From the author: I was invited to submit a story to CLOCKWORK FAIRY TALES, which wanted steampunk versions of well-known fairy tales. I've always loved Baba Yaga stories, so a steampunk version of "Vasilisa the Beautiful" was a no-brainer. But I needed to add one more twist . . .
by Steven Harper
"I'm going up," Vasyl said.
Petro caught his arm with strong fingers. "Don't be a fool! The penaltyB"
"I know the penalty." Vasyl shook himself free of his friend's grip. "But what can I gain without risk?"
Vasyl felt Petro's eyes on him as he climbed the stairs to the platform in the chilly autumn air. The bustling, chattering crowd that had gathered in Kiev's Khreshchatyk Square hushed in stages as they realized that someone was taking up the challenge. Vasyl's heart beat faster with every step and his stomach felt tight as sheet metal, but he forced himself to keep on going. At the top of the wooden steps on the wide platform sat Vyktor Ivanovych, the mayor of Kiev, dressed in all his red velvet finery. A heavy gold chain beneath his beard indicated his office, and the chair he occupied was the elaborately-carved monstrosity from which he presided at council meetings. Behind the enormous chair stood a mechanical man dressed in gold livery. It carried a tray of food and a crystal goblet of wine. The mechanical's boots cost more than Vasyl made in a year. Vasyl quavered at the intimidating display, so fine compared to his simple work boots, oil-stained trousers, and an ordinary brown shirt. They were worn and thin, and the cold autumn air bit right through the old cloth. Even his tinker's pack and cap had oil stains on them. He quickly snatched off the latter, revealing deep red hair.
Beside the mayor, on a much smaller chair, sat Hanna Vyktorevna, the mayor's daughter. Her golden hair, azure eyes, and graceful figure made Vasyl think of a summer sunrise, both beautiful and untouchable. She was nineteen years old now, and the Mayor had been forced to admit it was time for her to marry. Everyone knew very well that Ivanovych wanted Hanna to marry a prince, but no princes came calling on the daughter of a mayor, even the daughter of a mayor in a city as large and powerful as Kiev.
As time passed, it became more and more embarrassing that Hanna remained single, but Ivanovych decided that if his daughter couldn't marry a prince, she must have at least have a husband who proved himself in some way extraordinary by fulfilling some task set by the Mayor himself, a task sure to be all but impossible. As a result, this was the seventh Sunday the the Mayor had put his daughter on display, and so far no one had dared approached the platform. The Mayor's plan appeared perfect. His daughter remained singleBand available to a desperate princeBbut it wouldn't be her fault that no one had asked for her hand.
No one until now.
As Vasyl approached the Mayor's chair, people in the crowd pointed and whispered. Some snickered, and a few even laughed outright. Vasyl flushed, wishing he had something else to wear, but his clothes were his clothes, and there was no hiding them. He bowed respectfully.
Ivanovych looked Vasyl up and down with some surprise. "Who are you?"
"My nameC" Vasyl's voice broke like that of a boy's half his age, and the crowd tittered. He coughed and tried again. "My name is Vasyl Mykhailovych, and I wish to marry your daughter."
The crowd broke into unexpected cheers and applause. Vasyl caught a glimpse of Petro standing among them. His lifelong friend's face was grim, and he wasn't applauding. Petro was a Tatar, from the Crimea, which meant he had dark hair and a swarthy complexion, almost like a Turk. Years of working as a blackmsith had given him a powerful build, and his kind face caught the attention of any number of women, but he had shown no interest in any of them since the death of his wife nine years ago. At the moment his brown eyes were hard with disapproval, and Vasyl almost left the platform right then. Petro's displeasure always cut like a hot knife. But Vasyl held his ground.
The applause died down and the Mayor held out his hand. "Give me wine," he said, and his mechanical handed him the crystal goblet. Its movements were sure and precise, and it exuded no steam or smoke. Vasyl longed to examine it more closely.
"What is your occupation, Vasyl Mykailovych?" the Mayor asked.
He tore his eyes away from the mechanical and shifted the little pack of tools on his back. "I am a simple tinker, sir."
Hanna glanced at him, then looked away, her face carefully impasive. The Mayor pointed a beringed finger and replied, "Does that wish to marry her as well?"
Coming up the stairs was a brass machine. It was a skinny staff with two long, jointed arms that ended in vaguely human hands. The bottom of the staff flared out wide like a bell with wheels on the bottom. To navigate the stairs, it hitched itself upward with its arms, one step at a time, laboring with the effort but refusing to give up. Steam puffed from several seams.
"Broom!" Vasyl said, forgetting the crowd for the moment. "You didn't have to come up here."
The unclear command caught Broom off-guard. He hesitated at the top of the steps and tipped dangerously backward.
"Wait!" Vasyl called. "Come here, Broom."
Broom scrabbled a moment, regained his balance, and scuttled over to Vasyl, where he waited with folded hands. The crowd laughed.
"It seems your mechanical has a difficult time understanding orders," the Mayor said.
"I ordered Broom to follow me, sir," Vasyl replied, keeping his voice even despite prickling outrage at the implied criticism of his work and the nagging memory of his stepmother in his head. "He does what he is told, no more, no less, and it is not his faultCor the fault of his makerCthat I forgot to tell him to stop. It is the nature of all mechanicals. Even yours."
"Hm." The Mayor sipped from his goblet, then tried to hand it back to his mechanical, who didn't move. "Take this," he said irritably, and the mechanical obeyed, demonstrating the truth in Vasyl's words. "You know the nature of the challenge, boy?"
Boy? Vasyl bristled again. The Mayor was being deliberately insulting. Vasyl was nearly thirty, and just because he had never married didn't mean he was less a man. Women certainly looked at him. Petro said many called him Vasyl the Fair. But what with one thing and another, he had never married. His good looks notwithstanding, Vasyl was still a poor tinker who repaired machines for other people rather than building them himself. It didn't seem to matter that the machines worked better after he repaired themCpeople hated paying the tinker, and they paid as little as possible.
The lack of money put off most women, and the ones who had shown interest hadn't stimulated Vasyl's interest in return. Petro said he was being too picky. But now that Vasyl was nearing thirty, talk was going around the neighborhood that the tinker couldn't find a wife, and business was falling off, and it was time to do the right thing, be a man. Not a boy.
"I know the challenge," he said stiffly. "I will complete whatever task you give me and prove myself worthy of your daughter's hand."
"And if you fail . . . ?" the Mayor said languidly.
"My head and hands on your table."
The words landed like lead slabs. Petro blanched, and whispers and mutters ran through the crowd. Everyone knew the challenge and the penalty, but hearing them spoken aloud gave them a power all their own.
"Very well." The Mayor stroked his beard and curled the ends around his finger. "A challenge for a tinker. I will give it, and to show your acceptance, you will repeat it."
More mutters and whispers. Vasyl sensed a shift in the crowd. They were becoming more sympathetic to him. Petro still looked worried. Broom waited patiently, little puffs of steam escaping from seams between his rivets, while Hanna still refused to look at Vasyl. Vasyl felt rather sorry for her, put up on display every week. He hoped he could find a way to make her happy once they were married.
If he lived to see the wedding.
The Mayor continued to toy with his beard, and a trickle of sweat ran down Vasyl's temple as he waited for the man to speak. Vasyl's knuckles were white and his chest felt constricted by bands of brass.
"Very well, Vasyl Tinker," the Mayor said, and the crowd went silent. "Your task shall be this."
Vasyl held his breath. The only sound was Broom's puffing. Petro was pulling at his shirt collar.
"Create for me," the Mayor said, "a mechanical that can think for itself."
A moment of silence followed. Then the crowd broke into an excited babble that rushed against Vasyl's ears. Petro staggered.
"A mechanical that can think for itself?" Vasyl said. "But that'sC"
"You have repeated and accepted the challenge." The Mayor rose. "You have three days."
He took Hanna's hand and swept off the platform, accidentally leaving the mechanical behind.
"Can it be done, Vaska?" Petro demanded as they walked the cobblestoned streets. "Is it possible to make a mechanical that can think for itself?"
"I don't know." Vasyl hunched forward, his hands in his pockets, his pack dragging at his back.
"If it's impossible, we can appeal to the Tsar, and he'llC"
"No," Vasyl interrupted. "That was the trap. Even if the Tsar will consent to see a humble tinker, it will take more than three days to arrange, and by then, the sentence will be carried out. You were right, Petya. I'm a fool."
Broom clattered down the cobblestone street behind them. HeCVasyl always thought of Broom as heCsomehow managed to look worried, despite a complete lack of real facial features. Every so often he snatched up a piece of detritus from the walkway and tossed it with disdain into the gutter.
Petro put a heavily-muscled arm around Vasyl's neck, a gesture that was half strangle, half embrace, and one that he'd been giving Vasyl all their lives. "You'll think of something."
A weak smile crossed Vasyl's face. A moment ago that had seemed like the best of all possible worlds. Now, with the hard reality of Petro's arm around him, he wasn't at all sure.
"We need food and we need a drink," Petro decided, "especially a drink. And you will spend the night at my house."
"I should start working onC"
"It is the thirteenth of October," Petro interrupted. "No one should be alone on this night. You will sleep on my stove, and we'll start work on your problem in the morning. No arguments."
