals,” said the soft voice. “It was actually a slight improvement over the then-current formulation used in the Valley. The Veldters' material has since been improved, so the gap is currently reversed.”

“How is it different?” asked Sarah.

“Somewhat less stink,” said the soft voice, “a trifle less volatility...”

“That one chemical is very volatile,” said Sarah. She sounded as if she was alarmed by what she had just heard.

“And otherwise, a bit more explosive,” said the soft voice. “That's actually the chief difference, as the Veldters wish to clean their parts without being blown up, and they needed to find the right 'mixture' of the correct chemicals – and unlike Hans' usual attempts, their experiments involved substantial thought, a fair degree of detailed analysis, excellent records, proper equipment, and no small amount of caution.”

“Did they have accidents?” I asked.

“Yes, many of them,” said the soft voice. “At least the mess was easily cleaned up and they retained their hair when those happened.”

“How?” squeaked Sarah.

“Proper dress, for one thing,” said the soft voice. “Then, their 'samples' are a lot smaller than what Hans thinks of as a 'sample'.”

“He does not do those,” said Sarah. “He usually does a full-sized batch when he's experimenting.”

“And theirs might fill one of those smaller, uh, test-tubes,” I murmured. “Hence, fires are smaller...”

“That's enough to cause a substantial fire with Benzina,” said the soft voice. “Proper dress for chemicals usually involves all that you were thinking of when mixing those acids – and then some.”

“What would those be?” asked Sarah innocently.

“G-goggles,” I said, “and then something for breathing called a respirator, and then a full-body chemical-resistant suite.” I wondered at the intrusion of the last word, as it had crept in unintentionally.

Suite is right,” said the soft voice, “even if you meant 'suit'.” A brief pause, then, “what is commonly used for chemical-handling where you are going soon will most likely surprise you greatly.”

“They treat the stuff like it's badly radioactive, most likely,” I muttered, “and dress accordingly.”

To my complete astonishment, that sounded all too plausible, for some reason – though the reasons for doing so were not radioactivity, but something else entirely.

“What were you speaking of?” asked Sarah. “Is this something on a tapestry?”

“Yes, though you had no idea as to what they were referring to,” said the soft voice, “and those lecturers who spoke of those tapestries had less yet of an idea. You might ask him what he meant.”

“Uh, what?” I asked. “Were weapons mentioned – 'bombs of a most evil and unbecoming sort, that sowed the ground with fire and rottenness that devoured those who walked upon that ground'?”

Sarah looked likely to faint, then nodded slowly as she muttered about near-exact quotations.

“That sounds like a nuclear weapon,” I murmured. “That stuff was called fallout, and calling it deadly was an understatement.”

“Would you rot in your tracks if you came close to where it lay?” asked Sarah. “The tapestry spoke of such things.”

“I'm not sure you would go to pieces that quickly,” I said, “but radiation sickness did things like that. I've heard of it doing so within a very few days if one got dosed heavily enough.”

“That trouble here and where you came from are two different matters entirely,” said the soft voice. “'Radiation sickness' here progressed far quicker for a given exposure when it 'struck', and the symptoms were in another league entirely.”

“It struck?” I asked.

“That was the term used,” said Sarah, “and those so 'chosen' by it were spoken of as rotting as they walked, and falling down rotten within a few hours from the time they first showed sign of it choosing to destroy them. They burned when and where they fell.”

“Chosen?” I asked. “They chose to become... Who wrote that tapestry account?”

“I am not certain,” said Sarah, “but I suspect the writer either was familiar with witches, or wished to be a witch, as their language reminded me of what is in those instrument-maker's books for its feel.”

“And then they caught fire?” I asked.

“They were stated as then quickly burning to ashes,” said Sarah. “It was almost as if those so stricken were witches.”

“Many of them were, dear,” said the soft voice, “and the original writer, while not a witch, was born, raised, and lived most of his life in one of those regions the witches owned.”

“And they used what he wrote as if it were from the book when doing that tapestry,” I muttered. I seemed to have acquired Anna's most noted trait, and that in its full-blooming entirety.

“Given he was writing what he saw in detail more or less as it happened, that should not surprise you,” said the soft voice, “even if what he wrote sounded like the language of a witch.”

My shift ended with the arrival of three relievers, and Sarah and I left for first the refectory to return our jugs. Mine was entirely empty, and hers had but little remaining; and once we had gotten a quick 'lunch' of sorts – we would be too late for dinner, I suspected, what with what we needed to gather and then do on the way home – I led the way up to the fourth floor – to a place I had never gone before.

The climb was an exhausting one, and once on the fourth floor landing, I knew far better as to the exact location of the jugs in question. I led down the second hall on my left from the landing, that being one at right angles to the 'promenade' that overlooked the open area, and as I walked, I noted not merely the thick and all-but-undisturbed dust upon the floor where we were walking, but also few – and smellytallow candles.

“No one goes up here regularly,” said Sarah. “There are some scribes who work on the floor below us, but this one and the floor above it see very little visitation.”

“Why so many rooms, then?” I asked. “Did they plan..?”

“This was the last house built,” said Sarah, “and it was presumed by its builders that it would be entirely as occupied as the second kingdom house.”

“That place is a lot bigger, though,” I said.

