“That’s… interesting,” Yevgeny said to her later, when they finally had an opportunity to talk privately. “You said this metal, this Orikhalko, looks golden, like brass?”
“Yes,” Jildiz replied, pushing away the surge of guilt as she reneged on her promise to Gennady, “but it’s supposed to be stronger than steel.”
“Well, he’s got the right name for it, anyway,” Yevgeny said wryly. At Jildiz’ puzzled look, he explained. “Orichalcum, the fabled golden metal on which the lost civilisation of Atlantis was built.”
“Atlantis?” Jildiz queried. The Alash were quite a long way from the Atlantine Ocean and didn’t have that tale. To most of them the body of water was merely “Muhit”, the Ocean, without much distinction between Arctic, Atlantine, Pacifc, Sindian.
“Ancient Helladic legend of a lost ‘mother civilisation’ from the dawn of time. The story says their arrogance displeased the gods, who sank Atlantis beneath the waves. Orichalcum was their metal, described as golden in colour and more valuable than gold. And if it can do what you said he’s claiming, I think the Atlantines were right. This is potentially revolutionary not just for clockwork springs but for high-pressure steam boilers, high-strength construction materials, you name it!”
“Armour,” Jildiz put in. “Protective shielding. Anything requiring huge amounts of strength.”
“What I wonder is where he’s getting it,” Yevgeny continued. “Is it something you make by special processes or something you mine?”
“I don’t know. He almost said more about it, but all he said was ‘discovered by V’ before he broke off,” Jildiz replied. “‘Discovered by Vitaly’? Were the two of them working together before they had some kind of falling-out?”
“Unlikely but possible,” Yevgeny replied on consideration. “Of the two of us, Gennady’s always been the one with more of a sense of station. Hmm, I suppose that might explain why he’s so edgy and hostile; cripples don’t exactly have a lot of status.”
“He’s not exactly crippled,” Jildiz pointed out. “A bit creepy, yes, but not crippled.”
“Not to you or I, perhaps,” Yevgeny said, “but tell me any other boyar – like Aleksandr Lyukin or Dmitri Kisaliev – isn’t going to look at him and see ‘just a cripple’.”
He made a face. Jildiz nodded. It was true, more traditional boyars tended to look on themselves as exemplars of all that was strong and manly. Weakness, such as having crippled legs or an iron lung, was to be despised.
“Anyway, this Vitaly’s a serf, and I don’t think Gennady would partner well with someone he considered his inferior.”
“I’m not sure,” Jildiz said.
“That he wouldn’t partner with a serf?”
“No, nor that Vitaly is one. I’m a serf – technically – and your brother was all charm the other day. Would he bother for someone he thought was ‘just a serf’? And something about Vitaly didn’t strike me as entirely serflike either.”
“You met him? You met the secretive and elusive gospodin Vitaly?”
“Yes,” she said. “Your brother and his mysterious clockwork super-spring put it out of my mind, but I did meet Vitaly, yes.”
She related the encounter to him as best she could remember. Since she’d been basically illiterate until a year ago, her aural memory was quite developed, and she didn’t miss much.
When she got to Vitaly’s words about the black-uniformed soldiers and their dog’s head insignia, Yevgeny gave a gasp.
“He said that? Really a dog’s head?” he asked sharply. “He wasn’t mistaking, say, a wolf’s head, or a hyena or some other animal?”
“I don’t know about that,” Jildiz said, as puzzled by Yevgeny’s sharp tone as by the unknown symbol. “He definitely said “a dog’s head, not “the head of an animal like a dog or wolf” or something like that. ‘Dog’s head badge’ were his words. Why? Obviously from the way he said it and the way you’re reacting there’s some significance, but I don’t know it! It could be the head of a wolf or a mammoth or a tiger, for all the difference it made to me!”
“I forget, you’re Alash,” he said. “No Orousski, neither serf nor boyar, would miss the significance of a dog’s head.”
He gave a grim shake of his head. “What do you know of Ivan the Dread out on the Alash Steppe?”
Jildiz made a warding gesture like an abbreviated, backwards Sign of the Tree.
“Oibai-ai!” she exclaimed. “My mother used to tell me that if I wasn’t a good girl and learned to ride well and care for my animals and tend the yurt, Ivan the Dread would carry me off and I would never be seen again! He was scary!”
Yevgeny gave a dark nod. “Csar Ivan the Dread,” he confirmed. “He wasn’t much better to us Orousski.”
“You mean he was a real ruler?” Jildiz asked nervously. To her it was as if someone had said that Satan once ruled the nation in his own person.
“Oh yes,” Yevgeny replied. “About two hundred years ago. A strong ruler, yes, mighty in battle, especially against the Alash, whose territory extended much further west than it does now. I expect that’s where his Alash reputation came from. But he was a despot of the highest order even in Holy Orousska, ruling without reference either to the Boyar Duma or the Patriarchs of the Church. His secret police were called the Oprichnina, and even today that name is seldom spoken without fear. They were brutal, deliberately barbaric and fanatically loyal to the Csar. And their symbol of authority and terror was that they carried a severed dog’s head.”
There was silence as Jildiz digested the information. “Vitaly said they had the badge of a dog’s head, not a dog’s head itself,” she said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Yevgeny said. “There isn’t a regular military unit that would ever take that symbol for their badge. It’s only ever been used by Csar Ivan’s secret police; no-one else would dare. This is some deep trouble, and it goes far deeper than Gennady and our serfs.”
He sighed. “Brother mine, what have you got yourself into?”