He steered Vasyl toward his own house, the one behind his forge. The people on the street, their friends and neighbors, ignored them both, uncertain how to react to Vasyl's gesture in the Square, and they whispered as the pair walked by. A cold fear about the entire affair grew in Vasyl's stomach, and he became more and more grateful for Petro's powerful arm around him, though he would never have said so. Instead, he allowed Petro to drag him toward the smithy.
Petro's forge and house occupied the back of a little square with a fountain in it. Other businessesCa shoemaker, a baker, a basketweaver, a millinerCoccupied other stores, and the owners lived above them. Since it was Sunday, Petro's forge was cold and the little stable-like building that stored his tools was deserted. The house behind the forge was small but all his own, thanks to the money his smithy brought in. As he always did, Vasyl compared the place to his own cramped workshop with a narrow bed in the corner and gave a mental sigh.
Petro removed his arm from Vasyl's neck and thrust the door open. "I'm home!"
A nine-year-old girl with brown braids scampered across the little kitchen and flung herself into Petro's arms. "Papa! Uncle Vaska! Broom!"
Petro lifted the girl high and kissed her cheek loudly. "How good were you while I was gone, Olena?"
She spread her arms wide. "This good. And I made supper, and I was sure Uncle Vaska was coming so I made sure to put out food for him, too. And I made an extra plate for her."
"That's my girl!"
"Is Uncle Vaska going to marry the Mayor's daughter?" she asked anxiously as Petro put her down. Broom shut the door and Vasyl shrugged out of his pack. "Everyone is talking about him. Are you going to marry her, Uncle?"
"We'll see, dearest," Vasyl said.
"I don't want you to marry her." Olena's tone was serious. "I want you to move in with us and fix toys for children and be my uncle forever."
He forced a smile and twisted one of her pigtails around his finger. "Are you jealous, little one? Perhaps you want to marry me?"
She made a face. "Why would I want that? I want to marry someone who likes girls."
An uncomfortable silence fell over the room. Petro cleared his throat, but before he could say anything, Vasyl jumped in.
"I will always be your uncle Vaska," he promised. "No matter who I marry. Now how about we eat supper, and then Broom can help clean up?"
It was hog-butchering season, and on the table Olena had set a long, wide strip of white pork fat still on the skin, a loaf of fragrant dark bread, several cloves of garlic, a dish of salt, a bottle of vodka, and a pot of tea. The three of them sliced rich pieces of fat off the skin and ate them on the bread, alternating with cloves of garlic dipped in salt. Olena set an extra plateful of food on the doorstep outside and sat back down without comment. Vasyl and Petro drank vodka while Olena drank sweet tea. Vasyl also drank in the scene itself. The cozy kitchen, the warm stove, the yellow lamp, the brass mechanical. The little girl who was a daughter to him in all but name. The strong, outspoken man who was his best friend and the one person he could always lean on. He wished it could go on forever.
Broom, at Olena's order, gathered up the dishes and took them to the washtub while Olena carefully poured hot water over them from the kettle on the ceramic stove.
Petro emptied the last of the vodka into their cups. "Why today?"
Vasyl knew what he meant, but outside the sun hadn't quite set yet and he wanted to hold on to this moment a bit longer, so he fell back on his old trick. "I'm sorry, Petro. It must have been difficult to watch me go up to the stage like that."
"Of course it was," Petro said thickly. "You are like my own brother. When you went up there, my hands were ice. I couldn't do anything."
"You felt helpless."
"No man likes that feeling." Petro thumped his glass on the table. "Especially when someone he . . . when his brother puts himself in deliberate danger for something so foolish."
Vasyl straightened in his chair. What had Petro been about to say? He wanted to ask, but he knew from experience that trying to backtrack would only alert Petro that Vasyl was listening, not talking. Petro was falling into the rhythm of speaking now, and Vasyl let himself fade away, become the listener. It was a skill he had honed over many years. When people were talking to you, they weren't hitting.
"It was foolish," he said, echoing Petro's last statement.
"And now we both have to pay the price." Petro's dark eyes were serious. "Sometimes I don't understand you, Vaska. You have everythingClooks, intelligence, a strong bodyCbut you always fail."
"I always fail," Vasyl the echo replied.
"So why today?"
The question caught Vasyl off guard. "Why what?"
"The Mayor put his daughter on display six other Sundays. Why did you pick this Sunday to step forward?" Petro leaned forward again. "Why did you do it at all? Why this sudden need to get married?"
He fell silent, waiting. Vasyl sighed. No way to avoid answering. The fine moment ended. "I'm tired of being alone, Petya. I want to wake up with someone together and spend days together and go to bed together."
"I understand loneliness," Petro said. "After nine years, I understand. But to relieve yours, you could choose Yilka, the baker's daughter, or Larissa, the shoemaker's sister, you choose Hanna, the Mayor's daughter, and risk your life for it." He snorted. "I have known you since we were boys swimming naked in the Dnepro together, and still I don't understand why her. It hurts me that I don't understand." He thumped his chest. "Right here it hurts."
A soft lump of guilt formed in Vasyl's throat. It may have been the vodka, but Petro had always been able to do this to him. One time, when they were Olena's age, Vasyl had watched an old woman's pigs and goats for five days while she was ill, and at the end of it, she had given him an entire bottle of wine. Stunned at this windfall, Vasyl waffled between telling PetroCand having to shareCor keeping quiet and enjoying the bottle himself. Two days later he had decided to tell Petro, but Petro had been furious that it had taken his friend so long to tell him. He refused to drink any of the wine and wouldn't even speak to Vasyl for more than a week. Vasyl had been miserable, and his mother had thought he was ill. Vasyl had poured the bottle into the gutter. Then, in the manner of boys everywhere, Petro had simply asked him to go fishing in the Dnepro as if nothing had happened, and their friendship had resumed, though ever after, Vasyl took care to include Petro in everything he did.
"Why her?" Petro repeated.
"I'm also tired of being poor," Vasyl blurted. "And I felt bad for her because she has to sit up there every week with no one to choose her. It was an impulse, Petya. I didn't know for certain I was going to do it until I did it. And now . . . I wish I could take it back. I am a fool."
Olena and Broom continued with their work. Broom was washing dishes while Olena swept the floor. The men kept their voices low, but Vasyl was sure Olena heard every word. Children always did.
Petro gave Vasyl's forearm a firm squeeze. Vasyl felt like he should pull away, but he was too full and too tired and too tense to bother. Besides, the physical contact was reassuring. "I will help you, my brother. Whatever you needCmetal, designs, someone to forge materialsC"
"You always help me," Vasyl said. "I am a man, Petya. I stood up there alone, and I should finish this alone."
Olena spoke up from her broom. "I thought you were tired of being alone."
Petro roared with laughter and clapped Vasyl hard on the back. "There, you see? The child is wiser than the man. So now you must answer the question you have been avoiding."
"Avoiding?" Vasyl felt nervous again. "What question have I been avoiding?"
"Why didn't you make this mess last week or the week before? Why did you make a fool of yourself today, of all days?"
Some of the tension washed out of him, though not all. He glanced at the window and the gathering gloom outside and rose. "It would be easier to show you, especially if you want to help. But OlenaC"
"If you are going out, I am staying in," Olena said. "It's too scary outside tonight."
Petro clambered to his feet. "You're not going out!"
"I must." Vasyl dropped the half-empty vodka bottle and the rest of the bread into a sack and pulled on his coat and pack.
"You mean to ask her for help?"
"There's no one better, Petya. I'm one of the best tinkers in RussiaC"
"The best tinker," Olena put in stoutly.
"As you like, little one," Vasyl said with a smile. "But I have no idea how to make a mechanical think for itself. She might."
Petro's dark eyes were wide. "She'll eat you alive!"
"The Mayor's punishment is kinder?" He hefted the sack. "If you want to come, then come. I have to leave now."
Petro looked torn. He glanced at his friend and then at his daughter. Vasyl felt a small stab of jealousy. Despite his earlier statement, he didn't really want to do this aloneChe had used up his courage for the week while facing down the MayorCand he badly wanted Petro to come with him. When they were younger, Petro would have come without hesitation. But now Petro was a family man, and family men didn't leave their families to help friends, no matter how close the friendship or how badly the friend needed help.
Vasyl admonished himself for his unfair view. Children had to come before friends, and he would have liked Petro less if Petro had acted otherwise. Still . . .
"Go, Papa," Olena said. "I am not frightened. As long as I do not go outside, she will not touch me."
A soft rumble outside made Vasyl hurry to the door. "Quick!"
Petro kissed Olena's cheek, snatched up his own coat, and ran outside with Vasyl. Vasyl jumped over the plate of food on the doorstep, and the two men ran out to the deserted square. Every front step had a plate on it. Every window was shuttered tight.
"Do you see anything?" Petro was looking at the darkening sky.
"There!" Vasyl pointed. A streak of light rushed overhead and west. At the front of it was a strange contraption of iron and brass. It was shaped like a giant bowl or mortar, held together with an intricate pattern of rivets. On the back were fastened a pair of engines that blasted fire and light, carrying the mortar just high enough to clear the rooftops of Kiev. Vasyl took an involuntary step backward, and the autumn air grew colder. In the mortar stood a tall, thin hag in an earth-brown dress. Her gray hair streamed out behind her, and she steered with a rudder made from a brass pestle. The woman glanced down and her hard eyes met Vasyl's for a tiny moment. His blood turned to thin ice water. Then she was gone, leaving a trail of smoke and thunder in the sky.
"I can't believe I'm saying this," Petro said, "but we need to hurry if we want to follow her."