“It seems larger than it actually is because it is generally poorly lit, save in certain small regions,” said Sarah. “However, there are few rooms in that place that don't have people in them regularly.”

“And distillate-fueled lanterns are very common,” I said. “Aren't they?”

“They were when I was last in that place some few years ago,” said Sarah. “Granted, many of those things ran boiled distillate then, but I hear that has changed with the greater number of black-dressed witches that place now has.”

“Show themselves openly?” I asked.

“That too wasn't as common as it is now,” said Sarah. “Then again, I was not looking hard for them when I was last seeing that place regularly, as I had business of an urgent nature then and I commonly needed to hurry.”

“And when you were a student?” I asked.

“That was most tricky,” said Sarah, “as that guide the house appointed to us showed us very little. We had to sneak out of our room late at night and dodge that place's guards in order to learn much about that place, and only because I'd gone there a fair amount as a small child were we able to do so.”

“And your reports...” I paused, as I'd just came to the corridor in question. The room was down this way, and I was glad Sarah had brought one of Andreas' lanterns in her satchel. The darkness was all-but total where we now stood, and as we paused to light the lantern with its twist-igniter and then wait for it to 'clear out' entirely, I continued with my question. The slow-building glow amid the lantern's faint hissing sounds was a potent distraction.

“And your reports turned some lecturers upside down, didn't they?”

“They did much more than that,” said Sarah. “No one had learned anything new about that place since years before I was born, or so I was told – and those of our group spent more than one afternoon with the current king of the fourth kingdom on account of what we learned.”

“Uh, as to the prevalence of witches in that region?” I asked.

“That and much more,” said Sarah. “Also, about how it meant grave weakness for the whole of the five kingdoms should those northern people assay trouble beyond what they usually did – and finally, how the second kingdom house's preferences regarding weapons influenced that of the other kingdoms.”

“The primacy of blades in combat?” I asked.

Sarah's mouth dropped open, then, “where did you learn that?”

“This m-meeting at the second kingdom house,” I murmured. “On that trip, I showed my sword to that king there, and I could hear and feel the attitudes of those people in the room as they were looking at it – and that was part of what I 'heard'.” A pause as we resumed walking, then, “that room's up ahead. Why are you so surprised at what I said about their attitudes?”

“What you said was written on one of the documents I and the others copied down,” said Sarah, “and if that document wasn't written by a witch, I'll drink an ink-globe dry.”

“Best not do that, dear,” I said, as I passed first one room, then another on the other side. Both had key-type lockplates, as was the next door. It too was not the one, but as I came upon the fourth door in the series, I murmured, “this one – and I wish we had some of that stinky chemical you used to make, as I think this room has spiders in it.”

“What kind?” said Sarah. I spied her looking down at her new shoes. Their somewhat glossy nature – beeswax and tallow 'boot preservative' being the usual 'coloring' from that shoemaker – made for an odd desire upon my part regarding her feet. “Those boots are due any day now.”

“I'm not certain,” I said, “beyond the fact that they aren't terribly big – and none of them have blue markings on their backs, as those don't get up this far very often.” I then asked a question: “your shoes?”

“Smaller spiders can be crushed, if one stamps upon them hard enough,” said Sarah. “The large ones want rat-clubs.”

“Did you?” I asked.

Wordlessly, Sarah reached into her satchel as I reached for the door, and the sudden 'click' as the lock worked upon my touch had her mutter about lock-picking tools.

“Yes?” I asked, as I gently pressed the door open slightly.

“My cousin,” said Sarah. “No lock, not even a fourth kingdom hard-lock, could stay shut around her for long, but what you just did is straight out of an old tale.” Sarah paused, then handed me a 'club'.

“Oh, my,” I murmured, as I hefted the nearly eighteen-inch long turned wooden 'billet'. “This must weigh about three pounds.”

“That's the lead in those things,” said Sarah as she hefted her own. “I've used them with and without lead, and the rats, if they are at all large or irritable, ignore the ones without lead.” A pause, then, “only a large rat ignores this type of club.”

I led the way into the room, and the light from the lantern showed dust thick and moving slowly around our feet, much as if it were a thicker and more-viscous species of water, with waves of dust rolling thickly as if upon the surface of a far-distant ocean. The dust moved in its sluggish way around boxes stacked two and three high under covering cloths ancient and stained with what might have been age – and perhaps, other things entirely. Thick rope-like strands dangled down from the ceiling to drape over these mounded cloth-covered boxes, and as I held the lantern higher, I heard a shocked intake of breath, then a sudden swish amid a tinny-sounding screech. I turned to see Sarah busily engaged in treading madly upon the floor.

“Eew,” spat Sarah, as she ground her foot upon the floor. “That's one spider dead.”

“Over here, dear,” I said. “What are those, uh, ropes?”

“What the smaller sizes of spiders spin,” she said. “This dust makes me want to sneeze until my nose falls off. What's over there?”

“Jugs, dear,” I said, as I shuffled slowly forward so as to not raise more dust. It was thick in the air, and rapidly getting thicker. “I'll bring the cloth off slowly, then reach in and get them. How many of them do we want?”

“As many as we can readily carry,” said Sarah. “If there are four of them, and we can carry four, then that is how many we want. Why, are there more?”

