Light on Shattered Water
We left the town of Lying Scales at 08:12 am by my watch, which I was beginning to suspect was an hour or so off. A smaller boat with a dozen oars giving it the appearance of a gargantuan water-bug towed the ship out of the protection of the breakwater. The wind caught the sails with a dull boom and the ship heeled about, tacking into the westerly breeze sweeping across the lake. Belowdecks I could hear periodic thumps as ice was broken by the hull and I fervently hoped we didn't run into anything thicker.
By midday the town was out of sight behind us. All around was nothing but lake and hills with snow-clad armies of firs marching down to the rocky waterline. Low clouds shrouded the peaks with indistinct gray. In the sheltered V where the railings came together at the prow I sat on the solid timber of the bowsprit and stared out through rigging and ropes across the metal-gray waters of the lake, the hills and clouds reflected there. The crewmembers sometimes stopped to stare at me before getting on with their duties. I had to notice they all wore peculiar-looking gloves: like cycling gloves with heavy pads on the palms.
"What are you doing here?" Shyia walked up to lean against the rail beside me, his travel-stained leather coat flapping in the breeze.
"It's the only place where I won't get in the way."
He grimaced at me. "No, I mean, what are you doing."
"Oh. Just thinking."
"Ah? About what?"
"Where my life goes from here."
He looked at me, then waved a hand out at the waters ahead. "Downstream, I think."
My turn to grimace. "In my language, that does not promise good things to come."
"I never promised."
No. He never had. "Well, I'm... happy you are here. It would be lonely."
He idly scratched at the railing with a claw, then tried to smooth the mar over with a fingertip. "The Commissioner wanted me along. He considers me an expert on you." He snorted at that, his breath freezing in the air. "He wants me to stay with you until you are settled in Shattered Water. After that..." he waved a shrug.
"You are someone to talk to. They," I gestured at one of the guards busy lurking nearby, "don't seem very talkative."
"You do take a while to get used to," he said, then startled me by patting my shoulder. "Don't worry. It takes a while, but it does happen."
I gave a smile at that and he took it as his due and stalked off around the deck, out of sight behind the sails. I turned back to the lake, the cold water, the mist, the stillness and wondered just how long it was going to take.
We kept heading in a southerly direction, following the convolutions of the shoreline. By that evening we were almost out of the lakes, down in the lower reaches of Thief's Lament and approaching the headwaters of the Runoff River. As the sun settled low and red beyond wooded hills, casting shadows of twilight and purple across the lapping surface of the lake, we rounded a headland where the lights of a small settlement nestled amongst the trees. I saw cubs run across the snow to the waterline, waving. I smiled and waved back and they froze, then ran away. I could hear distant cries.
The rest of the journey was peaceful. We made good time downstream through some impressive scenery. There were a few small villages and ferry crossings, once the skeleton of a vessel caught on rocks along the riverbank, but for the most part the landscape was pristine. The Rris hadn't invented synthetics or anything that was seriously non-biodegradable so there weren't any of the plastic bags, tires, Styrofoam bin liners and old refrigerators that decorated the waterways back home, here it was a white wilderness straight from a travel brochure.
It was another day and a half on the river. I'd never realised how good Rris night vision was until those nights. When darkness fell I'd expected them to put ashore, at least string lights out. They didn't. Some of the crew went off-shift, stringing up hybrid bunks and hammocks belowdecks, the others continued working. When I went abovedecks the ship was still moving and all I could see was the snow on the hills around, seeming to glow under a sliver of moon, and the river was a black ribbon with a slight glittering sheen. When that moon went behind a cloud all that was gone, it was black as pitch and we were still moving. Despite Shyia's assurances that they could see just fine it scared the living crap out of me and gave them something to laugh about.
The river leg of the journey ended at a town called Chaskerrit's Peak. An odd name, considering it was in a valley. I guessed there was a story behind that name as well. Somewhat smaller than Lying Scales, the town didn't warrant a garrison, but there were a couple of mediators based there who pulled the strings necessary to move on to Shattered Water.
Reindeer and sleighs.
