Chapter 11

Gennady Suslikov stalked down the corridor from his workshop to the estate’s central power plant. Damn his loose tongue! He hadn’t meant to tell his brother’s Alash apprentice about their experiments with orikhalko, but it had just slipped out. He should know better than to be so loose-lipped with someone of uncertain loyalties! Yes, the girl seemed devoted to his older brother, but how long would that continue? Yevgeny was forward-thinking and shared Gennady’s own determination to make Mother Orousska into one of the world’s great industrial powers. But his stupidity in being outmanoeuvred by Kisaliev in the business of his steam engine was going to bankrupt the family unless they gained themselves allies. And where could those allies come from? Other weak lesser boyars? They were just that – weak. The Csar? Csar Alexei II was weak, too: a puppet of the greater boyars and Vadim Kisaliev most of all. The Church? Patriarch Semyon was undoubtedly pious, but he was the most reactionary head of the Church of the Tree in Mother Orousska for generations. No help would come from that quarter, despite Yevgeny’s hopes.

The fault wasn’t even really in Vadim Kisaliev, hated enemy though he was. The elder Kisaliev had only done what any astute survivor of the machinations and manoeuvrings of the snake pit known as the Boyar Duma would have done. The problem was in Yevgeny Suslikov’s criminally blind trusting nature. How was he to manage to strike against that bloated Kisaliev spider with such a naïve simpleton for a bother?

Well, Gennady was not so naïve.

“Vitaly!” he called, clanking into the power room. The little serf was one of his most extensively-modified zhizniks and no longer able to leave the steam power plant, but as a foreman over the other serfs he was second to none.

The diminutive samovarlike body wheeled out from behind a boiler and the head bowed.

Da, master?”

“Are the primary coils wound yet?”

Nyet, master,” Vitaly’s bass replied uncertainly. “The coal for the main plant has been running low with both Suslikov brothers drawing steam for their works.”

“Then get more coal, you stupid automaton!” Gennady hissed. Really, who would want to deal with serfs? Wilfully stupid and obstructive to a man, they were trouble waiting for a place to happen. How Yevgeny got the results he did out of his girl-serf assistant was beyond his ken.

“I will need to send Misha or Zhenya out to the Orengrad garrison, master,” Vitaly said sulkily. Gennady sighed. “Do it,” he ordered. What did it matter if those two zhiznik oafs scared a few of the idiots in town or got vegetables thrown at them? That was what serfs were for. He wasn’t ready to have his brother asking awkward questions like “why do I suddenly have no steam pressure?”, but they both needed that steam. Kasimir would be back tonight, and he wanted to be ready for the bastard.

“The bastard” was late as usual, arriving well after sundown in a slate-grey steam carriage that was almost invisible in the lingering twilight, a noise in the half-light and nothing more. As usual, a pair of black-uniformed guards came with him, the blood-red dog’s head insignia the only colour in their appearance. Even their skin was cadaverously pale, contrasting with dark hair and smoked goggles in blackened steel.

Kasimir Vlychanin, on the other hand, wore a rich burgundy waistcoat underneath his black Imperial Army-issue coat, trimmed with sable and ermine and brocaded in gold and silver thread in a way that would have been tastelessly excessive in any company but a group of greater boyars. Great boyars didn’t do understated.

Under the relic sumptuary laws of Mother Orousska, Vlychanin wasn’t technically entitled to wear two different kinds of fur in the same garment, nor to demonstrate quite such supremely-tailored excess in his couture, but the rules had never really applied to Kasimir Vlychanin. Acknowledged or not, scandal or not, he was his father’s son.

“What do you have for me?” he asked without preamble, the guards taking up station at either side of the door to Gennady’s workshop.

“Lord Kasimir, it is a pleasure to see you again,” Gennady lied smoothly. It would be a pleasure to see you under the lash like the serf you ought to be, he thought in the privacy of his own head. “Your father is well, I trust?”

That was twisting the knife a little. The scandal surrounding Kasimir Vlychanin’s birth was still enough to meet with a stony, disapproving silence from the great boyar families of Orousski society. The rumour that Vadim Kisaliev had fathered a child on the wife of Colonel-General Arkady Vlychanin, hero of the Wars of the Vengrian Succession, was one thing. The fact that the elder Kisaliev had all but acknowledged his adulterous bastard was something else entirely.

