Light on Shattered Water
A big, white room.
The door closed behind me and I stopped, blinking in the light. Afternoon sunlight flooded in through latticed panes in tall, narrow windows that stretched from the floor to the high ceiling above. Everything was marble, white marble: The floor, the buttresses arching up to the ceiling, the ceiling and the carvings up there, the mantle around the fireplace in the center of the wall to my left. Over in the far corner was a russet carpet; sitting on that a desk and cushion, but no sign of any other furniture.
Nobody around, so I slowly walked over with my boots squeaking on the floor and breath frosting. There were paintings on the wall above the fireplace: important-looking Rris of indeterminate sex. Another set of white laminated doors in the northeast corner. The south and east walls were lined with floor to ceiling mullioned windows looking out over the palace grounds, also white: the forests and paths under their layers of snow, in the distance I could catch a glimpse of the lake waters glittering under a pale-blue sky. The desk was set low in the style of most Rris desks and made from plain, old wood, the surface scored with what looked like claw marks with a comfortable-looking beanbag-style cushion set behind it. My laptop sat on the desk, along with my solar pack, map, wallet, an inkwell and rack of quills, and several sheaves of paper covered with Rris script.
... here. Not Rris but [something] as [something] as Rris. Male. [Something] a form of [something] with well [something]...
I gave it up. My reading comprehension wasn't nearly up to that level, but I was sure they were referring to me. My laptop... I touched a key and the display flickered onto the screen it'd been on when last shut down: the movie selection.
"You... you must be... Mikah," said a voice from behind me and I froze. I hadn't heard anyone enter. Slowly I straightened and just as slowly turned. The last thing I wanted was to alarm the Rris king.
Hirht Chihiski, that was his name. I remembered that much from my lessons. He was standing in front of the other set of doors. Tall and slender, dark tan fur with dark stripes across his ribs and a lighter blaze on his throat, wearing a dark green sleeveless vest hanging open at the front and a russet kilt-like thing wrapped around his waist. A sheathed knife hung at his hip. He wasn't the grizzled old patriarch I'd been half-expecting. As best as I could tell he was young, and judging from his lashing tail and the lay of his ears, a bit worried. I caught a sudden tensing of muscles and stiffening of posture as he got a good look at me.
"Yes, sir," I answered after a pause.
Hirht stared for a bit longer, then slowly stalked forward with his claws sounding a regular staccato clicking on the marble. His eyes were green, like Shyia's, his pupils shrinking to sharp pinpoints in the light. "Red tie me," he murmured. "It is true. You can talk, can't you."
I smiled a bit at that. "Yes, sir. I can talk."
"Shave me." He walked a slow circle around me and the desk, looking me up and down. "You are... what is that word? H'uan?"
"Human," I corrected.
"That word." He said and got a bit closer, his nostrils flaring, then he winced and jerked back a bit. "Sorry," I said, "I haven't had a chance for a proper wash for some time."
"Ah," he said, snorting slightly through his nose, as if trying to dislodge a disagreeable scent. Probably was. "When I was told we had an unusual guest, I didn't expect you to be so... ah..."
"I think 'strange' is the word you're looking for," I offered.
"That..." he broke off. "I didn't mean to offend. You must hear a lot of that."
I shrugged and he flinched at the motion, "I'm growing used to it. I am a bit out of place here."
"Was that a joke?" he asked after a moment's reflection.
"Apparently not a very good one."
He blinked and almost smiled. "Maybe you just need practice. Like your speaking... You had to learn how to speak?"
"Your language. My kind have... our own language."
"Ah. So you're still learning. Give it some time."
"I don't think that will help. It's my mouth... I am not built to speak Rris. It's... difficult."
He looked a bit startled. "Well, then I think you're doing well."
Hirht blinked. "Is there also a reason you wear so many clothes?"
"Don't you find it a bit cold in here?"
He seemed a bit taken aback, glancing around before waving a negative. "It's a bit [something], but nothing so bad as to [something] that." He gestured at me, my clothing and jacket.
I brushed a hand down my lapel. "If I was dressed like you I would be dead quickly."
There was shock at that. "You really don't have any fur!" he blurted, then caught himself. "No, of course you don't." His claws clicked again as he stalked around behind his desk. "Of course you don't." Fur and the stuffing of the cushion rustled as he sat and settled himself. I shifted uncomfortably: tired and hungry and thirsty. "You know," he said, "I didn't believe them. I was told a Mediator had brought in a grotesque, oversized, bald beast that could talk and I didn't believe them. They showed me this," he reached out to touch the keyboard of the laptop. "It is very persuasive. Yours, isn't it."
He tapped out a random pattern on the keyboard before looking up at me, "Like a window to another world."
"I'd prefer a doorway."
