The Kingdom of Boom

As I rode east, this at a sedate-seeming pace, a pace that matched that of those to each side of me, I could feel the state of the town's houses and shops. Right now, the aspect of industry in the general area was such that the only people in most of the houses were women and perhaps one or two children, these last either busy helping their mothers or too young to do much beyond cause their mothers grief in one way or another. I could feel a number of infants in the town – easily five or more – but for some reason, even if these children were lively enough, I could not hear any crying.

Or so I thought until we passed a shop of some kind, and then I flinched. Faintly, I could hear a child trying to communicate something was 'wrong' by his voice, and the attitude of this child was so astonishing I was stunned. He knew what to do, and who to go to so as to have it done, and had he been able to do it himself, he would have done so – or, had he the size and agility, he would have simply used the privy.

He simply wasn't big enough yet, and he was still very much learning about who and what he was.

“What happened?” asked Sarah. She had seen my sudden 'hunching over' as if in agony.

“W-wet d-diaper,” I said, my voice shaking with the sensation, one still present, potent, impossible to ignore. “Junior is crawling – my, that kid is moving quick – and he's tugging at her skirt, then he's p-pointing to his rear!”

“That would be a woman who had twins not a month ago,” said Esther. “They seem healthy enough, but I'm not Anna as she is now, so I would not know much beyond their seeming.”

“Seeming?” I asked. “Oh, good, junior is getting a fresh diaper, though how she can endure changing the child while looking at him is a bit hard for me to believe.”

“You most likely will not be doing that part of child-rearing,” said Sarah. “I am not sure how I will manage, but I will try.”

“Eyes closed, and by feel only,” I said. “I probably could do it that way, but I tried any other way – I'd probably feel as if I were abusing the child horribly, and that I was doing something so evil that I have no words to describe it.”

“I am not surprised,” said Esther. “I needed Paul to help me with our twins, as by then I'd been hurt enough to have much trouble doing so, and now I do not like anyone seeing me unclothed, not even Paul.”

“You have nothing on him that way,” said Sarah.

I then noticed something Esther had said. “A month? Less than a month?”

“Most babies are able to crawl well before that time,” said Esther, who implied an infant who wasn't crawling by the age of a month was ill or had some sort of trouble, “though I have heard of some that could walk – and walk well – the very day they were born.”

“Those in the old tales,” said Sarah. “Those who were born marked were said to be able to do so, though I wonder more than a little if they were able to do as well as those tales say.”

I asked silently, “had I been born here? Would that have happened?”

“You would not have been born here,” said the soft voice. “It's as simple as that. The situation had become so dire that someone like those few individuals that survived the drowning here had to be imported, and then not only did that person need to have a large number of non-trivial markings they were born with as well as those like you acquired of a non-trivial nature, but they needed to be born on that planet as it was then – and then they had to be equipped as you were before coming here, and then given your names.”

“And now I feel some things that are almost beyond my capacity to believe,” I said. “I hope Willem doesn't mind having the manse turned into a local species of armory.”

“It may well have been one, once,” said Sarah. “It's a very old building, possibly nearly as old as the Abbey itself.”

“Not quite that old,” I said, “but it was put up by the same people who did Ploetzee, in fact right after they finished that place up, and much of that old stuff in there is from their era.” I then asked, “that watercourse?”

“Yes, it runs right behind many of the houses here,” said Paul. “It is a narrow thing, so much so that most people just put planks over it to cross over it, and it follows the road going to the manse itself, where it hides itself again.”

“That's because it's mostly underground where it shows, and entirely so otherwise,” I said, “and it's running a water turbine, it makes more power than the Ploetzee waterwheel does, and it turns ten times as quickly at the least! Willem, you could make cannons in your shop, and I think they once did!”

I then had a question.

“How has that thing kept running all these years?”

“Recall how Willem needs to oil all of those ever-turning 'overheads' ever so often?” asked the soft voice. “There's one particular example that's especially thirsty, and that one puts 'warmed' grease into the turbine's bearings – and because it turns faster than even you surmised, it uses some very large made-in-Vrijlaand ball-bearings that are as good as anything currently made overseas for precision and superior to anything they've made yet for hardness and durability – and hence periodic 'topping up' keeps those things greased with fresh 'grease', and that semi-liquid grease keeps water out of them so they stay in good shape.”

“Grease?” I asked. “I hope no smelly wretch has put tallow in those things.”

“No smelly wretches have ever had that place's key,” said Willem, who then spat over the side of the buggy. Spitting, I now knew, was a most-common way of indicating 'extreme disgust' here. “It has stayed in my family for time out of mind, how long is a good question, but I know we had it when the Curse itself struck, and while none of us have been wealthy, even with the income that comes with being a cannon-master, more than half of my relatives that I know of were marked – and I'm rightly surprised that I'm not marked yet myself!”

“Key?” I asked. I had this odd picture in my mind. “Round, smooth, bright – really bright – no apparent handle, slippery as anything, and, has a mind of its own? Sticks really hard to, uh, anything made of iron, much worse than a lodestone sticks to the head of a big Iron-Head trout?”

“It does do that,” said Willem. “I'll show it to you shortly, once we get to the manse itself.”

“That we will do in a few minutes,” said Sarah. “His house is right up ahead, that one on the left, and the road going to that place is just to the east of where he lives.”

The manse proved to be hidden by a long stretch of winding hard road, one that first threaded itself through a wide field planted with corn, both sides of the road fenced with straddle fences of trimmed saplings that looked to be doused with what might have been tool-cleaner or road-tar; and as the trees of a thickly-forested woodlot surrounded us to provide overhead shade amid the slight climbing nature of our road, I wondered more and more just what this place was like. I then recalled what Katje had called it, and recalled what she had said about it, that being the place had a lot of things that could – and commonly did – 'explode' in on one fashion or another.

“And now we are taking more explosives up there,” I murmured. “Just the thing – enough plastic explosive of one kind or another to imitate a big fifth kingdom powder mill, if I go by the headache I got while handling some of those bins, and then there's what Esther herself keeps in this one shed somewhere in back of their house...”

I looked through the gap of the trees, and saw, this some quarter mile or more away, another field – though this one was not planted with corn, but something else, possibly carrots – or maybe cabbages, or possibly even turnips. It was green, even, and ran in rows, and it was bushy and about halfway to my knees for height.

That was not the issue: in the middle of that field was something that looked remarkably like a 'detached privy', a 'two-holer' or better, and I thought to speak of it.

“That one, uh, shed I see?” I asked. “All by itself in the middle of someone's, uh, 'carrot patch'?”

“It may look to be a common shed of sorts from the outside,” said Paul, “but I stay well clear of that place, as only Esther has the touch for what is usually kept in there, and everyone in town gives it plenty of space – and it is not a common shed, either, but one that is built of stone for its walls, its floor, and its roof, and it goes down into the dirt some, so as to stay cool as the place can.”

“Yes?” I asked. “Dynamite, and a lot of it. The really, uh, drippy stuff, correct?”

“That I keep out in that shed, yes,” said Esther. “The more commonplace dynamite I keep separate from it, as dynamite of varied strengths does not wish mixing.” Pause, then, “that other shed is out in the cornfield.” Pause, then, “that shed is the big one, even though it does not look it.”

“Does not look it?” I asked.

“Paul spoke of how those sheds go into the ground,” said Esther, “but they both go deeper into it than they are tall. That one out in the cornfield is nearly as chilled as our cold-room, and the same for the other, but the cornfield shed's room is bigger than our cold-room, and it has been here for longer than I have known about it.” Pause, then, “the inner doors, though, are those that have neither buttons nor keys, so the witches cannot get into them.”

“And you can,” I said. “The caps? Fuse? You do have crimping pliers, really old ones?”

“Those we had to make room for out in the barn, and the place they're hiding in is under some hay near one of the barn's corners,” said Esther. “I made that hiding place, or rather I drew it up and Paul helped me with laying the stones and things. I found a small trowel out in that larger shed, though it was coated with this awful grease that needed cleaning up in the manse before I could endure holding that thing.” Pause, then, “that was one reason I wished gloves, and I'll gladly pay for them.”

Esther paused longer this time, this to uncork a jug and fill up an old-looking tinned copper cup, one that looked older than myself in terms of chronological age, then, “I usually do not need to pay for any of the things in those three hiding places, thankfully.”

“She gets them from witches,” said Paul. “If there is powder, or lead, or distillate, or dynamite, then she is a scent-hound for it, and she can find it no matter where it is hid or who is hiding it, and that is if she is within a mile of the stuff, or sometimes further if it is a coach full of dynamite.”

