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?”