Orengrad was the furthest outpost of the Orousski Empire, a foothold on the eastern bank of the Urul river centred around a military fort. The garrison was commanded by General Pavel Antoninovich Chebelev and overshadowed much of the town’s life, but there were civilians as well, sutlers and blacksmiths and machinists and artisans serving the fort, a few minor boyars with grants of land in the area, grocers and milliners and priests and all the essentials of a growing town, and the inevitable peasants and serfs.
The Empire lay claim to all of the land away east as far as Khitai, and to the north in the tundra and taiga there was no-one to gainsay that claim. What few people that lived there were only reindeer-herders and forest tribes, barely more than hunter-gatherers as far as civilised nations like Holy Orousska were concerned, and without anything resembling a government that they could recognise and treat with.
On the vast steppes to the south, though, the Alash confederation were a far stronger and more effective fighting force, and the might of the steppe nomads’ indrik cavalry had made Orousski claims ring hollow for generations.
The Orousski military had its own indriks, taken from the few managed herds left on the open plains of the province of Ukryna. But indriks needed vast grazing lands to achieve anything like full size and decent numbers, and Orousski indriks were both fewer than those of the Alash and considerably smaller because of their more wooded range. Much of Ukryna was cropland these days; the bread-basket of the holy Mother Land, and barred to the grazing of indriks.
The difference was enough that on the open steppe, Orousski forces were at a distinct disadvantage, and not even the Empire’s use of the great hairy mammoths of the tundra had ever been enough to tip the scales. Mammoths were only barely bigger than indriks, were intelligent enough to be flightier and more unpredictable, and they liked the cold. They could survive on the Alash Steppe, but they were seldom truly comfortable beyond the very northern fringes. Besides, the northernmost Alash tribes had mammoths too.
Yevgeny had heard about one general’s attempt to offset the Alash advantage in indriks by using woolly rhinoceros from the north. The general – what was his name? Ah yes – General Khrovitchenko – had thought that the wider availability, natural small-minded fierceness and twin horns of the woolly rhinoceros would counterbalance the true steppe indrik’s larger size. Alas, woolly rhinoceros proved to be quite intractable, and his one attempt to utilise them in combat had resulted in the destruction of almost an entire infantry corps at the horns and feet of the enraged creatures after the enemy’s musket fire maddened them and drove them amok. Most military men of Yevgeny’s acquaintance hoped that the new steam-driven mechaniks would help to even the score, but few of them actually put much faith in the power of steam, and fewer still looked for any more general industrialisation of the Mother Land.
It was almost the polar opposite of Yevgeny himself, in fact. He believed in and worked towards a general industrial buildup of Holy Orousska, seeing in that a way for his country to step out of the shadows cast by the wealthy West and take its place as an a power great in mechanical advancement as well as in its endless lands and vast semiskilled labour force. The conquest of the East was of far lesser importance. Let the Alash have their steppe; the future of Holy Orousska was in the mechanical arts.
All this was in Yevgeny Suslikov’s mind as they approached the city of Orengrad. So deep was he in reverie that the patrol cavalryman’s shout of “Astanovitye! Kto prikhodit’?” made him jump.
As instructed, the party stopped, and Yevgeny called back to let him know who was coming.
“House Suslikov!” he yelled. “Travelling to the family lands east of Orengrad!”
The trooper paused, then nodded and signalled them to approach.
“So few guards?” he asked as they rode up. Several other cayalrymen with leveled carbines trotted out from behind a rock. The one who had shouted was obviously in charge – a young leytnant, from the looks of his insignia, in the red uniform of a dragoon regiment. “Don’t you know the sheepeaters raid around here constantly?”
“We’ve travelled all the way from Muskograd,” Yevgeny explained. “At the last report conditions with the Alash were peaceful. We expected only the usual brigands and wildlife.”
“Either of those would describe the Alash,” a sergeant growled, to general laughter from the troopers. The lieutenant smirked, but made no comment.
“You have papers to prove who you are?” he asked. Yevgeny handed his documents over.
“‘With papers, you’re a man; without them, a worm’,” he quoted the cynical proverb. The lieutenant examined them, pursing his lips when he read Yevgeny’s status as the boyar of his house. In the stratified society of Orousska, even a lesser boyar had a status almost unassailable to a commoner, and that went double if you were the ranking noble of your house.
“My apologies for the inconvenience, your honour,” he nodded, thin-lipped. “I am Leytnant Ivan Gregorovich Zheleznikov, 17th Radoslavsky Dragoons. Pass, Boyar Yevgeny Borissovich, House Suslikov!”
As they passed him by, one of the cavalrymen got a look at Jildiz and spat. The lieutenant followed the trooper’s stare and held up a gloved hand. “Hold! Boyar you may be, my lord, but what do you think you are doing bringing that savage into Orengrad?”
Yevgeny snarled. Born to the nobility, he knewhow the game was played. Speak with the air of command and the lieutenant would probably back down. Show any weakness and the army man would run right over him.
“The young woman is part of my household! Are you saying that House Suslikov are savages?”
“General Chebelev has passed an order in his capacity as military governor of Orengrad forbidding any Alash from entering the city, my lord,” the lieutenant explained, standing his ground. I represent the highest authority in this city, his eyes said. Try me.
“I see,” Yevgeny said. “Tell me, Lieutenant Ivan Gregorovich, is the military garrison and command post within the city or outside of it?”
“Within, lord,” he replied, looking confused.
“And when the military command wish to question an Alash prisoner in their custody, do they remove to a place outside the city to do so? For that matter, I am sure that Alash prisoners are not held outside the walls where their kin might rescue them, either.”
“No, my lord,” he said.
“Then what I am saying is that the General’s order self-evidently applies only to Alash travelling as Alash and not under the protection and custody of an Imperial subject,” Yevgeny said firmly. “I repeat: This young woman is a part of my household.” You lose, his eyes flashed. “I assure you,” he went on more gently, “that if she had wanted to kill His Imperial Highness Csar Alexei II’s subjects, she could have done away with one of his boyars at any time during our journey!”
“You vouch for her, then?”
“I do, Lieutenant,” he said, emphasising the officer’s junior rank.
The young officer thought about it. Offending a boyar was nothing anyone wanted to do, but if something happened while the girl savage was in the city, the General would have him staked out for the wolves in no time at all.
“Well, all right,” he said at length. “You take full responsibility for bringing this savage into the city, understand? And do not be surprised if the citizens do not take kindly to her presence. We see all too much of the barbarians around here as it is!”
“Understood, Lieutenant,” Yevgeny said smoothly. “I doubt we shall be spending all that much time in the city proper. I have lands around here, you know.”
The lieutenant gave a grin and nodded his head. A couple of his troopers smirked. “Pass on, then,” was all he said, however.
As they rode onward, Yevgeny began to worry. That smirk wasn’t the look of a man who had been beaten in the game of comparative clout. What did they know that we didn’t?