Light on Shattered Water
Shyia brought my breakfast again in the morning, just as the first sunlight was filtering across the horizon. I hadn't eaten the previous night: I'd crashed as soon as I'd got back to my room. I guess whoever prepared my meals took that into account because my breakfast was large with things like hot cheese scones with melted butter, a drumstick of what tasted like turkey, blueberries, and a glass of water.
"Hungry," Shyia commented as he watched me eat. "They didn't know whether to wake you for food or let you sleep. Huhn. How is it going?"
I chewed and swallowed my mouthful of turkey. "How much longer is this going on?"
"I don't know." He settled himself in the window niche and watched the dawn outside. For a while I ate in silence, then he asked, "What are they doing to you?"
"They want... they want to see how I work." I gave him a few details and his ears went down. "Are they hurting you? I'm sure his lordship would order them to..."
"No, not hurting. I will survive. It could be worse." Hell, if our positions were reversed: if a Rris had ended up on my world the medical examinations would be a hell of a lot more uncomfortable. "You were the one who told me it would be bad."
"Huhn," he grunted and there was another moment's silence. "They've got something else for you today. I heard you're meeting with someone called Chaeitch ah Ties. You know him?"
"I've met him." The young Rris who'd been present that day Hirht introduced me to some of the Rris I'd be working with, the one who was working on the steam engine. "Do you know what he wants me for?"
He snorted. "You know about something he's probably spent a good part of his life developing and you ask what he wants to talk to you about."
He looked out the window again and scratched at his right cheek. "I've been wondering how long before something catches fire."
"What do you mean?"
"Huhn. Talk about you... it's spreading everywhere. Other kingdoms are going to hear about you, if they haven't already. They're going to start asking questions, then making demands. Depending on how his lordship handles things, there could be trouble."
His tongue flicked across his nose and he looked away. "Hard to tell. But, an insect falls into a fish pond, it doesn't last long."
Great. I lost my appetite.
It was about forty-five minutes later when the guards came for me. The laptop had charged and Belfast Child sounded through the room. When he came through the door the officer stared at the laptop for a few seconds. One of his ears flickered a couple of times then he turned to me, "Sir? Could you come with us. You might want warm clothes. Also, bring that." He gestured at the laptop.
Same procedure as the last two days: carriages waiting at the postern gate. Two guards rode with me in my carriage as morning sunlight filtered in through the warped glass and I held the laptop to stop it bouncing around too much. This time the ride took longer and we didn't make the same turns. Outside I could hear shouting Rris, animals, wheels on the streets and also the sounds of construction: hammers and saws. I climbed out when the door was opened and squinted into crisp winter sunlight. We were in a large courtyard surrounded on three sides by high brick walls and buildings, the other side was dockside, crowded with snow-dusted stacks of crates, barrels, timber and milled lumber. There were ships docked there: four fat-hulled things with two masts lay at anchor. Another two ships were dry-docked at the end of slipways while a few cold-looking Rris workers labored at scraping down the hulls. The harbor was a deep bite out of the city, probably a river mouth, protected by stone breakwaters at the mouth to the west. Sheets of ice crusted the water, especially closer to the shore. I could see more boats and ships at anchor on the docks across on the southern side. Further along the docks were buildings: a series of big wooden sheds that had the Spartan look of warehouses built right out on the edge of the docks. The chill blowing in off the lake brought tears to my eyes and went right through my coat; I pulled my gloves out of my pockets and pulled them on.
"Sir?" The officer and his guards were waiting for me. "This way."
I followed them across the docks toward the buildings while workers took time out to stare at me. A foreman howled in outrage and paraded around, waving his/her arms to get them back to work. My guards shifted a bit closer and kept their weapons ready.
The building wasn't a warehouse, it was a covered dry dock. Inside was a large workspace with another ship in there, or parts of a ship. It was still under construction, just a keel and ribs surrounded by scaffold, ropes and tackle, stacks of lumber and racks of tools. Light found its way in through small windows high in the walls, water lapped under the big doors at the foot of the slipway leading down to the waterline. Apart from that, the building was deserted.
