A greater woe...


I found that while I needed to occasionally ask Sarah to look at 'tailor's markings' when I found something that I reckoned an alien language – one which required both an alien mind and alien anatomy to speak and comprehend – I also learned quickly that I seemed to know more about these trousers than the rest of those gathered in the room otherwise. Within perhaps two minutes, I had not merely given a description of everything I had found that I could 'decipher', but also had finished examining the trousers. The next was the turn of the 'shirt', and here, matters became 'revolting'.

“Lace, frills... Too tight by half...”

“Yes, for you,” said Hans. “That man Gabriel is thin enough to pass for a black-dressed witch, and I learned that yesterday when I was putting stripes on his back.” A pause, then, “it is good he never got himself in these things, as he would be a bad witch, and we would all become slaves to him.”

“Those of us he didn't kill for sport,” spat Anna. “He'd do that a great deal, that stinking wretch. Now I have an idea why I wish so much to air out his smelly hide – he might as well be an arch-witch out of an old tale!”

“He hasn't chosen to become one yet or not, dear,” I said. “If he's only got a 'yes' or 'no' choice, and if the lies of witchdom still look very attractive to him, then he's going to turn witch sooner or later.” I then kept the remainder silent: “so why, then, has he been spared until now?”

“Because he did jump into that cloud,” said the soft voice. “He's seen what is possible, even if it was mostly hidden from his sight and what was not hidden entirely was mostly hidden.” A pause, then, “he's seen what lies in store for him otherwise, even if at a distance, so in his case, it truly is his choice.”

“Not the usual matter, is it?” I asked. “Most people think they have far more choice than they do?”

“As to their attitudes, yes,” said the soft voice enigmatically – who then became altogether otherwise. “Where you come from, the commonplace belief is that everyone has such a quantity and quality of choice, and those that believe otherwise are thought fools and worse.” A brief pause. “Here, the only people who think that way are those who are genuinely interested in becoming witches and turning the place into a subdivision of hell.”

“Which means nearly everyone who currently is found in the five kingdoms wishes greatly to be a witch,” said Sarah – who then realized her error with a jolt. “They've been taught nothing else since the days of Cardosso!”

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “That 'tome' goes into great detail as to just how to turn people into 'fully-owned witch-slaves' without them suspecting a single thing is being done to them, and that needs to go into the report that is to go south – as once that knowledge gets out among those the witches name 'commons', there will be riots and mobs everywhere, at least for a time – and the losses witchdom incurs then will not be ones it can make good in the time that remains to it.”

“And here we have more markings,” I said, as I turned the 'shirt' inside out to see markings that I recognized instantly. “Is that why he found that accursed witch-underwear so attractive? It had these marks on it?”

“He found it very familiar, also,” said the soft voice. “He wore that clothing constantly during the whole time he was kept closeted at home, and until he got out from under his parents tight-leashed control by leaving the area and heading south toward the fourth kingdom, the only time he wasn't in that kind of 'clothing' was when he was being 'washed' – which was just often enough to avoid suspicion where he might be seen outside of their property.”

“Being washed?” I asked. “As in, uh, the equivalent of dry-cleaning?”

“Closer than you might think, given just who his parents were,” said the soft voice. “By the way, he's the last of that line, as Mathias' group wiped that entire family out during the winter before he became a guard.”

“A big stinky house, filled with dark ornately-carved f-furniture...” I then asked, “did those people have that equipment in that trunk?”

“Yes, briefly, until they were killed during the wee hours of the morning and the trunk looted the day after by other witches,” said the soft voice. “He is the only one of that 'family' to yet survive, by the way, as they, like most witch-families of substance outside of the realms witchdom thinks it genuinely owns, lived together in one 'dwelling' so as to better concentrate their 'power' and 'control'.”

“Witches do that commonly,” said Sarah. “Was his father a Power?”

“No, but that man was plotting to become one, and had he lived another six months, he would have achieved that goal in full,” said the soft voice. “As it was, he was that man's most-important underling, which is the portion of his life which that Power knew.” A pause, then, “what that Power didn't know at the time was just how much Gabriel's family was robbing him – as in Gabriel's family could have bought large chunks of the Swartsburg outright – enough to run the place, in fact – but chose to live elsewhere because it was 'safer'.”

“Safer as in 'less sickness', not 'safer in other ways', correct?” I asked, as I finished looking over the shirt. I then thought to speak to the thing.

“No hiding, you stinky wretch!”

Again, brilliant scarlet tags of leather 'oozed' out of the seams to show intricate black markings 'burned' into each such piece, and within seconds of looking at the first ones to show, I noted new markings, markings I had never seen before. As I made comments regarding what I was seeing, I heard at least two instances of 'rapid' writing, and glancing up from the magnifier's 'screen' showed not merely Maria writing as if crazed, but Hendrik trying to keep up with her – while Sarah had a medium-sized ledger open and was writing faster than both of them put together. I could see dust flying from the paper, she was writing so rapidly.

“I'm writing what I hear you speak when you're not speaking aloud,” said Sarah, her voice etched with concentration. “There is much you dare not speak regarding that clothing – I can tell that much.”

“Most of what I see, you mean,” I said. “It might not be curses I'm seeing here, but I am seeing a lot of details, and we don't have all day to go over this stuff – and were I to speak conventionally, we would be here all day, which is exactly what this smelly stuff wants us to do!”

“I got that part,” said Hendrik. “Go on. I had no idea until now just how much the two of you need to do, and...”

“And how important it is that they hurry,” said Anna. “I'd look at that cloak next, as I can tell that one's fit for a witch, and that only.”

“You can?” I asked in wonder.

“I can see a lot of red thread-letters inside of it,” said Anna, “and I think at least some of them are curses – though with this stuff, it hides so much of its witch-rubbish that I'd stack coins that you're the only one who sees most of it.”

“Meaning there's a lot I'm missing,” I said.

“Not enough to be worried over,” said the soft voice. “Some of this 'clothing' will need to be looked at more in the future, but there will be time later to do so thoroughly. Right now, give the three of them enough information to get started, then finish looking this stuff over when you've more time for it and have better tools.”

“Better tools?” asked Hendrik.

“From across the sea,” said the soft voice. “They'll be returning with a great deal, and receive more as time progresses.”

The unspoken portion I understood clearly – this stuff hid a lot, and documenting it adequately needed at least one whole day's time as well as things I did not yet have – and as I went over the cloak, I now 'hurried' as much as I dared while trying to be 'adequately' thorough. Again, frantic writing seemed to echo amid the hushed stillness as I spoke of the multi-layered curses present in this three-layered garment, only in this case, I clearly discerned a number of truly bad curses, these needing someone of the level of 'The Mistress of the North' to endure readily. I then saw the boots, and waved my right hand over one of them as I waved my other hand over the cloak to 'force' it to fold itself back up.

The brilliant blue-white flash that suddenly erupted between my hand and the cloak was bright enough to startle me, and I wondered for an instant if which hand I had used mattered regarding witch-gear. I then knew better – it didn't – at least until Tam startled me anew.

“I would watch that,” said Tam. “That stuff don't like you much at all, and I've heard about what I just saw.”

“Y-yes?” asked Anna. “I was seeing some strange things with his finger earlier today, and I think that is just biding its time to show itself entirely.” A pause, then, “I do know about those boots, though.”

“Yes?” I asked, as I motioned one up with my right hand, then 'asked' it to turn heel-side up with a motion of my finger. A touch with my gloved hand to the sides showed unusual flexibility.

