The Big House, part 6.

The two wicker baskets in the corner of the basement were topped by a thick bundle of what seemed at first to be rags, and as I knelt to feel the bundle, I asked, “why would I want the sword of a witch?”

While Anna had said nothing about why, I noticed first a handful of things.

Firstly, she'd already said a great deal, chiefly how what was present in front of me 'bothered' her. My recollection of a recent lecture – namely, how such things could easily 'control' people, almost as if they were puppets of some kind – put a spur to my efforts, and I went upstairs to get my ledger.

The outer portion of the 'rag bundle' proved to indeed be rags, and as I removed them, the odor of rotten meat and strong drink became stronger. While I was loath to 'prowl around' in the clothing of a thoroughly unpleasant witch, the sense of finding clues was sufficiently strong that I continued doing so until I grasped the bristly cloth of a trouser-leg.

“This stuff is nasty,” I said, as I looked at the cloth proper. “What is it?”

“That is witch-cloth,” said Hans from across the room, “and the sooner it is burnt the better I will like it.”

“Uh, burn it and forget looking at it?” I said. “Just like during the lecture? And then say one thing first, and then another statement that contradicts it the day after?”

“I can speak of that,” said Hans. He still was far away, much as if he thought the stuff was carpeted with especially evil fleas. “Those tales speak of Charles and those with him being able to question witches without being affected.”

“Do they say what happens to others?”

“It says much less about them,” said Hans. “Most say that touching the things of a witch makes one liable to bad curses, and that it is worse yet for the witches. I have seen what bad curses do, so I told that teacher good the last time I saw him.”

“Is that why he first spoke of questioning witches, and then said today one should just kill them and burn them?”

“I think so,” said Hans, “as that is what everyone does.”

“Do you wonder why I'm different that way?” I asked.

“I do sometimes,” said Hans, “though that is mostly because I am not sure if I remember those tales right. Hendrik has those books in his office, so he knows them a lot better.”

“Did he say I needed to look at them?” I gasped.

“I am not sure if he thought that,” said Hans. “I know he thinks you can look at them safely. Then, that witch was causing trouble in the house proper, so you wanting to find out what you can is a good idea. He did say that.”

After laying aside the nasty-feeling trousers – their chief clues were bound up in their sensation, or so it seemed – I came to what might have been a glossy black 'shirt'. It too was uncommonly bristly-feeling, so much so that when I saw a crackled-looking 'coating' on it, I asked, “what is this coating?”

Hans did not answer, and when I set aside the 'shirt', I wondered yet more at that which was under it. The glossy wrinkled black 'leather' I saw was smooth and somewhat 'greasy' to the touch, and as I felt what looked like a leather vest, I sensed I was indeed getting 'warmer'.

The stitching of this last was neat, close, and even, and when I turned it inside out, I noted not merely a carefully-done cloth lining, but also strange designs. They weren't runes, or so I thought as I looked at them closely.

“These aren't letters, either,” I thought, as I noted the run of red-embroidered geometric figures. I then thought to look closer at two of them that seemed to stand out especially.

“That one looks like it's upside-down,” I thought, “and that one there looks strange. I've never seen a common five-pointed star with five eyes on it before.”

However, as I looked further, I recalled what the witches had said in the dream when 'toasting' their chosen deities.

“They mentioned Brimstone,” I thought, “and then something or someone called Sieve. What is Sieve?”

There was no answer to my question, and I put the 'vest' aside.

The bulk of the remaining clothing was similar to examples I had seen before, and once I had checked it and noted its peculiarities, I noted a cloth bag with a tied drawstring that lay on top of the baskets. For some reason, I managed the knot passably, and when I opened the bag and touched its contents, I cringed before whimpering. Calling it filthy was calling it good. It wasn't good.

“Now what is your trouble?” asked Hans.

“There is a b-bag in here, and it's f-f-full of m-money,” I moaned. “It n-needs burning.”

“That is true,” said Hans. “Now as soon as you go through that stuff, we can burn it.”

I dumped out the contents of the bag on the floor carefully, and after moving aside the accursed money-pouch with my foot – it was hefty, noisy with coin, and more loathsome than anything I had yet touched in the pile – I noted the bundle of papers. For an instant, I wondered as to them being 'substituted', until I touched them.

The greasy feel was the authenticator of what I was touching. Only the grimy hands of a witch could produce a sensation as 'filthy' as this one. It competed with the money that way.

After wiping my hands with diluted aquavit, I began probing the remaining things that had come from the bag, these being an unpleasantly 'clean' white shirt and what might have been 'underwear' of some kind. The unnatural stark bleached-whiteness of these clothes was a marvel, so much so that when I touched them, I jerked my hands away.

“What did they put on these things?” I gasped. “They feel really stiff.”

A close examination showed more of the shiny-looking crackly 'stuff' that had been on the black clothing. I cut off a small piece, grasped it with pincers, and began walking over to where Hans was sitting. I stopped but a few feet away from him; he was filling a small batch of thimbles.

“What is this shiny coating on this cloth?” I asked. “It almost looks like glass.”

Hans filled his current thimble, then glanced at what I was holding. He looked at the pincers, then at the cloth, then took the pincers from my hands.

“That stuff is starch,” he said. “I have seen two or three types of that stuff, and that looks to be the cheaper starch.”

“Starch?” I gasped, as I turned to look back toward the clothing. “Starched underwear?”

Hans looked at me as if to say 'so?'. I went back to where I was working after putting aside the cloth, then wrote in my ledger about liberal use of 'cheap starch' and the possibilities regarding different grades. Underlining all of this commentary were the words “starched underclothing.”

“What of the expensive starch?” I asked.

“That is a lot shinier,” said Hans, “as well as thicker when put onto the cloth. It is said to make clothing such that it needs no help to stand.”

I wrote that also, then began picking through the remaining scraps of paper. I gathered those and tied them with string for later examination.

The left wicker basket proved empty of all save the witch's boots, and when I examined these repulsive-looking overly-ornate things, I wanted to spew. The situation did not improve when I examined them closer by putting their various seams up to the light of a lantern stoked with a wax candle.

“Those things they brought me might have been plain-looking compared to these,” I thought, “but they made these look terrible for workmanship.” I then thought to compare them to my usual wear.

Holding the two side-by-side, the difference was even more spectacular. My 'trekking boots' made those of the witch seem garbage – and the boots of my recollection went up several notches.

“Who were those boots made by?” I thought. “They might not have been up to the standards of what I have to wear, but they were well-made just the same. These things, uh...”

The witch's boots reminded me of 'cheap dress-shoes' where I came from, and as I set them into the 'to be burnt' pile, I thought, “yeah, right. I've only owned a few shoes before coming here that were better made than these witch-boots, and those things were pushing three hundred dollars a pair.”

The heft of the right basket spoke volumes, and when I opened it, I was aghast. Anna had spoken of the witch's sword, and here I saw not merely it in its sheath, but also a dagger, several small vials full of a sparkling white granular material, some grease-filmed brass 'things' – one of them looked to be a 'pistol-sized' powder measure, while another I suspected to be a 'thimble-box' – a revolver similar to the one I had removed from that stinky magistrate, and a trio of small leather pouches. Touching one of these last indicated its contents was lead, and touching the other two spoke of more money. I fished those out and put them with the first loathsome sack of coin.

The dagger was the standard 'witch-issue' Arkansas toothpick, and as I looked it over, I noted a lack of red flames and 'decent' workmanship. The file-test spoke of moderately hard steel – perhaps a bit harder than a full-polish-wrench – and examination of the edges said 'fairly sharp'. Several 'secret markings' marred both hilt and blade.

“And why that thing isn't cracked is a mystery,” I thought, “even if it doesn't have deep tooling marks and... Wait a minute!”

“Hans,” I asked, “is there such a thing as, uh, etching?”

“Now what are you saying?” asked Hans.

“Uh, markings using acids, like, uh, aqua fortis?”

“That is how jewelers mark some of their things,” said Hans. “Why, do you see something?”

“This dagger is marked and it is not cracked,” I said, as I looked more carefully. “They might have marked it that way, or...”

“I have heard tell there are ways to mark some things without starting cracks,” said Hans, “though I do not know how it is done. I have asked about those markings on swords and things like them, and there are only two ways to not have them crack.”

“How?” I asked.

“If the metal is not heated and then drowned, they do not crack,” said Hans, “or if the metal is really soft.”

“And if the metal is hard?” I asked.

“Then you must not mark it if you do not want cracks,” said Hans, “and that is for the common types of metal. That stuff you do is likely to be worse yet that way, or so I was told.”

After putting the dagger aside, I removed the sword from the basket. The black scabbard showed not merely a shiny 'nickel' tip, but also definite rub-marks on the 'underside'. I shook my head as I 'unbuttoned' the restraining strap and drew the blade.

The hissing sound made me cringe with the recollection, and steps rapidly coming closer had me turn my head to see Hans approaching with a drawn revolver.

“I heard a snake,” he said. “Did you see one?”

“N-no snake,” I said. “I took this thing out, and it made that noise, just like it did when I found that last witch.”

Hans lowered the revolver, and I noted he had not cocked it. I mentally wiped my brows.

“Do you want that one gone over?” I asked.

“Yes, when you have time,” he said. “There is another in there, so you might want to go over that one first.”

I began looking carefully at the sword after putting it down on a nearby table, and as I looked, I noted not merely the interlocking 'O' markings running from hilt to tip, but also a number of others that jostled my recollection. Their shallow depth, as well as their 'neatness', had me wondering, and I went upstairs to fetch the magnifier. I was having a very hard time believing there were no visible cracks.

