Chapter 12

Jildiz threw down the 1/4-arshin wrench in frustration. They had been here for six weeks now, and it was worse than Muskograd for hints and rumours and half-truths. Something weird and probably sinister was going on; that much was clear. Between the mysterious gospodin Vitaly’s warnings of a new Oprichnina, and the zhiznik status of so many of the serfs, and master Gennady’s half-spoken hints, and this supposed secret new metal, only the Imperial Grand Prince of Fooldom would doubt that much. But she and Yevgeny were still no closer to really finding out anything than they had been back in Muskograd.

Not knowing was affecting her workmanship, too. It had been ages since she had thrown a tool – not since those first weeks of her education, in fact – and the last time she’d done it, Yevgeny had rebuked her so soundly for abusing innocent metal that she had been nervous as a cat for a week afterwards.

She took a deep breath. It certainly wasn’t the wrench’s fault, nor that of the bolt she was attempting to tighten. All right, she thought, counting slowly to ten in the Alash language. “Bir… Ieki… Üsh… Tört…” What do we know?

One. They knew that Gennady had modified or was modifying the Suslikov serfs with biomechanical apparatus, purpose unknown.

Two. They knew that at least some of the serfs did not seem to be pleased about this: Vitaly and his colleagues in the power plant.

Three. Gennady was using a new metal called orikhalko to manufacture clockwork coil springs of startling strength and power. This metal was “discovered by V”; either the uncanny gospodin Vitaly or someone unknown with a name starting with that letter. It wasn’t much help; there were almost as many Orousski V-names as there were Alash A-names. Ayman, Aydar, Almas, Arstan, Ablai, Arsut, Arjan…

She sighed, returning her mind to the list.

Four. According to Vitaly, Gennady was working together with, or at least meeting with, someone who arrived by night bearing the Kisaliev tamgha and escorted by dog’s-head soldiery in black uniforms.

Five. They only had Vitaly’s word for this last, along with the fact that Gennady’s plans “meant no good for Holy Orousska”. Neither she nor Yevgeny had actually seen this mysterious man to be able to verify whether his tamgha, his – what-was-the-Orousski-word? Coat-of-arms – was really that of the Kisalievs, nor the presence of these dog’s head soldiers with the fearsome reputation. And with Yevgeny being master Gennady’s brother and her own growing almost-father-and-not-quite-daughter relationship with him, the mysterious zhiznik serf leader was being extremely careful with how much he shared with either of them.

And that was about it. Vitaly was awaiting an “are you with us or against us?” decision before he would say much else, and neither she nor Yevgeny were ready as yet to break Yevgeny’s blood-ties and throw their lot in with an unknown biomech serf.

It was clear that they needed more information, but how they could get it without leaving a trail for the simatar…?

She smacked her palm into her forehead. It was obvious. Why had she not thought of it before?

When she had been a Kisaliev war-slave, she had often watched the serfs listening at keyholes or spying on the masters from hiding. Advance information was often the key to avoiding the worst of those abusive boyars’ abuses, and Alash war-captive and lowest of the low though she was, she had received such warnings often enough to appreciate the utility of espionage tactics. It would take preparation, stealth and a great deal of good fortune for it to work, but if they could not find out what they needed to know by watching and listening, maybe she could steal the information.

Wind Horse, may Your hoofbeats fall in favourable places for me, and may Your airy mane brush the face of the One in the Great Tree, she prayed, invoking without a second thought both the God of the Tree and the ancient Alash pagan deity of the winds in a religious muddle that would have appalled any Orousski priest.

Though Jildiz’ religious sentiment was more confused than most thanks to the strict Orousski priests of the Kisalievs, the odd syncretic mix was actually fairly typical of the Alash nomads. Over the centuries, adherents of the various surrounding religions had moved across the steppe, but most of them had been settled peoples and had gravitated more readily to the string of trading cities dotted across the southern edges of the Alash grasslands. Enough of them had made enough of an effort among the nomads that the Alash had a smattering of the ways of the Tree, the Prophet, the Mani or the Gampucha, as they turned the names, but little enough concentrated instruction that it all tended to blend together with their ancestral shamanic religion. When Jildiz was born, for instance, the clan shaman had pounded his drum to the Alash sky-father Tengir, burned Gampuchan incense in the sacred fire of Mani, chanted the Creed of the Prophet and sained her with the Sign of the Tree. It didn’t do to offend any god or spirit that might have the power to make your life difficult.

Jildiz might have done more diverse praying herself, but she had long since forgotten the words of the brief Prophetine prayer of the Creed, and there was no open flame here by which to make an offering to the Mani, if she could even remenber the way that ritual was supposed to go.

Resolving to cast a pinch of salt into the furnace at the first opportunity, Jildiz left her work on the steam horse and went for a walk around the house. If she was going to find or make an opportunity to steal the secret of master Gennady’s plans, she would need to understand better just what went on in the house in a normal day.


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.