Vasyl could only clutch the sack and nod. The two men ran through the empty streets of Kiev, their boots ringing on cobblestones. Ahead of them, the spreading trail of smoke arced downward as the hag brought her mortar in among the buildings, close to ground. Vasyl ran until he became short of breath and his ribs burned, but still he ran, following the smoke trail with Petro at his side. Unfortunately, the city quickly grew too dark and the smoke trail too thin, and they lost the path.
"Where now?" Petro asked.
Vasyl scanned the street. He could smell the sharp exhaust from paraffin oil. All the houses they had passed sported plates of food, but here several of the plates had been emptied, and a number had been flipped upside-down, as if someone moving at great speed had snatched the food from them without pausing.
"This way." He lead Petro down the street, following the trail of empty plates, until he came to an intersection. The plates on the street in three directions were still full. Vasyl peered down the narrow fourth street, a nervous experience. It was dark as a wolf's mouth. The plate on the first doorstep, just visible in the pale light at the intersection, was empty.
"I didn't think to bring a light," Vasyl whispered. "Did you?"
Petro shook his head. "How do weC?"
A rattling noise made Vasyl jump, and his heart beat at the back of his throat. Broom scuttled up, bobbing anxiously.
"Broom!" Vasyl gasped. "What in God's name?"
"Did you order him not to follow you any more?"
"I forgot," Vasyl admitted sheepishly.
Petro peered down the street again. "Send him back, then."
"As long as he's here, we can use him. Broom, give us light, please."
There was a pop and from the spot where Broom's staff belled outward, a beam of blue light speared down to illuminate the cobblestones. Broom bounced up and down, apparently pleased.
"Very nice, Broom," Vasyl said. "Walk beside me."
Cautiously, the three of them entered the street with Broom lighting the way. All the windows were tightly shuttered, and every plate on every doorstep was empty. Stony walls pressed inward, and the air dripped with smells of urine, garbage, and paraffin oil exhaust, which told Vasyl they were definitely going the right way. The street made a dogleg and stopped cold. Vasyl sucked in a breath and Petro put a heavy hand on his friend's shoulder. Even Broom's little light quivered.
Before them stood a fence made of bones. Electricity arced in ladders up fenceposts made of femurs and snapped off the skulls that sat atop them. The bones were inlaid with iron, and sparks snarled around the metal, bringing to Vasyl a mixture of fear and admiration. He swallowed around his pounding heart and wiped sweaty palms on oil-stained trousers. The fence blocked the entire alley, and beyond it . . .
A creak and a thud, and another creak and another thud pounded the cobblestones beyond the fence. A metal cottage occupied a square beyond the awful fence. Rust streaked the sides and the roof, and a heavy iron bar held the door shut. Strange enough that a cottage should be made of metal and sitting in the middle of a little square in Kiev, but this house was supported by a pair of enormous bird legs made of brass. Exposed pistons creaked and hissed as each leg moved. The feet came up and down, thudding and thumping and creaking and hissing on the cobblestones, ready to crush anything that dared come close. Vasyl stared at the structure, simultaneously fascinated and frightened.
"How do we get past this fence?" asked Petro in a hushed voice. "If we touch it, we will die."
"If I touch it," Vasyl replied, also hushed. "You are staying here."
"I'm your best friend. You aren't going in there without me."
"Yes? And who will take care of little Olena if you die?"
That silenced Petro, though his face clouded and it was clear that he wanted to disagree further. Vasyl didn't rise to the bait. After nearly thirty years of friendship, he knew how Petro worked. Petro preferred to let someone else start the argument. Vasyl pulled off his tinker's pack and rummaged through it until he found some wire and a pair of wooden tongs.
"This will do it," he said, and before Petro could protest, he used the tongs to connect one end of the wire to the fence while the other end dragged on the ground. With a pop and a shower of sparks, the electric current vanished.
"It's a simple series circuit," Vasyl said to Petro's unasked question. "Easy enough to interrupt if you know what you're doing." Still, he used the tongs instead of his hands to push at a section that looked like a gate. It swung open with a tooth-grating screech. At the sound, the cottage beyond stopped moving on its strange bird legs. With a dreadful creak, it turned toward Vasyl as if the front windows were staring eyes.
"Uh oh," Vasyl said. "We're supposed to say something. A password. What is it?"
"How should I know?" Petro hissed. "This wasn't my idea."
Broom managed a tiny whimpering sound. The cottage took a step toward them, then another and another. It leaned angrily forward. Old stories flashed through Vasyl's head. The hut appeared on the thirteenth night of October each year. Anyone who touched the fence would die. To make it stop dancing, you saidC
"Little hut, little hut!" Vasyl called. "Turn your back to the forest and your face to me!"
The cottage continued to stomp toward them, now only a few steps away. Broom quivered. Vasyl desperately glanced left and right, but there was nowhere to run to. His bowels turned to water. The hut thundered forward. He shouted the words again, but there was no effect.
"Little hut, little hut!" Petro cried. "Turn your back to the city and your face to me!"
The cottage came to a halt a mere step away, one foot raised to crush them. Then it lowered itself to the ground like a hen settling onto a nest.
"We aren't in the forest," Petro said calmly.
"Thanks." Vasyl drooped with relief. "I'm glad you're here, Petya."
"Then let me come in with you. I got you this far."
Vasyl shook his head. "You know she won't allow that."
"Then I'll wait out here." Petro folded his arms. "All night, if I have to."
"All right." Vasyl succumbed to temptation and gave Petro a fast hug, which Petro returned with rough affection. "Here goes."
Vasyl dashed up to the door before he could lose his nerve and flung the bar up. The door leapt open. Panting, Vasyl hurried through the dark opening. At the last second, Broom scurried in behind himCVasyl had forgotten to order him not to follow. The door slammed shut. Vasyl stood in darkness, the only sound his heart pounding in his ears.
"Broom," he whispered hoarsely, "light."
Painful light exploded all around him. Vasyl threw up a hand to shield his eyes. When he could see, he found himself in a kitchen much larger than the cottage walls could encompass. Vasyl spun, trying to take it all in. Dirty flagstone floor. Ashy ceramic stove. Greasy black kettle. Grimy kitchen table. Cobwebbed cupboards. Tangled loom. Rumpled bed. The light seemed to come from the walls themselves, though Broom gamely cast his tiny twin beams.
In the corner, tall and thin, arms folded, stood the old hag with her tangle of gray hair. She looked like a mop left to dry. Then she grinned, revealing iron teeth that made Vasyl's stomach shrivel back against his spine.
"Well," she said in a gravelly voice lower than Petro's, "it isn't often dinner just walks through my front door."
Vasyl gave the door behind him an involuntary glance. Three heavy bolts slid home with a clunk, a thud, and a boom. Broom squeaked. Vasyl swallowed and wondered if his life could be counted in seconds. Of course, if he had his life to lose, he only had everything to gain from this point on. He forced himself to stand straight.
"You don't want to eat me," he said.
"No?" She licked her lips with a pale tongue and Vasyl realized she was at least two heads taller than he. "Why?"
Vasyl ticked off reasons with trembling fingers. "You just ate from all those plates outside. Adult men taste stringy and gamy. And I brought other food for you." He opened the sack to produce the bread and vodka, which he put on the awful kitchen table. Then he backed away. Broom stayed right behind him.
"Hm. Perhaps I'll give you a few minutes." She strode to the table, gobbled the bread in two bites, poured the vodka down her throat, and flung the bottle into the fireplace. The glass shattered and Vasyl flinched. "So, boy, what gives you the balls to brave the dancing hut of Baba Yaga?"
Coming from her, the word boy didn't sound insulting. "I need your help, Grandmother."
"They all do. And they all end up in that kettle. Why should you be any different?"
"You're talking to me instead of eating me," Vasyl pointed out, not quite believing he was doing this. "That makes me at least a little different."
"Hm. Usually I get tender young girls. They ask me to give them a dowry for some hideous husband or hand them fire for their stupid stepmothers when they could just as easily get either for themselves, if they would just try."
"It must be difficult," Vasyl said, "to watch foolish people make foolish mistakes, especially when you give them good advice."
"You can't possibly know how difficult." A rusty mechanical cat crawled out from under a cupboard, and Baba Yaga picked it up. Her claws scraped absently across its back and made Vasyl's teeth ache. "I tell them their husbands and stepmothers have to sleep sometime. Why not take a knife and spill a little red blood? Or, if you must bow to them, make fire yourself with a pair of sticks if the hearth goes cold. But no--they always come to me. And then they cry bitter tears when I drop them into the kettle or, if I'm in a very good moodC" her claws raked the cat's back with a screech that raised Vasyl's hair "CI chase them across a river or through a hedge to teach them a lesson in self-sufficiency."
"But they don't learn much, do they?" Vasyl said.
"Never," she sighed. "They always marry some stupid twit and spread lies about myChey now!"
Vasyl tensed. "Yes?"
Baba Yaga laughed, a low, throaty sound that sent confusing shivers down Vasyl's back. She tossed the cat on the table, filled a long, thin pipe, and lit it with a spark created by snapping one claw across her teeth. The smoke smelled of diesel.
"So you bring a gift besides food, do you?" she said. "Not many people listen. You're smarter than I gave you credit for, boy. I like that. I think I like you."
Vasyl let himself feel a tiny bit of relief. "So you'll help me?"
"Like can mean any number of things," Baba Yaga said around the pipe. "Including how good you taste. But for now, yes, it means I might help you. What do you want?"
