A Mission for the Czar


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Vasilii and Miroslava are back at work again. Czar Mikhail wants a rail line built from Ufa, the capital of his United Sovereign States of Russia, to the capital of the USSR’s newest addition, the Khazak Khanate. For that he needs a steam engineer and diplomat—Vasilii’s jobs—as well as a top surveyor. Unfortunately, the surveyor is an arrogant snob who gets himself murdered—and now the czar needs a detective as well. Fortunately, Vasilii’s paramour Miroslava came with him, so she’s there to take on the case. She and Vasilii need to solve the murder quickly without blowing up the still fragile agreement between the USSR and the new State of Kazak.

And Miroslava and Vasilii aren’t the only ones with troubles. Vasilii’s young cousin Alla is hiding out in Moscow and has been since her family was murdered. She’s having to learn how the other half lives. It’s all going to come together if they can solve the murder without jeopardizing the rights of every citizen in Kazak—newfangled rights which are more fragile than anything else.

Chapter 1: A Mission for Vasilii

Location: Ufa
Date: June 1, 1637

Vasilii Lyapunov fiddled with the mechanical pencil in the breast pocket of his tunic. It was a nervous habit and Vasilii had reason to be nervous. He was waiting for an audience with Czar Mikhail. Vasilii was not used to audiences with the czar, and would prefer to be even less used to them than he was. He was, at his core, an engineer. He built stuff. He didn’t really do politics if he could avoid it.

At least that was Vasilii’s image of himself.

The reality was more complicated.

“The czar will see you now,” said the young man who was guarding the door.

Vasilii, dressed in his best but still nervous, went through the door.  He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong, but he couldn’t think of any other reason for the czar to want to see him.


The door opened and Vasilii heard Czar Mikhail say, “Come in, Vasilii.”

Vasilii went in and saw the czar lounging in a well-padded chair that had more in common with the La-Z-Boy than a throne. Next to the czar’s throne was a comfortable loveseat, in which resided Bernie Zeppi and Princess Natalia Gorchakov, by now commonly known as Natasha.

Bernie was the czar’s up-timer advisor, while Natasha was the czar’s advisor on matters technological, because she had been running the Dacha since it was founded at her family’s dacha in 1632 and had been running the Ufa Dacha since it was established on their arrival in Ufa, not quite a year ago.

Across from Bernie and Natasha on a couch, sat Colonel Ivan Smirnov. He and Vasilii had met several times and Vasilii did not like him much. Smirnov was a high-ranking member of a family at the upper end of the lower nobility. He was arrogant, opinionated, self-centered, with a sense of entitlement, and undeniably good at his job, which was surveying.

After Vasilii bowed, Czar Mikhail waved him to the couch that Smirnov was sitting on.

Vasilii sat as far away from Smirnov as the couch allowed.

“Now that we’re all here,” Czar Mikhail said, “Jangir Khan is entranced by the notion of a railroad and wishes to begin the process of building one as soon as possible.”

Well, Vasilii thought, that explains why Smirnov is here, but what the fuck am I doing here?

“Why, Your Majesty? The Kazakh are a . . .” Smirnov paused in the manner of someone looking for a polite way of describing something offensive. “. . . migratory people. Why not simply carry the goods from China in their caravans?”

“Surprisingly enough, Ivan,” Czar Mikhail said, “caravans wandering along their own route across the plains are quite difficult to tax. But a railroad is located just where you put it. Jangir Khan is hoping that the advantage of the ease of travel provided by the rail line will make up for the taxes he plans on charging on goods transported from China to here and vice versa.”

Vasilii looked around at the czar, at Bernie, at Natasha, still wondering what he was doing here. Bernie was grinning and Natasha had a little half smile like she knew a secret, but then Natasha usually had a little half smile like she knew a secret. And she usually did.

Vasilii was tempted to ask what he was doing here but restrained himself.

Smirnov didn’t. “If you wanted someone to consult on the steam locomotive,” he said, “Vadim Ivanovich would’ve been a better choice.” Then he looked over at Vasilii and added insincerely, “No offense intended.”

Bernie snorted and everyone looked at him.

Then Czar Mikhail sighed, and spoke directly to Vasilii. “The reasons you’re here instead of Vadim Ivanovich are first that you are rather more diplomatic than Vadim and, second, that you outrank Colonel Smirnov here.”

Vasilii was shocked by the coldness in the czar’s voice. He looked over at Smirnov and saw the man’s face getting red. He tried to pour a little oil on the troubled waters. “Colonel Smirnov is a colonel of cavalry. I have no military rank.”

“That is quite true,” the czar said. “However, I am appointing you as the leader of the delegation, which will give you a civilian rank equivalent to a brigadier general.” He looked at Smirnov and sighed again. “Colonel, you are an excellent surveyor and mapmaker and a first rate soldier, but you give offense as easily and as quickly as you take it. For right now, Jangir Khan is the most powerful noble in my realm. Soon we’re going to have to deal with Sheremetev’s armies to the northwest. I don’t need to be dealing with a war to my southeast at the same time.”

“Your Majesty, I’m an engineer!” Vasilii whined.

“You were also the delegate from the Dacha to the Constitutional Convention. And you served well in that posting, don’t deny it, Vasilii. I was there,” Czar Mikhail said, and then added in a mutter, “And got the Dacha special privileges they really shouldn’t have gotten.”

Vasilii didn’t agree with that. He believed that graduating from the Dacha with a bachelor’s or master’s degree should be the mestnichestvo, social equivalent, of rank in the lower nobility. It wasn’t like they got lands with the title, after all. Which didn’t matter at the moment, because it was clear there was no way he was getting out of this. “What is our mission, Your Majesty?”

“Didn’t I make that clear? Colonel Smirnov will be surveying and mapping the route for a rail line from Ufa to Shavgar, the capital of the new state of Kazak. Or a rail line from here to where the Syr Darya Jaxartes enters the Aral Sea. Which would be considerably shorter, but would then require steamboats along the Syr Darya.

