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Nicolo Amati stared at the plague-pit of Cremona. Inside it were his father Girolamo, mother Laura, sisters Margherita Caterina, Vittoria Caterina, Elisabetta Caterina, and Elisabetta's husband Vincenzo Tili.
The plague season this year had done to the Amatis what it and war had been doing to Cremona and the Duchy of Mantua every year since 1628; murdered two-thirds of them.
They'd come so close, the Amatis; the damned war caused by Duke Vincenzo II Gonzaga being so stupid as to die without heirs had been dying down and with it the plague. They had come so close; and then the plague had surged in the fall. October had been the killing month, five gone in the last week.
For a time, it had seemed Girolamo would live. The deaths of his wife, daughters and son-in-law had nearly broken him, but he had lived. Lived a month.
Now his body lay with theirs, in the charnel-pit. Tossed there without ceremony. No time to spare to find where the others were, to at least let them lie together.
No, just tossed into the pit, remove the dead and with them the contagion.
Nicolo Amati stared at the mound of earth where his family and others lay entangled, discarded, trashed.
"I can't even bloody come to their graves and talk," he said to himself. "Because I don't bloody know where their bodies bloody are!" He screamed at the sky.
"I DON'T EVEN BLOODY KNOW WHERE THEY ARE!"
In a frenzy he grabbed at the soil, heedless of contagion; he threw clods of earth into the sky, screaming
"YOU STINKING BASTARD! YOU FILTHY PIECE OF CRAP! YOU DID THIS! YOU DIED WITHOUT HEIRS VINCENZO YOU RAT ASS BASTARD!"
The clods fell back to earth and with them fell Nicolo's anger. Tears down his cheeks, he mumbled to the earth covering his family ‘You died . . . you died."
Nicolo Amati stared at the long line in front of him.
Usually he could easily make his way through the Piazza del Comune to the cathedral for services. Not today. He looked quickly up and down the line. Cursing his luck at finding himself midway on the line, he hastened up to the line and attempted to cross.
No luck on this as well. Despite his mutterings of "Scusi, per favore!" somebody's arm gripped him by a shoulder and held him fast. He turned and tried to shake off the ill-mannered whomever, only to find the beaming face of his neighbor and friend Orazio Orcelli. "Ciao, Nico! Why the rush?"
For answer Nicolo Amati pointed to the Cathedral. "Services, Raz. I've missed too many the past few months. Clearing up Vinny's affairs, and then buying that porco Domenico out of the atelier, time to remind God I'm still here."
Raz nodded in sympathy. As Nicolo's closest neighbor, he was familiar with the mess left behind by Nicolo Amati's brother-in-law Vincenzo Tili after his death. As well as the even greater mess caused by Nicolo's other brother-in-law Domenico Moneghini and his insistence he knew the making of musical instruments better than one raised in it from birth.
"Finally got the lawyers out from underfoot, Nico? I'm glad to hear it. I was happy to testify on your behalf about Dom. How he could be so helpful clearing up Vincenzo's accounts and then be so ripugnante about the workshop I don't know." His mien and voice turned serious. "But listen Nico, forget the cattedrale for now. You want to see what this traveling merchant ahead has, believe me."
At some muttered imprecations from behind him at letting somebody into line ahead of them, Raz turned and yelled back "Basta! Like I didn't see you let your cousin in, Caruso! So not a word from the lot of you!" He turned back to his friend Nicolo. "Really, Nico, you have to see it. This is my third time around, believe me it's worth the penny each time!"
Nicolo Amati looked at his friend, then at the cathedral. "If you say so Raz, but it has been a while. I have all sorts of thoughts about Domenico I need to confess." He moved off towards the church.
Raz however wasn't done with him. He underscored the raising of his hands in an ‘all right all right' gesture with "All right, all right, Nico, if you must, you must. But be sure and come back, I'll hold your place in line." Which promise got him some more mutterings from behind. Which got them the two-fingered English salute. Mutual respect having been satisfied, the line quietened.
