"Friendship is as selfish as any other relationship, perhaps more so because it masquerades as something noble. I am more comfortable with those who approach me with blades drawn."
~ Sicarius in "The Emperor's Edge" by Lindsay Buroker (epub 87.9 %; ch. 20, p. 279)
The steam pipes were a catastrophe. Imperial Engineer 1st Grade Tam Barlov cursed under his breath. No. 2 was primed to the brim. It would take hours to remove the tough foam clogging what looked like a quarter of the steam pipes and check the cylinders for internal damage. Had nobody told these crested imbeciles of the elite troops to properly maintain their primary means of transport? He'd better replace the cylinder heads, too.
Barlov climbed down from the cab, already making a list of the tools and spare parts he would need for the task. Pipe brush, prime scrapper... He patted the deep red and green metal flank as he headed towards the side room, holding the maintenance equipment. At more than 25 meters between its buffers and a height of two men and then some, the state-of-the-art TEL-158 pretty much filled the maintenance hall, with its affixed coal car still half outside. A beauty. Reliable, too. She deserved better than this!
He saw the kid when he came back with the scrapper under his arm and the wound-up pipe brush slung over his shoulder. A boy, five or six years old, stood in the trackbed behind No. 2's large driving wheels.
"Hello," Barlov called, receiving no answer. What he could see of the boy's black clothes looked similar to training fatigues. Probably an officer's brat, escaped from his daily chores, he thought. Though the blond hair spoke against that. Anyway, the maintenance hall wasn't a place for kids. "What's your name?"
Again no answer. If at all, the kid dug deeper into the shadows. So much for getting him off the tracks.
"Don't you know that you should be in the cab not below it?" Barlov asked, nodding up at the locomotive. The boy's eyes darted up at the wide underbelly of the giant machine over his head, before returning to Barlov, who hid a smile, thinking of this own sons. The kid was probably no older than Marik. "Shall I show you how she works?" he offered in another attempt to lure the boy off the tracks.
That earned him a hesitant nod.
Quiet kid, Barlov thought, holding out his hand to give the boy a shove up the ladder. "Come. I'll help–" The child climbed the wide rungs effortlessly.
"You're quite a monkey, aren't you?" Barlov laughed when the boy looked down at him from the cab, before he even had his foot on the first rung. "My eldest, Sevastian, didn't make it until he was at least two heads taller than you," he told the boy, while he climbed up with his load of tools. He only wished Sev's grades had been well enough for a career in engineering. Railway engineer was a lot less dangerous than navy private these days. He frowned. The boy had vanished from sight at his words. Barlov hurried to climb in.
The kid stood in front of the open firebox, sticking his head into the black interior.
"Be careful!" Barlov called out, but the head that whirled back at him was already darkened with soot. "I haven't cleaned it out yet."
The boy's parents would have a fit, but then, they'd left their child unsupervised, hadn't they? Barlov put scraper and pipe brush down for the moment. "That's the firebox," he explained. "It heats the water in the boiler up front that makes the steam driving this beauty." He patted the metal wall.
So the boy could speak. "Yes," Barlov smiled. "That's because we're here to clean her back to shining gleam, inside and out. You can't do that with the engine still hot and under steam."
The boy cocked his head, studying him inquisitively. "Cleaning?" he asked.
"Cleaning," Barlov confirmed. "And that means we can look at all the stuff you can't get near when she's running."
"You see, the blastpipe sends the exhaust steam up the chimney." Barlov explained to the kid, who was listening with bright eyes. He indicated the thick pipe running up between the front axle. "It creates a draught on the fire when the machine's running, so that the fire won't go out from lack of air."
"And when it's stopped at a station?" the boy asked.
"Then there's no draught from the exhaust steam," Barlov confirmed. "Any idea how we engineers solved that?"
The kid cocked his head and looked at him, then at the still open firebox. "There's still steam in the boiler, isn't there?"
"Right!" Barlov laughed, plopping his uniform cap onto the kid's head, who - bright-eyed - pushed it back to look up at him. "The blower's fed directly from the boiler to keep the draught when she's idle. Without it, the engineer would risk burned feet at every tunnel."
"When there's not enough draught, air can be sucked down the chimney and blow the fire from the coals into the cab–"
"Sicarius!" A male, authoritative voice called beside the tender. "Come here right now. Your lessons with Major Pike were scheduled at 1300!"
"The kid's here," Barlov answered, stepping out of the trackbed. He caught the boy's arm before the kid could escape between No. 2s running gear. "Hey." He tugged the cap down onto the boy's nose. "Turgonians don't flee, remember? Come, it's time for you to go home. Your Da must be worried by now."
The kid gave him the most incredulous stare he'd ever seen, then straightened his narrow shoulders and looked at someone behind him. Barlov turned to find himself face to face with Lord General of the Armies Hollowcrest. A very pissed off–
"Lord General of the Armies Hollowcrest." Barlov saluted instantaneously. "Sir." Since when did generals hunt wayward kids down in person? Could it be–? Who'd thought somebody like Hollowcrest would have a foreign bastard.
"I see you apprehended this delinquent," the general stated, frowning down at the kid. "How did you catch him, engineer?" he inquired, his hands loosely on his back as if running inspections.
"Found him on the tracks half an hour ago, but didn't get a name out of him to send him back, sir." Barlov reported. "I apologize for the state of his clothes. I didn't catch him before he inspected the firebox in person."
The general's brow twitched slightly, directing his anger more and more at the again silent kid in Barlov's grip. Barlov winced. "You've got a bright one there, sir," he said, trying to deflect the anger. "Curious and inquisitive. I wouldn't wonder when he makes master engineer before he's twenty-five."
"That's none of your concern," the general snapped, plucking the cap off the boy's head and tossing it at Barlov. "Mind your own business, sergeant!" Hollowcrest's hand lay heavy on the boy's narrow shoulder as he led him away.
The transfer order to the southern fleet came two hours later.
Dedicated to Lindsay Buroker for creating this wonderful world to play in. Special thanks go to Solo for betaing it.
 The locomotive TEL-158-02 (Turgonian Empire locomotive type 158 no. 2) was modeled after the German DR 18 201. It had the best available documentation. [source: Wikipedia]
 Priming (or foaming) is a problem that arises in the boilers of high-pressure steam engines. Undistilled water contains dissolved mineral solids, which accumulate in the boiler with each water refill to the point of dissolution. The matter than forms tough-skinned bubbles that can be carried into the steam pipes, severely damaging the cylinder heads if the boiler water with its enriched mineral content isn't replaced (blown down) regularly. [source: Wikipedia]
The Emperor's Edge series, including Sicarius and Hollowcrest, are copyright Lindsay Buroker, who kindly allowed derivative fiction of her works. This story is licensed internationally under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0: CC BY-SA