Hirht blinked at me, then lowered his gaze to the laptop and his ears laid back. There was a heavy silence before he asked, "Could you show me more of this?"
Shyia hadn't had time to show him much. He could move the icon selection around, but that was about it. "What are you interested in seeing?"
"The Mediator said you had a lot more of pictures of your home. Show me."
I nodded and crouched to lean toward the laptop.
The Rris monarch just about went over backwards in his jerk away from me. I looked at him - wide-eyed with a hand hovering around his knife - then slowly and deliberately reached out to punch the macro that ran the slideshow and stepped back. Music sounded from the speakers, animations flicking across the screen. Hirht's eyes went from me, to the laptop and he moved his hand away from the knife. He was panting.
"I don't hurt people," I said. "I'm not dangerous."
He brushed at the fur tufts on his cheeks, collecting himself. "I... It is easy to hear that, not so easy to believe it."
I moved back a bit more and didn't say anything. He stared at me, wide eyes, then shook his head and turned his attention back to the laptop.
Sleek cars, tyres hissing and raising tails from rain-slicked roads reflecting the sodium and neon of streetlights. Sleek people in fashionably baggy suits and fedoras. Computer-generated humaniform robots extoling the values of soft-drinks. Water-slicked people on the beach, skintight bathing suits showing curves that disturbed me in a way I couldn't pinpoint. Aircraft overflights of valleys. Computer-generated shapes. Delta clipper launches. Astronauts on EVA at Alpha station. Rush hour downtown. Mountain biking...
Here, in this heart of Rris power, surrounded by nonhuman creatures and immersed in an alien culture, the scenes in the laptop seemed... remote. How long before my memory of these things seemed no more than that: a memory, distorted by time.
Dancing telephones. Amorphous black and white objects of textured human skin morphed slowly, suggestively glistening under drastic lighting. Children playing. Radically altered offroad buggys careening around an indoor course. F-22s engaged in a mock dogfight above the clouds...
"Can you stop this?" Hirht asked.
"Press the space bar... that long piece there."
He did so. "Those machines; they really fly? Humans ride in them?"
"You have flown like that?"
"Not in one of those," I gestured at the sleek lines of the F-22. "They're... military. There're other vehicles for passengers. Not as exciting to fly in. Get on, sit down, and hopefully it gets you to where you want to go without hitting something and you get off and try to find your luggage."
He started to say something, then his ears twitched like Chihirae's had done when I tickled the fur in hers. All he asked was, "What keeps them up?"
"Oh, Christ. I was an artist, not a... someone who makes things like that. I don't know too much about that. This will have a bit of information though."
"What kind of information? Can you show me?"
I leaned over the laptop again, ran the encyclopedia and a search then scrolled through the resulting hits. The screen flicked from text listings to diagrams and schematics. The king stared, his jaw twitched, then he asked, "What about ships?"
I listed those, from rowboats to racing yachts to aircraft carriers. Details on sails and hull construction and boilers and screws and paddles. Etc. He tried other topics: medicine, construction, farming and I got the distinct impression he was scrupulously avoiding any mention of weapons.
Hirht shifted in his cushion and just sat for a few seconds, then raked his claws through his facial fur. "Shave me," he murmured. "How much... how much of that kind of information is in that thing?"
How could I put that in terms he could understand? "A lot. Same as over a hundred-hundred-hundred books."
He stood in a single fluid movement, his tail lashing as he crossed to one of the windows and stood there, looking out over the gardens outside. I waited quietly, not sure what he was doing or even how he was taking this.
"What are you?"
"Sir?" I squinted into the light.
He turned and claws spattered on marble as he crossed over to me, closer than before. He hesitated, then reached up, paused when I flinched. "Don't," he told me. A single fingerpad touched my cheek, feeling like a patch of warm leather stroking down my skin. Utterly inhuman. I shuddered, flinched again when he touched the scar tissue and he pulled his hand away.
"What are we going to do with you?" he sighed and touched my jacket, running a claw up the zipper. "You, this device, that information... It's not going to be long before other kingdoms learn about you, if they haven't already. It's all going to go crazy."
I swallowed, afraid again. His nose twitched and he moved back, just a step. "What are you going to do with me?" A question I'd asked repeatedly and never got a satisfactory answer.
I didn't get one this time either. "We'll have to see," he said, then huffed and asked. "Is there anything you need?"
I looked down at myself and plucked at my jacket. "I... I haven't eaten for a while. And I don't remember when I last had a good wash."
He gave a small laugh at that. "We'll see what we can do."
Guards took me back to that tiny room.
I turned and asked, "Could I at least have a..."
The door shut in my face.
I sighed, then fumbled back through the darkness to find the cot and sat down to wait.