“I think this box here – here, I slowly pulled off the cloth covering it, and the dust rolled off thickly to slowly spread across the floor like piled water - “has more than four of them.” A pause, then with the lamp held high, “the box is full of these light blue jugs.”

“That would be it, then,” said Sarah. “Light blue?”

I brought one out with my free hand, then read the following off of its label:

“Benzina – cleaning solvent,” I said – my tongue ignoring the conjoined 'a' and 'e' I read of the chemical's name, as it was obviously an attempt by someone to coerce our language into sounding like that of the Veldters. “Keep clear of open flames.”

“He must have copied the jug as well as the contents,” said Sarah, “as the usual jug for Benzina is light blue and says that and much else.” A pause, then, “is that lettering red?”

“I think so, dear,” I said, as I handed Sarah the jug. She read it briefly, then said, “this is nearly an exact translation of what those other jugs read – and whoever spelled the name of this stuff knew that language passably at the least, as there is no truly good way to render how they actually say that name in what we speak.”

I brought out another such jug, then a third, and finally a fourth. I looked over the top, then counted, “one, two... Four... There are six more of those in this box, and I'll bet there's at least one more box of that stuff up here.”

There wasn't one more box of 'ersatz Benzina' in the room; there were three more such boxes, each with ten light blue 'gallon-size jugs' with wax-sealed corks. Sarah was ecstatic, and only when we came outside the room did I realize we had acquired a visitor.

“You found that cleaning solvent,” said Andreas. “How much did you find?”

“Four full boxes of ten jugs,” said Sarah. “Now what is that thing..?”

“This hand-wagon is one I had made here last year, just before Festival Week,” said Andreas. “I suspect it will hold at least four jugs, if they are like that for size.”

“Rags, also,” I said. “We need those.”

Sarah went back inside, yelled briefly, then as I hurried back in I saw her stamping madly on the floor.

“Another spider?” I asked, as I went for another two jugs. I found them as she finished stamping.

“Yes,” she spat. “It wanted to roost in my hair.”

“The ones on this floor and the one above it tend to be overly friendly,” said Andreas as he held the door wider for first Sarah and them myself. “Now I recall there being at least one large bag of rags in this room over here...”

Andreas led down the hall, then when he opened the door – he needed a key, for some reason, but when he showed me his 'key', he chuckled, then said, “there's about five doors this key hasn't opened for me so far in the house.”

“Is it a master-key?” asked Sarah. I was towing the cart, which rolled readily with little noise even with six light blue jugs for a load.

“It was left for me when I came here,” said Andreas. “There's another like it, only it's a bit different – and that key opens doors this one balks at. Between the two, I've yet to encounter a door that would not open for me, at least in the house proper.”

“Uh, General's Row?” I asked.

“If it takes a key, and it's a lock in the house proper, one of those two keys opens it,” said Andreas, “including those doors I've tried on the lowest floor so far.”

“And that one, uh, guard house?” I asked.

“I would bet a modest sum one of these keys opens that lock, also,” said Andreas. “Now, talk had it you received this one particular key...”

“That thing was a stinking fetish,” I muttered, as I followed him into the doorway in question, “but I received a copy for purposes of 'evidence'.”

“You did?” said Andreas. “If ever you encounter a balky door, you may want to try that key.”

“Uh, I haven't yet,” I said. “At least, I haven't encountered a balky door.” I did not think to mention the effect of that particular key upon Kees while he was in 'witch-mode'.

“If you ever do, though, try that key,” said Andreas, “even if that door is guarded with rune-curses, death's heads, and blood.”

“Uh, why?” I asked, as I began to look for the rags among the heaping-high bags. “Which of these are...”

“I think they're all either rags or old clothing,” said Andreas. “For padding those jugs, either one will serve, most likely.” A pause, then, “if you received a fetish-key, then it most likely was intended to open curse-locks and cursed doors.”

“Which I do not want to go near,” I muttered.

Yet as I said this, I not only found a bulging bag of rags, but I also knew there would be special doors that would need the use of a key, much like with that one specially rigged door. More, these doors would be especially old – perhaps as old as the original key itself, if not older yet.

“Old and cursed,” said the soft voice. “The replacement key, unlike the original, has no limits.”

“N-no limits?” I asked.

None,” said the soft voice. “The original was both very old and very cursed, and Koenraad gave you something that he barely understood beyond 'this is a most-powerful fetish'.”

“What?” I asked.

“It was too strong for him, which is why he sent it,” said the soft voice, “and when Cardosso had it, he was very careful when he assayed using it.” A pause, then, “it eventually sent him to to the dinner plate of Brimstone just the same.”

Sarah looked at me, then asked, “what shape is this key? I might have read of it on a tapestry.”

“I'll show you the copy when we get home,” I said. “The only way I can tell the two of them apart is the 'evidence' copy doesn't glow.”

“It does not glow red, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Were you to examine it now, you would find that not merely does it glow a very pale blue, but that it is dangerous for anyone else to touch, much less use.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“It now has your name on it,” said the soft voice, “and only the pendant itself has more 'teeth'.”

“Teeth?” I asked. “As in b-bite?” I felt reminded of the time I had looked for a mouth upon the pendant.

