The road more traveled, part t.
Bagging up all of our purchases made for three heavy-laden horses, and when we came to the Public House Lukas had spoken of, the place proved busy indeed. After sitting at a table near the back in a darkened corner for a few minutes and then learning that both of the jugs present contained wine, Lukas went to the rear of the place with the provided jugs and came back with two more.
“They'll be along presently,” he said, as he poured a mug of beer. “I hope this stuff is common beer, as I'm not inclined toward Lion-Brew.”
“It looks like that stuff was brewed by a lion, if that's what you mean,” said Gilbertus. “What's in the other jug?”
I wormed out the cork, and sniffed. The odor – like cider, but different – made for wondering, at least until I passed it to Gilbertus.
“That stuff came from a jumped barrel,” he said. “It's starting to work.”
Lukas looked at the second jug, sniffed, then said, “and this jug must have not been cleaned good between refills, either. It smells like it had this beer in it before.”
I reached for the jug and my cup, then part-filled it. The tawny yellow of the beer and the potent odor of hops made for wondering, even if I could plainly tell this stuff was not Lion-Brew. I took a sip, then swallowed.
“No, this isn't common Public House beer, either,” I said. “It looks like Lion-Brew, but you'd need three full mugs or so to be inclined toward roaring.”
“Now what is this about making noise?” asked Lukas.
“Uh, Lion-Brew,” I said. “That one really noisy second-kingdom Public House, and how everyone was yelling and, uh, roaring...”
“I ain't going near that place again,” said Lukas. “I wanted these things Hans has for the ears then, it was so loud.” A brief pause, then, “now what is that big metal table over there?”
“The cart-lunch,” said a well-hid waiter from somewhere nearby. “Three guilders, and all the food you can hold.”
I walked toward the 'metal table', and as I did, I felt and heard the faint hissing of steam. I could feel an obvious steam engine as I touched the table, and then, I saw faint wisps of steaming vapor. Lifting a tinned copper pot-lid showed tantalizingly warm viands of an unfamiliar type.
While they were unfamiliar to me, they were much less so to both Lukas and Gilbertus, and I followed their lead. As I had a need for greens, I put a generous dollop of obvious minced cabbage on my plate.
“They have cabbage dressing here,” said Lukas. “It helps the taste and digestion.”
The 'dressing' was in small glass cruets, and I brought one back to the table along with my plate. After eating some of the food, I looked closer at the cruet and its contents, and noted a clear separation of the contents into a small oily portion and a much larger water area. I shook the contents up, and then saw an iridescent 'emulsion' that reminded me of Italian dressing. I then uncorked the cruet, and applied some of the 'dressing' to the cabbage.
The sharp vinegar scent seemed to mask all other odors, and the first mouthful tasted mostly of the acid taste I expected. There wasn't nearly as much oil in this material as what I recalled, and I barely had enough time to note this before the acid taste was overwhelmed by 'hot' pepper, oily 'garlic', what might have been a hint of 'soy sauce', and perhaps a dash of mashed and fermented banana.
“This might not be Raw-Deal sauce,” said Gilbertus as he mopped his brow, “but I learned my lesson with it.”
“Hot, isn't it?” asked Lukas. He'd been very sparing with the cruet's contents.
“Not quite the same as Raw-Deal, though,” I said. “I could easily see how it might help digestion.”
While the cabbage dressing helped with digestion, it also helped with filling up, and the stack of coins we left showed our attitude of thanks with the meal.
“Now back to the house, and a nap,” said Lukas between yawns. “Those others won't be back much afore sundown, unless I miss my guess.”
Our lazy path back in the early afternoon showed signs of a siesta of sorts among the various shops, for I detected what might have been snoring noises. I was not inclined to investigate, however; I desired to make my own noises of that kind, and when the gate of the house proper showed, I marveled between deep and groaning yawns.
None of the others were back from their rounds, or so I suspected until I nearly collided with Hendrik. He looked at our three bags, touched one, and asked, “any luck?”
“We got much of what he needs,” said Lukas, “and a quire of drawing paper...”
“Good that you did so,” said Hendrik. “They have a device here that sends messages rapidly, and those that went to the main market have spent most of their time trying to avoid getting lost.”