With the magnifier in hand, I went over the markings. Their rounded corners and 'sculpted' aspects – as well as their shallowness and 'rust' – awoke questions in my mind, and when I stood up, I recalled the precise nature of the markings I had seen previously.

“Those were done with some kind of chisel, or perhaps a stamp,” I said, “and done prior to heat-treating. These look to be done with acid, and done afterward – and if I go by their noticeably neater appearance, they look to be done by a jeweler.” I then recalled the mention of Black-Cap's gun and marking it with a fluffy-tailed Mach-two tree-rat. Georg had spoken of who would likely to do such work.

“Engraved by a jeweler, indeed,” I said. “Now I can test this one for hardness.”

The witch's sword was a bit harder than his dagger, and as I looked carefully at the juncture of hilt and blade, I noted more of the 'rust' present there. Careful scraping with one of my smaller knives brought up a thin reddish-brown flake, one that made for wondering:

Was this the product of routine anointing with 'red-tallow'?

“Or did that wretch 'baptize' this thing with blood?” I thought.

The thought then occurred to me: there were forms of 'red-tallow' that were thought to have the precise same effect as blood-baptism, and were used for the exact same reasons. Both 'treatments' affected the blade spiritually in some fashion, and as I looked at the sword for a 'final' time, I thought, “no hiding.”

The sword jerked, then as I watched, the blade shimmered hazily as it became perceptibly darker in tint. The precision of execution now became more manifest, along with a marked patina of age, and the silvery sheen of the steel morphed slowly into a brilliant red-tinged mirror finish that seemed hungry for death and destruction.

“Th-that thing...” I spluttered.

I knew but one thing to do: gather up everything into a pile and toss it outside before it went up in smoke. I wasted no time, and as I moved through the basement with my arms full of steadily warming 'fetishes', I heard steps on the stairs.

“Please, out of my way,” I asked. “It's important. Please.”

The person froze.

“Then I'll...”

I could no more 'knock' Anna out of the way than anyone else, and when I turned the corner to climb the stairs, I was astonished to see no one blocking my way. I took the stairs three at a time and launched into the kitchen, then did an abrupt turn to the right that nearly dumped what I was carrying onto the kitchen table as I slid to the side. The parlor door seemed 'missing' – it had been replaced by a blank wall – until I yelled for it to open, and when I saw the obstacle laid in my path I leaped it. The smoking mound in my arms was beginning to ignite as I reached the threshold, and when I pitched it out the open door the 'fireworks' erupted with such violence I was almost blown back inside the parlor by the explosion.

“What was that?” asked Anna's feeble voice from behind me. I needed to sit down, and I turned slow and aching to nearly collapse upon the couch.

“Th-that stuff,” I gasped. “It was all really bad and really old, and I hope I got rid of it all.”

“At least I can think again, and I'm awake,” said Anna. “I have no idea what I was doing for the last few hours.”

Anna paused, then said as I got up, “what were you working on at the bench?”

“A sword, dear,” I said. “You suggested I...”

“I suggested what?” asked Anna.

“Using a really old witch-sword?” I asked. “One that had k-killed h-h...” I felt as if in shock.

Sacrificed,” said the soft voice. “That sword was far older than it looked, and more cursed than it appeared to be.”

“And the witch?” I asked.

“He was more important than he was thought to be,” said the soft voice. “He was that one witch's colleague, rather than one of his underlings.”

“I'm glad he's gone, then,” said Anna, as she rubbed her head.

I walked to the edge of the basement stairs, then asked, “where were you just before you woke up?”

“On the stairs going down,” said Anna. “At least, I think I was going down the stairs. It's really hard to know what I was doing, for some reason. Why?”

“There was someone trying to prevent my going up the stairs,” I said.

“Yes, I know,” said Hans from below, “as something took me off of them and put me back where I was sitting. Now why is this place down here all full of bad-smelling smoke?”

'Bad-smelling smoke' wasn't half of what had happened in the basement. In my haste, I had gotten nearly everything of 'importance' that had belonged to the witch, but I had missed the revolver, the small leather money pouches, the 'cap box', his papers, and the powder measure. My pincers still retained the scrap of starched fabric, and when Anna saw this, she looked at it closely.

“Where did you get this cloth?” she asked.

“That was a piece of the witch's underclothing,” I said. “Hans said it had 'cheap' starch on it.”

“I don't know where he got the idea that starch was cheap,” said Anna, “as it is very expensive, and that irrespective of its grade and maker. Then, this cloth is strange.”

“W-white?” I asked.

“This is treated cloth,” said Anna. “Getting cloth this color requires long boiling in chemicals, and only a few places far to the south do it. At least, that is what I have heard.”

“Bleached?” I asked.

“Most lightened cloth is left outside in the sun for months,” said Anna, “and only wealthy people wish it.”

“More expensive?” I asked.

“More money for worse clothing,” said Anna, “and this stuff makes sun-lightened cloth look to be iron for strength.”

“It tears easily?” I asked.

“That and it needs careful washing with boiling lye should it become stained,” said Anna. “It's ready for burning after it is worn a handful of times.”

“D-dress clothing,” I spluttered. “B-burning?”

“Treated cloth ruins paper if it is used,” said Anna, “so all that can be done is burn it when it goes to pieces. Sun-lightened cloth works passably for paper, while common cloth is best.”

After putting the remaining things on the table, I began to go through them more carefully. The change in the demeanor of both Hans and Anna was of such magnitude that I now wondered about what had been spoken at the lecture, at least until Hans picked up one of the small glass vials. Those also had remained.

“This looks like arsenic,” he said.

I shuddered visibly, then said, “I didn't have time to grab everything before it started s-smoking.”

“I put a candle in the fume hood,” said Hans, “so the stinky smoke is going.”

“What caused it?” asked Anna.

“That witch's stuff,” I said. “It was trickier than the last time this happened.”

I paused, then said, “I hope you can use that, uh, arsenic. I have no use for it.”

“I know that,” said Hans. “I think you might want to keep one of these vials, so you know what that stuff looks like.”

“It looks like that?” I asked. I was still loath to carry arsenic on my person.

“Yes, if it is pure,” said Hans. “This stuff looks to be as pure as any arsenic I have seen.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

Hans pointed to the money pouches, then hefted one. He said, “I think this might have an answer.”

While Hans and Anna opened the money pouches, I checked both powder measure and cap-box after wiping them with a rag dampened with boiled distillate. Both were as I suspected as to their contents – half-full of powder for the one, and a number of crude-looking 'thimbles' for the other – while their functioning was nearly as good as those I used. I looked closely at each thing with the magnifier, and deduced within seconds that both objects had received attention with a buffing wheel recently. They were quite old.

“That witch had a lot of money with him,” said Hans. “All three of those pouches were filled with gold coins.”

“N-no,” I gasped. “Th-that stuff needs b-burning.”

“I do not think so,” said Hans, “as I found this little tin sign in one of those things. It said you needed the money.”

“I n-needed the money?” I gasped. “But it-it's tainted.” I wanted to cry.

“That sign was glowing blue for a second or so just now,” said Anna.

“But why would I n-need th-that much money?” I asked.

“I can think of some reasons,” said Anna. “Houses are not cheap, and the same for buggies and teams.”

“That is for the common for houses,” said Hans. “He will need his to be different, and that means more money yet.”

“D-different?” I gasped. The possibilities implicit in the statement seemed a potent backdrop for conspicuous horror.

“Yes, as in where you work,” said Hans. “That needs to be separate from where you live, and done special, and the same for your house, too.”

“Hans, don't,” said Anna. “Quieter would be wise, but I truly doubt it would be good to make either of those things special how you are thinking.”

I kept my questions as to what Hans had meant to myself, and after the money was 'removed', I then gave my attention to the revolver.

This example initially showed fairly good workmanship and close fitting, with more-even bluing than those I had seen heretofore, and clean straight-grained wood handles. I dismantled it after removing the six thimbles, and there I found the portions needing my attention. It had hidden its many flaws well.

“This one may look 'nice', but its' internal parts aren't much better than those I took out of mine,” I said. “It will need to be gone through as well, and to nearly the same degree.”

“That is good, then,” said Hans, “as that one looks a lot nicer than what you have.”

I wondered where Hans got his ideas about 'appearances', then put the thing back together. As I did, I again noted the previous 'well-hid' defects, and asked, “as in I might be able to make it right without marring the finish appreciably?”

“I would try to do that if you could,” said Hans. “I have had no luck at all with learning what my grandfather did for his tools and traps.”

I was glad there were no more 'witch-artifacts' in the place, and I resumed work on the sword. I was now using the finer-cut files and scrapers, and when I heard a soft yawn come from behind and to my right, I turned to see Anna. She looked about ready for bed, and as I stretched my tired limbs, I learned I was in the same predicament.

“I've never seen one like that,” said Anna.

“Uh, the ones I've seen here...”

“I've more than heard about those,” said Anna. “I've seen some of them now, and I've seen them used, and for much of what guards do, they leave something to be desired.”

“Too long, too clumsy, slow to bring into action, and overly heavy,” I said. “Does that sound about right?”

Anna nodded sleepily, then said, “you might get ready for bed.”

The next lecture spoke of drink-houses. While 'rough bars' weren't the kinds of places I wanted any part of, I had the impression that most of the class had other ideas. The instructor's speaking of his adventures in such places added fuel to that fire, and as I checked my gorge – I could plainly smell potable paint remover, for some reason – I had the impression that there was useful information to come.