“Teeth, in that context, speak of power,” said Andreas as he carefully removed first one smaller bag of rags from the monstrous 'canvas mail sack' I had dragged out, then another such smaller bag. Both were 'stuffed' such that they were quite firm, and each was easily twice the size – in all dimensions – of my pillow at home. “And also, teeth spoken of that way speak of the capacity for protection.”

“Protection?” I asked.

“Yes, such things can not merely protect the person that belongs to them, but also prevent others from assaying robbery of those named upon them,” said Andreas. “That is where the term 'bite' comes in, supposedly.”

“Did the witch-keys bite?” I asked.

Sarah nodded, then said, “they were said to only abide witches of great strength, though I suspect the bite of a witch-key and what was just spoken about are not the same thing.” A pause, then, “and I think now we can go fetch the rest of those wine-bottles.”

“Empty, correct?” asked Andreas. “I'll need to unload this cart first, as you most likely have more waiting for you than we can readily carry without it.”

Andreas was right, for his cart did have a full load; and more, it needed the three of us to portage it down the stairs from landing to landing. Sarah merely carried one of the cloth bags, though the nature of her satchel and its seeming heft had me asking for the bag back at the start of every such portage.

“That cart is heavy enough by itself,” she said, “and with that many jugs in it, it is quite a handful for the two of you.”

“I am glad those rags do not weigh much,” said Andreas, “as I think you are right about this cart – at least for me. I am not sure about your husband-to-be.”

I was silent until we had the cart upon the ground floor, then set it down with a sigh. My arms had acquired a most-severe ache from the last of the four lengthy portages, and I suspected Sarah would wish to use the rags she was carrying in order to pad a most-volatile cargo.

The buggy had a cloth covering its box when the three of us came to it, and when Sarah untied the knots holding it on, I was amazed at how readily it 'sheeted' back. I was also amazed at what was currently in the thing.

“They do look similar,” I murmured. “Those there have a slightly more graceful shape, a clearer-seeming glaze of a sharper and brighter-looking blue, and...” I drew closer to the first of the three, and as Sarah and Andreas began 'loading' the others along the sides of the bed, I tried to read what was printed on the side of one of these intriguing jugs.

The first word, that being in blazing orange-red letters nearly half an inch high, was one I recognized as 'danger', and the much smaller print below it was also ended by the same word. Between those two 'bookends', however, lay a 'box' outlined in thin red striping, and within that box was language written in the same color that, to my complete surprise, I found I could almost follow word for word.

“Part of this is a list of what is used for its formulation,” I thought, “and then a small portion speaks of cleaning” – 'use only approved flame-proof environmentally sealed equipment; do not use in open air without appropriate clothing and breathing equipment, as well as fire-stopping devices' being what I understood – but then, the actual dangers that could happen if the stuff was misused. 'Bad fumes' was the least of one's worries with Benzina, as the last portion, the one that began with 'medical troubles', was easily half of the entire entry.

“Oxygen for resuscitation,” I thought. “Lung-treatment, then blood-treatment, and finally... What is this?”

I somehow had the impression that the person so 'poisoned' had their skin removed, and piece by piece was somehow 'entirely cleansed' of the toxic material. I knew what was stated as the definitive treatment was most likely impossible where I came from.

“That's for severe or chronic exposure,” said the soft voice, “and what they do – or rather, have done – is beyond what you currently know of medical technology as practiced where you came from.”

“How?” I asked.

“They stop the cancer before it has a chance to start,” said the soft voice, “and unlike where you once lived, they don't merely 'remove' the cancer or suspicious 'places'. They actually replace the damaged portions.”

“What?” My voice was a shaky gasp.

“Where you will visit soon will not merely have documentation that explains what is meant by 'replacement', but also what is used to do such work.” A brief pause, then, “and those people can do a great deal more than those individuals the Veldters call 'doctors'.”

“Uh, like what?” I asked, as I set down the jug carefully and helped Andreas to 'empty' his wagon. Sarah had left for parts unknown, or so I though as Andreas handed me the last of the six 'copy' jugs.

“She's gone to the kitchen,” said Andreas, “and we'll need to go there once that cover is back in position.” A brief glance upward, “and then, the two of you need to head home, and that at speed.” A brief pause, then, “I would get the longest nap I could before assaying that town's destruction.”

“Uh, go to the far end, turn around, and lay out the jugs every fifty feet or so, and pull the fuse on the one closest to the Public House – and then go as fast as possible east some and north more?”

“You'll need to both leave that place quietly,” said Andreas. “That buggy may be the quietest I've one I've ever heard, but with those thugs who've just been injured being in too much pain to be dead to the word, I would not chance 'getting out of town' in a hurry.” A brief pause, during which I pulled the cover tight and Andreas worked on the thin rope, then, “give it about three hundred paces at a quiet walk, then steadily speed up to the best speed this buggy can muster – and ignore the sudden raising of the sun when it blooms at your back.”

“Uh, don't look back, lest we be turned to uh...”

“No, not salt,” said Andreas. “You'll want at least a mile's distance before you even think of slowing down – as that place will go up worse than the Swartsburg did.” Another brief pause, then, “expect the hall to be at its most watchful once they hear of that town going up in smoke.”

Andreas' expression was anything but 'somber', and as we went back toward the house, he chuckled, then, “I really do hope you plant some of those bottles when all of those targets show themselves 'game to the task'.”

“The windows?” I asked.