Maybe two hours. I was woken from an unrestful doze when the door was opened again and propped myself up on one elbow, squinting into the light.
"Ah, sir?" It was one of the guards, suddenly so much more polite. "Could you come with us. Sir."
I rubbed my eyes, still muzzy from fatigue, and followed them. They led the way through elegant halls, guarded doors, to a final dark-wood paneled corridor I'd get to know very well. Ten heavy oak doors along each side; tall, narrow paintings showing slivers of landscapes and cityscapes. Light came from a few hissing gas lamps. Guards stood in niches down the hall.
"What is this place?" I asked.
My guards flinched, one licked his jowls. "Ah... guest quarters, sir. Your quarters, sir. Courtesy of his Highness."
They led the way to a heavy door at the far end and ushered me in. I entered and stopped, somewhat taken aback. It wasn't the monk's cell I'd been expecting; in fact, if this was anything to judge by, things seemed to be looking up. I turned around, somewhat stunned by my sudden promotion in the general scheme of things. A big room, whitewashed plaster walls, the lower half covered with carved wooden paneling. Sunlight streamed in through mullioned windows set in an alcove in the far wall, the seats there were upholstered with green leather and gold buttons. To my right a fire crackled in its open fireplace behind a perforated copper hearth-guard, a stack of firewood in a box beside it. The black wooden floor was almost completely covered by a flat-woven dark green carpet inlaid with russet geometric designs while down the far end of the room a king-sized bed - a real bed - with a massive carved frame took up most of the available space. With all the furs stacked on it, it looked like a bear had crawled in there and died. Over in front of the windows squatted a low desk, really low: maybe fifty centimeters high with an inlaid top. A floor cushion was set behind it, decorated with orange and brown abstract patterns. Paintings hung on the walls: A landscape, a couple of Rris portraits and still lifes. A light fixed to the ceiling: a damn stupid thing like one of those cheesy wagon wheels they hang up in 'genuine western' eateries, with small gas-lamp bulbs around its circumference and a big glass hemisphere at its hub. Scarcely high enough for me to get underneath without having to duck.
"Sir," the guard spoke and waved to another door in the same wall as the door we'd entered through. "There are washing [something] in there."
I opened the door and looked. A bathroom with a floor of glazed, multihued tan tiles and a recessed circular wooden tub the size of a decent spa pool with a broad wooden sluice beneath the faucets. Wan sunlight seeped in through a narrow window, below that was a bench with a basin and some shelves holding bundles of cloth. In another niche was the toilet, with the same kind of seat with that raised piece in front of the groin. I'd learned Rris males can't urinate in a tidy stream as a human male can and if that piece wasn't there things would get messy.
"There is hot water," my guard told me and showed me. There were a pair of gold faucets on the wooden tub, one for hot and one for cold. I tried them for myself, touched the broad stream that flowed from the sluice and jerked my hand back. "Ah!"
"Nothing." I shook my hand, it wasn't scalding, but just the fact it was hot startled me. Most of my life it'd been something I'd taken for granted, now it was a luxury. "Just been a long time."
The guard's tongue flickered around his jowls; he looked confused, alarmed. "Yes, sir."
Back in the bedroom he showed me drawers built into the bed frame. "There are clothes in there. Ah, my lord said there'll be food arriving later. You have time to wash and rest."
"Tell him thank you," I said.
The guard ducked his head as he backed toward the door, anxious to be gone. "If you need anything, there will be guards outside." With that the door was closed. I heard the tumblers in the lock click into position.
The window had a second floor view overlooking the barely-tamed wilderness that was the palace's southern park and the ornate wrought-iron grillwork doubled as very serviceable bars. Maybe a gilded cage, but still a cage. I sighed, then went to see just how much hot water I could get out of that bath.
After an hour-long soak during which I must have dislodged a kilogram of dirt I roused myself, climbed out, dried off with a starchy towel and headed back to the other room and bed. My clothes - along with my boots - were gone; something I noted without much surprise or interest as I slipped between clean linen sheets. Despite its lack of pillows the bed was luxurious, soft and spacious and smelled faintly of something like potpourri and that scent's the last thing I remember of my first day in Shattered Water.
Something landed on my feet. I started awake, blinking groggily in orange-tinted early morning sunlight and wondering where I was, then rolled onto my back and looked up into a grinning Rris face. "Shit!"
"Morning and waking," Shyia greeted me then stepped back and looked around at the room. "Looks like you've plucked a ripe one here."
I sat up in a tangle of sheets and eiderdowns, trying to get my breathing back down to a more reasonable rate. "It's a nice change." I glanced at my watch, something I've learned to rarely take off. 08:14 am. "Do you have to wake me up like that?"
"It's not so early you know."
"I mean with all those teeth."
"That's how you smile, isn't it?" he asked, rubbing a finger across the desk.