“Never go to a drink-house alone,” said the instructor, “especially if it is one near or in the Swartsburg, or in some other places to the south of here.”

“Where are these other places?” asked a 'tongue-dragging' student. He had asked but few questions in the past; now his sleepy demeanor and 'obtuse' nature were gone.

“The second kingdom house has but a few of them,” said the instructor, “though the ones in that place are among the worst. The third kingdom port has but three that are well known, and the fourth kingdom has a few scattered here and there.” He paused briefly. “And then, there is the fifth kingdom.”

The instructor paused, sipped from his mug, waited what seemed a few seconds, and then continued.

“Every place that serves food or drink in the fifth kingdom, save for a handful along the main freighting roads, is a drink-house.”

“That was what my uncle said,” muttered Karl.

“Why would anyone wish to go into one of those places?” I thought.

As if to speak of motivations beyond 'plentiful consumption of cheap Geneva' and 'tasting the various flavors of potable paint remover', the instructor looked at me. I wondered if he had an intimation as to my unspoken question.

“While drink-houses are dangerous places,” he said, “they are good sources of information, as well as likely places to find witches, thieves, and brigands.”

“And black-dressed thugs, if what Georg spoke is true,” I thought. “Or people that act like them.”

“There are several rules of drink-houses,” intoned the instructor. “Firstly, never back down from a fight. If someone tries for you, or you think he might do so, oblige him on the spot with slaughter. Drink-house patrons hunger for blood and respect little beyond their own destruction.”

Why does he sound like he is preaching?” I thought. There was no answer.

“Then, if one wishes answers from those wearing black, one must be as they are, and that in full particulars.”

What?” I gasped.

“They tend to answer to no one else,” he said. “If you want speech with such people, you must eat and drink as they do, act as they do, and speak as they do. You will do well to be ignored otherwise.”

The instructor paused briefly to sip from his mug. Preaching, even to the choir one owned, was thirsty work.

“Thirdly, if you question a man, and he runs, he is guilty,” said the instructor. “Kill him on the spot.”

“What?” I thought. “That is crazy.”

“Fourthly, if you hear an answer that does not please you perfectly,” he said, “the man you are questioning is guilty. Kill such fools on the spot, and have done with them.”

The instructor paused in his preaching, then said, “only evildoers have aught to hide, so make your questioning as probing as you may.” Here, he looked at me, then said, “shirkers are not wanted, either by man or God, and those that shrink from their charged duty are over-fools. Their burning awaits them, both here on burn-piles and in hell in the hereafter.”

Thoughts bloomed raggedly in my mind as the instructor continued in this vein. He mentioned torture – in passing, with dark hints of brutality so vicious I inwardly cringed – and spoke directly of the value of rumor and hearsay. Between what I had heard from those around me, and what I was hearing from him, I was becoming convinced that few, if any, tested their information for accuracy or completeness. Georg was but slightly more that way than the vast majority of people, I now knew.

“You will desire swords when visiting drink-houses,” intoned the instructor, as he seemed to be finishing up his 'spiel', “and I advise you to secure them as soon as you might do so. I will finish the building tour today, and tomorrow...”

His pause seemed endless as my mind raced. Did this place have a test – a zuurpruef one of those infernal 'final examinations' I had so dreaded in the past?

“You will be selected to your mentors,” said the instructor. “This is the last of the formal lectures.”

As we wandered the upper floors of the building, the instructor spoke of guarding the king, and here, I listened closely, especially as he spoke of the confined spaces commonly found in that region of the house proper.

“One needs care with a sword in that area,” he said, as we went along a dimly-lit passage on the third floor, “as you do not wish to trim his hair by accident. He prefers the queen's hand for that, and who she prefers for her hair is not a matter she volunteers.”

He paused, looked down a hall, spoke of what lay there – storerooms mostly, with some few uncommonly 'friendly' rats – then resumed both walking and speaking of the queen.

“It seems unwise to ask her,” he muttered.

“Why would she not wish that known?” I asked quietly. “It may be needed to know, in case if I must look after her and allow for her tendencies.” I wanted to ask, “what is her disposition like?” but was afraid to. The instructor speaking of her that way added mightily to my fear.

“She tends toward shyness,” said the instructor, “and is somewhat retiring, based on what I have seen. I know about how she feels about rats.”

“Uh, what?” I asked.

“She dislikes rats so intensely,” he said, “that she shoots every one she sees. Talk has it she has had trouble with them in the past, and I do not mean common trouble.”

“Perhaps I should make a rat-gun,” I murmured. “I could easily make a small pistol with a bore suitable for shot.”

“I've heard she has two of those by her bedside,” said the instructor. “I know about the fowling piece.”

After going up two more flights of stairs – this place had five above-ground floors, as well as a sizable 'attic' filled with God-knew-what – we began descending. I had not been able to make any notes while walking, and I was glad for the ledger's presence as we came into the refectory. Hans wasn't handy, though I suspected he would be along soon. Anna had stayed home that day.

As I sat behind a mug of non-fermented cider with ledger in front and 'pencil' in hand, I overheard talk in the kitchen, and I thought to investigate it. The relatively uncrowded room now seemed a bit much for me, and as I came to the juncture of the 'dining room' and 'kitchen', I heard more. Someone was speaking of 'rats' and 'Maria', and that person was coming closer.

A cook passed me, and while he went down the length of the table, the thought of a 'rat-gun' bloomed again in my mind. I felt along my belt, and recalled the one Anna was still working on. I hadn't seen much of it recently, and I wondered if it was done. Asking wasn't wise, for some reason.

“Yes?” asked the cook.

“Does Maria have pistols by her bed?”

“Yes, a pair in a box,” he said. “She lost her best friend to the plague when she was small. Why?”

“Is she, uh...”

“Is she how?” he asked.

“Uh, irritable?”

He looked at me strangely, then said, “her? Not really.” He paused, then said, “given that you live with Anna, you should have no trouble with her at all.”

I nearly did a double-take, then asked, “fowling piece?” I could just see the woman in question 'airing out my smelly hide' with it while in a fit of pique.

“She shoots partridges with it,” he said. “Hers takes thimbles, and she likes those greatly.”

“The birds, or the fowling piece?” I asked. I did not speak of the thimbles.

“She does not mind the birds when they are cooked,” he said. “No one around here much cares for them otherwise.” He paused for a moment, then said, “both of them prefer plainer meals, especially rye bread and cherry jam of a morning, and I'm glad, too. Neither of them will get within smelling distance of squabs.”

“Urgh,” I gasped. “Th-those things make me spew.”

“You and many others,” he said, as I went back toward my seat.

As I finished my mug, I heard steps in the corridor, then a woman that resembled Katje showed in the refectory doorway. She was so much like Katje – perhaps a trifle older, but otherwise her double – that I was astonished, and when she went into the kitchen, I listened carefully. She was speaking of beer, and when she returned, I noted two mugs and a jug in her hands. She then left.

“Who was that?” I asked.

From behind me, one of the cooks said, “I thought you had seen her before. That was the queen.”

“It was?” I squeaked. “Sh-she looked j-just like someone I know named Katje.”

“If this is who I think it is,” said the cook as he looked in my mug, “then I think I know why. Talk has her twice-removed cousin is married to a preacher.”


“That was his name,” said the cook. “There.”

I noted I now had a full cup, and when I tasted it, I was thankful the stuff was cider. I smelled a vaguely familiar odor – like the odor in that one tailor's 'office' – then asked, “what is that smell?”

“What smell?” asked Karl.

“That strange odor,” I said. “Is there such a thing as wine?”

“There is,” said the instructor, “and should you go to a drink house, I would advise its consumption rather than strong drink.”

“No thank you,” I thought. “I didn't like that stuff where I came from, and I'm not inclined to taste it here.”

Hans showed shortly thereafter, and on the way home, I watched the scenery go by between stints with pencil and ledger. For some reason, I felt reminded of the many times I had ridden dirt bikes in the past, and as I looked at the now 'tacky' surface of the road, I thought, “I would take a Gottlieb Daimler original about now, solid tires and all.”

I did not speak of my desire, however, as I knew there were no such things to be had unless I made one. Instead, I spoke of the commonplace.

“Where does one get horses around here?” I asked.

“Talk has it there is one reserved for you in that stable at the house there,” said Hans. “No one else can ride him, and I heard about him calming himself around you. He is big enough, and black enough, so I wonder.”

“B-big black one?” I asked with a shaking voice.

While Hans had no answer for me, and there were no answers at work, there were answers at home around the dinner table. A sizable cloth bag at the end of the table spoke of another attempt at knitting, and when Hans spoke of my question, Anna said, “that horse will not tolerate the slightest amount of mistreatment. One of the grooms tried using a crop and was kicked out the door.”

“That sounds likely enough,” said Hans, “as I think that horse is one of those big black ones.”

Further conversation went toward the cupola after a brief food-filled intermission. I had begun refining my drawings – I had copied them from the slate I had done for Georg – and the 'rubbing blocks' were receiving regular use, as was my knife for 'pencil sharpening'. Writing dowels tended to have soft 'lead'.

“I doubt Georg will want church work,” said Hans, “as I have seldom seen him in that place.”

“S-seldom?” I thought. “I see him nearly every time we're there.”

The fact that Georg tended to be secretive as to his movements in and around church took little thinking on my part as to possible reasons. One of those reasons, I suspected, was his refusal to partake of church 'suppers', and another of my suspicions, I wondered about. I had the impression some people were not fond of his attending services, and he didn't want them knowing about his attendance.