Well, actually they were elk. It was another peculiar experience to add to my scrapbook - and it's getting to be quite a hefty one. Cats bundled in winter furs driving teams of elk: black harnesses and polished brass, it's an image that's stuck with me. The sleighs were actually quite beautiful; wooden chassis about the size of station wagons, with arched wooden-slatted roofs over the passenger sections at the back. The panelwork over the whole vehicle was decorated: engraved with with amazingly carved wooden panels depicting a spectrum of Rris activities throughout the seasons, figures that couldn't be more than a centimeter high, all done in miniscule detail. I spent hours just studying the little shapes, trying to decipher just what they were doing: farming, baking, riding, building, fishing, hunting, fighting, cutting wood, harvesting crops, metalworking, mating... Huhn. I grinned as I lay back while the sleigh shushed through the countryside: pity they weren't bigger.
It was a quiet journey, not entirely uncomfortable. Of course they didn't have shock absorbers, but Shyia'd had an entire herd of furs loaded into the sleigh I was to ride in. They helped keep the chill out and smoothed out most of the bumps. The road we were following was better demarked than the one from Westwater to Lying Scales had been: wider, straighter, bridges over the smaller streams, still not paved, but it was an improvement. It wound its way through what seemed an endless forest: pines, oaks, juniper, spruce, birch, poplar surrounding us, arching up to naked branches lacing overhead. Sometimes I caught glimpses of the rest of the broad valley: snow-bound trees lining the valley floor to the mountains to the north and south. For the first week or so we followed what back home had been the Mohawk River valley west from Chaskerrit's Peak. Not called the Mohawk here, instead it was the Wrongturn Tail. When I asked about that, Shyia told me it was after the Wrongturn Mountains: their name for the Adirondacks. Here the Wrongturn Tail - Mohawk - wasn't navigable by shipping, but they were working on it: I saw the works under way to install locks on the lower rapids and a small shantytown had sprung up around the earthworks. We steered clear of the place.
After the valley the world opened up. We skirted the northern tips of what I knew as the Finger Lakes and here were called the Bear's Whiskers. A beautiful area, I'd been camping there a couple of times back home. It was still beautiful, brushed in white with ice crystals wrapping themselves around every branch and twig, but the vineyards and resorts I'd known were gone of course. There were a few settlements along the shores of the principal lakes, mainly agricultural communities with farms along the icebound lakeshores. Shyia told me they also made incomes from trapping and fishing, and salt was mined in the southern reaches of the lakes.
The road improved. Rather, the forest hemming it in spread out and the undergrowth fell back to a respectable distance; the road itself was still lost beneath snow and we often passed between drifts stacked metres high. Lake Ontario - Rider's Song - was a sometimes-glimpsed shimmer on the northern horizon. When the road crested a hill I could catch glimpses of the landscape through gaps in the foliage: a landscape of trees and whiteness, mile after mile of it stretching away. Empty and cold, not a sign of habitation visible, and through it all we kept moving.
I don't know what kind of speed we averaged. Uphill was slow, downhill wasn't much faster; I guess it can't have been more than about forty kilometers a day. My atlas gave the distance between Troy and Buffalo as about 400 kilometers, as the crow flies. As the sleigh goes, I put it at about 550: Shyia's estimate of two weeks was a bit conservative. We lost more time on those days we couldn't travel, the three days or so we spent snowed in when the entire world turned white with freezing blizzard. Time crawled by and Shyia used it to continue my lessons. The other two guards who rode with us lounged down by the curtains at the back and watched with interest as he tutored me. My vocabulary improved even if my pronunciation didn't. In turn I gave him lessons on how to use the laptop. Teaching him English wasn't practical, so he had to memorize icons and sequences, but eventually he was able to work his way through the utilities, playing games and movies and MP4 music files. He developed a taste for some of Gary Moore's earlier work. You've never really had to question reality until you've seen a five-foot bipedal cat laying back listening to the extended mix of Over The Hills And Far Away.
The nights were dark and cold, with the temperature plummeting well below zero. Every evening we stopped; not because of any reluctance the Rris had with traveling in the dark, it was just that the elk suffered from similar limitations I did in regard to night vision. There were usually places to spend the night: clearings, places that were regular watering holes, small villages sometimes. I used the time while the fires were being lit to get some exercise. It was a time when I could stretch my legs and when the sling finally came off it was the closest I'd come in a long time to actually feeling in decent shape. Shyia, however, didn't like the idea of me walking around by myself: 'dangerous animals' he'd said and had made sure a trio of guards kept a close eye on me.