“No, I did not know nearly as much as what I thought I knew,” said Anna. “The usual for boots shaped that way causes toe-rot, but I think those to be some of that type which is otherwise.”

“Complete with this nasty rune-curse on the soles so that wherever he might roam, he owns the ground he treads upon...” A pause, then I asked, “got that one from that one stinky witch, didn't he?”

“It's been in that family since it was initially learned before the war,” said the soft voice, “but only a handful of boots like those have been made since the Curse, as those which Joost has do not have that 'holding' curse on the bottom – and those boots would send him to straight to the plate of Brimstone were he to attempt to wear them.”

“They weren't that common before the war, either,” I muttered.

“There were but five pairs with that curse made before that war started,” said the soft voice, “with those of Imhotep being the first and strongest.” A pause, then, “they were almost exactly like those there.”

“Almost?” I asked.

“They did not have 'lizard-hide' when those were made,” said the soft voice. “Otherwise, though – they are exact copies of what Imhotep himself wore, as Gabriel's family had ample documentation regarding those.”

“From the belly of a man-fed water-lizard,” I spat. “Reptiles specially fed, kept underground in total darkness...”

As if to show me my error, the boots changed instantly into those glossy black 'lizard-hide' horrors that I was describing, and I quickly gave a description of what they were like. As I said my last words regarding the boots of Imhotep, the boot that had been 'hanging' in mid air fell with a thump back into the 'coffin', there to resume its former color, shape and 'repose'.

“And here, we have long black stockings covered with runes,” I murmured, as I 'waved' those out of the box and onto the lid. These had a definite set to them, such that one was a 'right' and the other a 'left' – unlike the stockings Sarah or others had knit for myself and others. These were of a thin-seeming species of cloth, though how that cloth was joined seemed a mystery to me. They almost seemed woven of one piece, with the curses that almost covered them seemingly woven into the fabric itself. This made for strange comments on my part.

“Let's see...” Pause to think. I was getting an impression, this yet vague yet solid and tangible. It wasn't all the way 'here' yet, however. “This curse here 'supports' the witch wearing these things, so that he may endure the boots, while this other one...” I then noticed the 'witch-undies' that yet lay in the inner portion of the coffin, and again, that same impression came to me. This time I was a bit more certain.

“This stuff all goes on its wearer in a very definite order, and once an article of this clothing goes on that individual, it will never come off of his body while its wearer lives,” I said. “It was made that way by design and intent, and...” I then asked, “how long would he have lived while wearing it?”

“Until Brimstone was chewing on his carcass in hell,” said the soft voice. “He'd have his realm for perhaps two years at the most, as then Brimstone would have the entire planet gifted to him by his 'chosen vassal'.”

A few more items – these being sundry baubles of one kind or another, some of them looking like jewelry and all of them positively evil in every aspect; they were hiding under the 'witch-undies', which were of 'the pure quill'; they hurt my hands even while wearing gloves – then at the very bottom, this previously hidden in a corner, was a rolled up 'scroll' of 'scraped bleached hide' tied with a black ribbon. I snapped the ribbon with my fingers, then as I tossed it away, it ignited to burn with a faint trace of black smoke as it vanished utterly before it landed upon Hendrik's carpet.

I then unrolled the 'scroll'.

“This looks like a bill of lading,” I murmured, “and at some level, it is one, but there are more than two levels to this thing – perhaps as many as five levels, and I cannot see all of them right now.” I then showed it to Sarah, who instantly blanched.

“I can see those numbers, and I see that witch-mark next to them,” said Sarah, who wrote frantically. “That stuff was as expensive as we were told.”

I then waved my hand over Sarah's ledger, and a word suddenly 'erupted' in blazing red letters, this word surrounded by a hazy blue cloud that slowly drifted onto the paper to 'surround' the 'curse' and thereby render it powerless.

“Now they'll know we speak the truth,” I murmured. “I hope there's some way to print that name, even if I am not going to try speaking it.”

“No, that one you can speak,” said the soft voice. “That's how the 'commons' spoke across the sea regarding this area's witch-money during that war long ago, and they have all of the special symbols 'ready-minted' so as to display them on their equipment.”

Choronzonæ?” I asked. The word was a tongue-twister at best, as one had to 'spit' it out while contorting one's lips. It really needed different anatomy to speak it 'correctly' – either that, or one needed to be a strong witch. That educated what I next said. “That word sounds like a bad curse!”

“That would be the name of a witch-coin,” said Sarah, “and it was used by the witches of before the war.” A pause, then, “as best as I was able to learn, it might have been worth at least a hundred of today's guilders minted in gold – and more than that is likely.”

“More than what you thought, dear,” said the soft voice. “That level of witch, both then and now, told 'lesser beings' what their coin was worth, and those 'lesser beings' needed to buy that value without reservation – or suffer death on the spot with the label of disgrace.”

“Those people?” I asked. “The tailors and all who made this stuff?”

“That's the kind of real power Gabriel's old-moneyed 'family' had in all of the five kingdoms,” said the soft voice, “and they paid the price of that clothing in full once they had this fetish-made box arrive upon their premises filled brimming full with 'common' full-polished witch-money.”

“They paid otherwise,” I said, meaning the exact nature of the payments in question. They did not use commonplace coins, even those cast and processed entirely by witch-jewelers, but another type entirely, a kind but seldom seen today – a type that no one currently in this room had seen prior to today.

“With new-cast copies of old witch-money using witch-jewelers they owned, so those witches that did this stuff up were also owned in their entirety for the months it took them to make all of this.” A pause, then, “now ask that 'bill' to show its true nature.”

I did, and the thing suddenly flashed to show lettering of such a familiar appearance that I gasped, “that one man and his weapon. His stinky rubbish was worded almost exactly like this...”

“He had the cheap imitation of what you see there,” said the soft voice. “That one isn't an imitation, but an exact copy of a prewar 'contract', one writ on real witch-paper – and it would have worked prior to the war in this area almost as well as it worked on those it bought and controlled in the second kingdom house.” A pause, then, “given that that family had a number of genuine prewar witch-contracts in its 'vaults' and a number of 'owned' copyists, they could easily make such copies without anyone outside of their circles being the wiser – and the same for those witch-coins once they received sufficient 'raw material' to work with.”

“They did that a lot, didn't they?” I asked. I meant 'produce witch-money'.

“One means out of many ways that family acquired its funding,” said the soft voice. “Witches of that level generally do not engage openly in anything that looks like the behavior of 'witches' unless it suits their purposes to do so – and those people, save for the size of their house and the sheer number of their family members, did not look like 'witches'.”

“Which was one of the main reasons why they'd survived for so long,” I muttered. “Thankfully that type of witch is rare anymore.”

“They no longer exist in the five kingdoms,” said the soft voice. “Those witches that think themselves to be 'old-money' aren't, if one compares them to the late unlamented.” A pause, then, “the total amount paid to produce and curse that clothing is enough to pay for the combined budgets of the first, second, and third kingdoms – both their known and secret budgets – if one speaks of a decade's time.” Another pause, then, “That should give you some idea of just how much money witchdom currently has at its disposal, and just how serious they are about taking over the entirety of the planet.”

“Secret budget?” asked Maria – who seemed utterly mystified at the concept, even if I understood the basic idea all-too-well. I knew about 'black budgets' from research before coming here as part of my work, and I suspected strongly that my last place of employment had the setup mentioned regarding their income. Maria then interrupted my thinking.

