A MAN WHO LOOKED LIKE A DUCK WITH A DROOPING BEAK faced Freddie in the main castle doorway off the courtyard as she escorted Babette back into the castle. Though she could hardly call him a man. More of a boy. His face very pale and slack, long soft nose, small dark eyes--an ugly face with a look of stupidity about it. He wore a purple velvet waistcoat, a white shirt beneath, and a big gold chain hung about his neck. He carried a riding crop in one hand, and his breath reeked of alcohol. He stared at Freddie's clothing with his drink-glazed eyes, saw her white riding pants and high leather boots, and he sneered. Apparently, women dressed in such a fashion greatly offended him. He next turned his gaze to Babette and sneered again. Apparently, the site of a servant offended him also.
    He raised his riding crop to rest in his other hand, and said to Freddie with a voice that sounded like a Russian woman with nasal blockage, "What means these pants of yours? Are you a servant here, or an elected king of peasants?"
    "I am who I am, sir, and my pants are not your concern," she answered in a forceful way, attempting to put the little ass in his place. Freddie was determined to get around him without haste and escort Babette to her bedchamber. Whoever he was, he must be the son of a Russian noble, though she'd never seen him before. The droopy duck face lifted his riding crop and smacked it into the palm of his hand, staring at Freddie with theatrical anger. She laughed to herself, but watched him with a cold face.
    Does the ass pickle desire to strike me?    
    "What are you about with that crop, sir?" Freddie asked.
    "I have been lashing my hounds!" he exclaimed, his stinking alcohol breath punishing her while his eyes brightened with the announcement, as if the memory of lashing hounds excited him. "I court marshaled one and hung another from the walls for disobedience."
    "Why would anyone favor the harming of animals?" she asked him, her tone a mixture of disgust and curiosity. She noticed the head of a toy soldier sticking out of his waistcoat pocket.  
    Is the ass pickle playing with toy soldiers also?

Only my memoirs hint at the true insanity ...

      (From the lost memoirs of Catherine the Great in her youth)

   Niccolo and I argued last evening while I attempted to relax at Big Sur and watch the Golden Hind sailing south. I love Mother Yarrow Maria, and her presence is a reassuring one, though annoying at times. She can keep no secrets, because Niccolo will not have it. I reminded him that I died after confronting Da Vinci, and in effect, he had been the one who condemned me to that fate. My youthful and naive self was killed by Eréndira, sent by Da Vinci, and all because of Niccolo. She and I might still have failed to kill the pompous God One on Mars, but at least those monsters Eréndira and Mandukhai would not have been present. And as I consider it further, 'God One' is an appropriate term for the likes of Da Vinci, for like an Old Testament Jehovah he brings wrath and manipulates whole nations, laying waste without conscience. Most strange though, this time travel business, especially when one considers the way in which the altered past can suddenly inflict guilt and other terrible memories never before possessed.
    I know that as Czarina I will raise a feudal Russia from the muck of ages, and do many good things to alleviate the people's suffering. This future I see for myself, but at what cost? Who can possibly understand what I must endure? I read about myself in books, in libraries and other places in future years, though only my memoirs hint at the true insanity of life with Peter. Though I find it still unbelievable, I am now one of the four most powerful beings on this obscure planet at the rim of a petty galaxy, and yet I must endure an infantile hell created by a moronic fool. Only my escapes in time at the request of Saravastra and Niccolo provide any relief, and the adventures I experience, however fruitless or meaningful, are well received by me. Anything is good substitute, even Virgin Mary torture when compared to the maddening presence of "the whelp" as so many call him.

Do World Makers really die though?

     (From the lost memoirs of Catherine the Great in her youth)

