Kirill trotted along the column, the spring sun burning hot and baking the procession. For miles, the Tsarina’s courtiers and retinues marched through the Crimean countryside, resplendent in their parade uniforms and garb despite the heat. Thousands of pages, servants, the Tsarina’s attendants and companies of the Imperial Guard, some mounted and others on foot, all marching behind the Mother of the Nation.
Zoya snorted impatiently and kicked the ground. “Shhh. Shhh dear.” Kirill whispered as he pet his mount. A strong Don breed, Zoya was born to run for miles not trot in formations. He pet her again and adjusted his sabre.
The fields of grass and dirt patches stretched out as far as the eye could see. The sky was cloudless and a sun-bleached blue. The sound of a thousand marching feet filled the air and a light gust of wind wisped over Kirill’s face. The weight of his carbine was discomforting on his shoulder. He hated the lump of wood and metal. Try as he might, he was a middling marksman on the best of days. He preferred the lance and sabre, the way his father and grandfather had fought. To add to the discomfort, his uniform was constricting and hot. But the court had taken a fancy to Kirill’s company and loved the romantic image of the rugged and exotic Cossacks riding in full regalia under the Imperial colors.
Colonel Milyukov rode up alongside Kirill, his face locked in its perpetual frown.
“Lieutenant Yashin!” the colonel exclaimed, his St. Petersburg accent thick as molasses, “Order your men to reform your riders closer to the procession. We mustn’t let any brigands near her majesty.” Kirill saluted and the colonel rode off to the head of the line.
A fool choice, Kirill thought to himself. His Cossacks would be better served on the wings, scouting for threats and provisions rather than tucked in with no space to ride. Worse still the column was loud and made foolish errors, marching against the terrain. Too little ground covered and their presence was announced miles before they arrived. This may have served well for introducing the peasants and serfs to their new empress but made Kirill squirm with discomfort.
But what was he to do? Colonel Milyukov was of the Preobrazhensky Guards and one of the personal nobles in charge of the security of her majesty. An old silver-haired crow of a man, he had spent far too much time in the parade grounds with European-trained musketeers. Always fussing over uniforms and the cadence of marches, he could usually be found stomping about the army camps, inspecting the equipment of unlucky soldiers. The scouts and the provincial troops joked he’d spent too much time with the armies of Vienna and fancied himself a Habsburg Cuirassier.
He signaled to his riders to close in and slow their pace. They grumbled and gave foul looks to the perfumed and sweating horde they rode along but complied with the order. Slowly, the Cossacks joined the column, lances and muskets held lazily at rest. Both the men and their horses fidgeted and scanned the horizon, longing to ride at speed along the open fields and hills.
The Imperial and regimental flags stirred and beckoned with the breezes. Seeing them in the air, Kirill considered the choice to serve in the army. It was his kinsmen who’d fought against the Tsar generations before. Back in times before the musket and the crown, they roamed the steppes and fought any who dared face them, be they Russians or Turks. But now, he had kopeks and steady meals. He had received an officer’s commission and had a state to call home and a sovereign to bend the knee to. What did he know of the old times? The elders didn’t think much of him. Іноземець, outsider they called him. Not a true Cossack. Just another peacock, prancing and strutting for scraps and attention.
Kirill sighed and continued on. The sun continued to beat down on him and he wiped fresh sweat from his face.