“I have an idea as to what the one here is, as I did much of the bookkeeping until recently, and now do nearly all of it.”

“You are speaking of the known budget,” I said quietly. A hush seemed to gather, this from a realm not of this world. “Currently, there isn't a secret budget here, even if there used to be a sizable one until that treason-plot was shut-down and the last of those General-hired witches died.” A pause, then, “I wish I could speak that way of the second and third kingdoms, as their secret budgets are larger than their real ones, and in the second kingdom, that place's secret budget is easily three times the size of the 'real' one.”

“It was until recently, anyway,” said the soft voice. “That king down there has just learned how much money was being 'robbed out from under him' by 'trusted courtiers' who have suddenly 'gone missing' or have 'turned up dead'.”

“Most of them are probably heading up this way,” I smirked.

“The ones that are still alive, yes,” said the soft voice. “They, and a vast number of like-minded witches, are either on their way north or are preparing to leave for this area, and those that are yet-to-go are fast-promoting their underlings – sometimes at gunpoint – so as to 'hold their ground'.” A pause, then, “those that have left already have already marshaled their 'ground-holders' and have put them in their new-minted places.”

Vast number?” asked Hendrik. “Do I want to know how many that is?”

“You do,” said Anna, “though how many of those stinkers will actually get up here in shape to cause trouble, and how rapidly they manage their journeys – that, and a great deal else – is yet something of a mystery.” Anna paused, then said, “I do know that they are not having an easy time getting up here.”

“How so?” asked Hendrik.

“Their plans – that one huge smelly book we saw speaks of them at length – are not working out as they had planned,” said Anna. “First, it is costing them far more than they had planned, so even with their bags of money...”

“Still gonna rain money a lot in the kingdom house,” I said with a chuckle. “Gonna do that all summer long, in fact.”

“Yes, but they figured it would cost them one guilder when it now is costing them three or four,” said Anna. “Then, they must make many detours and hunt up their depleted supplies, as many of their usual places have been made into flaming ruins, and then finally, many of their leaders have either died, are fit to live in rest-houses now and are getting worse by the day, or are so new to the business that without someone telling them what to do and how to do it whenever they must do anything at all, they know little beyond their inclination of the moment.”

More frantic scribbling, then I moved my right hand so as to close and 'latch closed' the coffin. As I reached for the lid, the thing slammed shut with a blue flash, then the latches closed of their own accord – and I leaped back in startlement.

“I saw that,” said Anna. “I can see something else, though.”

“What?” I asked. My fear showed plainly in my voice.

“It's glowing a little,” said Anna. “Not red, either, but like the color of lightning – almost as if it's now tied shut and those things cannot get out unless you speak to that box.”

“Precisely,” said the soft voice. “It now will only open for one person, and that by strict intent.” A pause, then, “I'd get a move on, if I were you-all, as time is a-wasting, and you all have a lot to do.”

“Hans,” said Anna. “Come. I want to see that room, and these things are going to need help getting them up those stairs.” A pause, then, “I'd take a machine pistol and sling it, in case we find anyone who tries for us while in the house.”

While there were several such weapons handy, I wondered just where to put them beyond perhaps leave them in the office. I then gave word to my concern.

“Where... In here,” I said. “Will these things be in the way?”

“I cannot think of a safer place to put them, save in that one room you spoke of,” said Hendrik. “Talk has it that it is not that large of one, though.”

“It is about a third the size of this room,” said Sarah, “and it already has things in it. We can put more, and not a little more, but if we wish ready access to what is in there, then we will either need shelves made, or not put much more in there.”

“Want shelves anyway,” I said. “Trouble is, keeping them...”

“That is why I will need to run that wood-treatment as much as I can,” said Hans as he selected 'his' machine-pistol and two magazines.

“Three boxes, Hans,” said Anna. “Remember how hard it is to fill those things, even with half of what they're said to hold?”

“Yes, but we are not likely to find many witches that need shooting in the house, Anna,” said Hans.

“I know that,” said Anna. “I recall hearing something, and I think it wise to keep it in mind for our future and the sake of others.” Pause, then, “it goes something like this: 'it is better to have and not need, than to need and not have'.” With this, Anna looked for – and found – a pair of grenades, then slipped them into one of those smaller cloth satchels, along with an added pair of magazines in addition to the one she had in her machine-pistol. “These smaller satchels work well enough, and there are a lot of them in this one room on the floors above us. I think you may wish to issue them to guards, Hendrik.”

More writing, then as Hendrik finally saw what I was wearing, he pointed his finger and gasped, “what is that?”

“Clothing intended to keep one organized,” said Anna. “It helps to make one harder to see, especially if one is in a woodlot, and it has a material that stops shot and balls fired by common muskets, much as if it were the metal those northern people wear, save much lighter.”

“We can, uh, do up common clothing similarly,” I said. “Greens are better than common war-cut dress for moving about in the forest, but they can stand improvement, and I suspect Sarah has some ideas on the matter.” A pause, then, “I know I do, at least regarding their color schemes.”

“No suspecting for me,” she said. “I do have some ideas, and have spoken of them in this room, and I shall have more of them yet before we are done across the sea.” A pause, then, “I have never played a clavier, but I think I can manage one of those writing things with a bit of practice.”

“Writing things?” I asked.

“Yes, they are used for that,” said Sarah. “If one can finger them, then one need not worry about how bad one's handwriting is, as they produce good writing, fully as readable as that printed by a well-run fourth kingdom print-shop.”

I had been busy collecting up my ordnance and possible bag while Sarah had been speaking, and once 'fully loaded, both the satchel and 'Gabriel's Coffin' went on a cart, one cart per item. I thought to be either 'point' or 'second' – the term 'slack' wasn't a common word in this language, and its use was regarded as a serious oath anyway – but within perhaps a moment, I found myself in the lead, Sarah behind me with her rifle at the ready, mine in my hands, and Hans and Anna each towing a cart. I knew we'd need to portage the things, and as we left the office behind, I had an idea, one which involved machine pistols and our likely ranges for them. As if to startle me, I heard the distinct crack of Anna's weapon some paces to my rear, and I nearly dived for the floor.

“That rat is dead,” said Hans, as we resumed our moving toward 'the main stairs'. “How far was that thing?”

“At least thirty paces,” said Anna. “I think I wish to keep one of these handy, and one like Sarah has in the buggy when I visit people.”

“And a few squibs of one kind or another,” I said. I could not feel any witches, even if I knew the rats were becoming common enough that encountering a 'rat-mine' was a too-real possibility before we left the house today. I then had the same thought regarding our use of machine-pistols, both today and in the near future.

“Most of our shots with those will be a good deal less than 'across the hall',” I thought, as we came to the widest portion of 'the first floor'. More than that regarding an official name had been difficult to ascertain, as most people tended to stick to this particular floor, and only a handful of individuals now went to the second floor. Beyond that – cleaners, mostly, an occasional guard, and now the four of us.

“That will generally be the case,” said the soft voice. “You will find yourselves occasionally making shots further with those.”

For some truly odd reason, however, I knew that most of the exceptions to 'thirty paces or less' with those weapons would be 'close-up-and-wanting-to-kill-you' close – as in 'close enough to put the soot of your gun upon them' – assuming we used 'old' weapons overseas.

Still, however, I knew I'd be carrying a pair of thimble-capped revolvers. Those pistols, at least those I had worked over, tended to be reliable weapons, given adequate maintenance. Their chief trouble, I realized, was they needed minutes to load, unlike the revolvers I had spoken of earlier.

