Smoked wheels, an assassin, witch-trouble, and now this.


The buggy itself was a bit of an astonishment, for while it was a commonplace buggy, and also very old, it looked to have been fairly well-maintained. A glance at its frame, this while kneeling, told me one reason as to why.

“This thing used blackwood for its frame, and some other wood we don't often use for much of the rest. Most of that stuff is still good, so this one just needs some time and effort to put it back to work.”

“Yes, and we will need to replace its axles,” said one of the men from the boatwright's shop. “We do not hold with marmots, as they drive most of us crazy with their noise, but...”

“You have not endured noise,” said Georg emphatically. “I have endured noise worse than a hundred marmots at full screech, and a fire worthy of hell, and heat no right man would wish to endure, and I shall endure more of it taking rusty witch-metal and turning it into good iron. Now if I can stand that, then you can endure a damp-motor, and I think it high time you got one in here for your lathes. I know you have several lathes, and I know you can deal with overheads.”

“No, those Machalaat things sometimes scream, and then they explode,” said the man.

“No,” said Georg emphatically. “Ours is not from Machalaat, as they cannot run like this thing does.” Pause, then, “one of his, a boiler he's made, and then suitable belting and possibly gears, and then your lathe will act as if it has a marmot the size of a big grunter for twist and turn faster than a hoard of ticklers.”

The man looked at us with a stare of incredulity, then squawked, “a shipyard lathe! That is what that is! That is a lathe fit for turning parts on a ship, and nothing beats them for speed nor finish.”

“Thought so,” said Georg – who with his shotgun, looked the very part of an archetypal 'farmer'. I felt reminded of 'the farmer and his gun', and given how that one copy of a Remington recoiled, I could speak about 'De Boer 'n se'n Roer'.

Georg just had a 'roer' that loaded from the breach, and it took two rounds at a time – and what I had first made was said to kick like a roer.

“It ought to, given it's an elephant gun,” I thought. “That shotgun is nearly as bad!” I then caught a distinctive reek. “What is that smell?”

“That is from the smoked wheels, and those are made later, so about all that is good on them are the tires. They are bad tires, though.”

“You can speak that again,” said Georg. “Not even my brother could make wheels this bad, and he's worthless for time and a sluggard for labor. Now those tires... Who made those? Some stinking curse-chanting witch?”

“Now, now,” I said. “If you tires were made by a witch... Oh, they were, and the rest of the wheels also, and while our two friends were being fed 'Sopa con Puerc' done wrong, there was a team of witches pulling the wheels on this thing, wiping out the fourth kingdom grease you-all had put to it, and then putting this really bad and runny 'tallow' in the thing.”

“That's what most people use,” said our carpenter.

“No, not like this stuff,” I said. “First, it was entirely lard, then it had a good dose of nitrogen-acid added, and then a bit of flash-metal for added 'kick', and the whole mixed so strangely that it has to run some behind a team before the nitrogen-acid gets to working on the flash-metal, which melts the tallow out of the hubs right away and in the process smokes the wheels.”

“Caught them on fire is closer to what happened to that thing, and it took people dousing the wheels with water to keep the buggy from burning to a cinder,” said the man. “Now that tells me a lot. Can you make tires?”

“Yes, and do better woodwork in the bargain,” said Georg, “even if he is no carpenter. He makes a lot of patterns, mostly the smaller ones. You have a recent knife from the shop? One made, say, within the last few months?”

He did, and produced it from his belt-sheath. Georg pointed to the guard and the hilt. “He did the patterns for those right there, did the molds, helped with the pour, then finished them and the rest of that knife into what you have there. The other people may have done much of the buffing, but because that wretch of a witch Hieronymus cursed them, they act as if their clothing has fetishes in it every minute they are awake.”

“Come to think of it, Georg, I would bet their clothing does have fetishes in it. They most likely bought it used, and that at a witch-run second-hand store, where the witches put these little tags in it – like they've been doing for sixty years in the kingdom house proper – yes, the one here. Most of our used clothing needs to be made into paper, and this stinking thing – you-all need a good lathe in here, one with a foot of swing and six feet between centers, and a three hole triple-expansion damp-motor to turn it!”

“Then we shall need to pour its castings, and you will need to draw its plans, as you are right,” said Georg. “So the witches used aqua fortis...”

“No, Georg. That's an old term, one probably originated by witches before the war, and they write that name with runes.” Here, I traced a strange design in the air, and to my astonishment, the design grew shape, depth, color, and more, sound, smell, and an eerie phosphorescent glow. It seemed to spit like a snake, thrash like an angry firebug with the itch, and burn like a blazing fire of many colors. The odd shape, the strange 'timing' of all the myriad colors, their ever-moving nature – this spoke of a chemical at once powerfully cursed and chemically deadly, a trap, a snare, a material that demanded respect of those witches handling it, lest it escape from its container like a malevolent 'djinn' and devour them without relent or remorse.

“What should we call that stuff, then?” asked Georg, as the 'light and power' show slowly faded.

“Nitrogen-acid,” I said. “That other stuff is like what was once sold by Grussmaan's, but in the process of dealing with this one really nasty witch of a thread-seller, we not only got her place, we got her coaches, enemy headquarters, about four other buildings stuffed with distillate and dynamite – and when those went, the one next to Grussmaan's broke down part of its walls.”

“Good, then they will be fixing it for some time, as that place is badly built,” said Georg. “One of my relatives was an old gaffer when the place was going up, and I have what he wrote about it then.”

“Oh, but that isn't all,” I said snidely. “When that wall went down, guess who I and Sarah saw inside of their upper story?”

“A witch?” asked the carpenter.

“Full-loaded and black-faced, and I nailed his head with a bombé,” I said. “Stinking thing scattered him, dropped the whole second story of Grussmaan's, scattered their roof, killed most of their people, ruined their books, and put enough damage into the part that's still standing that they'll never turn a profit again.”

“Now that is good news,” said another carpenter. This first man I had but seen briefly, but this man, I had done business with on a few occasions. “Don't mind him – he just got up here from the fourth kingdom. Got too hot for him down there once some drunken fool tried for him and sliced off three toes.”

“What?” gasped Georg.

“He managed to get to Liza, who looked after him until he was well enough to walk, and he got new shoes, one fitted specially for him. He lives in Waldhuis now, where there's a shoemaker who can take care of strange-shaped feet.” Pause, then, “a better woodworker I never saw, and I've gotten word about him from down there.”

“What?” I asked.

“You want patterns for special things?” asked the man. “Come here. He was a pattern maker, and he'd done much of his journeying at the Heinrich works.”

“Better reputation than...”

“No, they do put their names to much of what they do, but what they do do – no one in the known parts of the five kingdom does as well. No one.” Pause, then, “if you want better, then you either need to get it done in a place that doesn't belong to the five kingdoms, or done by a person who doesn't belong to the five kingdoms – and north of the fourth kingdom, you are that man.”'

“I doubt there is his equal there,” said Georg. “Now, this buggy. It seems it was trapped by witches.”

“It was,” said the carpenter. “How was a mystery, at least until he came and told us. Now we know.”

“Uh, that buggy is reparable,” I said. “Irons just need a good cleanup to deal with wear, the bad parts need replacing, frame needs cleaning, regluing, and then some added bolts here and there with braces, then sleeved axles, better springs, and then...”

“Yes, then?” asked the carpenter. “Good buggies are not easy to get or find up here, and the house proper has more sleeved ones than any other location in the rest of the entire kingdom.”

“It does?” I asked. “How?”

“You know about the two that went with you on that trip,” said the carpenter. “There were two others on rebuild while you were gone, the sleeves for them came in, we fitted those, and now we have four sleeved buggies, with another set of tied sleeves due to come within perhaps two weeks.”

“Hence you can get five.” I said.

“Aye, and we want a dozen for the work Hendrik is saying we will we need to do this summer,” said the man. “Now you do bronze, and that well. Can you do sleeves?”

“Before, I would say no, but now, with what he says lies at the Abbey, I am not sure.” Georg looked at me, then asked, “can you?”

I nodded, then said, “finding time to do lots of them may prove difficult, but batches of four every few weeks should prove easy enough.” Pause, then, “that said, I have a rather interesting idea.”

“Yes, and what would that be?” asked the carpenter.

“You after something like what Sarah has, only lighter yet?” I asked. “Something that's so light you can take two people and carry it easy, yet as strong as what she has?”