“Uh, I saw one of those dogs today, and that dog was the strangest thing I ever saw in my life,” I said, regarding that strange 'dachshund'. “First, it climbs trees like it's out of its mind, then it chases down a tree-rat and bites it in half, and then that dog had teeth that made me wonder just how they fit in that dog's mouth, and then its tail wiggled like a snake!”

“That is why those climb trees so well, if you speak of the best ones,” said Paul. “If it comes to those things I spoke of, she is like one of those for finding them.”

“How much further is this, uh, munitions plant?” I asked.

What did you call it?” asked Willem. “My family has always called it the manse.”

“I think that slipped out,” I said. “It's a type of munitions plant, or it once was one, and that's why it's set up the way it is. Most of the machines were removed as they became too worn or those holding the place lost the capacity to use them productively, so all you have left are some old... No, they never had that many machines there, and what they brought was enough to produce the others needed to... But then, where did they all go?”

“Back to Vrijlaand after the Curse hit, as they were trying to keep the people of the planet alive, or so they thought,” said the soft voice. “What they left behind was simply far too difficult for those surviving in that location to remove that distance, and Willem's ancestors were left to 'hold' the place, with resupply as needed from Ploetzee until they were able to start the town of Laidaan some hundred and fifty years later.” Pause, then, “though what's under it is a well-kept secret, one Willem currently has no idea of.”

“I have no idea either,” I said, as we came to some forbidding riveted-iron gates, these opening upon hidden hinges and bound by massive stone pillars to each side. They were easily sixteen feet high, and the itself gate looked to stand up to anything short of something that would punch through armor plate.

I then saw the dents in it – numerous, mostly small, but some were fairly sizable. More, it looked as if they'd been pounded out to no small degree by a lot of hammering.

“How did those dents get in that stuff?” I asked.

“I suspect witches were trying to reduce the place with stolen artillery pieces,” said Willem. “According to what I know, no witch has tried for this place in over a hundred years – and it's not particularly small or that well hidden, either.”

Willem then produced an odd silvery-colored 'rod' with rounded ends – I had seen magnets like it before as to shape, if not their length – and he found a hinged brass 'lid' that he slid aside and then inserted the 'key' into the brass keyhole. The resounding click as the key shot home and out of his hands told me plenty.

“That's a magnet, and you just unlatched the gate,” I said. “Now, these doors are, uh, specially designed so they swing open with s-some effort...”

Willem moved one door open with one hand, and as the door opened perhaps six inches, the key ejected itself back into his hand as if it did indeed have a mind of its own. The other door was doing the same as its twin regarding movement, and as I rode inside 'first', I looked down to see not merely a deeply-laid track covered over by concrete, but also a tunnel, one that went under the wall, this for the storage of special things, and more, so one could maintain the mechanism of the door. However, in its current state of 'cold' and 'dry', it was still functioning well, though what was in this place's secret passages and this one very-well-hid stairway made me wonder more than a little. I could find the stairway. I knew that much.

It made me glad I had a ready-packed 'battery torch', and more glad yet that Willem had an issue with rodents in the place – as Esther needed to practice shooting, and this location, provided she used due caution, would work well for practicing with the two weapons she would most likely actually 'use' while we were overseas.

The area inside the wide-flung walls of this place was paved with large stone blocks, these showing little wear, and the cracks showing among the blocks themselves so thin that one could barely discern where they were joined, even after hundreds of years. I wondered less when one of the yard-square blocks 'went gauzy' to show its thick reinforcing rods; then, I knew why that method had been chosen by the one who had updated the plans.

“They'll get full copies of those plans overseas, by the way,” said the soft voice. “They're really going to enjoy reading you.”

“Will they like this place?” I asked.

“Yes, as Willem, to put it mildly, thinks his family tree has a lot of marked people in it,” said the soft voice. “He's right as to the quality issue, only he's seriously underestimated the number and 'level' of their markings, and also, he's underestimated the absolute number of marked people in his lineage.” Pause, then, “and before this whole mess plays out, he will get marked – and that to such a degree that he will become 'the cannon-monster'.”

The unspoken portion, at least to me, was that Willem would be instrumental in saving the world from Brimstone's jaws, fully as much as myself.

Willem looked at me in the strangest fashion, then, “I may be good with guns, at least by the standards up here, but I am not a monster for shooting.” Pause, then, “I heard some of that. Could you tell me the rest, you, Sarah, or Esther.”

“You said you were surprised you were not marked,” said Sarah. “I will receive markings myself, possibly enough to be thought a 'monster', Willem, and you yourself will get some – though what kind and how many is something yet of a mystery beyond 'they will have a substantial effect upon you, and your services will be needed to save this place from going to hell in a very important way' – and what is more of a mystery to me is some of your back rooms. I've never been in them, and I now wonder why.”

“Perhaps show Esther how to pot rats?” I asked. “Let her try out your smaller pistol, as those are the easiest to handle of what we have.” Pause. “Perhaps to get her used to 'quiet' shooting? She did receive two of those with suppressors.”

“Smallest?” asked Esther. “How small?”

Sarah pulled hers out of her satchel, and Esther gasped. “That is not a small pistol at all. It reminds me of some I've heard Paul talk about, ones named dragoons.”

“Do not speak to me of dragoons,” said Sarah dangerously. “I had to put a bomb to a real one of those things not two days ago, and that thing stank of hell, and it was as hard as any twenty witches you could think of, and it flamed worse than an old tale – and only one lizard, that thing which we name Brimstone, was worse than that wretch named Iggy.”

Hearing Sarah speak of 'Ee-Gg-Hee' – the way she said that lizard's name had three distinct syllables – was enough to give me the worst flashback of the day, one where I was sliding under the head of that stinky thing so as to ram my sword to its hilt into its brain and 'still' the beast.

“That thing was an old tale, dear,” I said. “It needed to be cut up and rotting in a manure pile before it truly quit, and I think that defines the word 'hard'.” Pause, then, “Willem, we do have a few decent 'swine-guns', and I suspect you'll like them a lot.”

“Which ones do you speak of?” asked Sarah. “The ones on those small trailers, like my buggy?”

I nodded.

“Willem,” said Sarah with utmost seriousness, “these guns he speaks of will drill clean through an Iron Pig, no matter where you hit it or how good its plate, and that will be so if you can see that pig.”

“Then that is a gun I wish to see,” said Willem. “I've got three ready guns, and two ready tubes for replacements, and I'll show you-all those first, as I doubt he's seen one up close before.”

“Uh, I did briefly while on guard-duty in the house proper, but I was sick from that nasty drink those thugs were swilling in that one room off of General's Row,” I said, “so I really didn't notice much.” Pause, then, “I do have some ideas for your guns, though, and that will help them more than a little.”

“That was what I was hoping to hear,” he said. “Between you and Esther, I hope I can get more pigs and those plated-up wretches that follow them.” Pause, then, “now, we can open the doors to the manse itself.”

Again, the paired doors: forbidding, cold, black iron, rivet-studded, hinges hidden, blocking the yawning mouth of this massive place. Willem had never had the time to see but a portion of it, and only that part he worked in and perhaps three or four out of nearly twenty rooms were in use at this time. I'd drastically underestimated the size of this place, and when the doors swung apart, the first thing I saw was within the darkness were a trio of brass lanterns, these looking far too familiar to be anything else.

“Good, you have decent lanterns,” I said. “They're easier to keep running...”

“Could you get them working?” asked Willem plaintively. “I heard this type can take aquavit, and I have plenty of that, but these things look too much like those witches use, those distillate-burning things they like, and I'm afraid that is what they are.”

Seeing Willem genuinely afraid was a first for me, so much so that when I found a stool and stood on it to take one down, I laughed. I almost tried singing the lines to an opera, only it came out really strange – as in I knew very little Italian, even if I was 'getting' the Valley's language in a great hurry.

O Sole méo, con Losá brilla...

“Now that sounds familiar,” said Willem. “That's the Valley's talk. Now those things from the Valley?”

“This one, yes,” I said. “About fifty years old if I guess right, meaning I can most likely persuade it to work readily. Here, Sarah, hold onto this one, and let me get those others.”

I handed down the lantern to Sarah, who then began reading the writing on the nameplate. She then said, “Willem, this isn't a commonplace Valley lantern, though those are bright enough. This one's nearly as bright as one of those silvery ones you can get from the fourth kingdom.”