“Those two towers would be where I tossed my first bombs,” said Andreas, “and then try for the gate. If those people are entirely roused and watchful, putting one of those things into each tower will deal with their occupants – and the same for any other window that's showing even a trace of light.” A pause, then, “they will show themselves to be prime targets, in fact.”

I was not entirely certain of Andreas' meaning, even when we met Sarah near the kitchen. She seemed quite enthused, for some reason.

“How many empty bottles?” asked Andreas.

“Enough to fill that cart entirely, and an old sack they let me have, and perhaps a few of those things in your pack,” said Sarah as she indicated me. “It seems Karl was far from the only person who wished to poison those thugs.”

“What few of them that are still alive, if you mean the house proper,” said Andreas. “I was glad I had just left that one room when that bomb went off, as otherwise I would have given the matter away.”

“Burnt clothing, no hair, and possibly needing to see Anna, correct?” I asked.

“All of those, and a thick covering of soot besides,” said Andreas as he brought the wagon to a part-open door opening out onto the main 'hallway' in the realm of the refectory.

“They've been gathering them for me since I spoke to them upon arriving here,” said Sarah, “and they have not been slack in their labors.”

Sarah proved to have underestimated the sheer number of dark brown, 'black', dark green, and mottled multicolor glass bottles of suitable size. I wondered how they had so many.

“Those witches tended to want wine when they ate among the 'commons',” said Sarah, “and while none of these stinky things held Amontillado, those the cooks found are smelly enough.”

“You did not try Groessfuetchen, did you?” said Andreas.

“No, I did not,” said Sarah. “By the time those waiting upon table thought me old enough to ask me as to what I desired other than beer or water, I had seen what that stuff could do to those who drank it – and that more times than I could readily count.”

“I once tried a small glass as an apprentice,” said Andreas. All three of us were now loading the bottles as fast as they came to the part-open door. The wagon, while small, looked to easily hold a dozen and then some.

“Did you end up spewing for hours?” asked Sarah. “Not just from the mouth, either. Most of those I saw thusly indulging needed to roost in the nearest privy for several hours at the least when that stuff got to them.”

“And those otherwise?” asked Andreas after indicating he did not need to visit a privy to spew. “They had been drinking that stuff daily for some time, whereas I did little more than taste what I had ordered, and that but to satisfy my curiosity as to its flavor.”

“I think many of those people were plain-dressed witches,” said Sarah. “When people like that assayed lecturing at the west school, they either left between two days in short order, or they were officially 'discarded' as not being up to the standards of that school.” A pause, during which time I dropped my pack and Sarah began to stuff it full of bottles, “one needs to be recognized at the west school if you are a lecturer – and if you are not recognized, then...

“It's not like was said to be in the old days,” said Andreas. “If one goes back about three generations, the west school was the only one really worth bothering with out of all of the higher schools existing then, provided you were not a witch. If you went there and were a witch at that time, or were thought to be one, the students would form a mob late at night and 'deal' with you in a summary fashion.”

”Like some of those wandering boys were said to do,” I murmured. “There are some that are fond of using knives.”

“I've seen what those people can do,” said Sarah, as she put the last of a quartet of empty bottles in her satchel. “I suspect we might have enough bottles now.”

“I hope you can fit them inside that buggy,” said Andreas. “There might not be much in the way of openly-observable witch activity now, but that does not mean the witches are sufficiently scarce to divest oneself of caution.” A brief pause, as I took my place behind Sarah, with Andreas bringing up the rear, then, “I'll speak to some people I know about the hall.”

“I hope you can speak to a cannon-master,” said Sarah softly. “Short-fused shells would work well for keeping the witches pinned down.”

“Oh, I think there are other ways,” said Andreas. “Both city batteries are still recuperating from trading shells with what the hall once had for artillery, but I do know a fair number of people to each side of the wrecked place in town.”

“I hope those people have ready muskets and ample powder,” said Sarah. “I was thinking that way myself, only I wondered who would be inclined to face roused and well-armed witches.”

“By the time muskets are worth bothering with,” said Andreas, “a fair number of those witches will be either in full retreat or too incapacitated to resist – and that's for the witches that still live after being shelled with those bottles.”

“Then why would we need...”

“It is difficult to shoot when both hands are full,” said Andreas, “and even if the place is smoky and burning like a potter's oven on the inside, there will be witches who lack sense to the degree needed to not assay a 'last stand'.

“Hence follow him in, and subject them to gunfire,” said Sarah.

“I might find a few people brave enough to do that,” said Andreas. “A much easier proposition is to fire from cover – and I suspect I can round up over a hundred people willing to fire steadily if they think themselves safe from what the witches currently have to reply.”

I was going to ask about 'thinking themselves safe' when we came to the doorway of the house, and as the cart slowly flowed its way outside, I squelched the matter. I would need to go home with Sarah, and she would need protection now – as there still were pigs, and some witches were still trying to drive them in the area.

“While there are witches attempting to do so,” said the soft voice, “they are not trying to come anywhere near you might show yourself.”

“That one stinky town,” I muttered. Jaak had seen my readiness, and Sarah was fetching her horses.

“Yes, the witches and pigs will be present there tonight,” said the soft voice. “They'll have dosed their pigs while getting trashed, so both thugs and swine will be dead to the world by the time you get there in the wee hours of the morning.”

