Waiting until he was quite a bit away from the stall where he had stolen from the durachit, Yuri ducked down behind a communal water well and finally opened up the coin purse. He couldn’t believe his eyes as he poured out what must have been 25 qiran from inside it. That much money could easily keep his semiya from having to borrow from the other more successful families in their merchant caravan for months! All he had to do was slip it into his mother’s coin box without her being the wiser. That was easier said than done, he ruefully admitted to himself.
Yuri was the runt of his family, which meant that he was just shy of 6’ in height, with the traditional svelte build they all seemed to share. The wraps that covered his body from nose to ankle were beige in color, his ears that were long and pointed and held one hoop in each ear that designated him as the second son of a single mother, and eyes that were a solid blue stared out at the world underneath long yellow hair that was always undone. This prevented sand from getting into his ears when the caravan encountered one of the frequent haboobs that occurred during their travels. He was not muscular at all, especially compared to that duelist he just stole from, but as his mother liked to proudly say, all of his strength was in his mighty mind.
It’s not like he was proud of stealing from the Chuzhak –what his people called the Humans- although that arrogant male sure had it coming. He was too busy being a flirt, it seemed, to notice that he was being pickpocketed, and so he deserved to be called a fool. However, Yuri did feel a little bad that he had used one of his own kind, the Liyudi, bumping into the Human as a distraction (though the fact that it was his rival Foma that he used help ease the sting a bit). That name was preferred to the one that the Humans called them, Sandstriders.
Such an unimaginative name! Would the Chuzhak like it if they were referred to as “Short Beings” or “Slow Walkers” or “Tender Feet”?! No, their precious ‘honor’ would be offended if they heard of themselves being described by their features. But because the Liyudi were different, had adapted to this strange land that wasn’t their own, they got stuck with a ridiculous descriptor. Sometimes life wasn’t fair, a fact that Yuri could attest to more than most of his kind.
His ancestors had fled their native land over ten centuries ago, their worshipping of multiple deities not meshing as well with the conquerors that had demanded conversion, at the end of a sword, to their monotheistic ways. His great-grandmother had told him the story of their frantic flight to this land across the Meditaar Sea, how over half of their people had died on the journey or before they were able to flee, how they had wandered the desert for over two months without seeing another living soul, and how they had prayed long and hard for a miracle to enable their people to survive in this hot, foreign land as more and more of them kept dying.
Thankfully, the twin Gods Svarožic and Dažbog heard the pleas of their people, even as far away as they were, and answered their prayers. Dažbog taught them how to wrap themselves so their fair skin could avoid being burned by the harsh sun, and Svarožic gave them larger feet that could withstand the burning sands without harm, also enabling them to cross those lands easier. And so, fortified against their new home, the Liyudi went forth and encountered their first Human, and learned more about the place they now chose to live.
There were more stories about how they came to be the merchants of Padeshahi, how they were the ones who helped bring the Kutuleh out of their holes in the ground to join modern society, and so on and so forth. None of which were important to Yuri right now, since he knew that his mother would be coming back from her local trading to take a vz’dremnut, a nap that they (almost) all took in the afternoon to keep their strength up, and if he wanted to get his stolen money into her coin box, he needed to do it quickly.
Making sure that he didn’t jostle anyone as he stood up, since his people were much taller than the Humans, Yuri carefully but rapidly made his way through the crowds out of the bazaar and towards the nearest watering hole where the caravan was parked. The nuzzing of the camels could be heard the closer he got to their canvas covered wagons and carts. One in particular stood out, at least to Yuri’s ears, and he knew that it was Gearbox, the camel that pulled his family’s wagon. He knew that his mother regretted letting him name the beast, but he didn’t much care, since the two-humped dromedary was the closest thing he had to a friend.
“Hello, old boy, how have you been today?” he told Gearbox as he reached up to scratch behind the camel’s right ear, a spot that had always endeared him to the pack animal. Nuzzing his enjoyment, Gearbox butted his head against Yuri’s chest when he stopped, and laughing the young male continued his ministrations. He knew he should get his quest, as it were, done sooner rather than later, but he just couldn’t help himself when it came to the camel.
Most of the families in the caravan only treated their camels as a simple beast of burden, which he never understood. Was not the camel a living being? Didn’t it deserve to be treated with kindness? Personally, that was why Yuri always believed that their wagon moved faster and farther than any other. Well, that and because of some of the modifications he had made to it over the years. He may not be able to attend one of the fancy schools, but that couldn’t stop him from being what he had always known he wanted to be in his heart: a gadgeteer.
Being a gadgeteer was more than just repairing devices, or tinkering with things that you didn’t understand. It involved a deep rooted desire to see how the universe worked, and to improve on its designs. Granted, there were some who said such thoughts were blasphemous, and that the universe was just fine on its own. Snorting in disgust, Yuri shook his head. Those kind of people and that kind of thinking would keep all the intelligent races held back from evolving. Fortunately, they were in the minority, but it could be bad in small and isolated villages, which was why Yuri’s mother made sure she kept him out of sight during those times.
