Chapter 8

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?”

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.

Chapter 6

After the dragoon officer’s words, Jildiz expected Orengrad to be a sinkhole of anger and hate directed at her, but if it was, she did not encounter very much of it that first day.

To be sure, there were a few people hissing at her and giving her unfriendly stares, but really, they weren’t spending more than a day here before going on to the Suslikov lands, and it would have been too much to hope that people would greet her with open arms. Even in Muskograd she was the subject of unfriendly stares.

The next day they rode out to the Suslikov estates, and whatever Jildiz had been expecting, this was not it.

At the rough centre of the estates, as was customary, was a large house belonging to the Suslikovs themselves, surrounded by the wooden izbas of the family’s serfs. The one- or two-room houses looked particularly ramshackle beside the sprawling Suslikov mansion, and the smoke belching from multiple tall chimneys gave the place a look more like a Muskovian manufactory than the large farmhouse she had been expecting.

After she thought, though, Jildiz adjusted her expectations. Yevgeny was Orousska’s foremost steam pioneer. Of course his family lands would be more industrial than most.

They arrived at the front door, rang the bell and waited. After a few minutes a clanking, ticking sound from within approached. The door opened and Jildiz started involuntarily at the strange sight that met her eyes.

At about eye level a brass-bound leather bellows pumped regularly, attached to a steel frame around the torso of a hunched-over, too-tall human figure. Below the frame, long brass and steel legs extended to the floor, having too many joints and in the wrong places like those of a cricket. Several brass gears jutted out from behind the figure’s torso, and one of his eyes was either covered or replaced by an arrangement of multiple lenses such as a jeweller might wear.

The human part was dressed well, in what looked like a blue woollen coat, a white silk shirt and a cravat in pale silver-grey, but his skin was very pale and his hair and beard were wild and unkempt. Together with the mechanical parts of him, the effect was very unsettling.

The figure peered out and sniffed dismissively. “Horses? Biologicals?” he said in a peevish squeak. “How quaint. Yevgeny, are you sure you’re feeling all right?”

“Gennady, I assure you I am quite well. The railway only goes as far as Nizhnov, which you’d know if you ever left the estates. You keep both the Suslikov steamwagons here in Orengrad, so we had to make the rest of the journey the old way.”

“Still haven’t finished that mechanical horse, then?” the strange part-man shook his head. “Dear me, brother mine, you’re slipping!”

“Oh, it works,” Yevgeny countered. “It just weighs as much as a full-grown indrik and tends to sink into the ground. And it has to be controlled the whole time; a flesh-and-blood horse will steer itself up to a point and has an instinct that works with the rider. A machine does not.”

“Yes, and controlling a legged vehicle is not that simple,” the machine-man Gennady replied sulkily, shifting position on his own spindly metal legs. “I still think you should have-“

“Brother!” Yevgeny cut him off. “Standing on the doorstep is not the place for this conversation!”. He turned to Jildiz. “Jildiz, this is my little brother Gennady Borissovich. Bratishka, I’ve acquired a new assistant. Jildiz is a little untrained, but I think she shows promise.”

Jildiz now found herself the target of Boyar Yevgeny’s uncanny brother’s inspection. He stalked forward on those long, insectlike legs, examining her closely through multiple lenses.

“A barbarian?” he muttered. “And a woman at that? Now I know you have taken leave of your senses! Girl!” he addressed her sharply. “What’s the ratio between boiler size and the useable work capacity of an engine?”

Jildiz looked helplessly at Yevgeny. In the months she had been with him he had begun her education in the mysteries of steam power, but he had never mentioned anything like this!

“Uhhh,” she temporised.

“There isn’t a simple relationship between boiler size and the capacity for work of an engine, and you know it!” Yevgeny cut in. “Why not, Jildiz?”