“Meanwhile, Vasilii, you will be negotiating with Sultan Togym about the structure of the rail line. Who will own what and how much of the revenue will go to Jangir Khan and how much will go to the crown.”

“But I’m an engineer!” Vasilii complained again. It did no good. While, in theory, Vasilii was there to talk about steam engines, in fact he was to be the czar’s negotiator for the railroad, determining who would pay for what and who would take what profit.

“The other thing Colonel Smirnov will be doing is finding good line of sight locations for a radio telegraph system that we want put in place,” Czar Mikhail said. “I have Jangir’s approval for that much now, though we weren’t planning on doing it until we got more tubes. But if we’re going to be building a rail line, radio links become more urgent.”

“We still don’t have that many tubes,” Bernie said.

“I know. We’ll send a tube unit with the mission. When you find a likely spot—” He looked at Smirnov. “—give Vasilii the coordinates and he’ll send them back to us, and we’ll send out a team to set up a station. This isn’t exactly a secret, but don’t make a big deal out of it.” The czar grimaced. “I’m supposed to be waiting until I have Kazakh’s trained to operate the stations in the Kazakh lands. Ahh!” He grinned. “The State of Kazakh.”

The meeting went on and eventually Czar Mikhail called it to a close. Then, just as they were leaving, he said, “Vasilii, wait a moment.”

Vasilii got a resentful look from Ivan, who didn’t like anyone getting the czar’s attention when he wasn’t.

Once Vasilii was seated again on the couch, Czar Mikhail said, “Once you reach Jangir Khan, I want you to impress on him that he needs to actually start having people vote if he wants to have representatives in congress. And see if you can get him to do a state constitution.”

That, of course, led to more complaints that he was just an engineer. Which didn’t impress the czar any more now than they had before, and Vasilii got a lecture on internal Kazakh politics. While in theory an autocrat like Mikhail, in fact Salqam-Jangir Khan’s situation was closer to the situation of Russia before Ivan the Terrible. The clan leaders were essentially kings in their own right, with a loose allegiance to the khan. A lot of them weren’t going to be all that happy with the new statehood of the Kazakh lands and Vasilii was to encourage Salqam-Jangir Khan to use as much honey and as little vinegar as he could manage with them.

“More carrot and less stick, Vasilii,” Czar Mikhail finished. “Make that clear.”

Location: Ufa Dacha, Room 22B
Date: June 1, 1637

Vasilii opened the door to their apartment to see Miroslava lying on the bed naked, with her nose in a book. Intent on not being distracted by her state of undress, Vasilii asked, “What are you reading?”

“Basic Russian dictionary,” Miroslava said. The basic Russian dictionary was a picture book, in that it showed the printed word next to a picture of the item. In spite of that, it wasn’t designed primarily for children, but for adults just learning to read. And Miroslava had already read it through. By now Vasilii knew that Miroslava had an eidetic memory, but he also knew she took a certain comfort in rereading books that she had already memorized. He didn’t understand why. It was just the way she was.

She rolled onto her side, so she was facing him and asked, “What did Czar Mikhail want?”

Vasilii grimaced. “He’s sending me on a mission into the Kazakh Khanate. We’re going to have to come up with a route for the China railroad.”

Miroslava lifted an eyebrow, but all she said was, “When are we leaving?”

“You’re not going!”

“Why not? And who’s we?”

“It’s dangerous!”

Miroslava waited, and Vasilii realized she asked two questions and was waiting for the answer to the second.

“Colonel Ivan Smirnov will be in charge of mapping the route and in command of a unit of streltzi who will act as guards. I have to go along because Smirnov is an ass.”

Miroslava gave a jerky little nod which caused certain parts of her anatomy to jiggle in a most distracting manner. Then said, “How is it more dangerous for me than for you?”

“You’re a woman!” Vasilii said before he’d really thought things through, then hastily added. “A beautiful woman. I, at least, am unlikely to be the object of an attempted rape.”

“I am more likely to face attempted rape here without you, instead of there with you.”

There was at least some truth in that, Vasilii knew. Miroslava’s new status gave her some protection, but her old status as a bar girl, and her beauty, both turned her into a target. As long as Vasilii was here in the same city with her, simply his existence provided quite a bit of protection. But how much of that protection would continue after he was gone from the city was hard to say. On the other hand, how much his protection would be worth out in the hinterland, surrounded by Kazakh warriors was another question he didn’t have the answer to. “You’ve never even ridden a horse.”

“And I shouldn’t be riding one now,” Miroslava said. “If we’re scouting routes for a railroad we should take a train engine.”

Actually. Vasilii thought, that’s not a bad idea. They didn’t exactly have a train engine as in a locomotive engine. What they did have was a couple of steam tractors. The steam tractors weren’t as powerful as a locomotive engine would be, but they wouldn’t be pulling nearly the load either. And using one of them along the proposed rail road route would act as a decent test bed to determine whether or not the ground would support the weight of a train. “I don’t know what we would use for a wagon though.”

“You should go take care of that, then.” Miroslava sat up, which caused more jiggling, but the enticement that had been there in her earlier movements was missing now. “I have things to do if we are going to be spending time in the Kazakh plains. When are we supposed to leave?”

Vasilii realized that he had lost the argument about whether Miroslava was going or staying. And he didn’t really regret the loss. He was glad that Miroslava preferred to be with him.


After discussing things with Miroslava he went to see Vadim Ivanovich.

Vadim, as usual, was in the steam engine factory.

The steam engine factory had a poured concrete floor. It wasn’t the only building in Ufa with a concrete floor either. By now there were many small cement factories dotted around the various tributaries of the Volga River. It had become a cottage industry. And as the capital of the United Sovereign States of Russia, Ufa could afford to have the cement shipped in.

There were any number of one-off steam engines scattered around the factory floor in the process of being built, rebuilt or taken apart for parts. There were smaller shops around the large factory floor, but Vadim was in one corner of the main room, lying on a shop creeper pulled halfway under a steam boiler, using a large monkey wrench to pull a flow valve.

Vasilii, recognizing the always greasy shop coveralls Vadim wore, walked over to the corner calling Vadim’s name. Vadim ignored him.

