Chapter 11

Gennady Suslikov stalked down the corridor from his workshop to the estate’s central power plant. Damn his loose tongue! He hadn’t meant to tell his brother’s Alash apprentice about their experiments with orikhalko, but it had just slipped out. He should know better than to be so loose-lipped with someone of uncertain loyalties! Yes, the girl seemed devoted to his older brother, but how long would that continue? Yevgeny was forward-thinking and shared Gennady’s own determination to make Mother Orousska into one of the world’s great industrial powers. But his stupidity in being outmanoeuvred by Kisaliev in the business of his steam engine was going to bankrupt the family unless they gained themselves allies. And where could those allies come from? Other weak lesser boyars? They were just that – weak. The Csar? Csar Alexei II was weak, too: a puppet of the greater boyars and Vadim Kisaliev most of all. The Church? Patriarch Semyon was undoubtedly pious, but he was the most reactionary head of the Church of the Tree in Mother Orousska for generations. No help would come from that quarter, despite Yevgeny’s hopes.

The fault wasn’t even really in Vadim Kisaliev, hated enemy though he was. The elder Kisaliev had only done what any astute survivor of the machinations and manoeuvrings of the snake pit known as the Boyar Duma would have done. The problem was in Yevgeny Suslikov’s criminally blind trusting nature. How was he to manage to strike against that bloated Kisaliev spider with such a naïve simpleton for a bother?

Well, Gennady was not so naïve.

“Vitaly!” he called, clanking into the power room. The little serf was one of his most extensively-modified zhizniks and no longer able to leave the steam power plant, but as a foreman over the other serfs he was second to none.

The diminutive samovarlike body wheeled out from behind a boiler and the head bowed.

Da, master?”

“Are the primary coils wound yet?”

Nyet, master,” Vitaly’s bass replied uncertainly. “The coal for the main plant has been running low with both Suslikov brothers drawing steam for their works.”

“Then get more coal, you stupid automaton!” Gennady hissed. Really, who would want to deal with serfs? Wilfully stupid and obstructive to a man, they were trouble waiting for a place to happen. How Yevgeny got the results he did out of his girl-serf assistant was beyond his ken.

“I will need to send Misha or Zhenya out to the Orengrad garrison, master,” Vitaly said sulkily. Gennady sighed. “Do it,” he ordered. What did it matter if those two zhiznik oafs scared a few of the idiots in town or got vegetables thrown at them? That was what serfs were for. He wasn’t ready to have his brother asking awkward questions like “why do I suddenly have no steam pressure?”, but they both needed that steam. Kasimir would be back tonight, and he wanted to be ready for the bastard.

“The bastard” was late as usual, arriving well after sundown in a slate-grey steam carriage that was almost invisible in the lingering twilight, a noise in the half-light and nothing more. As usual, a pair of black-uniformed guards came with him, the blood-red dog’s head insignia the only colour in their appearance. Even their skin was cadaverously pale, contrasting with dark hair and smoked goggles in blackened steel.

Kasimir Vlychanin, on the other hand, wore a rich burgundy waistcoat underneath his black Imperial Army-issue coat, trimmed with sable and ermine and brocaded in gold and silver thread in a way that would have been tastelessly excessive in any company but a group of greater boyars. Great boyars didn’t do understated.

Under the relic sumptuary laws of Mother Orousska, Vlychanin wasn’t technically entitled to wear two different kinds of fur in the same garment, nor to demonstrate quite such supremely-tailored excess in his couture, but the rules had never really applied to Kasimir Vlychanin. Acknowledged or not, scandal or not, he was his father’s son.

“What do you have for me?” he asked without preamble, the guards taking up station at either side of the door to Gennady’s workshop.

“Lord Kasimir, it is a pleasure to see you again,” Gennady lied smoothly. It would be a pleasure to see you under the lash like the serf you ought to be, he thought in the privacy of his own head. “Your father is well, I trust?”

That was twisting the knife a little. The scandal surrounding Kasimir Vlychanin’s birth was still enough to meet with a stony, disapproving silence from the great boyar families of Orousski society. The rumour that Vadim Kisaliev had fathered a child on the wife of Colonel-General Arkady Vlychanin, hero of the Wars of the Vengrian Succession, was one thing. The fact that the elder Kisaliev had all but acknowledged his adulterous bastard was something else entirely.

Kasimir had been supposedly shipped off to the care of a distant relative of the Vlychanin clan far away from Muskograd, but in actuality he had been taken into the Kisaliev household. Dwelling in the centre of Mother Orousska but unable to show his face in its society, he had come to hate both it and the father who had sired him to such an existence.

“Let us hope not,” Kasimir snorted. “May the old goat’s gout pain him continually and may his idiot son Dmitri die before his time!”

Gennady nodded. Arrogant and an ass, with all the faults of his hated father Kasimir might be, but the two of them were united in that common hatred. And Gennady found it poetic justice to use the bastard son of the Boyar Duma’s first minister to wreak vengeance on the man and cleanse the snake pit.

“How progresses the mechanik?” Kasimir asked impatiently.

“It is almost ready,” Gennady said. “The Lord Kasimir brought the final worked-orikhalko plates for the armour?”

Vlychanin needed careful handling, but if you flattered him and called him “lord” enough, he was manageable. And much as it had been pleasurable to twist his chain by asking about his father, Gennady still needed him to provide the orikhalko.

“Ah,” Vlychanin said, more hesitantly. It was just like the man to bluster and bully his ally to fulfil his end of the bargain, then neglect his own responsibilities under the agreement. “There has been an unfortunate development.”

“What?” Gennady asked, feeling his irritation with the man growing rapidly. “Did the seam run out up at Fort Prem? You told me there was enough to build a score of mechaniks, all powered by orikhalko springs and armoured with orikhalko-faced protective plates!”

“It’s, uh,” Kasimir began. “A group of artillerists went to General Chebelev with a proposal to construct an orikhalko howitzer capable of throwing a shell several score of versts. I countered that the precious ore could be better employed building a squadron of mechaniks able to meet the cursed Alash indriks on equal terms, but you know the General’s always been a fan of cannons. I’m sorry, Gennady.”

Actually, Gennady hadn’t known the general was such a lover of gunnery. He filed it away in his mind under “miscellaneous information, probably useless”.

“You know this mechanik battlesuit design is the key to our plans to destroy House Kisaliev?” he asked rhetorically. Kasimir nodded.

“That and the Second Oprichnina,” he said, gesturing at the guards. They made no response, stoic and apparently unconcerned with larger matters of policy. “I will do what I can to get the General to reconsider, but…”

Gennady nodded glumly. “Is there any other source of orikhalko?”

No, there wasn’t, he thought. That was the whole point. If it was everywhere, someone would have discovered it long before Kasimir Vlychanin.

“Actually,” Kasimir said, brightening up a little, “there might just be…”

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.

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.