“You can almost do that with hers,” said the carpenter. “Are you saying you know of how to make a lighter-yet buggy?”

“Yes, and not a little lighter, and they have the supplies and equipment overseas to do so,” I said. “Oh, and some donkeys, also. Lots quieter than horses, do well on poor forage for a few days, and can really move over rough terrain, and that kind of buggy would be perfect for such work.

“So Hendrik was telling me,” said Georg. “Now, another look at those axles and wheels, and then we'll need to go inside. Those weapons that witch was using are in there now, or they should be, and I'll lay a gold piece that they'll tell us things we need to know about that one smelly wretch who promises to cause us a lot of trouble.”

The 'examination' wanted a magnifying glass, and while I had a small one beyond that used for close work, a feeling in my pocket brought out a strange folding metal thing that when I opened it up, it proved to have two lenses. Used singly, it worked well, but when both lenses were out and locked in position, I had a level of magnification that boggled my mind. I used this doubled lens to examine quickly the axles – they were being removed as I looked – and later, the wheels themselves. The charred surfaces of both spoke of a hot, fast-spreading, and very 'corrosive' fire, one that not merely charred the wood, but actually ate into it like a hyperactive pack of termites, making it so weak that these axles, at least those portions that bore upon the hubs, were but fit for firewood. I indicated to the carpenters just how far back they needed to cut, and more than one such man shook his head, muttering as he did so about 'stove-wood'.

“No, set that part aside for paper,” said the carpenter that seemed 'in charge'. “The rest we can use to make up a new axle, as these solid ones may be easy to make, but they give up nothing for strength to those shaped like an 'I' and they give up half their weight. We just fit blocks where the springs bear. Then, this is good seasoned wood.”

“Use blackwood pieces for the blocks, and cut that piece lengthwise and use blackwood for the central section,” I said. “Really strong then, stronger than a solid one, in fact. Then, put that wood-treatment to it once the glue cures overnight in your warm-room.”

Georg indicated he'd gotten a bag of burnt-coal by hefting the sack, and as we left the carpenter's shop, I asked, “how did you get that?”

“Simple,” said Georg. “While you were working on that buggy and figuring it out, I went to the man who has the stuff, told him what Hendrik told me, handed him the bag, he filled it, and I just moved out back to where you were.”

“They do that often?”

“With me, no,” said Georg, “but two of those men either know gunners that I fought with, or are related to them, so I'm well-known in the shop, if not the house. I just don't get out this way very often, is all, and that because my old buggy was too poor to make the distance in less than three days.”

“Less than three days?” I asked.

“Many stops would have been needed, and pulling the wheels each night using an old farmer's lifter so as to pack them with fresh fourth kingdom grease,” said Georg. “I started using blacking with it once I'd heard you using it for greasing your bullets, and I thought if it worked in what you shot, it might work in my buggy.”

Pause, then, “it did, least until that pig decided it wanted to get too friendly.”

“It did?” I asked.

“Less noise, a little quicker, and fewer stops needed,” said Georg. “I figured I got another eight to ten miles a day doing that, that and dosing the wheels with some of that oil you made for Hans now and then. That helped too.”

“And that brother of Joost's had me dodging his lead enough,” I spat. “He almost got me.”

“Running though the trees like you did and consistently out-thinking him was what laid him low,” said the soft voice, “that, and you're more thorough than either man – so you not only shot him the first time, and then knelt down low so as to shoot him the second time when he was expecting you to stand like he did, but you then rigged two traps – one of a type he'd never heard of – directly in his pathway, and then lay in ambush in case he didn't fall for them.”

“And I hope and pray Deborah gets that rigging knife,” I said. “She's really wanting one.” I then realized she actually had a short sword now.

“Yes, and she's still in the market for one of those knives,” said the soft voice. “That one's but a year old, but it's seen little use and 'excellent' care, so a free near-new knife like that is a present she'll enjoy.”

“Excellent?” I asked.

“Carefully rubbed with a mixture of fourth kingdom grease and green rouge, followed by some boiled distillate each evening,” said the soft voice. “Like Joost, his brother took good care of his supplies, as his fees depended upon his results and he wanted to get them consistently.”

“Does he have green rouge?” I asked.

“Yes, a small leather pouch of it,” said the soft voice. “Each of those dragoons has a hand-lapped bore using green rouge and a soft-lead bullet, and you'll find the mould he has to be rather interesting.”

“Single cavity?” I asked.

“No,” said the soft voice. “Six cavity, and when it comes to bullet-moulds, the Heinrich works does not bother to make theirs. They buy them from that firm, as no one beats their workmanship.”

“I am not sure about that,” said Georg. “I have seen your moulds...”

“He does not have their equipment, or did not until recently,” said the soft voice. “Even then, it was a near thing.” Pause, then, “given the Abbey's equipment, he'll better them for quality and quantity easily.”

“And everyone and his brother will want them,” I muttered.

“Not much of a problem, really,” said the soft voice. “First, Georg's barrels will merely need reaming and lapping. There are reamers of a suitable size in that shop, and lathes suitable for the task. Just put an extension on them, set up a lathe, program it, and then do three barrels an hour with a near-lapped finish. Lap it, put it in the rifling jig that you can easily set up permanently over there, work it back and forth using an air cylinder...”

“What gives with all this?” asked Georg, as we went back inside the house proper.

“A much quicker way to make barrels than the previous makeshifts,” I said. “Now, it also occurs to me that the tolerance spread is going to be so low that I make one cutter, and...”

“And you cut two-cavity moulds to size with little more attention needed beyond putting the mould blocks in the jig and then returning a short time later and then replacing them with others,” said the soft voice. “They'll need hand-fitting, then lapping, and finally venting, but the hard work will be done quickly by machines. Figure where it took you a week to make one mould, you could easily make eight to ten with a fraction of the real effort.”

“Good,” said Georg. “I just hope I can keep enough barrels on hand.”

“And cast trigger-guards, buttplates, barrel-bands, and much else,” I said. “Machine-finish?”

“Clean up, debur, polish, and then blacken,” said the soft voice. “Figure half an hour where it used to take several hours per part.”

“Stocking?” I asked.

“That will be one area where you'll have a real advantage,” said the soft voice. “Recall the concept of glass-bedding?”

“Yes?” I asked.

“You can do that to those weapons,” said the soft voice. “The other trouble is that many of the weapons will have stocks that are going to powder with dry-rot, so you'll need to make them from scratch.”

“Best get that farmed out, at least roughed out to size,” I said.

“It would take far longer to do that than if you did them, as Hans told me how quick you were, and I know how long it takes most who do such work,” said Georg. “If I did not know any better, I would say they take a single stroke in the time it takes you to do ten, and that one stroke is done feebly and badly.”

“Machine-cut them roughly to size,” said the soft voice. “For those weapons, try 'small', medium, and 'large', with an inch's difference of pull between the extremes. That will fit ninety-five percent of the people you encounter in the area. Then, stock them like yours.”

“Uh, why?” I ask.

“Yours is well known, rumors have gone about around as to where you got the idea – wrong rumors, but still taken as gospel by the majority – and since marsh-guns are both rarely seen and poorly understood, they think you got the idea from that location. Hence, part-stocked weapons will go over well, given just what you've done with yours, and they'll save you time and wood.”

“And now we get to set them straight about what they have,” said Georg, as he tapped. “I know yours is no marsh-gun, as I've seen Tam's, and yours is a lot different – and it shoots about twice as well, unless my guess is wrong.”

The door was opened by Deborah, and as if she had heard us, she told Georg, “your guess is wrong, if you speak of his rifle. That one that was brought in a short time ago might load faster, and it may shoot far enough, but it does not compare to his for accuracy.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Those do well to group onto a small saucer at five hundred yards,” said Deborah. “I have it on good authority that you shot the eye out of an Iron Pig at nearly that distance, and that swine was moving when you did it.”

“Luck, dear,” I said.

“If that was luck, then how did you hit Koenraad the second's Infernal Lantern at night while all hell was breaking loose around you, and that shot being most of the length of the Swartsburg?”

“H-how long is that?” I asked.

“Further than you might believe possible,” said the soft voice. “That weapon on the table might fire three shots to your one, but your first shot would most likely deal with the issue – and, if you look at his cartridges, you'll see some rather interesting issues.”

I did so, and as I compared round after round, I found a disturbing issue present: the quality control on these things, while decent indeed by most standards – a quarter of a line, easily, or about four thousandths from boundary to boundary – was, to my mind, anathema.