He kicked Vadim’s foot. “Come out of there, you illiterate peasant.”

Vadim rolled out from under the boiler, looked up at Vasilii, and grinned.

“What for, you effete bookworm?” Vadim reached up with a greasy hand. Vasilii took it and hauled the man to his feet. Not an easy task, as Vadim weighed two hundred and fifty pounds if he weighed an ounce.

In fact, Vadim Ivanovich was a streltzi craftsman who had been only semi-literate when he arrived at the Dacha, and while Vasilii had a better theoretical understanding of steam engines, Vadim had a feel for the things. They almost talked to him. Over the last four years, Vasilii had learned to trust Vadim’s “feel” for steam engines, and they had become friends, mostly within the limits that their different stations allowed, but not entirely. Bernie’s influence was stronger in the Dacha than anywhere else in Russia. It was so strong that Vadim Ivanovich, at least on the shop floor, felt comfortable teasing Vasilii about his education.

“So what brings you to a place where men actually work?” Vadim Ivanovich asked as he wiped his hands with a dirty rag.

Vasilii hooked a thumb at a door. “Come into the office and I’ll tell you about it.”

Seated in the office with a couple of small beers, Vasilii and Vadim talked about railroad trains and the engines that pulled them. All steam engines have certain things in common, but there is a great deal of variation.

In Vasilii’s mind the many variations were divided into three general categories:

First were: Crude steam engines; in which water was pulled directly from the river, fed into the boiler, run through the engine, and allowed to escape as steam. Doing it this way was simplest and easiest to build, but used more fuel, and the boilers inevitably developed problems with rust from the corrosive elements in the water that was boiled. Most of the people who died in steam engine accidents were using this sort of steam engine.

Second were: Industrial steam engines which were well-built and had evaporators so that the water used by the steam engine would be pure, and had condensers so that it could be recirculated and lose less of the energy produced by the external combustion. They were really built in only two places in Russia, right here in Ufa and in Murom, the city formerly owned by the Gorchakov family.

Then there were: Delicate steam engines. These were the ones where weight and efficiency were at a premium. These were steam engines that went in the dirigibles and would go in the multi-engine steam aircraft that Vasilii was working on.

While Vasilii worked on the delicate steam engines, Vadim Ivanovich worked on the industrial steam engines, which were no longer experimental, though they weren’t that far from it.

Vadim Ivanovich set his small beer down and said, “Okay, Vasilii, what’s this all about?”

Vasilii sighed and looked around the office. It was a smallish room, about ten by fifteen. On one wall was a set of open wooden cubby holes containing pieces of paper which Vasilii knew from experience would be plans and notes on projects in the works. There was a drafting table in one corner and a somewhat larger table that they were seated at. There was also an ice box in another corner, from which they’d gotten their small beers. Having put it off as long as he could, Vasilii looked at Vadim and explained what the czar wanted.

“You can’t. I have too much to do! I can’t be running off with a bunch of horse barbarians.”

Vasilii grinned. “I’m actually not here for that, but it’s an excellent idea.” Then he sighed and went on, “Or at least it would be, if the czar hadn’t already decided to stick me with it. I’m actually here to consult with you about what steam engines are available so that I’ll have a better idea of what they can pull up what sort of grades.”

“We’re talking about the single rail tracks, aren’t we?”

“Probably, but that hasn’t been decided yet,” Vasilii agreed. “Heck, it hasn’t really been decided whether to go directly to the Kazakh capital city or just head for the Aral Sea. That’s going to depend on the terrain, which is why Colonel Ivan Smirnov is going.”

“Thank heaven it’s not me!”

“You may not be thanking heaven in a moment, my friend,” Vasilii said. “I want one of your tractors.”

“Not going to happen,” Vadim said. “The army needs those to build the roads and fortifications around Ufa.”

That was true enough. Ufa was suffering under a chronic labor shortage in spite of the number of serfs who had come to Ufa since Czar Mikhail’s emancipation proclamation. On the other hand, the czar had made it perfectly clear that this trip was of the highest priority. “I’m afraid the city walls are going to have to be made by grunt labor until you can get another steam tractor built.”

Vadim was not happy, and Vasilii understood why, but there wasn’t really anything he could do about it. Vadim was so unhappy that he insisted on confirmation from the czar, which arrived the next day.

Meanwhile, Vasilii had other people to see.

Location: Ufa Dacha Radio Center
Date: June 4, 1637

Viktor Bogdonovich Fyodorov wasn’t any happier than Vadim had been, and he had a telephone that had a direct line to the czar’s office in the Kremlin. For this, he used it, and he wasn’t thrilled with the results, but they were straight from the czar. So Viktor stopped arguing and got to work helping.

“How’s your fist?”

It took Vasilii a moment, but he remembered. “I don’t have one. At least not what an actual telegraph operator would recognize. Besides, the radio system in Russia uses teletype machines and paper tape. I remember from the Happy Bottom murders.”

“Darn it, Vasilii, those are expensive and you’re going to need a tape reader and repeater at every station along the route.”

Vasilii pointed at the phone and Viktor grimaced. “But even so, you want someone along with a good fist in case the machines break down and you need to send something in Morse. And I really don’t have anyone.”

Chapter 2: Gold in Them Thar Hills

Location: Mountain Stream
Date: June 18, 1637

Colonel Ivan Smirnov inhaled deeply of the fresh mountain air. He was standing atop a rise next to a mountain stream and had just finished tagging the place to three known locations, so he knew its location as well as if he’d had Global Positioning Satellites in the sky.

Colonel Smirnov didn’t read much. Not because he couldn’t, but because he was wealthy and preferred to have things read to him. He knew about GPS because he’d had articles on it and how it worked read to him. He’d also had pretty much everything the up-timers knew about map making and geology read to him. And he understood them. He was, as he would quickly tell you, an extremely intelligent man who didn’t suffer fools gladly.