“Still, though,” I thought, “they do work, and that powder I've been using doesn't leave that much soot in those things. I can usually reload several times before I need to clean them.”

“I know,” said Sarah, as if she had read my mind. “I am taking my pistol, and a supply of balls, and a small container of powder for it, as well as a good supply of thimbles – and I suspect you may have a use for your first rifle, also.”

“What, those functionaries?” I asked.

“I doubt those people will need it,” said Sarah, “but for some reason, I suspect they may have large rats, and while those hand-crushing pistols will stop those things, I think that rifle will work better if we encounter one that big.”

“Th-that big?” I asked. “How big? Larger than that huge one at the Abbey?”

“That size can be found there,” said Sarah. “That, and that weapon ignores plate, especially if you use your latest bullets, as those things are very hard for bullets.”

“Solids,” I muttered. “If I need to drill an elephant, then I have...”

“You will not need to pot Jumbo over there, even if I would take that rifle,” said the soft voice. “I'd take that other one also, but you will find a use for that weapon over there, even if you most likely won't shoot it much.”

“Much?” I asked. “Oh, those riot guns they have. They use shields of some kind...”

“Which that weapon will shatter readily,” said the soft voice, “and unlike that other rifle, it can be fired offhand without undue difficulty.” A pause, then, “and your take on that one man's powder is seriously off.”

“Uh, the difference in dirt and soot is less?”

“I think not,” said Sarah. “You've never used bad powder, have you?”

“I doubt he's done much with it,” said Anna. “He's pretty much used it out of that one keg, save for a few instances where he took what Hans had and made it right.”

“He used a mortar and pestle for that business,” said Hans. “Now here are the stairs, and these things will need two of us to carry each one, unless...”

I picked up the 'tome' in its leather satchel, and began struggling up the stairs. Behind me, I could hear talk, then as I set the thing down after ten steps or so, I turned to see Hans pick up the 'coffin', and the two women pick up the carts. I then resumed my climbing, each step aching, needing to set down the hefty satchel every eight to ten steps. I was glad when I had it on top, and thought, “perhaps dump out the money now and ask it to, uh, melt...”

To my astonishment, the bag began vomiting coins, these igniting in midair and landing with faint splats all over the floor in the immediate area. Their metal had melted in flight, and as the smoke began to form a covering haze, I muttered, “no, not here with that stink. Go and fume up some witches.”

The fumes instantly vanished, and faintly, just how I knew not, I could hear screaming – screaming that was answered with the roar of a battery of 'cannons' from somewhere outside. Three shots, these as a ragged volley, then three more such booms within seconds, then finally what sounded like a volley of common muskets and perhaps a fowling piece.

“They had spare guns ready-loaded,” said Anna as the screaming died out completely. “Hans, didn't you sell the place some stiff shot?”

“Yes, as there is a regular order for that stuff whenever I make some,” said Hans. “The usual is a third of what I can run when I have lead enough, and I am glad you found so much of that stuff downstairs last night.”

“Tin and hardening metals, also,” I said. “Tonight, I'll try melting up a lead-pot full of the hard stuff if I'm up to it, so you'll have metal ready to cast.”

“That, and you'll wish to plug two of your bullet-boards for the trip,” said Anna. “I would travel with that weapon ready-loaded, as you will need to use it.”

“I thought so,” said Sarah. “I think I'll want some more common bullets for my pistol, also.”

“Then we shall be busy tonight,” said Hans. “Now there is more lead for us, as one of those big bricks of the stuff fell into our buggy when one of those witch-holes went up.”

“Brick?” I gasped.

“Yes, a big one, too,” said Hans. “I am glad Anna was driving then, as it took us both to shift it, it was so big.”

Anna came up with her cart, then as I picked up the leather satchel, I noted it had lost a good deal of weight. Anna then said, “that's all witch-money, or it was. We can gather it up on the way back if we can find cleaner's buckets.”

“You know of a water pump up here?” asked Sarah, as she 'formed up' behind me and I led off again. “If you do not on this floor, then I know of where there is one on the one above us, which is where we...” A pause, then, “the smaller stairs?”

“They'll get us closer to where we need to go, and that satchel lost a fair amount of weight,” I said. “That, and we won't need to worry nearly as much about being observed, as I want the exact location of that one room a mystery for as long as we can manage it.”

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “It might be safe enough now, but once the place has Generals in it again, you'll be glad of it.” A pause, then, “Hendrik did not get the other two of those 'boxes' that are due for Gabriel.”

“Why, other than the witches wished it?” asked Sarah.

“Because firstly, that clothing was made as a complete set, and those making it thought he needed three sets, as is the rule for most of the 'carriage trade',” said the soft voice. “As is the usual for witches, they do not do things by the numbers, nor do they use patterns, so they're still working on the second set of clothing.” A pause, then, “you'll need to confiscate what comes when it does show, which will be some time after you return.”

“How many sets... Oh, three?” I asked. “What were those strange things for the hands?”

“Hand-shoes, if one uses the language of 'commons',” said the soft voice. “Those things want that better equipment and more time before you go over them, and the same for those things that looked like jewelry.”

“Do they have things like tape-recorders?” I asked.

“Yes, and you'll have some come back with you, along with an evidence camera,” said the soft voice. “It will record details that magnifier has trouble resolving, and then you'll be able to record everything that you saw when you showed those layers of curses – as those things were originally developed with documenting 'the work of the enemy' in mind, so as to educate soldiers as to what to expect at the front and how to stay out of trouble with cursed gear.”

“Cameras that show that stuff?” I asked. “How..?”

“They don't do electronics quite the way you learned in school,” said the soft voice. “You'll be really surprised at what they can do – and it isn't like anything you've encountered before.”

“Isn't..?”

We had left the still-smoking coins behind, and as we passed hallway after hallway, I knew that there were some people watching. Granted, most of them were either cleaners or guards, but we wished to keep 'our' area safe. I had a sudden idea, and almost laughed.

“What would that idea be?” asked Anna. It was as if she'd read my part-suppressed laughter.

“Do you have chalk?” I asked.

“I do,” said Sarah. “I'll want to get more at Paul's, as Esther sells that stuff.” A pause, then, “why? Do you wish to write something strange on the walls?”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “I do. Something like, uh, 'Danger, bombing supplies and strange chemical mixtures'.”

“That would be very wise,” said Anna. “You do not wish people anywhere close to that room, and now I can tell why you want to take the back stairs.”

“We will not be seen?” I asked. I knew there were few people in and around that area at this time of day. The house proper was only now starting to truly wake up, which gave me the distinct impression that this was to be an extended day, just like the last two days had been. I then had a question.

“How was Katje?” I asked.

“She seemed much better,” said Anna, “but I told Maarten to keep her looked after and in that suite until we got home, so as to make certain she's entirely well.” A pause, then, “you do not need to be getting the crae, not with your sicknesses.”

At the stairs, again I took the lead with the satchel. For some reason, it had lost yet more weight, and when I came to the place to turn around, I stopped, satchel still in my hands, so as to try to 'feel' anything.

“No people,” I whispered to those coming behind me. “Not for at least an hour in this area.” Pause, then, “I'd watch for rats, though. and I think we'll wish silenced pistols for those.”

“I am glad I have one, then,” said Sarah. “Do you expect overly-friendly rats?”

“I can feel those,” I said. “No people anywhere close, but somewhere around here is a rat-mine, and whether it will show itself or not is a good question.” Pause, then, “I can really feel some rats.”