Vasyl took a deep breath. The Mayor in his arrogant red velvet seemed simple and friendly compared to Baba Yaga's grimy kitchen and iron stare. "I need a mechanical that can think for itself."
Baba Yaga sucked silently at her pipe for a long moment. The cat stared at Broom. Broom stared at the cat.
"What for?" she asked at last.
"So I can keep my hands and my head." Vasyl tried not to shift from foot to foot. A tightrope stretched behind and before him, and he didn't dare move.
Baba Yaga stared at him for another iron moment. The smelly blue smoke filled the room. Vasyl, mindful of what Baba Yaga had said about husbands, remained silent.
"What," she said, "does any of this have to do with the tasty young Tatar waiting outside my gate?"
The tightrope wavered. Vasyl's knuckles went white. "Leave him out of this. He hasn't entered your yard. He hasn't broken any of your rules. You can't touch him."
Baba Yaga ticked off fingers of her own. "He's out and about on the thirteenth night of October, which is my night. He used my password without my permission. And you brought his delicious scent into my cottage. I can do as I please, boy. Answer the question."
"This has nothing to do with Petro." Fear widened Vasyl's eyes and made him pant. "Leave him alone."
"Hm." She leaned toward Vasyl, invading Vasyl's space with her long nose, smoky pipe, and greasy hair. Still panting, Vasyl held his ground and smelled sweat and oil and hot metal.
"He's still mine, if I want him," she whispered into his ear, exhaling warm smoke like a dragon. "Would you offer to take his place, Fair Vasyl?"
Her words turned his skin to ice. "I . . . I . . . "
"Never mind." She leaned back and waved a hand, creating blue swirls in the smoky air. "I was only playing with you, like Maroushka here plays with mice. She can't eat them, but it makes for interesting results when she tries. Sit down, boy, you make me tired to look at you."
The room spun more than a little, and Vasyl gratefully sank onto one of the creaky benches near the table. Broom scuttled closer, his eyes still alight.
"What about that one?" Baba Yaga was still standing. Looming. "Can your mechanical think for itself?"
"Broom? No," Vasyl said. He started to put his elbow on the table, but his skin shied away from the filth, and he set his arm in his lap instead. "I've changed Broom, but he can't think."
"He?" Baba Yaga asked mildly.
Something in her tone tightened Vasyl's stomach again. "I've had him for so long, it seems rude to use it. You called your cat a she."
"Indeed." Baba Yaga knocked the ashes out of her pipe into the fireplace, and a cloud of angry red sparks puffed up. "Where did you get him?"
"My mother gave him to me. She was a crafter, not a tinker. But she died when I was very young."
"Your father remarry?
Vasyl lifted his chin. "Yes."
"You'd get along with her," Vasyl said before he could stop himself, then braced himself for a blow or worse. For a moment, he was facing his stepmother and her stick again.
But Baba Yaga only snorted. "Why didn't your father throw her out?"
"He wasn't strong enough. When I was old enough, he told me to flee. I obeyed, and took Broom with me. That was more than twenty years ago, which mean's my father's probably dead by now. The bitchmother, too, for that matter. And I don't care if she is." He suddenly felt defensive. "What of it?"
"Not my job to judge, boy." Baba Yaga filled and lit the pipe again. "But I do observe that it's difficult to escape familiar patterns. When you live your entire life with cruel words, you look for people who will give them to you. If you no longer have a stepmother, take an uncaring bride. If your father abandons you, love someone who won't love you back. And to keep yourself in cruelty, you're willing to risk your head and hands on the Mayor's sideboard. Keep the pattern going. Hm."
Vasyl's mouth had dried up, and he realized he was clutching Broom with one hand. "That's not the way it is."
"Pah." Smoke curled into the heavy air from between Baba Yaga's iron teeth. "This gets us nowhere. I said I would help you, and I will."
"So it's possible to make a mechanical think for itself?"
"It's possible. But first we'll talk payment."
The hope that had arisen in Vasyl's chest froze like an apple blossom in a spring frost. "Payment?"
"Why does everyone think I work for free?" Baba Yaga asked Maroushka, who lounged at her own end of the table.
"I don't have anyC"
Suddenly Baba Yaga was looming over Vasyl again, bending down so her long, thin nose practically touched his. The terror that tore through Vasyl turned his bones to lava and his heart to ice. Her thin figure filled his entire world with famine, disease, and loss. The point of one clawed fingertip lifted his chin and forced him to look into her eyes. They were as black and empty as an eclipse, and Vasyl felt they might drain the life from him.
"Do I look like I want money?" she hissed. "Your paltry Mayor wants head and hands. Me, I'll take much, much more."
Vasyl's stepmother was standing over him again with her stick, the one twice as thick as her thumb, and he knew when Father came home and saw the cuts and bruises, she would simply say the boys up the street were at little Vaska again, making fun and starting fights because of all the time the boy wasted reading his mother's books and tinkering with his mother's machines, and Father would sigh and tell Vaska that he should spend more time outside in what passed for fresh air in Kiev, and since no one would listen to Vaska, he learned to listen to other people, read their bodies and take their secrets so he could use them for protection instead of fighting back directly and Baba Yaga had seen the truth of it and now he would pay for letting the secret out.
No. He touched Broom's solid shell for reassurance, and it was as if his mother were there again, in some small way. The fear receded. That was the past and this was the present. If she were going to kill me, she would have done it by now.
"What's your price, then?" he asked. "My soul? I'll give you that, if you want."
Baba Yaga backed away a little, then chortled. "Very good, boy. We both know your soul belongs to someone else and isn't yours to bargain with."
Vasyl spread his hands. "Then what?"
"My biggest fear, boy, is that while I'm putting together your precious mechanical, my poor cottage will fall to wrack and ruin."
Vasyl looked around the filthy kitchen. "Er . . . I'm sorry, I don't understand what you're asking."
"You need to keep house for me while I work," Baba Yaga clarified. "Today you will clean this room. And if you don't meet my standards, it'll be more than your head on my table."
Vasyl remembered the bone fence outside and swallowed. "All right. I only have three days beforeC"
Baba Yaga waved this away. "Do you know what a tesseract is, boy?"
"Suffice it to say, that we will have sufficient time inside this cottage. I'll begin and you begin." She stalked out of the room through a door Vasyl hadn't noticed before and slammed it shut.
Vasyl looked around the harshly-lit, windowless kitchen and its coating of grime. He sighed heavily from his chair, shrugged out of his tinker's pack, and opened it.
"You know you're fucked, right?" said Maroushka the cat.
Vasyl's hands jerked, and the pack rattled. "WhatC?"
"Fucked," Maroushka repeated from the table. "It means treated unfairly or harshly."
Vasyl scrambled to regain his equilibrium. Mechanicals didn't talk. Ever. Therefore the cat wasn't a mechanical, or Baba Yaga could work real miracles.
"I know what I'm doing," Vasyl replied shortly.
"I know what I'm doing," Maroushka repeated in an exact replica of Vasyl's voice, and Vasyl jumped again. "They all say that."
"I have help. I wouldn't have come here if I didn't."
"Sure." Maroushka yawned, exposing brass fangs and a rubbery tongue. "All the girls have help, right up until the moment she's adding their bones to the fence. Like I saidCfucked."
"I'm not a girl. Or a boy. I'm a man."
"To her, anyone under a thousand years old is a baby, and everyone tastes the same in a stewpot. Look, the stories only talk about the two or three who get away, never the eight or nine hundred who become goulash. So you're fucked."
"Probably." Vasyl had had enough shocks for the day and found himself growing tired of them. "Look, I have work to do."
Baba Yaga's door shook with thuds and clanks, and once Vasyl thought he heard a muffled scream. He reopoened his pack.
"She'll be back faster than you think," Maroushka said, "and this place had better be cleaner than a priest's ass on Easter."
"Do you think for yourself?" Vasyl extracted a can with a spout on it from the pack.
Maroushka stared at him with hard green eyes. "That's a rude question."
"But do you?"
"Of course I do," Maroushka sniffed. "Not that the answer means anything."
"Because you could be programmed to say that," Vasyl finished.
Maroushka licked one paw. "How do we know that anyone really thinks? For all you know, all the people in the world are mechanicals masquerading as people and you're the only real human in it."
"That would awfully self-centered." Vasyl unscrewed the lid on the spout and pulled out his pocket knife. "Why should the entire world revolve around me?"
"You're here, aren't you? In the cottage of the world's most powerful crafter and witch in a cottage that exists partly outside time. That's major shit. Of course you're the center."
"Everything is the center in an infinite universe," Vasyl countered, "so I suppose you're right."
"Do you think for yourself?"
"Of course I do. I'm a human being."
"Doesn't mean you automically get free thought."
"Yes, it does."
"No, it doesn't."
"Yes, itCoh, shut up!"
"I think you've made my point." Maroushka curled her tail about her paws with a clink, a faint echo to the loud rattles and clunks beyond Baba Yaga's door. "Since you can't think for yourself, what the hell are you doing?"
"I can too think forCoh never mind." Vasyl popped the cap off the spout, took a deep breath, and slashed his palm with the knife. He bit his lip against white-hot pain.
"Whether you agree with me or not, my question stands. Answer it."
"I'm feeding Broom." Vasyl unscrewed another cap on Broom's side, let his blood flow into Broom's fuel tank, and followed it with some of the can's contents. Broom squeaked and bounced happily up and down as the liquid gurgled into him.