That was why he was so happy this morning. He was out here by himself. Even his assistants were at least a hundred yards away, holding measuring rods. He waved to them that he’d gotten the measurement and started putting his transit away. Once it was in its case, he leapt lightly down to the stream and knelt to take a drink of the cool spring water. As he was lifting a hand full of water to his lips, he saw a glint in the bottom of the stream.

He reached down and picked up the small piece of gold. He weighed it in his hand. It was at least three ounces, perhaps more. And this was gold, not iron pyrite. Ivan knew the difference.

He looked at the position of the sun and checked his pocket watch. It was early yet, only 10:30, but he decided it was time for lunch. He climbed back up to the rise and, using hand signals, told his crew they should break for lunch. Over the next hour, while eating a ham and cheese on black bread sandwich, he scouted the creek and found a seam of gold-bearing quartz in a rock face about ten yards upstream.

He had a good memory, as did most people who are semi-literate, but for this he made notes in his notebook. He wanted to be sure.

Then he climbed on his horse and rode to join his surveying crew. They were all skilled and all knew their place. They also knew that Ivan often chose to eat his lunch alone, preferring his company to the ramblings of servants. So no one asked him what he’d been doing.

Location: Camp
Date: June 18, 1637

Colonel Ivan Smirnov sat in his wagon that evening, carefully adding the notes from his surveyor teams to the map. Normally, he would resent the cramped quarters of what amounted to a gypsy wagon, but tonight he was much too concerned with other matters to pay the wagon any attention.

Having added the notes to the map, his next step would be to examine the map and design the route of the railroad based on a number of factors. Those factors would include such things as grade, soil depth, soil saturation, the location of rivers, rock outcrops, even forest density. They would not include how far the railroad would be from a potential gold mine.

However, in this case, the one thing he knew about the potential gold mine other than its location, was that it did not belong to him. Nor was he in any position to claim the land. It belonged to a Kazakh tribe and would remain theirs unless the railroad went within a half a mile of it. If the railroad did go within a half a mile of it, the tribe would get some stock and the railroad would get the land.

And the gold mine on that land.

The amount of stock in the railroad that the tribe would get would be exactly the same as it would get for prairie with nothing more valuable than cow dung on it. There would be no negotiations, no debate, and most definitely no option not to sell.  Neither the czar nor the khan wanted to be held up by a greedy noble who suddenly discovered that a chunk of worthless cow pasture was a highly valuable right of way for the railroad.

Ivan grinned as he thought about the effect of the sudden announcement that “just by chance” the right of way of  the new railroad included a gold mine. It wouldn’t happen until the land was the railroad’s property and the tribe had already been paid. But in a few months the stock would go through the roof as people speculated about what else might be in the right of way.

He didn’t notice the servant woman who was quietly sitting in a corner cleaning and polishing his boots. In that, at least, this night was no different than any other.


Medina watched the Russian mapmaker as she did every night, but this night was different. He was excited about something, she could tell. Usually, he complained as he worked. The fire in the stove was too hot. The breeze from the windows was too chill. The food wasn’t up to Ufa standards, much less Moscow standards. The wagon was too cramped to do proper work in.

Tonight, though, he didn’t complain at all. He seemed very happy about something. Finally, close to midnight, he got up from the work table, took off his tunic, and went to bed. By that time Medina was snoozing in her corner of the wagon. His movements woke her, and after he went to bed, she brushed down his tunic and checked its pockets. That’s when she found the gold nuggets.

Medina didn’t know that there was such a thing as iron pyrite. She’d never heard of fool’s gold. But her ignorance in this case was as good as Ivan’s knowledge. This was gold. And the Russian was excited about it. Medina was tempted to take it, but she knew that she would be the suspect, so she put it back in his pocket.

She also put his notebook back in his pocket after reading his notes. Well, reading what she could of his notes. She wasn’t a good reader, but she’d memorized the Arabic numbers, and she could read those.

Also, by now, she knew what coordinates were.

Location: Camp East of Druzhba
Date: June 20, 1637

Ivan Smirnov looked around. The radio set in the khibitkha was located next to the left wall as you faced the front where the steam tractor hooked. Near the middle of the space was a “Franklin” stove that wasn’t needed this time of year except for cooking in rainy weather. Across from the radio set were the pile of sheep skins that Vasilii and his whore used for their entertainments. There was another stack of skins where the servant Bey Nazar provided slept. Assuming she didn’t join in their entertainments. Ivan snorted in superior disgust.

He looked back at the radio set. There were a set of lead acid batteries next to it, carefully capped and vented. There was also a typewriter with a paper tape machine attached. Every time you hit a key on the typewriter, it punched a pattern of holes in a paper tape. At the same time it printed the letter above the holes, so that you could check to see if you made a mistake. When the message was typed, the paper tape was removed from the typewriter and fed into a roller that ran it through a reader at a set speed. It was slow by Grantville or even Magdeburg data transmission speeds, but massively faster than the fastest Morse code operator.

Contented that he knew how to operate the thing, Ivan sat on the wooden chair in front of the typewriter and began to type out his message.

It was a slow process and Ivan hit several wrong keys and each time had to repeat the whole message. But he got it all written and then fed it into the radio.

To: Kirill Amosov
From: Colonel Ivan Smirnov

At opening bell tomorrow morning you will start selling my holdings and buying stock in the Russia Kazakh Railroad company. Do it slowly Kirill without attracting attention.

Message ends.

Ivan got the confirmation of receipt from the operator at the next station.

Ivan didn’t know then or ever that the radio man at the next station had read the message and spread the word. It was a tip on the market over the next few days, and raised the value of RKRC stock by twenty percent.

Location: Coordinates in Ivan’s Notebook
Date: June 21, 1637

The rider found the coordinates. Not easily. He wasn’t used to the new maps that the Russians used. But he found them. Then he started looking. What could Colonel Smirnov have found here that was so important?

It took the rest of the afternoon, but eventually he saw a glint of gold.

He would have matters of import to report.