“Oh, then it's probably a good thing for a place like this,” I said, as I handed down another such lantern. This time, I had noticed its mesh portion, and that indeed was larger than the one we had at home, but the third lantern, while it was also from the Valley, was in some crucial way different.

“If you are a bad lantern, then become a good one,” I said, as I jumped off the stool and set the thing on the stones of the floor. “Let me get a good ten feet clear, as I've been tossed enough for today and I don't much care for being tossed by fetishes or explosives.” I continued backing away, then at a 'range' of about fourteen feet, I pointed my finger at the lantern and said, “change!”

The lantern simply hopped in the air, and faintly, a fog of some kind blew off of it, one so faint and ethereal that I was not sure I was seeing it – conventionally or otherwise. I cautiously came closer, and now noticed a definite difference compared to its former state, that being compared to when I had been backing away from it after setting it on the floor.

“This one's really clean,” I said, as I tried unlocking the pumping knob, which did so readily, much as if the lantern were 'new', “and it feels, uh, 'good'. Perhaps we can put some aquavit in it and then try it out.”

A jug of 'Paul's latest' was procured, and I took out my small screened funnel from my possible bag. Willem was looking at this with a consuming interest, and when I tested the air pump portion of the lantern and found it 'dry', I rubbed a small amount of red-paste into the leather from the tube in my possible bag.

“Probably about all I got to do with these things,” I said, as I began pumping the filled lantern. “My, this thing is really working good.”

“Wait until you light it before you speak of it being 'good', as you didn't just change the one. You changed all of them,” said the soft voice.

“I did?” I asked, as I 'cracked' the fuel valve and twisted the lighter knob.

I then set the thing down on the floor, and backed away, shielding my eyes as I did so.

Within ten seconds, the 'soot' had burned off the wire mesh inside the thing, and when I looked at the thing, I gasped, “Sun Brand! That thing is as bright as looking straight into the Sun itself!”

Sarah picked it up, then turned it down to a comfortable yellow-white glow. It was still amply bright for real work to be done. She then spoke of something I had no knowledge of, as I had been focused on getting the thing into a position to 'give light'.

“It has a new nameplate, even if it is still written in the Valley's language.”

“Turn it around and look on the other side,” said the soft voice. “Those lanterns now have two placards – and that second one may very well surprise you.”

Sarah then read, “Sun Lantern, Natural Light Intensity and Color, alcohol fuel only, do not use distillate.” Here, Sarah spoke louder, much as if she were encountering a new language, accenting certain words of especial importance with a sharp tone, one of command. “Danger! Extreme Danger! Do Not Use Distillate. Only use alcohol-based fuel.”

“Hence fill it up with the stuff in that type of jug,” I said, pointing to the jug of aquavit. “Paul makes plenty of good aquavit, he's just down the road about five minutes from where you live if you're of a mind for walking while not wasting time, and he should have an easier time making enough of that 'juice' to keep this place lit decently so you can work in here. Now, let me work on these others, and see if they changed in the same way.”

They indeed had been, save that while the first one had kept its original size of fuel tank, these had larger tanks – easily two inches wider, and three deeper – and larger top reflectors as well. I mumbled something about 'farmer's lanterns', then once I had filled these two guzzlers – they had drained the jug between the two of them – I began pumping them one at a time, then lit them off, first one, then the other. I then hung one of them up, then took the stool to hang lantern number three up some twenty feet away. The area between them, as well as another twenty feet to each side of both lanterns, was now bright enough to work on things that required good lighting.

“Are we lit decent, or are we?” I asked, as I pointed to the area in question. There were yet regions of darkness, as now I saw the size of this 'central room' for how big it truly was – and I had been off as to my guess as to the sheer number of rooms in this 'armory'.

There were well over twenty such rooms, and this place was intended to stand up to serious artillery attack, as the outer walls were easily several feet thick and were covered with mounded dirt to each side, such that the place reminded me of a bunker, one where one could stay out of danger from things like rotten cannons.

“Better than ever,” said Willem thankfully, walking to my left as I got off of the stool. “Now, over here are the guns themselves. I've been cleaning them out, with Paul helping me as he can, and behind that gun over there is the place that has wind.” He'd been pointing to the guns, one by one, and they were the huge things of my recollection, long barrels and all.

After all, they were intended to shoot at four-legged tanks, and hence maximum muzzle velocity was the goal with these things. What I would tell Willem over the next hour or so would increase that capacity to no small degree.

“Wind?” I asked. I wondered just what he meant.

“Go in that room there and see what it's like,” said Willem. “I need to get out the gaging tools to show you how these guns are, as I think that's an important matter for what you and Esther are likely to tell me.”

As I walked toward the 'doorway' indicated, I found that not only did I have Sarah with me, but also Esther. The latter woman had never 'seen' this place clearly, or so I thought until I slid aside the door and heard the humming of what sounded like a vast hive. I looked up, and then saw the 'stack', this open to the sky, and near the top some thirty feet or more above my head, a wide-bladed fan steadily rotated, its turning by my guess nearly a hundred revolutions per minute. It was easily six or more feet across, with this roughly octagonal room better than twice that at its widest. One could fit one of Willem's guns in here, tail and all, though that would require careful maneuvering and a lot of work – and then cleaning the bore was likely to be something of a chore.

I then stepped onto the 'platform' and caught the distinct 'blast' that fan generated. This was a veritable windstorm, one so powerful that any fume-making material would be blown away quickly. I looked down through the grating, and there, I saw what might have been a subterranean gallery.

“You could almost fly in this wind,” I said. “Probably want to leave the door open a crack, so as to get some breeze in here on the warmer days.”

“It tends to stay fairly cool in here,” said Willem. “Now, with guns, if one wishes to have a chance of hitting one's target, one must know them well, and know each gun well, especially as to the condition of its bore. That is what this thing here is used for.”

“No bore-scopes, so you...” I looked down, seeing an obvious dynamite box, and gasped at what was in it.

“Oh, my,” I squawked. “This is a really long type of dial bore gage, and you can rotate it and find if your bore is scarred or pitted.”

What?” squawked Willem. “You went clean over my head with that round-shot. Now say it again, say it slower, and...”

“He was speaking of just how tight or loose your guns were,” said Sarah, “only he was speaking as if he could see what is actually in them.”

I let Willem assemble his 'gage', though more than once I had to stop him and correct his assembly procedure, as some of his threads had become 'messed up' and he was having difficulty; he was inclined to force matters then, and I needed to take the pieces away from him more than once, then thread them together by feel once I'd cleaned the threads with first an aquavit-dampened rag and then a fine needle file of triangular pattern. The softness of the brass told me why care was needed in assembling this thing, and forcing matters was a bad choice.

I had learned that a long time ago: “if you are forcing matters, you are probably doing the job wrong – save if you are doing something that demands an interference fit.”

I'd done my share of work on things like that, including several two-stroke engine crankshafts. One was to my last bike, though another man had checked my work while I doing it, and the others had been years later and less than half the size – as well as made 'in house', save for the bearings themselves. It made for an interesting idea regardless 'generator engines' here, and seeing an obvious press-fit crankshaft recently had told me plenty.

Once the gun-gage was assembled, though, it meant 'ramming' the gun, as he put it in an absurdly 'quaint' sounding fashion – or so I thought until Sarah corrected me; I was not used to 'gunner's speech' – and while Sarah supported the head of the gage, I showed Willem just what I meant by 'scarring' and 'pitting'. The gage was very sensitive, so much so that I could see irregularities in the bore caused by the boring process itself.

This gun needed honing and lapping, and it had not received it; more, whoever bored it had done a bad job, in my estimation. Hence the usual 'bad' results with these things, which educated my speech as I slowly 'felt the gun out'.

Willem needed to learn to speak my language, also – if he wanted to drill pigs consistently.

“Watch the dial here, Willem,” I said, as I slowly 'screwed' the gage down the bore. “See how I'm twisting it?” He nodded. “This thing has got one feeler, and if you rotate it like I'm doing, you can find gouged places running the length of the bore, or little, uh, round ditches, like holes in a bad road – as well as if your gun is bored badly, as this one seems to be.” Pause, then, “you do not want those bad places in your gun, nor do you want a badly-done bore as then your shot or shell rattles around as it goes out of the gun, it doesn't fly true, and you miss what you're shooting at. Do you understand?”

Again, he nodded – though when I'd gotten the gage about halfway down the bore, the needle suddenly leaped about like a spastic frog. I said, “this is a bad place here. Now I'm going to find out just how big it is by moving this gage back and forth and side to side. See what that needle on the gage is doing? If you know how to 'read' these things, you can almost see what's inside of the barrel right here, and I've done this type of thing a lot – just not on artillery.”