"On you it's... not the same." I yawned and rubbed my eyes. Of course he'd known that. His idea of a joke, or... he was irritated at something. I grinned to myself, "How long are they keeping you?" I asked nonchalantly.
His head whipped around. "How did you know?"
I shrugged and rubbed gingerly at my scarred shoulder. "You're the only Rris in this city who really knows anything about me. Did you think they'd just let you walk out of here again?"
He looked out the window and growled softly, then eyed me suspiciously, "How long have you known that?"
"A couple of weeks."
His eyes narrowed. "You keep surprising me, don't you. You could've told me."
"I wasn't sure. Sorry."
He huffed, a glittering puff of breath momentarily visible in the chill. "Ahh. Well, they want me to look after you for a while. Until you settle in."
"That makes me feel much better."
The Mediator laughed at that. "I'm sure it does," he said and reached out to scratch an aimless pattern in the frost on a windowpane. "Now hurry and get dressed. His highness wants to see you again."
I groaned and got up, shivering in the morning chill; after the warmth of the bed it was fucking freezing in that room. He'd brought my clothes along, lying folded at the foot of the bed. My underwear, jeans, socks, a couple of shirts. They'd been cleaned and pressed, but there was no sign of my boots or jacket.
"Huhn, you look like a map," the Mediator commented. "How are the scars doing?"
I moved my right arm, flexing it, watching the raised tracks of scar tissue writhing over muscle. Felt stiff, especially on cold mornings like this. He kept watching me, head tipped to one side. "They really don't know what to make of you. Hirht's sent for some scholars from the [university? library?]; I think he wants them to shake your bushes a little, find out if you're really what you claim."
"What else would I be? Maybe this is a costume?" I gestured at my scarred hide and grinned.
"You know what I mean," he said and frowned. "And don't DO that with your teeth."
It wasn't something I could help.
Food arrived while I was pulling my pants up. A guard wheeled in a tray with a covered platter and his ears went back at the sight of me, bare-chested, half into my pants. Shyia waved at the trolley, "Leave that."
"Sir," the guard ducked and backed out.
"Hope he doesn't get the wrong idea," I told Shyia. He didn't get it.
Breakfast was meat, sliced into thin slivers and cooked in some kind of bitter-tasting sauce, several light pastries speckled with what tasted like sour cream, wholemeal bread, a wedge of pale cheese and a glazed ceramic mug of water. "You were asleep when they brought food last night," Shyia said. "Thought you might be hungry."
I was; It went down without touching the side while Shyia watched impatiently. When we left the room, the trio of guards outside the door fell in as escorts; I noticed the glances at my bare feet which were so radically different from Rris pads.
I wasn't sure where they took me. I thought it was the same wing I'd been in the other day, but it was a different room. A door was opened and I entered, finding myself standing on deep carpet among whitewashed walls with tapestries and bookshelves, a high ceiling, a fireplace taking the edge off the chill. A low table - only calf-high - filled the center of the room; oak, it looked like, with parquetry designs inlaid in the surface. Morning light shone outside the windows and the seven Rris seated on cushions along one side of the table turned as one to stare at me. "Shave me," one blurted, half-standing before catching itself sitting again with a few self-conscious glances at the surrounding Rris.
Hirht fanned a sheaf of papers on the tabletop before him, "Sahh, Mikah. Come in. Sit, over here. Mediator, that will be all."
I hesitated. Shyia patted my arm, then left and closed the door behind him. I glanced after him, then swallowed and did as the King had asked. Heads swiveled as I approached; the only place to sit was a round cushion on the unoccupied side of the table. I took it, gingerly sitting tailor-fashion while the Rris watched me like I was an act at a circus. Seven of them on their own cushions; individuals ranging in size and age, fur coloration varying from dappled sienna to smooth tan. There were a couple I thought were female, but I couldn't be sure, not with them seated and wearing winter tunics. Some of them had dyed patterns on their fur, one had a series of sigils shaved across dark cheek fur: the skin underneath was a lighter gray and speckled with stubble. The cushion was well used, worn to fit the shape of a body; only it wasn't a human body.
Hirht looked me over, like he was assuring himself what he'd seen the other day was real. There were papers on the table, also books, also my laptop, leatherman toolkit, wallet... Mine? I wasn't even sure I was my own property anymore.
"You rested well?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. Very well."
"Glad to hear it. And that bath has done you some good," he sniffed then said to the others, "Goodfellows, this is Mikah. The owner of these artifacts and a guest to our lands. He speaks - surprisingly well - but he does have a limited vocabulary and some trouble pronouncing some words."
An elderly Rris wearing a tooled and wool-trimmed brown leather vest gestured at me, then at the laptop, "You're telling us THAT built that?"