“What kind of mine is that?” whispered Hans as he came closer. “I have heard of mines, both the type that is a trap and the type that is a hole in the ground down south mostly, but I have never heard of a mine for rats.”

“He means there are many of them, and all of them most-friendly,” said Sarah. “We encountered many such rats in the Abbey, including a great number of them once on one of the upper floors.” A pause, then, “if you feel such a group of rats is near, then I think you'd best check your smaller pistol, as I know you put that other thing on it so it will make less noise.” Sarah then drew hers, though how I knew this without looking was something of a mystery; I had resumed the satchel and was heading up the stairs once more – at least until I heard her chamber a round quietly with a faint clinking noise at the end.

“Let that part go forward easily, Sarah,” whispered Anna.

“I managed most of the way, but these things are not the easiest to hang onto, and it got away from me,” said Sarah. “At least I did not let it go from full-open.”

“It's good enough,” I said. “Normally, those of us who have such things will generally do that before we're likely to have trouble, leastways if I can feel it coming close – or if it's all over the place over there.”

“The latter seems likely,” said Sarah. “If there are blue-suited functionaries handy, they'll wish either hot lead or other things to cause them trouble.”

“He'll want something quiet,” whispered Anna. “I know you have flail-pieces out in the boatwright's shed, but I don't know if he'll take to a flail quickly.”

“I'll pad one in rags for him, but I think he wants a longer rope for his,” said Sarah. “Better just make extra pairs, some with long ropes and others with the usual length, as I have a sufficiency of the needed rope, and there are a number of the needed pairs of sticks.”

“Oh, I think I know what you mean now,” I whispered. “I can do a version of Tam's rope-trick, even if I'll most likely crack my own head with those things...”

“Not really, even if they're not your precise 'thing',” said the soft voice. “You won't be able to do many of Sarah's tricks without practice, but you will be able to use one 'passably' – and the chief matter with that type of weapon, especially overseas, is its quiet nature and its ready manner of surprise use.” A pause, then, “bring your club for a spare, in case you or someone else needs to use it.”

“Why would he speak of a spare?” whispered Anna. I was on the third floor landing, satchel at my feet and that smaller pistol in my hand. I could really feel some rats in the area now – these things being common for size, but substantially uncommon for their numbers.

“Probably need to kick more than I shoot,” I thought. I could feel them in the area, and they were hungry enough to eat anything that looked likely. We weren't 'likely', but I knew I had a bread-bag with a piece of bread in it, and bread was indeed likely to a hungry rat. If they got close enough, they'd smell it.

“How I wish for some cracked corn,” I thought. I was not expecting it to arrive, but when Anna whispered to Hans “watch that bag of corn-meal,” I really wondered.

“Corn-meal?” I whispered, as Anna came closer.

“There's some of it around here, as I can smell it, and a smaller bag showed just ahead of Hans on the stairs,” she whispered. “That's not the only bag, as I can smell more of it in the area – fresh-ground stuff, if I go by its odor.”

“Do rats like corn meal?” I asked.

“If they are hungry, they will devour it,” said Sarah. “If they smell that, then they will most likely be more interested in it than in us.”

“They do, dear,” I said. “I had wished I could have some cracked corn, much like you mixed up this morning in that mash – and I was figuring it would not show.”

“It might well have, then,” whispered Anna. “I can feel rats around here, many of them.” A pause, then, “I am not sure about you thinking it to be a mother lode, as there isn't any such thing around here.” Another pause, then, “now how is it I am speaking as if I spent several years in the mines?”

“Perhaps Lukas mentioned the term when you were around him,” I whispered, as I led off once the satchel and 'coffin' were on their respective carts. “This portion is a bit tricky.”

Hans and Anna soon learned the meaning of tricky, for getting to that marked door required no small amount of carrying various objects, at times some 'gymnastics', careful use of one of two candle-lanterns adjusted for best brightness, and but one shutter open, and more than once teamwork in passing the carts and the rest of what we were carrying through narrow ways. Finally, I was in front of the door, and as I touched its knob, the lock softly clicked and the door nudged its way open.

Something had changed, as the last time, the door had not been quite so 'eager to please', and when I went inside with one of those lanterns, I noted that somehow, our previously clumsy piling of matters had been most-subtly improved. I thought to dose the door with oil, which meant looking in my bag for an oil-bottle and awl. The lantern went down to the floor as I knelt and began looking for what I needed.

“You do need shelves in here,” said Anna, as she drew up with her lantern in one hand and Hans towing a cart. I had found my oil-bottle, and was pulling out an awl. “The other is behind us but a short ways, as it has the coffin.”

“Is Sarah watching it?” I asked, as I began dosing the hinges. I worked fast as Hans came up closer, then as I put away both oil and awl, I heard an answer regarding Sarah. It was faint – not quite a 'thud', more a 'plopping' noise – like someone popping a small paper bag.

I stood up, then heard a string of rapid plops followed by a distinct and 'chilling' yell. I stood and ran back toward the sound, this through a maze and then into a slight widening of our path – to there see Sarah kicking an absolute swarm of too-friendly rats away from her while holding an empty pistol in one hand and her rat-club in the other. She was so busy kicking and swatting the things that she did not notice my arrival, and when I drew my pistol, I did not wait an instant, even though time seemed to suddenly screech to a too-abrupt 'halt'.

Seemingly slow as molasses, I drew back the slide of the pistol – it was the suppressed one – then lined up on a near-stationary rat and fired.

The pistol had a surprisingly sharp jolt, even if the suppressor kept the muzzle down and the 'thump' it made surprised me as to its volume. It was not quiet, which made me wonder if I'd picked up a pistol with a magazine full of 'hot' ammunition by mistake.

I could almost see the bullet fly and then strike the rat in the forepart of its body with one eye as I lined up on the one near it with my dominant eye, and when that rat was 'dosed' with lead, I went to the next one. As I shot the fifth rat, I backed up, then as I shot the sixth one, I leaned over somehow to the side and kicked something hefty, this kick resembling that of a 'mule' – and then turned my head in that direction as I fired twice more while still pointing my pistol in the former direction, this by sound and feel. The screeching I heard told me both bullets had hit rats 'somewhere'. I then saw what was coming for me.

Here came another white rat – the one I had kicked had been a hefty brute, and by the 'feel' of the impact, at least partly white – and I turned and shot the oncoming airborne animal between the eyes. It screeched, did a backflip in midair to land on its side, then as it tried to run off, I shot it in the behind. That, for some reason, sent it flying downrange – and with the rat-mine's 'leaders' gone, the remaining rats seemingly vanished. I then noticed that my pistol was 'dry', with a locked-back slide. I changed magazines as time once more returned to a 'normal' pace, being careful to insert a magazine of the 'slow' ammunition after first hitting the slide release. I checked the chamber before letting the hammer down, so as to have no 'accidents'.

One such accident, this many years ago, was sufficient to make me very paranoid – even if it had been due to hypoglycemia and not 'deliberate' carelessness. I had been far more impaired than I realized then – enough to have a car accident, in fact. Every such accident I had had was due to being impaired that way, and that years prior to learning I had a distinct tendency toward hypoglycemia.