I could tell I was making a deep impression on someone, though whether Willem would pick up all I was saying and doing was something that had me wondering, at least until he spoke a second later.

“What have you done it on beforehand?” asked Willem, as I determined that this was a 'one-half-unit' deep 'trench' gouged by a badly-cast round-shot rammed down in the heat of battle. Such was the price of war: your gear could, and sometimes did, get damaged – even when you did your very best to prevent such things happening.

“Engines, mostly, though I've measured lots of holes by this means and in other ways in general,” I said. “When I speak of engines, I do not mean the kind of engines Sarah has blown up, nor like that one nasty one at the Abbey, but a number of those I worked on before I came here, and a pair of smaller ones since I came here.”

“One of those drives that blower,” said Paul. “You can hear it for miles when that furnace runs, and I heard talk of what that engine is like.”

“It is not one of those used by this potter about four or five miles from here, is it?” asked Willem. He sounded distinctly alarmed, much as if he was an especially good information-gatherer. I then recalled he had the local version of a 'teletype' unit in this place, he read that stuff a lot out of necessity, and hence was far better-informed than most of the people in the area.

Also, his job as a cannon-master demanded that he know his area and what happened in it as well as was humanly possible.

“No, it does not use distillate for fuel,” said Sarah. “It may be the smallest damp-motor I have ever seen, but it turns faster than anything I've ever seen, also – and it's built like a navigating timer, it's so close.”

Further measurements, however, showed nothing worse than that single 'trench', and as I began slowly backing out the gage, I asked, “how old is this gage, who made it, and have you ever had it checked?”

“There's records of that kept in its box, same as I try to do with most things relating to guns and those things like them,” said Willem. I continued backing up, then as the head of the gage cleared the gun, Willem said, “mind that chain-fall behind you, there. That's the gun-crane overhead, and it uses a chain to haul up the barrels when they need to be lifted from the carriages.”

“Your two spare tubes?” I asked, as I moved over to the next gun. I needed to show Willem again. Repetition was a key matter in teaching people in this area, I now realized; most of them needed a lot of practice before they got even simple matters 'right'.

“They're over on the racks past that doorway,” he said, as he bent down and removed a small – and very old – leather-bound ledger. This thing positively reeked of age and use as he paged through it. “Here. This was my father's writing, and he sent it in...” Here, Willem was obviously thinking; he had to remember quite a bit, even if his writing skills were well above average for this area. I suspected he did better than most who had done years at one of the lesser higher schools – with the west school turning out the only truly literate people in the five kingdoms. “About forty years ago, which is a year before I was born, and that was to the Heinrich works, so I guess they either checked it or they actually made it.”

“Went more by their reputation than all else, as they aren't as nearly as good as everyone thinks they are, save in a few areas,” I muttered.

“I know that, but I suspect he knew it was 'send it to them or not get it done',” said Willem, “and being a gunner, not getting it done was not an option, so he did what he could, and I...” Here he read, this out loud: “'checks good, accurate to one half a line, which is half of a measure on the gage'.”

“Then that 'bad spot' isn't all that bad,” I said. “It looked like a stinking gouge with this thing.”

“Hence it's actually a fairly good gage if it's properly assembled, like you did,” said the soft voice. “It might not be nearly as accurate as those you picked up yesterday, but you can get a very good idea of a given gun's condition with it.”

“How many of these are there?” I asked.

“Two that I know of, this one and the other over at Manfred's, though why he uses these leather and wood things on his shot is beyond me.”

“It is not beyond me as to why he does that, as he learned of it somehow,” said Esther – who then addressed me specifically. “Now, describe these things you called shoes for his shot, and how to bag up his powder in advance so he gets consistent results – because that hotter powder wants weighing, not the usual scoop-full load that's too easy to be sloppy with when you're facing swine. I make what I can of that stuff here, though that isn't terribly often.”

“And I don't dare run that thing without her handy to keep me out of trouble,” said Willem. “Southern cleaning solution is bad enough when it's used in that windy room, but making powder in here scares me the color of an old tin plate.” Pause, then, “only plated-up Iron Pigs are worse, and anyone who says he's not scared of those things is a stinky witch of a liar.”

“I'll buy that,” I said. “Any pig that can stand up to that much firepower isn't a joke, plate or no plate, and that's even when the stinking thing's the size one might make bacon out of – as I shot up one of those black pigs today, and it looked like it was going to get to me until I shot out its eyes and put several holes in its chest.”

“What did you do that with?” asked Esther. “I'm getting my ledger out here, as while my writing is worse than awful, I can draw well, and I would like to know of this stuff you called bacon.” Pause, then “it sounds like something I had best avoid, so I must know all I can about it.”

“His writing is worse than yours, Esther, and bacon will make you spew from both ends for hours, even if it is not cooked by a witch,” said Sarah, who then turned as if pulled by an invisible string. Her voice had a peculiar inflection. “Now that I've seen before. You've got the good stuff there.”

“This?” asked Willem, as he upheld a blue-colored jug with red lettering on it. “So I've heard. It does work well, better than the usual type – but the only place to use it in here is that one place with the wind, or it would blow the place to hell and gone.” Pause, then speaking to me, “what did you shoot that pig with? The same as that other pig, or what?”

“No, he used his new rifle,” said Sarah. “He must have hit that thing twenty times at the least, and he was sounding like he was shooting one of these shorter ones when it's set fit to put one in the privy – though you do get over that part if you practice it some, as I learned earlier today.”

Twenty times?” asked Willem. “How could he do that? I might have shot a few witches last night a number of times as fast I could count if I worked at it, but twenty? Those pigs move too fast to put that much lead into them, even with these new weapons.”

“Your finger isn't half as quick as his, Willem,” said Sarah ominously. “He had one part in that bloody mess we did down there in Ploetzee where it sounded like he was shooting a broom with that thing, and it put cat-whistles everywhere around him, and put a lot of them on him, and it put some in his hair, and there were piles of them where he was kneeling and shooting.”

“How long could you count?” asked Willem.

“Willem, there wasn't time to count,” said Sarah. “When you are shooting up the place with roers and fowling pieces and what we have, and it's altogether crowded with beds straight from Smokestack Heroes, and there are swarms of these blue-suited thugs that come at you as if they are fifth kingdom mining town thugs with a full load of forty-chain in them...”

Sarah paused, then slowly nodded. “That's exactly what they are like. They are like fifth kingdom mining town thugs, ones that have gone through half a jug of forty-chain a day for six months straight, and when they come for you, it is kill or be killed. They are not like those northern people, as I've seen them run when I've gotten good bursts among them, and those blue-suited thugs don't stop for anything when they've a mind to come for you. If you want them stopped, they must be made entirely dead – and I cut the head off of one with my knife when he hurt me, as that wretch was as hard as they come, almost. Only Iggy himself was worse than that wretch, and you have not faced a fire-spewing dragoon!”

Willem was now shaking like a leaf in a blinding hailstorm tossing down buckets of hail the size of roer-balls, and he had to put the jug of cleaning solution down, as dropping that jug was a very bad idea.

Paul took up the jug – why, I wasn't sure; anyone who'd not endured Iggy or masses of hard-witches would have been petrified dealing with that many of those blue-suited thugs, and Iggy was not fun to be around – and put it on a shelf I had not seen before, this old, of wood, darkly stained by either age or something that kept wood 'good' for a very long time, and sturdy-looking enough to support several hundred pounds of lead ingots.

I suspected Willem had more than just 'kegs' of bad musket balls. He had his own 'stash' of lead – a 'stash' that was older than anyone in this room at the least – and he had also gotten lead when and where he could.

Hans had nothing on Willem when it came to getting lead, and I suspected much of that hoarded stuff found in that one town had come to the manse by some strange manner.

“I've not heard this broom,” said Paul. “What was it like to hear?”

“No, I did not either, but I did hear something roar like a mule that was being poked with a swine-spear,” spat Willem. “That thing fouled my underclothing good.”

“That is a bit like what the broom is when it is working,” said Sarah, “but the broom, or a pill that is too large in one of those things he was using then – they're awful. They make a noise like a big Howl, one of the ones they have around here when it is coming down out of the sky, only a lot louder; and then it looks like this big long streak of lightning when he's firing that thing, and then these red sparks are going out of the front like a red beam sometimes, and the whole is enough to frighten one out of one's wits.”

“Since when was I getting tracers?” I asked silently.