“What?” squeaked Hendrik. “How?”
“I knew of this one Mercantile about half-way down the hill, and I asked there. They've got both drawing and presentation paper...”
Hendrik seemed lost in thought for a moment, then asked, “could I see that drawing paper? It may well suffice for our needs also.”
As we unburdened our bags, I set aside the squib-making devices in their pile. Hendrik was flabbergasted by our other materials, so much so that when he looked at the paper, he began muttering.
“This stuff is as good as any presentation paper I've ever seen,” he said. “And this was said to be for drawing?”
“She said students used it commonly,” said Gilbertus.
“And book-binders, if I go by how it feels,” said Hendrik. “What was the difference between the two?”
“The 'presentation' paper had a less-open surface, less 'tooth' – that's important if you want to use, uh, writing dowels – and seemed a bit more even for color,” I said. “It may have been a slight bit thinner, but with paper, it's hard to tell with what I have here for measuring. It was more expensive, if that means anything.”
“That thinner aspect might be why some prefer it for messenger's work,” said Hendrik. “Every ounce counts then, and thinner paper would weigh less.”
“There is to be a delivery tonight,” said Gilbertus. “It was arranged for the chemicals.”
“Did they not have them?” asked Hendrik.
“Not where we went,” said Lukas. “I went to people I knew, mostly, and most of 'em are up on the hill here.” A pause, then, “he knew where the good chemicals were, and sent an order down there using the clock-ticker.”
“Clock...” Hendrik was lost.
“That thing what clicks like a clock,” said Lukas. “I had no idea they had so much wire, or so much trouble with witches.”
“Someone in the area was burnt out last night,” said Gilbertus, after stifling a yawn.
I was reminded of a need to sleep myself by the noises, and I found my bed. After a cup of dark beer, I fell asleep nearly instantly to awaken to stumbling and yawning noises ahead and to my left. I opened my eyes, and nearly fell out of bed.
“When did you all get back?” I asked.
“But a few minutes ago,” said Karl. “That place might be good for a holiday, but unless you have a week to explore it, you had best forget buying much.”
“Unless you have someone with you who knows where things are,” said Sepp. “Gabriel must have forgotten everything he once knew, and Kees was worse yet.”
“Did you get anything?” I asked.
Sepp shook his head, then said, “we didn't buy anything on our list, and by the time we had some idea as to where some of that stuff might be, the two of them were hungry, so we had to eat.”
“Where are the two of them?” I asked.
“This time, it wasn't me that wanted to get into the wine,” said Kees soberly. “I just wanted a loaf and a jug of beer, but Gabriel said he knew of this one place, so we went there, and we only got out in time to head home with nothing to show.”
“Where's Gabriel?” I asked.
“In the privy spewing at both ends,” said Hendrik. “I have no idea what happened to him, but he seems to have gotten into some bad food.”
“High Meats?” I gasped.
“No, nothing like that,” said Kees. “I think his chief trouble was how much he wanted to eat, as the food was good enough.”
“Wine?” I asked.
“I wondered about that,” said Kees. “I wanted beer, and Karl and Sepp did also, but he wanted to get into some Groessfuetchen, and once he'd had a mug full of that stuff, there was no stopping him until he could eat and drink no more.”
“What is Groessfuetchen?” I asked. “I suspect it is wine, but...”
“It's very popular among students,” said Hendrik, “and while most students at the west school stay clear of fermented wine, that type seems the prize exception.”
“The taste?” I asked.
“That, its low cost, and its commonplace aspect,” said Hendrik. “Talk has it the fermentation is arrested in some fashion, which affects the flavor drastically.”
“Have you had it?” I asked.
“I have,” said Hendrik. “Once.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“He most likely did not know it was fermented,” said Kees, “and consumed several mugs.”
“And spewed at both ends for hours,” muttered Hendrik. “I vowed 'never again', and I have more or less kept that vow.”
“Uh, you tried it again?” I asked.
“I have been required to consume small amounts of fermented wine in the other kingdoms,” said Hendrik. “I usually try to beg off when and where I can, and if I have the chance, I speak of that instance in Reyermann's during my second year.”
