The road more traveled, part s.


A doorway stood but feet away, and from within its dim outlines I heard voices, then steps coming closer. Their sound seemed to ring in a strange fashion in my mind, so much so that when their issuer crossed the threshold, I wondered as to who the person was.

“Those aren't the best things for grain,” said Lukas. “Now...”

His abrupt stopping made for wondering, even as a hand reached out to halt within two inches of my head. Inquisitive fingers seemed to gently 'feel' my face for a moment, then, “that'll fade enough by tomorrow morning that you can quit smelling horse-grain.”

“And until then?” asked Gabriel.

“I'll see about fetching a straw,” said Lukas. “I can tell where a lot of things are since I jumped, and Gilbertus is the same way.”

Once seated on a bed and my boots and stockings off, I felt much calmer, even though there were 'fireworks' continuing outside our room. The place 'felt' much like the previous two 'sleeping-rooms' for size, even though the aura of 'clean' and 'well-appointed' was markedly greater than both. I could 'see' several straw-covered jugs on a nearby table, and thought to reach them.

“Those have wine in them,” said Karl, “and Sepp has gone to trade two of those jugs for common beer. They supposedly have some of that here.”

“They brew their own,” said Gabriel, “much like home does.”

“I hope they do not have Lion-Brew, then,” said Karl.

I was already feeling somewhat restive sitting, even as the feeling of 'fireworks' seemed to grow apace outside. I tried 'looking', and then knew that only Karl and Gabriel remained still in our room. Karl soon left for 'parts unknown' – I could feel his hunger, and a strange place meant 'searching', in his mind – and now, only Gabriel was left. He drew up a chair, and wearily sat down upon it. I heard the rustle of paper.

“I suspect change to be in the wind,” he said, “and our remaining portion promises to be troubling. We should use this layover wisely.”

While Gabriel did not seem 'oblivious' now, I wondered if he knew of the trouble laying in wait for us at home.

“Clothing?” I asked. It was the first word out of my mouth.

“I suspect...”

Gabriel stood from where he stood, then began walking toward my right. He abruptly stopped and spat a barely-audible oath, then continued walking.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I nearly choked on a clothes-string,” he said. “I'm next to the bathroom.” A door opened with a faint grinding creak, then closed with a thud – then opened once more seconds later. Rapid steps came closer to where I was, then again he seated himself.

“There are three tubs, a well-equipped stove with ample fuel...”

“Fuel?” I asked.

Gabriel 'hitched', then squeaked, “it's that strange dark granular stuff like you put in my stove!”

“Good,” I murmured. “It works well for stove-fuel. Was there a pump?”

“Bronze, and it looked to be in good condition,” said Gabriel.

“Soap?” I asked. “Lye?”

Gabriel again rose, all the while muttering, and when he returned some minutes later, he spoke as if reading from a list.

“Sounds like we do our own laundry,” I said. “At least we lack little as to what is needed.” A brief pause, then, “what of this evening?”

“Hendrik is looking after that portion,” said Gabriel, “and I am to look after you.”

I began sobbing, and moaned, “I'm sorry I'm causing trouble...”

“This is not trouble,” said Gabriel. “Recall what I said when I last spoke of 'choice' regarding Maarten and Katje, and how their 'choice' was likely to approach what you received?”

“Choice?” I shrieked. “That just h-happened. I tried giving it away, and that made it worse...”

“Yes, I know,” said Gabriel. “About the only thing that made me wonder at first was you removing your boots and stockings.”

“I w-was f-f-following in-instructions,” I spluttered, “and once I fell off of Jaak, I was doing what I was told to do.” I paused, then said, “some people would s-say I made all of that stuff happen, though.”

“Those people are named pfuddaarn in this area,” said Gabriel, “and I suspect I know who they actually are now. I did not know in the past.”

“W-who?” I asked amid sobbing sounds.

“Most of them are witches,” said Gabriel, “and those otherwise wish to be, just as they are named in the first kingdom.” A brief pause, a sipping noise, then a furtive spitting sound.

“What?” I asked.

“I thought to taste some of this wine,” said Gabriel. “I suspect it is decent wine, even by the fourth kingdom's standards.”

“And?” I asked.

“I have never tasted distillate,” said Gabriel, “but wine that tastes like uncorking medicine isn't much of an improvement regarding flavor.”

“Did they reuse a jug?” I asked.

Brief furtive-seeming movements to my front and left, then “I doubt it. This one is marked as being a wine-jug, and that from the kiln.”

“Uh, I've never had uncorking medicine...”

Those words proved to be troublesome, for Gabriel stood, moved about, then brought back a spoon which he handed me. I put my finger on the hollowed portion used for food, felt an oily liquid – and then put my finger in my mouth.

The taste initially was best described as 'clear, limpid, and bland', with a strong hint of 'vegetable oil'. This last hint grew steadily more potent, until with a sudden eruption the 'oil' taste acquired a potent aspect of 'kerosene' commingled with the putrid reek of domestic distillate. I spat with fury, and then gasped.

“That bad?” asked Gabriel.

“It t-tastes l-like d-distillate,” I spluttered, “only oilier and somehow less intense.”

“I see,” said Gabriel.

I heard writing, then, “I think we need a copy of that writing that was spoken of.”

“Writing dowels, rubbing blocks, quires of paper, ink...” I was rattling off all I had heard of, and added to it what seemed likely for large amounts of quill-pen and ink work. “A sand-bath for drying freshly-inked sheets...”

“The last would be best made up at home,” said Gabriel. “This, among other reasons, is why Hendrik asked me to set by you for now.” A pause, then, “what else?”

“B-blackbeard,” I spluttered, upon 'seeing' with astonishing clarity a sharp-faced overly thin individual dressed in black everything. “Calling him a pirate is calling him wonderful.”

“Who?” asked Gabriel. “I know of no one named Swartsbaert, and no pirate would call himself something so commonplace.”

“Th-there was a pirate where I came from who took that name,” I said. “His real name was, uh, Eduwart the, uh, Lecturer.”

Gabriel looked at me – how, I had but little idea beyond what I saw seemed unusually fixed in the shadows and his movements seemed to convey that impression – and muttered, “rumor so has that man, both as to his given name and what he did prior to assuming power. Is there more?”

“He must change his ways, or...”

“His current residence for a much warmer one,” said Gabriel with a tone of complete surety, almost as if he were mired deeply in oblivion. “He will tell us to rot.”

“Fuse, p-powder, empty ink-globes, tins, matches, candles...”

More writing, at least a minute's worth, then, “what for? Bombing?”

I gasped, then said, “H-harvest D-day squibs?” A brief pause, noting a dessicated mouth steadily drying, then “he wants to imitate this one really bad witch, and he needs a blacked-up face so his face matches his clothing.”

More writing, then, “his clothing is black?” asked Gabriel.

“Black, full-starch, and stiff as sheet-metal,” I spat.

“Now who is this?” asked the voice of Sepp.

“That wretch to the south,” I spluttered. “Did you manage to fetch some beer?”

“I traded both of the jugs I took,” said Sepp, “but I could not find the place where they make beer.”

“What kind of beer did you get, then?” asked Gabriel.

“I was told it was common beer, though I wonder as to where it is common,” said Sepp. “It tastes like third kingdom beer, but it is not that stuff either.”

“Let me taste it,” said Gabriel. “I remember that third kingdom beer well enough.”

Less than a minute later, I heard a slurp, then a horrific bout of retching and spitting. Someone was gasping for breath, then a high-pitched scream made my ears ring with the cry of “mules! That stuff was made with the leavings of mules!”