“If you want those, ask – and don't be shy about asking for 'other' things, also, like some strange bullets you've heard of being used in one or more wars where you came from,” said the soft voice, who seemed to be mentioning words like 'Raufoss' and 'Pomeroy' while speaking of this other matter. I knew about both of those, one being older than I was by at least forty years and the other currently in use at the time I'd been taken here. Again, I heard speech germane to the present. “Now, Esther is ready for drawing, and Sarah needs to ask her about chalk, as she is much inclined to it.”

“Chalk I have, and to spare,” said Esther. “When we pack you two up to go later today, I'll make sure to get you some. You want colors, or your usual?”

“Colors,” said Sarah, “and as much of it as you can spare for chalk, as we will have a use for it both here and overseas.” Pause. “We got pelted with money so much today that I'm altogether sore from it, and I found three more of those gold coins he calls monsters in my satchel since I got in the manse, so I can give you at least one of them for the chalk, or two if you need more.”

Monster?” asked Willem. “That's a new one. Since when is a coin a monster?”

“Willem, wait about two to three weeks, go into the kingdom house with that rifle you were issued last night, find a line of coaches, and then shoot those stinky things with it until they explode, and then you learn just why he calls them that,” spat Sarah. She was getting exasperated. Today had 'gotten through to her' in a most-substantial way. “When one of those gold coins clouts you in the head, it will leave a big rising, and if you really get buried with money, you'll be nothing but risings – and we got buried at least once today in the kingdom house that I can remember, and I've had enough happen today already to last me a month!”

“Sounds like you learned of something far worse than 'too much swine',” said Esther's wry voice. “Now, if you are speaking of those gold coins, then you are right, as they do hurt if you get hit with one and it's sent to you by dynamite.” Esther spoke as if she knew from experience, and what she next said proved it. “I've caught my share of flying money lately, and I've been hoarding those coins same as I hoard beer-jugs, as it costs money to kill pigs and witches, and bombing isn't a cheap business, not if you wish it done right.”

“Now you've heard it from three people, Willem, or you will when I finish,” I spat. “Let your money fly like rain? Hah! Just you wait until you nail your first line of stinky-mule-drawn coaches and the money coming from them exploding breaks every window in the area when they all go up like powder mills, like I did in town today using that broom!”

“I shall wish to be down behind a wall then,” said Esther. “Now, these shoes. Wood, correct? Turned to fit the shot on the inside of the front, and...”

I went over to Esther's drawing, and wiped it with my hand. The drawings multiplied in number, they all acquired a high degree of detail with contrasting colors, a large number of clearly numbered labels, lettering neat and dark in several colors, and the whole most definitely inked, with a glossy 'plastic' finish to seal in the colors and give the drawing a high degree of durability in spite of rough handling and dirty fingers.

Artillery was a dirty business, which made me wonder about tonight. I'd never fired a cannon before, but tonight promised to be an example of 'shooting of the highest caliber', at least for myself and Anna. It made me glad Sarah was experienced, just like we would all become experienced shortly.

They would know about being experienced overseas, as that one man had spoken of the matter at some length – and what he meant by his enigmatic last line was not what most people thought it was.

I had long suspected he had spoken about 'jumping out of perfectly good airplanes' when he was writing that one, even though I did have some few doubts about the matter – as looking up into the canopy would indeed be 'beautiful' – as in the thing had functioned properly, and one would not 'become stoned' by free-falling into the hard stony ground.

“There,” I said, as I shook off the coming nighttime nightmare of firing an honest-to-God cannon. “That's for the shoes, or 'Sabots' as they were called where I came from. Those done like that will seal up even loose bores, and they'll stabilize the shots to a degree, so they will fly straighter, and then they will hit a lot harder, with more velocity at the muzzle and downrange, where it counts.”

“How much harder?” asked Willem, as he looked at what had shown on Esther's drawing. “This looks as if it can be done in town, and I do have a fair amount of leather. I do my own tanning, as getting decent leather is nearly impossible up this way, and every tanner I've seen in the area is a curse-chanting witch for labor and results, and that won't do when the guns must roll.”

“And the...” I paused, then, “question. When you hitch up a gun-team, how many horses do you use, and then in what order do you travel once you're 'rolling' toward the pigs or whatever?”

“First, there's the team,” said Willem. “If you've got good horses, put grain to them regular like Sarah showed me to, and put enough grain to them consistently, then four will do the distance to the field and last the day. If you don't feed your animals right, or you have boggy fields to cross, you want more horses, but most gunners worth their powder do what I do, or they do the best they can.”

Pause, this while Willem drank from a very-familiar-looking cup. It was a twin of mine, in fact, and seeing 'beer' made for a thirst in my case – a thirst that needed no less than four such cupfuls and then another dose of that 'strong' tincture.

I then noted the pain in my knees. It was rapidly receding, and also, my head was clearing nearly as rapidly. Willem then resumed, once I was drinking 'normally'. He seemed to 'understand' that part.

“Then, once you have your horses,” he said, this while still looking at the drawing, “you get your gun-chest. That's usually fairly light, and two members of the gun-team can set on it, while the pointer rides the right-lead horse of the team. Then, hitched to the gun-chest is the gun itself, and the other two members of the team ride their own horses, as sometimes horses get hurt or killed when you're fighting swine, and then you want spares of everything you can carry readily, so I'm usually driving a buggy with two more horses on leads behind it.”

“Helps if you get into a boggy place, also,” I said. “Now, the next thing is bagged and weighed powder charges. Sarah tells me you have a lot of niter in here, all of it, uh, 'royal property', or something similar, so you want to make a saturated solution of good well-cleaned niter in hot water, get some, uh, cheaper cloth – needs to have a good tight weave, sort of like slightly used, uh... What were those rags we used when Sarah and I were sampling Paul's liniment and spewing from its smell?”

“Diapers I didn't need for the twins, as they became privy-trained a bit earlier than I thought they would,” said Esther. “The others, those that were used up by them, were sold off to rag-merchants.” Pause, then “I can get that cloth readily, as I talk to the freighters who fetch the chalk more than a little, and the cloth is made or sold in the same area.” Another pause, then, “I clean for two of them, and the freighters I know all live in the same town.”

“Hence you ask for rolls of 'diaper cloth', pay for it, then sell it to the women in town with children needing it at a modest markup for your time and trouble – or am I all wet?” I asked.

“You have not raised children,” said Esther. “I was carrying a pair not three years ago, so I do diaper-cloth at cost, and the same for whatever is needed to get this place away from the witches, and all else that is needed to keep it out of the mouth of Brimstone.” Pause, then, “otherwise, I might ask for one guilder out of ten, as I've talked to the man who runs the Mercantile where you live more than once about such matters, and he calls that a fair rate. Pause. “Sarah tells me it's actually a bit better than fair, given the labor involved on my part.”

“That was what I meant by an honest markup,” I said. “You have needs of a financial nature – some of them quite substantial – you have only so much time available to you, you need to try to keep your bills paid, and therefore you need to do your best.” Pause, then, “does that sound like a better explanation of what I meant by 'modest markup'? As in 'your time is worth something'?”

“Yes, very much so,” said Esther. “I misjudged you more than a little.”

“He does not like money, Esther,” said Sarah. Her tone was more than a little ominous-sounding. “He does not like handling it, even when it's been lye-cleaned and boiled in vinegar after.” Pause, then, “he's worse than I am that way, and that by a great deal.”

Sarah seemed to think, then seemingly to no one in particular, “now who can we use for the trip to handle that filthy stuff? I do not trust Karl with it, and I rather doubt Sepp wishes to deal with those people at the port.”

“Gabriel,” I said flatly, my tone hard-edged and without inflection. “He'll need to disburse most of it anyway, at least in the third kingdom's port, and given his need to dress plainly and hide as much of himself as he can, much as if he were wearing burn-clothing...”

“You have it!” shrieked Sarah. “That is just what we will do, and there is a suite of that stuff at the house proper that will fit him with but slight trimming here and there. It might take me an hour, if that.”

“So that trouble is solved,” said Paul – who, for once, seemed to actually see the matter to be as dire as it genuinely was. “Bagged charges, weighed carefully. He has a decent scale here, but how are those best stowed?”

“Tie them into the leather cup and onto the shoe the round-shot rides,” I said. “Tie them in place with string that's been dipped good in a near-boiling niter solution – oh, and you want to do that with the cloth for your powder bags. Then, we sow up the bags...” Pause, then, “I'll give that sewing machine a try myself, and maybe Anna will try it. Can't be worse than knitting – or will it? I remember doing knitting once or twice when I was small, and I seemed to manage, even if I've not done it since, unlike sewing of one kind or another.”