“R-Reyermann's,” gasped Kees. “That was where we went!”
“D-do not speak of Reyermann's,” gasped Gabriel from the privy. “I l-learned m-my less-s-son.”
“I thought he liked wine,” I murmured. “So he tries this stuff...”
“Groessfuetchen is very tricky that way,” said Hendrik, “which is why I have not had it since. One mug tends to call loudly for another, and one does not become silly, as is common with beer. Instead, one becomes suddenly and severely intoxicated, and quite often very ill.”
“Why, then, is it so popular – its cost and taste?” I asked.
“I have never figured that out,” said Hendrik. “Those fond of wine tend to think it the drink of children, and those who do not like fermented wine name it 'jugged evil' and things similar. The sole exception seems the higher schools, that market town, and the area surrounding them.”
During the next hour, I began to lay out my 'bombing' tools. Chief among them was the mortar and pestle, and as I ground powder, sifted it, and then filled globes, I wondered as to how much I wanted or needed.
“There's that powder I bought for those muskets we got from the two farmers, and...”
My thinking was interrupted by someone setting a smaller powder measure down next to my sifting things, then Lukas saying, “I've got but a few sneezes in there. Now do you need more powder?”
“I do,” I said. “It would be nice if it was, uh, either priming or dust powder, and...”
“I might be able to get some,” said Lukas. “Some more vendors came in, and I suspect some of them might have powder they can spare.”
“Small corks, with holes drilled?” I asked. “Beeswax, for waxing the cut ends of fuse? Matches?”
“We did get those things,” said Karl. “Someone was selling them in this little shop.”
“Corks, or matches?” I asked.
“Matches,” said Karl. “There were those, and some other things, and then these little red sticks of wax...”
“Sealing wax, unless I miss my guess,” I said. “How much was it?”
“Two sticks for five guilders,” said Karl. “Why, what is it used for?”
“Supposedly certain documents received it,” I said. “I know Gabriel wanted some, and the stuff is costly up near home, same as those matches are.”
“They were not cheap,” said Karl. “That tin was five guilders.”
“I think he said a tin of them was a lot more,” I said, “something like twenty guilders for a hundred.”
Karl promptly left for parts unknown once I'd drawn the corks I wanted, and after I'd filled Lukas' priming measure, I resumed with my grinding. I thought to ask about the burning rate of the fuse once someone with a watch turned up.
About an hour into my grinding – I'd filled five globes more or less full, in addition to the priming measure – Karl returned with a cloth bag. I looked around to see an empty room in the latter portion of midafternoon.
“Here are some corks,” he said. “I took that drawing, and they had some ready-done.”
“They?” I asked.
“This one Mercantile,” said Karl. “They had some caps there, too, and I bought some.”
“Caps?” I gasped. “What for..?
A muffled distant booming rumble caused me to startle, and Karl grinned at me.
“I think that was a bug,” he said. “They have those things down here.”
“Bug?” I asked. “What happens?”
“The bug explodes,” said Karl. “Sepp went after the soot.”
“Oh, that,” I said. “Where did he go?”
“Lukas spoke of a printer near the top of the hill,” said Karl. “Now why is it you want soot?”
“For those black-dressed thugs at home,” I said wryly. “They need sooty hands and faces, so they can be all the same color.” A brief pause, then, “besides, sneaking a soot-bomb into General's Row would teach good stalking skills.”
“How is that?” asked Karl. Again, I heard genuine curiosity.
“If you can put a soot-bomb, or another type of bomb, or even a stunned rat in those people's laps and not get caught, then it isn't much of a stretch to do the same thing with a sleeping camp of those tinned thugs.”
I paused briefly, then said, “we need to bring war to the enemy, not let them keep dumping on us. That witch thinks she's secure up where she lives, so if we come by with some boats and shoot the place up, it should get a rise out of them.”
“Yes, and with what?” asked Karl.
“Perhaps mortars,” I said.
Karl looked askance at the dust-coated interior of the bronze mortar I had been using, then asked, “now how will one of those cause trouble for those people?”
“Different type of mortar, Karl,” I said. “This type is a small cannon that one fires by dropping shells down the barrel.”
Karl seemed mystified, so much so that I took pencil and ledger and drew an example, complete with a shell on the ground in front of it.