“Mules?” I asked innocently. “Who were these people you saw?”

“I think they might have been some of those vendor people,” said Sepp. “They had their wagon with its wheels off near the house proper, and they'd been there at least a day or two. One of them said there would be more coming tomorrow or the next day once they'd gotten supplies in the market.”

“You'd think this area would have little use for their services, though,” I said. “It isn't like the areas to the north.”

“No, it isn't,” said Sepp. “One of those people showed me his hidden place in his wagon, though, so I have something of an idea as to what they might do down here.”

“Hidden place?” I asked. “Where?”

“He has a doubled floor,” said Sepp. “He's spoken of carrying papers and things in it, and those both north and south.”

“Did he speak of what kind of papers?” I asked.

“He said it had gotten harder, what with those black-dressed thugs causing more trouble,” said Sepp. “He'd spoken of carrying tools in his horse-grain, also.”

“Tools?” I asked. “What kind?”

“He didn't go into much about them beyond speaking of who he delivered them to and where,” said Sepp. “He said one place was near the first kingdom house, and another place in the second kingdom's back country, and then a few places here and there in the fourth kingdom also.”

“Do those thugs 'go through' his things?” I asked.

“He's had them try,” said Sepp, “but he said others got more attention that way.”

“Would one of these others be named Albrecht?” I asked.

I could almost 'hear' Sepp jolt, then after a shocked intake of breath, he said, “he mentioned someone of that name. Why?”

“Uh, I got most of my tools from him,” I said, “and he spoke of being followed by black-dressed thugs while bringing them up.”

Minutes later, I heard steps coming from without, and I smelled an uncommonly 'wholesome' odor. Steps came inside and headed toward the table.

“Is that proper beer?” asked Sepp.

“It is,” said our visitor. “Wine is customary, and usually preferred, though Rolf spoke of the first kingdom's preferences regarding beer. Hence, I have brought some.”

“And bread, I hope,” said Sepp. “Is that bread there?”

“Two loaves,” he said. “You will wish to fetch your dirty laundry, as the ninth hour is customary for laundry-gathering.”

The man left minutes later. His place was taken by Gilbertus.

“They have a refectory here...” he said.

“They do?” asked Gabriel. “Where did you go?”

“The house proper,” said Gilbertus. “Lukas is gathering up some things in that place...”

Gilbertus then noticed the bread. I was wondering how I might eat a small piece, so much so that when a slice passed in front of me, I asked, “could that bread be cut in small fragments..?”

“So's you can eat?” asked Gilbertus. “I hope Lukas found a straw in that place.”

“What did you go after, then?” asked Gabriel.

“The horses, mostly,” he said. “They have proper stables in here, and all of 'em are stabled and rolling in the hay.”

“The buggies?” I asked.

“Those are just outside the door here,” said Gilbertus. “After we eat, we can find some barrels so as to pull the wheels.”

Hendrik, Kees, Karl, and Lukas returned within half an hour, and 'lunch' commenced forthwith. I was handed a slender silver tube of surprising flexibility, and I tested it with first beer, then unfermented wine. Sepp cut up two small slices of bread and a peculiar-tasting species of cheese, both of which I was able to convey to my mouth after impaling them on the tip of a slender wooden skewer.

The appetite of the party was such that talk was absent until half an hour had passed, and then amid slurping noises and the odors of beer and unfermented wine, I heard talk as to what was to be done.

“The wheels?” I asked.

“That won't take long,” said Lukas. “I suspect I can go over the irons and things and tell you what they are like...”

“I'd do that, and then wait until he can show his face again,” said Gilbertus. “There's plenty we need to find, and that's the best thing until then.”

The presence of a 'veil', I soon found, left me out of the action, and within half an hour of the meal's completion, I found myself completely alone. I could do little beyond sleep, sip beer and unfermented wine, go to the privy – I could manage that fine, if but little more – and otherwise, rest.

“And listen to the fireworks,” I muttered, as I awoke from a brief nap. “Now how will I participate in that evening discussion with a 'veil' covering my face?”

While there was nothing resembling an answer then, I had something of one with the return of first Gabriel, then Kees.

“I'm glad I found samples on the hill here,” said the latter. “I'll need to spend most of tomorrow in that market.”

“So will all of us,” said Gabriel, “with the possible exception of him. His face looks but slightly less inclined toward fire-starting.”

“How will I bathe?” I asked.

“I would keep that bag where it is when you do,” said Gabriel, “and I might well bathe shortly. That meeting with the king here should begin within an hour or so.”

Bathing proved easier than I thought once I had the needed help with filling the tub, and once 'finished', I was taken in hand by both Gabriel and Hendrik back toward the house proper. Again, there was the adventure of blind navigation to a deeply-buried location, a halt in front of a thick varnished door, and a slow-shuffling walk down a lengthy tunnel into an 'office' – or so I guessed. The morning's room was a good deal bigger and far more crowded, which made me wonder as to what it actually was; it did not 'feel' like a council chamber in the slightest.

The chief matter seemed to be the documents we had inked earlier in the trip, and my portion was answering those questions that I seemed to understand the best. I was glad there weren't many of them, or so I thought during an 'intermission'.

“The usual ways of fighting are worthless,” said the voice of the fourth kingdom's king. “I might be able to see beyond them to a degree, and I know you can...”

“You?” I thought. I wondered who he meant.

“But only you” – here, he indicated me – “truly understand what is involved.” Here, he turned to Hendrik, then said, “and those that name themselves Generals will not wish a person so unlike themselves to lead.”

“Do you know why they are called that?” I asked.

“The term is a very old one,” he said, “and it is mentioned on a number of tapestries. Many think it has to do with military affairs.”

“It doesn't?” I asked.

“No one knows for certain,” he said, “but one theory speaks of the word 'General' being another name for an arch-witch, and not a common one.” He paused to drink, then said, “and it was not easy to get to that tapestry.”

“There is a tapestry that speaks of those people?” I asked. “In what way?”

“It spoke of an especially evil curse,” he said, “one that mentioned swine specially bred for warfare.”

“Iron Pigs?” asked Hendrik.

The hush that blanketed the room was such that I marveled, until the older man resumed speaking.

“There was much more on that tapestry,” he said. “That curse mentioned Generals, arch-witches, destruction, burning bodies, poisons, death, hatred, and a machine.”

“Machine?” I asked.

“The curse said that it turned always,” said the older man, “much like an evil engine, and with the same effects.” A pause, then “there was one term that no one to my knowledge has been able to decipher.”

“Term?” I asked. “What was it?”

“One word was 'black',” he said, “and the other indicated a large number or quantity, supposedly. The curse wasn't written in the common language.”

“Was it written in runes?” asked Gabriel.

“It was written in a witch-language,” said the older man, “and while that particular language is not formally taught in the higher schools, I know it is taught outside of the west school.” He paused, then said, “I could decipher what was written well enough. The tapestry spoke of the original writer needing to translate it from another language into the witch-language on the tapestry.”

“The language of the Valley?” asked Gabriel.

“The translation was supposedly done prior to that war long ago,” said the older man. “At that time, the Valley was not as it currently is, and its people not those that live there now.”

I had misjudged the time spent in the meeting, for our exit from the building was overshot with brilliant stars. For some reason, I had less trouble seeing where I was going, and while the sounds of 'merriment' continued from all around, I was buried deep in thought.

At least until I came to the door, where the smell of 'dinner' overwrote all thought otherwise.