Four thousandths of an inch meant boom with a lot of what I had worked on. Four tenths was enough to cause trouble. Plus or minus one tenth was barely adequate.

A lot of what I needed to work on, to put it in the language of the machinists where I had first turned a crank, needed 'dead-nuts accuracy' to function properly. That meant 'it measures exactly what the drawing calls out' – and anything less accurate meant scrap. Start over from the beginning, idiot.

My lubricator-sizer, if used correctly, held plus or minus one-tenth of a thousandth of an inch. My powder measure threw the same weight of powder each and every time if I did my part. My 'thimbles' were as consistent as could be had, and the weight of my weapon...

I picked up this 'Sharps', and shuddered. Mine easily weighed several pounds more, and when I looked at the sights on the thing, I cringed. Good enough as to range, but off – seriously off – in the accuracy department. I could actually wiggle them a trifle. Mine, in comparison, were rock solid, and their adjustments tight enough to require regular cleaning and careful reassembly.

“N-no,” I spat. “Yes, he might call heads or chest at five hundred yards, and hit what he calls most of the time, but mine...”

“Right eye, left eye, or third eye at five hundred yards,” said the soft voice. “At ranges where he does well to hit a house, you can hit his chest solidly with the first shot – and when he eats your lead at that range, he's going down right then and never getting back up again in this world.”

“What?” I asked.

“The bullet is still stable and supersonic out that far, but the shape of that thing is such that the instant it goes into flesh, it begins to tumble and quickly breaks apart because of its hardness, and then it fragments explosively. The result is an entrance wound that looks like that of a common musket, a massive region of internal destruction, and then the largest piece or pieces flying out the back while ripping a hole or holes that resemble those made by the ball of a roer – and your bullets retain ample killing power for miles.”

“Then that first deer I shot...”

“The part that was destroyed is generally not eaten,” said the soft voice. “That deer's entire chest cavity was turned into mush from that bullet.” Pause, then, “recall how that first elk dropped 'right away' and a cooking pot full of meat needed to be drowned in vinegar so as to save it for pie filling? That type of weapon there won't do that – not like yours does.”

“Then, uh, Mobogo...”

“Needs a close stalk, a maximum load, an expert shooter, and no small amount of luck,” said the soft voice. “It's like the difference between using a .45-120 Winchester and a souped-up .416 Rigby – which is why you heard that song when you first fired that weapon, by the way – you've effectively got that kind of power with that rifle.”

“John Rigby,” I muttered. “Elephant guns.” I then gasped, “souped up f-four-sixteen-Rigby?”

“Just as if Roy himself had stuffed those huge cartridges for going after Cape Buffalo,” said the soft voice. “Now, if you speak of pig-loads, then you get into another league entirely, as that powder does not act linearly at that loading density.”

“What does it do?” asked Rolf.

“It increases its efficiency and power exponentially once you get past a certain point,” said the soft voice, “and dumping a pig-load gives a level of power that exceeds that of weapons that are normally able to be fired from the shoulder where he came from.” Pause, then to me, “yes, those especially.”

“B-Barret,” I muttered. “Fifty caliber.”

“Yep,” said the soft voice. “Lighter bullet, substantially higher muzzle velocity, and then that bullet holds together just long enough to punch through something solid before it explodes like a bomb. You recall those strange rounds developed in Norway – the ones in that caliber that do explode?”

I nodded, this mentally.

“These don't need that kind of filling to do that kind of destruction,” said the soft voice. “They bore through plate, bone, and other hard things, and the pressure of drilling through that stuff holds them together while simultaneously fracturing the slug, then when it comes out of the 'armor plate', it dumps all of its energy as it disintegrates into a lot of jagged-edged particles that spray out in a cone-shaped pattern.”

“Those gun-shields?” I asked.

“Are not designed to cope with those bullets, and you alloying them like you did increased that tendency to no small degree. Figure putting one through a gun-shield and every functionary within ten feet on the other side is going to get tossed to the ground screaming – presuming, of course, they're able to scream.”

The unspoken portion was 'a lot of them will be unable to scream due to serious injuries or death'. I then noticed Deborah had found that one knife.

“Where did you get this?” she asked.

“It was one of his things,” I said. “He had a cursed knife, but that thing's dust and rust. That one isn't cursed, as far as I know.”

“Here,” she said, handing it to me by the back of its blade. “You tell me if it's cursed or not.”

I put it on the ground, pressed my boot upon it, then said, “any curses in or on this blade, go find witches and cut their heads off!”

The blade jumped under my foot, but I kept my foot down, and when I picked it up, the blade had somehow undergone a change at once subtle and yet dramatic. No longer was there any patina of use or age: the knife looked as if it had just came from its maker. The previous aspect of dullness was now replaced with an uncommon – and uncanny shine, and when I looked at its edge, I asked for a rag. I then began wiping it, and within perhaps ten seconds, I had to change places on the rag. Where I had wiped had gone filthy, and it was 'getting to me' to feel it through a trebled thickness of cloth.

“I see it had its curses hidden well,” said Deborah.

“N-no,” I said. “Their metal, while decent by their standards, isn't very good by mine; and the dirt is coming out of it now.” Pause, then as I needed a second rag, I spat, “these people! How do they do these things – make billets out of carburized wrought iron?”

“Yes, as that's the usual way they make 'steel' in the fourth kingdom,” said the soft voice. “Keep working on that thing, and pray that it receive 'suitable' alloying ingredients.”

I did as I continued rubbing, but with each rag I dirtied – these people did a passable job for appearance, and good quality of heat-treating for their area, but they took little care in their metal production – I could feel something happening, and more, the 'shine' to the blade acquired a darker and deadlier-looking blueish tint. It seemed to now becoming a darksome blade, one that reminded me of one accursed specially, a blade with a mind of its own; yet when I paused to look at the thing, I noted a small tin tag appearing with a long list of metals, followed by the appellation, “high-alloy 'exotic' tool steel.”

This had me wondering just what it was, but as the dirt finally began to finish emerging, I could feel the steel subtly pressing down and 'cross-linking'. While metals normally didn't polymerize, what was happening with this alloy was the metallic equivalent of polymerization at the atomic level, and I felt reminded of the picture I had once seen of hands grasping one another. A glance at the blade showed the number of voids slowly decreasing, and when they were gone, I set the blade down, pointed my finger at it, and said, “now, become as cold as that space between the stars, and drink up a mixture of compacted tetracarbon monoxide, 'high-energy' argon, 'double-energy' nitrogen, and molybdenum nitride.”

“What will that do?” asked Deborah, as the blade suddenly became encrusted with snow.

“I'm not terribly sure, even if that blade will have a brilliant rainbow coming off of its edge,” I said. “Hold it up to the light just right, and you'll see it clear as anything.”

“You know what you just did, don't you?” asked the soft voice. “You just created an honest-to-space Superalloy.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Precisely what I said,” said the soft voice. “Ever hear of Wootz steel? Well, that stuff in that blade is so much better there is no comparison possible, and it's what is needed to make starships that leave everything else behind – and I do mean everything.” Pause, then, “if you keep doing things like that, then those specifications I quoted you about those craft will become meaningless.”

“What?” I gasped.

“Just what I said,” said the soft voice. “Recall how I said they could potentially be better yet than what I spoke of? Well, what you just did is one of the things that will make that actually happen.”

“It will need analysis, then,” I said.

“Get yours, do the same thing, and take it with you overseas,” said the soft voice. “First, get something to eat and drink, answer some questions, then do that to the one you found. It's from a somewhat better batch of 'steel', so it will be a little easier.”

“Oh, and the edge?” I asked.

“Ever wonder why those blades you work on get rainbows?” asked the soft voice. “Wait until that one you just 'froze' is able to be handled, and then you will see a rainbow.”

After getting some food, I went to the area spoken of in the tome while I spoke of dealing with 'Chucky' out back, and here, I not only learned about how they had learned of all we had been doing almost from the time Hendrik had proposed matters to the king of the third kingdom, but also just how much they had done to cause trouble, both here and in the third kingdom. I could at least make a comment about the third kingdom, and did so.

“Lot fewer witches there now,” I said.

“That will mean but little in that port,” said Rolf. “The saying is, 'as the port goes, so goes the kingdom' if you speak of the third kingdom, and about half the people in there are pirates, thugs, robbers, and witches, and that's just for the port. There is another area, one that is so well hid that it is thought an unsubstantiated rumor, and it's about two miles up the coast and just to the east of the Low Way. There you will find the real den of iniquity, and if you deal with the port and not that area, then you labor in vain.”