Maroushka sniffed the air. "Is that . . . paraffin oil?"
"My mother's private formula." Vasyl waggled the can. "Want some?"
The cat barely hesitated. "Fuck, yes."
Vasyl found a similar cap between Maroushka's shoulder blades. It was stiff with rust and came free with effort. Vasyl dripped blood and a measure of paraffin oil into the reservoir. Then, just for good measure, he pulled a can of engine oil from his pack to oil her joints. Maroushka produced happy mechanical mewling noises. Broom, meanwhile, quivered with energy.
"I feel fifty years younger," Maroushka said. "You can stay."
"Unless your mistress eats me." Vasyl gave the cat a speculative look and wrapped a rag around his wound. "You know, maybe I should just take you to the Mayor."
Maroushka froze and tipped over with a delicate crash. Startled, Vasyl poked at her, but she remained motionless. After a moment, she came back to life and sat up with an innocent look. "No one knows that I'm self-aware, cutie. Not even her. And I intend to keep it that way."
"She didn't make you to think for yourself?"
"She barely feeds me from the dregs of her fuel bucket. You think she cares enough to make me think? Fuck no. I figured it all out for myself."
"So why are you telling me you can do it? Assuming you really can."
"Listen, kid, you feed me paraffin oil, and I'll lick the sweat from your balls, if you want," Maroushka said, then added, "You'd better get to work. You'll find cleaning supplies in that cupboard."
Vasyl shot Baba Yaga's door an uneasy look, then turned to Broom, who seemed ready to burst. "Broom, clean this room."
Broom saluted and shot about the room with inhuman speed. He yanked soap, brushes, rags, and buckets from the cupboard Maroushka had indicated and flew in a dozen directions, washing, scrubbing, scraping, and scouring. Vasyl lifted Maroushka off the table just in time to avoid Broom's busy brushes. Water sloshed everywhere, and the soft scent of soap overcame Baba Yaga's pipe.
"HowC?" Maroushka began.
"Mother's private formula." Vasyl set her down. "You did say you felt younger."
Just as Broom was throwing the scrub brushes back into the cupboard, Baba Yaga's door slammed open.
"Broom," Vasyl hissed, "stop!"
Broom obeyed as the witch stomped into the room. Her dress was stained with grease and she smelled of machine oil, reminding Vasyl unsettlingly of his mother. She put her hands on non-existant hips and glared about the kitchen. Broom skittered to hide behind Vasyl, who drew himself upright despite his pounding heart. The black kettle that now gleamed on the stove yawned big enough to swallow him whole, and it just might.
"How did you do it all, boy?" Baba Yaga demanded.
"Hm," the witch grunted. "Well, I suppose it'll do. For today."
Vasyl released the breath he'd been holding. "Thank you, Grandmother. About the mechanical, then."
"Takes time, boy. We'll talk tomorrow." With that, she flung herself into the bed in the corner and fell to snoring loud enough to vibrate the floor. Vasyl stretched out on one of the hard benches that ran the length of the kitchen table. Exhaustion turned his bones to granite, but he couldn't sleep.
Maroushka jumped up next to his head. "He's still waiting, you know."
"That Tatar guy. Petro. He's been waiting a long time."
Vasyl tensed. "He should have gone home."
"Hm." Maroushka stretched, which made little clattering noises. "Why's he hanging around? Do tell me."
"He's worried about me, I suppose."
"That's so sweet. How does that make you feel?" Maroushka purred.
It wasn't the sort of question Vasyl would normally answer, certainly not from a mechanical cat, but he was so tired, and Maroushka's voice was soft and sympathetic, and he'd been the listener all his life. Now he had an invitation to talk. "It's . . . nice, actually. Knowing he's out there. Knowing someone cares enough to wait."
"I don't understand these things very much," Maroushka said. "Give me some of that fuel you made and I'm bitchin'. But you humans need people to talk to. What's so special about this particular person?"
Vasyl gave a one-shoulder shrug on the hard bench. He was falling asleep, and his words blurred. "He's strong. Much stronger than I am. And he's always there when I need him. And he'll tell me when I'm being foolish. And . . . he has . . . deep . . . eyes."
"Deep eyes? What the hell does that mean?"
But Vasyl was asleep.
"Hm," Maroushka said. "So what's your deal, Broom?"
But Broom hadn't been ordered to answer, and remained silent.
"Today," Baba Yaga said, "you need to cook for me. And tomorrow I'll have another task for you, and then I'll give you your mechanical. How's that sound?"
"Wonderful!" Vasyl made a fist around around his bandage and did some quick calculuations against the can in his backpack. It should just work. "What do you want for supper?"
"This." Baba Yaga pulled a lever, and an entire side of beef dropped from the shadows in the ceiling. It landed on the table with a crash and a splatter of warm blood. As an afterthought, three dead chickens followed, landing like dreadful snowflakes. Vasyl gaped and backed away.
"Get to it," Baba Yaga said. "Or it's you in the pot." The workroom door slammed behind her.
"You'll find knives in that drawer," Maroushka said.
Vasyl wiped the blood from his face and regained his composure. He slashed his palm again, gasping at the pain of reopening the half-healed wound, mixed blood and paraffin oil in Broom's fuel tank, and said, "Broom, butcher this meat and cook it!"
Maroushka and Vasyl stood back while Broom hacked and chopped so fast, the knife blades blurred. Fat and feathers flew. Vasyl rewrapped his bleeding hand and pressed his back against a wall. It felt like he had been here for weeks instead of hours, and despite Broom and Maroushka's presence, he felt horribly alone. He longed to hear Petro's voice, feel that rough embrace around his neck.
"You're kidding yourself if you think she doesn't know something's funny here," Maroushka said. "You're finishing the work way too easily."
"What if she does know? I'm not breaking any rules," Vasyl said. "Broom's a tool, just like a shovel or a loom or a water pump."
"Or a knife."
Broom's bone cleaver whacked through a section of rib at that moment, and Vasyl flinched before he could stop himself. Maroushka held out a paw and studied her claws as if something interesting might be caught in them.
Uneasy, Vasyl changed the subject. "Is Petro still outside by the fence?"
The cat ducked a flying chunk of suet. "No."
"Oh." Vasyl felt dreadfully sad, even abandoned. "He couldn't stay out all night, I suppose. Not with Olena at home."
"Is Olena his mother or his sister?"
"Really?" Maroushka sounded surprised. "Well don't that beat all."
"What does that mean?"
But Maroushka didn't answer.
When Baba Yaga burst out of her workroom several hours later, the enormous kitchen table was piled high with steaks and roasts and ribs and baked chicken and the kettle on the stove brimmed with stew. Savory smells filled the cottage. Broom sat in the corner, hands folded. Vasyl couldn't help a thin smile at Baba Yaga's consternation.
"Hm," Baba Yaga grumped. "Looks adequate."
And she fell to eating. In moments, she had chewed her way through every morsel on the table, bones and all, and she emptied the kettle in one long gulp. Vasyl was glad he had already eatenCthe witch didn't leave behind a single tendon or bit of gristle. And when she was done, she was as thin as ever.
"Tomorrow," Baba Yaga said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, "you'll finish my weaving for me."
Vasyl shot a glance at the enormous loom in the corner and the tangled mess that spilled out of it. Had his mother taught Broom to weave? He couldn't remember. Vasyl himself certainly didn't know how. His hand tightened around the bloody bandage and he swallowed.
"All right," he said uneasily. "How's the mechanical coming?"
"Glad you asked. I need your . . . input."
"Input?" The word was unfamiliar to Vasyl. "What do you mean?"
In answer, Baba Yaga flung the door to her workshop open and gestured for Vasyl to follow her inside. Vasyl hesitated. No one had ever seen the inside of Baba Yaga's workshop and lived to tell the tale. Why was she bringing him in? To kill him? On the other hand, if she wanted to do that, she could do it at any time. And curiosity pulled him forward. Baba Yaga's workshop would be a place of wonder. He took a breath and stepped through the open door.
A wave of heat met him and an alarm bell clanged. Vasyl flung his hands over his ears.
"Oops," Baba Yaga said, and shouted something Vasyl didn't catch. The bell stopped. "Alarm goes off whenever anything living enters my workshop, so don't get any ideas about swiping a souvenir."
"Uh . . . sure." Vasyl was sweating now. The source of the heat was a forge that squatted like a demon in the center of the huge room. An anvil floated before it, and nearby sat the huge brass pestle and metal mortar with its strange engines mounted on the back. Two kegs of what Vasyl assumed was fuel waited nearby, and Vasyl nervously wondered why Baba Yaga would store something flammable so close to her forge.
Stone worktables of varying heights were scattered everywhere, including the walls, ceiling, and floor. Racks of gleaming tools stood among them, also clinging to the walls and ceiling. Vasyl turned, trying to look everywhere at once. Every table was covered with machines, cogs, pistons, and parts. Brass gleamed, steam puffed, and sparks spat. An army of mechanical spiders skittered about every surface, some of them making adjustments to the half-built machinery, others delivering bits and parts. Vasyl dodged a trio of them carrying the head of a mechanical St. Bernard. A tall metal arch in one corner glowed, while the interior flickered through a dozen scenesCjungle, desert, forest, ocean. Through it all, a rhythmic thump thudded against Vasyl's bones.
"The hut is dancing again," Baba Yaga said at his elbow, and Vasyl jumped. "Over here, boy."
"What are you building?" Vasyl asked as they threaded their way through the workshop.