I had stares at me from everyone save Sarah, who said, “that does not surprise me, as I've seen your sewing, and I suspect Anna has exaggerated how slow you are.”

You make me look slow,” I muttered.

“Yes, and I cannot drive rivets like you do, either,” said Sarah. “So there. We will figure out a way to get Willem's charges bagged up and weighed, and then...” Sarah was looking at her machine pistol. She was still carrying that, much as I was. Those were light enough, thankfully. “You... Just like what goes in these things, only without the brass part!”

“Very good, dear,” I said. “Now, another matter. Instead of friction igniters, I'd like to make an actual lock for each of your guns, such that you insert it into the touch-hole after priming it with a thimble, and then you get instant ignition, rather than, uh, pull the string and start counting until the gun fires and hope you put in enough lead on your target if it's moving fast.”

“Good ones might give you a chance to say 'one',” said Willem dryly, “or they did, if they were fresh-made.” Pause, then, “those ones you-all do that are dipped in wax are the hottest things I've ever used, and those fire faster than a flint-musket.”

“Yes, and a thimble-musket is faster still, which is what he is turning your guns into,” said Sarah. “Now you know about bagged-up musket balls, but I think you want to put those strange wooden shoes behind them, also.”

“Tie those bags on with string, not thin brass wire,” I said, “or use a double-ended shoe, one with the powder at one end in one leather cup, and the bagged balls in the other cup, and just tie both bags in place with string.” I went over to Esther's ledger, then wiped it again with my hand. I could faintly feel the crackle of static under my fingers, this an eerie feeling that I had felt many times before coming here. I had wondered why I had not felt it earlier here.

The change this time, however, was not merely the page she had been working on became vastly more detailed. Esther was commendably quick, and quite accurate, but she'd managed perhaps one page's worth of drawings in total since my last instance of wiping.

My static-crackling wipe had multiplied that labor into three pages, all of them glossy, inked, labeled neatly, and a trifle slippery to the touch. Esther was astonished, and that greatly.

“That's happened a lot lately, because it needs to,” said Sarah, as she looked through the pages that had shown, this showing details of all I had spoken of – and some details that I had not, that being the precise nature of this gun-lock's construction. It would need modification of the cannons, such that the lock could be pinned in place after insertion, unlike friction igniters, which usually flew out the touch-hole when the gun actually fired. Such pinning would prevent leaks from that source. “It can be scary if he finds a book done up by witches.”

“What happens then?” asked Esther. She was looking the pages over, this as if devouring all they said and showed.

“Those things go up like Harvest-Day squibs,” said Sarah, “or fool-hens, should they be roosting in a bush and you kick them out of it.”

“You should know enough to not do that,” said Esther. “Now you had a fowling piece when you did that, didn't you? Stiff loads, and the best common shot you could get?”

“Yes, I did, and I blew feathers off those birds every time,” said Sarah. “We had a good pot that night at school, and I and one of my classmates usually did things after dinner with the bones.”

“What would those be?” I asked. I was all but laughing, as I could guess what she most likely did, and that gave me some ideas – ideas that needed to go in one or the other of the two 'training manuals' I was working on.

Our coming visitors, they who wore black, smelled terrible, and who were prone to drunkenness and cursing, would not enjoy the implementation of these ideas.

“If there was a bad lecturer in school, we would get into his rooms and put the bones in his clothing,” said Sarah, “though sometimes I did more than that.” Pause, then, “I put a stunned rat to the rat-man, as he talked about those things constantly.” Pause, this to drink. “I suppose he liked that rat, given his way of lecturing.”

“Decent sized, uh, white rat?” I asked.

“Three feet long in the body, and more for the tail, though it was a common one and not one of those white things,” said Sarah. “I dosed it with a full tube of the widow's tincture after I stunned it, so it would stay stunned for a while, and I waited up for him to go out prowling later that night, because he'd gone to get into some of this really strong wine they sell down there in some places that look respectable and are really closer to fifth kingdom drink-houses, and he'd be as drunk as a stinker when when he returned.” Pause. “I think that rat got to him, as the whole school heard him yelling for a quarter of an hour by the clock, and he was gone the next day.”

Esther was grinning, then laughed – her laugh a high, giddy, almost howling gale of laughter that made me wonder for a minute if she was 'sane'.

“So they will think me 'El Vato Loco' down in the third kingdom's port,” I thought. “I do act crazy enough some of the time to pass for one of those people, and my hair is as long as those of the Mule Totem, and I do do a lot of work during the night-time.”

“Try more like 'all of the time',” said the soft voice regarding my supposed 'insanity', “and what you and Sarah did today with those functionaries would scare a battle-hardened tsoldato green.”

“So now I am officially out of my mind,” I murmured. “Now what next shall happen? I shall start fires when I spit?”

“Not in here,” said Willem with alarm – though then he heard a faint ticking noise, one that seemed to echo in my mind. “A message!” he squawked. “Come, watch me!”

He ran into the darkness, seemingly heedless of all else, and while I paused to pick up that smaller lantern, the smell that assaulted me told me I had best not bring it closer. This was the 'ticker-room', one which had that monstrous clattering thing I had spoken of a short time earlier, and when I set the lantern down on the floor but a few feet from the door, he looked at me and shook his head, then said, “maybe for you, but it would not do for me.”

“The batteries give off a flammable gas,” I said.

“Yes, which is why I have this thing here,” said Sarah, as she brought out her tent-lantern. “Now you must know about batteries and crocks as they are commonly done here, as Lukas told me you'd seen some like what he has on those shelves there.” Sarah was pointing at the crocks in question, these easily the size of the meat-crock at home. I was surprised at their 'massive' size compared to the smaller ones I had seen in the fourth kingdom.

“No, not one of these,” I said, pointing to what was clicking and clacking like insanity itself – when it was not 'spitting' the paper strip out. Each set of punched holes had a good quarter-inch between them, and the strip of paper was over an inch in width. “Not this, uh, weird teletype that has this strange repeater device that you can send messages through the thing automatically.”

“You can do that when it's working right,” said Willem. “I put the sent messages into their grinder” – here, he indicated a strange hand-cranked device that looked more than a little like a small version of one of my grain-grinders – “then send the paper back to the place that makes these things in a bag when I get more paper.”

“Do you pay for it?” I asked.

“If I can spare it, I do, but this is something funded by the house proper up here,” said Willem. “There's one of these in the house proper, one in Ploetzee, two further north of here, and several on the run going south, and I think there might be one or more across the Main on the other side, and witches go after them like they're the worst fetishes imaginable.”

“They are not fetishes,” said Sarah. “The only people who can work on those are marked, and usually marked enough that they must live where they work and go out in burn-clothing when they do go out.”

“Which is not often for those two or three people,” I said. “They make do with poor equipment because they have nothing better to work with.”

“They have better equipment than you might think, and they know a lot less than you do,” said the soft voice. “They understand this stuff about as well as you understand what happens when you rub a drawing and it changes drastically.”

With Sarah's tent-lantern shining its light, I now entered another realm, one definitely one of those apportioned as 'the kingdom of boom', which I then muttered under my breath at catching another whiff of that gas.

“Willem,” I said. “This place stinks like a blasted privy. That's part of why those things you're pulling that paper out of go dead on you, as the contacts oxidize due to this, uh, hydrogen s-sulfide...”

It was all I could do to not run out of the place at saying that, as I knew that gas to be a deadly poison.

“Yes, where you came from it is,” said the soft voice, as I stopped in my tracks at the doorway. “Not only does that gas have a different molecular structure here, but it is not poisonous to most sentient beings.” Pause. “It is poisonous to witches who are inhabited beyond a certain point, which is why only 'strong' witches can run their equivalent devices.”

“Hydrogen?” I asked.

“And methane. And a number of alcohols, some of them too simple for you to believe that they exist – and, a trace of a chemical similar to that one Sarah spoke of as calling flies.”

“Ooh, that one burns good,” said Sarah. “No wonder they call these places deathtraps.”

“No, you just need good ventilation.” I looked up, then said, “so, that's part of the trouble. Willem, you have a bird-nest in your ventilation stack here”

“That is a bird-nest?” he said, as he looked up to see his 'hole' in the ceiling blocked. “Why is there a bird-nest up there?”

“Because some bird, most likely a fool-hen, thought it a likely place to make a nest, and those things come back to their nests for years,” said Sarah. “I'd wager that bird...”