I had suspected as much, but as I thought of the matter, I suspected...

No, not suspected. I knew.

While there was an area like Rolf had spoken of, the 'big men' were gathered of an evening in the port, and more, they were predominantly in one of the three large drink-houses, loitering upon the docks, or in one or more ships of a questionable nature. Gunfire, if administered in massive quantities, as well as killing the clientèle of the three drink-houses and anyone else who showed in the area, would be the 'two' portion of the one-two punch needed to essentially free the third kingdom of witchdom's influence.

That portion which had been sent up north had failed in its entirety, and the shockwaves of that mess would not reach the central 'command-and-control structures' of witchdom for some weeks. It took a real stretch to believe that, but the fact that I had, indeed, killed every witch who could have reported back what had happened would alter little.

The witches would proceed as if all had gone according to to that long-pondered 'Master' plan, and when they came to a house armed and ready for war, there would be wholesale slaughter and an even-more-massive smoking-like-a-burn-pile mound of 'dung'.

I then shook my head, and said, “oh, here they speak of the sextant. Georg, I was right. That foundry that you sent those patterns off to is deliberately holding off on doing them, just stringing you along like the idiot they think you to be, and they'll deliver their rubbish when and if they feel inclined.”

“That does not surprise me at all,” said Rolf. “Was this a brass foundry?”

Georg nodded.

“One thing you must understand about such places,” said Rolf. “Any location that casts brass, unless you have carefully checked it, is likely to either be owned by witches, or both owned and staffed by witches, and unless you are a witch and go to them face to face with a large sack of witch-money in one hand and a full-loaded fowling piece in the other, you are very likely to get your money taken and given nothing but promises in exchange for it.” Pause, then, “I would ride money on your patterns being broken up and burning somewhere in a stove in fact, as if this is a sextant, no witch desires anyone who is not a witch to have one.”

“I thought so,” spat Deborah.

“No matter,” I said. “That pattern was for a wall-hanger, and that 'best brass' called out for isn't conventional brass, but an alloy that is so unlike brass I know not what to call it other than 'this strange metal that came out of an old tale' – an alloy for which I was given the formula, and told something of its troublesome nature to cast.” Pause, then, “that is what he is asking for, and he has no clue as to what it is, so he merely had it dictated and then sent.” I then motioned with the 'brass' rug-hook of Sarah's, and waved it, saying, “like the metal in this thing. This is a sample of it, I suspect.”

“Dictated?” asked Rolf. “Is this man a witch?”

“Pieter Huygens is no witch,” said Deborah. “The witches have a large price upon his head, and when they learned...” Pause, then this to look at me. “Two more pages over. That's where it starts, first with the order when they learned of it.”

I went to that section, and here, I looked at another matter, one which had me gaping until my words found my tongue.

“They speak of such a tool taking years of deep-slave labor, both for days and hours,” I said, “but I can tell you, it will not take that.”

“How?” asked Georg. “I saw those two things like knitting needles that changed under your hands that became this strange golden color that reminded me a bit of the best rolled brass, but even I could tell it was not brass.” Pause, this to drink and devour a small lump of jam-smeared bread. I had my own slice, and a tinned brass travel-fork to stuff small pieces of this toasted jam-covered bread in my mouth between instances of speaking. “That stuff is what is needed, and those patterns they had would not work for it.”

“Yes, I know,” I said slyly. “A three-ring sextant is nearly a foot across, has a lot more parts, far more precise parts – parts that demand both special tools and special materials – and then special bearings, and finally, a fully-enclosed mechanism to keep needed lubricant in and dirt out of a mechanism nearly a hundred times as precise as that engine that turns that blower.”

Georg went white as a sheet, and gasped, “what will it need?”

“A lot of gear-cutting, some special knobs, a lot of special castings, some special tools, many imported parts from overseas, and three entire instruments, as with these things, you don't replace parts out in the field.” Pause, then, “you need something closer to a clean room, and the only way I know to do an adequate job outside of one is to fill it full of lubricant, shake it well, drain it, do that twice more for a total of three fills and drainings of oil, run its gears through their limits, do so twice more with an oil change each time, and then it's clean enough to work right. Test it, set its limits, write its manual, and then make the boxes for it, its special stand, and then the two devices like it, and the set of tools needed to adjust its limits in 'special' areas like those near Norden or possibly some other locations.”

I had to pause more here, as hunger had grabbed my gullet and I began eating the bread as if starved. Another piece was put on my plate, and the honeyed jam liberally applied. Deborah was giggling and speaking of me becoming a red-faced jam-fiend. I had more to say about the sextant, though.

“More importantly, Pieter will wish a computer to input his readings, and he'll need to keep that a secret aboard his boat, as well as that box with those three things and their gimbaled stand.”

“True enough,” said Rolf. “That man needs no wall-hanger, but an instrument he can trust, and that means one with three rings, as his ship will map our land in the days to come.”

“Are you planning on inserting an, uh, inboard in his ship?” I asked.

“What?” gasped Rolf.

“A totally enclosed triple-expansion damp-motor, or rather two of them,” I said. “About like so” – here, I indicated with my hands – “with lubricant-filled gearboxes and clutches, and propellers about like so – four-bladed ones. Correct?”

Rolf nodded nervously, then asked, “how will such engines give sufficient power?”

“You have not heard Frankij run, have you?” said Georg. He was dead serious. “That engine may be sized fit for a toy, but it turns a blower's rotating piece as big as a large plate, and it turns it so rapidly the thing screams like it was birthed in a place more ferocious than hell, and that furnace does iron unlike anything to be had anywhere. Why, people fight over that stuff, and pay double the asking price for it!”

“Hence it will be used for many of the parts of these damp-motors,” I said. “The reason you have two engines like that is in case one should fail in service, as then you can still get home with it out of commission. That's one reason.” Pause, this to eat more bread. “The other reason, you might guess.”

“What would it be?” asked Rolf, as I continued 'translating' and then forming matters in my mind of what witchdom had been doing.

“In case that boat needs to move,” I said. “Note that these things will not turn at the speed of a Machalaat engine, but much faster, such that they will need total enclosure to not make a horrible mess. More, they will be very easy to look after.”

“How?” asked Rolf.

“Simple,” I said. “When starting, check the oil level using the sight glass on the oil tank. If it's full, the engine's got enough oil. Then, admit a small amount of steam using the throttle, and listen carefully for perhaps five to ten minutes to the engine as it 'warms up'. It should be very quiet, and this needs to be done with the clutch disengaged. The engine is then throttled back, the clutch is engaged, and the throttle is gradually increased to specification speed – which with these will require a fair level of vigilance.”

“I thought so,” said Rolf. “Now what will we need to watch for?”

“Make sure the oil tank stays mostly full,” I said, “and keep the gages in the green, and listen to the engine's running. If it's working right, it won't clank or clatter.” Pause, then, “it will hum like a nest of contented bees – and very busy bees at that.”

Rolf seemed to think of the matter, then he resumed speaking of war. “The coming war – it will be one war, even if it seems divided up into several – will wish a good mapping of our country, both now as it sits and then after that one curse called the Curse breaks, and then a further mapping when the Curse entirely breaks.”

“True, and for that, he needs a three-ring device, and the pattern-set they had – sort of, anyway – was but for a two-ring device,” I said, “and Pieter had but little idea of what he was asking for.” Pause, then, “he was asking for something 'out of an old tale', and yet not.”

“Not?” asked Hendrik.

“No,” I said. “Those things were originally intended for a type of interstellar navigation, and we will need to 'sail among the stars' to entirely break the Curse, which means not only must the Abbey go into 'the black sack' for a period of time so as to give us the time and the people who will be able to do a thousand years of work in mere months, but also, to arm this country and make it able to first stand the witches of this world...”

In my mind, I could hear this strange 'furry' voice singing, “and I will see you in the next world...” That last word was drawn out, such that I heard it stretched into 'worlds'. It finished with, “and don't be late. Don't dare be late.”

“That is the truth,” said Rolf. “You know what this is, do you not? This is a summons to the docket of God, there to give an accounting of why we have been playing the witch so damned long, and that is why we must do the work of that time in but a few short years, as once this thing has started...”

“It already has, sir,” I said. “It started when I came here, that very evening in fact. We have times, time, and half a time, though for some reason our months and even our days have gone strange upon us.”