“Those were cursed rats,” said Sarah. Somehow, she managed to keep her voice down, even if she was otherwise shaking. “Now I know what to do when you are feeling rats – we should expect them to show, and in large numbers, and that was a mine for rats, as they were everywhere.” Sarah picked up her lamp, then as she held it waist-high, she began looking at the vast number of blood-trails, as there were no rats – dead or yet alive – in our vicinity. I then saw that her rat-club had somehow been 'cleaned up' and 'treated' – even if it still showed teeth-marks. I wondered if she would get a replacement – and wondered more if she wanted a larger example, one with small spikes on its business end.

“Where did they all go?” she asked. Again, her voice was just above a whisper.

“No time for it now,” I said. “That one white rat I shot twice was one of the leaders of that swarm, er, rat-mine, and the others...” I then grabbed the 'coffin', and motioned to the cart, which Sarah picked up. We'd fetch our empties later, or so I thought until Hans passed us at a rapid walk with a bag in his hand. He'd brought out one of those lanterns and had its shutter fully open to the front, the glaring white light flooding out indicating both fresh adjustment and a 'hot' candle.

“Where..?” I asked. I was very confused by his sudden showing.

“To get those brass things,” said Hans. “Anna sent me this way when she heard those corks coming out of wine-bottles, as she knew someone was shooting, and I got lost some.” A pause, then seconds later, “this was a mine for rats, all right, as I see lots of blood and rat-hair, and some of those things were white ones, as this is white hair here, and I am glad I brought my own lantern with us for a spare.”

“Those white rats must have bred with some of the common rats before we killed them,” I murmured, as I moved rapidly in the gloom with the coffin under my arm. While our pistols were 'quiet' enough, they were not silent; and that meant that we needed to 'stuff' things in the room, close the door, and then hurry our way out of this area. More, we would need to help Hans police up our empty shell-casings, as we did not wish those to be in the hands of ignorant cleaners. I mentioned the latter to the two women as I came at a near-run with the coffin to the doorway, where Anna had remained, her lantern lit and pointing in the doorway so as to light my way inside and keep her night vision 'decent'.

“No one yet,” she said. “I put that thing inside near the door, but I did not go further inside and got back out again quickly, and I think you'd best put that thing on the floor right here and close this door.” Anna was pointing where she'd put the satchel, it being perhaps three feet inside the door, or perhaps two short steps for her.

I needed no such urging as to speed; I did as she had spoken regarding the 'coffin' – it went just in front of the satchel – then I pulled the door to. The lock clicked slightly louder than I had recalled when the door closed, then Anna left at a run in the direction we had come, leaving Sarah and I to carry the carts back that way. She'd someone gotten another cloth bag from somewhere – a small one, one easily hidden and rolled up. It made me hope she'd get her medical satchel today, even as I and Sarah ran after her.

I did not wish the carts to be seen by 'ignorant' cleaners either – they would be regarded as 'witch-gear' fully as much as the empty shell-casings – and the resulting gossip would be heard sooner or later by a supplicant or a well-hid witch.

“Why is she running?” I asked.

“I fired every shot in my pistol,” said Sarah, “and I think you did the same, only yours was sounding like that broom when you were shooting. It was not a fire-breather given a pill suited for your use.”

“What kind of rats were those things?” I whispered. “Did I get more shots than I should have gotten?”

“I would not be surprised,” said Sarah. “I could not count that fast, and I had trouble counting my shots after I shot the first three rats.” Pause, then, “if those shorter fowling pieces weren't so noisy, I could have used one with those things, as some of them had to be part-white at the least.”

“Which means they ignored the corn and...” I almost laughed, then said, “perfect. Our first shooting lessons will be indoors, and they will be spent hunting rats.” I almost added 'just as if we were where you went to school'.

“Yes, I think so,” said Hans, as we came upon him looking at the floor, lantern in one hand and a faintly clinking bag in the other. He was intently scanning the floor to his immediate front, stooping here and there to pick up a shell-casing with some small wooden tongs amid the omnipresent bloodstains. “Now I have found thirty or so of these brass things with this lamp here, and Anna is finding more of them over there, and then one of you was shooting like that broom sounds, only it was a lot quieter for noise.”

As if to disabuse us of 'quiet', I heard a screech, then Anna ran back to us, a bloody 'dagger' in hand and a clinking bag in the other. She'd not needed a lantern, for some reason, I suspected. A breathless cough from her mouth, then “Hans, I need a rag to wipe this thing off so I can go back and get my lantern.”

I produced one quicker than Hans could, and as Anna wiped off the knife she had used, I asked, “what did you poke?”

“I did not poke that rat,” said Anna breathlessly. “It tried for me, and I sliced on it, and that nasty rat is in two pieces now.”

“What?” I asked.

“Two pieces,” said Anna, as she 'vanished' and returned seconds later with her lantern. “Now we need to hurry, as that rat I cut in half had bullet holes in both ends, and it was an entire-white rat, just like I've heard about there being some of in here.”

“But I hit that thing between the eyes with my first shot,” I murmured. “It should have stopped right there...”

“Recall how much lead those two we shot ate?” asked Sarah. “I think that kind of rat wants that faster ammunition – that or a larger pistol, if we are to use pistols.” I suspected Sarah would be packing something heftier on any in-house rat hunts I organized, and that one short-barreled fowling piece sounded likely indeed.

“It was dead and did not know it,” said the soft voice. “That first bullet, while it did not scramble the rat's brains, punched a hole through its skull and confused it thoroughly; and the second ripped a hole clean through its guts and put a hole in its heart on the way out.” Pause, then, “between two solid hits, that rat was slowed enough that Anna could dispatch it with her knife readily.”

“A larger white rat..?”

“It was that,” said Anna. “It was easily twice the size of a common rat in the house here, and if I go by the other rats I saw lying around when it tried for me, it had been breeding with the commonplace ones some.”

“The other rats?” I asked. I wanted to ask, “where next? We don't want to go back the way we came.”

Sarah pointed as if to direct us, then whispered, “they did not ignore my lead, nor did they ignore yours. They were like that one witch I shot with a roer – he did not drop then, but he did not go far or do much, either.” A pause, then, “we need to go by this one place on the other side, as there's a cleaning station there and I have something hid near that place.”

“Hid?” I asked.

“Some of that money I found near that one witch-hole that exploded the day after the Swartsburg was destroyed,” said Sarah. “It's near one of the cleaning stations, and I doubt any cleaner would wish to go in that room.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It's a room painted white, floor, walls and ceiling, quite small, and takes no key,” she said. “It does have a button for the doorknob, but it's the cleverest-done button doorknob I've ever seen, and I think it may have been done specially by someone in Ploetzee – either that, or that one jeweler that was here some fifty or so years ago.”

“Fifty?” I asked. We were now 'getting out of the maze', and I could feel people coming into the area. The noise we had made would now work well as a diversion. “That long ago – or was it longer?”

“It's quite hard to tell, as there was no date put in that volume of the Annals,” said Sarah. “Most of the volumes are in numbered order, and perhaps the first notation listed in each such book has a date, but that one doesn't have any dates at all – not in any of the notes made.”

“The first notation?” I asked. “Otherwise no dates?”

“That is the usual for the Annals here,” said Anna. “No calenders that aren't printed fit for witches, and that's when you can find them.” A pause, then “they're worthless now. The only way one can tell when church-day comes is by watching the moons – when they show, and how much, and then counting how long the two of them are apart when they show themselves as two and do not hide one behind the other.”

By this time in our rapid near-run, we were 'out' of the maze; and with the carts unladen, I found that I could set such a rapid pace and have the others keep up readily. Faintly, I could hear shuffling noises as people below us began climbing stairs to try to learn the source of all of that 'screeching and banging', and I could tell there would be cleaners up in this area within perhaps an hour at the most.

