King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 27, 28, 29, 30

The plume of smoke leaking lazily into the air off the port bow held Shef’s gaze like a fly struggling to escape the spider. The cruise had gone well, extraordinarily well. The islands of the Mediterranean had been much fought over, but did not seem to have been thoroughly plundered for many years. Perhaps the contestants had been eager only to change the religion of the islanders, not to leave with a profit. The ships in the fleet were low in the water now, not only with renewed food and water, but with church plate, brocades and cloth of unknown dyes.

Most important of all was the tribute exacted from Mallorca and Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera, then Corsica and Sardinia, tribute in gold and silver coins of the Arabs, of the Greeks, of the Franks and the Romans and countries of which Shef had never heard and whose script neither Skaldfinn nor Solomon could recognize. Sicily next, lying only a little to the south, below the island of Vulcan with its smoky mountain? A descent on the Italian mainland? Even Guthmund had been heard to talk of quitting while the going was good, and before the equinoctial gales set in on the long passage home.

Meanwhile there was Steffi to satisfy. He had taken his conversion to the fire-pendant and the Loki-god with great conviction. His conversation was now about nothing but fire, and he had grasped a principle that Shef himself had often stated. There was more knowledge in the world than people realized. Steffi had set himself to find out everything that anyone at all knew about fire and about things that burnt, or lit, or even glowed in the dark. Their Greek captive had been a disappointment. He knew his trade, it was true, and he had told them all he knew of the black oilfields beyond the Black Sea, of the process of draining and refining the stuff that oozed to the surface, fluid and light in the cold, sticky and tar-like in the heat. But though he knew how the trade was carried out he had little curiosity about substitutes, alternatives. They had concealed from him the fact that they had no oilfield in the West as the Greeks had in the East, but without such an alternative they had the half-tank of oil they had captured and no more.

Steffi was not discouraged. He talked to the Greek, to Solomon, to Brand, to Shef, to the fishing boat crews they intercepted, interrogated and released, to his own mates. His monologue continued as he stood in the bows watching the smoke like Shef, but watching it like a lover watching his mistress’s window.

“Funny, you know,” he repeated. “Once I got asking them you’d think half the fleet knew that if you lit a fire on earth that had been cleaned out of a stable or a cave or whatever, then it burned real fierce. So I asked them what else did that, and they come up with all sorts. Solomon says the Arabs have some stuff like what our Greek calls naphtha, but the Greek says it’s different. Solomon says the Arabs used to make fire-bundles out of their stuff, like our flares, but they used to throw them not launch them from a catapult. I’d like to get some of that naphtha, but meanwhile we got fish-oil, we got the saltpeter stuff, we got wax…

“And then one of the lads reminded me of what you get on rotten logs, that glows in the dark, though it doesn’t burn. Solomon says that’s called phosphor, and he says if you get the real stuff, it burns so hard water can’t put it out, you have to scrape it off the skin. The Greek says he’s heard of that and they tried mixing it with the oil they use, but it’s not safe, they sometimes mix in a kind of resin.”

“They put that in the wine too,” put in Shef.

“Only because it’s what they caulk the barrels with. But resin burns, and so does amber, one of the boys was telling me.”

“We can’t afford amber flares,” said Shef.

Steffi frowned at the levity. “No. But I had another idea. You know that winter ale and winter wine they make at Stamford, where they steam it off and catch the steam? Well, one of the lads had a bit left and I bought it off him. That burns too, burns pretty well. Solomon came up and told me the Arabs did that too, they call it al-kuhl.”

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