“A cupola is a special type of iron-melting furnace,” I said. “It looks like a large round metal chimney, and it will need special fittings, as well as a blower. I should be able to get to that soon.”

“What will that blower blow?” asked Anna in a suddenly saucy voice. “Will it blow wind? If it does that, then all you need to do is be nearby, and there will be lots of wind!”

I put my hand over my mouth in red-faced embarrassment. Anna shook her head, then said, “the other type of wind, not what comes from your mouth.”

“He has little of that type,” said Hans. “Now talk has it your first part of class is over, and you will be paired with someone. Is that true?”

I was about to speak, when Anna said, “who can they pair him with?”

Hans wiped his face with his hand, then said in a chastened voice, “I did not think of that.”

“Oh, no,” I moaned. “They would never pick me when I was small...”

“I think that might be skipped for you, now that I think about it,” said Hans. “I have seen those others, and there is a big difference.”

“Hans, it isn't just that,” said Anna. “Most guards would have been killed thrice over had that many witches tried for them.”

Hans wiped his face again, then said, “I think you will find out about that part tomorrow just the same. Then, there is a place I need to go to in town, and you should know about it.”

“P-place?” I asked. The ambiguous term was fraught with meaning and bracketed with fear.

“Grussmaan's Chemicals,” said Hans. “It is on the north edge of the Swartsburg, and I need some chemicals that are hard to get up here.” Hans paused, sipped from his mug, then said, “and I am glad for that pistol just the same.”

Anna looked at Hans, then said, “that area might not be Maarlaan itself, but it is nearly as bad.”

I filed more on the blade-blank after dinner, and as I took up the scrapers and coarser stones, I had an audience of two. I was making gages of the various 'stations' on the blade, and when I laid the blade in Hans' lap, he whistled softly.

“This thing is strange,” he said. “It weighs a lot less than those big things they have at the house there.”

Anna touched it, then picked it up by its tip. She looked at it with goggling eyes, then said, “are you going to mark this one?”

“I'll put my stamp on the hilt,” I said. “Otherwise, no.”

I paused, then said, “and I will need to polish this one before heat-treating it, also.”

“Is this of that special iron?” asked Hans.

“It is, and that stuff is very prone to cracking,” I said. “I would not be surprised if it did not tolerate etchings, much less stamped markings.”

After a lengthy stone-session – long, smooth strokes with one of the stones, and plenty of boiled distillate – I stood up and stretched. My audience had vanished, and faint noises upstairs spoke of their likely hiding place. I covered the sword-blank with clean rags, and as I went upstairs, I knew what other things I needed to fetch on the morrow.

“I just hope Andreas has silver wire,” I thought. “If he does, I might finish this thing this weekend.”

The trip over in the morning gave forth a sensation of dread, and as the well-oiled wheels of the buggy bounced over part-hidden rocks on the narrow roads, I checked my supplies again. I had the sense I would be paired with someone, though who that someone would be was a great question. In the class, I had noticed a clear division, with Karl and Sepp picking up matters a good deal quicker than the other students. That knowledge educated my speaking seconds later.

“They need months of further teaching,” I muttered.

“Now who is this?” asked Hans.

“Most of the class,” I said. “Two people seemed to pick things up fairly quickly, such that they might well need a modest amount of further training. They could do the common matters fairly soon, perhaps as soon as they were fitted properly. The rest of the class, though – they don't hardly know the tenth of it.”

“That is the usual, or so I hear,” said Hans. “A lot of those classes have everyone like that.”

“E-everyone?” I asked.

“They might be ready for the swine in a year or so, if they work at it steady,” said Hans. “The better classes might have one or two who would need half or a third of that much. Yours has you, and then two that would need a month or two if they worked with you some.”

Hans paused, then said, “and your class has gotten a lot of attention at the house, too.”

“Attention?” I asked.

“I have heard that a lot of the guards want to teach those people,” said Hans. “I am not sure if they will want to teach you much.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I think if you were paired up, you would be teaching the other person, and not the other way around,” said Hans. “At least, that is what Hendrik said. He saw you teaching the swords.”

When we arrived, I went straight to the usual room to change, and when I came in, I was astonished to find a short 'mound' of three 'uniforms' present. I had previously had but one to wear at a time, as they had needed near-continuous checking, cleaning, and alteration. Now all three were present, and as I looked them over, I was astonished to find two lighter-weight pair of mottled 'forest green' underneath.

“What are these for?” I gasped.

Hans came in, then looked at the clothing I had found, then as he felt the 'new' additions, he said, “ah, I think I know what happened. Those there are for forest work.”

“F-forest work?” I asked.

“You might do some traipsing once spring starts,” said Hans. “I know how you move in the forest, and I think other people know too.”

“Traipsing?” I asked.

“After brigands and witches,” said Hans. “Brigands might not be common up here, but I have heard tell there are some. They tend to be more on the east side of that big river.”

Hans paused, then said, “and if you have those things there, then I really doubt you will be paired off like the others.”

As I went toward the 'guard room', I could feel the hum, crackle, and buzz of a sizable group of people, and when I touched the door handle, I paused. The door was all but vibrating with the sounds of a multitude that lay in wait upon the other side, and opening the door proper made for a fervent desire to run and hide.

“Oh, no,” I gasped. “A crowd.”

I nerved myself up, then slipped into the room, all the while staying as close to the wall at my back as I could until I could find a stool. I felt my possible bag with my hand, and once I had found a stool next to the wall near a corner, I took a dose of the widow's tincture.

The sense of terror began rapidly seeping away, and as I became calmer and more focused, I was able to look carefully at what was happening.

The room was crowded, with at least thirty guards present beyond the students, and as I watched, I recognized first the person that had spoken of my fitting some time ago, then another individual, and finally two others that I had briefly seen during the last week or so. The crowd swirled, then to my astonishment first Karl came out, then Sepp. They both began heading my way.

As they came closer, I could hear them both muttering, and when they both found stools, Sepp said, “now this is a fine mess of trouble. Those guards are fighting over the others, and we get treated as if we were scraps of meat fit for the tallow-pot.”

“That is because the two of you did much better than the common,” said the voice of Gabriel. I looked to see him coming from around the swirling mob of people, and as he came closer, I wondered for a moment how he could pick up what they had said over the rumbling noise of the room.

“Now if Dennis were here, I would say the three of you need pairing together,” he said.

“Tell me about it,” said Karl's morose-sounding voice. “I put another payment on that knife, and I was told it would be done soon.”

“Was this one of those special ones?” asked Gabriel.

“He said it was,” said Karl. “He also said that the regular people weren't up to doing much on them.”

“He?” asked Gabriel.

“That man Georg,” said Karl.

“I think I know why, too,” said Sepp. “This was one of the first knives, and...”

“May I see it?” asked Gabriel. “I might be able to speak to what Karl was talking about.”

A minute later, I heard Gabriel squeak, “Karl, they don't hardly do them this good in the fourth kingdom!”

“Yes, I was told that,” said Karl. “I was also told that place does a fair number of those things.”

“Karl, knives this good are made to order,” said Gabriel, “and there is usually a lengthy wait for them, and that if you can get an instrument-maker to make one for you.” A brief pause, then “do you know what this wavy line is on the blade?”

“I don't,” said Sepp, “and the people there didn't know either. They said something about it being a secret process of some kind, and they...”

Right,” I spat, as I stood up. “That secret is all in their heads, as I hid nothing from them.”

Karl looked up, then said, “how did you get here?”

“I've been sitting here for a short time,” I said, as I put my stool down next to the three of them. “I don't handle crowds at all well, especially noisy ones – and this crowd is noisy enough to make me long for a forging session in the shop with no vegetable fiber in my ears.”

“I think the talk about you hiding if you were inclined was an understatement,” said Gabriel, “as until you announced yourself, I had no idea you were here.”

“Nor did I,” said Sepp. “Now what gives with this line here?”

“That is part of the heat-treating process,” I said. “After the blade is fully hardened, the cutting portion gets mud put on it, and I put it on the edge of the forge with the spine next to the fire. When the part that doesn't have mud turns a purplish-brown color, I grab the blade with tongs and dunk it in the forge-bucket and then scrape the mud off.”

“What does that do?” asked Gabriel.

“The edge is harder than the rest of the knife,” I said. “Those first ones were still being figured out, which is why they vary a bit more than they do now.”

I paused, then said, “I'm still figuring on them, though, even with full contour and other gages. Perhaps I can make drop-hammer dies.”

“Do you make these by the numbers?” asked Gabriel. I could plainly hear the incredulity in his voice.

“Given the demand for them, I need to do them in batches,” I said evenly. “I should finish a batch of five of that size today, in fact.”

Gabriel looked as stunned as any person I had seen since I came here. Karl, however, was not stunned in the least.

“So when will mine be done?” he asked.

“I'm not sure which one is yours,” I said. “The usual is I get a slate with 'one knife, as per usual', or whatever, and there's no name or nothing else on it. With knives and things like them, I tend to do them in batches, as they sell as fast as they're made.” I paused, then said, “now if you ordered a rivet-swage, or a boiler, or a distillery, or something less common, I might be able to tell.”

“Why is that?” asked Sepp.

“I've only done a few of those,” I said, “though the distilleries and boilers are becoming more popular.”

Gabriel looked at me with distaste, then said, “I think I'll put my wine in my gut, rather than in one of those pots, thank you.”

“Pots?” I asked. “Wine?”

“One of my assignments in my fifth term was distillation,” said Gabriel, “and I have no idea how people manage to distill anything without plugging those things up. I was lucky to get a cup of tailor's antiseptic with three jugs of wine.”