"Him or something like him," Hirht said. "Actually, I was hoping you might be able to help me determine that."
I looked around: seven pairs of eyes - green, amber, some almost red - flinched. "You don't believe me?"
The King waved his hand across the papers. "I have to confess I'm not sure what to believe about you. That's why these people are here." Introduction time. He started with the Rris to his immediate left. "This is Achir ah Ner, senior [something] of the [university? library?]"
Achir was an elder Rris with a broad face that was mostly tan fur, a white muzzle speckled with darker flecks, and lazy-looking green eyes. The simple rust-red tunic he wore was thin and couldn't have been much protection against the cold. To his left sat a Rris called Rasa, head of their animal studies department at the University. That was the one who'd been so surprised when I came in, and it was a female. Her pelt was an uniform dark tan with a few darker streaks around her ribs and through the thicker fur down her chest and belly, but her eyes were different: an amber so deep it was almost red. A rare trait for Rris, and - I was to learn - not a very desirable one.
Yase'tco was another elder one: white and gray fur, green eyes, a tip missing from one of his ears and some patches on his chest where the fur grew in wrong testified to a youth spent pursuing activities more exciting than senior study in architecture. Chirit maintained the university archives. I guess that explained his paunch and his gray, frazzled mane, but it didn't explain the nicks in his ears or the small scars I noticed on his chest where his shirt hung open. In a way he reminded me of the Liaison, Kh'hitch, but his personality wasn't what I'd have expected of a librarian. Beside him was Hai'kya, the university's senior technical lecturer; a younger sienna-furred male whose ears twitched nervously.
Chaeitch wasn't affiliated with the university. As near as I could understand he was a private entrepreneur, an industrialist, an inventor. A youngster in comparison with the others, he had an unobtrusive tawny pelt with a lopsided white blaze across his left ear. He was the one with the patterns shaved into his fur: small spiral sigils across his shoulders where grayish fell was bared. He'd practically invented the Rris steam engine. I was meeting the Rris equivalent of Thomas Newcomen. He was there in the company of Rraerch aesh Smither: a dignified looking female who owned the largest shipyard in the city as well as a number of other industrial institutions.
All prominent in their fields, all experts in their fields. I realised why Hirht had brought them here.
"You want them to say if what I showed you is real," I said when Hirht had finished the introductions.
He waved a small gesture of affirmation. "Can you show them what you showed me yesterday?"
I looked down at the laptop that was pushed down the table toward me, hesitated before opening it. The battery level was low and I didn't know what they'd done with the spare. "It won't be able to work for long," I told him. "It needs to... rest."
"Rest? Is it alive?"
"No." I frowned, thinking how best to explain this. "It is a machine, but it is like a fire. It needs to be fed to keep working. Does that make sense?"
Hirht pondered that, then said, "Just do what you can."
So I showed them. The slide shows, some of the simulators, maps and encyclopedia entries. The Rris watched, with growing interest and disquiet. There were mutterings, quiet asides and more and more often they asked me to stop, to go back, asking questions. When I was finished the battery level was flickering on the last line and Hirht looked at me, then asked Rasa, "Have you ever heard of anything like him before?"
She never took her eyes off me. "There is... I've seen pictures from Chihes Os [Lands-Beyond?] [Africa]. There are animals there that look like him, but from all accounts they're just animals."
The Rris from university archives looked uncomfortable. "I've seen the texts she's referring to and there are resemblances, quite striking too. Quite striking. But I've never heard tell of any behaving the way it... ah... he does. Never."
"Do you think it's possible that his kind actually comes from somewhere on another continent?"
"Sire," Achir said. "I think we would have seen some sign of them before this. If that's to be believed," he gestured at the laptop, "they've covered most of the lands. We would most certainly have run into them before."
Hirht flicked his ears back. "And what are the chances that that is telling the truth?"
"Then someone's gone to a lot of trouble to weave a lie nobody I know would be capable of." Eyes turned to Chaeitch who in turn was watching his fingers as his claws clicked on the table top. "Nobody I've ever heard of could make something like that [gadget?]. If they can do that, why not buildings like that? But I am curious about those flying machines: is there a simple [something] you could explain?"
"I'm sorry, but that word," I did my best to repeat it, "I don't understand it."
"Ah," he glanced at Rraerch who just smiled back. "Ah, is there a simple way to explain how it works?"
I thought for a second and called up a picture of a hot air balloon on the screen. "A simple way... If you make a very light round shape, like a bag, smaller than this one. Fill it with hot air. The hot air will try to rise and lift the bag."
He blinked. "That simple?"
"It's something that cubs make. There are other kinds but they aren't as easy to make."
Rasa reached out to tap a claw on the table, then leaned forward to ask, "You seem as intelligent as a Rris, but you are nothing like us. How can two kinds as different as our own succeed? Learn to think?"