While I sipped beer and nibbled various cut-up snacks amid the glow of candles, I heard talk regarding the prices of certain materials on the way down. Chief among them were 'glass-pieces', wax candles, and 'glass-blower's wire', and how their prices were steadily dropping with each day south.

“That wire?” I asked.

“I thought it was bad in the first kingdom,” said Lukas, “but there was one place in the second kingdom house that only gave two feet and nine for twenty guilders.”

“That one place in the first kingdom house...”

“Which one?” asked Lukas. “There's one south-style...”

“I think that was it,” I said. “It was the biggest one I'd seen up to that time.”

“When did you get that wire?” asked Lukas.

“The last day of the training,” I said, “and Hans bought two foot-long pieces...”

Lukas shook his head, then said, “they don't normally carry that stuff, and cut-to-length pieces like that are always a lot more than when they cut it in front of you.”

After dinner, however, as I made ready for bed, I thought to ask about the 'list' of supplies. Gabriel was sitting nearby with both mug and journal, and he began reading off what he'd accumulated. I was surprised at the depth of the list, even though there was a nagging thought at the back of my mind. I wondered how to 'broach' the matter.

“Is this going to be a page from 'Methods'?” I thought, as I removed my boots and stockings. “Where I have to go get everything I want or think we need myself?”

And, screaming down deep inside was the shouted imperative about not having enough time in the day.

“Those ink-globes?” I asked.

Gabriel did not reply for a moment. I could hear writing, then “those would be best if you purchased them.”

“But they are just pottery, aren't they?” I asked.

“No one, save you, can lay claim to the title of bomber,” said Gabriel, “and the same for most of what you might wish.”

“Is this related to those instrument-making books?” I asked.

“It might be,” said Gabriel, “but I suspect ignorance to be a larger portion.”

“Ignorance?” I asked. “What if I provide an empty one as a sample?”

“That would be the worst portion of ignorance,” said Gabriel. “While most of our party could ask for globes of ink, they would be brought here full of ink – and that would be for those. Chemicals would be another story entirely.”

“How?” I asked.

“None of us, save yourself, are chemists,” said Gabriel, “and unlike potters, chemists only sell to their own kind...”

“Not down here they do,” muttered Lukas. “Now what is it you are after?”

“Uh, empty ink globes...”

“I think I know where they make those,” said Lukas. “Now why do you want 'em?”

“Uh, squibs?” I asked. “Fuse, priming powder, perhaps small corks...”

I could somehow discern Lukas looking at me as if I'd lost my mind, then making notes of some kind.

“These are for the fifth kingdom,” I said. “We might want them to keep the thugs off...”

Lukas hitched, then muttered, “I'm no bomber, even if I have spent time in the mines.”

“Didn't you..?” I asked.

“I stayed well clear of the powdermen,” said Lukas. “Powder's touchy, and dynamite's worse yet.”

“Can you get those things?” I asked.

“I can do that,” he said. “What else?”

“C-chemicals?” I asked. “Tailor's antiseptic?”

Lukas paused for a moment, then seemed to be reading over Gabriel's shoulder.

“If you do up a list, then we should manage most of the stuff,” he said. “If your face isn't too bright, you might come along just the same.”

I spent roughly half an hour speaking of what I'd been thinking of prior to actually turning in, and in the morning, I wondered about my face, so much so that I went into the privy and began removing the sack. What I had been told about the glow 'fading' had much to do with my seeming 'hurry'.

The first intimation that I might have trouble was a faint malodorous scent unlike the usual stink common to such rooms. This increased steadily, so much so that when I began to remove the bag proper my hands seemed palsied amid recollections of what had once befallen Anna. I recalled cabbage, a candle, and a privy being the ingredients.

I continued struggling with the bag until my fingers became irretrievably knotted, and I emerged fuming from the room amid a less-than-faint burnt aroma that trailed from behind me.

“Can someone help me...”

I was cut off in mid-sentence by a rumbling blast that pitched me onto my face amid a gust of hot air, and the yells that ensued from the just-awakened group were enough for a nightmare. I turned over to see a thick black cloud of sooty smoke rapidly spreading amid thumping boots that crashed to both sides of where I lay.

“W-what happened?” I mumbled softly.

A voice boomed from ahead and to my left that quickly surged into a bellow, then rough hands reached and picked me up off of the floor. Once standing, the bag was brought down amid growing smells of burnt cloth, and then tied back in place.

“W-what happened?” I asked.

“You didn't take a candle into the privy, did you?” asked Gilbertus.

“Uh, no,” I said. “I wanted to see if my face was still...”

“It is that,” he said, “and I've got a burnt spot on my sleeve from it.” A pause, then a question. “Did he thump that privy?”

“And good,” muttered Lukas. “I've but seen a handful worse.”

“How you did that is a mystery,” said Sepp by my side. “I see a little soot on your clothing, and no burnt places on you.”

“Did it go while you were inside it?” asked Gilbertus.

“N-no,” I said. “I was trying to get that sack off, and my hands were getting knotted up bad, so I came outside to ask for help.”

“When did it go?” asked Sepp.

“I managed about three steps outside the door,” I said, “and something exploded and put me on the floor.”

“And downrange some, too,” said Gilbertus. “You're a good five paces into the room here.”

“It may be safe to speak of such matters here,” said Hendrik, “but I'd be careful about elsewhere.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“The west school had at least three marked people during my time,” said Hendrik, “and there was much talk about chemicals behaving differently around them.”

“Differently?” I asked.

“I was covered with soot several times,” said Hendrik, “and I was said to be lucky. Those people had much better luck than I did.”

“M-much better?” I asked.

None of them wore soot, not even once,” muttered Hendrik darkly, “and their extractions had higher yields and greater purity.”

“And extractions are bad for fires,” muttered Lukas.

“C-cough medicine,” I muttered. “S-soot...”

“Hans told me about that stuff,” said Lukas. “He said it was as bad as anything for fires unless it was done properly.”

I resigned myself to further waiting, or so I thought until breakfast actually started shortly after the worst of the soot had been cleaned up. Again, we had 'room service' as we had had for dinner, and while I sipped beer and grape juice, I could tell I was being looked at.

“I wondered why I said what I did yesterday,” said Lukas, “and now I know. That light is a lot less bright compared to how it was a short time ago.”

I was tongue-tied, so much so that my hands groped up toward my neck as if to block all attempts at removing my 'veil'.

“Even if it's no longer bright enough to start fires, it will be bright enough to cause trouble outside of this area,” said Hendrik. “We'll need to wait until your face is normal before leaving the house.”

I could barely stand to wait until 'unveiling', and with the removing of the bag, I was astonished to find my vision utterly normal. I looked around the room carefully, then thought to step outside to look at the buggies.

“You might not be starting fires,” said Gilbertus, “but your face is still glowing a lot.”

I then looked at the left front cone of the nearest buggy, and shuddered.

The hazy blob of light that glared back at me was of such astonishing brilliance that I blinked and goggled, then muttered, “no, I might not need a bag, but my face is going to cause trouble the way it is. Should I even leave the room?”

“Give it another hour,” said Lukas, “and then the three of us can try the house here. It's still fading some.”

I thought to check both buggies, and here, I saw a distinct advantage to a glowing face, for the light shown down on what I was looking at, much as if I had a turned-down blindness-inducing lantern on my brow. I wondered briefly if one of them could be purchased, even as I wiped off the growing layer of dust-thickened 'grease' from the various parts.

“I heard tell you want to leave that stuff be,” said Lukas, “especially with parts what aren't blacked.”

“I hope to find out more about that process,” I said. “I'd like to use it on tools.”