Kasimir had been supposedly shipped off to the care of a distant relative of the Vlychanin clan far away from Muskograd, but in actuality he had been taken into the Kisaliev household. Dwelling in the centre of Mother Orousska but unable to show his face in its society, he had come to hate both it and the father who had sired him to such an existence.

“Let us hope not,” Kasimir snorted. “May the old goat’s gout pain him continually and may his idiot son Dmitri die before his time!”

Gennady nodded. Arrogant and an ass, with all the faults of his hated father Kasimir might be, but the two of them were united in that common hatred. And Gennady found it poetic justice to use the bastard son of the Boyar Duma’s first minister to wreak vengeance on the man and cleanse the snake pit.

“How progresses the mechanik?” Kasimir asked impatiently.

“It is almost ready,” Gennady said. “The Lord Kasimir brought the final worked-orikhalko plates for the armour?”

Vlychanin needed careful handling, but if you flattered him and called him “lord” enough, he was manageable. And much as it had been pleasurable to twist his chain by asking about his father, Gennady still needed him to provide the orikhalko.

“Ah,” Vlychanin said, more hesitantly. It was just like the man to bluster and bully his ally to fulfil his end of the bargain, then neglect his own responsibilities under the agreement. “There has been an unfortunate development.”

“What?” Gennady asked, feeling his irritation with the man growing rapidly. “Did the seam run out up at Fort Prem? You told me there was enough to build a score of mechaniks, all powered by orikhalko springs and armoured with orikhalko-faced protective plates!”

“It’s, uh,” Kasimir began. “A group of artillerists went to General Chebelev with a proposal to construct an orikhalko howitzer capable of throwing a shell several score of versts. I countered that the precious ore could be better employed building a squadron of mechaniks able to meet the cursed Alash indriks on equal terms, but you know the General’s always been a fan of cannons. I’m sorry, Gennady.”

Actually, Gennady hadn’t known the general was such a lover of gunnery. He filed it away in his mind under “miscellaneous information, probably useless”.

“You know this mechanik battlesuit design is the key to our plans to destroy House Kisaliev?” he asked rhetorically. Kasimir nodded.

“That and the Second Oprichnina,” he said, gesturing at the guards. They made no response, stoic and apparently unconcerned with larger matters of policy. “I will do what I can to get the General to reconsider, but…”

Gennady nodded glumly. “Is there any other source of orikhalko?”

No, there wasn’t, he thought. That was the whole point. If it was everywhere, someone would have discovered it long before Kasimir Vlychanin.

“Actually,” Kasimir said, brightening up a little, “there might just be…”

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Chapter 8

Jildiz marveled at Boyar Yevgeny’s discovery that so many of the Suslikov serfs were rebuilt with machine parts, but it did explain the oddness of the girl who had shown her her room. It also underlined her precarious status as a serf; she was better off than a war slave, especially with Boyar Yevgeny as a master, but a serf lived and died at the sufferance of the boyar. If a master like Yevgeny’s brother Gennady wanted to subject his serfs to the sort of harsh conditions that resulted in so many needing mechanical rebuilding, or worse, to perform such rebuilding on them merely as an experiment, he was within his rights according to Orousski law. They were only serfs.

Finding this Vitaly who supposedly knew Master Gennady’s intentions was not easy, though. Serf Jildiz might have been by law, but both her Alash race and her position as Yevgeny’s assistant tended to isolate her from the other serfs. Here on the border, her native Alash folk were raiders and enemies, and all too many of the other serfs saw only her bronze-hued skin, dark hair and almond eyes, and became resentful, angry or afraid. If someone needed to talk to the other serfs to find out who Vitaly was, she was the wrong person for the job.

Of course, Yevgeny was no better. Gentle as he was in his personality, he was still of the boyar class, and Orousski serfs weren’t often comfortable dealing with the nobility. She sighed. No doubt even the Alash were the same with their own nobles of the aqsuyek, the White Bone. She didn’t remember the same groveling and fear from the qarasuyek, but she was just a little girl at the time she actually lived among them. What did she really know of the Black Bone and the White?

Still, it meant that he had about as much chance of getting the Suslikov household serfs to confide in him as she did.

Boldness wins battles, the Alash proverb went. With the light cavalry tactics of the steppe, there was no place for a timid or hesitant Alash commander. Jildiz began her search the next morning by marching herself into the central boiler room and stopping the first person she came to.