“So you have that three and a half years,” said the soft voice. “They thought to give themselves extra time.” Snort. “I gave them extra time to turn away from evil, but no, they will play their hands until the bank runs dry from their thefts and then the dealer and the card-sharks become dust in the winds of hell.”

“These plans, then, are a key to our survival, one of many such plans,” said Hendrik, as he indicated the 'preliminary plans for the shop's renovation and enlargement. “Georg, what do you think of them?”

“With those we have, we can do but little better, unless something is done, and what can be done I know not,” he said.

“Unless we have new people come into the shop,” I said. “I know of at least one, a woman, who can teach this stuff, she has at least one of her students here now, and then two more of a capability between the two of those people shall come within days.” Pause, then, “I'd advise you most strongly to hire her and anyone else from the Valley who comes to your door, as not only are the technically qualified people coming up here...”

“How so?” asked Rolf – who then slapped his head. “Of course. The witches run things in the fourth kingdom nearly as much as they do here!”

“They did, yes,” I said. “Manual labor is a quick road to starvation down there, as the expectations are very high for all who live in the fourth kingdom, and that means days far longer than most people are able to work down there, much less these people – and then, they are prime targets for slavers, so they head up through the mountains through one or more passes, or down the backside of the Veldter's realm between the end of the Red Mountains and the northern reaches of the mining country, head up north through the less-populated regions of the fourth kingdom while staying near the west side of the Red mountains, then though the third kingdom's back country along the mule trail as well as through the second kingdom's portions of that trail, and from then, they go north into the Waste and up into the first kingdom, where anyone who is 'willing and able' to work can find work.”

Hendrik nodded, then seemed to say wordlessly, “I told you so” to Rolf. Georg, however, was thinking well over their heads, and now, I saw just why the witches might want him.

Georg, to put it bluntly, was nearly in Sarah's league for raw intelligence. More, he was quick.

“This is what it means, gentlemen,” he said. “This is why that shop needs expansion, new machines, new processes – indeed, an entire redoing, and multiple instances of the same in the coming months and years. Much of what we will need, at least for this summer, this winter, and this spring, at least for the central portion of the first kingdom, must be made there, with that furnace howling almost every day we can cause it to do so and pouring iron and founding steel all the days we can, at least until that place called the Abbey goes into this place he called the black sack. Even then, that shop will need to make tools and much else, as it is as much a key place, nearly, as that other – and if I must hire women, and indeed, women from another place, then I lay but one test upon them: that they can do the work to our needs, both metal and otherwise. If they can do that, then they shall be hired, and no one shall say nay, or they shall feel my club upon their heads and my gunsmoke upon their bodies. Done?”

Hendrik was taken aback, for he'd heard one thing about Georg, and now, he'd just heard another matter, something so totally unlike the near-ignoramus of repute that I wondered but little until I recalled him being a cannon-master, and more, one who had survived repeated attacks by witches, northern thugs, and Iron Pigs. That had to count for something – something big. And now, there was something I needed to say.

“I will need time to do work there and at the Abbey, and then other places as well,” I said. “The tools needed to make those three navigation instruments...”

“The document calls for but one,” said Hendrik. “Why will you need three?”

“Spare parts,” said Rolf, his voice confident and seemingly all-knowing. “Is that why?”

“Were it a commonplace two-ring sextant, one made of commonplace brass, that answer would be yes,” I said. “This is a three-ring one, one of interstellar grade, and that means a level of precision that gives me pause – and that means each such instrument will need to be sealed against dust, its precision parts running in an oil bath, and then careful 'alignment', such that working on such a tool will need much time on my part finishing each of those three things...”

While there were nods, I suspected they presumed I would need to work like a deep-slave. I knew that was not it. It was entirely likely that once I had drawn up and simulated the thing, the tools at the Abbey would have been fully inventoried, updated, checked out, and actually tested on real parts – and it was possibly that many of the parts to these three 'crucial' devices could be machined to the point where I would merely need to bring them to a finished state, assemble the instruments, test them in a clean-room environment like that one room at the Abbey, fit the covers, add the lubricant and do the repeated flushing with lubricant to clean them out – and then test and 'adjust' each unit in 'real life'.

That, and the optics were still much in process. I had no knowledge of how to make those.

Some earnest talk as I made to go, then Georg spoke to me one word. “Hieronymus.”

“Oh, him,” I said. I then thought, “but he's dead – or is he?”

“He may be dead, but those curses, many of them at the least, are anything but,” said the soft voice.” “That one woman, her apprentice, and those two others who are coming will help out with the layout of the place while you are gone, and when those two men return from their closeting here, the whole of that shop will have the screws put to it – and then, those men and apprentices will be forced to work as those curses allow them to work, at least until things become such that all of those new people are forced to withdraw to where you live, there to stand guard against the place with loaded guns as the witches once more think to make that place this planet's 'Alamo'.”

“They're going to be on the death-warrant list, nearly as high as I am, and that just for the prices upon their heads,” Rolf muttered. “If you're from the Valley, about the only 'safe' place during that time, relatively speaking, will be in the third kingdom's back-country passing yourself off as a simple dumb goat-herder, as witches think all of them to be slaves and don't bother looking there much.”

“As long as they aren't marked, that is,” I murmured.

“Which means those people tend to go up into the first kingdom and nowhere else,” said the soft voice. “The fourth kingdom has room for its marked, which is precisely as the witches want it, but the first kingdom has a lot of room for a marked person to get lost in, so the bulk of the Valley's marked people head up here, and nearly one in twenty people coming into this area from the Valley is marked enough to need to wear burn-clothing when in public – in this very area, and that as it is now.”

“Which is why they come up here, as burn-clothing is rare down there and fairly commonplace up here,” I said.

“It is that,” said Rolf. “It may be made down there now and then, and it may be used down there, but the only time to venture forth safely down there while wearing it is if you stay in the house proper and leave the buildings there after dark – and it is not easy getting out of that area if so clothed.”

“Unless, of course, you have ample cloth-muffled coin upon your person, move alone or in groups of two or three clothed likewise, get food and drink while the places selling it are either just opening or just closing, and then moving on at your best speed for an hour or more while remaining in heavy cover after each such incident.” I said. “You then catch what sleep you can, this turn-about in your carefully-selected hiding place, then during the very darkest hours of the night, the time when the commons sleep and the witches are full of their own business and are not looking for the likes of you, you head north to north-northwest, using cover, shadow, and swift movement from cover to cover so as travel as much ground as you can while moving as quietly as you can, this until just before dawn – at least until you hit the mule trail. There, the witches don't look much, as there isn't much to look for, if you speak of that which they want – seems goat-herders make poor slaves and have so little money that if you rob a dozen, you might get one drink in a drink-house – and then burn-clothing really comes into its own.”

“How so?” asked Hendrik.

“Its' colors and shape,” I said “Blends perfectly with an arid climate and lots of dust, and the colors of brush commonplace to most of the mule's trail, then once that road ends, the people one encounters are so utterly ignorant of such matters that they think you to be a wandering friar, at least until you get up here – where most people think you were really serious when you tossed a fire-jug at a pig.” Pause, then, “if you speak little, they either think you're in too much pain from your injuries or the flames burnt your face. Either way, they, uh, 'understand' – at least those who aren't obvious witches.”

“There are yet many plain-dressed witches and those desiring to be witches up here,” said Rolf.

“Yes, and there are a lot of people up here who know about Iron Pigs and how they hurt and kill people, also,” I said. “Now if you want a killing-angry mob on your hands, then you go after someone who gave all they had to give so as to save their town, and paid a high price doing it – a price that came close to killing them – and anyone who's wearing burn-clothing in much of the first kingdom is 'automatically' presumed to have done something like that.”

A few more flips, this with Sarah's rug-hook, this to the last of Annistæ's skewer-marked places, then, “oh, right here. Here it speaks of how the witches actually get around in the five kingdoms, and more, how they've done everything possible to make it truly difficult for people other than they themselves to communicate with one another.”

“Why would they do that?” asked Rolf. His curiosity was genuine; he knew the witches made effort that way, and substantial effort, but how and why was much of a mystery outside of the central part of the fourth kingdom.

“First, there is what is called the secret way,” I said. “According to this document – and, no doubt, many others in this huge book, tome, or whatever you wish to call this malodorous document-collection – the witches have a rapid means of getting around. More, this means is easily twice as fast as that managed by our current best and most secure means – when those means are working at optimal capacity, which is very seldom.”

