Chapter 6

After the dragoon officer’s words, Jildiz expected Orengrad to be a sinkhole of anger and hate directed at her, but if it was, she did not encounter very much of it that first day.

To be sure, there were a few people hissing at her and giving her unfriendly stares, but really, they weren’t spending more than a day here before going on to the Suslikov lands, and it would have been too much to hope that people would greet her with open arms. Even in Muskograd she was the subject of unfriendly stares.

The next day they rode out to the Suslikov estates, and whatever Jildiz had been expecting, this was not it.

At the rough centre of the estates, as was customary, was a large house belonging to the Suslikovs themselves, surrounded by the wooden izbas of the family’s serfs. The one- or two-room houses looked particularly ramshackle beside the sprawling Suslikov mansion, and the smoke belching from multiple tall chimneys gave the place a look more like a Muskovian manufactory than the large farmhouse she had been expecting.

After she thought, though, Jildiz adjusted her expectations. Yevgeny was Orousska’s foremost steam pioneer. Of course his family lands would be more industrial than most.

They arrived at the front door, rang the bell and waited. After a few minutes a clanking, ticking sound from within approached. The door opened and Jildiz started involuntarily at the strange sight that met her eyes.

At about eye level a brass-bound leather bellows pumped regularly, attached to a steel frame around the torso of a hunched-over, too-tall human figure. Below the frame, long brass and steel legs extended to the floor, having too many joints and in the wrong places like those of a cricket. Several brass gears jutted out from behind the figure’s torso, and one of his eyes was either covered or replaced by an arrangement of multiple lenses such as a jeweller might wear.

The human part was dressed well, in what looked like a blue woollen coat, a white silk shirt and a cravat in pale silver-grey, but his skin was very pale and his hair and beard were wild and unkempt. Together with the mechanical parts of him, the effect was very unsettling.

The figure peered out and sniffed dismissively. “Horses? Biologicals?” he said in a peevish squeak. “How quaint. Yevgeny, are you sure you’re feeling all right?”

“Gennady, I assure you I am quite well. The railway only goes as far as Nizhnov, which you’d know if you ever left the estates. You keep both the Suslikov steamwagons here in Orengrad, so we had to make the rest of the journey the old way.”

“Still haven’t finished that mechanical horse, then?” the strange part-man shook his head. “Dear me, brother mine, you’re slipping!”

“Oh, it works,” Yevgeny countered. “It just weighs as much as a full-grown indrik and tends to sink into the ground. And it has to be controlled the whole time; a flesh-and-blood horse will steer itself up to a point and has an instinct that works with the rider. A machine does not.”

“Yes, and controlling a legged vehicle is not that simple,” the machine-man Gennady replied sulkily, shifting position on his own spindly metal legs. “I still think you should have-“

“Brother!” Yevgeny cut him off. “Standing on the doorstep is not the place for this conversation!”. He turned to Jildiz. “Jildiz, this is my little brother Gennady Borissovich. Bratishka, I’ve acquired a new assistant. Jildiz is a little untrained, but I think she shows promise.”

Jildiz now found herself the target of Boyar Yevgeny’s uncanny brother’s inspection. He stalked forward on those long, insectlike legs, examining her closely through multiple lenses.

“A barbarian?” he muttered. “And a woman at that? Now I know you have taken leave of your senses! Girl!” he addressed her sharply. “What’s the ratio between boiler size and the useable work capacity of an engine?”

Jildiz looked helplessly at Yevgeny. In the months she had been with him he had begun her education in the mysteries of steam power, but he had never mentioned anything like this!

“Uhhh,” she temporised.

“There isn’t a simple relationship between boiler size and the capacity for work of an engine, and you know it!” Yevgeny cut in. “Why not, Jildiz?”

