Chapter 12

Jildiz threw down the 1/4-arshin wrench in frustration. They had been here for six weeks now, and it was worse than Muskograd for hints and rumours and half-truths. Something weird and probably sinister was going on; that much was clear. Between the mysterious gospodin Vitaly’s warnings of a new Oprichnina, and the zhiznik status of so many of the serfs, and master Gennady’s half-spoken hints, and this supposed secret new metal, only the Imperial Grand Prince of Fooldom would doubt that much. But she and Yevgeny were still no closer to really finding out anything than they had been back in Muskograd.

Not knowing was affecting her workmanship, too. It had been ages since she had thrown a tool – not since those first weeks of her education, in fact – and the last time she’d done it, Yevgeny had rebuked her so soundly for abusing innocent metal that she had been nervous as a cat for a week afterwards.

She took a deep breath. It certainly wasn’t the wrench’s fault, nor that of the bolt she was attempting to tighten. All right, she thought, counting slowly to ten in the Alash language. “Bir… Ieki… Üsh… Tört…” What do we know?

One. They knew that Gennady had modified or was modifying the Suslikov serfs with biomechanical apparatus, purpose unknown.

Two. They knew that at least some of the serfs did not seem to be pleased about this: Vitaly and his colleagues in the power plant.

Three. Gennady was using a new metal called orikhalko to manufacture clockwork coil springs of startling strength and power. This metal was “discovered by V”; either the uncanny gospodin Vitaly or someone unknown with a name starting with that letter. It wasn’t much help; there were almost as many Orousski V-names as there were Alash A-names. Ayman, Aydar, Almas, Arstan, Ablai, Arsut, Arjan…

She sighed, returning her mind to the list.

Four. According to Vitaly, Gennady was working together with, or at least meeting with, someone who arrived by night bearing the Kisaliev tamgha and escorted by dog’s-head soldiery in black uniforms.

Five. They only had Vitaly’s word for this last, along with the fact that Gennady’s plans “meant no good for Holy Orousska”. Neither she nor Yevgeny had actually seen this mysterious man to be able to verify whether his tamgha, his – what-was-the-Orousski-word? Coat-of-arms – was really that of the Kisalievs, nor the presence of these dog’s head soldiers with the fearsome reputation. And with Yevgeny being master Gennady’s brother and her own growing almost-father-and-not-quite-daughter relationship with him, the mysterious zhiznik serf leader was being extremely careful with how much he shared with either of them.

And that was about it. Vitaly was awaiting an “are you with us or against us?” decision before he would say much else, and neither she nor Yevgeny were ready as yet to break Yevgeny’s blood-ties and throw their lot in with an unknown biomech serf.

It was clear that they needed more information, but how they could get it without leaving a trail for the simatar…?

She smacked her palm into her forehead. It was obvious. Why had she not thought of it before?

When she had been a Kisaliev war-slave, she had often watched the serfs listening at keyholes or spying on the masters from hiding. Advance information was often the key to avoiding the worst of those abusive boyars’ abuses, and Alash war-captive and lowest of the low though she was, she had received such warnings often enough to appreciate the utility of espionage tactics. It would take preparation, stealth and a great deal of good fortune for it to work, but if they could not find out what they needed to know by watching and listening, maybe she could steal the information.

Wind Horse, may Your hoofbeats fall in favourable places for me, and may Your airy mane brush the face of the One in the Great Tree, she prayed, invoking without a second thought both the God of the Tree and the ancient Alash pagan deity of the winds in a religious muddle that would have appalled any Orousski priest.

Though Jildiz’ religious sentiment was more confused than most thanks to the strict Orousski priests of the Kisalievs, the odd syncretic mix was actually fairly typical of the Alash nomads. Over the centuries, adherents of the various surrounding religions had moved across the steppe, but most of them had been settled peoples and had gravitated more readily to the string of trading cities dotted across the southern edges of the Alash grasslands. Enough of them had made enough of an effort among the nomads that the Alash had a smattering of the ways of the Tree, the Prophet, the Mani or the Gampucha, as they turned the names, but little enough concentrated instruction that it all tended to blend together with their ancestral shamanic religion. When Jildiz was born, for instance, the clan shaman had pounded his drum to the Alash sky-father Tengir, burned Gampuchan incense in the sacred fire of Mani, chanted the Creed of the Prophet and sained her with the Sign of the Tree. It didn’t do to offend any god or spirit that might have the power to make your life difficult.

Jildiz might have done more diverse praying herself, but she had long since forgotten the words of the brief Prophetine prayer of the Creed, and there was no open flame here by which to make an offering to the Mani, if she could even remenber the way that ritual was supposed to go.

Resolving to cast a pinch of salt into the furnace at the first opportunity, Jildiz left her work on the steam horse and went for a walk around the house. If she was going to find or make an opportunity to steal the secret of master Gennady’s plans, she would need to understand better just what went on in the house in a normal day.


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