Food was... edible. For the most part it was meat packed in ice, thawed and heated in the evenings. The first couple of times Shyia had guards cook my food they burnt it: burnt on the outside, almost raw inside. After that he agreed to let me prepare my own meals. It was an improvement, but after a week of that I'd have given anything for a salad, a banana, even a bowl of cereal.
In the mornings the camp would rouse before dawn, eat, take their toilet stop, and be on the road before the sun fully cleared the horizon. It got to be a familiar process; one that repeated itself sixteen times before December 26th, the day after the most unspectacular, unusual Christmas I'd ever had and the day of our arrival at Shattered Water.
Settlements became more numerous: small towns and hamlets. There was more traffic on the roads: single riders on llamas or deer, sleds and sleighs, some wheeled wagons taking it very easy. We even passed signposts: I was able to make out the Rris scratchings spelling Shattered Water engraved on a stone marker peeking from under a cap of snow.
Gradually the forest began to peter out, surrendering the world to the hamlets, the orchards and vineyards, the farmland.
As the road dipped down from the hills to the flatter plains east of lake Erie the landscape showed more and more signs of Rris habitation. One moment you couldn't swing a cat for the trees, the next there were farms wherever you looked. For hours the road led on through drifts banked higher than my head, fields lying under their white blankets, small clusters of buildings dotted here and there. Gray smears of smoke rose from chimneys into a flat grey sky and I saw Rris out working, feeding cattle, cubs playing, whatever it was they wanted to do that winter morning. Several times we passed watchtowers, these with what looked like bunkers at the bottoms. Rris soldiery watched us and scratched themselves and up in the tower a light blinked out patterns toward the town.
Gradually the fields got fewer and the buildings and enclaves more numerous until we were in the suburbs of the city proper. Shyia cocked his head at me, "Welcome to Shattered Water."
A dozen times larger than Lying Scales, it followed a similar pattern: focal squares and plazas and parks throughout the city with intersecting boulevards radiating outwards from each, subdividing the city into separate quarters. Beyond the suburbs old walls surrounded the very heart of the city, stratifying the quarters like the rings in a log. It was built on the mouth of a slow river, the two halves of the city connected across the estuary by bridges of different designs and materials, some of the older ones with buildings on them. Where the river passed the walls there were towers to either side with the snouts of cannon poking from under tarpaulins. Under one of those towers a group of cubs were throwing snowballs at a target they'd scratched on the stones and the guards didn't seem to care.
Nobody bothered trying to keep the streets clear of snow here - in places it was banked up in drifts a couple of meters deep - so the sleighs were able to keep on going right into the city proper. We passed another wall like the ones at Lying Scales: an earthen berm, two stories high and very thick. Overseen by shuttered blockhouses at strategic points and armed guards on patrol. It stretched off to the north and south as far as I could see. In front of the wall a swathe of land about the length of a football field was free of buildings, dotted with cattle grazing on rolls of hay being dropped from a wagon. A product of the invention of gunpowder: the old curtain walls abruptly became obsolete when a besieging force could batter them to rubble from a distance. When they developed artillery even those earthen berms wouldn't be any protection.
But just the fact the walls were there... Every large town I'd seen so far had walls of some kind. Did they have need of them that often? Shyia had lectured me on the kingdoms often enough and I knew there was sometimes... friction between them, but how far did it go? Disturbing thoughts, but there was too much else happening to pursue them further.
We stopped inside the gates while Shyia jumped out of the sleigh to have words with some of the guards there. There was animated discussion, he produced a fold of paper emblazoned with a scarlet seal, then led a couple of soldiers over to look in the sleigh. I stared back and their eyes snapped wide. "As I told you," Shyia said to one of them, "King's business. Now, I asked for an escort."
He got it. Within minutes fifteen or so city guards mounted on llamas were flanking us as we made our way along the arrow-straight boulevard leading straight to the heart of the city. While the Mediator was distracted with looking out over the driver's shoulder I inched my way to the back of the sleigh, to a spot where I could catch covert glimpses of the city through a gap in the heavy leather curtains. The town was typical Rris: shops fronted with windows - some glazed, others with wooden shutters - other large buildings showing only walls and thin window slits. Houses built inside-out; like Lying Scales.