“Work capacity is derived from a combination of factors,” she said. This she did know! “Size of the boiler, diameter of the pistons, amount of steam getting to them… Even diameter of the drive wheel, I would suppose,”

“She’ll do,” Gennady nodded curtly. “Though I question your taste. Women usually belong in boiler rooms the way rats belong in kitchens!”

“Don’t mind my little brother,” Yevgeny said. “His retrograde attitude notwithstanding, he’s one of the foremost machinists of the Empire. Better than me, some days!”

“Most days!”

Jildiz looked up at Gennady’s uncanny form. “Yevgeny agha,” she said, using the Alash honorific for an older or otherwise superior-status man, “Your brother he might be, but I have trouble thinking of anyone so tall as a little anything!”

Yevgeny smiled. Gennady looked from one to the other. “You always were unreasonably soft,” he complained, but said no more.

A serf girl led Jildiz to a small room tucked in close to the furnaces, indicating without words that it was to be her sleeping quarters. The girl looked like a typical Orousski serf, brown haired and blue eyed with the pale skin of a native Europaen. After the strangeness of the half-mechanical boyar with his elongated, insectlike brass legs, she was reassuringly normal, yet there seemed go be something a bit odd about her. She made no conversation while guiding Jildiz through the house, didn’t even speak when showing her the room.

“You don’t need to be afraid of me,” Jildiz tried to tell her. “I’m no higher in status than you are. My name is Jildiz. Can we be friends? What’s your name?”

The girl, who looked to be about her own age, just shook her head. Maybe she couldn’t talk?

“Can you speak?” Jildiz asked her, but the girl was already retreating out of the room. Jildiz sighed. A girl her own age to talk to would have been nice, even if she wasn’t an Alash. One couldn’t have everything.

The same girl returned later to bring her to Boyar Yevgeny and his brother, taking her through the boiler rooms to a steamworks and mechanical laboratory like yet unlike the one they had left behind in Muskograd.

The same collection of half-built devices littered the surroundings. The same arcane sketches and blueprints were strewn through the chaos. The same brass gearwheels spun and intermeshed. But Boyar Gennady’s creative domain ticked and whirred where Yevgeny’s chuffed and whistled, and the few recogniseable steam engines she could see were tiny, delicate things that looked like toys. She frowned. What could you run from an engine that little? She doubted those slender pistons could even turn a potter’s wheel. And there were several small metal things moving around on overhead rails, like toy locomotives but without any sign of steam.

She craned her neck to look as another one went past, noting a single broad wheel in front and two narrow wheels behind, and a troughlike body containing a pile of what looked like written messages in the middle. Whatever propelled it wasn’t steam; there was no place for an engine.

“Admiring my clockwork message carriages, girl?” Gennady’s odd squeak of a voice said from somewhere in front of her. Jildiz started. Engrossed in the mechanical wonders, the sudden question made her jump. Gennady chuckled, a sound that seemed to humanise the bizarre machine-man in a way nothing else had, and continued, “You see, my esteemed older brother is interested in steam engines to do big jobs like propelling a sleigh or drawing a plough. All very good, yes, but as he has discovered with his mechanical horse,” here he gave a sardonic smile, “steam engines weigh a great deal and their fuel and water weighs even more. Whereas my mechanical horse, once it is completed, will weigh less than a biological one and go just as fast!”

“How?” Jildiz asked, amazed.

“Clockworks,” Yevgeny said dismissively, appearing at her elbow. “What he’s not telling you is that his clockwork horse can go less than a quarter of a verst before its spring winds down, whereas my steam horse, now that it is completed, will keep going for most of a day! Oh, clockworks have their uses,” he said, waving a hand airily at Gennady’s scowl, “either in very short-ranged applications or else in very low-powered ones, but for power and endurance you have to have more power than a coiled spring can hold.”

“That’s all you know, brother mine!” Gennady said. “I-“

But then he clamped his mouth shut, as if he had been on the verge of letting out a secret. And no amount of Yevgeny’s cajoling would make him speak.

Chapter 2

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…”

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!”

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.