Lukas seemed to think for a moment, then said, “most like their tools bright-metal, at least until they see them go to rust overnight. I don't know what they'd want then.”

“One customer wanted his things 'grayed',” I said. “It was said to help with rust.”

“It does,” said Lukas, “and not a little. I've noticed on those muskets you did.”

Once I had finished the buggies, I went over my 'list' a final time. Here, I added 'samples of spices', among other things, and as a final portion, I put down the ingredients I recalled regarding the blacking treatment. I then went back outside.

“Is my face still shiny?” I asked.

“It is,” said Gilbertus, as he rolled a wheel into place. “I suspect it will be like that until tomorrow or the day after.”

The others had already left for elsewhere, and while the three of us went slowly out of the gate and across the field, I marveled at both the heat of the day and the size of the sheep-flock present. I suspected the wool wasn't the sole issue with keeping them.

“They keep the grass tender,” said Lukas. “Now I hope we can get most of that stuff on the hill here.”

“And if not?” asked Gilbertus.

“Then one or the other of us will need to go to that market,” said Lukas. “Afore we do, though, I might stop at this one place I know about.”

While Lukas did not elaborate, I had a tolerable suspicion as to what might be done, and once we entered 'Shop Lane', I could 'feel' a small-time potter close by.

“And someone who works on guns,” I murmured, “and a chemist...”

“Where?” asked Gilbertus. “I thought all of those places were in that market.”

“They have some of those people here, too,” said Lukas. “Lots of people in the house do more than one thing.”

“Uh, yes,” I said. “That potter doesn't do the volume of the big places, and his bisque firing is done in a common stove. His family appreciates the heat.”

“His what?” asked Gilbertus.

“The first firing, to set the clay,” I said. “It gets the glaze after, and then it gets high-fired.”

“He'll be using a kiln for that,” said Lukas. “I had no idea you dealt with potters.”

“Potters, no,” I said. “I did my share of pottery long in the past. Even sold some of it, in fact.”

The 'small-time' potter proved to be 'listed' as a carpenter according to his sign, and once in the shop proper, I marveled at not merely the equipment he and two other men were using – hand-tools, but tolerably advanced compared to the ones I had seen in Roos – but also the size and industry of his shop. He indicated the area to the rear of the 'shop-cum-house', and once back there, I was indeed astonished.

The 'small-time potter' had more than just a kitchen stove for bisque-ware – he had several sizable brick kilns, large racks with air-drying mugs and saucers, knee-high vats of glaze, and three smoothly-turning 'kick' wheels.

At least, I thought they were 'kick-wheels'. That one shop's blowing equipment was growing on me.

The woman we encountered proved to be his wife, and the two girls and one boy their children. All of them were clay-stained and glaze-spotted, and after rinsing her arms in a tall vat of water, she indicated a shed on the far side of their 'yard'.

The three of us followed her to this shed, which she opened wide to show a 'treasure-trove' of finished goods, all of which were done to very high standards. They made the best I'd seen elsewhere on the trip look badly done.

“Ink-globes?” I asked.

She indicated the more-hidden sections of the darkened room, then led in that direction.

The place seemed to grow in both size and darkness with each further step until we came to the rear wall, then steps went down into hard rock beneath our feet. Fifteen steps down, a right-turn, and then an even-larger area than the one above.

“The first floor is where we sell to people,” she said, “and this is where we hold things we sell to shops. How many ink-pots do you want?”

“Uh, forty, if possible,” I said. “I had no idea you had such an establishment.”

“It isn't near as big as the large places to the west, but we do our share,” she said. “Are you a chemist?”

I was tongue-tied, so much so that I could not even stammer. Gilbertus, however, had no such trouble.

“That among other things he does,” he said. “He's looking for this blacking they put on tools...”

“That recipe?” she said. “I might have it written down upstairs.”

While the three of us packaged our globes using rags for padding, the woman looked in what might have been a small room off of the main throwing area. All of the wheels steadily turned with a faint humming noise, while the three 'children' worked at them. They seemed to be turning plates, for the most part.

I watched one of them 'stop' his wheel, this being done with a tall wooden lever I had not seen before, then after removing the platform with its plate, he fitted a new one to the wheel before starting it.

As I watched, he first moved the wooden lever, then began to slowly turn the wheel with his right foot. I could hear faintly an intermittent hissing sound, then as the wheel began moving, the hissing became a steady soft pulsing. A faint tendril of steam came from the lower portion of the wheel's housing as it slowly came up to speed.

“You only need to kick these to start them,” I said. “Is there a boiler?”

The boy looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and began working on the lump of clay with his hands as the wheel steadily turned.

“That would be below,” said the woman, “and while this recipe isn't one we've tried much, it is said to work passably.”

“Passably?” I asked.

“It might need adjusting,” she said warily. “Supposedly these recipes all need that, as not everyone has the same ingredients.”

“D-do you use it?” I asked.

“Jochen has treated some of his tools,” she said. “He was not that happy with it at first.”

“Uh, streaks, thin, multiple tries before it takes?” I asked.

She nodded, then said, “though when it finally came good, he was not complaining in the slightest. It does keep off the rust.”

“May I see one of those tools you spoke of?” I asked.

She reached into her apron and withdrew a dark-gray pair of 'bow' dividers, then gave them to me. I marveled at the mottled gray-black finish before returning them.

“Uh, that finish is not used on guns, is it?” I asked.

“I've heard it is,” she said, “though best guns are commonly done with a different recipe.”

“Best guns?” I asked.

“The Heinrich works is the best known, though far from the only shop that does them,” she said. “Those have a solid dark blue color with a high gloss. I am not certain it wears as well as this formula.”

“May I copy it?” I asked.

While I wrote down the ingredients – they matched what I had recalled, save for 'spirit of niter' and 'purified potash-iron' – I noted the amounts, as well as the process. This one involved 'strapping', cleaning in boiling lye, then rinsing with water prior to boiling in the solution 'until dark', with 'no fingers touching, lest it not take'. Finally, a hazy scrawl across the bottom: “needs three or four times to come good entirely, with good cleaning each time.”

“Perhaps a bit of, uh, aqua fortis in the mix,” I thought.

As I handed back the folded paper, I had the impression that I wanted a supply of that chemical purchased here. Grussmaan's current stock was not merely weak, but very impure – and Hans had unwarranted assurance about his purification procedures.

“At least for this process,” I thought, as we left for the road again.

After a few hundred feet and perhaps a dozen shops, we stopped at what purported to be a greengrocer's place, and once 'inside' – 'open-air' with a roof, masonry columns, candle-lanterns, long wooden tables piled high with produce – I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

The smell of mingled fruit was bracing, and I wandered the aisles while the other two men visited with the proprietress. The first 'things' I saw were roughly spherical 'fruits' of brilliant yellow, while next to the mound of 'lemons' lay small piquant-looking bright red berries.

“Those are good when you have trouble in your guts,” said Lukas, as he indicated the berries. “I know these people here.”

“You do?” I asked.

“They might not be those I spoke of,” he said, “but they see them often. That line's gotten bigger, too.”

“Line?” I asked, as I examined the yellow fruits.

“How they send some messages,” said Lukas. “If we go to those people, I'll ask them to show you.”

Gilbertus joined us a minute later, and as I continued wandering, the two of them began picking out various 'fruits' and vegetables – when I wasn't asking questions of them about they were picking.

“Those would be yellow-fruit,” said Gilbertus, as he indicated the 'lemons'. “They're good when your teeth get loose from bad diet.”

“Up north?” I asked. “What is a 'bad' diet? High Meats and strong drink?”