     Do World Makers really die though? Niccolo and Da Vinci, and others, have been alive since the Bronze Age, and yet, I know my Asian predecessor was turned to salt and digestion at the hands of the Dio Soldati. So many things I do not fully comprehend. I do not even know why or how I became a World Maker. I still do not understand Ahriman, or the real substance of his being. At times I consider him a dark illusion created by Da Vinci and Niccolo to frighten me. I doubt this is the case though. He is our source, our father in a manner of speaking, as Niccolo says, but what does that really mean? Am I not born of my mother and father, or was I placed in a demon womb by Ahriman, or born of an unholy union of a thing inhuman with a human? I cannot say. I do not doubt my wicked mother would consent to uniting with a demon if the prize were sufficient, and often, I believe she was truly sired by one. Whatever the real truth, I desire to know the nature of Ahriman. He is evil, most certainly, far more evil than Da Vinci. My senses alert me to this, and Mother Yarrow Maria knows it also, and Niccolo avoids me when I seek more information about him. 
    I might aria this Ahriman into a reality I can witness, though I fear such a thing, deep and colder than I fear the potential of my last day. This fear is like an instinct I cannot avoid or deny, and perhaps Ahriman himself placed it within me as a clever mechanism to prevent my searching, thus enabling his mystery to continue without respite. One day, the truth must come out. Perhaps, on that day of knowing Ahriman, I will be powerless and driven to leap from the cliff by Niccolo's mechanical pets, or perhaps I will know nothing at all, and be driven to my death regardless. Or perhaps, such a thing will not happen. Regardless, I fervently wish to know, one way or another, so that I may prepare myself.

Donned a golden codpiece ...

      The actors, however, were determined to correct this mood. A half dozen of them blew into big black serpents--musical wind instruments covered in black leather and looking like slithering snakes. They blew and tooted and the remaining actors, at least twenty, skipped and marched. Freddie watched them while finishing her soup and straining awfully hard to remain polite to the young noblewomen to her left and right: Princess Hermine Reuss of Greiz and Princess Théodolinde de Beauharnais. Both were seated by Princess Johanna to "provide fitting company" but in reality to torture Freddie. Hermine wouldn't stop whining about her "scratchy bodice" and "the smell of serf" on the soles of her feet, while "Théodo the Terrible"  as Freddie nicknamed her, blathered on and on about Prince Whoever of Whatever and how rumors said he often donned a golden codpiece etched with a Zeus hurling lightning bolts.
    "Perhaps, dear Théodo, this cod-piece Zeus of might hurl a bolt at Hermine's feet and burn the smell of serf from them?" Freddie said. Both princesses stared at her as if she were impossibly difficult, for they wished only heaping doses of astonishment and sympathy for their petty ills and ambitions. Nothing else would do.

Festering and growing in roots of European shadow ...

    He flashed Freddie a brief smile, turned and walked towards a nearby group of white-wigged noblemen who stood chatting. One of the noblemen, a German baron with a thick gold chain about his neck and a face like an otter, saw Zolo coming and gruffly shouted at him, "Hurry up you wretched little wogger!" Whereupon the other noblemen turned their heads and jeered at Zolo.
    Wogger? Those hateful bastards.
    A word used to humiliate the servant class. An English term given to an ill-fated group of serfs who rebelled against their masters ten years ago in Russia, joining with Cossacks from the north, and raiding farms owned by nobility. They spread revolt until brutally put down by the Russian royal army. Thousands of serfs died before the cannon's mouth. More thousands executed, their families sold or imprisoned, or starved to death. It all reminded her of Rome's servile wars, the greatest of all led by a rogue gladiator named Spartacus. Many whispered that the woggers had formed a secret society, festering and growing in the roots of European shadow like mushrooms, collecting muskets and wogger swords and conspiring at more bloody uprisings.
    Might that not be exciting?


    A silvery light glowed into being, somewhere high above her. At first, she thought it a moon. Then she noticed, it sprouted legs. Upon closer look, she realized it to be the silver face beetle of Zoltan Gur. It filled the air with a moon-silver light and revealed her to be standing in a cavernous room, one at least three times larger than the Great Hall of Bärenthoren castle.
    She glanced around for Gur but he had vanished. To either side of her she saw what appeared to be soldiers on horses. Lines of them facing her, hundreds in rank after rank:  Mongol warriors of polished stone wearing moon-gleaming iron helmets with pointed tops, white tufts of horsehair flowing from the peaks, and their bodies fitted with thick, brown-lacquered armor. All carried round wicker shields and gripped tall lances that pointed to the ceiling. Each shadowy face though was different, as if each possessed the soul of a dead warrior, a real man who lived and died in that savage age; and in that eerie light, the hard and violent faces of those long dead Mongols, hundreds of them, all seemed to stare at her.
    Would they charge and impale her if she made the wrong move?
    Next, she heard a sound, like a small stone striking iron in the distance. She looked across the lines of Mongol cavalry statues, and raising her eyes, saw a figure seated atop what appeared to be a throne. It towered above the statues, set upon a tall marble dais. The figure was sheathed in golden plate armor, head to foot, and rising high in the moon-silvery darkness beyond, a terraced hill, like a black staircase for giants, and on each terrace, the glitter of countless objects.
    Then she understood.   