“I’m looking for Vitaly,” she announced to a hulking, armoured brute looking more machine than man. The figure stopped in its tracks, flexing its huge iron claws as the man-machine considered her. Steam hissed from a chimney on his back and the eyes – one human and one glowing red – looked down. Jildiz couldn’t tell whether it had enough human left to be thinking, or whether it was calculating instead. Terrified though she was, she took a deep breath and forced herself to meet the zhiznik’s eyes unflinchingly.

After a long moment, the zhiznik extended a claw and pointed to the back of the boiler room.

“Thank you,” she said, and headed off in the direction he indicated.

The corner to which she had been directed was the darkest and hottest part of the whole room. Jildiz felt sweat break out on her brow as she approached, and took note that the zhizniks around her were sporting crude weaponry – blades and axes and spiked hammers. Two of the biggest stepped threateningly in front of her to bar her way; their armoured countenances unreadable to the young apprentice machinist.

“Er… I’m looking for someone called Vitaly,” she stammered. “A household servant called Svetlana told my… um, master Yevgeny that he could tell us about Boyar Gennady’s plans.”

“I remember Boyar Yevgeny. Let her approach,” a rumbling bass voice said from behind the guard zhizniks. It had a slightly artificial ring, like someone had worked out how to give voice to a steam engine, and she shivered despite the welcoming words. It was that sort of voice.

But rather than the metallic evil overlord or giant machine intelligence the voice suggested, the guards parted to reveal a diminutive zhiznik with a body that looked like a repurposed samovar.

A silvery-masked head perched atop the samovar, two skinny arms jutted out from the sides, and the whole thing rolled around on three skinny cart wheels. It would be hard to picture a half-machine zhiznik looking less threatening.

“You are Vitaly?” Jildiz queried.

“I am,” that deep, dark, velvety voice said. “And you are the Alash girl-child that the absent boyar has taken as an assistant. I have no love for Alash,” he continued, “but the master Gennady’s plans are not for good, neither for the Suslikov household nor for Holy Mother Orousska herself.”

“I am Alash,” she admitted. “I can do nothing about my ancestry any more than you can about yours, gospodin Vitaly. Will you tell me, and through me Boyar Yevgeny, what his plans are?”

“What do you care for the Holy Mother Land, Alash girl?” Vitaly asked in return. “If Mother Orousska is weak, your Alash brothers and sisters raid unstopped, and they count that a good. You are no Suslikova, neither freeborn nor serf! Why would you care what the black boyar intends for this house?”

“Master Yevgeny rescued me from House Kisaliev!” she hissed, flinging the zhiznik’s words back in his teeth. “Do not talk to me of black boyars when that living indrik turd walks the green earth! Alash I may be, Jildiz Aymanqizi, but my father Ayman Aydaruli, if he lives, most likely thinks me returned to the spirit realm. I will do nothing to harm Master Yevgeny, and all that I can to aid him in gratitude for my rescue! And I know he is disturbed by what his brother is doing.”

Vitaly cocked his head to one side, considering.

“‘Disturbed’ he may be, Miss Alash Machinist-Assistant,” Vitaly’s deep bass said, “but Boyar Yevgeny is the brother of the one who did this to us,” – he gestured around – “and they are both machinists. The Italiaks have a saying: ‘blood runs thicker than oil’. I remember your Yevgeny as a decent man for a boyar, but there can be no half-measures against that snake Gennady. I do not pretend to be in the inner circle of his plans, but I know that a man with the Kisaliev device on his saddle has been conferring with this house. I know that steamwagons with Army markings come and go in the night, and that they are guarded by soldiers in black uniforms with a dog’s head badge.”

Vitaly paused, obviously waiting for a reaction from Jildiz, but the significance of his remark was lost on her.

“You tell your Yevgeny that and watch his reaction. These is something sinister going on, and that black-hearted zhiznik machinist is right in the middle of it. And when you have told your Yevgeny, you must come to a decision: are you going to be with us or against us when this steam boiler finally explodes?”

Chapter 7

There was something odd going on at the Suslikov estates, Yevgeny thought. For all the reassuring normality of his back-and-forth with Gennady, his little brother had become a little strange since the accident and his subsequent rebuild.

The artificial lung that kept him alive after the boiler explosion had been their last collaboration before their father passed away; a combination of Yevgeny’s steam power and Gennady’s own clockworks intended to aid victims of mining accidents. It was a tragic irony that they had ended up using the device on one of its creators.

After their father Boris Timofeyevich had passed four years back, Yevgeny had to relocate to Muskograd to manage the family’s commercial interests there, and it seemed to be from that point that the strangeness began to creep in.

