3.8 Steam Pressure

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Steam whistled through pipes, clouding the iron girders which ribbed the rocky ceiling, and obscuring distant laborers. Waterwheels churned one of the low aqueducts into froth.

Alex tried to look appreciative and interested. This was supposed to be an Alashani hub of industry, and it was the only major industrial place he'd been shown. All their textiles and foods came through here. Jinishta kept emphasizing that. She explained the importance of every steam-powered process, and every industrious-looking laborer, waiting impatiently for Margo to translate.

Margo was having enough trouble just keeping their pace. Alex wondered if he ought to heal her more often. Every ten minutes? Every five minutes or so?

The Alashani used waterwheels and blast furnaces, but they lacked the technical know-how to build a comfortable leg prosthetic. And so did Alex.

That stoked his rage, to think about Thomas languishing in a dungeon, isolated and helpless, when he could be designing a leg for Margo that actually worked. A mind was a terrible thing to waste. It seemed especially wasteful and terrible to keep a mind like Thomas's locked up.

Today, Alex resolved. This is the last day I will tolerate excuses from Jinishta. She needs to let me see Thomas. Or else.

He wasn't sure what "else" he would do. A part of him shriveled at the thought of unintentionally starting a war against highly trained Yeresunsa warriors. But his pleas were ineffectual, and so were his demands. Sooner or later, he'd have to resort to making a threat. Maybe that would work where nothing else did.

"This is the gristmill," Margo translated for Jinishta. "Workers unload dried mushrooms here, and this is where they get sliced up. And, I guess, sifted? Yeah. Sifted. Then they get packaged into those leathery sacks."

Jinishta went on, her demeanor unusually relaxed. She gestured towards an albino man draped with a purple Yeresunsa mantle. He sat cross-legged on a cushion, aiming intense focus on the aqueduct.

"Yeresunsa are required to channel water," Margo translated. "All the time. Every city in the Alashani realms is nourished by the mighty River of Tears. But we—Yeresunsa, she means—must guide the water to where it is needed."

Alex had noticed several Yeresunsa in this gigantic factory. They sat at intervals along the aqueduct, looking very busy and important, despite their utter lack of motion. Kneeling servile people attended them. Unlike common laborers, the working Yeresunsa wore pristine clothes and jewelry, in addition to their mantles.

"They sit here all the time?" Alex asked.

Jinishta heard the translation and made an affirmative sound. She seemed pleased that Alex had gotten interested enough to ask a question.

"Yes," Margo translated for her. "It is a noble and crucial job."

"It looks mind-numbingly boring." Alex paused, because the workers looked so proud of their roles, and Jinishta was clearly proud of them.

Their equivalents in the Torth Empire—industrial factory workers—were oppressed slaves. And how did industrial workers on Earth feel about their jobs, building turbines or maintaining refineries? They would never get famous doing that. They wouldn't get much recognition. But they were the unsung heroes of civilization, working behind the scenes to make sure the lights stayed on and the grocery stores remained stocked.

"Please don't translate that," he told Margo.

She giggled.

Her reactions were more fun than Kessa's even-keeled politeness, and Alex gave her an appreciative look. He might not even need a translator in a month or two. Margo offered mini-lessons in language whenever they shared a meal together, or whenever they had a bit of time. Alex was beginning to almost understand some of the alien conversations.

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