“Did you strain it first?” asked Sepp. “Those things are touchy that way, and you need to watch close.”

“I wished I was able to talk to people like you when I was doing the research on those things,” I muttered. “Are these the distilleries that look really strange?”

“All distilleries look really strange,” mumbled Karl, “though what some people do with them is stranger still. I know of one place where they have the thing in this small house all by itself...”

“That is the usual, supposedly,” said Gabriel.

Sepp looked at Gabriel as if he was an unadulterated liar, then shook his head before saying, “perhaps some people do that, but no one I know does.”

“We don't,” I said. “Ours fits right on the stove.”

“How?” asked Gabriel. “Those things need a special firebox...”

I shook my head, then said, “if you mean one of those rune-marked sheet-copper idols that masquerade as distilleries, then you're right. I've never made one of those, and I don't plan on doing so.”

“Then what do you do?” asked Gabriel.

“Supposedly the ones I make are similar to those used in the fourth kingdom,” I said. “At least, that was what Anna said. She and Hans are glad ours is so easy to use.”

“How is it easy?” asked Gabriel.

“First, one can put it on a stove,” I said, “which means relatively good temperature control, unlike one of those fireboxes. Then, it's easy to clean, as it has a large opening in the top of the cooker and a drain-valve, and all the lids fit closely and have latches. One needs but a little rye paste to seal the thing up.”

Gabriel was wiping his face with his hands as if in abject misery, while Sepp was looking at me with an open mouth. Karl, I could not decipher.

“Then, it makes aquavit in one run,” I said. “Given it's a column distillery, and those supposedly did that where I came from, I'm not surprised much.”

“C-column d-distillery?” asked Gabriel.

“Yes, it has a fractionating column on the lid,” I said. “There are nine to twelve sets of stripper plates in the column, and the condenser comes off of the top cap.”

“Condenser?” asked Gabriel. “Do you speak of the worm?”

I shuddered, then said, “please, d-don't speak of worms. I still have nightmares about the time that Desmond came out of that bucket, and that doesn't count the other times I've seen those things.”

The room slowly began emptying about ten minutes later, and after half or so of the people had left, the instructor suddenly 'appeared' nearby. He came to where we were sitting, then said, “good, you all are together. Your first postings will be next Monday at the third post, and then two to three times a week thereafter at various posts.”

“Th-third post?” I asked.

“I'd show about an hour before lunch,” said the instructor, “and plan on finishing up an hour before dinner. It's likely that the three of you will be mostly with one another, and between now and then, you might want to check the third floor weapons-room to see if anything there is usable.”

As the three of us climbed the stairs, Karl asked, “now what did he mean by that?”

“Swords?” I asked. “Muskets?” I paused, then asked, “more bad witches?”

“I hope not,” said Karl. “That one you caught was bad enough to last me for a year.”

“Then his stuff goes up in smoke when I look at it,” I muttered.

“What happened to his sword?” asked Karl.

“That thing was trouble,” I said. “It was really old and really cursed.”

“I hope those where we're going aren't that way,” said Sepp. “I wonder if I can find a pistol or two.”

“Pistol?” I asked.

“Those tend to be handier when it's close,” said Sepp. “I've wanted one for some time, actually – that or a short musket.”

“Those in that one room were the common size,” said Karl. “I hope to find a bigger one.”

“Uh, why?” I asked.

“I found some shot,” said Karl, “and after trying one of those things that went home with you, I think I need help.”

“Those are being worked on,” I said. “I should be able to work on them more now.”

The 'room' in question had a door that was unlocked, for some reason, and when I paused to listen at the door, I could feel little beyond it of an unwelcome nature. I went to the side and nudged the door open with my foot just the same.

The creaking groan spoke of dry hinges that needed oil, and I drew an oil-vial and awl to oil them.

“Now what is that stuff there?” asked Sepp. I was oiling the hinges, and the oil was 'jumping' into the cracks.

“Some special oil I made up recently,” I said. “Hans says it is at least as good as Waal oil. I use it on guns and special tools.”

“Do you use tallow for much?” asked Sepp.

“It gets added to some lubricants,” I said, “though any more, it gets boiled and cleaned carefully before doing so.”

“That was said to make it smell less,” said Karl, as he found a lantern on the wall and brought it down. “This stuff here could stand some boiling.”

“I do a lot more than just boil it,” I said. “It gets treated with acid, careful filtering, then boiling in a pressure pot with salaterus and tin.”

“What does that do?” asked Sepp. He had a lantern now, and was looking around the vestibule.

“No smell at all,” I said, “as well as some other changes. It's like wax then, and it's really slick.” I paused briefly, then said, “it burns noticeably brighter if you use it for a candle, and it smokes a lot less.”

While the layout of this room was completely different compared to the one we had gone in before, its contents was nearly identical. I began looking carefully, and within moments, found a smaller room labeled as having swords. I paused at the threshold, and looked down at the floor.

The thick dust showed no one had been in the place in quite some time. We were the first visitors in ages.

“Good, this one hasn't had witches setting traps in it,” I said, “or rather, no one has set traps in here recently. I'd best go ahead and make certain.”

I heard no argument, and when I came to the first rack, I knelt down carefully, then touched one of the swords – and took my hand away instantly.

“G-grease,” I squeaked. “That one has grease on it.”

“Is that bad?” asked Sepp.

“I can't stand the touch of that stuff,” I said. “It's...”

I paused in mid-sentence, then squeaked, “it's really old, and the people that made it didn't mark it!”

“He said those were worthless,” said Karl.

“Karl, those marks start cracks,” said Sepp. “Didn't you know that?”

“Then why did he speak so of them?” said Karl. “He said swords were worthless without markings.”

“I don't know why he said that,” said Sepp, “but he's no butcher.”

“And you might well be one,” I murmured. “Butchers use knives, cleavers, and other blades enough to know good ones, and they most likely know how to look after them.”

“And they know how to sharpen them, too,” said Sepp. “This knife I have is the first blade I've ever had that has not needed sharpening. I've done that a fair amount with other blades, but not this one.”

“What?” I asked. “You haven't needed to sharpen it?”

“I might strap it a little now and then,” said Sepp, “but that is all I've needed to do.”

After Karl brought out the sword and put it aside, I resumed looking. I had the intimation that there was another 'unmarked' sword handy, and when I touched 'grease' again, I nearly went into a convulsion.

“That one was bad,” said Karl. “I know enough to not touch ones like that.”

“That one's better than the first one,” I squeaked. “It isn't marked, it's a bit shorter than the common, and it has decent metal.”

Sepp needed to hear no more; he grabbed the thing forthwith and put it aside.

“What of these others, then?” asked Karl.

“You would be better off with the worst sword those northern people make,” I spluttered. “They don't spend two minutes on appearances, and everyone, me included, thinks they look awful.” I paused, then said, “that said, they aren't particularly brittle, so they'll stand up to real use, and even the worst ones take some kind of an edge, unlike most of these here.”

“I do not want one of those,” said Karl. “If there were swords half as good as those knives are, I would rather have one of them.”

“You would?” I spluttered. “Would you have it if it were purely a weapon, and not a witch-tool?”

“How are these things the tools of witches?” asked Karl.

“I tossed a bad one last night,” I spat, “and it was marked just like that first one I brought out that the instructor said was especially good.”

“So that witch copied a good one...”

“I doubt that, Karl,” said Sepp. “Was that sword different somehow?”

“It had been used to sacrifice hundreds,” I said in a spooky voice, “and it was really old and really cursed. Unless I'm really wrong, those m-markings were part of its c-cursing.”

As I said that I knew I was absolutely right. Unmarked blades were...

“Are all of these things c-cursed?” I squeaked.

While there was no answer, when I next touched a sword – the one closest to the last one – the loathsome aspect of the thing was such that I spluttered, “why does this thing feel like, uh, rotten meat?”

Sepp reached in and touched the sword in question, then looked at me and nodded before saying, “you're right, it does feel like bad meat. It feels like a dead pig, in fact.”

“How would you know about swine?” asked Karl. I thought it obvious, given the demise of his father and his apprenticeship.

“Did you feel that one?” I asked.

“Which one?” asked Sepp. “I burned the one that killed my father. The butcher I was apprenticed to shot more than one of those that witches raise, and he had me look at them carefully, as well as feel them.”

“Why?” asked Karl. “Swine are as bad as witches.”

“Some people try to pass off dead pigs as prime meat, Karl,” said Sepp, “and if you're a butcher, you need to know meat.”

“I suspected that to be the case,” I said. “Now who tries to pass off pork as elk?”

“Lukas shot that witch,” said Sepp, “and when they went inside his house, they found the swine-pen, bags of dried datramonium, rooms of stolen goods, and hunting clothing. They hadn't found so much since before I was born, or so people said.”

“His house?” I asked.

“It was not the common for size or much else,” said Sepp, “and neither was his barn. They burned the coach where it was found in back.”

I then caught onto what Sepp had said, and squeaked, “d-dead pig? Did they put l-lard in th-that stuff?”

“Stuff?” asked Karl. “Are you speaking of red-tallow?”

“Y-yes,” I gasped. “Why, did you get some?”

“I have looked for it, and no one knows a thing about what I ask for,” said Karl, “and I do not know where any jewelers are. Why, do you know what is in it?”

“It supposedly has rouge – the coarser species, at that – and tallow,” I said. “Tallow, especially that which is used around here, is more likely to cause rust rather than prevent it.”

“Then why did he speak of it?” asked Karl.

