Chapter 5

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?

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Chapter 4

It was two nights later that Andrei’s foresighted words about the dangers of the land were proven accurate.

Clustered around their nightly fire, the small group of travellers were turning in for the night when an ugly snarl punctuated the darkness.

They had heard the mournful howls of wolves every so often on their journey, but this was different: a throaty, bone-chilling growl more like a lion’s roar than anything else. A sound that reached into the dark recesses at the bottom of the mind and threw the humans are just clever food switch. The horses tethered a short distance away whinnied and attempted to bolt, straining against their tethers in equine panic.

“What was that?” Jildiz asked, feeling like she already knew the answer. A childhood fear, one that her life in Muskograd had papered over but not erased.

“Simatar,” Andrei said, reaching for his gun. “And it’s a moonless night, and here I’ve been sitting with the fire in my eyes the whole time! I can’t shoot what I can’t see!”

Another hideous snarl sounded on the other side of the camp. “Two of them!” Yevgeny exclaimed. “Andrei, it looks like you have your work cut out for you. However, I may be able to do something about the lack of light.”

As Yevgeny darted back into the tents, Jildiz glanced around nervously. A pair of eyes glowed menacingly in the firelight on one side; no doubt the match of an as yet unseen companion to her back. She couldn’t make out the animal in the darkness, but childhood fear filled in the spotted brown-grey pelt, the sloped back, the terrible bladelike fangs…

A shot rang out beside her – Andrei aiming for the only part of the creature that could be seen – but his shot went wild and missed. Cursing, he chambered another round and took aim once more.

Jildiz screamed as the other beast sprang into the circle of firelight with a ripping snarl. It seemed huge – big as a horse with fangs as long as her arm – though in truth the pair were only about as big as one of the leopards of the south, long-boned and rangy without the muscle of a full-grown cat. A pair of juvenile males that had not yet learned to be wary of humans with guns, but all the more dangerous for that. Mature simatar would have probably backed down as soon as the first shot were fired, unless they were really hungry. And at this season there was plenty of easier prey, from wild sheep and cattle to the newling fawns of giant deer and the calves of steppe bison and indrik.

Jildiz’ scream brought Andrei whirling around to fire at nearly point-blank range, and this time the bullet struck home in the animal’s shoulder, penetrating down into flesh to spear the young simatar’s heart. It dropped, just as the other creature sprang, blade-fangs bared.

Yevgeny emerged from the tent with a lantern in his hand, turning a crank-handle at the side to energise the internal dynamo. Energy crackled into a glass-enclosed filament, which blazed into a sudden incandescence, sending a searching beam right at the creature.

Simatar were active by day as well as being nocturnal, and light was normally no barrier to their hunting; however, the sudden appearance of a new sun shining in the young male’s face confused and blinded it. Checking its advance, the beast’s snarl took on a note of fear. Andrei quickly chambered another round and fired, but this time the bullet grazed the skin, glancing off the shoulder blade but not penetrating.

The simatar, however, evidently decided that these creatures were prey too troublesome and dangerous to be worth the effort, and turned, loping away in a ground-eating run that soon let it disappear into the blackness.

While Andrei took a couple of the other guards to go and calm the horses, Jildiz sat shaken and trembling but glad to be alive. Simatar weren’t the largest predator of the steppe – both bears and full-grown cave lions were larger – but their protruding bladelike fangs, swiftness and endurance made them by far the most feared. She was in a far better state than the formidable housekeeper Mira, though; the poor woman was evidently unused to roughing it through a wild land and had swooned at the first snarl.

The redoubtable Andrei Grishkin returned from calming the horses and examined the carcass of the beast he had shot.

“Do you want the head as a trophy, my lord?” he asked of Yevgeny.

“So I can put it on my wall like that mindless twit Aleksandr Lyukin?” Yevgeny asked in return, snorting somewhat contemptuously.

“Crown Prince Mikhail is supposed to think highly of the younger Lyukin,” Andrei cautioned. “He considers him a sterling hunter and a man to emulate, and his influence at court is waxing great.”

“Oh, he’s a great hunter,” Yevgeny grudgingly admitted. “But his knowledge of and interest in anything he can neither shoot nor track rivals a pinworm’s concerning the Khitai Imperial Court!”

Andrei thought about it, then nodded grudgingly himself. Boyar Aleksandr was famous throughout Holy Orousska as an outdoorsman and trophy hunter, but his passions seemed to have only that single outlet.

“Well, if you don’t want the head, we should at least take the skin,” he said. “Simatar pelts are warm as well as decorative; it’ll be worth a pretty rouble in Muskograd.”

Yevgeny nodded. “See to it, then, Andrei. I’m going to see if I can get any sleep.”

Jildiz, however, could not get to sleep. The excitement and terror conspired to keep her awake well into the night, tossing and turning and starting at every small noise.

Chapter 3

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.

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.