Location: Druzhba
Date: June 22, 1637

Sultan Togym watched the caravan arrive with mixed emotions. He understood his young cousin’s reasons for joining the USSR, but sovereign in name or not, the khan was giving up the khanate’s ultimate sovereignty. It would now be a state in the USSR. And while the devil’s bargain that the khan had made might well have been the best deal for the khan, it wasn’t—in Togym’s opinion—the best deal for the khanate.

He saw the Russian soldiers riding in formation two by two with their rifles in scabbards attached to their saddles. There were only ten of them, but those rifles made them much more formidable. The bullets from those guns would punch right through armor.

Yes, they had the threat of the czar’s armies, and even more, the czar’s factories to threaten the Zunghar Khanate with. But the price was too high. And this railroad that the czar and the khan were engaged in was an example of why. The khan wouldn’t have been able to just seize land from the tribes, not without the support of the czar. And the czar couldn’t have done it as a foreign power. Every noble in the khanate was weaker under the federal government than they were under the khanate government. And most of them knew it.

He looked down at his saddle and the AK 4.7 carbine that was holstered there. It was a powerful weapon, but it spelled the death of cavalry as a striking force. The Russians and their up-timer knowledge were like djinn, giving miracles, but twisting them so they do more damage than good.

He sighed and rode out to meet them.


Miroslava looked around. This yurt wasn’t mobile. It was also at least twice as large as the one they rode in on their way here. There was a feast laid out and dancers, acrobats, jugglers, and musicians.

And, unsurprisingly, Ivan Smirnov was making an ass of himself. Questioning if any of the Kazakh nobles should be admitted to the House of Lords. Even Sultan Togym, who was the khan’s elder cousin. Much less Bey Nazar, who was “just the son of a tribal leader that the khan took a liking to.”

The lieutenant and the sergeant of the streltzi were looking embarrassed and Vasilii was trying to rein him in, but Smirnov had rather more to drink than was strictly good for him. The Kazakhs wore their Islam fairly lightly. They drank fermented mare’s milk and other alcoholic beverages on occasion.

And, knowing that the Russians would be coming, they had brought baijiu from China. And Smirnov had developed an immediate fondness for it.

As Miroslava watched the reactions of the various Kazakh nobles, entertainers and servants, she was forced to conclude that Smirnov might actually be useful to the mission. He was certainly attracting the animus of all the Kazakh nobles to himself and Vasilii’s attempts to rein him in were making Vasilii and, through him the czar, seem more respectful of Kazakh rights and sensibilities.

“That’s it!” Vasilii not quite shouted. “Colonel Smirnov, you will return to your wagon and stay there until you are sober. That is an order!”

Colonel Ivan Smirnov turned to face Vasilii and started to swell up.

“Do not speak, Colonel! I have greater mestnichestvo, greater military rank, and am the head of this expedition. If you wish to make any of this into an affair of honor, we will discuss the matter after we have returned to Ufa and after I have made a full report to the czar.”

Colonel Smirnov didn’t back down, not exactly. Instead he came to a parody of attention, saluted poorly, did an about-face without quite falling down, and marched unsteadily out of the yurt.

How much of his sloppiness was drunkenness, how much was disrespect, and how much was simply the fact that military formalities had changed a great deal in the last few years was hard to tell. Certainly all three played a part.

After Colonel Smirnov had left, Vasilii turned to Sultan Togym. “I’m sorry about that, Highness. I don’t know anyone who actually likes Ivan Smirnov, but he is very good at his job. Both his jobs. Aside from being an excellent surveyor, he is a skilled and innovative military commander. All I can truly suggest is that we use his skills and put up with his boorishness.”

Location: Druzhba
Date: June 23, 1637

Sultan Togym hid his smile as a very under the weather Colonel Ivan Smirnov came into the room. It was a well lit space, the lighting provided by Coleman-style lamps. Outside was a summer storm, not common, but far from unheard of. It would be gone by midafternoon, but in the meantime the yurt was closed, and Ivan Smirnov wasn’t just hung over. He was also wet.

Muttering darkly to the amusement of every Kazakh in the yurt, he used a wool felt towel to dry himself and the map case before opening it.

The case was a tube about three inches across and two feet long, made of hardened tanned leather with a leather cap, and it contained hand drawn maps.

Pulling the maps from the case and putting them on the folding table, Ivan said, “The direct route to Shavgar is turning out best after all. The Aral Sea route has some potential problems that it would be better to avoid.”

“What problems?” asked Vasilii Lyapunov.

“Issues with the water table,” Smirnov said a bit too dismissively, and Togym became suspicious. From his expression, Vasilii wasn’t convinced either.

But Smirnov was sorting through the maps. He selected one and spread it out, using the case to hold down one corner as he spread it with his other hand. He ran a finger along a line. He appeared to have found a route with no grades too steep. It was a bit circuitous, and went through Bey Nazar’s tribal lands. While it wouldn’t affect Nazar directly because he had a position in the khan’s retinue, it would send the railroad through the youngster’s family lands, making it easier to get their herds to market.

That should please the count, Togym thought a bit resentfully. The southern route would have gone through Togym’s lands, which would have provided him with considerable stock in the rail lines and put him in position to become the main beef and mutton supplier for eastern Russia. Now that advantage would go to Nazar’s clan. Togym would become weaker as Nazar’s clan gained wealth and power. Not a bad trade for a few square miles of land that weren’t much good for anything but hunting mountain goats.

Togym looked at Bey Nazar. He looked interested, and that was all that Togym could tell. The kid was getting good at hiding his thoughts. And it occurred to Togym that perhaps Nazar had bribed the Russian cartographer to send the railroad through his clan’s lands.

The meeting continued and Togym almost forgot about the “issues with the water table,” but not quite.


As the meeting wrapped up, they set out the route for the next leg of the surveying trip. They would be going almost due east through the southern end of the Ural mountains. Twisting and turning, following the route Ivan had mapped out.

Location: East of Druzhba
Date: June 25, 1637

Ivan Smirnov looked through the transit. As usual, he was miles ahead of the caravan and the news wasn’t good. The grade here was too steep. They weren’t just going to have to dig, they were going to have to blast, and it was going to set up a choke point for the rail line. A place where just a few men could block the passage of the trains.