“Not knowing better, perhaps,” I said. “I doubt he's a witch.”

As we continued looking for swords – I wanted to be certain those two were the only good ones in that room – I said, “I've heard those black-dressed people make another type of that stuff.”

“What do they put in it?” asked Karl.

“Their formulation is different,” I said. “That was why I asked if the stuff had, uh, lard – or rather, why that weapons-preservative...”

I turned in the direction of that one sword, then looked around. The smell of 'death' was especially strong, and I gasped, “whoever has been buying 'weapons-tallow' for the house has been getting stuff fit for witches.”

“How would it be that way?” asked Karl.

“It's s-soft, heavily contaminated with lard, poorly rendered, and has b-blood in it,” I said. “I would bet they buy it 'cheap' from the south.” I paused, then said quietly, “and some of that blood comes from the sacrifices of witches, no doubt.”

“I want nothing to do with it, then,” said Sepp. “I'll stick to cooking oil.”

“Cooking oil?” I asked.

“Tallow can give an off taste to meat,” said Sepp. “Cooking oil doesn't.”

“Uh, rust?” I asked, as I continued looking. There were but a few racks to go.

“Cooking oil works passably that way,” said Sepp, “though if you are a butcher, the longest your common knives go between uses is perhaps a few days. I've seen cleavers go more than a week between uses, and they stayed bright and clean if they were dried and then oiled.”

“He said every day, though,” said Karl. “Is cooking oil different?”

“We cleaned ours every time we used them,” said Sepp, “though that was done with boiled rags, as a rule. We rubbed them down with the straps before we sharpened them, so they stayed bright. Dirty blades affect the taste worse than tallow does, and that I know. My mother was reminding me for months.”

I almost said 'duh', but kept silent. I resolved to provide some leather 'polishers' just the same.

After finding no more 'good' swords – I found another that was greased, but my sense was it was marked, and therefore cracked – I led out of the room and further down the hall. I had an intimation there were pistols somewhere in the area, and when I paused in front of an unmarked room, Sepp asked, “are there things in there?”

“Pistols aren't common in these rooms,” I said, “mostly because the existing examples tend to be used by guards.”

“Are some in this set of rooms?” asked Sepp.

“I can feel some in there,” I said, “though their condition and precise location is a mystery.”

I walked in slowly, and as I did, the lanterns of the others showed thick dust and cloth-shrouded mounds of 'provisions'. I glanced at the floor and saw again that this room had had but little disturbance.

“And no back-passages,” I said. “The lower rooms like this have those, but this one and the floors above don't.”

“What are those?” asked Karl.

“That was how that witch got in there,” I said. “Only one, or perhaps two of those rooms get more traffic than that one does.”

“This one hasn't had people in it in a long time,” said Karl. “Now why is everything covered up like this?”

“I'm not sure about this set of rooms,” I said. “Were it the usual place, I'd say witches were involved with at least some of the boxes and baskets c-covered like this...”

I stopped in mid-sentence and pointed to a cloth-covered mound.

“That one,” I said, “and not merely pistols. There are other things as well.”

Removal of the shroud made for thick and billowing clouds of dust, and we left the room for the 'hallway' until it settled to a degree. I then led back inside.

The 'mound' was composed of what looked to be varnished wicker baskets, and when I lifted off the first one, I noted not merely the relative lack of heft, but also its aspect of 'camouflage'. I set it aside to my rear. Seconds later, I heard rustling behind me, and Karl said, “now what is in this one?”

“It's not in there,” I said. “There's one of these baskets that has what we're after, and that's partly hidden in the bottom under more, uh, cloths.”

“Is that why this one is filled with cloth?” asked Sepp. “Why would they hide such things?”

“Given what I've heard about black-dressed, uh, thugs trying to cause trouble for certain supplies and those carrying them, I would not be surprised if they... There, I know which one it is now.”

“Which is it?” asked Karl.

“This bottom one here,” I said. “That one's out of the way, and that one... Bring your lanterns closer, please. I can feel that stuff.” I then opened the basket.

The first two layers of cloth showed neat stitching and copper 'grommets' deeply tinged with patina. Their use seemed a mystery, until I took one of them out and partly unfolded it.

“Is this a tent of some kind?” I asked.

“I doubt it,” said Karl. “Now what is a tent?”

I was speechless with apprehension, so much so that I gasped, “a portable shelter that is commonly made of cloth.”

“No one uses those up here,” said Karl. “I have slept out in the woods, and...”

Sepp shook his head, then said, “me too, but I could see the use of such a thing. I don't much care for waking up feeling like washing that needs time near a stove, and sleeping in the woods tends to do that.”

I continued moving the 'tents' out of the way, until I had removed another three layers. When I touched the next one, its suspicious heft was a a revelation, and I began attempting to unfold it in place.

“Is that it?” asked Karl.

“I th-think so,” I said, as I carefully looked for the folded portion. I was having no luck.

“Maybe we should lift that one out and unfold it on the floor,” asked Sepp.

“Though not in here,” I asked. “I don't much enjoy being covered with dust.”

It took two of us carrying the thing outside, with the third handling the lanterns. The heft of the thing made for comments on the part of Karl.

“This is no bundle of cloth,” he said. “Those others were a lot lighter.”

“And quieter,” said Sepp, as he cleared the door. “I heard something clink in there, and it did not sound like coin.”

“I hope not,” I said.

The 'bundle' proved to be a well-camouflaged bag of some kind, and once Karl had untied the knot, I began removing the contents. I nearly collapsed when I reached in and felt the soft fluffy texture of a vegetable-fiber towel.

“What is it?” asked Sepp.

“They padded this thing with bath-towels,” I said.

“Then I could use one,” said Sepp, “and I suspect Karl could too, as this stuff we're wearing makes for itching and sweating.”

“D-don't remind me,” I said. “I have towels like this, and... Oh... What kind of a pistol do you want?”

“Why?” asked Sepp. “I've only seen one type.”

“I've seen two types here,” I said. “One type is able to fire more than once before needing reloading, and the other type...”

I drew out the package in question, and unwrapped its towel. The contents was a sizable cloth bag.

“In there,” I said. “I suspect someone slipped a revolver in it.”

“Do those have a rotating canister?” asked Karl.

“There is a part... Here, let me show you what I mean.”

I undid my possible bag, then felt for the pouch with the pistol. I drew the pouch out, then unbuttoned it and showed pouch and pistol to Karl.

“What did you do to this thing?” he asked. He pointed at the streaky and badly worn bluing of the cylinder.

“I had to go through it and make a lot of new parts,” I said. “If I knew of the formula so as to make it a uniform color, I'd do that, but I don't even begin to have a recipe for doing so.”

Karl handed me back the still-holstered pistol, which I put away. Sepp looked knowingly at my bag, then said, “you used that thing when you caught that witch, didn't you?”

I nodded, then looked at the bag. Sepp had drawn out a rag-wrapped bundle, and as he untied its knots, I wondered for a moment as to what he would secure.

“Here, let me bring out the rest out of that bag,” I said, as I lifted up a corner.

The muffled thuds of rag-wrapped bundles cascaded out of the bag with a seeming lack of warning, and as Karl began untying one of the smaller ones, Sepp undid his knot. The rags almost flew off, and when the darkened blue-black muzzle of an obvious revolver showed, he gasped.

“That is one of those pistols my uncle spoke of,” said Karl. “He said they were a lot of trouble to keep working, and worse yet to clean.”

“Then why do you have one?” asked Sepp.

“I'm a bit more familiar with those than the other type I've seen here,” I said. “Otherwise, Karl may be right, as it does take regular looking after. Then, cleaning tends to be somewhat involved.”

“I'm not sure I want it, then,” said Sepp. “What else is in that bag?”

Karl was finishing with a knot. When he had it done, he fumbled the rags off, then to my astonished eyes he brought out not merely a 'pirate-special' pistol, but what might have been a cleaning kit of some kind in a long thin leather pouch.

“Is that what you were after?” I asked.

“I hope there is another like it,” said Karl. “I've heard those can take shot.”

The remaining bundles contained another revolver, two more pirate-special pistols, an assortment of tools – these were all 'full-polish' examples, and coated with thick layers of torment-grease – a small bag of shot, another of 'larger' musket balls, and a third bag of 'revolver' balls. I put the last in my bag.

“What are you going to do with those things?” asked Sepp, as he wrapped his 'plunder' in a larger bath-towel. He'd kept one of the pirate-special pistols, as had Karl. They'd divided up the shot.

“I hope to go over them,” I said, “and then... Have you ever taken one of these apart?”

“No, I haven't,” said Sepp. “I can most likely figure the other type out, as they seem to be done like the common for muskets.”

“I'll show you how mine does once we clean up our mess,” I said. “I'll need to go with Hans once he shows, as there's some place in town that sells chemicals that he needs to go to.”

“Fair enough,” said Sepp.

Replacing the supplies in the dusty room took perhaps twenty minutes, and once done and outside the room, I wondered where I could sit down and demonstrate field-stripping a revolver. As I did, I recalled the need for a lengthy piece of thin silver wire.

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “I have drawplates. I could draw that wire myself, if I needed to.”

Yet still, I wondered as to the means. I had never drawn silver wire before, and the drawplates themselves demanded some kind of wire to draw through them.

Returning to the 'guard-room' showed it empty of people, and as I dismantled one of the revolvers we had found with my tools, I pointed out the important portions that needed attention when cleaning. When I tested the fit of the various pins and parts, I said, “this one doesn't need a lot of work.”

“What does it need?” asked Sepp.