The way she was eyeing me... it was like a taxonomist might scrutinize a previously unknown specimen. I swallowed and studied the pattern inlaid in the tabletop: a repeating geometric abstract that seemed almost Greek.
"Mikah?" Hirht ventured. "Do you understand the question?"
"I understand. I'm just trying to think how to answer." I sighed and gave it my best shot. "Time changes a lot. My kind started over the sea, the land you call Chihes Os we call Africa. A very long time ago, before we had tools or could even think. We were just animals." Ears went down around the table but I continued. "We weren't the fastest animals, we weren't the strongest, we didn't have claws or sharp teeth, so we had to use our brains and our hands. It was the smartest who lived to carry on those... characteristics."
"With Rris, I'm not sure what happened. Something that happened on my world didn't happen here. Instead of my kind... growing, your kind did. My kind is here... those animals you were talking about, I think that's what happened to my kind here."
Rasa sat stock-still for a few heartbeats, then said, "That idea... of [species] changing, that's... it's something that's being taken very seriously. You're saying it's true? That we did change from animals? Do you have Rris where you come from? What..."
"Good lady," Hirht interrupted her, "there will be time for that later." The naturalist subsided, her tail lashing to and fro behind her while the King looked further down the table, "Rraerch, you had something to ask."
Owner of a shipyard. Of course her question would have a bearing on that. "If your boats don't have sails or oars, how do they move?"
"You use steam? It is like that. Steam can turn a... a thing like a wheel with oars on it to move a boat." I saw both Rraerch and Chaeitch flinch at the mention of that, exchanging glances.
"I didn't see anything like that," Chaeitch said.
"We use another way. A... a..." I just didn't have the vocabulary to describe it properly so I used the laptop and the Britannica to illustrate how a ship's screw worked. Both the industrialists leaned forward, drinking in every detail.
More questions after that, from all of them. Mathematics, biology, metallurgy, construction techniques, agriculture... I lost track. The laptop died, batteries depleted, and I had to struggle on without it, using paper and charcoal pencil to illustrate points I couldn't describe. There were questions I couldn't answer: I either outright didn't understand them or they were in fields about which I knew little or nothing. Hour after hour it went on, until my voice started to fail and Hirht finally put a stop to the questioning.
"I think that will be enough for today."
"Sir," Rasa protested, "I've got more questions. I'd like to examine him. I have to have time..."
He raised a hand to cut her off. "There'll be time enough later. Mikah, thank you, you've been very helpful. If you would please leave us now, the guards will take you back to your room."
It was all I really felt like doing. I just ducked my head and stood, somewhat awkwardly: my left leg had gone to sleep. The Rris were silent as I walked to the door and I could feel them watching me, could hear the outbreak of voices as I closed the door behind me.
Shyia hadn't waited around. I couldn't tell if the trio of guards who escorted me back to my room were the ones who'd brought me out, but they kept their distance. I took my time, dawdling at windows where I had the chance, stopping to look at the paintings.
Almost all in a portrait format. The perspective, that was what was bugging me. Everything was compressed ever so slightly along the x-axis, appearing distorted to me. Also there wasn't as much depth to the paintings, the horizons usually just hints of color; as if the painting had been done by someone mildly myopic. The use of color reminded me somewhat of a Degas. Not only their color sense differed from mine, the actual way they saw the world: more vertical, less detail in distant or stationary objects.
The guards had their limits though, they kept me moving, politely and trying not to touch too much. Occasionally there would be other Rris in the corridors: servants in simple breeches or kilts or just decorated sashes. Nobles - not necessarily wearing more, but what they did wear was more elaborate: brighter colors, more jewelry, patterns shaved and dyed into their pelts. Invariably they moved aside and stared openly at me. Once, a noble - female by the prominent nipples - out with her entourage ordered the guards to stop so she could get a better look at me.
"Ma'am," the officer looked uncomfortable, "we're supposed to take him straight to the guest wing."
"Stop making noise," she brushed the guard aside and approached me. Barely up to my shoulder, pale tan pelt, strips of white leather hanging in loops from her hips, rust-red curlicues dyed in the fur of her chest. "Mothers milk! What is it?"
"A guest Ma'am," the officer replied miserably. Stuck between his orders and a hard place.
"A..." he never got beyond opening his mouth. She just reached out and touched my arm, then reached up toward my face. I flinched away from the visible claws and she hesitated before withdrawing her hand. "Ugly son, isn't it?" Her friends chittered amusement.
I didn't say anything, looked at the guard and saw his ears twitch down, then turned my back on the female and just walked away. Weapons clattered and claws pattered on marble as my escort hurried after me. Their officer glanced sidelong at me but didn't say anything. I made a conscious effort to relax my jaw.