It wasn’t like anyone ever looked under their obertyvaniya anyway, and if someone did get close enough to unravel his wraps to see his right arm, Yuri felt he probably had bigger problems to worry about than if some backwards thinking rustic idiot saw his self-made construct. He possessed one of the only mecha-arms that he had heard of, and since he had built and installed it (with his teacher’s help, of course), life had went from being the caravan’s charity case to being able to assist in their travels. It would be a cold day in summer before he let someone steal it from him.
Gears whirring inside his arm reminded him that he was due to wind it up, and it had squeaked a few times while he was out (thank the Gods, not when he was stealing the coin purse) so it probably needed to have some grease applied to it as well. There always seemed to be some type of wild pig, water bison or goat that they encountered in their journeys, and so it was fairly easy to take the fat from the animal and to make grease out of it. Yuri wasn’t sure what type of grease they got to use in the academies, but he was fairly confident it wasn’t smelly animal fat.
As he scuffed his feet and stomped over to his wagon, Yuri spotted his mother making her way from the inn where she had been conducting her business. A loud crack echoed all around them, and every head turned up towards the sky to see massive storm clouds rolling in. Another surprise downpour, typical for this city and this time of year. Unlike most of his kind, the young gadgeteer hated the rain, not just because he hated having his wraps drenched, but because it could interfere with his mecha-arm. One day he would have it figured out how to waterproof it, but that project always kept getting pushed aside for something else that captured his imagination, and so Yuri just did his best to keep dry.
Since his mother would take the time to thank the Gods for this bounty (and probably do a little dance in the rain, much to his embarrassment), Yuri figured he had a few more minutes to get his stolen money hidden away. Throwing open the door at the back of the wagon, he let out a yelp as he spotted a figure seated on top of his mother’s coin box. “By the Gods, Foma, what are you doing here?”
Leaning forward, the occupant of the wagon sneered at the young gadgeteer. “Nice to see you too, little brother. Have you forgotten that this is my home also?”
“As if I could forget that, older brother. Didn’t you hear the thunder crack? I’m surprised that you aren’t out dancing in the downpour like all of our fellow Liyudi.”
Stepping out of the wagon and stretching languidly, as if he had all the time in the world, Foma stood in front of the door and effectively blocked Yuri from entering the wagon. “Don’t worry, I know how fragile your precious arm is. I’ll let you hide inside while the real Liyudi give thanks for this blessing. And I’ll be sure to tell our mother about how we suddenly seem to have more money than we should in our reserves.”
Yuri’s blood turned to ice as he stammered out, “What…what are you talking about?”
Foma stalked around Yuri, who stood frozen in fear. He kept counting the time between the thunder cracks and the lightning flashes, praying that he could get inside before the storm reached them. “I know, little thief, I saw what you did. And using me as the distraction, not caring if I took the blame or the punishment. Tsk, tsk. What would our great-grandmother think to see her little gadgeteer resorting to petty theft?”
Knowing that he was beat, Yuri slumped his shoulders and muttered, “What do you want from me?”
Looking around, as if he was worried about anyone watching him, Foma lifted the wraps around his waist and pulled out and rusted and dusty pistol. “I picked this up in my trading today for quite a steal,” Yuri winced at his choice of words, “just because the vendor said it would never work again. Something about being trapped with its previous owner in a haboob at the bottom of an oasis. So, little tinkerer, you are going to fix this for me, like brand new.”
“You can’t be serious! Just look at it!” Yuri began to protest.
“As good as new, little brother. Or I’ll make sure that it’s not just our mother Anya who hears about your little transgression. The Elders of this fine city will know as well. You know what they do to pickpockets here?” Foma mimicked having a hand chopped off. “And they will use your good hand, of course.” Sullenly, Yuri snatched the pistol from his rival. “Now go, hide in our wagon and complete your nefarious plot whilst the real Liyudi rejoice in the rain.” And with that, Foma spun around and ran off to join the others in their dance, and Yuri barely made it inside before the clouds opened up and tried to drown the land.
The wagon they all shared was similar in shape to just about every other wagon in the caravan (minus a few modifications that Yuri had made to it over the years): a table in the middle with collapsible wooden chairs stored to the side, a large chest divided up into three sections where they stored their clothes and anything else of value, and three bunks mounted on the inner walls where they slept. Some families counted on somebody always being out and about and only built two bunks, having everyone rotate in sleeping in them, but Anya had insisted on this feature to their father all those years ago and Yuri was glad that they had. A twinge came up when he thought of his father, but he quickly suppressed it. His father had been pressed into slavery because of his own incompetence, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Before he would do anything else, the young gadgeteer had to get rid of the durachit’s coin purse. Pulling his mother’s money box towards him, he quickly picked the lock and opened the lid before emptying the coin purse inside, making sure to mix the various coins around so it wouldn’t look too obvious. Locks were just another gadget, as far as Yuri was concerned, and he had mastered springing them open before he had gone through the bodily change from child to adult. After that, he took out the key to wind his mecha-arm up (having foolishly left it here when he went into the bazaar this morning), and lubricated the gears until everything was functioning as it should. Then and only then did he turn his attention to Foma’s pistol.
