1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 18
“Fine, Colonel. You put someone on it and tell me who, but you will not be staying to oversee the work.” Listening to Leontii’s cold analysis had cooled Sheremetev’s temper enough to let him start to think again. “I have another mission for you. Mikhail Romanov is the danger. The dirigible too, but from what you said it may be best attacked at its base in Ufa.”
Leontii started to shake his head in demurral, but Sheremetev held up a hand. “I understand the politics perfectly well, Leontii.” Mikhail had great personal popularity among the people of Russia and Sheremetev knew very well that his hold on the armies of Russia was less firm than his hold on the bureaus. And even that was none too secure. An army sent from Moscow to arrest Mikhail might change sides before it reached Ufa. “That’s why I am sending you to contact the khanates in the east. I want you to bribe them to attack Ufa.”
“Wouldn’t the Cossacks be better? At least more dependable than the Tatar tribes?”
“Perhaps, and I will send trusted men to negotiate with them. But Mikhail Romanov is already in Ufa and I doubt we can get to Kazan before they do. That limits us to the Don Cossacks. I will see who I can recruit, but for the same reasons, it would be difficult to send an army to arrest Mikhail. Having it known that I hired mercenaries to arrest him could have dire consequences.”
“What about General Shein?”
Sheremetev, for the first time that day, almost snorted a laugh. “Shein? He would turn his coat the moment he got the order. For all I know, he’s already on his way to Ufa.”
Leontii considered. “I doubt he’s gotten the word yet. Or, if he has, it had to be recently.”
Tobolsk, 517 miles northeast of Ufa
General Artemi Vasilievich Izmailov stopped the courier rider’s babble with a wave. “Not here, Lieutenant.” Here was the steps of the main fort of the Tobolsk Kremlin, which was a very large and complex log cabin. “The news has waited at least a week while you rode here, and probably more.” He turned and led the lieutenant inside. He had a certain amount of sympathy for the boy, who obviously had ridden hard. But discipline needed to be maintained. If the news was as urgent as the state of the courier rider made it seem, he doubted General Shein would want it bandied about the town without hearing about it first.
They reached his office, and Artemi finally received the pouch of messages. He waved the courier to a chair and started to read. By the time he had read the first sheet, he wanted to jump up and rush the news to General Shein, but the same thing he said to the courier applied to him. So he forced himself to stay seated till he had read through the entire set of messages. Finally, he looked up. “Do you know what’s in these?”
“Yes, sir. It was all over the place after the riverboat got to Solikamsk. Governor Saltykov took a day and a half before he sent me.”
Artemi snorted. He couldn’t help it. Dimitri Mikhailovich Saltykov was, as Bernie Zeppi would say, crooked as a dog’s hind leg and had hated Patriarch Filaret with a passion, so wasn’t that fond of General Shein. Or Artemi, for that matter. But none of that was the reason for the delay. Dimitri had spent those two days trying to gage the wind and choose a side. The Saltykov family was at least as corrupt as the Sheremetev family, but that didn’t make them allies. Dimitri Saltykov would be trying to figure out who would offer the biggest bribe for his support. Artemi waved the courier to silence and went back to his reading.
By the time he had finished he knew which way the governor had jumped. He was going to support Sheremetev, at least to the extent of not letting General Shein through Solikamsk to join Czar Mikhail. He stared at the last sheets for a few moments, then looked up and said, “Go get yourself some food. I’ll need to talk to the general about this.”
General Izmailov went over the messages with General Shein. Despite his other accomplishments, Shein was not a good reader. He preferred to have reports read to him. That was one of Artemi’s functions. When they had gone through the messages and the governor’s orders, Shein looked at him. Then looked at the map. It was a combination map, drawn based in part on maps from Grantville and in part on information collected in this time. Shein had a grand total of one Dacha-trained surveying team, and he had only gotten them on the promise that they would look for gold and silver deposits while doing their surveys.
“I don’t think he can do it,” General Shein said. “Never mind whether it’s a good idea. I just don’t see how Czar Mikhail can win.”
“So we go to Sheremetev? Crawl on our bellies?” Artemi noted that his voice carried more resignation than defiance.
“I would if I thought it would work,” Shein said, with even more resignation in his voice and not a little bitterness mixed in. “But Sheremetev wants my head. He has since I came back from Poland with the patriarch.”
“He’s afraid of you, General.”
“Yes, which is worse,” Shein said, looking at the map again. “Mikhail can’t win and we can’t make peace with Sheremetev. So what do we do?” General Shein’s finger was tracing along the Tobol River as it made its way to the Irtysh and the Ob rivers, and finally to Ob Bay on the Arctic Sea. He looked back up and said, “Russia is coming apart. I see no way of keeping it together. And if we are to survive, that leaves us but one option.”
“What, General? I don’t see any options at all.”
“We must take a piece of Rus and make our own nation. The rivers between Tobolsk and the Gulf of Ob . . . and the town of Mangazeya. It can be our gateway to Europe. The rivers go on south and east into northern China. We have the AKs and craftsmen who can make more, and more chambers as well. Granted, we can’t make percussion caps yet, but we might be able to learn.”
“That would be trea . . .” Artemi let his voice trail off.
“You know, there is a story I heard from, of all people, Cass Lowry,” General Shein said. “It seems that in the last days of the Ming Dynasty, there was a group of workers on the Great Wall who were walking to work. One of them looked to the others and said, ‘Guys, what’s the penalty for high treason?’
“Another workman said, ‘Execution. You know that.’
“Then the first man asked, ‘What’s the penalty for being late to work?’
“Again the second man said, ‘Execution.’
“The first man looked around at the rest of his work crew and said, ‘Fellows, we’re late for work.’ So started the revolution that brought down the Ming Dynasty. Now, I’m pretty sure that Cass was full of shit in that story, as well as in most of the other things he said. But the ultimate point is still valid. We, Artemi, you and I, as well as many of our friends, face the penalty for treason already . . . and we aren’t even late for work. I think we have a better chance on our own. I think our families will be better off if we declare independence. Not today, mind. First we need to appear good little lapdogs for a while. And we need to get our families, or as many of them as we can, out of Moscow, out of Sheremetev’s grasp. But after we have done that, well, consider yourself late for work.”