1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 20


July 1636

“We have a steamboat in from Saratov,” Olga said. “It’s loaded with food stuffs, but they want assurances that the money will be good.”

“That’s an increasing complaint,” Natasha added. “We have steamboats on the river and we can use them to access the products of the Volga River system as long as we can hold it, but we have to regularize the money supply.”

“We know there is gold and silver in the Ural Mountains. We even have a decent idea where to look. We can give them gold if that’s what they want, or at least we will be able to.”

“For as long as we control the river,” Bernie said, looking at the map.

“Can we hold Kazan?” asked Evdokia.

Mikhail listened as the discussion wound about him. All his life he had been a quiet person who was surrounded by powerful and forceful people. In a way, he still was. His quiet wife, out from under the protocols and threats of life in Moscow, was blooming into a forceful person. So were Natasha, Anya, Bernie, Filip, and even Olga, now that she had gotten a little used to the invasion by the imperial court of Russia.

“I’m not sure we could take it in the first place,” said Natasha. “Much less hold it. Besides, it’s on the Volga, and that means Sheremetev would have to take it back.”

Mikhail looked down at the map on the table as he continued to listen. Kazan was a city on the Volga, a major trading port about forty-five miles north of the confluence of the Volga and the Kama rivers and just about as far east as the Volga went before that confluence.

“All the more reason to take it and hold it, if we can. If we held it we would control the lower Volga, all the way to the Caspian Sea. If we can hold it through the harvest, we can get enough food up here to make it through the winter.”

“I’m not saying it wouldn’t be nice,” Natasha said with some asperity. “I just don’t see any way we can do it.”

“Well, I think we should try,” Evdokia insisted. “Mikhail, you’re always talking about how that baker’s boy is such a military genius. Surely he can work out some sort of defense of Kazan that will let us divert enough food to see us through the winter.”

That was a serious problem. Mikhail looked out the window and saw a great deal of forest, but not much in the way of plowed fields. And if they were to build a manufacturing and political center here in Ufa, they would need food and raw materials. “Ivan is a bright young man and I am greatly impressed by Tim’s decisiveness in difficult situations. Both because of what we saw in Murom and General Shein’s private report to my father on the battle of Rzhev.” Mikhail was referring to Tim’s taking the initiative, even as little more than a military cadet, to order splat guns moved to attack the Poles on the flank. It had been a decisive move and one that had saved the day. But it had not been made public, because to do so would have been detrimental to good order and discipline in the Russian Army. An army that had little enough order and discipline to begin with. That report, along with the fact that he hadn’t had anyone else to appoint at the time, had been a big reason that Mikhail had made Tim a general. “But in spite of Tim’s decisiveness, there are only so many bricks you can make with no straw and darn little mud. I don’t want to lose Tim by asking too much of him.”

“Leave it up to Tim,” Bernie suggested.

“You think he’s up to it?” asked Filip Pavlovich Tupikov.

Bernie looked back at Filip, then turned to look at Mikhail. “Your Majesty, I think that if he’s not up to it, we need to find it out now rather than later.”

“That’s hard, Bernie,” said Anya.

“But he’s right,” Mikhail heard himself say. “I may have made a mistake promoting Tim so high so fast. And I admit that I did it simply because I had nothing else to give the boy we were leaving in Bor while we escaped in the dirigible.”

“He knew that, Your Majesty,” said Anya. “He understood.”

“He also survived. At least, he has so far. And that makes his rank much more real. It’s not something we can ignore.”

“Why not?” asked Olga. “I mean, if you . . .” She trailed off.

“The illusion of imperial infallibility,” Mikhail said with a foul taste in his mouth. This, as much as anything, was why he didn’t want to be a ruling monarch. “I can punish Tim for failing to live up to my expectations, but I can never admit publicly that the expectations were in error. Especially since, so far, he has lived up to them. He’s alive, the force we left under his command is still intact and has grown to over five hundred men, mostly streltzi, but some minor nobles. So far, in fact, he’s doing better than we had any right to expect.”