It wasn’t all bad news. If the khan set up a fort on the top of that hill over there, he would command the pass. And that would make using the rail for most of the route, then moving your goods off the rail to avoid the tariffs more difficult. He would have to stress that advantage in the next conference.

He pulled out his notebook and made a note. Ivan’s spelling was esoteric at best, but he knew what he was saying. The notes were more reminders than anything else.

Ivan finished his note and was opening the saddle bag to put the note pad back when he felt the pain. An arrow was protruding from his back between the two lower ribs.

He dropped the note pad, which fell to the ground, and grabbed the pommel of his saddle to keep from falling down. Ivan was a big man and strong. He was also brave and tough. He didn’t fall over. Even in pain he was clear thinking enough to know that he had to get back to camp for medical care if he was to have any hope of survival.

He pulled himself onto his horse by force of will as much as by the strength of his arms. He got his hands on the reins, turned the horse and began to ride, the arrow in his back shooting pain through him with every hoofbeat.

Ivan had the vices of his virtues. It didn’t occur to him to call his surveying assistants to help. It didn’t really occur to him to ask anyone for help. He just turned and rode.

He made it almost a mile before internal bleeding and agony made him lose control of the horse, and the horse wandered without direction for another fifty yards before he fell off, landing on his back and forcing the arrow out through his chest.


In a grove of trees almost forty yards from where Ivan was shot, a man cursed as he watched Ivan, arrow in his back, climb onto the horse and ride away. He’d expected Smirnov to fall dead right there, not to climb onto a horse and ride away. The bastard hadn’t even screamed.

Quietly, but quickly, he unstrung his bow and led his horse away. Behind a ridge on the other side of the glade, he mounted up and rode away, carefully avoiding the surveyors.

Chapter 3: Ivan is Dead

Location: Camp East of Druzhba
Date: June 25, 1637

The surveyors had lost track of Ivan and when they got back to camp and learned that he wasn’t there, they went looking for Vasilii.

“What is it, Gregor?” Vasilii asked as the scout rode up.

“Colonel Smirnov is missing.”

“Missing or just late? When did you last see him?”

“Midafternoon.” Gregor didn’t own a watch. He was illiterate and in all honesty, not that bright. He could ride well, hold a stick straight up, and follow hand signals. Which was about all Ivan Smirnov wanted in his assistants. Well, he was also possessed of a bovine patience that was another requirement for working for Ivan.


“About six miles that way.” Gregor pointed to the southeast.

“What was he doing?”

“Waving that he was done with the reading, and I should go on to the next location.”


Gregor shrugged. “I went to the next spot and put the stick in place and looked around. He wasn’t where he was supposed to be, so I waited.”

“How long?”

Gregor visibly struggled with that one. “An hour, maybe.”

“An hour?”

“Maybe. The colonel doesn’t like to be bothered when he’s doing his map making stuff. It’s worth a man’s job to interrupt him.”

“What happened after an hour?”

“I figured I’d misunderstood and he was done for the day. Then I rode back to camp, but he wasn’t here.”

Vasilii looked at the sun and checked his watch. “All right. Have a horse saddled for me.”

He went over to the yurt where Miroslava was sitting on the platform reading a book aloud to Rayana. The story was a Russian translation of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” And while both women knew that Sherlock was a fictional character, they both felt that he was a relative of Miroslava’s. Sometimes Vasilii felt the same way, even to the extent of resenting Miroslava’s overbearing cousin from England.

“Smirnov has gotten himself lost. I’m taking a couple of the streltzi and riding out to check on him.”

Rayana looked up at his statement and said, “You should tell Bey Nazar.”

Vasilii grinned. “Not Sultan Togym?”

Rayana sniffed. “Him too, maybe. But Bey Nazar is in charge of the caravan. Sultan Togym is just here for the contracts.”

Which was true, though probably not Rayana’s only reason. Miroslava had noticed on the first day that Rayana had great respect for Nazar and as soon as they got to Druzhba and hooked up with Togym, she’d made her preference for Nazar pretty plain. She always felt that Nazar should be told anything first.

Still, it wasn’t a bad idea. If a bear or bandit got Ivan, it might be wise to have extra backup. And Vasilii didn’t want to take all their streltzi with him.

“Should I come?” Miroslava asked.

“It’s not a mystery yet. Just a missing surveyor. For all we know, he had too much baijiu and is sleeping it off in a shady glade.


Vasilii, Gregor, and Bey Nazar rode out to where Gregor had last seen Ivan Smirnov, trailed by a couple of streltzi and half a dozen of Nazar’s men. The route was a bit different from the one that Gregor had taken back to the camp because Gregor had started from a ridge to the right.

They’d gone about five miles, riding cautiously, walking the horses most of the way, when one of Bey Nazar’s men pointed.

Vasilii looked and saw a pile of horse droppings. Horses don’t usually do their business at a gallop. In fact, they usually stop, do their thing, then wander off. A careful look at the area around the pile showed a hoof mark in the grass and some grass cropped by what was probably a horse, and one in no particular hurry. Following the tracks led to Ivan’s stallion, calmly cropping grass.

Bey Nazar rode quickly over and grabbed the reins. Socks didn’t object, probably happy enough at the prospect of getting the saddle removed and a nice grooming.

“There’s blood on the saddle!” Bey Nazar said before Vasilii got there.

And there was. It was on the back edge, but it was a spray, more as though blood had soaked the back of Ivan’s shirt and pants. It was a warm June day, so Ivan’s jacket was tied neatly to the back of his saddle. There was blood on it as well, but again not as though it had spread or splattered or even dripped really.

“I wish Miroslava was here,” Vasilii said.

“Your concubine?” Nazar asked. “She is attractive, and insightful, as even women can sometimes be. But, really, this is hardly a place for a woman.”

“She’s Czar Mikhail’s detective. The only licensed detective on this side of the Rhine.”

There was a smirk in Nazar’s eyes that didn’t quite touch his lips. “Yes. I’d heard that. If you like, I can send Didar here to fetch her. I would like to see this ‘detective’ in action.”

