Chapter 9

Jildiz left the audience with the mysterious serf Vitaly fully intending to tell Master Yevgeny all about it the next morning. But her dreams were fitful and disturbed; who was really in the right? Gennady was a little strange, but they still didn’t know why so many of the Suslikov serfs had been mechanised. The life of a serf wasn’t exactly safe and danger-free; maybe there had just been a lot of accidents as they adjusted to operating the new steam machinery. Mechanical limbs were a little unsettling, but they were surely better than stumps and peglegs. Master Gennady might not have been as gentle with his serfs as Master Yevgeny, but he was still a better master than many boyars. Dmitri Kisaliev, for instance. Serf rebellion was fairly common; there were always malcontents. Were Vitaly and his zhiznik followers just troublemakers?

In the morning, it was Gennady who first greeted her, oozing charm in opposition to his earlier peevishness. Apparently while she was meeting with Vitaly, Yevgeny had been showing his brother her work on his mechanical horse, presumably in an attempt to get him to open up.

Whatever the cause, Gospodin Gennady was evidently more impressed than he had expected.

“I hope you don’t share my brother’s unreasonable prejudices against clockworks?” he inquired, his voice somehow smoother than the uncanny squeak she had come to associate with him. She refused to feel unnerved around him, but he looked so strange! And after Vitaly, it was difficult not to believe she was consorting with the enemy.

“I don’t know that much about clockworks,” she admitted. “Master Yevgeny has been teaching me steam machinistry.”

“Well, then let me open your eyes to the wonders of clockwork!” he smiled. “Like my brother says, the coiled metal spring does have its drawbacks as a power source, but it has its advantages as well, And it’s not like my brother’s beloved steam is as perfect as he claims!”

“How so?” Jildiz asked. Gennady smiled.

“Tell me what is wrong with the mechanical horse,” he said. “Why is it unsuitable for general production?”

“It’s a good mechanik!” she said defensively.

“I never said it wasn’t,” Gennady replied smoothly. “You have done well. I recognise several features that don’t look like my brother’s handiwork. But analyse. What are its main faults? What still needs to be worked on?”

Jildiz considered. “Uh, it’s a mechanik. We designed it with transportation in mind, so it will do that well, but it wouldn’t be able to pull a plough or tow a sleigh nearly so well. It has no, um, animal sense.”

“Instinct?” Gennady supplied the word. “Interesting thought. But go on. What else?”

“It’s heavy. It weighs more than an indrik stallion and it can’t pull as much as one. And that makes it slow; it’ll never outpace a horse. Though it can keep going all day as long as its fuel and water hold out.”

“Precisely,” Gennady said. “Between the weight of the boiler and the weight of the coal for fuel, steam mechaniks are always heavy. They are able to be made more powerful than our current clockworks, but that power comes with a price. With a clockwork mechanism, the machinery is its own fuel, and unlike steam it doesn’t need to be warmed up to temperature before you can use it. Which is no mean consideration in the Orousski winter.”

“But doesn’t a spring discharge its power all in one burst?” Jildiz asked, intrigued despite herself. “Boyar Yevgeny always says that springs are only useful for either low-power applications like pocket-watches in which you don’t need a lot of raw strength, or else for devices that do not need sustained power,”

She was quoting him almost directly, but she didn’t have the words to say it any other way. Gennady smirked.

“I hear my brother’s voice. I am not surprised. No, my dear Jildiz, with proper gearing and some of the new alloys discovered by V- currently in development, I should say, clockworks can be made almost as powerful as steam engines for only a fraction of the weight! Here, let me show you…”

He took Jildiz into his workshop, showing her how tricks of gearing could prolong the useful power of a clockwork spring, and how different metal alloys and tempering affected the strength of the mechanism. As he showed off his work, he became more animated and alive, showing her more and more until at last he handed her a small spring mechanism in a strange pale golden metal.

“What do you think of this?” he asked, with the air of someone showing off their best work.

“It looks small,” she replied. “It’s quite heavy for its size, though. How powerful is this one?”

“Would you believe me if I told you it can replace three of my biggest steel springs?” Gennady smiled.

Jildiz gaped. That was a phenomenal amount of power in this small spring!