“How?” asked both kings, this as a ragged chorus, followed by Hendrik's “but the wires transmit faster than thinking.”

“Yes, they do,” I said. “They are not contiguous, however, and more, those machines, built as they are, are not that reliable, and if I go by the example I saw yesterday... Ugh! I had to ask for that place to be gone through entirely, as it was bad, and the person dealing with it was so diabolically ignorant that...”

I spat, this such that a blue burst of fire erupted in the corner to then wink out, then “this d-damned-to-hell document put out by witches, everyone's so stinking ignorant of the matter that they just follow it blindly, and that includes both of you men in here!” I was on a frothing-at-the-mouth roll. “It was a real shock to me to be told I knew more about them than the person who originally designed them prior to the curse, and more, that I knew more about them than those making them.”

“Now that I do not doubt,” said Rolf. “There are a lot of those things, but if you speak of those three close-closeted people at the house proper in the fourth kingdom who can work on them, they're slower than sugar-tree sap in a dead-winter...”

“It is their way of doing things,” said Annistæ. “They know nothing beyond what they have, which is a bad set of drawings with bad writing, so they use their patterns, and make no two machines alike.”

“How is it you know?” asked Rolf

“Because we have three of them in our secret museum,” she said. “Toréo told me of them, and he said that they needed to be made like a fine pocket timepiece to work well, and while those in that place were like that, those I saw in my travels up this way were made like a watch that sells for four and a half Pesetiæ!”

“Bad watch made by deep-slaves and given to just-starting witches in the fifth kingdom,” I said. “Maybe one in five actually runs after it's wound up three times, and they're lucky if they gain or lose an hour a day. They're almost entirely for looks, and treated like fetishes without exception.” Pause, then, “Georg's, on the other hand... Not sure why he has his, but...”

“I am,” said Hendrik. “I do not travel much. He does. We both need to keep track of time better than by bells rung by hourglass-turning flunkies, and sometimes, I wonder why he might need to do so.”

“You travel more than you let on, don't you?” I asked Georg. “Not just going out and getting orders, but you've had to take sea-voyages on a number of occasions, correct?”

“Much more than that,” said Georg. “I was once a pilot on a fast-ship, and I have my watch from those days. It might not be a navigating timer, but it was a near thing for its cost and it is a near thing for its time-keeping ability, and when you toss a red-cork on such a ship, you need a good watch if you want to know where you are up near the North Isles.”

“Foggy?” I asked.

“This time of year, not much, unless you're up there of a night or in the early morning. Most of the year, though – fog can come when and if it's inclined up there, and then it's compass-heading, your timer, a good chart, and a lot of prayer, all of those and slackened sails, regular soundings and tossing of the red-cork and then figuring your speed.” Georg was saying this as if he knew about it from long and hard experience.

“Were you a good pilot?” asked Hendrik.

“I shipped with Pieter, leastways until we came into the third kingdom port late one night to get beer, or failing that, water,” said Georg. “I was with a party of five, and I was the only person to make it back to the boat alive, and it took me three months before I could walk again, and I still rub my legs morning and evening with Geneva for the soreness.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“We were asking in this one Public House for beer, or water failing that – they distill that stuff, and that's what you want on a ship, as common water becomes bad-tasting within days in a jug,” said Georg, “and as we were going out the door onto the wharf from the place, this big mob from Snoggwaart's comes a-rushing up the Long Wharf from the east and this other bigger mob from Funkelmann's coming toward them, and all of them yelling-drunk and shooting like witches do, and I dived into the nearest doorway and the other four were either killed or tossed into the water to drown during that huge mob-fight.”

“Sounds scary enough to me,” I said. “Cannons would really begin to look attractive after something like that.”

“I'd fired those plenty before, and the swine were becoming a bit much,” said Georg, “so it was off to the fourth kingdom, and here I am, never been on a boat of any kind in my life, I run into this fellow Pieter Huygens in a Public House, he takes one look at me – a quick look, mind – and he bundles me off to his ship. He shows me a few things, and I take to it so fast that his head is flipping, so not three days later I'm a pilot, and by the time we're up the coast near those islands, the only people that could best me were the two women he had, both of them doing piloting for years, and them not by much. I shipped with him three years, and I got my watch and a few other navigating things that I keep well-hid in my house from that time.”

“I thought so,” I spat. “Georg, had your parents the money to send you to the west school, you would have either worn the ribbon the whole time, or been chasing close after the person who was!”

“And, short of getting into that one place Sarah did, he would have gone to nearly as many places,” said the soft voice. “He would have gotten letters from Rolf after his reports got to his desk.”

“Now back to the issues of information transport and dissemination,” I said. “Begin-quote: those fools who think themselves wise closet themselves, thinking all the while that we do not know of a certainty as to precisely where they are,' finish-quote.” Pause, then, “gentlemen, we have been sold.”

“What?” gasped Hendrik and Rolf at once.

“I'm not surprised,” I said. “Not one bit.” Pause. “Again, I tell you – we have been sold.”

“How can that be?” asked Hendrik. “That thing gets information from...”

What I had said beforehand about the unreliability and 'state-mandated idiocy' regarding the 'issued orders' began to finally get into his head, and the realization began to but slowly play across his features. Even with most of the fetishes gone from this room, these two men weren't that sharp; Georg outclassed both of them, Sarah outclassed Georg by a decent margin, but I...

I was faster than all of them.

“While that information runs upon the wires, and the machines are running and those attending them truly attentive, then yes, it does run faster,” I said. “That, however, is but part of the time. The rest of the time, it must run by messengers upon horseback, and that means printing it out, getting it to the messenger, hoping that person doesn't run into a witch-ambush or otherwise does not get waylaid, then it needs to be put on the next run...”

I paused to drink, then said, “that, of course, is not helped one bit by that stinking edict that was witch-translated, witch-printed, and witch-disseminated with the signatures of an entire boatload of sundry sovereigns upon it, the two of you people included, and that document is followed unthinkingly and to the letter, as is appropriate for 'fully-owned witch-slaves' – and every time one of those treated-like-a-fetish pieces of junk decides it's going to quit working...”

My experience at Paul's was really getting to me, as my voice had risen to a high-pitched raving scream with the last words.

“Coming from anyone else, I would shoot you where you stood here and now,” said Rolf. “Those people work in my rooms!” Pause, then. “go on.”

“Why would you not shoot me on the spot?” I asked idly.

“Because I know you're speaking nothing but the truth,” he said, “and she said much the same – though with you, if I go by what I heard from this one man, you could have only learned what you did from one source, and I know what you can do.” Pause, then, “they are, indeed, made as she said – they are made that way by three marked people; their drawings are very old; and then they do indeed know nothing about what they are doing beyond 'follow what is written as closely as possible' – and they are very careful to do precisely that.”

“And their equipment is older than time,” I said. “This matter is kept so secret that you dare not let it be known about to anyone outside of yourself, those few people involved in making them, and a very few others, hence those badly-worn tools have trouble holding the needed tolerances because they cannot be replaced or rebuilt without the witches learning of what you are doing – and then storming the area in the wee hours of the morning with the goal of destroying that workshop and killing those people.”

“Very good,” said the soft voice. “That is precisely the situation, by the way, as secrecy is more or less the only defense available with those, and Rolf has to do all of the work with those using either multiple layers of trusted intermediaries or have it done in-house – and those three elderly men aren't getting younger.”

“Hence their seeming slowness,” I said. “They're trying to make navigating timers with hammers and punches on cheap anvils!”

“Not quite that bad, but at least he gets that picture,” said the soft voice. “Their machines aren't quite as worn as you thought them to be, but it is like Annistæ said – those devices need much closer tolerances and better workmanship than can be managed with those tools and those measuring devices; and then there is marked, and then there is marked.”

“Yes, I know,” said Hendrik. “I thought I knew what marked people could do until I saw your work.” Pause, then as Hendrik reached into his rapidly disintegrating desk and drew forth a sheet, one that was at once obviously a copy of that one infernal document. “What do you know about this?”

“That one king who was murdered came up with it,” I said, “or so I was told.”

“Yes, up here,” said Rolf. “It, or documents like it, date back a good deal further than his day.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Regarding the local version – while his character was above reproach, and he did do what he was able to do, he understood nothing about these machines beyond 'we must have them running, as their continuous operation is important to our survival.”