"Negative entropy." She stepped on a wall and walked up it, still upright, as if that were the most normal thing in the world. Vasyl came with her, and the room lurched. The floor he had just left became the wall behind him, and the wall ahead of him became the floor. His stomach oozed with nausea.
"Don't barf," Baba Yaga warned, and led him to a particular table. It sported a garishly complicated set of machinery. Coils of copper leapt over bent pipes and exposed wire in impossible patterns. Switches and dials festooned a large control panel at the head of the table and thrummed with enticing rhythm. Tiny tongues of lighting flicked across the entire array. Vasyl stared, fascinated.
"I don't understand," he said slowly. "Where's the mechanical?"
Baba Yaga glanced about. "Where's your broom?"
"You're going to make Broom think for himself?"
"He's halfway there already, boy. It's faster than starting from scratch."
Vasyl blinked several times. This unsettling possibility hadn't occurred to him. Broom was the only remnant of his mother he had left. Letting Baba Yaga fiddle with him felt like a violation.
"What if I said Broom doesn't want to think for himself?" Vasyl hedged.
Baba Yaga showed her iron teeth. "Then I would say my little machine here is unnecessary. Look, boy, we made a deal. Either you get your mechanical in here so I can finish my job, or I'll just have to feed you."
Vasyl realized the witch was holding a butcher knife. The same butcher knife Broom had used on the beef. A spot of blood on the blade made a splotch of red chaos near the handle. "Feed you," she said, "to me."
From his pocket Vasyl snatched a wireless sending unit with a speaker on the front. "Broom!" he shouted into it. "Come!"
Broom bustled into the workshop, barely pausing at the intersection of floor and wall. He halted at Vasyl's side and saluted. A puff of steam escaped from one of his seams with a small squeak.
"Drat." Baba Yaga sighed and set the knife down. "I could have done with a nice head cheese. Ah well."
"You're not going to hurt him, are you?" Vasyl asked anxiously.
"Not at all. I just need a little help to complete the process." Baba Yaga pressed a button, and another table rose from the floor. Chained to it by his wrists, neck, and ankles was Petro. He was also gagged. The table tilted, and Petro's terrified dark eyes met Vasyl's blue ones. Vasyl cried out and ran toward him, but Baba Yaga shoved him backward and he landed flat with the wind knocked out of him. Broom quivered but didn't move. A spider crawled to the edge of the table and peered quizzically down at thenm.
"Don't act so surprised, boy," Baba Yaga said. "I told you the Tatar was mine if I wanted him."
Vasyl hauled himself gasping to his feet. "You said you were just playing."
"Yes." Baba Yaga dropped the spider on Petro's shoulder, where it set the tips of two of its sharp, pointed legs against Petro's skull. His eyes widened, and he tried to lean away from it, but the fetter at his neck didn't afford him enough movement. Muffled noises emerged from the gag.
"Don't you touch him!" Vasyl yelled.
"I don't have a choice," Baba Yaga replied calmly. "We have a deal. In order for me to make a mechanical that can think for itself, I need living nervous tissue. The procedure won't kill him. Quite."
Broom charged. The point of his staff, which mas made of iron, speared toward Baba Yaga's heart.
Baba Yaga was caught off guard. She screeched and jumped back. Vasyl didn't watch what happened next. Instead he snatched up a hammer from another worktable and struck at one of the locks on Petro's fetters. The lock at his right wrist cracked. Then a hard hand yanked him away from Petro's table and flung him down to the floor (wall?) several paces away. Baba Yaga's ugly face pushed into his.
"You think making a deal with me is a joke, boy?" she hissed. Behind her, Broom lay motionless on his side. The tip of his staff was bent. "There are rules even I cannot break. You will complete the housework and leave this cottage with a mechanical that can think for itself, or I will boil you screaming in my cauldron so I can tear peel meat from your long bones. There are no alternatives."
"I won't let you hurt Petya for me," Vasyl snarled from the floor at her feet.
"Why not?" Baba Yaga barked.
The lump came back to Vasyl's throat. The spider on the side of Petya's head pressed its sharpness through his dark hair, and a trickle of blood ran down his neck. Vasyl felt the pain as his own.
"You know why," he whispered.
Her smoky breath burned his lungs and droplets of warm spittle spattered his cheek. "Say it, my little automaton."
Vasyl shook. His teeth chattered and he clutched his hands to his sides. But he couldn't disobey. He said, "Because I'm in love with him."
The entire workshop fell silent except for the rhythmic thud and thump of the dancing feet outdoors. Vasyl's face burned with shame. How would Petro, his lifelong friend, the one man who knew his heart better than anyone else, react to this? He didn't want to meet Petya's eyes, but he couldn't help it. Slowly, he looked at Petya's face.
Petya's gaze was stone. He looked away and closed his eyes. Vasyl's heart turned to lead and dropped into his feet.
"Hm." Baba Yaga ran a claw across her lower lip. Broom remained motionless on the floor. "Such irony. To win a bride you don't desire, you blindly obey orders to seek a mechanical that can think for itself. And to get these two things you don't want, you'll have to give up the one person you do desire."
"You're a bitch," Vasyl whispered. "A granite bitch."
"I'm not the only bitch in the room, boy," Baba Yaga replied. "But you need to embrace the stronger version of the word. You came to me, and you agreed to the offer, so you've no one to blame but yourself. And speaking of the offer, I still need part of your Tatar's brain toC"
The rhythmic thud outside stopped. Silence followed. Baba Yaga twisted around and swore.
"Panel!" she ordered, and a trio of spiders brought over a portable control panel with a glass front, though two of the spiders twitched and quivered, nearly dropping the thing. The third spider limped. Baba Yaga twisted dials and punched buttons in an arcane pattern until an image wavered and cleared in the glass. It showed the nasty alley with the fence of bones, which still gaped open. Standing just past them was a little girl clutching a doll. Olena. Vasyl bit back a cry. Petya's eyes went wide and frantic.
"I hate it when people do that," Baba Yaga muttered. "Now I have to recalibrate everything. One of these days I'll have to change that password into something people can't hack."
"I don't want the mechanical anymore," Vasyl said. "Just let Petya go. And leave that girl alone. She has nothing to do with any of this. You and I can make a new deal. It must be hard to live here all by yourself withC"
"Sorry," Baba Yaga interrupted absently. "I have to complete the mechanical. I've lived what you call the future, and I know it will be done."
Vasyl went cold. He staggered backward and leaned against the mechanical's table. "No. We have free choices. The future isn't set except byC"
"Him? Hm. In the same vein, perhaps Broom thinks you set the future." Baba Yaga gave a dreadful chuckle. On the screen, the image of Olena wavered uncertainly in the gap Vasyl had made in the fence.
"Look, can't weC"
"In any case," the witch interrupted, waving the butcher knife at the screen, "that slip of a girl out there upset the delicate calibrations of my entire workroom. I'll be up all night to make things right so I can finish your mechanical on time. The little wench earned you a reprieve, boy."
She slapped another button and all of Petro's fetters, including the spider, released themselves. He slid from the table to land in a heap on the floor while Vasyl hovered uncertainly above him. He wanted to grab Petro and run, but Baba Yaga was between him and the door, and in any case he wouldn't get very far.
"Why are you letting him go?" Vasyl asked.
"I'm not. No one gets out the front door unless I unlock it, so it doesn't really matter if your Tatar sleeps in my kitchen or weeps in my workroom until I need him." Baba Yaga dropped the butcher knife on the table again with a clatter. "Nothing in our deal says I can't give you one last night together, though whether that's mercy or malice, I'll let you decide. If you get bored, you can get a head start on tomorrow's weaving."
Vasyl started to help Petya up, but he hissed, "Don't touch me," and struggled to his feet on his own. Vasyl felt sick inside. Baba Yaga was cruel indeed.
"We need to help Olena," Petya whispered. "Get the hell out of here."
Vasyl righted Broom, his eyes down. It looked like Baba Yaga had merely knocked the mechanical's memory wheels askew, and it would take no time at all to reset them. The bend at the top of his staff hadn't seriously hurt him, either. He wheeled Broom like a little pushcart ahead of him and followed Petro, who limped toward the wall and barely paused at the corner to turn the angle and right himself. Behind them, Baba Yaga stormed over to her floating forge, muttering and cursing all the while. The workroom door refused to shut for them, so they were forced to leave it open when they went back into the kitchen.
"That went well," Maroushka said from the table.
Petro stared, and Vasyl made a fast introduction. "We should figure out what to do about Olena."
"The little girl outside? She's fine for now. Out there it's still the same night you boys came in. It took Olena nearly four hours of our time to say the entire password. Tesseract, yeah?"
Petro collapsed onto a bench. His muscles sagged and his head bowed. "Then we have time. A little."
"Petya." Vasyl parked Broom and gingerly sat next to the other man, but not too close. "Petya, I'm so sorry."
"Sorry?" Petro said to his clenched fists. "Sorry?"
"For bringing you and Olena into all this." Vasyl had to force himself to keep talking. "For not listening to you. And for . . . the other thing."
"Well I'm intruiged," Maroushka said.
"You little shit," Petro whispered in a tone that crushed Vasyl like paper. "I can't believe you did this to me."
In a lightning move, Petro grabbed the front of Vasyl's shirt and hauled him face-to-face. "If you say you're sorry again, I'm going to ram your balls up through the roof of your mouth."