Once out and on the way home, I rode by Sarah's side when and where there was room – and otherwise, either ahead or behind her and the buggy. She took Hans' usual back road pathways when she thought it would save time, but Sarah otherwise took entirely different roads – most of which showed little use and were quite narrow – in fact, too narrow for ready use by a common buggy in more than a few places.

“They watch for Hans on those roads, don't they?”

“I suspect so,” said Sarah. “He's as set in his ways that way as most people are about going the long way from the house to anywhere close to Roos.”

“All the way down the Westwaag until they hit 'the main road',” I murmured, “and then north, with each town's Public House being a stop for water and beer at the least.” A brief pause, then, “thankfully, witch-watchers are scarce in those places now.”

Scarcer, you mean,” said the soft voice. “Witch-messengers are among those stopping at those places, and they always want 'a good meal' when they stop.”

“So they can spy more readily, correct?” I asked.

Sarah nodded, then said, “I think what you've experienced as 'a good meal' and what a well-disguised witch would think of when that phrase is mentioned are two most-different things.” A brief pause, then, “anyone who's especially demanding regarding their food and its spices, and desires multiple courses of such food, is now regarded with suspicion at the least.”

“That is the case in most towns in the central part of the first kingdom,” said the soft voice. “There still exist a handful of Public Houses in the area who are willing to set five course witch-meals.”

“If they do that, then either they are witch-run or witch-owned, or exist in a witch-controlled town,” I spat.

“When you do that town tonight,” said the soft voice, “that number will be reduced by a third.”

“Where are the other two?” said Sarah.

“Both of them are in the kingdom house,” said the soft voice, “and both are known as being preferred by witches by the surrounding citizens.”

“Those bad Public Houses,” I muttered. “Seems to me there were more than two. Were there?”

“Yes, but that one near the northeast corner of the city was burnt to its foundations when pigs suddenly came swarming out of its doors two days after the Swartsburg went where it belongs.”

“Eew,” said Sarah. “So that was why the northern third of Silberstraat was so slimy. Those things were there, and they made that mess.”

We arrived home at roughly an hour before sundown, and Sarah took the buggy through the buggy-way after I'd pushed the other buggy back and out of the way. I suspected she felt it would be safer and less worrisome to unload the thing while in the back area, but I soon learned of another issue.

“Not merely because I do not want people seeing us unload all of this stuff,” said Sarah, “but I am also concerned about how much work we must do in first unloading the buggy, and then loading it up tonight.”

Dinner was awesome in its silence, for the sense of secrecy Sarah and I had adopted regarding our proposed doings that night had spread like a dread contagion; and once dinner was finished, we went down into the basement to load bottles and jugs. I had some idea of what might be involved when using southern cleaning solution, but I was completely unprepared for what happened when Sarah first uncorked one of the jugs of genuine Benzina with both the jug of the one chemical and a measured amount of niter ready to hand.

“That stuff stinks worse than what you made!” I gasped, as I dumped the niter down the funnel with all haste.

“I know,” muttered Sarah. “I'm glad I put candles in the fume hood, as I think we're not going to be able to load more than two jugs tonight.”

“Bottles?” I asked.

“Those want differing measuring tools,” said Sarah as she rammed home the cork of the first jug of Benzina. “I would look in either your workbench or that tool carrier where you work to see if you can find any smaller measuring cups and a funnel or two.”

“I'm not sure...”

“I suspect you have some, if you have jeweler's tools,” said Sarah. “Jewelers use acids with some regularity, both for special jeweler's markings and for determining the fineness of their metal.” A brief pause, “and if you find any ceramic cups marked as to their volume, you may be certain those were once belonging to jewelers.”

As a break from the first jug – Sarah was gathering up the remainder of the 'less painful' dynamite so as to be ready when Hans tied it onto them – I went upstairs to my workbench. As I sat down upon the stool, I thought to look in the very back of the right middle drawer, and there, I found a nested set of three ceramic 'beakers' and a small ceramic funnel of peculiar form. I took them out, now wondering as to what I had found, when suddenly Hans showed.

“Now you have done it,” he said. “Those things are for jewelers, and only the good ones use ones like those there.”

“What are they,” I asked, “beyond the obvious?”

“Those are acid-cups,” said Hans, “and they are measured in drachmæ, and that other thing is a special funnel that only jewelers use.”

“Drachmæ?” I asked. “Those aren't, uh, c-cursed, are they?”

“No, as that name is from before the war,” said Hans. “I think it is the name of a special coin.”

“Wrong,” said the soft voice. “The Valley's money is named quite differently.” A brief pause, then “that unit of volume is common in the Valley, and is pronounced 'drak-MY-ee', not 'drach-mee'.”

“At least you tried,” I murmured. “Now is that name really from before the war, or did someone who did jewelry a long time ago come up with it?”

“Someone who went to the west school,” said the soft voice, “and that back when it was the only higher school in existence.”

“Bigger then?” I asked.

“By no small degree,” said the soft voice. “The other schools, save for Boermaas, were originally 'offshoots' of the west school, as the place reached the boundary lines of its original property and could not then afford to buy more land in that part of the fourth kingdom.”

“So they started looking for land,” I murmured as Hans followed me down the stairs, “and the first place that turned up cheaply was where Guymus is now.”