“It will be closer to mid-morning before any such people show,” said the soft voice. “Those noises you are hearing are people getting up from their breakfasts a trifle faster than usually, as they did not hear the noise of your pistols.”

“What did they hear, then?” I asked.

“The screech that white rat made when Anna sliced it,” said the soft voice. “That sound is now fairly well-known in this house, which means people need to gather and then load what weapons they can before they attempt to 'turn out' – and some of the off-duty guards will be carrying their muskets loaded with mingled shot.”

“Mingled shot?” I asked silently.

“Mostly whatever commonplace shot they can get their hands on, but most of the time they make sure some stiff shot is in those loads,” said the soft voice. “It isn't well-known in the house proper, but Mathias has done his share of exploring in General's Row.” Pause, then, “while he hasn't found any of those fetish-pistols that can fire without cocking, he has found a fair number of plump leather pouches filled with their bullets – and those do work passably in guard-muskets in lieu of what you-all manage to cast and what comes up now and then via donkey-train from the fourth kingdom.”

“Those court-jester revolvers?” I asked. “The Generals carried them?”

“Usually at least one per witch, and usually more than one such weapon,” said the soft voice, “as well as a small flask of priming powder, a 'capping device', and then a small leather pouch of bullets – and since getting proper 'witch-bullets' demands an inducement and then at least one added payment, with all of those payments paid in person, the usual for such people who buy those bullets is to purchase sizable amounts of them and then sell part of their purchase at a profit to those they know.”

“Sizable?” I asked.

“The usual order is several hundreds if one deals with a witch-run firm north of the third kingdom,” said the soft voice. “The people I spoke of would purchase 'a twenty of hundreds', or two thousand bullets, and then sell most of them off to other witches.” Pause, then, “Mathias found those people's remaining stock – which means he has found thus far over four thousand small pistol balls.”

“Five to seven such bullets per load, then,” I muttered, as I came to the 'turning place'. We had wound around columns and things like them more than I had liked, and looking up from the 'angle' at the corner showed why. Each floor above us overhung where I stood by three to five feet, and there were at least two floors above where I stood – and above that, this being quite some distance, easily fifty feet or more, was a row of faceted windows showing on the ceiling. They looked as if they were long-past due for cleaning.

“That's because they are long-past-due for cleaning,” said the soft voice. “It usually gets done once per year during the summer, and it commonly takes several cleaners much of a week to clean them.”

“How do they get the underside of those things clean?” I murmured, as I once more moved quickly to try to catch up with Hans and Anna. While there was no answer, I had one of sorts by the time I had 'come up' to provide 'security' beyond Anna's new-found vigilance.

“Sarah disappeared,” said Anna. “She was in front of me while I was watching out for rats or witches, then she went into this dark hallway with one of those lanterns, and now I have the only one lit.”

“That thing is mostly closed up, Anna,” said Hans. “I am glad, as those things burn my eyes some if I look at their open parts.”

“It's much like one of those lanterns that induce blindness, only worse yet that way when it's set right,” said Anna. “It has something to do with light that is both faster-moving and brighter, as well as having a 'shorter' nature of some kind.” A pause, then, “I hope I can learn more about it, as that stuff is bad when it burns up here, and causes a lot of trouble.”

“Ultraviolet radiation,” I said. “It's supposedly outside the normal visual spectrum.” I then asked, “you can see it?”

“Yes, now,” said Anna tersely. “I hope she hurries, as we need to get to those melted coins before those people start moving around up here after seeing all of those dead rats.”

Faint squeaking seemed to be coming from the region we had just left, and I asked, “dead rats? Are more coming to that area?”

“It sounds like there is a lot of those things up here,” said Hans. “If I did not know better, I would think a witch had fostered them somehow.”

“That is very likely, Hans,” said Sarah as she suddenly came out. Her lantern was mostly shuttered closed, and as she plumped a sizable leather 'sack' on one of the carts,” she said, “that there is common money for Andreas. He can melt that stuff down for silver and clean it up...”

“Which he needs to do anyway for his work,” I said. “So he gets help in cleaning it, your cousin is good with waxes, he needs help right now anyway...”

“Say no more,” said Anna, as she motioned to our front. “We should take the main stairs, as that will get us to those coins fastest.”

Not thirty feet further on, however, Sarah vanished again, only this time Anna was quick enough to follow in her wake. Faint noises came as Hans waited with his part-shuttered lantern near the two carts, and I went to the railing.

“Still no movement yet,” I muttered. “Must be doing gossip while they're getting weapons, uh... They have trouble getting working ones, don't they?”

“They do,” said the soft voice, “and more, there is a most-strong desire for weapons that can fire multiple times without reloading.” A pause, then, “there will be a strong desire for revolvers and short-barreled fowling pieces, as the rats you found are indeed a harbinger of a most-noisy summer.”

“I thought that might happen,” said Hans in chastened voice. “Maybe that is why the higher schools are said to be so noisy.”

“Said to be?” I asked. He'd never been to one, as far as I know.

“Sarah talked about how common guns were in those places, and she has spoken some about her own troubles with rats and things like them, and then Hendrik said he wore out a fowling piece there, which meant he wanted a good one for after.”

“Which is why he has what he has now,” said Anna, as she came out with two buckets. “Hans, you'll want to get two buckets, as Sarah is pumping water, and then you yourself after he comes out, so at least two people are out here to watch and guard.”

“Anna must be becoming paranoid,” I thought silently – though at this thinking, I could tell she was looking at me. I then knew better.

“I have always wondered why you seemed so careful and troubled,” she said, as Hans vanished. “I wonder no longer, as I expect trouble to come for me all the time now.”

“That mess in town?” I asked.

“That, and what is happening to me,” said Anna. “I'm glad I have that knife, as that rat wasn't inclined to just sniff my clothing for food.” A pause, then, “it had its claws and teeth going as if it was hungry and inclined to try my arm for a taste.”

“Perhaps you want a corn-knife also,” I said. “Perhaps two sizes, a large and a small – the smaller one being one that can be, uh, more-readily concealed...”

“I'd take one of those smaller swords from Norden about now,” muttered Anna – who then turned and looked at me. “Hans is coming out now, so you can get your two buckets – and I think you should look close at that pump.”

I went in as soon as Hans went out, and that without a lantern. There was enough sunlight for me to find my way in a realm that seemed the definition of dark, though as I moved quickly, I noted not merely a distinctive odor, but also a faint source of light that grew steadily brighter – until I went around a 'Z' bend and found light 'billowing' out of a doorway, and the sound of a pump working steadily.

“At least that pump seems to be working decently,” I thought, as I went inside and found Sarah working a surprisingly long wooden pump-handle. The steady spurts of water spoke volumes, even if she needed to work while working that pump-handle.

I then noticed the pump itself.

“That thing's cast of bronze,” I whispered, as I knelt down. “Do you wish me to, uh, spell you on that?”

“No, because I've got but one bucket left to fill and those coins will wish us all working,” said Sarah. “I'm hoping you can ask them to jump in the buckets, as that will save us much time.”

“That costs him plenty, as you well know,” said the soft voice.

“That's why I'm doing this,” said Sarah, “as I can do this, and he needs to do what is given to him to do – and that's enough to scare me colors, several of them one after another.”

“It scares me a great deal, dear,” I murmured, as I moved the filled bucket out of the way and put in another quickly enough that it caught the spurting water. “Now that pump looks to be worth copying,” I whispered. “Bronze, so it won't get rusty, and...”