“Three – what is this metal? I though it was brass, but no brass is even as strong as steel! This is… something else entirely!”

“No, it’s no brass. It’s… It’s a new development,” he said, blushing as if he suddenly realised he was revealing more than he intended. “Very expensive and difficult to obtain in quantity. We call it orikhalko.”

Gennady took the mechanism back and put it away in a hurry. “I would appreciate it if you would not tell my brother about this,” he muttered. “I would like to be the one to tell him.”

The plot thickened. Not only were there biomechanical constructs modified from living serfs stalking around with grudges, but now there was some kind of wonder metal able to make clockworks almost as powerful as steam! Build a mechanical horse powered by one of those orikhalko springs and you could make it as strong as an indrik and as swift as a wild ass. You could achieve a lot of freedom with that…

Something about the name bothered her, though, like it reminded her of something but she couldn’t think what.

Oraq was Alash for “sickle”, while Khalyq meant “the people”. Oraq-Khalyq? Sickle of the People? No, probably not. That made no sense. Perhaps Master Yevgeny would know. If she hadn’t agreed not to tell him.

She sighed. She hadn’t intended to promise, but it had just sort of slipped out. Now she felt bound. But she didn’t understand any of this. She needed to tell him, or at least tell someone, and who else was there? Hoping that the God would understand, she squared her shoulders and sighed again. She would just have to go back on her word. The Kisalievs’ serfs had maintained that lying to the boyar wasn’t lying, but she hadn’t really thought of Yevgeny as a boyar as such for a while, and Gennady was his brother. It just felt wrong.

Advertisements

Chapter 8

Jildiz marveled at Boyar Yevgeny’s discovery that so many of the Suslikov serfs were rebuilt with machine parts, but it did explain the oddness of the girl who had shown her her room. It also underlined her precarious status as a serf; she was better off than a war slave, especially with Boyar Yevgeny as a master, but a serf lived and died at the sufferance of the boyar. If a master like Yevgeny’s brother Gennady wanted to subject his serfs to the sort of harsh conditions that resulted in so many needing mechanical rebuilding, or worse, to perform such rebuilding on them merely as an experiment, he was within his rights according to Orousski law. They were only serfs.

Finding this Vitaly who supposedly knew Master Gennady’s intentions was not easy, though. Serf Jildiz might have been by law, but both her Alash race and her position as Yevgeny’s assistant tended to isolate her from the other serfs. Here on the border, her native Alash folk were raiders and enemies, and all too many of the other serfs saw only her bronze-hued skin, dark hair and almond eyes, and became resentful, angry or afraid. If someone needed to talk to the other serfs to find out who Vitaly was, she was the wrong person for the job.

Of course, Yevgeny was no better. Gentle as he was in his personality, he was still of the boyar class, and Orousski serfs weren’t often comfortable dealing with the nobility. She sighed. No doubt even the Alash were the same with their own nobles of the aqsuyek, the White Bone. She didn’t remember the same groveling and fear from the qarasuyek, but she was just a little girl at the time she actually lived among them. What did she really know of the Black Bone and the White?

Still, it meant that he had about as much chance of getting the Suslikov household serfs to confide in him as she did.

Boldness wins battles, the Alash proverb went. With the light cavalry tactics of the steppe, there was no place for a timid or hesitant Alash commander. Jildiz began her search the next morning by marching herself into the central boiler room and stopping the first person she came to.

“I’m looking for Vitaly,” she announced to a hulking, armoured brute looking more machine than man. The figure stopped in its tracks, flexing its huge iron claws as the man-machine considered her. Steam hissed from a chimney on his back and the eyes – one human and one glowing red – looked down. Jildiz couldn’t tell whether it had enough human left to be thinking, or whether it was calculating instead. Terrified though she was, she took a deep breath and forced herself to meet the zhiznik’s eyes unflinchingly.

After a long moment, the zhiznik extended a claw and pointed to the back of the boiler room.

“Thank you,” she said, and headed off in the direction he indicated.