Anya had made her opinion on pistols and other firearms abundantly clear –she considered them loud, messy and no match for a good crossbow- and so Yuri would have to work on this pistol at night when it was his turn to drive the wagon, or when she was at one of her many trade meetings. Of course, this would probably interfere with his studying more of the rare and valuable textbooks that his teacher, Igor, had managed to accrue over his long life. The young gadgeteer sighed loudly before putting the dirty and damaged pistol on the small table in the wagon, determined to at least get a feel for what needed to be done before his family returned from their celebration.
As annoyed as he was at being blackmailed by his brother, Yuri soon lost himself in taking the pistol apart and mentally listing what would need to be done with it; so much was he distracted, that it barely registered that Foma’s voice was ringing out loudly and getting closer, talking to their mother who was singing songs from their homeland as they walked to the family wagon. Yuri barely had time to get the pistol and its pieces wrapped up in some cloth and hidden underneath his bunk’s pillow before the door was flung open and the two quite inebriated Liyudi made their way inside.
“Look mother! I told you your disappointment of a son was hiding inside!” Foma slurred out before belching, and Yuri frantically waved his hand in front of his face, dispelling the wafting odor of barley beer and borscht.
“Foma! You leave your brother alone! He’s a good boy,” Anya glared at her eldest son before stumbling into the wagon and taking Yuri’s face in both of her hands, kissing him on each cheek. She had been drinking Slivovitz again, which at least made her breath less horrendous than Foma’s. The plum brandy was easy to make and each caravan prided itself on their version of the recipe that they had brought over from Rodina, their ancestral land.
“How’s mommy’s little gadgeteer, hmm?” she asked him as she climbed into the top bunk of the wagon, which was hers. “I hope you are well, Yuri. Always so smart. Because of the rain, the other matriarchs decided that we will head out in the morning. More auspicious that way. Goodnight, boys.” And with that, she was out like a light, still wearing her slightly damp wraps. Sighing about how he was going to have to air out the wagon and wash the sheets tomorrow, Yuri turned to check on his brother only to find that he had imitated their mother and was passed out in his bunk, also wearing his damp wraps.
Even though he was quite annoyed with both of them, Yuri realized that this gave him an opportunity to work on Foma’s pistol free from any distractions. After a rain celebration like they had just had, most of the caravan would be sleeping it off, leaving a few grumpy and hungover guards to keep watch. Vowing to himself that he would grab some of the leftover soup after he had done some repairs, Yuri gathered up the pistol and pieces and his tools and stepped outside the back of the wagon, making sure he closed the door behind him.
When he turned around, he almost dropped everything he was carrying in fright. Standing there was the Chuzhak from earlier today, the one he had stolen from, and he had drawn his sword and placed the edge of the blade against Yuri’s neck. “So glad you decided to come out, saved me from having to knock and disturb your family. Quite lovely people, they welcomed a complete stranger into their camp and shared their feast. Also, your brother is very talkative when he’s drunk.”
“What’s going on? Why did you want me?” Yuri knew his voice was trembling, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Well,” the Human said, “I tracked your brother down, thinking he was the one who had stolen my coin purse. However, he finally admitted that you had done it, and that he was blackmailing you to keep it from your mother. So please, don’t try denying it and lying to my face. I’m a better liar than you, and I’ll know if you do.”
Swallowing as best he could around the blade edge pressed against his throat, Yuri stammered out, “Well then, what do you want? I can give you the money back.”
The Human smiled, which was difficult to see under his fairly thick mustache. “Oh, you can keep it. Consider it a down payment for your services.”
Frowning slightly, Yuri started to calm down. “All right, I assume you need a gadgeteer. What would you like me to do?”
Withdrawing the blade and sheathing it, the Human held out his right hand in their customary greeting, and Yuri did the same, grasping each other’s forearm. “Name’s Arash by the way, last name isn’t important right now. And as for what I’d like you to do…” he stepped back and pulled out a small satchel which appeared to have been made from a hollowed out duck, feathers and all. Yuri guessed that this made it very water resistant.
Opening the satchel, Arash pulled out a rolled up parchment and proceeded to unroll it. Once that was done, he showed Yuri the charcoal drawing that was on it, which described a greasy and shady looking Human, with a long beard and thin mustache under his beady eyes. “This is Barham, a Sheikh who tried to have me killed. You’re going to help me figure out a way to defeat someone who has been touched by the Divine and can do miracles.” Sighing once more to himself, Yuri reiterated what he had been saying all day: life can be so unfair.