Chapter 1

Yevgeny Suslikov tramped through the chilly streets of Muskograd, shaking his fist at the driver of a steam troika whose reckless driving had sent a plume of slushy snow fountaining up at him. There seemed to be hundreds of the wretched things in the city these days; every boyar and minor prince simply had to have the latest steam toy.

In truth, the steam troikas were a good idea. Gripping the Muskovian street ice (that even in March was almost four fingers deep) with a broad, spiked wheel, the horseless sleighs were both warmer and easier to control at speed than the old horse-drawn sledges. Which made the young bloods of the aristocracy driving the things need to go even faster to achieve the feeling of flying over the ice, barely in control. Which melted the street ice faster, sending up great tides of grey slush whenever they went through a puddle. And being boyars of the lesser nobility, all too many of them didn’t take many pains to avoid people on foot. Nobles and other important people rode sleighs. Anyone else wasn’t important.

But Yevgeny hadn’t developed his steam piston engine so that the lesser nobility could go joy-riding. He’d intended it as a labour-saving device to ease the burden on Orousska’s serfs.

Serfdom was the institution that kept Holy Orousska mired in its Mediaeval past and lagging furter and further behind the advanced civilisations of the West. Peasant farmers tied to the land they worked, they were used as a labour force and a sort of currency by the boyar families: when your grant of lands and nobility was contingent on providing a certain number of man-hours’ work on the Csar’s projects, the labour of one’s serfs was traded among the lesser nobles for raw materials, favours, information, goods…

By rights, the steam engine ought to have made the Suslikov family wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. Alas, this was Holy Orousska, and the Csar was not about to let a minor family of the lesser nobility accrue too much influence and status. House Suslikov had been granted a license to produce steam engines, but so had the Imperial government, whose chief minister was the long-time Suslikov enemy Vadim Kisaliev, each licenseholder having the power to do what they willed with their license. In a despicable political manoeuvre worthy of the thrice-accursed weasel-spawn that he was, Kisaliev had published it abroad that anyone who wished could build a steam engine under Imperial government license free of any charge or fee. “A gift, in the name of the Csar”, as he had put it. And that was the end of the Suslikovs’ hopes for wealth, and the beginning of their decline. Why would anyone purchase an engine from them when they could get their serfs to build one for free? Now the only things remaining to House Suslikov were this Muskograd townhouse and some nearly worthless steppe land near Orengrad.

Yevgeny had been educated in Itali at the expense of a father who had hoped that Europan education could dig Holy Orousska out of its hole with respect to the Western powers. It had worked, after a fashion, but not to the credit of the Suslikovs themselves.

The other boyar families who held the reins of the primitive Orousski economy had used Suslikov’s steam engines, all right, but rather than easing the burden on their serfs, they had herded them into giant manufactories to tend dangerous steam machinery, and into frightful underground mines to dig for the metal ores and coal that drove the new steam age. Their lot was, if possible, even worse now.

Yevgeny reached his townhouse workshop to find a shivering figure curled up on his doorstep. Beggar, most likely, the tattered coat soaked with street spray and doing the poor wretch no good at all.

“Don’t you have a home to go to?” he asked, reaching into his purse for a small coin.

The figure turned wild eyes upon him. A girl! He thought, surprised. She was a foreigner, too, with the copper-toned skin and almond eyes of the steppe tribes. A war captive? What’s she doing in Muskograd? She can’t be more than about ten!

The girl frowned, obviously concentrating on his words, then shook her head.

“No place to go, huh?” Yevgeny asked sadly. “Well, come inside and you can at least get warm and dry.”

“Sp- spasebo, lord,” she stammered, her accent uncouth and barbaric but the gratitude on her face plain.

Unlocking the door, Yevgeny ushered the girl inside, doffing his furs in the warmth of the townhouse. The girl looked around with wide eyes, gazing at the chaos of various parts, contraptions and design sketches.

“You have a name?” Yevgeny asked, provoking a start of surprise. The girl nodded.

“I name Jildiz,” she said, still glancing around nervously. The Suslikovs’ housekeeper, a bustling, matronly woman with a mouth that seemed permanently set in thin-lipped disapproval of the world, chose that moment to appear.

“Ah, Master Yevgeny, you are home again! I- Beggars? In this house? Out! Out!”

“Mira, the unfortunate young lady is here with my permission,” Yevgeny said firmly, and the housekeeper shot him a disapproving look, muttering darkly about barbarian beggars being even worse than the regular Orousski ones.

“Two bowls of your excellent borscht, if you please, Mira,” Yevgeny ordered, cutting off the incipient tirade. Mira wasn’t his grandmother, but she could deliver a scalding babushka harangue with the best of them. She nodded resignedly and went back to her kitchen, still grumbling.

After she left, Yevgeny tried to engage the girl in some basic conversation. It was obvious she only spoke halting Orousski, and he didn’t speak any of the barbaric Alash tongue, but it felt wrong to have her in his house and not say anything to her.

“So, Jildiz,” he began, hoping he could at least say her name right, “do your family live here in Muskograd?”

Jildiz shook her head, still gazing around at the half-finished devices and metal parts. “Please, what is?” she asked, gesturing at it all.

“Parts of steam engines I am building,” he explained, but Jildiz’ puzzled frown remained.

“Engines?” she mused, then “Ah! Like sleigh-that-makes-clouds, yes?”