Filip explained, “If Tim had died at Bor or a day or two later, fighting the Nizhny Novgorod streltzi or a force sent by Sheremetev, then everyone would have understood that Czar Mikhail had known it was a forlorn hope and given Tim a great honor. Tim would be remembered much as Ivan Susanin is.”

Not that Mikhail wanted that. He already had the original Ivan Susanin on his conscience and way too many others like him. People he had never met who had died for him or because of his decisions.

“But now,” Filip was saying, “since Tim won at Bor and pulled a fair chunk of the Nizhny Novgorod streltzi into his army and has been growing it as he moved south and east along the Volga, it looks like a real appointment. Like Czar Mikhail truly thought that a nineteen-year-old boy was the second coming of Alexander the Great, with the loyalty of Belisarius. If Tim falls it will be tragic, but just one of those things. But if Czar Mikhail demotes him or even just sticks him off in a corner somewhere to age, it will be seen as Czar Mikhail going back on his word. A betrayal of Tim and all the others who might be tempted to come to Czar Mikhail’s colors.”

Mikhail looked at Olga, expecting to see confusion or perhaps disgust, but what he saw was dawning understanding . . . and even approval.

Mikhail still felt like he had when they forced the crown on him when he was seventeen. Like Jesus at the garden of Gethsemane, desperate to have the cup taken from him. Ever since then he had sipped of that dreadful brew as little as possible. Yet here it was, still before him. Over the years since the Ring of Fire and the knowledge of that other history that it brought with it — and especially in the last few weeks as he had run for his life with his wife and children — he had come to accept that the cup could not be taken from him. He would have to drink it to the dregs. Mikhail looked out at the forest again. “Send a message with one of the steamboats. We leave it to General Lebedev’s discretion, but if he feels he can — and for as long as he feels he can — we wish him to take and hold Kazan and deny the lower Volga to Sheremetev.”

On The Volga, near Kazan

July 1636

Tim’s force didn’t have to signal to get the steamboats to stop this time. After reading the message from Czar Mikhail, Tim wished the boats had just gone on by. “Look at this, Ivan.” He handed the message over.

Ivan read it and said, “Well, he leaves it up to you.”

Tim turned in his saddle with all the grace that might be expected in a Russian of aristocratic lineage. “That makes me feel so much better. I get to lead these men into what is probably a hopeless defense, or I get to leave the Volga open to Sheremetev all the way to the Caspian Sea and cut us off from our best source of food to last out the winter.”

“Well, that’s why you’re the general,” Ivan said, with a smug smile.

For just a second Tim wanted to hit his friend. Then he had a better idea. “That’s right. I am the general, and you are only a captain.” Tim smiled, then waved Marat Davidovich, the commander of Princess Natasha’s guard, over. “Marat, Czar Mikhail has sent us new orders. It’s up to me whether to try and take Kazan and block Sheremetev, but his imperial majesty would really prefer if the food they grow down near the Caspian Sea were to find its way to Ufa to feed all the freed serfs.”

It was clear from Marat’s expression that he didn’t find this a good plan, but he kept his mouth shut.

“I’ve decided to send Captain Ivan Kuzmanovich Maslov here to look over the situation in Kazan and advise me of the practicality of taking and holding the city. I was wondering if you thought you could keep him out of trouble while he’s looking around.”

Marat didn’t say, “Do I have to?” in the whiny tone of a five-year-old told to clean out the chicken coops, but it was clear that he thought it.

“Pick a couple of men and go with him. And do it quickly, please. We will be reaching Kazan in another couple of days. I was planning on bypassing it, but . . .” Tim let his voice trail off, holding up the message from Czar Mikhail.

Marat turned in his saddle. “Dimitri, Yuri, come over here.”

While Ivan and his guards got ready for their trip to Kazan, Tim called the column to a halt. He needed to give them time to scout, so he would stop the army and drill.