“A few pins,” I said, “reaming the holes they go in, and then hardening the parts and hard-fitting them. I most likely have the needed tools already.”

“And yours?” asked Karl.

“The only original parts on that one are the barrel, the frame, and the cylinder,” I said, “and I went through those carefully. Everything else I had to redo completely, and in some cases, multiple times.”

“That is so,” said Hans as he came into the room, “and I am glad you found more of those things, as they work good if you have a lot of trouble.”

“How is that?” asked Karl.

Hans drew his from his pocket, then said, “I am glad for this one.”

“Y-you have one?” gasped Karl. “Aren't they hard to clean?”

“Yes, but so is a musket, if you want to do a good job of it,” said Hans. “You might want to let him draw out your patterns for the pouches for those, as his is as good as I have seen anywhere.”

Here Hans paused, then said, “now when is your first time, and who are you to be with?”

“M-Monday,” I said, “and the th-third post.”

“Yes, and with who?” asked Hans. “I think the three of you should be together.”

“We are,” said Sepp, “and I'll try out one of these things once it's been done like he spoke of.” Here, Sepp paused, then asked, “does that make them easier to look after?”

“That depends on what he needs to do,” said Hans. “That first one had a poor finish when he started, and now most of it has no finish, so it needs regular wiping with boiled distillate or this special oil. Those there...”

Hans paused, then said, “now what is those need?”

“Pins, reaming, hardening, and then fitting,” I said. “Come to think of it, the hardening tends to ruin the finish on the parts.”

“Is this when they go those gray colors?” asked Hans.

I nodded, then said, “or the various temper-colors. I hope we can find out that formula soon.”

“I have been asking as I can,” said Hans. “Now Grussmaan's is waiting, and that jeweler spoke of a place near it for silver.”

“I need some s-silver wire,” I said.

Hans then produced a sizable and shining coil of silver wire, saying, “I think he knew about it, as he had this done and waiting when I saw him earlier today.”

The pistols – two revolvers, and one of the others – were wrapped in bath-towels and stowed in a basket, which I carried out to the buggy. Once Hans had left the house, he handed me the wire he had shown me earlier.

Examination of the coil of wire showed that it was indeed close to the needed size, and when I spoke of using my drawplates to bring it to the 'correct' size, Hans said, “he talked about that, too, which is why he did that wire to six lines, and not four.”

“Uh, drawing lengthens the wire,” I said.

“That was why he did it that way,” said Hans. “He told me six-line silver wire is one of the stock sizes for jewelers to have on hand.”

“Rivets?” I asked. My 'copperware' rivet-swage came to mind, as it used that size.

“Those and a lot of things that jewelers do,” said Hans, as we came to the outskirts of the city.

We turned left at the first possible street, and here, I saw numbers of crowded houses all but jammed together on both sides of the street. The backs of the northern side of the road fronted on the 'heath' that separated the town from the house proper, while the south side of the road formed the border of a place that had the feeling of a desperation-ridden swarm of tenements. The road turned right, and again, the same feeling seemed overwhelming.

“What is this part of town called?” I asked.

“Mostly people live in these houses,” said Hans. “A lot of them are places that have rooms.”

“Boarding houses?” I asked.

“I am not sure what they call those places,” said Hans. “I doubt they call them that. Talk has it those black-dressed witches own these places, and I think that is likely.”

“H-high rents?” I asked.

“This is not the fourth kingdom, nor is it the mining country, so they are not that much,” said Hans. “I have heard that three miles to the south makes for more quiet and less money.”

“Three miles south of here, or three miles south of that one road?” I asked.

“Three miles south of that... Now which road is this?” Hans seemed confused.

“The Suedwaag,” I said, as we again turned right. I could feel a Public House ahead. “That means all the way across town, then another three miles, and God help anyone who needs to pass that close to the Swartsburg after dark. It's an easy hour on horseback...”

I paused, then said, “and few of these people have horses. Two hours and more coming and the same going doesn't sound at all attractive to most people, especially when nearly half of that distance isn't very safe.”

“If they go west in town so that they give...”

“Hans, that might be feasible on horseback,” I said. “On foot? Another mile...”

I paused, then said, “it would be a good deal more than another mile, unless those people could leave work two hours before dark.”

“Why is that?” asked Hans.

“That route you were thinking of goes along Kokenstraat,” I said, “and while that isn't in the Swartsburg proper, it might as well be once the sun goes down, at least from the Oestwaag south to some distance past the south edge of the house. If you want to stay 'safe' while traveling on foot, and you want to live in that town you spoke of, then most of the year you need to travel along Huislaan until you're close to the crow's foot, then cross over to the Suedwaag. It nearly doubles the distance to cross town, and adds another hour to the trip.”

Hans wiped his face as we turned right again, then turned left. The sense of disquiet I had felt previously grew apace. We were no longer in the 'residential' district, but rather in a region close-packed with obvious 'shops'. Each such location had its yard, its water troughs, its red-painted pump, and in most cases, either a specially painted design on its door, or a carved wooden post in its front with the business and name of the proprietor. Often, both 'signs' showed.

Faintly I smelled a melding of smells: a 'barnyard' smell, a sourly acid odor reminiscent of vinegar, faint driftings of rotten meat, and what might have been the scent of blood. This nauseating amalgam steadily increased in potency, until I looked to my right to see a huge Public House.

The shape of this building seemed familiar, but otherwise, it was unlike any place I had seen before. Its steeply-pitched roof was of book-shaped green tiles, while its walls seemed to be of a darkened species of wood bordered by squared stones. The deeply overhanging stoop seemed to hide the dark-painted door in deep shadow, and while the yard appeared to be vacant, I had the sense that was the seeming only. There were other 'parking lots' used by the clientèle, especially those that didn't 'rate' the use of the 'main' place. One had to be a member of the 'quality' to park there, and now was not a good time to see 'them'.

“Is that Public House there..?” I whispered. I did not wish to arouse the place's ire, and normal speech sounded far too likely.

“That one is bad,” said Hans. “Only those in the Swartsburg itself are much worse, if one sticks to the house here for looking.”

The 'vinegar' odor seemed to stand out more, so much so that it brought forth a recollection. I recalled the stink of what one of the 'armorers' drank, then asked, “what is that smell?”

“What smell?” asked Hans.

“It's a little like vinegar,” I said, “and it's really sour and biting. It might smell a little like bad fruit...”

“That is wine,” said Hans. “They have that stuff down south more, as few up here like it.”

“Is there more than one type?” I asked.

“I think that is likely,” said Hans. “That might be that bad stuff that is cursed, as I have smelled other types before.”

“H-have you tasted it?”

“I tasted the common stuff once,” said Hans, “and I was spitting like Anna did when she tried some of Paul's Geneva.”

The 'bad' Public House steadily receded, and as it did so, I noted by the absence of the sense of fear and dread that it had indeed affected me greatly. The various shops seemed to close in steadily in some strange fashion, so much so that as Hans went to the right margin of the road proper, I wondered as to why he had done so – until another buggy came out of a side-street with a heaping full bed and groaning wheels.

“This part has a lot of traffic,” said Hans, “and I expect the post to show about now. It will most likely go straight to the house proper.”

“Uh, do they drive fast?” I asked.

“Few things with wheels go faster,” said Hans, as a faint clattering noise seemed to take hold of my mind.

The noise was coming from ahead, and as I watched, a strange-looking 'covered wagon' came sliding around a turn some distance away from the left. Its team of four, while not mules, had a definite 'frantic' aspect, and as the vehicle straightened out with a shower of sparks on the road, I noted that it took up a good portion of the street. Its wheels whirled with manic speed as it clattered by us in a tearing 'rush', and the noise of its passage continued for what seemed nearly an entire minute before fading from the realm of sound.

It would take much longer to fade from memory, unless I guessed wrong.

“What was that?” I asked, as the noise finally vanished.

“That was the post,” said Hans, “and coming down the Oestwaag from past the Swartsburg means for hurry.”

“Hurry?” I asked. “Do those people try to rob..?”

“I am not sure if they try to rob the post,” said Hans. “I have seen fresh bullet holes in postal buggies arriving at the house proper, and the driver said he got them near Grussmaan's.”

“Why would they do that?” I asked. The turn the post had made was but a hundred yards ahead.

“I do not know,” said Hans, “though it is likely those black-dressed witches are doing the shooting.”

“S-sport?” I gasped. “Amusement?”

“That is as likely as anything,” said Hans. “This is the Oestwaag up here, and we turn east on it. I would check your things, as we might find witches in front of us.”

I checked over both revolver and rifle before Hans turned the corner, and as he did – he was now further from the right margin of the road, but still well right of center – I noted a change in both the feel and appearance of where we were.

While the road itself was but a few feet wider, it was noticeably 'smoother', and to both right and left the 'shops' were noticeably larger and 'showier'. There was a definite 'progression' in 'finery' as we went east – at least, the shops appeared more 'gaudy'. I wondered about the clientèle until a door opened.

The dark brown 'severe' clothing seemed a primer for the dark scowling face of its wearer, and as the man went to his buggy, I noted his rigid-looking upright carriage, his stiff movements, high-lifted feet – he wasn't quite pounding them as hard as Black-Cap had, but he was 'marching' just the same – pointed black boots, and as he made ready to 'mount', I smelled a faint odor of obvious strong drink. He began 'backing and filling', and as he did, I saw details of his buggy that I had missed before: higher-than-common wheels, a 'heavy' aspect – it seemed to have a plethora of ornately carved wood, with bright paint in the chiseled-out divots on the side-slats – and a four-horse team. The nauseating aspect of the whole ensemble was difficult to endure.