Nicolo Amati mentally shrugged. Promising Raz to return, he hurried off into the cathedral.
When he emerged from Confession and from the cathedral, Nicolo Amati saw Raz waiting for him at the head of the line. Mentally sighing for his delayed supper, Nicolo Amati rushed over to his friend.
"Ciao, Nico!" was his greeting. "Took you long enough, I wouldn't have thought you had so many sins to confess!"
Quickly glancing down the line, Nicolo Amati explained the delay. "It isn't that, Raz. I got Father Costamagna, and you know how deaf he's becoming. I said my confession over and over, which is maybe the point. The more I repeated my sins, the stupider they became."
Raz laughed at the quip. "Well, Nico, God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform, and from what I hear He's done that in the Germanies all right. Here, Hans," he called out to a nearby attendant, "this is my friend Nicolo Amati I've been waiting for. Let us in, I've been promising him great things, and I want to prove I'm not a liar!"
Hans, short, stout, and with muscles denoting likely past employment as a blacksmith, shook his head no.
"This fellow just paid his pfennig, wait until he's done. Besides, your friend Nicolo hasn't read the signs, so—" Hans now addressed Nicolo "—take a moment and read those, mein Herr. Saves a lot of time."
"Signs?" Nicolo queried.
By way of answer both Raz and Hans pointed to two placards in front of a gaudily-painted wagon. The first announced
Grantville Is REAL & From The FUTURE.
They are called AMERICANS.
Americans Speak English.
Americans MAY Know Your Future.
But Probably Not.
Grantville is in THURINGIA.
The second one stated
I DO NOT Know Your Future! DON'T ASK!
Americans DO NOT Breathe Fire.
American Women Are NOT Whores.
The Streets Are NOT Paved With Gold.
AGAIN, I REALLY DON'T KNOW YOUR FUTURE!
"Looks like somebody's heard the same questions too often," remarked Nicolo.
Hans overheard and nodded his head. "Yes, Signore Amati. Herr Rohrbeck had these painted soon after we crossed the Alps. They help, but some people—" He shook his head."—Christ could step down from the Cross and say don't do it, but it wouldn't help."
Orazio Orcelli and Nicolo Amati nodded in recognition of universal truth. "Sounds like something Caruso would do," opined Raz.
"Caruso?" repeated Hans in a curious tone.
"Pietro Caruso, the town idiot," explained Nicolo. "At least he was, he died in ‘29. Nobody's stepped up to take his place, though."
"Giuseppe Bottai," offered Raz. "Imagine, rigging a horse race and forgetting to bet!"
"Enzo Galbiatti," counter-suggested Nicolo. "Yes, Father Costamagna's getting deaf, but still you don't raise your voice so loud in Confession everybody hears!"
"Well, Cremona's a big place," mused Hans. "So maybe they can share. Anyway, Signore Orcelli, does your friend know the rules?" At a head-shake from Raz Hans explained "Meister Rohrbeck up there will show you how it works. You don't get to use it yourself. Maybe you don't think it's witchcraft but he paid way too much to take the chance of you breaking it, so don't ask. We don't care how important you are, only Meister Rohrbeck uses it. Understood?"
At a nod from both men Hans went on. "You get to ask Meister Rohrbeck up to five questions. The one he'll have you ask when you get up there doesn't count, it's just to show you the proof of what we say. Is that clear?"
At a further nod Hans added, "Okay. And before you ask, it's an American word. It means all right, yes, good to know. Now, signori, it's a pfennig each to step up and see the proof, please pay it now." He held out a hand in emphasis.
Familiar with the proceedings, Raz dropped a copper penny into Hans' outstretched hand. Nicolo, assured again by Raz's "it's worth it," fumbled in a pocket. Finding one, he dropped it into the hand as well.
Hans quickly placed the two pennies in a coin purse. From its size and weight whatever the ‘proof' was it was paying its own way and more.