I had noticed the 'hammer' marking – and for some reason, I made an odd association. There were a number of kings named 'Charles' where I came from, and one of those people was associated with a hammer – as in the meaning of his last name literally meant 'hammer'. I wondered for an instant if that was why this man named 'Charles' had that mark associated with him: he'd somehow learned of matters long ago where I came from.

“Am I over-thinking this?” I thought. “How did he learn..?”

“He carried one with him constantly while he lived,” said the soft voice. “His first one may have been old and worn, and it needed periodic replacement handles due to substantial use, and it may have seen better replacements later in Vrijlaand, but it was his first find when a child, and he learned to use it a great deal.”

“Thumping enemies?” I thought. I wanted an orange or green hammer for that business. I'd had or had used those in the past, and their shot-filled plastic nature meant solid 'thumps' with little mess.

“When needed, yes,” said the soft voice. “He found such a tool quite useful in general, just like he later learned about needles, thread, patchwork quilts, and handbags like Sarah has used in the past.”

The last bucket filled seconds later, and I now had two buckets mostly-full of water to carry; hurrying at my best speed, I then put one of them on each cart. The chief issue now was to hurry along our path to the main staircase, all the while dodging columns and keeping a lookout for rats. I could not feel those, nor could I feel thugs, even if I knew there were places in this area that wanted exploring. There was a 'highway' commonly used by Generals in this area that they used when they needed to move from one end of the house to the other without being seen by others, and it wanted both finding and trapping when I returned.

What with – that was the question. I did not wish to tear the place up, but I wanted something effectual, able to drop a trashed General-grade thug right away, and if possible, more than one of them. It needed to be small, readily concealed, and very deadly, as many of these people would be fairly hard.

“Almost want to use hollow-points on those stinkers,” I thought. “Those will get to them – won't they?”

There was no answer, and I wasn't sure one was needed. Instead, Sarah spoke from behind about the pump we had used, this just above a whisper.

“That thing came from the fourth kingdom,” she said, “and I've known of it for years.”

“Yes?” I asked cautiously.

“I found it when I was first in this house, during my second term,” said Sarah, “and I wrote about it in one of my reports. I later learned when it was made, and that went into the Annals they keep at the west school.”

“When, dear?” I asked. We were coming to another corner, and here, I could feel an access point to that one 'General Highway'. The Generals commonly went down this one narrow stairway between the inner and outer walls of the house, and then out of this well-hid portal that demanded going below ground and then emerging...

“They came out of the ground somewhere in the southeast corner of that shooting range,” I muttered.

“Who did?” asked Anna.

“Those stinkers called Generals,” said Sarah. “I can draw you a map of that route they like to take, as I've done my exploring of this place.” A pause, then, “that pump predates the starting of the Heinrich works, and that type does not hardly wear out.”

“What does wear out on those?”

“First, they do not get rusty, so their insides remain smooth, which preserves their leathers,” said Sarah. “That is a chief trouble with the usual ones, as they rust with time and use.”

“And put rust into the water when they are due for work,” said Hans. He was keeping his voice down also. “Those two you did up should last longer than is common, as I saw your work.”

“What did he do?” asked Sarah. Again, just above a whisper.

“All of those pins were new ones,” said Hans, “and they all rode in these bronze bushings like he usually does, with places for oil...”

“No, those are not common bushings,” said Sarah. “Those have a special blanking plate, and I think he put vegetable fiber or something like it in there to hold oil.” A pause, then, “did you do that?”

“I used some strange twine Tam sold me,” I said. “He said it was a thinner species of that one rope I like to use. Then, I put that in every bronze bushing – they all had those brass blanking plates – and then I kneaded red-paste into the twine packings, so they'd wipe their pins regularly, and finally each such bushing has thin places cut with a file for flow of lubricant.”

“That..?” Sarah was flabbergasted. What I had done was beyond even that of the Heinrich works, or at least as far as she knew.

“Perhaps they do that for the machines in those restricted-access regions,” I said softly. “Those, uh, looms that take a year to make? They only let marked people work on them?”

“They do not do what you did for that pump, even if they do some of that stuff.” Sarah sounded uncommonly 'fierce', much as if she was accusing that company of being lazy.

“They know what they know, which is less than they think it to be, Sarah,” said Anna. “They must import most of their ideas as well as much of which is truly special, same as do most places I've been in or near down there.” A pause, then, “I think they could learn a great deal from what he has done, actually, as I doubt anything they make is like that blower used for running that furnace.”

“They like the iron from that thing, is what I hear,” said Hans. “They have fights for that stuff down in that market place, and Georg could be a miser were he inclined that way.”

“Good,” I muttered. “I was right. Georg is not inclined to become wealthy. Comfortable, yes – and with good reason – but not wealthy.”

“He had me fooled that way until we fought those witches,” said Anna. “I know better now, which is why I spoke to Hans about him.”

“He still bears watching, though,” said Sarah. “The witches may attempt robbery, or witch-bribes – only with him, they will be using larger fowling pieces filled with stiff shot.”

“Roers?” I asked. I could just imagine a 'double-barreled roer', one which took sizable cartridges and hefty inch-diameter bullets. It would be a weapon suitable for large elk when they went 'Musth' or whatever being 'in the mood' actually meant for elk.

“Still, I think you could do pumps entirely,” said Sarah. I noticed that last word especially. It wasn't just Anna whose vocabulary was changing; Sarah's was also.

“No cast iron ones,” I muttered. “Bronze is easier to work with if I have to do complex castings, it doesn't turn the shop into an oven quite as badly as iron, and then I've poured a lot more of it. Iron is still fairly new to me, actually – I did brass and bronze a few times before coming here.”

“That will be noticed overseas – and dealt with,” said the soft voice. “Brass may be awful here, but it's worse yet there, even if it is the 'non-fuming' type.” A pause, then, “I'd do a few such pumps for practice prior to those sextant castings – to get used to 'tricky' castings and to get used to that particular type of bronze.”

“That paper spoke of brass,” said Sarah. “Best-grade brass, if I recall correctly.”

“This stuff I'm thinking of looks like brass,” I said, as we came to the region of the main landing leading to the stairs, “and it's quite hard and tough...”

“That stuff here isn't like what you were thinking of,” said the soft voice. “It's not easy to handle – both to cast and machine – but it's also resistant to corrosion, extremely hard and tough, and then it is temperature stable – and then, it age-hardens quickly when cooked in a 'slow' oven overnight.”

“Temperature-stable?” I asked. “Does that mean it won't grow or shrink much?”

“Try closer to 'it doesn't grow or shrink at all' if you keep it within a certain fairly wide temperature range, and the age-hardening process stabilizes its dimensions to 'gage-block' standards – so once you hone the crucial portions, then they'll stay properly tight for a long time.”

“Most likely want a small tin of red-paste,” I thought – and instantly, I knew that was wrong. The whole mechanism needed to be enclosed to keep out dust, grit, and other materials, then it needed to be partly filled with a suitable liquid lubricant, and finally, I needed to make more than one.

I needed to make the parts for three of them, actually, and possibly more to allow for errors in manufacture or design.

“And now, we must do stairs,” I thought, as I picked up two buckets from a cart and started down them. It would take two trips, with Anna providing security on top, and then myself or Sarah providing security on the bottom for the buckets while the carts were carried down. We'd be seeing Andreas directly – and more, we needed to.