Jildiz ate up the borscht as if she hadn’t eaten at all for a week, rather than just not having eaten properly for several years. Then she polished off half of Yevgeny’s as well, and almost half a loaf of black bread. Then, almost as soon as she had finished eating, she felt her eyelids drifting closed. No! Mustn’t fall asleep. Mustn’t offend the lord who had shown her such kindness…
Hot food and as much of it as she could eat, combined with the warmth of the old man’s strange house, put paid to any thought of staying awake, and the last thing she remembered was hoping he meant it when he said he wouldn’t send her back…
She awoke curled up under a blanket, the floor beneath her not bare wood but soft carpet with a Turkuman or Parsiak design. Such luxury! She wondered if she were still dreaming.
“I tried to put you in the bed,” a man’s voice said, sounding amused, “but you wouldn’t take it. Squirmed right out and lay down on the floor, and had such a contented smile I just covered you with a blanket and left you.”
Startled, she looked around wildly. The old man from yesterday -if yesterday wasn’t a dream- sat in a high-backed rocking chair, watching her with a smile as he read from a book. In the morning light he looked younger than the grandfather she had taken him for; no older than her own father would be, wherever he was.
Hurriedly she shook off the blanket and knelt, bowing her head to the floor before what was obviously a great and generous lord. It was how her Kisaliev masters liked her to acknowledge their presence, as if they were Khitai emperors and she were a subject of their Empire far to the sun’s rising and not a free Alash.
Well, she wasn’t a free Alash, she thought, wondering where the dangerous thought of freedom and home had come from. She was a war slave, taken as a captive when she was but a girl and having less rights than the Great Boyar Dmitri Kisaliev’s least-favourite horse. As she had learned when the noxiously ill-treated beast had slipped its reins and trampled three other slaves. The younger Kisaliev had carefully examined the horse to make sure it had not been harmed, then mounted and ridden over their dying bodies to behead the hapless handler.
“Get up, child!” the older man scolded gently. “I’m not the God on the Tree!”
This confused Jildiz until she remembered the Great Boyar’s black-robed priests with their scowls and their beatings, forcing her to kiss a carved wooden necklace-pendant, all harsh lines and angles, that they had called a Tree. She’d tried to explain that this harsh, angular thing didn’t look like the Tree that the God had shown Himself in, but she’d been seven at the time, and all it had achieved was to make them beat her again.
Hesitantly she raised her head, then, at the lord’s encouraging nod, sat up straight.
“Hungry?” he asked, and Jildiz shook her head. There was no pain in her stomach. Why, she still felt full from last night’s feast!
The lord nodded. “Well, there is breakfast if you would like to eat it. And after that-“
Jildiz’ ears pricked up, her heart thumping and a sick feeling rising in her chest, so that she could not have eaten anything even if she were hungry. She was about to learn her fate- whether she would be returned in shame and defeat to the house of the Great Boyar, or- “After that we’ll find you something to wear other than that Kisaliev rag. How did you come to run away, anyway?”
Jildiz shook her head violently. This boyar may have shown kindness, but he was still a boyar, and she was wary of trusting him too quickly. Besides, the shame burned too fresh for speaking about it.
The lord’s eyes seemed to penetrate her soul and draw it out of her anyway. “I see,” he said, anger colouring his voice, but miraculously not directed at her. “I always heard stories of the younger Kisaliev’s proclivities with little girls, but…”. He shook his head. “If you are safe anywhere,” he said, taking her face gently in his hands and forcing her to meet his eyes, “you are safe here, in House Suslikov. Such as it is,” he smiled a little ruefully. “If it is in my power to protect you from such as he, I, Yevgeny Suslikov, will do it,” he continued. “House Suslikov may not be the biggest or the wealthiest boyar house, but we owe nothing to such as House Kisaliev save a reckoning.”
Numbly, Jildiz smiled. It was too much to take in all at once.
Later, clad in a loose-fitting off-white shirt and hardwearing brown leggings that felt distinctly boyish but which the lord – Boyar Yevgeny – had said would do until he could find something more appropriate, she followed him downstairs to the workshop area.
Boyar Yevgeny looked her over in an appraising way, then nodded. “We’ll say you’re a serf newly arrived from the Suslikov estates,” he said. “My House have lands around Orengrad, so it shouldn’t be too hard to explain your barb- uh, Alash features.”
Jildiz nodded meekly. Serf was a definite step up from war slave, even if the child’s impossible dream of returning to her people as a free Alash woman was still hopelessly out of reach.
Boyar Yevgeny returned to his work, poring over papers showing toothed wheels and rocking weights and strange metal curlicues and plates and bars, measuring and checking and doing a hundred other things of which she had no idea.
She had intended to keep out of his way, not wanting to jinx her good fortune, but her curiosity got the better of her. All the strange devices and components seemed to be drawing her. She knew they were only parts, but even incomplete and unfinished the steel, brass, wood and leather had an uncanny beauty; unlike anything her own people would produce but beautiful nonetheless. She made her way over to where she could see what he was working on.
“Please, lord,” she interrupted, gesturing around her. “What all this is?”
“Eh? It’s just some various devices I’ve been working on,” he replied. Jildiz’ eyes wandered around the room, alight with possibility. Over there, for instance: that looked like half of a horse, all in leather and metal. She imagined the feel of a tireless machine horse underneath her, snorting out the clouds that always seemed to accompany such devices. With such a horse, she might become Alash again. Free. Free as the wind…
“It’s beautiful!” she exclaimed, delight on her face.
“Well, it’s not finished yet,” Boyar Yevgeny countered. “I can’t seem to figure out how to get a piston’s cyclical wheel-turning power to gear properly with a leg’s back-and-forth motion. To say nothing of balance! It’s an insoluble riddle!”
Jildiz wasn’t sure what “insoluble” meant, but she got the idea that he was having trouble making it work. “I help?” she offered. “You to teach me, I help, yes?”
The boyar looked at her, surprised. “You want to learn all this?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a girl machinist before!”
He considered. “Still, I’ve never heard of an Alash machinist either. And it would give you an obvious reason for being here, if I trained you as my assistant… All right, we’ll try it. Can you read, girl?”
Jildiz shook her head, wondering what reading had to do with the building of these wonderful devices. It all looked like drawings to her, and any fool ought to be able to follow a picture.
Boyar Yevgeny smiled, pushed his drawings away and pulled out a blank sheet of paper. He gestured for her to sit by him and started to draw. “The Orousski alphabet has thirty-two letters,” he began, “representing the sounds of our language. “Your Alash tongue is written, when it’s written, in a completely different script, but I confess I don’t know it. Orousski will give you enough to be going on with. This is the first letter…”