Lukas turned toward me, then shook his head before speaking.

“If all you have is dried goat, dried fish, bad corn-meal, and dried greens, then your teeth try to fall out after a while,” said Lukas. “A yellow-fruit every few days keeps 'em where they belong.”

“Uh, the mining country?” I asked. “Do they buy...”

“They do, and at high prices,” said Gilbertus. “We'll want to get our share afore we leave the area.”

“And these, uh, green ones?” I asked. I had found some uncommonly spicy-smelling 'limes'.

“Those help the digestion, and they're good in beer when it's hot,” said Lukas.

“Geneva for digestion?” I asked. “Hans spoke of it..?”

“It works, but decent Geneva is hard to find in the mining country.” Lukas had picked up three of the 'limes', and I noted their intense near-fluorescent green. It showed better in his hands, for some reason.

After noting 'pomegranates', 'bananas', and 'cherries' – the comments regarding the 'cherries' from both men were revealing, chief among them being 'too small' and 'too sour' – I found more of the 'weeds' I had seen in the second kingdom. Unlike those half-dried things, these were blatantly fresh, with a potent 'onion' odor mingled with 'heat' and perhaps 'horseradish'. I moved to touch one, and held back at Lukas' voice.

“Those were in those spicy fried potatoes,” said Lukas. “I think I've got enough for an order, so we can get back to looking shortly.”

Once mounted again and winding slowly down the hill, I asked, “why were those cherries too small?”

“You ain't ever seen a cherry from around home, have you?” asked Gilbertus. “They're a lot bigger, and a lot sweeter, and they usually are around to harvest in the fall.”

“Bigger?” I squeaked. “How big are they?”

“About twice as big as those sour things they had,” said Gilbertus.

“In a bad year,” said Lukas. “Now somewhere around here I recall someone who...”

I had spied the 'musket' planted muzzle-up in the gunsmith's yard, and I headed in that direction. The slightly flared muzzle on the 'sign' brought forth recollections of blunderbusses.

“Is that who you were speaking of?” I asked, as I pointed.

“It would be him, I suspect,” said Lukas. “I want to see if he's got larger shot.”

“L-larger shot?” I asked.

“Drunken fifth kingdom thugs,” muttered Gilbertus. “They tend to ignore the usual stuff.”

At the door of the shop, I asked, “the fowling piece?” Lukas nodded.

The interior of the shop reminded me strongly of a jeweler's, with a faint acrid bite to the air and a sense of palpable industry. Faintly, I could hear the sounds of files and chisels in use, along with what might have been a hand-drill. I listened carefully, so much so that I was startled when Lukas asked about 'stiff' shot.

“Aye, and to spare,” said the 'smith'. His resemblance to that one 'dwarf' jeweler was enough startle me. “That mould seldom cools these days.”

“Mould?” I asked. “How many cavities?”

“Twelve,” he said. “It was not cheap to have it made.”

“Uh, where?” I asked.

“About the only place up to doing work of that grade,” he said, “which means the Heinrich works. I send a fair amount of work 'cross town to them.” He paused, then said, “and given the custom, it should pay for itself in less than a year from now.”

“Custom?” I asked.

“At least twenty pounds of printer's lead every week,” he said, “and it goes near as fast as we run it.”

When the 'smith' brought out a 'sample' of shot, I came close to examine it, and the bright silvery balls were marvels of roundness. I picked up one of them, laid it on the varnished counter to the right of the others, and brought out my calipers to measure it.

The 'hum' in the background vanished with such abruptness that I startled.

“Y-yes?” I asked, as I resumed measuring.

“Do you work on guns?” asked the 'smith'.

“Them and much more,” said Lukas, “and he's looking for a good blacking recipe.” A pause, then, “I'll take two pounds of this, or three if you can spare it. That trip south worries me.”

The sphere came out to be just over sixteen lines, and once I'd put it back in the 'pan' used to convey the 'sample', I brought out the ledger and turned to where I had written the recipe. He looked at it, and began muttering about 'medical writing'.

“He does that too,” said Lukas, “that, and chemistry. He lives with Hans and Anna.”

“Ah, then it's safe to speak of the matter,” he said.

Within a minute, the 'smith' had returned with a sizable ledger, which he opened to a string-marked region. He flipped two pages, then a third, and then looked closer at my writing.

“This here?” he asked.

“Twice-chloride of liquid death,” said Lukas.

“That should be 'thrice-chloride',” said the 'smith', “and there needs to be some purified niter as well. That gives the blue tint, otherwise it's more of a gray or a black color. Then, the cleaning... Good, no touching. This recipe is bad that way.”

He resumed reading it, then added a comment or two, saying as he did so, “the chemicals vary some, so each batch will need test batches to determine the precise amounts of each chemical, then careful rinsing and oiling after.”

“No tallow?” I asked.

“After the gun is finished, you can use that stuff,” he said, while shaking his head. “Some people are too cheap...”

“Or they come from parts north,” said Lukas. “Tallow's common there, and other things ain't.”

“Did you come from the north?” asked the 'smith'.

“We all did,” said Lukas. “Is there more to that recipe?”

The 'smith' seemed hesitant now, so much so that I expected him to turn away from us, but slowly his left hand reached down into his apron. A folded paper lay in one of his pockets, and when he first removed the paper, then unfolded it with slightly shaking hands, I wondered as to what else he did.

“I usually read from the book when I'm mingling the chemicals,” he said, “and pray loudly the entire time when actually bluing weapons.”

His pronouncement was so astonishing I had no words for him, and when the three of us were back outside I asked, “is that common?”

“I've heard you pray when doing swords,” said Lukas.

“Yes, that I don't ruin one,” I muttered wryly. “That sounded as if he thought what and how he said what he did affected the outcome more than anything else – oh, and he told us but a portion of what he did in that way.”

“What is the rest?” asked Gilbertus, as he mounted his horse.

When and where he gets those chemicals, for one,” I said, “and then where and when he 'mingles' them, and in what containers, and using...” I paused, then gasped, “a green stick, cut from a crooked tree at midnight at a crossroads, and a new one for each such batch!”

The two men looked at me as if I'd lost my mind, until I caught my breath.

“He uses the stick for mixing, his, uh, stuff,” I said. “He doesn't name it with common words, and some of what he uses to describe it...”

“Souls, and hunger, and fierceness, and some other traits,” I thought, as my mind suddenly recalled Sepp's talk of the Generals and their references to buggy parts.

“But that's crazy,” I muttered. “Those are just chemicals...”

The treatment of the old style of distillery intruded, then the effects of the chapter of Methods upon 'more than a few instrument-makers'.

“Is that man a witch?” I thought. There was no answer, at least at until we came to an ancient white-painted wooden 'pylon' depicting a mortar and pestle.

“A chemist?” I asked.

“And no ordinary one,” said Lukas. “Ernst back there is closer to the common for this area. Most of what this man does is medicines.”

The chemist – Ivo – proved to not merely know of Hans, but knew him and Anna especially well. Amid dark hints of 'secret shipments' he took us 'back of the cloth' into an obvious 'laboratory'. It compared well with Hans' for all save the quantity and variety of glassware. Hans had more.

“The pfuddaarn have been especially troublesome lately,” he said, “which is why I took the three of you back here to speak.”

“Privacy?” I asked.

“I've had those wretches crash in the door without tapping first, and that with cocked fowling pieces,” he said. “We burned one of them not three weeks off.”

“Burned?” I asked. I had heard the term used in multiple senses.

“I dosed him with shot,” said Ivo, “and before Henrike could fetch her fowling piece, he ran off. He got more lead in him before he could ride off the hill, and he was burnt at the bottom in the usual place.”