Rris and vehicles were moving aside to let us pass. I could see curious Rris staring after the procession, some irritated riders shouting things I couldn't understand but which can't have been very flattering at the guards. It was a ten minute ride to the end of the boulevard where it terminated in a plaza near the old center of the city: a circle lined with evergreens and statuary and waterless fountains that I caught glimpses of as the sleigh swung to the right and we followed another avenue, northwards this time. We circumvented a circular plaza buried beneath a layer of snow. A statue stood in the centre of the plaza, again covered with snow and ice, but glimpses of something underneath were disquieting.
North from that plaza there were more buildings, shops and industry buried in snow. I saw a Rris out with a shovel, shifting snow from a doorway while sunlight gleamed on a bronze plaque on the wall above. Further along we passed between a pair of old stone towers. They looked deserted, stark aginst the sky with snow sitting untouched on windowsills and the crumbling crenellations. Beyond a boundary delineated by those towers the city changed. There were larger enclaves along here: I saw manors and estates with sprawling buildings surrounded by snow-covered gardens and wrought-iron fences. Definitely upmarket real estate.
Shouting from up ahead and the sun was blotted out for a few seconds as we passed through a gatehouse. More shouting and the sleigh drew to a stop. A hand touched my left shoulder and I jumped, looked around into Shyia's frozen green eyes as he crouched beside me under the low overhead. "Wait here," he told me. "Just do what I say, stay here, keep calm and move slowly. Understand?"
He patted my shoulder again, then pushed the curtain aside and climbed out. I heard Rris moving around outside, their voices, then the curtains were pulled back and Shyia beckoned to me, "Come on. Out."
He held the curtain back as I climbed out and I hesitated there, squinting in the light. There was the gatehouse we'd come through: two stories of carved, marble-clad facade. To either side a high, ornate wrought-iron fence stretched off to the north and south. Rris were watching me; a lot of them. Armed and armored guards everywhere, muzzles and ears turning to follow me, amber and green eyes watching me. I froze, stared, slowly looking around at the guards on the top of the gatehouse, the ones nearby with hands fidgeting near weapons: swords and knives, pistols and longarms.
"Mikah," Shyia said again, more urgently this time as he beckoned me. "Come down... slowly."
Very slowly. I didn't jump, instead took the small ladder a rung at a time until my boots crunched on snow. I felt very small there, very exposed as I hunched down into my jacket.
"Shave me," a Rris hissed, "That is King's business?"
"Amongst other things," Shyia said. "I have the [something] from Lying Scales. Now, can we get him inside. I've come too far to see something happen to him here."
"Yes sir," the other said and tipped his helmet back a bit. "Follow me."
"Mikah," the Mediator patted my arm to start me moving and called to another one of our escorts, "Bring those packages. I don't want anything happening to them." Then his coat whirled around his legs as he fell into stride with me along a short road enclosed by the interlaced boughs of huge old trees.
That was my first impression of the edifice that came into view at the end of that road. Big, sprawling through snow-shrouded parkland. Walls of massive polished granite bricks, roofs and eaves showed copper-green under the snow: perches from where carved stone Rris kept a blind vigil over the surrounding lands. Windows were high, larger than on other Rris buildings. Winter sunlight glared as bright as molten metal from latticed panes while relief carvings of Rris and animals decorated the lintels. Wings and annexes spread hither and yon; haphazard at first glance - as if the architects hadn't been sure what they wanted - they didn't work by the rules a human architect would use. To my eyes the proportions were... odd, but in their own way they did work. The gardens around the building were expansive, stretching away as far as I could see, the boundaries lost in the scumbled blending of sky and icy trees. Not the kind of landscape I was expecting, nothing that'd be welcome at Versailles. No manicured lawns and landscaped flowerbeds and topiaries, instead these gardens catered to different tastes that ran to open fields of wild grass, icebound ponds and forests, fountains and streams. Acres upon acres of estate.