Everyone could hear the quotes in Nazar’s voice and most of the Kazakhs were openly grinning. Especially Didar.

“Actually, that’s an excellent idea,” Vasilii said. “Gregor, you go with Didar here. Miroslava Holmes is an excellent detective, and a friend of the czarina, but she’s not a horsewoman. Wait, let me write her a note.”

Miroslava was a contradiction. She still read slowly, but no one could tell because she memorized the page as soon as she saw it. She would receive the note, then read it in her mind’s eye as she came to the scene.

“She can read?” Nazar asked. Nazar could read both Arabic and the Kazakh language and struggle through Russian. He’d been educated in one of the best madrasas in the Kazakh Khanate. And this was still a time when Arabic and Islamic scholars were among the best in the world. Vasilii knew that Bernie Zeppi had been surprised by that and that Cass Lowry had flat refused to believe it, but it was true.

“She can read now,” Vasilii confirmed, trying to indicate how rapidly Miroslava had learned her letters. He was quite proud of her, and in a way of his role in giving her the opportunity to use her prodigious intellect and odd way of seeing the world. He pulled his notepad from the pocket of his tunic and using the mechanical pencil, he wrote:

“Blood evidence of foul play. Bring kit!”

Then he tore the sheet from the pad, folded it, and handed it to Gregor. “Give this to Lady Holmes and you will probably need to lead her horse.”


By the time Miroslava, Didar, and Gregor got back to where they found the horse, Bey Nazar, Vasilii, and party had found the body by backtracking the horse’s route. Miroslava looked at the saddle and saw Ivan Smirnov leaning . . . no, hunching over in the saddle, half unconscious. The wound in the left back, near the bottom of the rib cage. The blood seeping out. The wound, the arrow still in it, blocking the flow, slowing the bleeding. Every step of the horse jarring the wound and letting a little more blood flow into his clothing to be wicked by the cloth. There was more bleeding than the saddle showed, but most of it would have been wicked away by his shirt and his pants. “The only blood on the saddle was blood that was transferred from his pants,” she said aloud. “I imagine his shirt was soaked.”

“It was,” said the Kazakh who’d been left to guide them the rest of the way to the body. “Your Vasilii insisted that we not move the body. Didn’t even want us to get close to it. Is that some Christian religious thing?”

“No. It is an up-timer thing. It helps in figuring out who committed a crime. The wound was in the back, near the bottom of the rib cage.”

“There’s a hole in his belly with an arrow sticking out,” the Kazakh said, smirking.

Miroslava looked up at the grinning man on the horse. He wasn’t lying, but he couldn’t be right. Then she had it.

Miroslava wasn’t any less egotistic than anyone else, and these days much of her ego was tied in with her ability as a detective. She thought differently than other people, saw things they missed, and missed things they saw. But she was just as human as anyone else, and didn’t like being thought incompetent anymore than anyone else does. So she said, “Not when he was on this horse, it wasn’t.”

Then she climbed back on the old mare that Gregor had led here, and they proceeded to the body.


As soon as Miroslava saw the body, her suspicions were confirmed. She looked over at the Kazakh and said, “See the shirt around the exit wound? Very little blood. Ivan’s heart stopped within seconds of his landing here. Either before he fell off the horse, or right after. It was his landing on his back that drove the arrow out his front. While he was on the horse, he had no wound in front.”

After she’d said it, she regretted saying it. After all, everyone here was a suspect. She looked at the body. The blood was tacky, starting to dry. And she had Gregor’s time of last seeing Ivan alive. That gave her a fairly precise time window, assuming Gregor was telling the truth. Between two and four hours ago. That at least eliminated Vasilii. He’d been with her in the time window.

She climbed off the horse with some difficulty. Even with the horse being led and her holding onto the pommel, the motion and position of riding a horse wasn’t one her body was used to, and it was telling her about it. She got her kit out. The camera she pulled from the saddlebag was a sort of copy of a Folding Autographic Brownie made in Ufa, based on a design developed in Grantville. The film was from the Moscow Dacha and smuggled into Ufa. Cameras were still rare and film was expensive, but there were three on the trip. Her camera, used for crime scene photographs, Vasilii’s, used for whatever he wanted to photograph, usually mountains or people, and Ivan Smirnov’s, used to photograph terrain features, usually with at least one surveyor’s rod in the picture.

Miroslava had a good eye for detail, but that didn’t translate into a good eye for composition. She handed the camera to Vasilii and then told him what to photograph. The film would be sent back to Ufa for development, and the pictures, or copies of them anyway, would be sent back to her here. She had Vasilii take six shots of the body and two of the horse.

But this was no more the murder scene than where they found the horse had been.

“Where was he shot?” Miroslava asked.

“In the back,” said Didar, and Miroslava wasn’t sure if he didn’t understand the question or was laughing at her.

“I mean, where was he when he was shot in the back?” Miroslava clarified her question.

“Unfortunately, we lost his trail about a hundred yards that way,” Bey Nazar said, pointing. And he sounded regretful.

“Then have Gregor show us where he was when he was last seen, and we will track him from there,” Miroslava said.

No one actually slapped themselves on the head or asked aloud “Why didn’t I think of that?” but they might as well have.

“But before we do that, I want to examine the body.”

Miroslava slowly and meticulously examined the body from head to foot, having Vasilii photograph everything. She found nuggets of gold in Ivan’s lower right tunic pocket. Ivan dressed in the latest styles. That meant his tunic had two upper pockets, one on each breast, and two lower pockets, one at each hip. All the pockets had actual brass zippers. She didn’t find the notebook, though she remembered that Ivan had one.

If someone took it, she wondered why. And why not the gold? Ivan also had a six-shot caplock revolver. It hadn’t been fired in the last few hours. It was still in his holster, the flap buttoned down. It wasn’t a quick draw holster. It was more along the lines of something a military officer would wear, which fit with the man. The other side of the gun belt had two spare six-shot cylinders, both fully loaded.