“Did you use common shot, or..?” asked Lukas.

“I used some larger, and some smaller,” said Ivo. “I've heard tell some thugs wear strange underwear, and I didn't think much of it until I shot that wretch.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“He made this noise like a bad anvil,” said Ivo, “and there was no blood.”

“That sounds like some of those northern people,” said Gilbertus. “They wear plate, and unless your musket is good and you're close enough to put soot on them, the ball does little.”

“What I have should drill them passably,” said Lukas. “I found some of that tin they wear a week before we left, and I put three of those cheese-bullets through it at fifty paces.” A brief pause, then, “do you have a recipe for blacking iron?”

Not only did Ivo have one, he had tried it at some length; and when I showed him the added information in my ledger he murmured for at least a minute before 'erupting'.

“There is no 'thrice-chloride' of liquid death,” he spat. “Who gave you that one?”

“Ernst up the road,” said Gilbert. “I had no idea he did what he did.”

“I can always tell when he's blackening a gun,” said Ivo, “and the only people who cannot tell are those with bad ears.”

“Uh, why?” I asked. “Noise?”

“He must have had his chemistry lessons from Ginnedaag,” muttered Ivo. “The west school is a better place to start.”

“You?” asked Gilbertus.

“The whole time, and then five years with Jozef,” he said, “and that does not include what I did with my father beforehand.”

“Is he somewhat, uh, secretive?” I asked.

“About most things, no,” said Ivo. “That blacking recipe, close work, and a few other things is where he's different from most on the hill, at least for work.”

“Did he go to Ginnedaag?” I asked.

“He did, but not for the whole time,” said Ivo. “Talk has it he went to Boermaas for a season so as to learn how to read the book properly, and then Guymus for two years so as to get his sums straight.” Ivo paused, then said, “and how he stood the stink of Boermaas is a mystery.”

“Does that place smell?” asked Lukas. I heard genuine curiosity.

“If you are heading south from here, then you will get much of an idea as to the smell of Boermaas when you get into the fifth kingdom house. Otherwise, find a drink-house that serves lots of pfuddaarn, and stand downwind of it for an hour. Both places are noisy enough to pass for Boermaas.”

Ivo did not have a kind expression when he said this, and when he resumed looking at the annotated recipe, he began muttering afresh.

“Uh, I do not plan to speak as he supposedly does, nor cut branches off of 'old oaks' near crossroads, nor...”

“A clean dry piece of cherry wood from a decent carpenter will serve,” said Ivo, “or failing that, pear wood. You do not want to use oak, as that stuff has a strange juice that comes out of it when it is damp.”

“Metal?” I asked.

“Wood's best, or failing that, a glass rod,” said Ivo. “They're easy to find in the market here, and the best place I know of for chemicals is down that way, also.”

“Uh, 'pure' chemicals?” I asked.

“Roesmaan's Chemistry, Taalmoes Lane, fourteenth district, north-south-two,” he said. “If you want, I can copy this list here and order it for a modest fee.”

“How l-long..?” I asked.

“If I send it by lunch, I can have them here by dark,” he said. “Why, where are you lodged?”

“The house proper,” said Lukas. “We have a bit of a layover, what with important business.”

As he copied my list, I dug out my money-pouch, and began counting out coins. I had pulled out three gold pieces and three large silver pieces, and was working on more coins when I noted Ivo looking at me.

“That should be more than enough to get them interested,” he said. “I'll need to leave shortly so as to send...”

“You might show him that thing,” said Lukas. “He's got swarms of witches after him, if you know what I mean.”

Ivo's eyes opened to near-saucer status, and he looked me over carefully. I wondered briefly why until he quietly asked, “your toes?”

“No, not them,” said Lukas. “I've heard tell they're hid good.”

“I'd still watch close for pfuddaarn, though,” said Ivo. “Do things happen?”

“This pump worked for him,” said Lukas, “and I've seen and heard plenty otherwise.”

While the other two men mounted up – Lukas spoke of a 'special' Mercantile a short distance down the road – I went with Ivo as he went through his 'house'. There, he gathered a sizable satchel, kissed a plump woman who smelled faintly of flowers while passing through the kitchen, and walked out the back, through the gate, and then left down an 'alley' toward the nearest 'stairs'. As we walked part-hidden between thick encroaching greenery and the wavering boards of rear fences, I moved as quietly as possible while silently opening the revolver holster. I could feel something or someone in the area.

“Do thugs lie in wait back here?” I asked.

“They might do that after dark,” he said. “That market is a much more likely place, especially after sundown.”

“Not much traffic on the hill after dark?” I asked.

“The back way doesn't get much traffic day or night,” said Ivo, “so they'd be waiting long, and find paupers at the end of their wait.” A brief pause, then, “and well-armed paupers, too.”

We found the 'stairs' shortly thereafter, and as we climbed amid clutching greenery on both sides, I noted that the 'shop lane' wasn't the only street spiraling up and down the mountain. After passing first one narrow bush-bordered dirt-and-gravel 'lane' – perhaps wide enough to pass a buggy – and then another, Ivo went left down a third example.

The lane meandered among bushes and trees to no small degree, and the 'yards' it faced upon were small places. Their cultivated greenery all-but made up for their lack of size, and the sense of industry I had felt since coming into the fourth kingdom was easily as strong here as anywhere else.

“Who lives here?” I asked.

“Some work at the house proper,” said Ivo, “and most of the rest work in or for the shops on the main road.”

“For?” I asked.

“Where we're going does buttons,” said Ivo, “at least, that is what most think they do. They do more than just those.”

“This message device?” I asked.

“That, and hidden compartments on buggies,” said Ivo. “Another person not two hundred paces uphill from where we are now has a larger-than-common stable for messenger's horses.”

As if to remind us both of the possibility of equine mayhem, I heard hoofbeats coming from the rear and turned to see someone riding at a slow trot. Ivo pulled me out of the way in time for the sweating animal and fatigued-looking rider to pass, and as I watched, I caught coppery glints on the animal's feet.

“Was that a..?”

“It was,” he said. “I suspect he'll head for where we are going first.”

Ivo quickened his pace, and I kept up with him. The blowing of the exhausted horse became steadily fainter, then ceased seconds later.

“Why here?” I asked.

“Pfuddaarn might show themselves less openly here than almost anywhere on the continent,” said Ivo, “but that does not mean they are not here.”

“And hence secrecy..?” I asked.

“Is a requirement to move documents and supplies they wish to destroy,” said Ivo. “It may be possible to endure common shot if the range is long, but the range of a fowling piece and the range of a rotten cannon are two different matters. Therefore, secrecy is vital.”

“R-rotten cannon?”

“They burst with some frequency,” said Ivo, “hence their name. I've seen what their shells do, and it is not pretty.”

“The shells burst in the gun?” I asked.

“That, and when the gun fires them normally,” said Ivo. “A good crew can hit the door of a farmer's barn at five hundred paces, while the bronze guns do well to hit the barn at that range.”

“There were two guns in the third kingdom...” I squeaked.

Were is correct,” said Ivo. “They were found some days ago – and yes, those were rotten cannons. Something caused both of them to burst.”

Ivo went into the next yard on the right. As I followed, I noted a neatly-laid stone pathway, a 'hogshead' with pump for a watering trough, several rows of 'vegetables' in raised log-bound beds, and a surprisingly small house. When a young girl came to the door, however, I soon knew something was amiss.