There were deer in the palace grounds. I watched a buck with an impressive rack stalking through the snow at the treeline across the garden, hesitate with one hoof raised, then bound away until it was lost among the trees and frozen white mist blowing in from the lake. I rubbed a bit more of the frost off the windows, but there was no further sign of the buck or of whatever had startled it. I sighed, got up from the window seat and went to toss another log on the fire.
Not a lot to do. The guards had returned me to my room about mid-afternoon. The weather had closed in, the fog rolling in from the lake and covering the palace grounds with shifting banks of grey. I'd poked through the drawers in the low desk, finding something that might have been a blotter and a small wooden box full of fine sand, whatever that was used for. Not very interesting. I killed more time lying on the bed, studying the paintings and trying to figure out the styles and composition. The portraits: a dark, 'dramatic lighting' one of a sober-looking Rris noble whom I promptly dubbed 'Chuckles', a much lighter one of a nude individual I decided was female. Difficult to tell, even if she was naked. That inscrutable, slightly-dazed expression on her face that might or might not have been caused by a crack in the canvass made her an unmistakable 'Mona'. Last was a thickset elder Rris with a distinctive paunch and a lot of white through his mane and facial hair, settled comfortably in a chair beside a fire laid in a huge hearth; for some reason he struck me as a 'Henry'.
The sound of voices outside interrupted my reverie, a key turned in the lock and I sat up on the edge of the bed as Shyia entered with my laptop tucked under one arm, the door closed behind him. He tipped his head, studying me, before he asked, "How are you feeling?"
"His lordship said you were having trouble talking. They kept you talking too long, did they?"
"A bit." I rubbed my throat, "Speaking Rris can be like trying to swallow sand."
He snorted, almost amused. "I think you might have to manage. That aside, how did it go?"
"A lot of questions."
"What did you expect?"
"I know," I nodded, looked down at the pattern of the carpet. "I answered as best as I could. They have more questions, they were... arguing."
"Ah." He slowly bobbed his head and didn't say anything else, stalked over to the desk and folded himself down onto the cushion there, laying the laptop on the desktop. "His lordship wants you to fix this."
I shrugged. "Need the solar sheet. To feed it." Their language has nothing analogous to 'recharge'. "Or you could find the other battery."
"Ah." He looked down at the plastic case. "I'll try and get them. Is there anything else you need?"
"Would I be able to go out? Look around the town?"
He hesitated, "I don't think that would be possible."
"Just around the palace then?"
His ears went down. "I'll have to ask. Understand, Mikah, I don't have [something] here. My authority ended when we entered the city. I don't have any say in what happens to you, the best I can do is ask."
"Okay," I nodded. "Thank you."
He scratched at his muzzle with a single clawtip. There was something else on his mind. "There're already rumors floating around about you. His lordship knows it was impossible to keep people from seeing you, but he hopes we can keep your knowledge buried, at least for the time being. He would appreciate your cooperation in that."
"What does that mean."
"Try not to be too conspicuous. Don't talk around strangers and don't discuss what you are doing here with anyone. Understand."
"No. I don't. Who am I supposed to be hiding from?"
He laid elbows on the desk and leaned forward. "I'm not sure. I suppose... there are people in other kingdoms who wouldn't want us to get an advantage, merchants or guilds who might see new ideas as a threat to their income and lives. What some fool might decide to do..." He moved a hand in a Rris shrug, letting me make what I would of that.
"That is... likely to happen?"
"I don't know... It would be dangerous. For the Guilds it would be foolish. If one acted against you and was implicated, it would find itself [boycotted / embargoed] by everyone else. There are limits to their authority. Other kingdoms would probably face similar consequences."
"If anyone could prove they were responsible," I added.
"Ah," a grunt of assent that said he realised that. "That's not something to think about though."
True. It wasn't. "Do you know what happens now?" I asked. "After those questions... did they believe me?"
"They have more," he told me. "They all wanted more time to talk with you, so you will be seeing them and other people individually, possibly going over to the university sometime."
"What's that like?"
"I couldn't say. I've never been to Shattered Water before," he admitted.
"I thought you knew your way around."
His ears went down. "Huhnn, I've heard a lot from travellers and Mediators who've shifted out from here."
"What's it like? The town?"
He looked thoughtful and brushed the tufts of fur on his cheeks back. "A beautiful city, I heard. A million people. Biggest market in the land, with ships coming from kingdoms all over the waterways. Almost all the Guilds have enclaves, with some of the best craftsmen, artisans. Thihicarm armories have their works here, the best in a dozen kingdoms. Also the Smither shipyards and docks. The [heat / expanding-water / steam engine] was invented here... [Pubs / bars] with drinks you can't get anywhere else, theaters, [something] houses, the mint. There is the Itheminia gallery. The [aqueduct?] bringing water to surrounding lands is supposed to be impressive."