I had found some odd 'rungs' stuck into the wall, and unburdened by nothing more than a machine pistol and what was in my pockets, I now found myself able to 'climb like a monkey' – as I all but shot up these things, going up into the cone of the vent-stack, then as I felt the whirling of a fan's blades, I asked quietly, “could this fan be, uh, declutched so I can do some maintenance on this thing?”

The fan came to an abrupt stop, and I reached up to so as to disturb the now-obvious twigs of a sizable bird's nest. The weight I felt told me there was something sitting on it, and the irritated squawk told me another matter.

“There is a stinking fool-hen up here, and it's sitting on some eggs!”

“No, not for another month,” shouted Sarah. “Punch that nest hard!”

I did more than that: I punched through the nest, grabbed the thumb-thick lower leg of an irritated twelve-pound bird, and then threw the thing down through its nest and onto the floor below.

I also had twigs in my clothing and hair as the nest rained down on top of me, and as I heard yells and shouts below, I said, this while climbing down the ladder as the fan once more 'spooled up' into a steady roar, “I know about that stupid bird, but at least this place has ventilation now.”

The bird, however, proved to be 'dead' once I had gotten down, as Esther had wrung its neck in a most-efficient matter, and had gone to fetch a bucket so as to 'clean' the thing. She'd taken the bird with her, or so I guessed by its absence.

“Where did she go?” I asked.

“I think she thinks to put that thing in a pot,” said Willem. “I'm most glad you fixed that thing up there, as now there is not merely no smell, but I can actually see in here without worrying about being blown to hell.”

“How did you do that?” asked Sarah.

“This special lantern that took candles,” said Willem. “It is tall, thin, has screens...”

“That is why they were blown up,” said Sarah. “That is the type of lantern they needed.”

“Sorry, dear,” I said. “They needed ones like what you have there, as those fumes go right through those screens and they will propagate the detonation right back to the source of the stuff.” Pause, then, “what? Distillate is cap-sensitive?”

“Thank you for telling me,” said Esther as she returned. “Now I know why those jugs explode as hard as they do when I do them up fit for fires and not merely put dynamite to them.” Pause, then, “now, Willem, you can see what you are doing, it no longer smells of a bad privy, and...”

“Needs to run paper through the contacts periodically so as to keep them burnished,” I said. “Rub a little bit of white rouge on both sides of that paper, Willem, just a little bit on your thumb and forefinger, and then put that through each contact after you get done with this message, and then...”

Willem was shaking. He said, “first, you get this place fixed, then you tell me what this thing does, and now you tell me how to help keep it working. What will you do next, fix my batteries?”

“That would help, yes,” I said. “That one chemist we rescued this morning...”

“Yes, so I know now,” said Willem. “This message is speaking of her being very busy at the house treating two guards who went out an an errand and became ill. It says they used this one buggy and somehow smoked the wheels, also.”

“They became ill?” asked Sarah. “What happened?”

“It seems she dosed them with uncorking medicine, and now both of them are drinking it, as much as they can hold, and that between beer, and each one of them...” Here, Willem made a strangled noise, and gasped, “squabs! How! The house was said to be shot out of witches earlier today!”

“I guess it wasn't, and the remaining stinkers waylaid them when they had trouble finding what they needed...” Pause, then, “they did not take one of the sleeved buggies, but an old one, one that's about due for sleeving, but no sleeves have come for it, so they...”

“I know that buggy, and it does not need sleeves,” said Sarah. “That one's fit for firewood, and I'm not surprised about its smoked wheels. They were most likely smoked before they left the grounds, the way that thing was. Now go on, one of you two, whoever has the better information.”

“He does,” said Willem. “That's all that's come through so far, and the message has broken off.”

“These things must go out quite a bit, don't they?” I asked.

“I would ride money on that being what happened,” actually,” said Willem. “Now it usually takes that character about an hour to change these, as he's not as used to doing so as I am, and he 'most always needs to get his wife to help him.”

“Good at keeping secrets, doesn't know plus from minus regarding electricity,” I spluttered. “Willem, get me a small piece of that paper and that rouge in that drawer there, and let me go over this thing while I'm here. That should keep it working passably for a while...”

Willem responded with alacrity, while Esther had once more vanished. Within perhaps a moment, she returned, this with a small cart and my possible bag.

“Paul has gone home in the buggy to put that bird on to boil, as he's cleaned it for me,” said Esther. “It should be done in time for dinner, and I'll dry the remaining meat once it's been boiled thoroughly.”

“Boiled fool-hen?” I asked.

“Boiling those like that helps a lot, especially if you used this bad-smelling jugged wine from the fourth kingdom, that and this good salt I only recently learned about from Anna when she brought a batch of tincture by,” said Esther. “It gets most of the grease out of those things, and we sell that to a soap-maker after cleaning it well twice.”

“You could sell it to Anna now, as I've learned how to do up that special tallow that has no odor, and the grease from quolls works in it, or so I learned last night,” said Sarah.

“Glassblower's wire, the fine-drawn stuff,” I murmured. “Put one of those things I did for the special lanterns in the tallow-and-water mixture instead of tin, and...”

“Then you will get our latest jug of grease for your trouble,” said Esther. “I have wanted tallow without odor for ages, as it helps keep leather soft and pliable.”

I now demonstrated what I meant by 'contact cleaning' and when I began 'papering' the contacts followed by a cleaning with aquavit between each such 'run', the amount of dirt that came out made for gasping.

“Good Lord, what happened here? Don't they burnish these things?” I gasped.

“No, and they don't do that good of a job on those, chiefly because they do not understand what they are doing in the slightest,” said the soft voice. “Remember, that handful of people may be among the best with their hands in that area, but they know little about this equipment beyond 'follow the directions exactly' – which they do better than nearly everyone else in their area, which is why they get such results as they get.” Pause, then, “those drawings are not only very old, but very special – as in they were drawn by Rachel herself, lettered by a copyist who took exact dictation of Rachel's words and followed her directions exactly, and then inked by that same exacting but otherwise quite 'dense' individual.”

“Quite 'dense'?” I asked.

“Much like that one person at Ploetzee who was 'two bricks short of a load' who was a good worker of copper but all but worthless otherwise,” said the soft voice. “This person took dictation exactly, had excellent penmanship, and inked what Rachel had drawn in a very precise and exact manner – and then Rachel had that set of drawings beeswax-impregnated with no small amount of care.” Pause, then, “the people working on these things, while they are not dense, simply do not understand how they work, because no one teaches those subjects whatsoever in the five kingdoms and no self-respecting Elektrikalé bothers to go into the fourth kingdom.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“Because they will have no work in their chosen trade,” said the soft voice, “and since they must work outside of it – and usually in an area where they aren't very good – they tend to come up into the first kingdom, where anyone who's willing to work can earn enough to survive.”

“Especially given the, uh, settlements,” I said.

“That is the other reason those people tend to get into the first kingdom when and if they can,” said the soft voice. “The third kingdom is where people like goat-herders and manual laborers stay, as there is ample work for them and they are used to being very poor, while those that have skills try their very hardest to get up this area – as 'dirt-poor' in this area is 'filthy rich' compared to almost anywhere else.”

“Uh, don't tell me,” I murmured, as I made ready another of those strips.

I needed to clean every contact surface in this device, as that foul-smelling gas accumulation had made them filthy, and only the sheer conductivity of sulfur 'tarnish' had allowed the device to continue 'clanking' away. I could definitely tell this device was a 'spit-and-bubblegum' makeshift of the worst order; made right and maintained properly, it could work, but still, even then, it was a definite 'makeshift' – one I would not normally be able to make work.

“This place has the lowest cost of living compared to anywhere on the continent, relatively speaking,” I murmured, “and finding some kind of work is generally easy for most people.”

That is the truth,” said Sarah. “It is cheaper to live up here, which is why few itinerant seamstresses live anywhere else. Then, there is plentiful game, and finally, the pickings for scavengers are better than almost anywhere.”

“Especially since the hall went where it belonged, and the same for the Swartsburg,” said Willem. “Now while...” Pause, then, “what are you doing there?”

“Cleaning out your pivot points with aquavit and oil,” I said. “Willem, how often..? About all you know to do with these things is 'change them out at the first sign of trouble, and send a message to the house proper to have the defective one taken south posthaste', correct?”

“I... That is all I can do,” said Willem. “There is so much I need to know, so little that is available to study, and so little time to learn such things, that I...”

“That, and it is a royal edict,” said Sarah, “and it dates back to that one king who was murdered by witches, so that is what everyone involved in this does.” Pause, then, “you know how ignorant of these matters Andreas is, don't you?”