“She's wearing enough sawdust to make me wonder,” I thought, as the two of us followed her to a paired stairway. I noticed the sounds of at least two 'pedal lathes' working in the background, faint odors of drying oil and beeswax, and soft speech, which we left behind while going upstairs.

The right turn at the top of the stairs took us into a well-equipped room with two sizable desks, a bed in the corner, a bookshelf, and what looked like a row of sizable ceramic crocks on the floor. One of the desks was occupied by a woman who might have been the downstairs' girl's older sister.

Ivo laid the recipe paper out on the table, and she looked at it with interest.

“You wish me to send this?” she asked. Ivo nodded, then said, “he's safe.”

“How..?” She looked at me in fear.

Her question vanished in a great hurry, even as her face upturned from looking at me to Ivo's face, and her expression spoke volumes. Silently, she mouthed the word 'marked', and reached down to open a drawer.

“Yes, and others vouched for him,” said Ivo. “You might check at the house proper, which is where that party is staying.”

She brightened immediately, then began bringing out several pieces of equipment from the hidden drawer. The first example was a wood-based mechanism with what resembled binding posts on each end, and an obvious thick iron-cored coil wound with fabric-insulated wire.

The second device resembled – at least from my initial impression – a telegraph key. As she connected the two devices with thick cloth-covered 'wires', I asked, “the battery?”

“The cells are under the desk in a tray,” she said. “Those crocks against the wall are fresh cells.”

“How long do they stay, uh, charged?” I asked.

“A fresh cell isn't that good,” she said. “They need some time in use to get in the mood for work, and then they stay good for at least a year of regular use. Charging needs to happen every few weeks.”

“Do you listen often?” I asked.

“This isn't our normal day or shift,” she said, even as steps came up the stairs.

“You spoke too soon, Marie,” said a man's voice. “Heinrich was burnt out last night.”

“H-Heinrich?” I asked.

“Gustav came to let us know,” said the man. “I had to put up his horse, and send for Liza.”

“Will he carry the news to the house, or do we..?” Marie appeared to not know.

“Neither,” said our visitor. “I'll head that way directly with the news.”

“Liza?” I asked, as the man left hastily.

“The nearest doctor worth bothering with,” said Marie. “I would not be surprised if she needs to remove some lead from him.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“There are, or rather, were, several places like this in this area,” she said, “and all of them were well-kept secrets. The witches must have learned about what Heinrich had.”

“Had?” I asked.

She indicated the equipment on the desk, then gently pressed the 'key'.

A muted click came from the 'sounder', then as she 'warmed up', she said, “the two at the market have people watching them regularly, unlike here.”

“With Heinrich gone?” asked Ivo.

“I will be very busy, as will Eva,” said Marie. “I hope they got out all right.”

Marie ceased tapping on the 'key', then waited.

A steady ticking resulted some seconds later. While I recalled something of Morse code, I was familiar with the interrupted tones of radiotelegraphy, not the clicking aspect of an old-time sounder. Still, within seconds, I knew these people were not using Morse Code.

During a 'break' in sending – both key and sounder were quiet, then – Marie said, “if they bridge the wires right, I can send to nearly the border of the third kingdom, and within twenty miles of the fifth kingdom.”

“And?” I asked. I knew there was more.

“There are said to be other stretches of wire,” she said. “The only kingdom that does not have them is the fifth, supposedly.”

“Messages?” I asked.

“Here, those tend to be more commonplace matters,” she said. “Supposedly, in the other kingdoms, the wires must be run especially carefully to avoid detection by witches, and the equipment must be hidden especially well.”

“The third kingdom?” I asked.

“That one's chief trouble is finding people willing to do it,” said Ivo. “Almost all of them think this equipment is a collection of witch-tools, and anyone using it is an arch-witch that needs a burn-pile.”

“That place is bad that way,” said Marie. “If it hasn't been used every day of every year since Cardosso burned in the ruins of his chief town, and that commonly, it's evil, and it needs burning.”

“Cardosso?” I asked.

“An especially evil witch from long ago,” said Ivo. “There is mention of him in the Grim Collection.”

“And in the second kingdom?” I asked.

“That place is almost as bad for people not wanting to use the equipment as the third kingdom,” said Ivo, “and the witches all but run the place, so if someone wants to run it, they get found out quickly.”

“Unless they go into the back areas,” said Marie. “That stretch in the potato country is as good as anything I've heard of, and the same for much of the first kingdom.”

“What is it like there?” I asked.

“Almost as easy as here, for the most part,” said Ivo. “It seems if a place has decent chemists and medical people, running the wires isn't that hard, and the same for finding people to mind the equipment.”

The sounder began chattering again, and as Marie listened intently with pencil in hand, I began to understand portions of the code used.

“Six bit code?” I thought. “Short period for a zero, long for a one, brief separating times between ones and zeros, a bit longer for each letter, and longer still for a word?” A pause, then, “why are they using a code that is better suited for machine communication?”

By the time she'd finished, I was able to understand perhaps one letter in three and one word out of ten. It wasn't quite enough to get the sense of what was being sent until Marie spoke.

“They have all of those chemicals and are packaging them up now,” she said. “They'll come to the house proper after dark.”

“Uh, after dark?” I asked.

“Many house deliveries are then,” she said. “Besides, those deliveries are commonly double-headed.”

“Stuff goes downhill as well as uphill?” I asked.

“They'll need to fetch the current tray of cells,” said Maria. “They are starting to show themselves flat.”

The trip back with Ivo went without incident, and once remounted, I headed back downhill. I was looking for the Mercantile Lukas had mentioned, and while I could feel the place close by, I saw neither its sign or the sight of familiar horses. Only the narrow lane between two shops on the right seemed a possibility, and I took it.

The lane went 'underground' into a realm of brilliant lighting, and the faint whir and 'chuff' of machinery seemed calming to my nerves. The low ceiling, however, was not, as my hat tried to remove itself from my head more than once.

“Is this like a mine?” I thought, as I came to a well-lit area 'teaming' with horses. “I hope those over there are not m-mules...”

I then noticed the odor of the two animals.

“They barely smell at all,” I gasped, “and they're smaller than any mule I've ever seen, and..”

One of the animals looked at me, and I could have sworn it grinned.

“What?” I thought. I was becoming frightened, and I ducked into the door of the place with Jaak's blanket in hand to nearly bump into Gilbertus. He was 'chatting up' someone who looked like a distant relative.

“Those m-m-m...”

“Those are mine,” said the man calmly, “and no, they are not mules.”

“Then w-what are they?” I spluttered.

“Donkeys,” said Gilbertus. “They're common around here.”

“Do they, uh, buck?” I asked.

The man shook his head, then said, “you must have been too close to a mule recently.”

“Aye, he has, and a bad 'un,” said Lukas.

“Deodorized?” asked the man. “That supposedly makes them more tractable.”

“It was, but that part wasn't helped much,” said Lukas. “It still acts as if it just came from the Valley.”

“El Vallyé,” I murmured.

“So those who escape from there name it,” said the man. “Have you met some of those people?”

“Y-yes, three masons,” I said.

“They are most welcome here,” said the man. “There aren't many people who exceed the fourth kingdom's effort in labor, but tradesmen from that place come very close.” He paused, then said, “and better donkey-handlers do not exist.”

“Are donkeys difficult to handle?” I asked.

“Most confuse them with horses that way,” said the man, “and they are not horses.”

“That can be trouble,” said Lukas. “If they want to think of them that way, then all donkeys should be called racers, and not common ones, either.”

“Which is why I have two,” said the man. “No horse does as well at night.”