“I still do not understand,” he said. “There is no hole in the bottom, nor rammer, nor charging scoop...”
“This type doesn't take those,” I said. “There is a thimble on the base of the shell, with a small bag of powder such that the flame will ignite it. That is the base charge.” I paused briefly. “Then, there are other bags tied on, which are called increments. With this short of a shot, we might need just one bag, so we remove the others.”
“And then what?” asked Karl.
“We take out the safety pin, put the finned portion of the shell... Karl, is there a game that has things like this with points on their ends?”
“Yes, there is,” said Karl. “Do you want to play it?”
“Not right now,” I said. “The shells resemble short fat darts without their points.” Again, I paused, then said, “once the safety pin is out, the shell can explode if it falls point-down. We are shooting it port forward, so that won't happen nearby.”
Here, I illustrated the flight of the shell with my finger, all the while making a faint humming noise. The shell hit the table's edge – and at the precise same time, again the booming rumble thundered on our ears.
“Did you do that?” asked Karl.
I shook my head no, then said, “so, what do you think?”
“Those Generals, or them who run with the swine?” asked Karl. “Those Generals will blow themselves up in good time if they are left to themselves.”
“Karl!” I shouted. “Those people like to wear starched underwear!”
Karl hunched his shoulders, but my raving didn't stop for his gesture.
“Is there any way to give them the itch?” I shrieked. “Is there itching powder?”
Karl did not have a clue as to what I was speaking of, much less where to find it, and I wondered more than a little as to why he did not know. I resumed my grinding, secure in the knowledge that I would be let alone to do 'bomber's work'.
I periodically added to my list of things that 'needed purchase', these being student's ledgers, blacking, diaper clips, 'number one first quality hide glue', dropping tubes, three 'errand' slates with sheet metal covers, 'honey', fire-cheeses, 'rag bundles', uncorking medicine...
“Now this is a good one, here,” said Lukas. “I didn't remember half of this, and those people that went into that market didn't get much.”
“More priming powder?” I asked.
“I might have gotten another pound or so here,” he said. “I sent off that other list down the hill, so that stuff will come in tonight also.”
“What you gave them, minus what we already got,” he said. “If you let me copy the new parts of that one, I can send it out also.”
After doing so – Lukas could write nearly as fast and as neatly as Gabriel – I asked, “are there any, uh, strange and unusual drugs around here?”
“I could ask Ivo about that,” said Lukas. “Why, you want something for Hans?”
I nodded, then said, “I have those tubes of arsenic I got from Kees... I don't know where I'm getting this from, but Ivo has got some really strange stuff, and I mean it's strange. More importantly, we need to be able to test it. It will be important in the future – I know that much.”
Lukas left shortly thereafter, and when I stood up, I noted the lateness of the day. I went to the privy, and there heard Gabriel continuing to groan, moan, and make horrible smells.
“No more of that tricky wine, eh?” I asked.
“N-no,” he said. “I had heard of it, but never had a chance to try it before today.”
“Does it really taste as if unfermented?” I asked.
“Not exactly, though it is close,” he said. “If you were to clean out a used wine-cask with a fair degree of care, and then put unfermented wine in it for a day or two, you would get something like it.”
“It would turn?” I asked. “Foaming?”
“That would need several days,” said Gabriel. “It would still taste more like unfermented wine than anything else.”
“Why would you wish to drink so much of it?” I asked. “Or do you need to drink a lot?”
“Groessfuetchen is fairly weak as wine goes, or so people say,” said Gabriel. “It's chief trouble is it seems to have no effect for the first two or three mugs, and then it strikes like a Death Adder.”
I resumed my grinding. Over the next hour, the sun dropped lower, and the others steadily filtered in with large sacks filled with 'plunder'. While a good portion of this was food – fire-cheeses figured predominately, as did 'fourth kingdom smoke-sausages', various spices, small bags of flour, potatoes, carrots, and what might have been Gobens – there were other listed things as well.
“Good that you fetched more jugs,” said Lukas, as I continued grinding powder steadily. “I hope they bring enough powder up here.”
“Enough?” I asked.