And then he was kissing Vasyl. Vasyl stiffened. Petya was kissing him. It wasn't happening. It couldn't happen. It was wrong and evil and it was the very thing he had been wanting ever since he had first met Petro all those years ago, the exact thing he had never been able to admit to anyone or to himself, but this terrifying and impossible place allowed the terrifying and impossible to happen. Vasyl had no context for this, no rules. Petya's mouth was warm on his, and his unshaven cheek rasped against Vasyl's, and his arms were strong around Vasyl's neck and back. Vasyl whimpered softly as something broke free inside him and he pressed himself against Petya, held his warm, hard body against his own. His soul rose and twisted beyond metal walls, and Petya's rose and twisted with him, trailing like a pair of comets in the sky.
"Why didn't we ever do that before?" Vasyl asked when they parted.
Petro shook his head. "You know the answer to that."
There was a pause, and then Vasyl asked, "How long?"
"Since the day you poured that bottle of wine into the gutter when we were boys. I knew how much I meant to you then, and it made me feel . . . special."
Vasyl closed his eyes for a moment. "All those years wasted."
"Not wasted." Petya kissed him again, then pressed his forehead against Vasyl's. "I wouldn't have Olena. We wouldn't have Olena."
"I was so jealous when you married Irina." Vasyl leaned into him, put his arm around him. It still felt impossible, but Petya was here, solid and real. He smelled faintly of coal smoke and dark bread. "But I kept my mouth shut and smiled at your wedding."
"Like everyone tells a good friend to do," Petya agreed. "And then you decided to get married, like everyone tells a man to do."
"I hate to break into a true romantic moment," said Maroushka, "but you guys still have a honking big problem. Once the old lady gets her machinery reset, she's going to suck Petie-boy's brains out and put 'em into that squeaky old broomCor she'll eat Vasyl. And probably Olena, too."
Petya went pale, and resolve filled Vasyl. He got to his feet. "No. Fuck her and fuck her future. We're ending this. Tonight. Now."
"Sure, yeah, whatever." Maroushka yawned. "Let me know how that turns out."
Vasyl opened Broom's control panel and swiftly pushed the faulty memory wheels back into place, then rooted through cupboards and drawers until he found a wrench with which to straighten Broom's staff. Noises continued to emerge from the open door to Baba Yaga's workshop. Vasyl gave the wheels a starting spin and Broom shuddered to life. Then Vasyl dug the can of paraffin oil from his pack.
"Maroushka," he said, "you know how to open the front door, don't you?"
Maroushka eyed the can. " . . . no."
He waggled the can so it sloshed enticingly. "Come on. You've been here for decades, haven't you? Alone and neglected. It can't be easy. What do you owe her?"
Maroushka licked her chops. "Look, it's not that simple. Once you get out, she'll chase you until the sun burns out. Yeah, the tesseract closes at dawn, real time, and the cottage will go . . . elsewhere, but it comes back every year, and she'll be royally pissed. At you."
Vasyl leaned his fists on the table. His blooded hand twinged inside its rough bandage. "How will she chase us? Through the sky in that flying mortar of hers?"
"Yep. Or she'll bring that army of spiders and hunt you through the streets."
"Fine." Vasyl went to the workshop door and peeped in. Baba Yaga was standing at a control panel amid a large group of sharp-legged spiders. She twisted dials, and most of the spiders turned left. About a quarter of them froze and flipped over. Baba Yaga cursed and fiddled wtih the panel again. Petya came up behind Vasyl and put a hand on his shoulder. For a moment, Vasyl felt the old forbidden yearning. Then he remembered how things hand changed and he put his own hand over Petya's. Despite the difficulty of their situation, Vasyl couldn't hold back the smile.
"If either of you meat puppets sets foot in there, you'll set off five kinds of alarms," Maroushka warned from the table.
"Broom!" Vasyl said, and Broom scuttled forward. "Slip in there and bring me those kegs of fuel by the forge. Don't let her see you."
Broom saluted and skittered into the room. Vasyl held his breath, waiting for the alarm, but nothing happened. Broom wasn't alive. His handle bobbed and weaved among the tables, just another mechanical going about its business. Baba Yaga's back was to him, and she didn't notice when Broom snatched up the kegs, one under each arm, and scampered back to the door. There was another bad moment when Broom crossed the threshold and Vasyl expected an alarm, but everything remained silent.
"Good job, Broom," Vasyl said. "Put them by the table."
Broom obeyed, puffing and squeaking. Petya squeezed Vasyl's hand. "What are they for?"
Vasyl cracked a lid, expecting paraffin oil but getting another, rather dizzying, smell. "Uh oh. I don't recognize this."
"That's a fractional distillate of petroleum. Petrol for short. It makes paraffin oil look like seawater." Maroushka's tail scythed back and forth. "I think I have a hardon."
"A hardon? Strange for a female," Petya observed.
"Strange for a female," Maroushka echoed in Petya's voice. "You're hardly one to judge, lightfoot."
Petya balled up massive fists. "Now look, you rusty littleC"
"Be quiet, the both of you." Vasyl replaced the first keg's lid and pulled from his pack a roll of tinker's tools which looked like lockpicks that had lost a fight with a set of watchmaker's instruments. He sat down at the table with wireless transmitter he had used earlier to call Broom into Baba Yaga's workshop, unscrewed the cover, and made a number of deft changes while Broom leaned closer out of apparent curiosity, though Vasyl knew it was just his default setting to follow Vasyl when he had no other orders. Petya approached from the other side.
"What are you doing, Vaska?" he breathed in Vasyl's ear.
A shudder ran through Vasyl and his hand shook. "God, don't distract me like that."
"Are you sure Olena is still all right?"
"She's moved eight inches since the last time you asked," Maroushka said. "Twice the length of yourC"
"Done!" Vasyl stood up. "Maroushka, you are going to help us, right?"
Maroushka hesitated and shot a nervous look at the workroom. "Look, kid, I do like you, butC"
"When was the last time she even gave you coal dust, let alone paraffin oil?" Vasyl said. "I'll even fill you with some of this petrol. You'll lick my balls, right?"
Maroushka gave a long, long look at the open workshop door, clearly warring with herself. Thinking. Vasyl held his breath. After an aching moment, she said, "All right. But I was only kidding about your balls."
The front door was locked with a series of dials and switches that had to be set to particular numbers in a particular order at a particular speed. According to Maroushka, a mistake would send a deadly jolt of electricity through the door and set off a cacophony of alarms as a sort of afterthought. Maroushka, who was too short to reach, told Vasyl how to open them and repeated the sequences several times until Vasyl had them memorized, then went over to Baba Yaga's loom, which stood near the open workshop door. At Vasyl's direction, Petya held the modified wireless transmitter, and Broom carried the kegs of petrol.
"Ready?" Vasyl mouthed at the cat.
Maroushka gave a distinctly non-feline wave of her paw and Vasyl carefully set the dials and switches by the door to the first sequence. Zero, one, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen. He forced his hand not to shake. One wrong turn andC
The first of the three heavy bolts slid back with a heart-stopping thud that echoed through the kitchen. Petya's face paled.
"What was that?" Baba Yaga demanded from the workshop.
But Maroushka was already working at the loom. She pushed on the warp beam, jumped down on the treadles, then leaped back up to the beam. The loom banged and thumped. This only made the tangled threads worse, but that wasn't the point.
"I am starting your weaving, Grandmother," Maroushka said in Vasyl's voice. "Just as you said."
No response from the workshop. Vasyl traded nervous looks with Petya and went on to the second sequence. One four one four two one three five six. The bolt clunked aside, again Baba Yaga shouted for an explanation, and again Maroushka said "he" was weaving.
Vasyl's chilly fingers sifted through the final sequence (four, three, three, four, three, zero) and the third bolt shot open. For the third time, Baba Yaga yelled from her workshop and Maroushka covered for the sound. Petya took Vasyl's hand. The smith's palm was warm and callused.
"Ready?" Vasyl said.
Vasyl shoved the door open. An immediate alarm screeched. The trio didn't take time to listen. They bolted out the opening and down the steps. Either Baba Yaga hadn't restarted the hut or opening the door stopped its dancing, because it lay settled on the ground. Olena was standing at the bone gate.
"Papa!" she cried. "Uncle Vaska!"
Vasyl had never been so glad to see her. Petro ran forward and snatched her up. Vasyl and Broom dashed after. The noisome, moonlit courtyard with its dead windows and uneven cobblestones seemed absurdly normal after all those days inside Baba Yaga's hut.
The moment the two men reached Olena, Baba Yaga herself appeared in the doorway holding a trembling Maroushka by the scruff of the neck.
"Traitor!" she screeched, though whether she meant Vasyl or Maroushka, Vasyl couldn't tell. The witch flung Maroushka aside and stormed out of the cottage. Behind her came the entire army of workroom spiders, their claws gleaming in the moonlight. Baba Yaga pointed. "Get them!"
Olena screamed. Dozens and dozens of spiders skittered around Baba Yaga with dreadful speed and scurried across the courtyard toward the gate. The stones disappeared beneath a moving mass of metal.
"Now!" Vasyl shouted, and Petya activated the wireless transmitter. Vasyl had seen the frequency settings Baba Yaga had used when she fiddled with the panel in her own workshop, and it had been easy enough to reconfigure Broom's transmitter to talk to the spiders instead. Every spider in the courtyard stiffened and flipped upside-down, their little legs sticking straight up in a pointy forest of brass brambles. Baba Yaga couldn't run through them without impaling her own feet.