There was grass on his pants and boots, and on the seat of his trousers, so he’d been sitting in the grass in the last few hours. There was blood soaking down the back of his tunic, and dampening the trousers above the belt, which was tooled leather with a brass buckle.

Finally, she finished her examination, turned over the gold nuggets, the pistol, and pistol belt with the spare cylinders, which were actually worth more, to Bey Nazar. And they went looking for where Gregor had last seen Ivan alive.


After Gregor pointed out the place he’d last seen Ivan, Miroslava had everyone but Vasilii and Nazar stay back. Vasilii knew how to avoid contaminating a crime scene and she couldn’t keep Nazar back. He was in charge of the investigation. And besides, these were his tribal lands. His cousin, Sultan Aidar Karimov, was the headman or chief of this band of Kazakhs. Which might or might not mean Aidar had motive. Word was that the tribe was happy the rail line was to go through their lands.

“See the scuff mark?” Miroslava said, then stopped. There it was,  on the ground. Ivan’s notebook. It was just like Vasilii’s, a wood clipboard about two inches wide and five long, with a steel spring clip holding the pages, a clip to hold a mechanical pencil that was lying next to the clipboard. What Bernie called “geek chic,” because between the mechanical pencil and the clipboard it cost more than a new set of clothing.

Miroslava pointed at the clipboard. “Take a picture of that, Vasilii.” She looked around and noted the position of the clipboard and hoof marks in the grass. She saw everything, but the mind needs references and Miroslava wasn’t a scout. She didn’t know what a horse’s hoof print planted just so meant, nor how it differed from a hoof print planted six inches to the left.

She looked back at the group of Kazakhs and called, “Didar, come here.”

Bey Nazar looked at her, then shrugged and waved for Didar to come. Didar rode up and she waved for him to stop. “See those hoof prints next to the notebook?”

Didar made a guess about what a notebook was, climbed down from his horse, and signaled it to stay where it was. He trusted the horse to stay more than he trusted the strange woman to hold it. Then he carefully walked over to examine the hoof prints. “Yesss!” he hissed. He turned to Bey Nazar speaking in Kazakh. “The witch is right. Colonel Smirnov pulled himself onto his horse here. He didn’t mount properly. He pulled himself on. Well trained horse. Most would have shifted, but this one let the man pull himself up. He had to be already wounded. No fit man would mount that way.”

Nazar nodded. “He says that the colonel mounted badly, that he had to already be wounded.”

Miroslava remembered the colonel’s horse. A saddlebag was opened. But only one. “Did anyone open the saddlebag on Colonel Smirnov’s horse?”

“No one touched it.” Bey Nazar sounded offended.

Miroslava had no idea why. She might not be a scout, but she could tell where the horse was standing. The saddlebag was opened, the notepad on the ground. He was putting the notebook away when he was shot. The horse’s position and the notebook gave her Smirnov’s position when the arrow hit him. He was facing the horse. And that, along with the entry and exit wounds, told her the direction the arrow was traveling when it hit him. She turned, backtracking the arrow, and the closest hiding place was a stand of trees about forty yards away.

Miroslava started walking that way.

Vasilii, smiling, followed.

Bey Nazar and Didar looked at each other and hurried to catch up. “Where are you going?” Nazar asked.

“The shooter was in that stand of trees.”

Didar looked at the trees, looked back at where the horse had been, and realized she was right. He made a gesture of warding off evil and followed.

In the grove, they found scuffed boot prints. They couldn’t even get an approximate size of the man. There were also scuffed hoof prints of a good sized horse, by the distance between the hooves.

Vasilii took pictures of everything. They collected the notebook, the body, Smirnov’s horse, and then they went back to camp.


Back in camp, Sultan Togym was told what they had found. “Are you accusing a Kazakh of this?” He was trying to sound outraged and Vasilii thought he was, at least a little. But mostly he was worried.

“We aren’t accusing anyone,” Vasilii said. “Just reporting the facts. He was shot with an arrow. The arrow was still in his body when he was found, though it was broken at the fletching from when he fell out of the saddle. It was handmade in the Kazakh style. He was standing by his horse when he was shot, and he pulled himself onto the back of the animal and rode some distance before lack of blood sent him unconscious, and he fell onto his back on the ground, driving the arrow through his body and breaking the fletching.”

“If he rode away, how do you know where he was shot?”

“Because his woman is a witch!” Bey Nazar said in Kazakh.

“Speak Russian, Nazar,” Togym said.

“Because Vasilii’s woman is a witch,” Nazar said in quite good Russian.

“No. I am a detective,” Miroslava said.

“What’s a detective?” Togym asked.

“Someone who detects how a crime was committed,” Miroslava said.

“Sounds like a witch to me!” Didar muttered.

“The khan will have to be informed,” Togym said. “No one is to leave camp until we have heard from the khan.”

“Czar Mikhail will have to be informed,” Vasilii said, more to hear how Togym would respond than for any other reason. Vasilii knew he didn’t need to send anyone to inform the czar. He had one of the new, and precious, tubed radios in his gear. On the other hand, he did need to get the film back to Ufa.

“You are in the Kazakh Khanate now, not Russia!” Sultan Togym blurted.

“Actually, we’re in both,” Bey Nazar said. “You do recall that the khan signed the constitution and Kazakh is now a state in the United Sovereign States of Russia.”

“A sovereign state. The investigation of a crime in the sovereign state of Kazakh is the province of the khan, not the czar!”

“Even the death of a Russian officer?” Bey Nazar seemed to be intentionally needling the sultan.

“Anyone!” Togym insisted.

“I take it that you don’t want me sending the crime scene photos back to Ufa to be developed?” Vasilii asked.

“Crime scene photos?” Togym asked.

That entailed a whole new explanation. Which Vasilii gave as calmly as he could, pointing out that the pictures would no doubt aid whoever the khan assigned to investigate the crime.

Togym rubbed his eyes and said, “Not yet. We will wait and see what the khan says.”


The sun had set by the time the meeting was over, but as soon as they got back to the mobile yurt that was their home away from home, Vasilii set up the radio and called the network of stations. The message would reach Ufa in fifteen minutes or so.


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