“I asked for a small keg,” said Lukas. “What you don't use, and what we don't use, I figure to sell to those vendors.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Most of 'em are low on powder,” said Lukas, “and they like to use squibs to keep the goats off of their clothing hereabouts.”
“Off of?” I asked. “Do the goats trample it?”
“They do that first,” said Gilbertus, “and then they devour it.”
“Valley goats are bad about that,” said Lukas. “The ones raised outside of that place aren't near as troublesome for clothing.”
'Room-service' came and went, and I took my meal with the others. There was a somber sense of foreboding that hung in the room like a billow of thick red smoke, and while there were jokes, they were few and feeble. I had the sense that our trip would resume tomorrow, and by then, I would need to either grind up the powder I needed, or...
“I think I have a leather bag that would work,” I thought, as I stood to visit the privy. “I can put some in that bag.”
I checked on the way out, and found that I not only had the bag in question, but two more nearly as large. I returned to the table forthwith after wiping my hands on a damp rag soaked with aquavit.
“More aquavit?” I asked.
“Two jugs, from that one chemical place,” said Lukas. “That should be quite a train coming up here.”
“Is that common?” I asked.
“It might be, and might not be,” said Lukas. “This place doesn't sleep much, especially given what I've heard recently off of the clock-ticker.”
“What was it?” asked Kees.
“It seems there is border-trouble to the south near the coast,” said Lukas, “and they're firing guns at one another in places on the border.”
“Guns?” I asked.
“Mostly artillery,” said Lukas, “but some of that is shoulder-fired.”
“Do they use roers down here?” asked Karl.
“Yes, with shot,” said Gilbertus. “Otherwise, they have these other guns that are worse if the range is at all long.”
“Thimbles, correct?” I asked. “Flint-muskets are not common, are they?”
“I've seen some in the fourth kingdom, especially among students,” said Gilbertus. “If you speak of the fifth kingdom, though, you're right. Almost no one there uses flint for their weapons.”
“Given they make thimbles in the area...”
“I suspect you are right,” said Hendrik, “and I suspect it will be something of a busy night, what with packing and things like it.”
“Clothing?” I asked.
“That's mostly done,” said Lukas. “If we spend long in the fifth kingdom, though, we will want to be doing our own clothing.”
“Soap?” I asked.
“That's common enough at Mercantiles,” said Sepp. “I've still got a decent bag full of it.”
“Not in the fifth kingdom,” said Lukas. “Fell's soap may be good at getting grease and dirt off of your clothing, and work passably for getting it off of your hide, but with scarce water, you want regular soap for the second run and then a good rinse – and regular soap isn't that easy to find.”
“And it's costly when it shows,” said Gilbertus. “We may want to get what we can on the way out of here, and...”
“Perhaps check our individual supplies,” I said. “If I recall correctly, I have two whole bars sectioned into hand-sized pieces, and I get at least three days out of one such piece.”
“Washing us isn't the big trouble,” said Lukas, “especially around here. If a dust-storm blows up, though...”
“A full bar a day, then, and we'll be digging in the ground like rodents so as to hide,” said Gilbertus, “that, or holing up at any dwelling that'll have us.”
While the others inventoried their soap supplies after our meal, I continued grinding. The steady refrain seemed to be at first 'I have plenty', which soon degenerated to 'where did it all go'?
“Hence we need to get as much as we can, both Fell's and the regular stuff, and wax candles on top of those matters,” I thought. “We're going to need our own lighting.”
“At least I have some recollection of traveling off of the High Way,” said Gabriel. “I forgot nearly everything of importance in the fourth kingdom.”
“Except where that one Public House was?” I asked.
“I recalled more than that,” said Gabriel, “or so I thought until we passed the front gate. Once inside, though, it was as if I had never been there before.”
“And Kees?” I asked.
“My things were bought for me,” he said, “as if ever there was a student that lived up to the part in the book about a fool and his money, it would have been me.” A brief pause, then, “only after I'd been at Ginnedaag for three years could I go off the grounds without escort, and then it was a near thing.”
“Did you choose that school, or..?” I asked.
“My father chose it, and much else,” he said, “and he made arrangements with the people in charge so as to keep an eye on me. They did, too.”