It was not just the elongated cricketlike legs that he stalked around on now, though that seemed symptomatic of the change. When Yevgeny had left he was getting around in a wheeled chair; now he had made himself clockwork legs. But it wasn’t the fact that he had clockwork legs so much as the uncanny nature of their design. Yevgeny couldn’t imagine the old Gennady opting for such an outré set of artificial legs.

The estates, too, seemed different to how he remembered them. The chimneys belched smoke constantly, but you never saw any of the serfs that tended the boilers. And what exactly was he doing with all that steam power anyway? He’d mostly eschewed steam in favour of his beloved clockworks for as long as Yevgeny could remember. Certainly since the accident, which was completely understandable. Clockworks had no boilers to explode and maim you.

They were still teasing one another just like they always used to, but there seemed to be a bitter edge to it. That was understandable up to a point; Gennady had been left alone to manage the Orengrad estates and brood over his injury. But the fact that they could engage in the old back-and-forth made Yevgeny think there was more to it than that.

Like the secretiveness. Gennady had never kept things from him like this before; they’d collaborated as much as they competed, and there had been numerous times when one brother’s insights helped the other one’s project. Now… That whatever-it-was he had almost said and then changed his mind about. What was he hiding?

And was it anything to do with that Lieutenant of Dragoons what-was-his-name? Zheleznikov?’s suppressed parting smirk? There was an unhappy thought. General Chebelev was a Kisaliev vassal, if he remembered right. What if Gennady was-?

No. Whatever was going on, it wouldn’t be that. Gennady was still a Suslikov, and even though he hated the politics of the Boyar Duma and the tortuous webs of alliance and rivalry between the noble houses, that enmity was too old and ingrained to be cast aside.

Yevgeny sat in his old workroom and brooded over the matter. But he couldn’t get to the bottom of it without more information.

One of the Suslikov serfs tottered in with a broom, breaking his train of thought. He remembered her as one of the household servants; maybe she could fill him in on what had happened in his absence.

“It’s Svetlana, isn’t it?” he asked her, smiling brightly. The young woman smiled back nervously. “Remember me? I’d like to ask you a few questions, if I may.”

Svetlana nodded, then with a clacking sound a slip of tickertape extruded from her mouth. She reached up and handed it to him.

:: I remember you Master Yevgeny :: You are the Boyar :: The brother of Master Gennady :: Ask your questions ::

Yevgeny gaped. Was this an automaton? If it was, then Gennady had leaped far ahead of him in mechanical ability! And to marry an automaton’s internal workings with a covering of living tissue? Incredible!

But would an automaton have Svetlana’s memories? More likely she had been the victim of some kind of accident and Gennady had repaired her with some sort of biologically-integrated mechanik.

“What happened to you?” he asked. “Did Gennady do this to you?”

:: Yes :: the tickertape said. :: Master Gennady made me what I am ::

“Why? Was there some kind of accident?” he asked, but Svetlana was silent. “Not an accident? On purpose?”

Again, Svetlana said nothing, but her eyes answered for her. Help me, they seemed to say.

“Are there more like you?” Yevgeny asked with a sick feeling in his throat. Bad enough that he had done something like this to one person, but what if it wasn’t just one? What if he and this Svetlana were not the only recipients of his biomechanical ministrations?

:: Yes :: Most of House Suslikov’s serfs are now biomechanical constructs :: Zhizniks :: Master Gennady’s experiments have borne much fruit ::

The fact of Gennady’s creation of these zhizniks was disturbing enough, but more troubling was Svetlana’s blank acceptance of the situation. If it had been him transformed like this, he didn’t think he’d be able to accept it so calmly. Still, Svetlana was a serf. She didn’t have a lot of say in her life even at the best of times.

“What else has he been up to?”

:: I am just a housekeeper Master Yevgeny :: she replied, handing him the tickertape. :: I do not know the Young Master’s secrets :: … :: You must ask one of the other zhizniks ::

Yevgeny considered. “Is there any particular one of you zhizniks I should talk to?” he asked, vowing silently that he would get to the bottom of this.

:: Master Yevgeny you must not be concerned for me :: Svetlana’s tickertape said. :: I am what I am :: It is done and can not be undone :: Nichevo ::

Nichevo. It couldn’t be helped. The litany of Orousska’s serfs.

She swept the broom once around the room and headed for the door.

:: Speak to Vitaly :: she said.

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 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?

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.