“And then they went north and east,” said Sarah. She was getting ready to dose the second jug.

“That stuff there is bad,” muttered Hans. “It makes light distillate seem feeble for fires.”

“Which is why I do not dare uncork any of them unless we've got everything pre-measured and ready to hand.”

“Yes, and him close by, too,” said Hans. “The usual for southern cleaning solution is trouble enough.”

“That tends to be an oversold and cheapened copy of this material,” said Sarah, “and while those cheap fifth-kingdom copies are bad enough for fires and explosions, this stuff is worse.”

“Especially when you dose it with that other chemical,” said Hans. “I got a little bit from your jug there, and some of that niter you cleaned, and I used an empty ink globe mostly full of heavy distillate.”

“Yes?” asked Sarah brightly. “Did you use a well-waxed cap with a length of fuse?”

Hans shook his head to indicate 'no', then said, “I put that thing out in the middle of the road about a hundred yards north of here with a fuse twice as long as my arm.”

“And?” I asked.

“It took me and two of the neighbors three turns of the glass to fill the hole it made,” said Hans. “It sounded like a big witch-jug filled with dust-powder, but that hole was not the kind that dust-powder makes.” Hans paused, then, “they were asking me about that other explosion as we filled the hole.”

“Still, I wished you put a cap to it,” said Sarah, “as we have many empty wine-bottles to load up, including some of them with some of what was in that thing we tested.”

“Yes, and what will it do?”

“I was told it would blow down the gates to the hall,” said Sarah.

“If it is close to what I filled that ink-globe with for strength,” said Hans, “it will do more than blow down that new gate.” A pause, then, “it will turn it into kindling, is what I think, and the fire will light all of that kindling good.”

“Hence a smoke-screen,” I said. “Have you seen the hall recently?”

“Yes, when I last went into town a few days ago,” said Hans. “They had work-gangs on the place, only these were not witches.”

“What?” I squeaked.

“There were witches yelling at them,” said Hans, “and I saw one of the witches shoot one of those people with a fowling piece, but I know these people working were not witches.”

“How so?” asked Sarah.

“They might not have been dressed like slaves,” said Hans, “but I have seen enough escaped slaves from the fifth kingdom in that fourth kingdom market to know what they look like and how they act, and then these people were not saying anything at all.”

“They were certain to be slaves then,” said Sarah. “Speech, especially while working, is forbidden to slaves, and to make any noises other than those common to labor means a slow and painful death at the hands of their owner.”

“That is what I have heard,” said Hans. “Now how is you will not blow up some slaves when you send that place where it belongs?”

“The slaves were sacrificed upon the hall's below-ground altars,” said Sarah, “as well as those witches who were especial drunkards when they could not get sufficient strong drink.”

“Convulsions,” I muttered.

“I cannot speak that word,” said Hans, “but if you are speaking of fits, then I heard tell some of those witches had those things, and the other witches beat them with sticks until they stopped moving.”

“Sticks?” I asked.

“Yes, like that batch of three rat-clubs that Gilbertus loaded with lead,” said Hans. “Witches like those things, which is why I have made sure Anna keeps hers wrapped good with a towel until the rats start in here.”

“Uh, the ones the witches use are bigger, aren't they?”

“I heard tell they might be,” said Hans, “but the person who spoke to me said they were about as big as those Gilbertus loaded up.”

“How far was he away from the hall?” asked Sarah pointedly.

“In one of those abandoned houses across from that place,” said Hans. “He had to stay in that place until the witches and those slave-people went inside to eat, which was at night.”

“And the second shift came on about ten minutes later,” I muttered, “and that was for the outside of the place. The parts that are not readily visible had work-gangs on them around the clock from the day after that artillery battle started until a few days ago.”

“It did not take them that long,” said the soft voice, “as those work-gangs that were visible from the outside were less than a fifth of their total numbers – and no, they did not have two work-gangs.”

“How many did they have?” asked Sarah.

“During the peak of refurbishing, they had three such shifts,” said the soft voice, “as unlike with the far more common two-shift setup, three-shift gangs work without any sort of a break from start to finish, and more, each slave then does more and better work because they are usually less fatigued.”

“That and two full shifts laboring turn-about would have meant wall-to-wall slaves in most areas in the hall,” I murmured.

“That was another substantial reason for using three shifts,” said the soft voice, “that, and the limited supply of work-gear that wasn't fetish-built.”

“Now that is strange,” said Hans. “What is that?”

“Those tools were decent for working, most likely,” said Sarah. “That other type is seldom used for actual labor.”

“Yes, and what do you know about them?” said Hans.

“There are a number of places in that fourth kingdom market that sell such things,” said Sarah, “and more than once I saw mobs gather with the goal of burning this one particular place down.”

“Matthyssoon's,” I murmured. I had not been idle during the talk, as I'd measured the next load of niter and poured it out on a folded piece of drawing paper. Sarah looked at what I had done with approval, and said, this under her breath, “I hope Hans gets the idea from me using that paper instead of that accursed measurer.”

“Yes, and what about that piece of scrap-metal?” said Hans pointedly. “I put in an order for both it and a funnel since Georg got back, and I have not seen anything like a new one since then.”