After the man left, I continued deeper into the Mercantile. The profusion of strange things this place had was a marvel, so much so that I thought it resembled a 'hardware store' – until I began to get a headache.

The pounding migraine-like aspect of this between-the-eyes agony had me gasping and blinking my eyes, and when I came to the corner of the 'building', I knew why I had the headache.

I had found the cause.

The headache now assumed blinding proportions as I looked at the box of dynamite through mostly closed eyes, and when I found the ingredients listed as 'nine parts oil, one part sawdust, and one part niter', I gasped and backed away to blunder into Lukas.

“Is that dynamite I smell?” he asked.

“Headache,” I moaned. “B-bad stuff. N-n-nine parts oil, one part s-sawdust, one part n-niter.”

“There are worse ones,” said Lukas. “Not many, but there are worse.”

“That would be the special blend from Langemaan's,” said a voice which took seconds to recognize as female. “I ordered a box more than requested, as I have a feeling about that job.”

“Job?” I gasped. My headache was but slowly fading as we came to the rear counter of the 'Mercantile'.

“A place like this,” she said. I then looked to see a somewhat plump woman dressed much like I was – cloak, shirt, trousers – and no hat. Her hair was the darkest shade of 'blond' I had yet seen.

“Are you the proprietress?” I asked.

She nodded, then asked, “what may I help you with?”

“F-fuse,” I spluttered.

“He wants to make some squibs,” said Lukas. “I could do with some axle grease, myself – that, and some of that special oil.”

“And red-paste, if you have it,” said Gilbertus.

“We do, but it's quite dear, as you might know,” she said, as she vanished back behind a hanging cloth.

“Are you getting hungry?” asked Lukas.

Gilbertus nodded, and while I wasn't feeling especially hungry, I was conscious of a steadily growing thirst.

The odor of lemons – I had not noticed it prior, due to a dynamite-induced headache – grew stronger, as did some other familiar odors. I felt my possible bag, then spat, “I knew I had some of that stuff.”

“What would that be?” asked the proprietress, as she placed a wicker basket on the counter.

“It s-smells like yellow-fruit,” I said, “and comes in a...”

She held up an identical tube to the one I had purchased months ago, and Gilbertus gently took it from her hands.

The white portion outlined the 'label', and the brilliant red surrounding the label proper made for wondering. I began looking in my possible bag, and soon found the white plastic tube with its hexagonal blue plastic knob.

“Do you know what this is?” I asked, as I pointed to the tube.

“It works good in wagon wheels,” said the proprietress, “and if instrument-makers find out I have some, they come up here and fight over it.”

“Aye, it does work good in wagon wheels,” said Gilbertus. “It's strange stuff, though.”

“How is it strange?” I asked.

“Well, first, it won't burn, even if you put some in a forge,” said Gilbertus, “and it smells like yellow-fruit, and then if you put some in sleeved wheels...”

“They will not smoke,” she said, “and you cannot scrape that stuff off with a file. It films right back up and covers the metal, almost like it's alive.”

“Once the cups and cones get a little warm, that is,” said Gilbertus. “We'll be in a hurry going the rest of the way, so some red-paste will keep us clear of smoked and sticking wheels.”

“Is it, uh, slippery?” I asked.

The proprietress removed the cap of another such tube, then put a small 'droplet' on her finger. I came closer so as to look, touched it, and then rubbed it through my fingers.

“Ooh!” I squeaked. “This stuff is so slippery I don't...”

“You want to use that on the tougher work,” said Lukas. “I've heard it works good for forming thimbles.”

“And mind that it stays where you want it, too,” she said. “It tends to find cracks and seep into them, and the only thing worse for that business is this special oil from up north.”

“Special oil?” I asked.

“I've heard it makes Waal oil seem worthless,” she said, “and the talk isn't close to how that stuff is. It goes for almost as much as red-paste.”

I mentally made a note to purchase another tube of 'red-paste' as the woman brought out two sizable bundles of fuse. One bundle seemed of thin red 'string', while the other bundle was of a greenish-black 'cord' of nearly three times the thickness of the other. Lukas looked closely at the green fuse, and rubbed it with his thumb.

“Aye, this is fourth kingdom mining fuse, not that stuff what they use in the mines,” he said.

“It is,” she said. “The fourth kingdom does not like fuses that look to be out and are not.”

“Uh, is it waterproof?” I asked.

“No fuse is entirely waterproof,” she said, “but of all the fuse I've seen and handled, that green material there comes closest. I've run it through damp dirt before, and never had a misfire.”

“You?” I asked.

“Unlike in the fifth kingdom's mines,” she said, “it is important to know what you are doing in the fourth kingdom. I did, and I do, and those with me were glad of it.”

I asked to buy both fuses, wondering briefly why I did so until she brought out two familiar-looking tins. Lukas opened one of them, and my eyes opened wide in startlement.

“What is that?” I asked, as I pointed to the clear brown 'grease'. Its appearance made for wondering as to what Georg had actually gotten.

“It isn't just the tin saying it's 'number one first quality',” she said. “Why, did you order some from down here?”

“It wasn't me ordering it,” I said, “but some was indeed ordered.” I paused, then asked, “did someone, uh, charge for the best and send something else?”

“Not everyone in that market is entirely honest,” she said, “and to get the very best, you have to know the people making the stuff, or know someone else who knows them. My cousin is one of the people who make this particular grease, so he lets me know when some comes out especially good, and I pay a premium to get it.”

“I think so,” I muttered, as I drew out my money pouch. “Oh, paper...”

“Other side of the store,” she said, “next to the brass-hands. If you buy much in the way of paper, especially in the main market, you'll want one of those hands.”

I wandered over to where she had indicated, and here, I found tall stacks of string-tied 'quires' of paper, each weighed down with a cast brass 'hand'. I picked up the weighty thing off of the shorter stack and noted a carefully engraved label on the palm spelling out the single word 'Charles'.

There were more of these 'hands', each of them rag-wrapped and tied with string, and I fetched one of them. In the process, however, I noted the stacks of paper themselves.

The shorter stack was labeled as being 'presentation' grade, and touching it showed it to be smooth and even in color. Its marked price was thirty guilders a quire.

The other grade seemed 'thinner', and showed more marbling and 'fibers'. Touching it showed a slightly rough surface, and I recalled the first ledger I had received.

“It was just like this,” I thought, as I hefted a bundle. “I might want to buy this stuff.”

I brought both 'paperweight' and paper to the counter, and began stacking coins as the proprietress totaled up the 'destruction'. I was surprised at the cost of the fuse – it wasn't cheap – and also surprised by the lesser cost of the paper I had picked.

“That is what most students write on,” she said, “and if you do much drawing...”

“He does,” said Lukas.

“Then you want that type there,” she said. “That paper called 'presentation' costs about half again as much more.”

“Presentation?” I asked.

“When you get something traced and inked for submission to one of the houses,” she said, “that, indenturement papers, formal contracts, and a few other things. It's better for appearances.”

“Here?” I asked.

“If you were submitting documents here,” she said, “the type of paper would matter but little, provided it was decent paper. If one is speaking of the north, then it depends on who the recipient is to be.”

“The second kingdom would want that fancy stuff,” said Gilbertus, “and the same for the fifth kingdom. I'd get that drawing stuff for your own use, as well as one of those hands.”

“Did they..?”

I then knew beyond much doubt that the others had either become distracted by the sheer size of the market, or had been otherwise unable to find much of what was needed.

“Worst case, we can send back down here for that presentation-grade paper,” I thought, as I laid out the sixth gold monster of the stack. “I doubt they had any luck with finding hands.”