“Traipsing?” I asked.
“I did not choose my companions,” said Kees, “and I was not given any tasks of responsibility until I had well-proved myself.”
“Is that usual?” I asked.
“That depends on the school,” said Hendrik. “Students choose up among themselves as a rule, at least at the west school.”
“They did at Maagensonst,” said Gabriel, as he walked quickly to the privy.
I could now hear audibly the blowing of horses, and I rose slowly to then walk to the doorway. Near the front gate amid rows of 'vendor wagons' and campfires I could see what looked like a large buggy coming our way with a four horse team.
“Four horses?” I murmured in alarm. “Is that a miser or black-dressed thug?”
Gabriel came to the door, then said, “somehow, I doubt it. That looks to be either a postal buggy, or one like it used to haul freight. Both of those commonly have four horses.”
“Aye, and that hill is trouble for loads,” said Lukas. “Ours made it because we had so little.”
The buggy drew steadily closer, and once I could see it clearly, I was more than a little astonished at not merely its team, but also its size.
“That would be a postal buggy with the top down,” said Lukas as he brought a lantern near, “and those need a four horse team to manage a hill like that one.”
I was astonished further when the buggy pulled up outside our door, and we all gathered around. The driver – someone I had never seen before – indicated which portion was ours, and we brought it in quickly, what with eight people carrying. I thought the whole bill would be mine, but I was surprised to find that I had but a third of its cost to actually pay. As I dug out the money, I asked, “why is that the case?”
“First, you paid a part of it when you sent the order,” said the driver, “and then secondly, you are doing work for the crown.”
“I am?” I asked with frightened voice.
“You are,” said Hendrik. “That blacking recipe will be very useful in general, and the same for much of what you listed.”
“Hide glue?” I asked.
“You've never used it before, have you?” asked Gabriel.
“That was not number one hide glue,” said Gabriel. “What was procured is – and what you do not end up needing for your work, the boatwrights' shop has ample need. Much of these supplies are like that.”
I was then handed a leather sack tied with a thong, and the driver said, “this is from Ivo. I'm glad you are a chemist, as I'd be afraid to haul that stuff much of a distance otherwise.”
Before bedtime, I examined the contents of the leather sack, and was surprised to find not merely four sheets written neatly with documentation, but also a number of medicine vials. While most of these were ceramic, some were of glass, and one of the latter showed a granular off-white powder mingled with small fragments of organic matter. It was listed in the documentation as 'the extracted and dried product of a common valley bush'. This material did not have a name, even though touching the vial brought forth an unpleasant recollection of things I had heard about but never actually endured.
Another glass vial, however, had long gray leaves partly crumbled into dust. In this case, the material was named as being 'Veldter Weed'.
The other vials spoke of materials common to the fourth kingdom, and as I continued reading, I kept going back to that one unnamed substance. For some reason, I knew it to be a plant-based drug with stimulant properties of a truly nightmarish nature, and when I went to write this idea down, I wrote first what was foremost in my mind...
And then, I heard words as if one of the masons was standing at my elbow and dictating to me.
“Is that it?” I thought, as I wrote 'stimuluo vegetan, con Espirutu habitué'. “Espirutu? Is that a spirit of s-some kind?”
The sole recollection was of the name Espirutu Majere and its reference to God by one of the masons – and following hot on this recollection, was that of a verse I had recently expounded upon to Hans, Anna, and one of the neighbors: “God is a spirit, and his followers worship in spirit and in truth.”
“Somehow, I doubt that instance of Espirutu refers to someone I want to have around,” I thought, as I felt inclined to write again. There was more, I now knew. The only thing holding me back was the completely ridiculous sound of the word, and my irrational fear at committing it to paper.
“Snurf?” I thought, as I carefully formed the letters. “Is that a word? What does it mean?”
Such thoughts did not make for easy sleep, and only with beer, the widow's tincture, and the two followed by prayer, could I sleep. I awoke clear-headed, refreshed, and with the sun yet to shine outside, and as I resumed my labors upon the squibs, I knew the following.
I needed to do the entirety of the planning regarding pyrotechnic nuisances. No one – that knowledge rankled utterly – had sufficient comprehension of what I had planned to effectually contribute, beyond possibly be involved in the end use – and as for my goals...