I wasn't given time to gawk. Gravel buried under snow scraped beneath my boots as the guards hustled me across the sweeping drive and up to the main doors: huge oaken things decorated with wrought ironwork. My boots tracked ice and snow onto the marble floor as we entered a reception hall: a two-story high hall with walls of fantastically grained and polished wood panels, a gothic arch to the ceiling where murals of Rris - dancing? fighting? - covered the length of the hall: a feline version of the Sistine Chapel. Tapestries and paintings hung from the walls: what could be heraldic devices mixed with portaits of various regal-looking Rris while a strip of burgundy and gold carpet ran the length of the room, covering an exquisitely inlaid marble floor. Expensively dressed Rris stared at us. Individuals, pairs and groups moving aside and staring openly as my escort led me through the hall. I heard muttering and exclamations rising behind us and I could understand, a fine sight we must have been, after that time on the road when the only washing facilities had been a damp cloth. We'd both certainly looked and smelt better.
More guards moved to intercept us at the end of the hall where a door opened onto another antechamber, a bulky civilian running up with a loud spattering of claws on marble floor, "What's going on here? What is this? Captain? Mediator? Do you have an explanation for..." it looked me up and down and nostrils flared, "for this?"
"Sir," the soldier who'd been escorting us bowed his head. "The Mediator just arrived from Lying Scales. Says this is King's Business."
The newcomer hadn't stopped staring at me: a somewhat... portly individual. On a Rris it looked strange, like a fluffy pillow, especially with those clothes: bloused pantaloons trimmed with lace. Streaks and curlicues of dark red and green dye colored his glossy brownish fur. Still, there was nothing foppish about his eyes. "This is King's Business?"
Shyia ducked his head. "Yes sir. It's a tale that would take a while to tell, but Mikah is important. I've been ordered to make sure he is safely received here."
"Me," I ventured. And the Rris' eyes widened, muzzle drawing back to reveal fangs. Guards stirred and metal clanked. "Yes, it talks. Surprise," I rolled my eyes.
"Mikah!" Shyia snapped.
"Sorry," I sighed and bowed my head to the other Rris. "Sir, I meant no disrespect, it is just that Rris reactions to me are... predictable. I am pleased to meet you."
Amazing how quickly he recovered his composure. It was just a second before he smoothed over the shocked snarl and looked back at the Mediator and his voice was loud in the sudden silence. "A long story you say. I think it's going to be worth hearing."
We'd been separated, despite Shyia's protests. The Mediator had been taken one way while a half-dozen guards escorted me off in another. The room they put me in was tiny: a windowless cubicle with only a Rris-sized cot, no blanket, no light, no heat and a lock on the door. All I could do was sit in cold darkness and wait.
It was a long, long wait through the night. I tried to sleep once and gave that up. There wasn't enough room to pace. I sat down on the cot and hugged my knees to my chest to trap some warmth. All I could do was shiver and stare at the dim line of light glowing under the door and wondered what was going on as I lost track of time.
It was many hours later before a key turned in the lock. I raised my head then turned away from the glare of the light as the door opened. There were voices, someone said my name and I squinted blearily into the light as the shapes of armored Rris appeared outside. I shrank back, shivering violently.
"You could have given him a blanket or a light," one of them said and I recognized Shyia. He'd cleaned up. He was wearing a white quilted sleeveless vest and brown bloused breeches that finished at his knees. His fur had been cleaned and brushed.
"Sir?" a guard asked.
"Never mind," he hissed and beckoned to me, "Come on, Mikah."
"What's going on?" I asked, not moving.
"You're causing waves again. Suddenly, there are a lot of people who want to see you," he said, and added, "They aren't the types who like being kept waiting."
"Is there any chance of having a bath or something first?"
"Not a very good one. Now, come on."
When I stood to follow my muscles ached from the cold and inactivity. The guards all fell back a little when I stepped out into the hall. There were eight of them escorting us, all with steel armor polished to a mirror sheen and carrying a mixture of clunky iron-and-wood firearms and more subtly lethal edged weapons. The corridors we walked through were spectacular: bright, with polished wooden floors, carpets and tapestries and paintings. The high ceilings were arched and crossed with wooden inlays in a repeating diamond pattern. In the center of each diamond was a small shield with what I took to be a heraldic device painted on it. Carved wooden paneling faced the whitewashed walls. Through latticed windows I could see the courtyard in the center of the palace, built to a... well a palatial scale, complete with ponds, fountains and a small forest. They liked their trees, the Rris did.
