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“This is not one of ours,” said the guild master. “It is clearly very intricate, but also strangely plain for a device that must have been fiendishly expensive to make. It has no jewels, no gold inlay. Also, I have no idea how it is supposed to work. This is not something we can repair.”

He stood in the central courtyard of the compound of the Guild of Automaton Makers. The yard was paved with intricately patterned ceramic tiles and surrounded by tall mud-brick walls, over which drifted the clamor of the nearby market. A cool breeze blew from the River Itil, moderating the savage summer heat of the great city of Sarai in the land of the Golden Horde.

The guild master addressed a trader, who cradled the bulk of a large doll-like artifact. “I had hoped you would know how to fix it,” said the trader. “When it works, it is supposed to have eyes that light up like gemstones, and to talk just like a person.”

“We can fashion a lion that produces a roaring sound with leather bellows, that shows its teeth and shakes its head,” said the guild master. He sounded dubious. “I have never heard of a master who could produce human speech. Perhaps in Byzantium, or among the ancients in Greece. I’ve never heard of such a device though.”

“I’ve heard that your khan loves novelties, that he pays silver coin for intricate or beautiful devices,” the trader said, with a frown. “I can’t sell this to him if it is broken though.”

“Perhaps you can return it to the one you purchased it from,” suggested the guild master.

“Alas,” said the trader. “I bought it from a man in a tavern in the town of Berestye, in the land of the White Rus. That was six months past, and more dusty leagues than I can count. I was foolish from drink. I didn’t ask him to demonstrate the device. It is my loss.”

“In that case, you received two headaches from a single visit to that tavern,” said the guild master. He did not sound sympathetic. “One the next day, and another one now.” He paused for a moment. “How did you say that it is supposed to work?”

“The man said you have to say magic words to work it,” said the trader. The guild master made a snorting sound with his nose, but the trader raised up his hand to forestall him. He tugged a scrap of dirty parchment from inside his robe. “It’s in a foreign language that I don’t recognize,” he said. “The man wrote it out in syllables though. I don’t know if I’m saying the words incorrectly, or if it is actually just broken.”

“Or never worked in the first place,” said the guild master. “What does the parchment say?”

“I’ll try again,” said the trader. He cleared his throat. “Ee nish ee ayte. Zstaat. Zee kvensss.”

The automaton did not converse like a person, nor did its eyes light up. The trader gently settled its bulk on the tiled floor, and returned the parchment to his robe. “It must be broken,” he said. “It is indeed my loss.”