“‘Steam troika’, yes,” Yevgeny said, impressed that she made the connection at all, let alone that fast. “So you’re all alone here in Muskograd? No-one wondering where you are?”

At that her eyes went wide, fearful, looking around for a way out. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. “Runaway, eh?”

He looked more closely at her clothing, noting the peasant smock she wore under her coat was Kisaliev grey. He grunted. It figured; find a cruelty or injustice anywhere in Holy Mother Orousska, and a wager of ten roubles would give you one that a Kisaliev would be mixed up in it somewhere. “Well, don’t worry, I’m not going to take you back there. I have my own reasons for disliking House Kisaliev; you can stay here and we’ll figure out a way you can make yourself useful.”

Mira returned with the borscht, placing two bowls heavily down on the table and left. Clearly, she wasn’t going to be enamoured of the new arrangement, but she hated the Kisalievs too, for what they’d done to her master’s family. She’d come around. Probably.

“Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry,” he continued. “The borscht is hot; let us eat!”

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Prologue

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

The north wind howled across the steppe, catching the wisps of smoke curling through the central smokeholes of a cluster of yurts and scattering it southward into nothingness. Even now in late spring, the steppe wind held a chill that stung the cheeks red, and on the vast rolling grasslands of the Alash Steppe, the wind never stopped. Restless as a young colt, it blew first this way and then that, but the fact that it blew was the one unchanging condition of Alash life.

For a moment the wind whipped around to blow from due east, and the horses tethered outside the domed steppe tents neighed and whinnied nervously. Even the huge, shaggy indrik tied alongside them tossed its head, unsettled by something on the wind.

A young man stepped out of one of the tents, the rifle slung over his shoulder marking him as a warrior at least, perhaps a chieftain of a small clan. His eyes narrowed and he scanned the country eastward, wondering if the scent of some predatory animal had spooked his horses. A pack of wolves perhaps, or possibly simatar, drawn to the stream that flowed in that direction, hidden behind a low rise.

Either beast would be a problem for the herds of cattle and sheep grazing away southward, but if it were a pack of simatar, then even his indriks would be in danger.

Not much could penetrate the tough hide of an indrik. The enormous, hairy beasts stood nearly twice the height of the hardy steppe horses of the Alash people, their proud single horns as long as a man and as heavy as an anvil. Simatar were the exception to that “not much”, though; their elongated bladelike teeth were serrated on the back edges, designed for deep, tearing puncture wounds, which the simatar loved to inflict on their prey’s necks.

Marat, the young man, had heard that across the great ocean in the continent of Antillia on the other side of the world, there were cats called xelot, bigger than simatar and with even longer fangs. He wasn’t sure if he believed it, but the thought was enough to evince a tremble. Simatar were bad enough.

He pulled his fox-fur hat back and scratched his head to clear away the irrelevant thought, blinking green eyes in a tanned, weatherbeaten face. A loose coat in serviceable brown hung about his shoulders, and a curved sword hung at his belt. Moustached and scarred, his legs slightly bowed from years in the saddle, he looked like what he was: an Alash steppe warrior.

The wind swirled east again, and he had to calm the animals once more. Yes, something away east was definitely troubling them, and as the warrior at hand, it was his job to investigate.

“Aysulu, something down by the river is spooking the animals,” he called to his wife within the tent. “I’m going to find out what it is.”

“Wolves, do you think?” she asked in response, coming to the doorway of the domed felt tent. Her dark eyes were concerned for both her husband and the animals that represented their livelihood. Her long dress was dark red in colour, the rough silk of the steppe rather than the fine silk of the Khitai Imperial court far to the east, but the dress was attractive and well-made. Long raven-black hair was mostly covered by the tall headdress of steppe women, and the red-gold running aurochs necklace he had given her as a bridal gift sparkled on her chest. Marat smiled back at her, his eyes bright with pleasure in his wife, but his face grim.

“That or simatar. If I’m not back before the horse-post’s shadow touches the threshold, ride for the rest of the clan and come looking for me.”

So saying, Marat untied his indrik and climbed into the saddle, riding off eastward toward the stream.

As they approached the stream, his indrik became more and more unsettled, tossing its head back and forth and sending out snorts of hot breath.

“Easy, girl,” he muttered, patting the beast’s neck reassuringly. “What do you smell, eh?”

Marat unslung his rifle, sniffing the air himself the next time the wind swirled east. Animals had far more sensitive noses than people, of course, but if it was close enough, even a human could pick up the musky odour of a simatar, especially if it had a fresh kill.

He smelled nothing. Not simatar, at any rate, though there was a strange, sharp tang to the air, like naphtha, or a really big thunderstorm. The sky was cloudless, though, and the closest source of naphtha was at the tar pit away to the south, by the coast of the landlocked Mazandaran Sea. Whatever it was, it didn’t smell animal. Almost like-

No. He’d seen no plume of smoke and steam. The war machines of the Orousski announced their presence for miles around, belching out immense clouds of hot, sooty steam like great boiling kettles. Some days you could look towards the Urul river and see a raw, brownish smudge on the horizon, and when the wind blew strong from the west, it brought with it a pungent, sulphurous reek. This wasn’t any Orousski Imperial war mechanik that he’d ever heard of.

Spurring his indrik forward at a lumbering walk, rifle at the ready, he rounded the low rise and came face to face with the corpse of a metal man.