They took me to another wing and another room, this one much more elegantly appointed. Shyia patted my arm as he showed me in and closed the door behind me. I turned to face a shut door with a Rris' face carved in it, then turned again. Things had been changing so quickly, I felt slightly... stunned, like things were just flowing around me and I wasn't able to absorb them. Nice room... a study. There was the mandatory low-set desk in front of a window overlooking the courtyard, papers on the desktop and a typical Rris cushion-chair behind it. The ceiling was lower here, comfortable for a Rris maybe but uncomfortably close for me. A big city map, presumably of Shattered Water, covered a good part of a wall. There was a Rris in the chair behind the desk: it was the Rris official who'd stopped us, who'd bustled me and Shyia off in different directions. And he filled that position behind the desk very well. Furry folds blended in well with the folds of the cushion, almost as if he were a part of it. He reached out to lay a quill pen down on the desk but those amber eyes watched me: steady as two crystals. Shit, he reminded me of Elliot: a substantial physical bulk, and behind that a... a competence.
"Come in," he told me. "Sit down." A hand with gray streaks in the fur waved toward the cushion on the other side of the desk. I slowly crossed the ornate carpet and carefully sat, the cushion rustling as I put my weight on it and crossed my legs. Why the hell didn't they use chairs? The Rris behind the desk didn't blink.
"What are you?" he asked.
"I thought Shyia would have told you."
He cocked his head, "He told me. I wanted to hear what you had to say."
"I'm a male human."
"A strange word that doesn't say much." He glanced down at the blotter on his desk: there were papers covered with tiny Rris script there. He looked up again and leaned back, lacing his fingers across his ample stomach. "Ah, but where are my manners, I haven't introduced myself. I am Kh'hitch of Woodmaker, his highness' liaison to the city. Welcome to Shattered Water."
"I... uh, thank you, sir." He hadn't been nearly this friendly the last time I'd seen him.
"I've greeted a lot of visitors in my time, but you... I've never heard of anything like you. The Mediator said that you claim to have come from... what did he say? 'A world like ours, but instead of Rris it is populated with creatures like that'. This is true?"
"To the best of my knowledge it is."
"You aren't sure?"
I shook my head and he flinched slightly. "I don't know what happened to me. I don't know how I came to be here. All I can say is that somehow I came from my home to here; I don't know if that is true, I don't know if my home still exists. Maybe I've gone mad and this," I made a carefully restrained gesture at the room around us, "is all in my mind."
He blinked, slowly. "What do you remember?"
"I was walking. There was a noise, a bright light and... I was here. I didn't know it. I was walking for days before I found Westwater."
"A shock for you."
I looked at him, unable to tell if he was being facetious or sympathetic. "Yes. Quite a surprise."
"You met that teacher there. What was her name? Hiasamra'thsi? Chihirae?"
"It's good to hear that program is paying off. She almost killed you though."
"Almost. She also saved my life." I hesitated, then added, "She was a friend."
"Shyia mentioned that she seemed... attached to you. She was either sick in the head, or there was a reason. I'm hoping it was the latter. She taught you how to talk?"
"She has done a remarkable job." He glanced down at his desk and the papers there. "Now, Shyia also mentioned there was some trouble, the reason he was sent to Westwater in the first place. What was that about?"
I swallowed. Back to that again. "They said I... killed someone. There was a female who said I killed her... the male she lived with. I didn't."
"Why did she say that?" he asked and his voice was soft.
"Their house was the first place I went to in Westwater. There were several Rris there and when I saw them... when I saw Rris... I ran. They shot at me. Later I learned the male had been killed. The female said I was the one who had done it. I don't know why." I hesitated before adding, "She lied. About some things, she lied."
Kh'hitch made a noncommittal noise. "You have killed Rris though, haven't you. That's where you got those marks on your face."
I almost protested that; it was a different kind of situation. All I said was, "Yes."
"They would have killed me and the cubs who were with me. I didn't have much of a choice."
There was an interruption then. The door opened behind me and Kh'hitch looked up, his ears going back slightly. Then he waved a hand impatiently and said, "Bring it here."
Another Rris took a detour around me to lay a sealed envelope on the desk, then ducked its head to retreat and close the door again. Kh'hitch broke the red seal with a clawtip and read the contents. "Huhnn," he said, and scratched his muzzle with the claw, then laid the paper down and looked at me, "It would seem I've been [something]. His highness would like to meet with you. Immediately"
End Light on Shattered Water 10