Gabriel and Hendrik had some idea as to what they were, but as for my methods, I was utterly alone. As for the others, the best description might well be, “I am not a bomber, and the best I can do is not interfere by asking questions.”
“What can be so difficult to understand?” I thought. “We have a conceited wretch with a bad odor, bad clothing, and bad attitude, and he needs to either be replaced by someone with a better attitude, or he needs to be changed. It is that simple, and n-no one...”
A yawn came from behind me, and I turned to see Gabriel knuckling sleep and perhaps debris from his eyes. He came to the side, looked at a finished squib, and said, “I see.”
“You do?” I asked.
“What you purpose to do is most definitely not a common matter,” he said, “and statecraft is done much differently. None of us, you excepted, can lay claim to the title of bomber.”
“C-cutting fuse to length with an example in hand?”
“None of us, you excepted, are bombers,” said Gabriel emphatically. “I might know enough to scatter myself most thoroughly were I to attempt to assist you in the smaller matters, and Hendrik is much the same. Kees – he keeps well clear, and the same for the other four.”
“Statecraft?” I asked. My voice dripped of curiosity.
“How kings earn their salaries,” said Gabriel. “In the foreseeable future, however, there will be a great many situations where such methods will be a complete and utter waste of time.” A brief pause, then, “this man you name Blackbeard will be but the first of a vast multitude, and as for answers...”
Again, Gabriel paused. He needed to.
“You will have those when it is time.”
“What?” I thought. “Answers? How?”
There was no answer save a soft yawn followed by the noise of a privy in use, and while I resumed working, the soft snores of the seven others seemed a fit background for my long and wearying labors. I tried to follow Gabriel's impossibly cryptic speaking, and went nowhere with it. I let the matter rest when I began to develop a headache.
With the arrival of sunrise, the others awoke one by one. Packing resumed where it had left off the night before, and while I packed up my supplies, I heard comments vague and varied in the region around me. Chief among them was how would I toss so many 'squibs', and as I put the last of the supplies in a wicker basket that had mysteriously showed, I said, “Harvest Day?”
“Involves tossing squibs,” said Gabriel. “Do you propose we toss those similarly?”
“There are enough for practice,” I suspect. “One lights the fuse and tosses it at the thug, with the goal of the thug's discomfiture.”
“I think I can translate that last word,” said Gabriel. “I think I might manage that.
The cups and cones of the buggy wheels showed but a few faint places of wear, and brief instances with a polishing pad sufficed to clean them fully. Under Lukas' careful watching, I used one of my small knives to coat the inside of the cups with a thin even layer of red-paste prior to sliding on each wheel and tightening its securing nut.
Packing was sufficiently 'unusual' that I needed to supervise it to a marked degree, as we had 'enough supplies to fill both buggies heaping full and part of a third'. I showed my packing skills by condensing down the supplies such that they all fit comfortably in the space we had – though each driver found himself with a bag for a companion on the floorboard beside him.
As we made ready to leave, a trio of 'guards' dressed as they had been the day of our arrival came with two bows and a 'sheaf' of arrows. While I made room for the bows among our things, I heard Gabriel, Kees, and Hendrik all speaking in earnest with these men. I finished my task, spread the blanket on Jaak's back, and mounted but a minute later.
As we slowly wound down the spiral path to the fourth kingdom house, we stopped in likely places for soap, bread, beer, and unfermented wine. At one such stop, Gabriel accosted me.
“There is a road that will save us a day or more once we enter the fifth kingdom,” he said, “but its use will demand rough living, as towns are small and few in that region.”
“Yes?” I asked.
“It goes through the western portion of the mining country,” he said, “and those who mine speak strangely. They term such living 'roughing it'.”
I nearly strangled on my own tongue, so much so that all that came out was a squeak regarding horses and mules.
“Horses tend to be few and in poor condition, while mules are both common and malodorous,” said Gabriel. “Deodorized mules are rarer than fit horses in the mining country.”
I was still making choking noises, so much so that all that came out was the single word “Mexico.”
“There is no such town or kingdom, any more than there is one named Dodge,” said Gabriel. “Were I more suspicious, I would think you to be choking.”