I nodded. I was now doing something I actually did know more about than anyone in the area, or, as I had been told, anyone in the five kingdoms. Sarah then confirmed it. “Willem, when I come back to pick up the buggy, one of those things, your worst one, is going back with me, and I will see what I can do to help him. I might not know much about these things beyond what you do, but I am more than willing to learn.”

“See, I told you,” said the soft voice. “By the way, you know more about how these machines work than their designer did.”

“What?” I screeched. The sound was so high-pitched it made my ears ring.

“I think this room acts as an organ-pipe due to its shape,” said Sarah. “You can scream nearly as high-pitched as a long-haired dark gray kitten.”

“Those scream?” I asked, meaning the kittens in question.

“Yes, if they're hunting,” said Sarah. “They're born furred and with their eyes open, just like rats, and though they have no teeth when they come out, they do have their claws – and those have surprisingly large claws for kittens, let me tell you.”

“Why?” I asked. “Did one climb your leg?”

“No, but I have seen them deal with rats when rats try for them, and they're so bad you'd think a white rat thrice their size to be tame for trouble,” said Sarah. “I have had common kittens climb my legs, but the long-haired ones don't need to.”

“Uh, what do they do?” I asked, as I worked the mechanism, in the process cleaning the thing carefully.

“They jump,” said Sarah, as I continued to work on his equipment, cleaning and oiling – and, possibly, noting improvements to it. I could tell this was a very finicky device. “They're very able that way, as I've had ones that were but days old leap so as to land on my shoulder – and how they manage to stay there is a mystery, but I've had long-haired cats do that.”

“You wish to watch him, Willem,” said Esther. “He's oiling that thing with that rag and those pincers, and you need to do what he is doing daily. You do that, and they'll work well all the time and not quit on you.”

“Uh, no,” I said. “These things need, uh, ball-bearings on every pivot, a dust-dome to cover all of their working portions from dust and dirt, and perhaps something...” I paused, then, asked, “If I programmed one of those, uh, special microcontrollers, then would it work?”

“Yes, and then anyone could read it, not just someone who's almost as close to being marked as Sarah is, or someone like Esther, who is marked,” said the soft voice. “It would also be a good deal harder to keep working in this environment unless you took some very elaborate precautions, which is why you'll probably just prefer to use radios and that code you recall – which is a lot simpler than all this.”

“Manual-reading old teleprinter code?” I spat. “Who came up with that one?”

“Rachel, as it was 'secure' then,” said the soft voice. “What is not commonly known is Vrijlaand had a 'crude' cypher machine based on this device that was absolutely 'un-crackable' due to its seeming 'crudeness'.”

“Probably used one-time cypher pads,” I asked. “Almost like that weird sine-wave cryptography scheme I thought of in school – it doesn't repeat itself, and unless you know the source code or can somehow figure out how it works – you are truly not going to read it.” I then almost slapped myself. “Duh, just brute-force it. That will crack anything, given enough power.”

“Not with that code,” said the soft voice. “You will definitely get some ideas by the time you try to implement it here – ones that will give those people across the sea fits when they try to do that.” Pause, then, “especially when the results of 'cracking' those messages tell you the origin of the computer used to attempt to crack such messages, and also what happened to the computer used to 'crack' the message.”

“Computer panic?” I asked.

“Worse,” said the soft voice. “No screaming, then – just an explosion much worse than that camera you shot.”

“What?” I squeaked. I was almost done with Willem's machine. “Did that thing have semiconductors in it?”

“Of course it did, which is why it exploded,” said the soft voice, “and that is also why using a microcontroller here, even a military grade one, isn't a good idea without a suitable infrastructure to support it and educated users.”

“What are those?” asked Esther, her voice the picture of dread. She obviously meant 'semiconductors'. “I wish to stay well clear of such things until I know about them.”

“Just wait until you 'get experienced', dear,” said the soft voice. “You'll then be one of the people working on them.”

“I will?” she asked. “I'd best learn all I can before I do that.” She then asked, “what did he mean by 'experienced'?”

Are you experienced?” I asked, this in a spooky voice, one appropriate to realms filled with the purple haze of nightmare-land, one where only one person could save you from your terror. “Just ask the axis, and, uh... Oh, how awful. He spoke of someone being a disgrace.”

“Which is how those overseas know certain matters of those witches once found in vast number across the sea from them,” said the soft voice – who then said, “of course, though, you cannot be truly 'experienced' until you have endured purple haze.”

“What is that?” asked Esther.

“Something very much like the west school,” said Sarah. “At least, it will be intended to do things like that school is supposed to do and has trouble managing for most students – or so I suspect.”

“Then I wish to see it,” said Esther. “My family was too poor to send me there, so I was not able to go.”

“Can you endure, uh, rats, noise, witches...”

Esther looked at me and nodded, this grimly. “I have endured all of those things, almost as much as who you are about to be married to.”

“Have you put rats to witches, or witch-tables in their drink, or things like that?” said Sarah.

“I have trapped witch-holes,” said Esther, “and not just like you did. I've gone inside more than one of the smaller ones.”

“You have not gone in a bad one, Esther,” said Sarah ominously, “nor have you fought a dragoon, nor did you have all manner of blue-suited thugs...”

“I do know something of those blue-suited thugs, their clubs, and this material they take regularly,” said Esther. “The clubs are dark green, nearly impossible to ruin, and work very well.”

“Do you wish to see one, Esther?” said Sarah. “I have nearly a dozen of those things in the buggy.”

“Another minute or two, dear,” I said. “Willem, when was the last time you cleaned this thing properly? Don't tell me, you dared not do so. Correct?”

“Here, you read this,” he said, in an exasperated tone. “It has Hendrik's own signature on it, and he's but the latest king to sign it among several.”

I was then 'presented' with a document, this looking 'formal' to a degree I had never seen here before; and here, in numbered order, were 'the official rules' for 'the maintenance of communications'. This was a crucial matter, one deemed to be 'a permanent state of desperation measures', and I saw the 'rules' clearly.

“So you are right,” I said, “or rather, what I heard was indeed correct. I most likely am the only one who really knows how to work on these things at this time on the continent.” I then rubbed the document, as it seemed to be 'dusty' in some strange way.

Perhaps rubbing it would get rid of the dust.

The document erupted in smoke and went wafting up the forced-draft chimney, and faintly, I could smell 'odor of fetish'.

“What was that?”

“I think you” – meaning Willem – “and a great many other people have been sold,” said Sarah calmly. “Now I would listen to him, and not bother with something a witch did up upon seeing...” Sarah then looked at me and gasped, “those witch-documents! They probably speak of doing that very thing!”

“True, they do,” said the soft voice, “and that penciled scribbling of the king's was intercepted by those then-in-place Generals and done as per their inclination.” Pause, then, “you can guess what that would be.”

“But it seems to make sense – if you're as ignorant of these matters as my, uh, stepfather was,” I said. “Wired a switch across the wires, not in line with them.”

“No, he did not chant,” said Sarah. “Otherwise that stinker...”

“Yes, he did smell terribly,” I said. “Wasn't overly fond of bathing...” I had a distinct impression. “Oh, and he did suck on weeds. I'm the only one in that whole foul-smelling mess who didn't.”

“Then that is a witch out of an old tale, if not worse yet,” said Esther. “Willem, he's done with that thing, and the two of them need to see more of this place. That thing will work right without you being next to it if you just leave that strip of paper in it.”

“But I was told in that document...” It finally dawned on Willem that he'd been 'sold'. “That thing going up like it did. What did that mean?”

“It was a document that may have started from the desk of that one king, but it was writ by witches, and I suspect a tricky stinker was involved, like some witches in some parts of the second kingdom house,” said Sarah.

“No, he was a domestic witch, but he was as tricky as those you were thinking about – and while that king did have good intentions, he did not know about the nature of these machines beyond 'they are very important to our survival, and hence I must do what I can' – which he more or less did,” said the soft voice. Pause, then, “what was conveniently deleted was 'if a suitable instrument-maker can be found in this area, then such a person, should they demonstrate the needed knowledge and ability, must be allowed access and given safe passage to all such locations so as to maintain the equipment correctly. More, such a person is to receive an appropriate crown stipend for doing such duties'.”

“I already get one of those,” I squawked. “There. Now I am done. Willem, you need what came off of that man's desk, not some witch-hashed copy intended to just cause trouble any way the witches deemed possible at that time – and let Sarah take your worst one home with you when we get back.”