Chapter 10

“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?”

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.