“You have seen the stacks of orders they have that remain, haven't you?” asked Sarah pointedly. “I would suspect that either your order is waiting on those before it, or Georg is trying to find out what you were really after.”

“The second far more than the first,” said the soft voice, “as Hans spoke of his needing to use what he has with some frequency when he put in the work-order.”

“Yes, and so he is wasting time trying to find out about those things,” said Hans. “I am the only person in town who has one, so he needs to...”

I held up my finger, then said, “while Georg is currently ignorant of just what you do with that stinking 'measurer-that-thinks-it's-a-fetish', I would ride money on him writing letters to any other chemist...”

I ceased speaking, then spat, “he sent a letter to Ivo.”

“Yes, and why him?” I asked.

“Korn uses an entirely different and much older tool,” I said, “and while his does work 'passably', he not only does not know how poorly it truly works, but it is also something of a fetish.”

“Not 'something of a fetish',” said the soft voice. “His is a fetish, and is so old he has no idea, both as to what it truly is and when it was made.” A brief pause, then, “while what Hans has is merely crude, inaccurate, poorly constructed, and more than a little corroded.”

“And its maker chanted ceaselessly the whole time he was making it,” I muttered. I had a hard time believing anyone who made something so fetish-like did not seek to act like a witch when and where they could.

“Yes, verses from the book,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, he was much like Ernst was said to be when the latter was blackening guns.”

“Was this man Ernst near Ivo's shop?” asked Sarah. “If he was...”

I nodded.

“If he was,” continued Sarah, “he might not have been a witch, nor did he wish to become a witch, but he all-too-frequently behaved as if he was a most-serious supplicant inclined toward making his bones.”

“Was he inclined toward money?” asked Hans.

“No more so than his neighbors,” said Sarah. “I know he went to the higher schools, and he spent no little time at Boermaas – and if I go by what my cousin told me, anyone who spent more than a short time in Boermaas either became a witch or learned to act like one.”
“Excepting your cousin,” I said. “No, not just her. There were a few other, uh, girls in that place who did not wish to become witches.”

“Yes, after they had been there a few weeks,” said the soft voice. “The only reason they continued in that place as long as they did was all of the 'halls' more or less demanded all six years of higher schooling be spent at Boermaas if one was to be involved with preaching – and outside of the first and fourth kingdoms, one had to spend all six years at Boermaas if one did anything connected in some way with preaching, even if one's goal was as simple as being a preacher's 'scribe'.”

“Which is what my cousin wished to do,” said Sarah, “but once she was done in that place, no one – and I mean no one – would even speak to her about such matters, and that no matter what her notes looked like.” Sarah paused, then, “she had decent ones, even if you consider that none of the lecturers were willing to answer any of her questions.”

“Uh, I think if your cousin went to the west school, she, uh...”

“She would have made the lists for certain,” said Sarah. “I am not sure if she would have been the top person, but I suspect she would have been in the top five of her class.”

“Close, but not quite,” said the soft voice. “Her class was two years later than yours, dear, so you two would not have been in competition – hence she would have had the top spot for her class for the whole time she was there, just like you did for yours.” A brief pause, then, “that was the only reason she was not turned out in disgrace by those in charge of Boermaas.”

“Why?” asked Sarah.

“It's quite simple, dear,” I said mildly. “To put it quite bluntly, your cousin was the smartest person Boermaas had seen in quite some time – and those who wrote out her notes left no small amount of clues as to her true capabilities, even while they were trying hard to get rid of her by spreading lies and rumors about her.”

“That, and the king learned of her being there,” said the soft voice, “and he summoned her to his chambers but a few weeks prior to her 'graduation'.” I had the impression her 'ceremony' was closer to being 'tossed out the door' than what usually happened at Boermaas.

“What did he do then?” asked Hans.

“An entire morning's worth of questions the day she came there, “and further questions during the bulk of the next day.” A brief pause, then, “and had he the power to do so, he would have closed that school for good then and there.”

“Had he the power?” I asked.

“Those who run Boermaas are among the wealthiest and most powerful people on the entire continent,” said the soft voice, “and they more or less built that particular school to train their families and relatives.”

“It was said to be the last school built,” said Sarah.

“While the west school is the oldest of all of them by over two hundred years,” said the soft voice, “all of the others, except for Boermaas itself, are hundreds of years old.” A pause, then, “on the other hand, Boermaas – both the present town and the school – are much newer.”

“That place did not look to be at all new when I went there to visit my cousin,” said Sarah. “I thought it to be older than the west school, actually.”

“That is one of Boermaas' darkest secrets,” said the soft voice. “It has always looked to be far older than it really is.”

“How old is that place?” I asked.

“About forty-two years,” said the soft voice. “They started taking students before the place was completed, hence the vagueness regarding its age. Then, it has expanded its grounds and buildings no less than four times in the last thirty years, and been refurbished more or less completely a total of three times since the arrival of the first students – and there is a sizable permanent work crew there now, so refurbishments and additions are more or less an ongoing matter in that place.”

“They must t-trash that place bad,” I muttered.

“That is because of those students they have there,” said Hans. “There are not many places in the fourth kingdom that can pass for one of the fifth kingdom house's districts, but that school is one of them.”

All Sarah could do was nod dumbly in agreement, and then grunt as she wrung out the next wax-sealed cork.