The corner to which she had been directed was the darkest and hottest part of the whole room. Jildiz felt sweat break out on her brow as she approached, and took note that the zhizniks around her were sporting crude weaponry – blades and axes and spiked hammers. Two of the biggest stepped threateningly in front of her to bar her way; their armoured countenances unreadable to the young apprentice machinist.

“Er… I’m looking for someone called Vitaly,” she stammered. “A household servant called Svetlana told my… um, master Yevgeny that he could tell us about Boyar Gennady’s plans.”

“I remember Boyar Yevgeny. Let her approach,” a rumbling bass voice said from behind the guard zhizniks. It had a slightly artificial ring, like someone had worked out how to give voice to a steam engine, and she shivered despite the welcoming words. It was that sort of voice.

But rather than the metallic evil overlord or giant machine intelligence the voice suggested, the guards parted to reveal a diminutive zhiznik with a body that looked like a repurposed samovar.

A silvery-masked head perched atop the samovar, two skinny arms jutted out from the sides, and the whole thing rolled around on three skinny cart wheels. It would be hard to picture a half-machine zhiznik looking less threatening.

“You are Vitaly?” Jildiz queried.

“I am,” that deep, dark, velvety voice said. “And you are the Alash girl-child that the absent boyar has taken as an assistant. I have no love for Alash,” he continued, “but the master Gennady’s plans are not for good, neither for the Suslikov household nor for Holy Mother Orousska herself.”

“I am Alash,” she admitted. “I can do nothing about my ancestry any more than you can about yours, gospodin Vitaly. Will you tell me, and through me Boyar Yevgeny, what his plans are?”

“What do you care for the Holy Mother Land, Alash girl?” Vitaly asked in return. “If Mother Orousska is weak, your Alash brothers and sisters raid unstopped, and they count that a good. You are no Suslikova, neither freeborn nor serf! Why would you care what the black boyar intends for this house?”

“Master Yevgeny rescued me from House Kisaliev!” she hissed, flinging the zhiznik’s words back in his teeth. “Do not talk to me of black boyars when that living indrik turd walks the green earth! Alash I may be, Jildiz Aymanqizi, but my father Ayman Aydaruli, if he lives, most likely thinks me returned to the spirit realm. I will do nothing to harm Master Yevgeny, and all that I can to aid him in gratitude for my rescue! And I know he is disturbed by what his brother is doing.”

Vitaly cocked his head to one side, considering.

“‘Disturbed’ he may be, Miss Alash Machinist-Assistant,” Vitaly’s deep bass said, “but Boyar Yevgeny is the brother of the one who did this to us,” – he gestured around – “and they are both machinists. The Italiaks have a saying: ‘blood runs thicker than oil’. I remember your Yevgeny as a decent man for a boyar, but there can be no half-measures against that snake Gennady. I do not pretend to be in the inner circle of his plans, but I know that a man with the Kisaliev device on his saddle has been conferring with this house. I know that steamwagons with Army markings come and go in the night, and that they are guarded by soldiers in black uniforms with a dog’s head badge.”

Vitaly paused, obviously waiting for a reaction from Jildiz, but the significance of his remark was lost on her.

“You tell your Yevgeny that and watch his reaction. These is something sinister going on, and that black-hearted zhiznik machinist is right in the middle of it. And when you have told your Yevgeny, you must come to a decision: are you going to be with us or against us when this steam boiler finally explodes?”

Chapter 7

There was something odd going on at the Suslikov estates, Yevgeny thought. For all the reassuring normality of his back-and-forth with Gennady, his little brother had become a little strange since the accident and his subsequent rebuild.

The artificial lung that kept him alive after the boiler explosion had been their last collaboration before their father passed away; a combination of Yevgeny’s steam power and Gennady’s own clockworks intended to aid victims of mining accidents. It was a tragic irony that they had ended up using the device on one of its creators.

After their father Boris Timofeyevich had passed four years back, Yevgeny had to relocate to Muskograd to manage the family’s commercial interests there, and it seemed to be from that point that the strangeness began to creep in.

It was not just the elongated cricketlike legs that he stalked around on now, though that seemed symptomatic of the change. When Yevgeny had left he was getting around in a wheeled chair; now he had made himself clockwork legs. But it wasn’t the fact that he had clockwork legs so much as the uncanny nature of their design. Yevgeny couldn’t imagine the old Gennady opting for such an outré set of artificial legs.