My escort led me on through to another door on the far side of the shed. Beyond that was a small hallway with a rickety staircase and another door with a couple of soldiers on guard. They ducked their heads to the officer and stepped aside to let us through.
It was another construction shed, even larger than the other one and as cold inside as it was outside. The ribs of a half-completed hull were nestled in a web of scaffold like the ones outside except for the paddle wheels mounted on each side and the stubby funnel rising from the wood-bound boiler. Tools of all descriptions and a few that defied it littered workbenches, along with sections and pieces of wood and metal. Hoists, ropes and chains hung from the ceiling joists, hammered panels of metal stood propped against walls. There was a Rris sitting on a pile of lumber with his back to us, tail twitching as the person regarded the carcass of the ship. Didn't even notice us until the officer spoke up, "Sir?"
"Uh?" The Rris turned, taking a smoking corncob pipe out of his mouth and his ears flicking up, "Ah! About time." I recognized him now: Chaeitch ah Ties. In a flowing move he was on his feet and hurried over, ignoring the guards and grabbing my arm without any hesitation. "Come on, come on. Here." He pulled me over to the boat. The port-side paddle wheel was taller than I was. "What do you think?"
"Very nice," I said. "What is it?"
He gaped at me.
"Sorry," I said. "Joke."
"Joke?" He stared at me and took a puff on his pipe while his fur settled down again. "I didn't think you were the type." He hesitated again, taking the opportunity to tap his pipe down. "You do know something about these?"
"I know a bit. Not too much. I was an artist, not a... a... someone who makes these."
"[Shipwright]," he offered.
"But you know a bit. What do you think of this?"
I had another look. When I was a kid I'd built a model steam engine, a small brass one based on James Watt's original design. I'd lathed the shafts and screws down myself. It worked. It leaked and jammed and whistled, but it worked. The Rris steam engine worked on the same principle: a single-expansion engine with boiler, piston chamber, a weighted wheel that I realised replaced the unwieldy walking beam and piston shaft driving a gear train which in turn powered the paddles. Steering was by a rudder. A hell of a lot bigger, but I could make something of what they were doing.
"Be better steering by changing the speed of these," I said, patting a wheel. "Also, you are using a... one-time system for the steam. You get more power from a... a more-than-one-stroke, also use less... wood."
"Multiple-stroke?" he looked thoughtful.
I put the laptop down on a handy bench and climbed inside the scaffold to get closer to the guts of the engine. "Here," I pointed to the valve assembly on the piston. It was all in brass. "Steam is heated, it pushes this out, then in again, then the steam comes out here, right?"
"You can use the steam again. Steam pushes when it heats, but when it cools it pulls." I moved my hands, trying to demonstrate. "Get rid of this," I patted the metal wheel intended to power the piston on its return stroke. "Now, steam looses power, expands. Use more than one cylinder. Use small cylinder, then used steam goes on to larger cylinder, then larger one. Understand?"
His tail lashed slowly as he squinted at the engine, took a long drag on his pipe. "I think I see... Multiple cylinders. I'd been considering... it works? Better?"
"Much. More power, less fuel. Look." I took him back to the laptop and fumbled with gloved hands to load an animation showing a triple-expansion engine with its steam tubes running through the fire cylinder. Looks easy enough to build, but I wasn't sure Rris industry was up to it. The pipes and cylinders had to be cast properly and sealed by advanced welding techniques. A fault in a boiler and the thing could go off like a bomb.
I translated the animation's narrative as best as I could, again stumbling through that uneasy territory where concepts and words that just didn't translate made a linguistic fog. He listened attentively and often asked me to stop the animation to have a closer look at something. When it was done he touched the plastic casing and tapped it with a claw, "Shave me, to be able to carry a library around with you... I don't think I'll ever be able to look at a quill the same way again." He snorted: a cloud of white condensation. "Ah well. I think we'd be more comfortable talking in the office."