"I'd like to see some of those."
"Ah, I'm sure you'll get a chance." He stood then and strolled across to the window, reaching out to wipe a clear patch in the frost across the leaded glass before peering through. "Are you comfortable here?"
I plucked at my jeans. Those, along with my shirt just weren't very warm. "Can I have my clothes back? It is cold."
"Uhn," he turned to cock his head at me. "I'd forgotten... I'll see if I can get something for you."
'Something'. Not necessarily my property; if that was what it was anymore.
"Thank you," I said and he never caught the flatness of that, just scratched at his crotch. "Uhn, his highness also wanted to know what food you'd prefer. I told them how you like it cooked, but is there anything you want?"
Hopefully I asked, "Are there any plants? Maybe fruit?"
His ears laid back. Obviously wasn't his first choice of a meal, but he said, "I'll see what I can find."
It wasn't too bad. They burned the meat though.
I remember there was darkness. There were voices calling something I couldn't understand and I was running again. Trees ripped at me like claws and just as quickly turned into teetering jigsaw-buildings amongst whose alleys I caught glimpses of sinewy shapes moving whippet-quick while I tried to run again, heart laboring, and a snarling head lunged from shadows and there was that memory-picture of a wet gleaming mouth gaping wide as the fangs ripped through my face.
A gut-dropping sensation and I screamed and was aware I was sitting bolt upright, my legs tangled in drenched sheets while perspiration turned clammy in the cold air and I was gasping like a marathon runner. Shapes moved in the darkness and I jumped in utter fright as a half-dozen Rris materialized from the gloom. Guards, I realised belatedly, my heart hammering so loud that they must've heard.
"Sir?" someone ventured. I couldn't see whom.
Another noise, light as the door opened and more Rris silhouettes entered. "What's going on? Mikah? What's wrong?"
"Shyia?" I asked in confusion and blindness.
"Yes. It's me. What's going on."
"He was screaming," a guard said. "We came in and there was nothing. He was just kicking at the blankets."
There was a low hiss, then Shyia's voice again. "I see. The dreams again?"
I pulled the sheets up and nodded. Dizzy and confused and embarrassed.
"He dreams?" another guard asked.
"Wait outside," Shyia said and there was a hesitation before one replied "Sir," then came the sounds of metal and leather shifting as they exited.
Again a silence. I caught a flicker of movement then a more distinct shape as Shyia stepped into the patch of diffuse moonlight filtering through the windows, seated himself on the cushion at the desk. While he could see me well enough, that gave me something other than a disembodied voice in the darkness to focus on. "I thought you were over those," he finally said.
"So did I." My voice was rasping, my throat sore. I pulled the eiderdowns up over my shoulders and sat hunched down into them.
"Maybe it was too soon to bring you here."
I ran a hand through my hair, sweat slicking it back. "I don't know if that would change anything."
"It's... It's... I don't know. It's everything. A million Rris out there," I gestured at the window, "only one of me. All the changes. Everything just pulling me. It's like a river I'm drowning in. I haven't got any control."
"It's not so bad," I saw him making gestures, unable to really see any more.
As if you would know. "If you were in my place... If you were on my world, what would you do?"
He hesitated. "That's nothing I've ever experienced. It's difficult to say."
"You are alone. Everyone you ever knew is gone. There's nowhere to run to. You can't speak properly. You can't understand what's happening and people who see you run or hunt you down! Your life is never your own again. What would you do?"
I saw him cock his head and realised how passionate I'd been getting, just trying to make him understand. "I would survive," he eventually said. "There is always hope."
Survive. Hope. Transliterations of Rris words and concepts. I'm not sure I got them right and I'm not sure he understood what I was trying to say. I remember looking at him there, that shadowy figure sitting cross-legged on that cushion with his peaked ears twitching, his eyes flashing like a brief flare of sun off oil on water. A different species: how did he see the world? did he really understand how different I was?
His kind was a predator, had once preyed on mine.
Did those racial memories run both sides of the line?
"Do you want to try and sleep?" he asked at length. "I might be able to find some marijuana..."
"No," I interjected. A bad trip... I didn't need that. "Thanks. No. I'll manage."
"All right." He got to his feet in a single flowing movement. He hadn't paused for clothes I saw now. Shit, didn't the cold bother them at all? "The guards will be outside if you need anything," he told me. I just nodded and he left, the door flashing a wedge of light from the corridor as it opened and closed. I heard voices outside but the words were muffled and indistinguishable.
I lay down again and tried to get comfortable. For a long time I lay and just stared up into the darkness and it felt like it was staring back.
End Light on Shattered Water 11