"Nice trick, boy, but it'll barely slow me down!" She reached into the cottage, came up with a giant broom of her own, and swatted the first spiders aside, clearing a quick path for herself.
"Run!" Vasyl said. "Broom, light!"
They fled through the dark streets, following Broom's blue eye lights. Petya continued to carry Olenna, whose little face was tight. "I was worried," she said. "And I followed you, even though I was scared."
"You did a good thing, my Olenka," Petya panted. "You saved us all."
They turned down another alley. "Can't she follow us in her flying mortar?" Olena asked.
"We stole the fuel," Vasyl replied tightly. "But we're not safe yet. She'llC"
"Behind us!" Petya cried.
Baba Yaga was indeed coming behind them, running like a demon scarecrow, her long legs eating up the distance between them. Her iron teeth gnashed. Olena whimpered.
"Broom!" Vasyl cried. "Break the kegs!"
The kegs shattered like eggs in Broom's arms and a river of petrol cascaded down the cobblestones toward Baba Yaga. From his pack Vasyl drew the knife he had taken from Baba Yaga's kitchen and stabbed at the stones. Sparks flew, and the petrol ignited. Fire roared. Heat sucked the air from Vasyl's lungs and singed his eyebrows. Baba Yaga leaped back from the yellow flames with an angry yowl.
"Go!" Vasyl gave Petya a shove, and they ran again, with Broom lighting the way.
"That won't stop her for long," Petya puffed as they dashed off.
"I know." Vasyl halted, and Broom, ordered to stay with Vasyl, did as well. They had reached a crossroads, still deserted in the early morning. In the far distance, a bell struck the timeCfive o'clock. Still an hour until dawn, when the tesseract would close.
Petya ran a few more steps before he noticed he had lost Vasyl. He spun and shifted Olena to his other arm. "What are you doing? We have to hurry!"
"She said it was you or me," Vasyl said softly. "And we can't outrun her much longer. Look, I got you out of there for Olena's sake. So nowC"
"No!" Petya set Olena down and grabbed Vasyl by both shoulders. "That isn't a choice, Vaska. It's foolishness."
Vasyl merely shook his head, unable to meet Petya's dark eyes. "I've been a fool all my life, Petya. Especially when it comes to you."
"What are you talking about, Papa?" Olena asked frantically. "She's comingCwe have to run!"
"I knew how this would end from the start, Petrushka," he said, using Petro's most intimate nickname. "You can't let her take Olena. Go."
"Papa?" Olena said.
Petya crushed Vasyl to him, and Vasyl felt tears running down his face, and he didn't know if they were his or Petya's or both.
"How can I lose you now that I just found you?" Petya's voice was thick and hoarse.
"You had me your whole life," Vasyl replied, equally hoarse. "Now run!"
Olena's protests about leaving Uncle Vaska behind faded as Petya fled with her deeper into the city. Vasyl swiped at his face with his sleeve and turned with Broom to face Baba Yaga. It wasn't long before she stormed into view. Broom quivered and tried to hide behind Vasyl, but Vasyl grabbed the top of his staff and held him in place, though his own hands were shaking and black terror threatened to swallow him whole.
Baba Yaga loomed over him, clawed hands on hips. "So, my little mechanical. It's going to be you. Very well. I'll devour you raw and screaming in this very place so the noise will remind all those people cowering behind their ordinary windows what it means to cross Baba Yaga."
But Vasyl pressed the point of Broom's staff against his heart. The life pulse throbbed beneath his ribs. "I offered you my soul, Grandmother, and you refused it."
"And I said you can't bargain with something that doesn't belong to you, boy."
"But I can." Breathing coming in short puffs, Vasyl spread both arms wide, leaving Broom's sharp spear at his heart. Broom remained motionless. "One word to Broom and I die. You won't have taken my life, and our bargain will be nullified. Without the bargain, you can't touch Petya either, no matter what kind of future you saw."
Baba Yaga's eyes narrowed. "He doesn't like suicide, you know. You would choose an eternity of pain to ensure your little Petya lives a few miserable years in freedom?"
"Yes. My soul, my bargain. My decision."
"Liar." Baba Yaga drew back her hand. Iron claws gleamed in silver moonlight.
"Broom!" Vasyl shouted. "KillC"
"Wait!" Baba Yaga dropped her hand. Witch and man stared at each other for a long moment. The center of the universe shifted just a bit, and Vasyl felt empty and triumphant at the same time.
"Very good," Baba Yaga chuckled at last. "Very, very good. I said I liked you, boy. You've earned your future. But think on thisCa witch always fulfills her bargain."
Still chuckling, she turned to stalk away, then paused and turned back. "By the way, boy, where did you find that delightful and delicious paraffin oil?"
"It's my mother's recipe," Vasyl said.
"Hm. If you ever want to share it with someone who can truly appreciate it, you know where to find me." She vanished into the dark and stony streets.
Vasyl held himself upright for a moment, then grabbed Broom's handle as his legs turned to bread dough. He stood there for some time, feeling his own heartbeat, tasting every breath, relishing in the fact that he was still alive.
Footsteps tapped toward him. He turned, expecting to see Petro. Instead, Broom's little blue lights illuminated a young woman in a dark cloak. She gasped when she caught sight of Vasyl and flung back her hood. Golden hair spilled over the cloak and azure eyes blinked at him. It was Hanna Vyktorevna, the Mayor's daughter.
Vasyl's mouth fell open. "What are you doing here?"
"I don't want to marry you," she blurted. "I don't want to marry anybody."
"That's still no reason to be out on the night of . . . oh. Oh!"
"If she can't help me, no one can."
"That way." Vasyl pointed. "Better hurry, though. The tesseract closes in less than an hour."
"You'll find out. Just run."
She gave a curt nod and started off. Vasyl called, "Hey, wait!" He dug through his pack and handed her a tattered, much-folded piece of yellow paper.
"What is it?"
"My mother's recipe for paraffin oil. It'll give you a leg up when you bargain with her."
Her eyes widened. "Thank you! You're so kind, Master Tinker." The new center of the universe kissed him on the cheek and dashed away.
Moments later, he was letting himself into Petya's house. Before he could even shut the door, Olena flew into his arms and nearly knocked him over. Petya grabbed them both together and squeezed so tightly Vasyl thought he would never breathe again. He kissed Vasyl long and hard over Olena's head, his strong fingers running through Vasyl's sunset hair.
Vasyl set Olena down and kissed Petya back. The last of the fear and tension evaporated, and he gave himself up to the thrill and love that ran through him, the upswell of pure emotion he had been waiting for his entire life. He loved Petya and Petya loved him back and the rest of the world didn't matter.
"I was right! I was right!" Olena squealed. Broom bobbed up and down with apparent glee.
They separated and Petya tugged one of her braids. "You were definitely right, my Olenka."
"And now Uncle Vaska can move in with us and fix toys for children and be my uncle forever."
Vasyl touched Petya's cheek with the back of his hand. "Is she right? Am I moving in?"
"Of course she is. What better pairing could there be besides blacksmith and tinker? Everyone in the neighborhood is half expecting it anyway. No one care, or even notice, as long we keep quiet."
A terrible thought occured to Vasyl. Petya read his expression and asked what was wrong.
"Baba Yaga said a witch always keeps her bargain," he said. "Is she going to come back for us? To finish the job?"
"Nothing to worry about," said Maroushka from the kitchen table.
Everyone jumped and spun. The cat was sitting calmly next to the lamp.
"How did . . . what are you . . . ?" Vasyl stammered, caught flat.
"What's with the surprise? I can't stay with Baba Yaga, duh," Maroushka said. "And you make paraffin oil."
"A talking kitty!"
"Hey! Hands off, kid."
"All right," Petya said slowly. "Why don't we have to worry?"
"The bargain's fulfilled. Baba Yaga's future came true. Again, duh."
"Because of you?" Vasyl asked. "If you live here, it'll mean I came away from the cottage with a mechanical that can think for itself?"
She gave a paw a swipe with her tongue. "Fuck that."
"Hey!" Petya snapped. "If you're going to stay here, you have to watch your language."
"Whatever. Why aren't you going to marry the Mayor's daughter, kid?"
"Because I chose someone else." He looked down at his own hands and realization clicked. "Oh. Oh! Baba Yaga meant that I'mC?"
Petya took one of his hands. "We've known each other more than twenty years, Vaska, but you never reached for me."
"Because everyone told me not to. I tried to marry because everyone expected it. I escaped my stepmother because my father told me to go. I even obeyed Baba Yaga's rules without thinking."
"The perfect little automaton," Petya said. "Until she let me go to you and you chose to break her rules."
Vasyl nodded. "I chose to think for myself. I chose you."
Petya cleared his throat. "But there's still the Mayor. I don't think you can present yourself to him and claimC"
"Actually, I don't think that'll be a problem," Vasyl interrupted. "Hanna went to bargain with Baba Yaga about the marriage, right? If Hanna wins and gets what she wants, she won't have to marry me or anyone else."
"And if she loses," Maroushka put in, "there won't be anyone for you to marry. Either way, end of bargain. Nice one, kid."
"I think her chances are pretty good," Vasyl said, "with my mother's recipe for paraffin oil."
"So are we a family now?" Olena asked.
"Yes, my Olenka." Petya touched her head. "All three of us."
"Four," Maroushka corrected.
"Four," Vasyl agreed with a laugh.
"Five," said Broom.