“An excellent quotation from our Annals,” said Rolf. “That part was sent up here, along with a sample document. He no doubt altered it to suit the prevailing conditions of his time – and yes, that sample document had many signatures upon it, as it was three hundred and forty years old at the time it was sent out, and it still lies in the secrets chamber in the house proper back in the fourth kingdom.”

“Go on,” said Hendrik. “I do recall putting my signature on about twelve of those documents writ by clerks some years ago.” Hendrik suddenly realized, and screeched, “witch-intercepted?”

“Easily,” I said, “even with his care.” Pause. “He had a few trusted clerks, all of these men carefully vetted, but one of them was in reality a very-well-hid and most-serious supplicant – a man, who a year or two later, was instrumental in getting him assassinated, and who made his bones that day.”

Another pause, this to eat some more jam-piled bread.

“That man gave the scribbled original document to the then-current crop of Generals, they sent it south by that fast means I mentioned minutes ago, it was down in the second kingdom house before dusk, and by dawn of the next day, it was back up here in the first kingdom house, printed in fair numbers, done extremely well, done using stolen first kingdom paper, type, and ink, and printed using a more-or-less-identical version of what was then used for printing here so as to get them looking right, so the counterfeits were indeed 'kingdom house quality'.” Pause. “No one was the wiser – I mean no one, not even you – and that king was so busy then that he didn't carefully read that 'rather long and badly worded' document beyond a minute more than he absolutely had to before putting his signature to each example as they went out, and there still are some of those things well hid beyond that one copy, or rather, they were.”

“How is it that happened?” asked Hendrik.

“Erasure of evidence during that instance of cleaning out where those clerks were,” I said. “Rather conveniently done, I might add – though that portion is not likely to happen again.”

“Why?” asked Hendrik. Rolf was all ears.

“I killed a number of them today, remember?” I said softly. “All those recent hires to replace the supplicants and witches working here who died since I did the Swartsburg the first time? The survivors of my thumping were banged up so badly that all of them, save those who repented sincerely and with all of their being before God, would die within days or turn witch and be shot down within a matter of hours? How I myself shot four of them while trying to teach you people what you needed to survive while using these new weapons?”

I sniffed, then said, “our manure-pile is beginning to smell like a burn-pile. Understand?”

Thoughts plodded among these two weighted-with-cares men, men so far in over their heads that now I had some small understanding of why I was having to treat them like children: they too had been trained at long length to be 'fully-owned witch-slaves' – and such beings did not think.

Such merely obeyed the orders of their masters. I was surprised indeed to hear a question from Hendrik.

“How could they learn of such a matter?” he asked.

“Gossip, sir,” I said. “This place is leaky as a pot-strainer that way, so just clamping matters down tight isn't going to work.”

I had two kings looking at me in the strangest manner, but Georg was whispering in Hendrik's ear. He was keeping his voice down, but I could tell Hendrik was hearing something he regarded as utterly outlandish – something so outlandish that only a survivor like Georg...

Or me...

Would tell him something so 'alien'. Enough time had been wasted. I needed to tell them what it would take to win against this first of our many unprincipled, numerous, powerful, and wealthy foes.

“You will need to maintain the customary volume of such talk, but I strongly suggest that you subtly alter its quality – and do this with great care, care enough to fool most witches, and do so in the volume needed to purchase you time while the information goes from here to where it will be...”

I was giggling, and it was all Annistæ could do to not join me. Even then I could see the broad grin she was trying to hide and not having much luck doing so.

“Why are you laughing?” asked Hendrik. “This is a very serious matter.”

“Because, sir, those able to spot such deception are no longer functional enough to do so,” I said while still giggling, “and then those witches who will be local to the area will not be able to, so they will have to 'kick it upstairs' – and then it comes back worse than if they themselves had assayed learning what you really meant, presuming of course they're functioning well enough to first spot a deception and then determine what might be the truth!”

“How are the witches of the second kingdom going to be unable to spot such deception?” asked Rolf. “As we say down south, 'if you want numbers, go to the fifth kingdom, which is where they have many, but if you wish smarts, then go north to the second, where they have fewer yet more intelligent witches'.”

“There are lots of Cabroni in both places, Jefe,” said Annistæ. “They hide themselves better to the north, is all, but you are right about those to the north having more Lenaæ in their Capetzæ.”

“The correct verb to speak of what is in their heads is 'had', sir – had,” I said. “It seems those people have developed a strong and growing-stronger-by-the-day taste for these costly brain-destroying foods, and with that strong and strengthening taste, they are also indulging themselves in large amounts of high-test drink on top of eating no other foods.”

“What does that mean?” asked Hendrik. “They will act like fifth kingdom witches, whose sense is that of a jug of what is named whiskey in the mining towns?”

“No,” I said smiling. “That lends a certain degree of headstrong nature, unlike consuming these foods and drinking nearly as much of that potable paint remover as a commonplace mining town denizen.” Pause, then, “that combination, though – those people are at this time completely raving-mad-out-of-their-minds, and those underlings that are in close proximity – their courtiers, if you will – think them merely to have grown far smarter and vastly more capable, as their behavior matches that of the witches of that large black book, while they have a tiny fraction of their former intelligence. Hence their underlings are not in any way the wiser, and won't be for quite some while yet.”

I paused, this to eat and drink more jam-heaped toasted bread washed down with beer, and once I had done so – I had been using Sarah's golden-colored 'rug-hook' the whole time, as it helped me keep my place and 'find' such matters as I was after – I said, “they're even more ignorant of that equipment's functioning than we are, as what they use is nothing like it.”

“What do they use?” asked Hendrik. “We both know they have wires, and many of them.”

“True, they do, and they keep those wires hot – when their equipment is working and when those manning the senders are awake and functional enough to do so, which combination tends to make for a far worse degree of reliability compared to ours,” I said. “Ours do not need someone handy to listen for the clicking noises those make – and I have heard theirs receiving messages. Theirs does, which is why they have round-the-clock-hard-witch-manned offices full of high-test, bad batteries, a lot of fetish-built gear, bad paper and worse-writing dowels, and a witch or witches doing nothing else save staring at the sounder and waiting for it to start clicking, pen in hand and paper under his tight-clenched fist. Compared to what I 'overhauled' up at Willem's yesterday, those things they use are a bad joke.”

“Then they wish to have ours so as to use them?” asked Rolf.

“No, but they do think them prime fetishes, and you know how witches want those things – prime fetishes, that is. You've no doubt seen plain-dressed examples toss money at people who come up with some odd-looking piece of 'junk' in the scrap-market – or have you?”

“Many times,” said Rolf. “Thank you for telling me who those people were. I have wondered for many years.”

“Now, another important matter,” I said. “Not all of our stations have 'tickers', so there are some – at least half, in fact – where the main means of sending and receiving is to listen to the code coming in, write it down, then send it manually, much as is done by witches.” Pause, then, “our chief advantage over what they use is that those devices are quite reliable if cleaned regularly and adequate attention paid to the batteries.”

“It takes a lengthy period of instruction to learn that code,” said Rolf.

“Precisely, and it takes quite a bit longer for the average witch-sender to learn his business,” I said. “Their code is different – but not in a good way. It's worse yet to learn, and more, it's not at all emphatic as to its meaning – it needs interpretation, just like most of what witches say to one another, or when they deliver up these awful letters that seem to mean nothing.”

“I've seen one of those letters, and hemeaning me – “figured it out as to what it meant. They say one thing and mean another entirely,” said Georg.

“And now, the most important matter,” I said. “When Willem showed me his 'imperial edict' and I attempted to handle it so as to look at it better, it went up in smoke,” I said, “which tipped me off right there as to just what that thing was. I then received a suitable manual for keeping these things running right as well as a lot of needed supplies in order to do so, so one of the things I will be doing – as I have time – will be going through his three units and making them right. Sarah will be taking his worst one home with her when she picks up her buggy, in fact.”

“Good,” muttered Hendrik. “At least those will be dependable then. I know how often we needed to get them down to the fourth kingdom for repair, those of them we had up here.”

“No,” I said icily. “Not repair. They do not repair those devices. That requires an understanding that apparently I have a monopoly upon at this time, if you speak of those on the continent.” Pause, then, “they more or less dismantle them entirely, check them carefully with those drawings in front of them and measuring tools and gages in hand, and more or less build new ones each time, which is why it usually takes a month or more to get a replacement unit made and why 'ready to go' units are racked up in sacks on shelves.”