Though as soon as Nicolo Amati spent his penny he regretted it. "Wait a minute, Raz, Hans. Grantville? You mean that wizards' town in the Germanies we've been hearing about all these months? That Grantville?"
At a nod from both Raz and Hans, Nicolo vented exasperation. "You mean I'm paying to see something from . . . what did Aristophanes call it? Cloud Cuckoo-Land? Raz, really!" He held out a hand to Hans. "Hand it back, Hans!"
Who shook his head no and whose body and face became obdurate. With his size and muscles obdurate was more properly unmovable. "No refunds, Signore Amati. Besides it's worth it. Like the sign says—" He pointed to the YES placard "—Grantville is real. I should know, me and Meister Rohrbeck and Georg—" He gestured toward the rear guard, as short and stout and muscled as Hans. "—have all been there. It's no Cloud-Cuckoo Land, though I admit when you're there it's hard to remember that, sometimes."
Raz for his part held out two pennies to Nicolo. "Here Nico, take these. If what you see up there—" He pointed at the wagon. "—doesn't convince you Grantville is real, keep these. If it does, and it will, hand them back."
Nicolo brushed his friend's hand aside. "All right all right, keep your money, Raz. You've already paid too much money to these frauds," he said as he glared at Hans.
Who didn't glare back. Secure in knowledge Nicolo didn't yet have, he simply stated, "Listen to your friend, Signore. We aren't charlatans, though I get where you're coming from. Now I see Herr Rohrbeck is done with the last fellow, up you go!"
Grumbling, Nicolo Amati stepped up a small ladder into the wagon bed. There seated at a stool in front of a small table was presumably Herr Rohrbeck, leader of this latest group of swindlers to infest Cremona.
In appearance the softening lines on the chief swindler's face testified to someone who after most likely years of hardship was now experiencing a surfeit of good fortune and food. A hard cast to Rohrbeck's eyes showed this was a man who would kill and die to keep both, though laugh lines at his mouth showed the presence of another, kinder man. His hair was almost uniformly grey. His hands were a touch liver-spotted but clearly still powerful. Right now, they were on the table, covering something.
Herr Rohrbeck looked at his new interlocutor. He spoke.
"Welcome to Cloud-Cuckoo Land, Signore?" His eyes glinted humor, his smile was wide, open, convincing. As a cheat's had to be, thought Amati.
"Nicolo Amati, Signore Rohrbeck."
"Grazie, Signore Amati. I overheard you, of course. Honestly, I don't blame you for doubting Hans. Had we not ourselves been in Grantville we would have thought the same as you."
Smile at the mark, then establish a rapport with talk of shared experience, thought Nicolo Amati. Thoughts his face did not show, he was certain.
Unmindful of his target's low regard of him, Herr Rohrbeck continued his spiel.
"However, as Hans and the sign say, Grantville is real. Here is proof." His hands moved away, uncovering the mysterious object at the heart of the con. He picked it up and held between his hands, facing Nicolo Amati.
The object was frankly unspectacular. In appearance it had the shape and size of a playing-card, though metallic and slightly thicker.
On its face were the numbers 0 through to 9, plus symbols for addition, subtraction, and multiplication, as well as others unfamiliar to Nicolo. What was that check-mark supposed to mean, and what use was ÷, M-, M+, Mrc, and ON/C? And those two small thin strips of glass?
And what in Heaven's name was Fairmont Federal Credit Union?
Ignoring or unaware of Amati's confusion, Herr Rohrbeck continued the set-up for the con game.
"Please, Signore Amati. Ask me a mathematics question, the more complicated the better."
Ah, figured Nicolo, now I know the game. Clearly Herr Rohrbeck was one of those odd people gifted with the ability to do complex calculations very quickly in their mind.
Usually such people accompanied travelling players, showing up at town fairs and city marketplaces, following whatever pattern of visits and tours suited themselves.