The estates, too, seemed different to how he remembered them. The chimneys belched smoke constantly, but you never saw any of the serfs that tended the boilers. And what exactly was he doing with all that steam power anyway? He’d mostly eschewed steam in favour of his beloved clockworks for as long as Yevgeny could remember. Certainly since the accident, which was completely understandable. Clockworks had no boilers to explode and maim you.

They were still teasing one another just like they always used to, but there seemed to be a bitter edge to it. That was understandable up to a point; Gennady had been left alone to manage the Orengrad estates and brood over his injury. But the fact that they could engage in the old back-and-forth made Yevgeny think there was more to it than that.

Like the secretiveness. Gennady had never kept things from him like this before; they’d collaborated as much as they competed, and there had been numerous times when one brother’s insights helped the other one’s project. Now… That whatever-it-was he had almost said and then changed his mind about. What was he hiding?

And was it anything to do with that Lieutenant of Dragoons what-was-his-name? Zheleznikov?’s suppressed parting smirk? There was an unhappy thought. General Chebelev was a Kisaliev vassal, if he remembered right. What if Gennady was-?

No. Whatever was going on, it wouldn’t be that. Gennady was still a Suslikov, and even though he hated the politics of the Boyar Duma and the tortuous webs of alliance and rivalry between the noble houses, that enmity was too old and ingrained to be cast aside.

Yevgeny sat in his old workroom and brooded over the matter. But he couldn’t get to the bottom of it without more information.

One of the Suslikov serfs tottered in with a broom, breaking his train of thought. He remembered her as one of the household servants; maybe she could fill him in on what had happened in his absence.

“It’s Svetlana, isn’t it?” he asked her, smiling brightly. The young woman smiled back nervously. “Remember me? I’d like to ask you a few questions, if I may.”

Svetlana nodded, then with a clacking sound a slip of tickertape extruded from her mouth. She reached up and handed it to him.

:: I remember you Master Yevgeny :: You are the Boyar :: The brother of Master Gennady :: Ask your questions ::

Yevgeny gaped. Was this an automaton? If it was, then Gennady had leaped far ahead of him in mechanical ability! And to marry an automaton’s internal workings with a covering of living tissue? Incredible!

But would an automaton have Svetlana’s memories? More likely she had been the victim of some kind of accident and Gennady had repaired her with some sort of biologically-integrated mechanik.

“What happened to you?” he asked. “Did Gennady do this to you?”

:: Yes :: the tickertape said. :: Master Gennady made me what I am ::

“Why? Was there some kind of accident?” he asked, but Svetlana was silent. “Not an accident? On purpose?”

Again, Svetlana said nothing, but her eyes answered for her. Help me, they seemed to say.

“Are there more like you?” Yevgeny asked with a sick feeling in his throat. Bad enough that he had done something like this to one person, but what if it wasn’t just one? What if he and this Svetlana were not the only recipients of his biomechanical ministrations?

:: Yes :: Most of House Suslikov’s serfs are now biomechanical constructs :: Zhizniks :: Master Gennady’s experiments have borne much fruit ::

The fact of Gennady’s creation of these zhizniks was disturbing enough, but more troubling was Svetlana’s blank acceptance of the situation. If it had been him transformed like this, he didn’t think he’d be able to accept it so calmly. Still, Svetlana was a serf. She didn’t have a lot of say in her life even at the best of times.

“What else has he been up to?”

:: I am just a housekeeper Master Yevgeny :: she replied, handing him the tickertape. :: I do not know the Young Master’s secrets :: … :: You must ask one of the other zhizniks ::

Yevgeny considered. “Is there any particular one of you zhizniks I should talk to?” he asked, vowing silently that he would get to the bottom of this.

:: Master Yevgeny you must not be concerned for me :: Svetlana’s tickertape said. :: I am what I am :: It is done and can not be undone :: Nichevo ::

Nichevo. It couldn’t be helped. The litany of Orousska’s serfs.

She swept the broom once around the room and headed for the door.

:: Speak to Vitaly :: she said.