“You're right, it does, and that's just what they do,” said Rolf. “I always thought it was because they were critical devices and we could take no shortcuts.”

“Correct as to concept and seriously wrong as to motivation,” I said. “They simply know how to follow directions – and they have no test equipment beyond that needed to make the parts, they have no understanding of the principles involved, and those people, while they are careful, do almost all they do by sheer rote brainlessness – as none of them have 'real' markings.” Pause, then, “'real' markings are fully as much a death warrant down there as they are anywhere else.”

“How did you know?” asked Rolf. “You're right, by the way – they all used to work at the Heinrich works, but they all lost fingers to the machinery there.”

“I'm not surprised,” I said. “I've run machinery myself more than a little, and I've seen what happens when a big cutter breaks and decides it wishes to gnaw on you a bit – got chased by a big piece of an end-mill once, and I once got thumped in the chest with a chuck key from a lathe, and those were the minor matters. I've had worse happen on occasion.” Pause, then, “back to why the witches wish these prize fetishes – namely, their motivation, what they think of us, and the real meat of this letter here.”

“Begin quote: 'and as these fetishes these fools keep from us are proper High fetishes, they wish nothing of those we name Undermen about them, and they are our boughten property, and as they are our property, then only witches of name and substance must possess them'.” I had to pause here, for not merely food; I had said a great deal of shocking information. “Those we name Undermen are our property, our prime-purchased property, and hence they are to do nothing save labor for we ourselves, own nothing save if we give it them, are born and die for our pleasure and by our express commands...”

I could go no further, for now the truth had dawned upon me.

“Do you two understand?” I screeched, pointing with the rug-hook at the tome, meaning the whole of this massive book, letter by letter and curse by curse. “This tome here, the whole of it, is a declaration of war upon us by the witches, and they do not mean 'war to the knife'.” Pause, then, “they determine, and have since the days of before that war long ago, that the whole of this planet shall be one of two things: if it is their property, it shall be Hell, a place which they rule as if they were 'the prime vassals of Brimstone'; or if it is not, then it shall become 'the realm of ye monster, where no witch shall live, as ye monster devours ye witch, and that no matter his potency or his strength or his chanting of runes and curses'!”

I then muttered, “entire true-witches, or entire monsters – yech! That stinking curse we heard spoken of at the Abbey was nothing short of the dire truth, and here it is writ plainly for us to read and then decide which of those two things shall we become – true-witches, or entire monsters.”

I looked up, then in a voice like iron, “which shall it be? One or the other, Gentlemen – the witches, those who actually run the five kingdoms, have made their choice, that being a species of Hell, one which they rule by the law of their fiat and gullet.” Pause. “Now shall we remain Undermen as we are labeled here, and as we truly are? Or shall we cut down every one of those fools we see and toss their stupidity and their waste and rubbish on the dung-heap, and deed this planet to God as his boughten property! Answer me!”

I only then noticed the dust slowly sifting down upon my head, my ringing ears, and the white-knuckle grip I had upon the table. When I turned loose of the wood, the wood itself had been crushed to nearly paper thinness, and in a fit of what could only be called rage, I planted my right hand on one huge leave of this slimy book, the left upon the other, and screamed, this my loudest...

“NO MORE LIES, CURSE YOU ALL! TELL US THE TRUTH, AND THAT PLAINLY!”

The tome erupted fumes and smoke, and I was driven away coughing and retching, and as the room itself filled with smoke, I spat, “go fume up some witches, but leave what we need out of that stinking pile of witch-rubbish!”

The smoke vanished with a blue-white flash, and when I went back to the tome – it was still there – the thing had grown in all three dimensions.

It had also been translated, with the witch-text of the letters preserved and a translation, keyed word-to-word with the exact and precise meaning of the words on the page facing it. The reason the book had needed to grow nearly two inches in all three dimensions did not become 'obvious' to me until I read through one letter and then read the translated part.

“This is no mere translation,” I spat. “This tells you precisely what they meant, it names names and locations, it gives keys to maps of where the locations are...” Here, I flipped to a 'map section', and to my astonishment – it was that of the second kingdom house – it showed the various districts, these in colors. The table at the bottom spoke of what the colors meant.

“District one, totally destroyed,” I murmured. “District two, large-scale rioting, put down by guards firing arrows and shot-loaded roers at the commons. District three, large regions burnt, with several massive explosions. Thought by locals to be due to witch-run secret powder mills. District four, sporadic gunfire, many witches injured or killed...”

I now had a close audience, as both Hendrik and Rolf were looking at what I was examining, and when I put my finger on the map, I said, “let this be regularly updated, so that they know what is happening. Oh, here – an added map-section, this of selected districts.” I turned the page. “Oh, District five. The cloth-district. Owned and controlled utterly by witches.” This was spoken aloud. “Almost as bad as the fifth kingdom house – the whole place is a hive filled with witches, and everything there is done for their pleasure, and all of the wealth and riches of the entire kingdom, those which that king does not gather for himself as if he himself were an arch-witch...” I turned to Hendrik, then Rolf, and asked, “where did that man go to school?”

“Not to the west school, I can tell you that,” said Rolf. “I doubt he went to Boermaas, but no one that I know is really certain beyond 'he went to a higher school, he did extremely well, he's a very masterful individual who keeps his own counsel, is stone-headed to the point of true-mule obstinacy, and is heavily wed to the ways and practices of witches, even if he speaks of himself as being otherwise.”

“Maagensonst,” I spat. “He went there. That's the precise place, and he came within three people of the ribbon-carrier or whoever is the top person...” Pause, then, “no, not as a witch. That place hands out its notes based on how big your sack of bones is, and has done so for well beyond a generation's time. He received what recognition he got on the basis of his academic performance, and it became such over time that the witches gave him a wide berth.”

“Why?” asked Rolf. “I wondered about that rumor for years.”

“Because he trained as if he was going to wear greens in the first kingdom, this for an interval of three years between the end of his lower schools and his entry into that place, and the goals of his parents were to bring that place back into line the only way they thought it could be done, short of massing every gun in the five kingdoms and shelling the place into a smoking ruin, then working the place over with tossed jugs of distillate, and surrounding it with entrenched men and women with fowling pieces and shot-filled roers,” I spat.

“What is it you mean?” asked Rolf gently. “I am not familiar with guard training as done here.”

“He had a personal trainer, and that man's sole duty in that family during that time was to test his mettle and train him to engage in combat with any and all weapons that could be had – and he came with two trunks of them to that school, and he put them to use immediately upon his arrival.”

“What?” gasped Hendrik.

“Precisely what I said,” I said. “He put them to use the very minute he arrived. He cut down a number of lecturers during his first month on the premises, and it seems this person teaching him wasn't a whole lot easier to deal with than when I was, uh, 'training' Gabriel the night before our first day of taking the Abbey.”

“I heard about that,” said Hendrik. “Tam told me what you did, and how violent you were with him.” Pause, then, “also, how you told him – and everyone else – that his stupidity would get you all killed, and you were prepared to kill him like a prisoner at Berky during its very worst if he did not learn what he needed to know.”

Rolf was gaping at me, and he gasped the word, “Berky?”

“It seems he endured something much worse before he came here, and not just the usual few weeks most endured there,” said Hendrik. “He was in such an environment longer than Maria has been alive.”

“Even endured a slavemaster worse than a certain well-known witch for much of my childhood,” I said. “When it comes time to deal with that witch – the one who ran this place when it was one huge witch-hole – I'll recognize him the instant I see him, as that smelly witch...”

“They have pictures of both 'smelly witches' overseas,” said the soft voice, “and the domestic version is labeled as 'evil beyond words'.” Pause, then, “they have no words for that man you endured, as Imhotep learned of him as a young man and decided 'I want to be a witch like that. Now that's a witch's witch right there'.”

“Best hope there's no picture of those people in here,” I muttered.

“Them, no,” said the soft voice. “That book no longer has greasy witch-paper, but impregnated paper, it has extensive notes, it has definitions of many unusual words used by witches in an euphemistic fashion; and then, it goes into 'presumed' details the original letters left unsaid as per the tenets of witchdom.”

I nodded, then asked, “oh, packing. I need to get to that. May I?”

“Yes, but expect to be called back here if there is something the three of us cannot figure out about these plans. I suspect you once worked for a builder. Did you?”

“I did, for a short period, but I've done similar things since early childhood,” I said. “By early childhood, I do not mean when children start school here, either. I mean when most children are yet thought to be infants.”