Rohrbeck, Hans and Georg however had somehow managed to fortify their act to the point they thought they did not need the presence of other performers. No doubt they had also heard those fantastical tales of a wizard's town in the Germanies and gussied up some sleight-of-hand and gimcrack device they could pass off as mysterious and magical.
Well, bind not the kine that tread the grain, as the Good Book averred. So long as they put on a good show then so be it.
"All right Herr Rohrbeck, I'll play along. What is—" Nicolo Amati stopped a moment, teasing out the one complicated arithmetic question he knew. "—three thousand six hundred and eighty-three as a part of eighty-five thousand and nine?"
Which question and answer had stuck in Amati's mind ever since it had been asked of him in the priest-run primary school. He held it was the nine so bizarrely by itself that had caused the question and its answer to remain with him.
Then Nicolo Amati saw the world change.
Because as Herr Rohrbeck pressed numbers on the Fairmont, each appeared in the largest glass pane. First 3, then 6, then 8, 3 again. Then the strange symbol ÷ was pressed, then came 8, then 5, then 0 0, then 9. The = was pressed, and there was the answer= .0433.
Actually, there was more than the answer; the Fairmont (if that was its name) added to the end 248.
Nicolo Amati stared at the number in its glass pane. Signore Rohrbeck could not possibly have known what question Nicolo Amati would ask, and even if he had how could he make those numbers appear? So quickly?
Dimly he realized his jaw had dropped. He didn't care. "How?"
Amused at the change in Amati's demeanor, Herr Rohrbeck lightly tapped the Fairmont. "I will count that as one of your five questions, Signore Amati. I warn you, what I can answer won't be much help to you. Do you still wish to ask it?"
"I—yes" said Nicolo, humbly.
"Very well. The up-timer—that is their name for all those who came from the future and we are down-timers—the up-timer who sold this to me explained that this calculator runs on solar power." He pointed to the smallest glass pane. "This somehow converts sunlight, any light, into something called electricity. Grantville runs on electricity," he added.
Nicolo Amati reached out a hand to touch the Fairmont, no, the calculator. Contrary to what Hans had told him, Herr Rohrbeck permitted an index finger to brush against the numbers and the symbols. It was only when that finger moved towards the windows that he moved the calculator away.
"Ah, not those areas, Signore Amati. The up-timer warned me that these are the most sensitive areas of this ‘credit-card calculator," as she called it. This--" he held the calculator up again in full view."—is never cleaned with soap and water. Distilled clear alcohol or highly diluted ammonia, which is what the up-timers call spirits of hartshorn."
Somewhat restored mentally and physically, Nicolo Amati asked in puzzlement, "Why can't you use soap and water?"
Meister, no, Maestro Rohrbeck raised an eyebrow at this. "I will also count that as one of your questions, Signore Amati. Do you still wish to ask it?"
"Um . . ." Nicolo Amati considered. Really, what use to him was knowing how not to use something he didn't own? "No."
Meister Rohrbeck, satisfied, replied, "Wise choice. What other questions do you have?"
Amati considered. He had four questions left. Really, he had hundreds, but only four. Thinking quickly, he asked, "If I pay you another penny now, can I have five more questions?"
Meister Rohrbeck tapped a finger on the table. "Irregular, but all right. And I count that as a question. Only five more, mind. Any more, back to the line."
Accepting this as fair, Nicolo Amati quickly fished out another penny and gave it to Meister Rohrbeck. "All right, eight questions now. Ask away."
"This electricity you mentioned, that Grantville runs on, what is it?"
Meister Rohrbeck pursed his lips, then asked a question in turn. "Have you ever touched metal and felt a shock? Same when shaking hands?"
"Y-e-e-s," Amati cautiously replied, unsure of where this conversation was going.
Ignoring Amati's uncertainty, Rohrbeck stated, "Well, those shocks are caused by electricity. As is lightning. The up-timers have found ways to generate electricity and control its use." Deciding this answer lacked sufficiency, Meister Rohrbeck added, "They use copper wiring covered in rubber to distribute it. Apparently, rubber doesn't convey electricity well while copper is excellent for it. As is water. Which is why—" He tapped again the calculator."—I cannot use soap and water on this. I was told by the up-timer who sold me this that water mixed with electricity is bad, worse than alcohol and fire."