“Work capacity is derived from a combination of factors,” she said. This she did know! “Size of the boiler, diameter of the pistons, amount of steam getting to them… Even diameter of the drive wheel, I would suppose,”

“She’ll do,” Gennady nodded curtly. “Though I question your taste. Women usually belong in boiler rooms the way rats belong in kitchens!”

“Don’t mind my little brother,” Yevgeny said. “His retrograde attitude notwithstanding, he’s one of the foremost machinists of the Empire. Better than me, some days!”

“Most days!”

Jildiz looked up at Gennady’s uncanny form. “Yevgeny agha,” she said, using the Alash honorific for an older or otherwise superior-status man, “Your brother he might be, but I have trouble thinking of anyone so tall as a little anything!”

Yevgeny smiled. Gennady looked from one to the other. “You always were unreasonably soft,” he complained, but said no more.

A serf girl led Jildiz to a small room tucked in close to the furnaces, indicating without words that it was to be her sleeping quarters. The girl looked like a typical Orousski serf, brown haired and blue eyed with the pale skin of a native Europaen. After the strangeness of the half-mechanical boyar with his elongated, insectlike brass legs, she was reassuringly normal, yet there seemed go be something a bit odd about her. She made no conversation while guiding Jildiz through the house, didn’t even speak when showing her the room.

“You don’t need to be afraid of me,” Jildiz tried to tell her. “I’m no higher in status than you are. My name is Jildiz. Can we be friends? What’s your name?”

The girl, who looked to be about her own age, just shook her head. Maybe she couldn’t talk?

“Can you speak?” Jildiz asked her, but the girl was already retreating out of the room. Jildiz sighed. A girl her own age to talk to would have been nice, even if she wasn’t an Alash. One couldn’t have everything.

The same girl returned later to bring her to Boyar Yevgeny and his brother, taking her through the boiler rooms to a steamworks and mechanical laboratory like yet unlike the one they had left behind in Muskograd.

The same collection of half-built devices littered the surroundings. The same arcane sketches and blueprints were strewn through the chaos. The same brass gearwheels spun and intermeshed. But Boyar Gennady’s creative domain ticked and whirred where Yevgeny’s chuffed and whistled, and the few recogniseable steam engines she could see were tiny, delicate things that looked like toys. She frowned. What could you run from an engine that little? She doubted those slender pistons could even turn a potter’s wheel. And there were several small metal things moving around on overhead rails, like toy locomotives but without any sign of steam.

She craned her neck to look as another one went past, noting a single broad wheel in front and two narrow wheels behind, and a troughlike body containing a pile of what looked like written messages in the middle. Whatever propelled it wasn’t steam; there was no place for an engine.

“Admiring my clockwork message carriages, girl?” Gennady’s odd squeak of a voice said from somewhere in front of her. Jildiz started. Engrossed in the mechanical wonders, the sudden question made her jump. Gennady chuckled, a sound that seemed to humanise the bizarre machine-man in a way nothing else had, and continued, “You see, my esteemed older brother is interested in steam engines to do big jobs like propelling a sleigh or drawing a plough. All very good, yes, but as he has discovered with his mechanical horse,” here he gave a sardonic smile, “steam engines weigh a great deal and their fuel and water weighs even more. Whereas my mechanical horse, once it is completed, will weigh less than a biological one and go just as fast!”

“How?” Jildiz asked, amazed.

“Clockworks,” Yevgeny said dismissively, appearing at her elbow. “What he’s not telling you is that his clockwork horse can go less than a quarter of a verst before its spring winds down, whereas my steam horse, now that it is completed, will keep going for most of a day! Oh, clockworks have their uses,” he said, waving a hand airily at Gennady’s scowl, “either in very short-ranged applications or else in very low-powered ones, but for power and endurance you have to have more power than a coiled spring can hold.”

“That’s all you know, brother mine!” Gennady said. “I-“

But then he clamped his mouth shut, as if he had been on the verge of letting out a secret. And no amount of Yevgeny’s cajoling would make him speak.