As days became weeks and weeks became months and the long Orousski winter slowly released its hold on the land, Yevgeny and Jildiz adjusted to the new situation.
For his part, Yevgeny had not been looking for an assistant, had only really taken Jildiz in out of mercy – the sort of mercy enjoined on men by the priests of the Church of the Tree but so rarely exhibited in practice. He certainly hadn’t expected to add a member to his household when he had invited her in out of the winter cold to get warm and dry!
To his surprise, the waif he had rescued was turning into a passable bootstrap machinist. Her writing was still wobbly and uncertain at best, but she was a reasonable draftswoman and had a surprisingly keen instinct for the practical engineering. He’d never had an assistant before who’d lasted longer than a week before he’d had to send them away in sheer frustration, but mindful of what would probably happen to her at the hands of that Kisaliev devil if he dismissed her, he had made an effort to try to make it work, and surprisingly, it had.
Jildiz, for her part, began to lose some of the gnawing fear of being sent back to House Kisaliev, though she remained almost desperately eager to please and to help. As the year turned on its great circle and her time in the Suslikov household lengthened into a year, the earlier toll on her body taken by long hours of work and not enough food began to be reversed, and she began to look her thirteen – no, fourteen, now – summers rather than the close to ten she had appeared when Yevgeny first encountered her sheltering in his doorway. She began to fill out the boyish clothes that she still wore around the workshop – after one horrible experience of getting her hem caught in a drive chain and her dress ripped almost to the waist, Yevgeny had declared that her boy’s clothes “might be safer” – and more than one of the male household servants began to look at her speculatively.
Such attention made her edgy and frightened. Apart from Yevgeny, who was at least old enough to be her father and never behaved as anything less than a perfect gentleman, there were few men around whom she felt truly comfortable. Dmitri Kisaliev was a beast through and through, but she knew now beyond a doubt that such darkness resided in men, and the hooded glances that the servants gave her seemed to contain all too much of that darkness for comfort.
Yevgeny, though – Yevgeny was safe. His reddish-brown hair, good-natured features and intelligent blue eyes were worlds apart visually from Boyar Dmitri’s jet hair, sharp visage and flat, cold eyes. Dmitri hadn’t looked like a monster – objectively he would be considered a handsome man – but there was an anger within him, a boiling rage that wanted to cow and hurt and smash and burn. And he had let it out, used it as his power, the power of fear. Yevgeny was a basically compassionate man whose power was in his mind and his endless inventiveness. Just by being himself, he helped to restore her belief in basic human decency.
The following year’s spring thaw turned Muskograd’s streets into a mushy, slippery grey slush, and the country roads into an apparently bottomless mudpit, but by late May the mud time was over and summer was truly come. Steam wagons and carriages filled in for the winter’s steam troikas, and most boyar families’ serfs went back to work their lands, even as the boyars themselves retreated to their dachas from the sticky Muskograd summer heat.
The Suslikov dacha had been sold off, Jildiz was told, so there would be no move out to a summer cottage for her, but Yevgeny made preparations for them to relocate to Orengrad.
Orengrad! She would be nearly home! The outpost city on the Urul river was the effective limit of Orousski empire; the Csar claimed all the land to the east as well, but once you got north of the Alash Steppe it was all dense forests and vast wetlands too waterlogged to plant and too swampy to graze, and beyond those the endless northern tundra where the winters were dark and the summers never truly came. Practically no-one lived there save a few reindeer-herders and hunters, so if the Csar of All Orousska wanted to claim rulership over the land, the Three Hordes of the Alash were not going to dispute with him.
Jildiz was very excited about the trip to Orengrad. Her family’s clan were of the southern Blue Horde rather than the western White Horde whose lands Orengrad abutted, but it would be the Steppe, and for the first time since she’d been captured and brought to the wooded heartland of Orousska that she would be able to see all the way to the horizon all the way around.
It was a long trip, though, beginning on the new steam locomotive that ran on iron rails from Holy Pyotromir in the west through Muskograd all the way to Goroda Nizhnov in the east, then on horses all the way out to Orengrad.
Jildiz surprised Yevgeny by being able to ride. He guessed she must have been no more than six or seven when she was captured from her people, and she wouldn’t have been given any opportunity to learn in the Kisaliev household. When he asked her about it, she laughed, though.
“I’m Alash,” she explained. “We’re practically born in the saddle. One of my cousins could ride before he could walk.”
At Yevgeny’s sceptically-raised eyebrow she had laughed and spurred her horse to a gallop, running through the thinning woods like a breeze.
“Careful, child!” Yevgeny’s man-at-arms Andrei Grishkin scolded her after he galloped to catch up. “There are dangers in these woods other than the ones we bring with us: bandits most likely; bears, wolves and simatar for certain. Do not race off ahead where you are easy prey!”
Sobered, Jildiz resumed her ride at a gentler pace. It was one of the realities of the steppe that it was easy to see things coming. That wasn’t true of woodlands and forests like the ones of the Orousski heartland, and she had unconsciously reverted to the realities of her Alash youth. She really would have to be more careful until they were out of the endless trees.
The further east they rode, the more the trees thinned out and the land opened up. The change in landscape made Jildiz happy – she sat straighter in the saddle, rode more easily, laughed more freely – but Andrei became more and more unsettled. “Not enough trees in this place,” he muttered, half to himself. “It’s unmanning; makes a body feel naked and defenceless! A land without trees is just unnatural!”
“I dare say the Alash would find Orousska’s deep forests equally unnatural and frightening,” Yevgeny commented. “They live and die in the open land of the steppe, moving with their herds and never missing what most of them have never seen.”
“Da, but they are barbarian savages,” Andrei countered, “saving your presence, child,” he excused himself perfunctorially to Jildiz with a brief nod. “They build nothing, they grow nothing, they make nothing except weapons, they own nothing except their beasts. What life is that for a man? Crawling about on the world like a fly on a ceiling, no bread, no beets, no beer, no houses and no churches, stealing anything that’s not anchored to the earth and burning the rest, raiding and killing over a few scraggly sheep! Savages, I tell you! Living with their beasts and becoming more like them than like men!”
Jildiz was troubled by his speech. She didn’t think her people were just worthless thieves that created nothing of value. After all, she was Alash, and wasn’t she helping Boyar Yevgeny to develop his steam devices to make life easier and better for so many people?
But you’re a captive Alash, her inner thoughts countered. Taken as a child, it’s natural that you should be more like the ones you’ve grown around. What about the “wild” Alash? You were only a girl of six when you were taken – you wouldn’t have understood or known any different if you had. Maybe they’re everything you think you remember, but maybe too Andrei is right, and they’re callous brutes who live by raiding and shun any kind of higher feelings?
It was a quiet, sombre Jildiz who rode on though the beginnings of the steppe.