Nicolo gasped. "You mean the calculator will burn if water touches it?" He backed away.
Meister Rohrbeck quickly held up a hand and spoke to allay fear. "No, no, Signore, it won't! It can't! I feared the same as you, but truly there isn't enough electricity in this to do any harm! She only meant that using water on this will either make it work badly or never again, not that it will burn." He smiled to further calm Amati's distress. "I won't consider that one of your questions, Signore Amati. Please, ask me another."
Nicolo Amati pursed his lips in turn. Those answers didn't exactly answer his question, but all right. "These Americans, do they have musical instruments? I ask because I'm a luthier."
This time the answer was satisfactory. "Yes. Hundreds. When I was in Grantville their school orchestra put on a concert. There were instruments there like those of today and others I have never seen before. Six."
"These instruments you saw, the ones you knew from before. Did those of the . . . up-timers' look different from today's?"
It took a moment for Meister Rohrbeck to answer. "I wasn't really paying attention, you know. They were playing up-time music. Weird, wild music with strange names. I remember "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and "La Vida Loca." Which is fitting. But from what I remember, the up-time instruments were either subtly different or completely new. What they called their ‘brass' section was definitely that. Five."
"Do these—Americans, right?—do they have luthiers of their own?"
This got him another amused look. "Thinking of going there, Signore? To answer your question, they certainly do by now. Germans. And . . . I think they had one of their own. Maybe. Georg!" he called out to the rear guard. A rapid-fire discussion in German ensued. Looking pleased with himself, Meister Rohrbeck said "Yes, Signore Amati, they do. Maestro In-gram Bled-soe. Four."
Quick as a hunting dog on a fresh scent, Nicolo Amati asked, "How do you spell—ah, porco!" he called himself, as he realized what he'd done.
Smiling again, Meister Rohrbeck spelt out the unfamiliar English—American—name, adding at the end ‘Four."
Thanking Rohrbeck, Amati's next four questions concerned Grantville—yes, they used gold, silver, and copper for money, plus their own currency, intricately-designed paper-linen money called dollars; the stories of horseless carriages were true, running on both electricity and burning naphtha; all religions were allowed including Anabaptists and Jews but don't argue your religion demands killing Jews and burning witches—the up-timers hang such people; yes, really, Signore Amati, besides they basically regard a down-timer Jewess named Becky—short for Rebecca—as their princess and don't ask me why simply accept they do; yes, there are places to stay in Grantville; however, go to either the nearby up-time village of Deborah or the nearby down-time villages of Schwarzburg or Sundremda or maybe even the town of Rudolstadt—rents in Grantville are insane!
With that last question asked and answered, Nicolo Amati shook Maestro Rohrbeck's hand in thanks and walked down off the wagon. Back on the ground, he was greeted by Raz and Hans.
"Well, Nico?" asked Raz. "Was it everything we promised?" The wide grins on their faces showed they expected a deserved Yes!
Which they got. "Yes, Raz, Hans," admitted Nicolo Amati. "Everything. You were right, Raz, I had to see it. Hans, I apologize for doubting you, even if you tell me now it's a trick—" Hans shook his head no."—it's the best I've ever seen. How something that little could figure such numbers . . . I wouldn't even know where to start!" he finished, shaking his head.
Hans, grinning wider, added, "Care to hear something else that will ‘blow your mind,' " as the up-timers put it? Not really," he hastily added. "It's an up-time expression, means something so impressive it blows your mind."
Nicolo Amati considered it. "Blow my mind? It already is, Hans, but go ahead."
Hans did. "That calculator of Herr Rohrbeck's? Up-time such things were so commonplace up-timers gave those away. Handed to children as toys."
"That was a toy?!?!?" shrieked Nicolo Amati.