By the pricking of my fingers ...

    Her eyes peered into the shadows. At first, she saw nothing, but her fingers suddenly felt as if tiny needles pressed into them. She knew it to be sign of supernatural evil lurking nearby, her fingers pricking on other occasions whenever demonic spirits wandered the halls of Bärenthoren castle seeking redemption or revenge.
    By the pricking of my fingers, something wicked nearby lingers.  
    The only object that demanded her attention near the George III globe was the painting her mother had purchased from Augustus of Poland only two years before in 1741—a work by the Dutch painter Vermeer entitled, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. Nothing unusual there. But then, about to turn away from the painting and search further, Freddie noticed a frighteningly odd thing:
    The image of the girl in the painting had vanished!
    The princess blinked ... Nothing changed.
    Only a dark silhouette remained, and she believed it a trick of light. Or was she going mad? She knew of elixirs that tortured the victim’s mind with apparitions before they died. 
    Are you trying to poison me now, mother?
    Before she could consider it further, she heard the titter once more, cold and low, poking out from that dark corner just below the painting … and something moved, I know something moved. Fight or flight, Freddie? She saw a roundness, a vague shape take form, and she imagined a head nearly a foot above the floor.
    But no, it wasn’t her imagination.
    The shape floated towards her out of the shadows, slowly, and what emerged into the light appeared like nothing she had ever seen: a thing so twisted, so out of place in her world, in any world dreamed by women or men or God that it made her doubt her own sanity even more.
    The upper body of the unholy thing hovered in the air above the floor without legs or support, drifting into the light. Freddie recognized the muddy blond hair pulled back from her forehead, the thin coils of curl, the colors of the old dress, and that face now dour and smirking at Freddie, as if it knew a dark secret or a wicked event that would soon harm her more than she could imagine.


Their oaken false teeth clacked ...

    Just as certain diseases have varying effects on their victims, so too the being radiated an evil that touched people in different ways. Two of the castle valets, men of hard and gray age, shook so hard their oaken false teeth clacked like wind shutters in a storm. One of the younger maids began to sing, words that sounded to Freddie, at a distance, like lines from an Italian opera. Something by Pollarolo? While another maid nearby shrieked in a savage, curse-like alien language no one understood, flinging words like "Ho dah, ha dibah!," at no one in particular, the maid right beside her slapped her own face as if fighting herself. A German noble, the Duke of Mecklenburg, clutched at his chest with a groan and fell to one knee just as a stunned castle guard dropped his musket to the ground, causing it to fire with such a loud report that it slammed the courtyard walls and broke two giant windows. And as the glass crashed loudly to the stones and the smell of gunpowder bit their nostrils, the assembled servants and nobles, mouths hanging open, instinctively stepped back. All of them knew this emissary from Hell to be the legendary spellcrafter and royal puppet master: 
    Mirza Yesun Temur.


Time to Rise, Oh Monster!

(dedicated to the future slapping of PM's monster)
    In full sight of the shrieking Baroness, Freddie yanked the fat, sleep-dazed baron out of bed and hoisted him high into the air, dangling him like a child as he protested and yelled. She slapped him across the face twice and tossed him through the air like a sack of dead rats. He hit the far wall with a loud grunt, so hard it almost knocked him cold. She calmly walked over to him, and reaching down, yanked him gasping to his feet by the hair. With her free hand she withdrew the small sack of gold coins from her coat pocket and shook them to the floor. Still clutching his head by the hair, she forced it down to stare at the coins.
    "There is your payment for all your serfs. You will release them tomorrow and allow them to make their way to Bärenthoren castle, unharmed. Do you understand? And not a word of this to anyone!"
    "Yes, yes, in God's name, no more!" he whimpered. Two of Eichmann's butlers ran in to grab Freddie but her right hand shot out and caught the first one in the chest, sending him flying back against the other. They smashed into the wall behind them, helpless with broken ribs and dazed heads. "Anything, masked demoness, anything!" he gurgled and yelled.