Gabriel's oblivion grew yet more, for he then spoke of some of the 'strange speech' common to mining. He babbled on for some minutes into our resumption of riding, until clear as a bell came the word 'Plug'.
Again, I began to make choking noises.
“Now what is happening to you?” he asked. His voice had struck a new milepost in its march toward oblivion.
“P-p-pl-plug,” I stammered.
“I see,” said Gabriel. “The common term in the mining country for a mule of foul odor and voracious appetite is 'Plug', and the worst of them that way are also named 'Genuine'.”
“G-genuine?” I gasped. “P-plug?”
“Those are the smelliest type,” said Karl confidentially, as he rode up to my right side. We were taking up much of the road about half-way down the mountain, and the smell of soap was like a balm to my tormented mind. At least bathing would not be curtailed due to its lacking. Karl resumed speaking.
“Ever since I was a boy, I have disliked mules, and after one nearly got me, I have wanted to dose every such animal I see with arsenic.”
“Arsenic?” I asked. I recalled the small glass tubules of Madame Curoue and their lethal freight.
“I was bringing home a bag of turnips from the Greengrocer's,” said Karl, “and a mule was loose. It came around the corner with all of its hooves in the air at once, and then it saw me. Somehow, it aimed a kick at my head, and I ducked down while tossing the bag of turnips. I turned and ran for the nearest tree, and that mule was spitting fire and breathing sulfur down my trousers, it was so close.”
“Did it climb the tree after you?” asked Lukas from behind.
“That is not funny,” said Karl between gritted teeth. “That mule wanted my hide, and it nearly bit holes in it so to air it out before I got up in the tree and out of reach. I had to remain there until the mule got bored and went somewhere else.”
“And then what did you do?” asked Gabriel.
“I went down, collected up and bagged the turnips, and ran all the way home,” said Karl. “Mother wondered what had happened to me until I told her about the mule.”
“And?” I asked.
“She understood, as she knows something of mules,” said Karl, “but ever since, I dislike mules nearly as much as I dislike swine.”
Again, the book I had nearly read to pieces jolted me with the recollection of that one black horse and its escapades, only for some reason, I did not speak of the horse. Instead, I spoke of a peculiar species of hare.
“There were hares in that book, also,” I said. “They were said to be so rapid in their movements that they nearly outran bullets.”
“Have you looked in that Bestiary?” asked Gabriel.
“I have, but I did not recall reading of anything resembling what I am thinking of,” I said. “Why?”
“Such animals are mentioned in the Grim Collection,” said Gabriel, “and they have ears the length of their body, huge hind legs, gray fur, and huge eyes. They were said to live in holes.”
Gabriel paused, then said with a nasal-sounding voice, “both the Compendium and Grim speak of garbage bugs, and to call them pestilential is to call them wonderful and blessed. They become especially large in this area...”
A pause, one of pregnant proportions.
Another such pause. The aspect of drama was high, and climbing quickly to nightmarish levels.
“And, when properly prepared, explode violently.”
“Explode?” I shrieked. “How can bugs explode?”
“Easily, if one has an old hammer, or a cap and fuse,” said Karl. “I have popped those things near home, and they sound like squibs.”
“I would not advise you to do that with the ones in this area,” said Gabriel. “Mashing them with a hammer is the last thing you will do in this world.”
“I never heard of anything so, uh, outlandish,” I said.
“Then perhaps you need to hunt one up,” said Karl. “Find a big one, thump it with a stick on the head, tie it good...”
“Watch when you tie those things,” said Lukas. We were near the bottom of the hill, and about ready to enter the region that led back to the High Way. “The stink will get on you.”
“And then make up your cap and fuse,” said Karl. “You do not want a short fuse with those.”
Again, a pause. The drama quotient was nearly unendurable now.
“You put the cap in the bug, light it, and run,” said Karl. “When the bug explodes, the noise, flash, and smell is so bad that people commonly faint.”
“When they don't spew,” said Lukas. “Still, it isn't every day to hear a good-sized bug explode.”
“Uh, why?” I asked.
“Those things go off like they were eating dynamite for a year,” said Karl. “That is why you want a good long fuse with them.”