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The ancient caravan route connecting the Wild Lands the savage steppes of the Russian empire with the west ran from Kiev. Berkholzskoye, the Golitskov estate, bordered the River Dnieper, some fifty versts from Kiev. Sophia Alexeyevna had no memory of a place outside Berkholzskoye; no memory of a guardian other than her grandfather, Prince Golitskov; no knowledge of a world where the great Golitskov family had been once embedded in the fabric of society. The intrigue of the imperial palaces in Moscow or St. Petersburg meant nothing to a girl for whom the haunting, fearsome beauty of the steppes had always been a playground; for whom the romance of the caravan route leading to the civilized glories of Austria and Poland was the material of dreams; for whom the Cossacks, Kirghiz, and Kalmuks, the horsemen of the steppes with their long hair and wild laughter, were the princes of her. reveries as the girl became woman.
She was a child of the steppes who, if she ever looked beyond them, looked west, never east into the center of her homeland.
Old Prince Golitskov, from his embittered soul, had taught his granddaughter to keep her eyes turned away from the east and the court of the czarina Catherine. He had taught her that that court and that rule had destroyed her parents, and she should ignore its very existence. And while he taught her these things, he said nothing about his own fears that the heiress to the mighty fortune of the Golitskovs would not be left forever in the obscurity of the Wild Lands that she loved, under the unorthodox guardianship of an irascible old aristocrat who had early eschewed the duties and pleasuresof the imperial court.
Such bitter thoughts, such prescient fears, did not plague Sophia Alexeyevna. On her twenty-first birthday, the day she attained her majority, she was told she was heiress to some seventy thousand souls scattered over estates comprising thousands of versts in this vast empire, but she had interest only in Berkholzskoye. Such immense wealth had no meaning for one who saw no need for it. She took for granted the sprawling mansion, the army of serfs, the magnificent horses, the well-stocked library. Her customary dress was a riding habit with a divided skirt, enabling her to ride astride. She had no reason to develop an interest in her wardrobe, since society did not abound in the steppes, and her grandfather was not one to encourage or welcome passing travelers beyond the obligatory courtesies.
Had she been asked, Princess Sophia Alexeyevna Golitskova would have declared herself utterly content with her life; she had horses, books, the companionship of her, adored grandfather, and the freedom of the steppes. The vague yearnings that occasionally disturbed the customary tranquillity of her sleep she put down to the extra glass of wine or the second helping of pashka at supper.
The ice on the River Neva was breaking at long last, great cracks resounding in the springlike air as the splits appeared, widened; the separated blocks drifted, growing smaller under the feeble rays of the sun.
The czarina Catherine stood at the window of her study in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, looking down at the river. In a week or two, the city would be open once more to shipping; the winter isolation would be over and the outside world could again enter Catherine's frozen empire.
"It is quite alarming to think she has attained her majority already. How life gallops away with one, mon ami." She turned back to the room, giving her toothless smile to its other occupant, a giant of a man in his mid-forties, long haired and one-eyed, no concessionary eye patch over the empty socket a veritable cyclops dressed as a courtier.
Prince Potemkin returned the smile. "You do not bear the marks of a galloping life, Madame." It was no obsequious flattery. He did not see a fat, toothless little lady of fiftyseven; he still saw his wonderfully sensual lover of eight years ago, and he saw the vigor, the boundless energy, the vast intelligence of the most powerful and fascinating woman in the civilized world.
Catherine did not question the compliment. Why should she? The young lovers who nightly brought their firm flesh and fresh skin to her bed reinforced her belief in her own sexual attraction.
"The latest report from our agent at Berkholzskoye indicates a somewhat ungovernable young woman," she said thoughtfully. "From all accounts the old prince has allowed her to run wild. His own misanthropy has kept her from any outside influences." She moved restlessly around the room, her loose caftan of violet silk swishing with every step. "I should have removed her years ago, placed her in the Smolny Institute, where she would have received the education befitting a girt of her rank."
"I think your decision to leave her with her grandfather while keeping her under surveillance throughout her growing was both wise and humane," Potemkin said firmly. "The story of her parents' death and the events leading up to it is well known, and to subject an orphan, torn from the only home and guardian she knows, to the taunts and whispers of the other pupils at the institute would have been cruel. She is a woman now, but still young enough for bad habits to be broken."
"General Prince Dmitriev does not seem overly concerned about the prospect of acquiring a wife with bad habits, " mused the empress. "But then the prospect of acquiring such a fortune would compensate for much." She laughed with the easy acceptance predominating at this worldly court. "His loyalty to us over the years has certainly earned him a reward, and if the hand and fortune of the Golitskova is his choice then it will serve our own purposes to perfection. He will make a steadying husband for her. The old prince has apparently seen to her schooling with exemplary attention, even if she has not been taught to accept the burdens and responsibilities of a princess of the house of Golitskov. Prince Dmitriev will be able to teach her that, and she will enter Petersburg society as the wife of a wealthy nobleman of the first rank. The circumstances of her birth and upbringing will be subsumed...