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!”