“The Swartsburg starts but a little to the south and east here, which is why that miser was in that shop,” said Hans. “I hope he does not cause trouble.”

“M-miser?” I whispered, as the clattering of rapid travel came from our left and rear.

“That is how they usually dress,” said Hans, as the clatter came rapidly closer.

I could hear snapping noises coming from behind amid the rattle and groaning of dry bearings, and when the buggy 'roared' past us, I saw overhead a black blurring line crackle like lightning before it returned to its previous circuit over the backs of the four-horse team.

“Th-that was a whip,” I shrieked.

“That proved who he was,” said Hans. “Only a witch would crack his whip at us for being in his road.”

“H-his r-road?” I asked.

“That is the common thing for witches,” said Hans. “They own the road and all that is on it, and the only people who can say otherwise to them are other witches.”

Hans paused, then said, “at least, that is how they act.”

I now saw less-than-faint trails of sparks coming from the cobbles beneath the wheels of the rapidly receding buggy, and as I watched, the spark-trails grew steadily fainter, until with an abruptness too great to fathom, they burst brighter and higher in the air just before they vanished.

“Ah, he has gone where he belongs,” said Hans.

“Is he..?”

“He went into the Swartsburg,” said Hans. “That might not be hell, but it is close enough to that place to suit me.”

Hans paused, then said, “and where he turned south is next to Grussmaan's.”

The shops to each side were now quite sizable, and their previously off-white color had become markedly darker. Some were a faded and mottled grayish-brown tone, while others had made the full transition to that brown-going-to-black color I recalled from memory. The smell of these shops reminded me of that 'bad' Public House, and while their yards seemed empty, I knew that to be but the seeming. These shops had two fronts, and two businesses, and their other yards were busy enough with profitable traffic.

“Those dark shops?” I asked.

“Talk has it those places have two fronts to them,” said Hans. “This is the one they show to everyone who is not a witch, and the other is shown only to those who go into the Swartsburg.”

“Uh, two shops in one building, with two yards?” I asked. “Do they actually do that?”

“I have heard they do,” said Hans.

Another reek had usurped the acidic smell of the black shops, and when I turned back toward the front, its awesome potency nearly ripped my nose from my face. The sharp-acrid-foul-bilious-chemical-stockyard-sewage-dead skunk smell was enough to cause retching, and its stench was not decreasing in the slightest.

“What is that smell?” I gasped, as I touched my nose. It felt as if it wished to vacate my face and hide.

“That is Grussmaan's,” said Hans. “I think they get a lot of stuff from the fifth kingdom, as that place down there stinks like this.”

The area itself seemed controlled by the smell of Grussmaan's, and as we came to a wide cobbled 'road' heading to the south, Hans slowed to a near stop. I looked down this road, and saw within a darkened cloud two long rows of solid black houses. Each house was made of congealed night, and within that cloud were housed nightmares too potent to be endured by those still alive to light and life. Only death was wanted there, and I shuddered visibly, even as the darkened cloud lifted to show a street crowded with long teams, coaches, and 'fancy' buggies. The air seemed alive with cursing, even as Hans resumed travel further into the realm of stench.

“This smell almost compares with that stinky black dog,” I gasped, as Hans turned into a sizable stone-paved 'yard'.

“That is normal for chemicals,” said Hans, “especially those they sell here.”

Hans paused, then said, “at least that place Andreas spoke of is honest.”

“Honest?” I whispered.

“There is no lead in what they sell,” said Hans. “These people here know they have the table to themselves with their stuff, so they take advantage of it.”

The yard of this place seemed faintly mossy with dark green material, and as I stepped down, I looked around. The 'conventional' aspect of the place – off-white paint, overhanging stoop with second story, wide centered door, brass lanterns – was overshadowed by the sign of the place. This last hung from the roof of the stoop by what looked like old and 'rustic' chains, and as I looked closer at the sign itself, I saw its 'varnish', its age-browned wood, its deep-chiseled letters, and finally, the form of the letters themselves:

“Grussmaan's,” I read. The sign seemed a grim portent, and more, it was hiding something. What it hid, I wasn't sure.

Coming to the door of the place was something of a marvel, for the lanterns I saw – more than the usual 'two'; this place easily had half a dozen of the towering tarnished-brass things hanging from the roof of the stoop – were stoked well with obvious fifth kingdom candles. Their thick yellow-streaked gray masses seemed forbidding and cheerless, while their long blackened sides and charcoaled wicks seemed to accuse their users of...

“Those are bad fifth kingdom lanterns,” said Hans, “and they are filled with those stinky fifth kingdom candles. Now we can go inside here.”

The door opened with a drawn-out and melodramatic creak at the touch of Hans' hand, and the previously intense reek without redoubled in potency as we crossed the threshold. This was another place, almost another world, and the long and wide aisle of worn boards secured with pegs seemed to usher this new location into my mind. I could almost hear the worn boots of a drunken enraged multitude...

Gambling, cursing, gallons of high octane drink, the shouted challenge, hot lead winging on clouds of dense blue-gray gunsmoke, the blood-hunger of cold steel, the slow-turning silhouettes strung up by the screaming mob that sacrificed those it hated at the door of Judge Lynch...


My thinking was again arrested. The black-dressed clientèle on the other side – Grussmaan's fronted on the Swartsburg as well as the Oestwaag – were the hidden and lucrative trade, and their chief requests those appropriate to witchcraft. A question, and more, a recollection, bloomed unbidden in my mind.

“Is this that 'Mercantile'?” I thought. “The one in the dream?”

Ahead down the worn boot-scarred planks lay the counter. Hans was standing at it, with a clerk behind it. The two were speaking something too softly for me to decipher. Another recollection joined the first.

“Why do these people feel like drug lords?” I thought. There was no answer, save the frightful and growing stench.

I thought to look around while waiting for Hans. The suspicions I had grew, and I consciously thought to try to appear curious. I suspected I would fail miserably, and as my thinking gave way to worry, I spied the shelves to both right and left.

These went out perhaps eight feet from the wall, and as I came to the first of them on the right, I saw rows of ancient-looking 'apothecary jars'. These were tall and slender things, and as I scanned their ranks on the shelves, their number, as well as their appearance, was astonishing. They all seemed hundreds of years old, each one of them faintly stained with grime that had endured through countless cleanings. Each such jar had a label, this being painted on them with a brush and black paint.

The label had the name of the substance, along with a code of letters and numbers. I was curious as to this code, but as I looked closer at one of the fronting jars, I had an intimation as to the age of the paint.

“Th-that paint has to be nearly a hundred years old,” I thought.

I glanced again at the counter, and now understood. Hans was 'gathering information', that being by the means of 'gossip' or 'talk' common to the area. I recalled him speaking that way, in fact.

“No radio, no television, no newspapers, few books when and if you can find them, and marginal literacy, so it's the bad light of gossip or the darkness of isolation,” I thought, as I returned to my looking. “I'll bet they know what those letters and numbers mean up front.”

I soon found 'familiar-looking' names, these being ones I had heard used here. After finding 'crude niter', then 'cleaned niter' and 'purified niter', I wondered as to the difference between the three types of 'niter'. I ceased with my wondering when I found 'chlorate of potash', and nearly ran when I found the container labeled as being 'liquid death'. I stayed close for a second, however, for I had a question.

“Why is this stuff also called 'huydraarg'?” I thought, as I touched the container. I then had another question.

“Why is this thing empty?” I thought.

I continued looking, and within moments, I found something I had never heard of prior, a chemical known as 'flash-metal'. I had no idea of what 'flash' meant in that context.

As I continued looking, I soon learned that the right side was the 'inorganic' side, and the left side, the 'organic' – or, upon checking it, the 'botanical' section. These jars were smaller, cruder, and commonly made of a cream-colored species of ceramic. I looked carefully for 'fever-tree bark' and did not find it, or much else that Hans had spoke of during chemistry in the basement. I returned to the inorganic portion of the shop.

The shelves near the front, however, had no apothecary jars. They had been replaced with rows of squat brown-and-white ceramic jugs, and when I found a row labeled 'oil of vitriol', I nearly jumped. As if to warn me, the front of the thing went gauzy and showed atoms combined into a molecule.

The molecule wasn't all that showed, however; there was also a white shiny 'tin' label with a pointed end, and printed on this label was the formula H2SO4, precisely as I recalled it being for sulfuric acid.

“Why, all of a sudden,” I thought, “am I seeing chemistry symbols when I am looking at a jug of this chemical?”

The only answer was the tag I saw, and I picked up the jug, thinking as I did so about the need for sulfuric acid for tallow-cleaning, among other things. Its heft was astonishing, and when I came to the counter, I put it next to Hans. He looked at it, nodded, and moved it over into his 'pile', while the clerk said nothing. I then saw what he was doing.

The long rows of slates in his 'book-holder' nearly made for terror, as I had a slate-carrier identical to them at the shop, and as I stood waiting, I wondered how they would think of me being there. I had my answer but minutes later when I carried my share of the supplies out to the buggy.

“Uh, I said nothing...”

“That was a good idea,” said Hans. “I did not remember I needed some of that stuff.”

“Would that place sell to me?” I asked.

Hans looked at me as I got in the buggy, then said quietly, “that clerk was acting strange for him, as he is usually more inclined toward cheating.”

Hans paused, then said, “still, I am glad I do not need to go there often. Now it is Mandelbrot's, and then home for us. I know you have a lot that needs you doing it there, and so do I.”