The office was upstairs. It was a little room with racks of scrolls covering a wall, a low desk with a pair of capacious beanbag-style cushions, a single grubby little glazed window rimed with frost and - most welcome - a fire in the potbelly stove. I made a beeline for it, my hands just about touching the hot iron as I tried to work some warmth back into my chilled extremities while Chaeitch bustled about collecting scrolls and papers. He looked surprised when he saw what I was doing. "Ah? You're cold?"
"It's not the warmest around here."
He glanced at the window and the snow falling out there and his ears went flat. "Rot it! I forgot! They said you were [something] to cold. I forgot. I shouldn't have kept you down there... oh rot it. I'm sorry..."
"Don't worry," I interrupted. "I'll thaw out."
"Oh." His eyes flickered sideways, toward the door and the guards who were waiting outside. "Would you like some wine? That can help warm you up."
Rris wine. I hadn't had alcohol for... how long was it now? Months. It was the first time anyone had offered me any. "Please. I'd like to try some."
He ducked his head and fumbled out a pair of Rris mugs and poured from a wide-bodied glass bottle wrapped in a wicker framework. I took the proffered mug and sniffed: smelled like wine, with an unfamiliar undertone. Chaeitch took a swallow and busied himself spreading scrolls out on the desk and weighting the ends down to stop them rolling up again. I took a sip of my own and coughed. If it was wine it was about fifteen percent alcohol, and on top of that it was spiced. Chaeitch's ears went flat against his head. "Fine," I assured him. "Fine. Just a different taste."
Not too bad once you got used to it, and he was right; it did seem to warm you up. Or at least numb you to the cold.
The papers and scrolls he'd produced were plans. I recognized the details of his steam engine. None of the plans were real blueprints or technical drawings. They were just hand drawings. Detailed, that they were, but they reminded me more of sketches from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook than a diagram from a technical engineer's drawing board. Measurements and notes in cramped Rris crosshatched cuneiform scrawled in red and black ink everywhere, so cramped I could only make out the odd word. Tough to follow but it gave me an idea of what they'd done to the inside of his engine.
We spent the entire day poking through those papers. Jesus, when he got going he was unstoppable. He knew every inch of that steam engine, he didn't have to even glance at the plans to tell me about something: why something was done in a particular way, what an individual piece was made out of. It was something he'd designed himself and practically built himself. His baby.
I guess I was expecting him to be somewhat pissed at me, at least a bit disillusioned. I mean, he'd built something he'd believed was unique, something that would change the world, and he was right in that. Then someone - not even someone he might consider a person - appears out of nowhere and tells him it's an old hat. I think I'd at least be annoyed, but he didn't seem to give a damn. I was a source of information, and he used it as best as he could.
Engines of all types: steam, rotary, internal combustion, wind power, solar, electric motors. Those last were a bit beyond him, but he was quite taken with the concept of the steam turbine.
"An [something] idea," he enthused, then scratched at his chin. "Difficult to build. To move at the speeds you are saying... I doubt we could work to such fine [tolerances?]. How can you lathe out a chamber from solid metal? What material are the bits made from? Something that can cut iron..."
Talk went to methods and materials. Easy to see how something works, but how the hell do you make tungsten-carbide steel? Carbon-fiber? Synthetic Spidersilk? Heat-resistant ceramics? The answers were in the laptop, but from those answers more questions propagated.
The guards brought more wood for the fire and later, lunch. Slightly stale bread, the baked fish was a lot better. They also brought water, which went largely untouched while there was still wine in the flask.
Much later that afternoon Chaeitch spread his notes out across the desk and raked his claws through his cheek tufts. "Rot me... I never dreamed there could be so much. You need tools I've never heard of just to build the tools to make these things. Metals, chemicals, tools... Everything is linked to everything else. Where the rot do you start?"
"The beginning is always a good place," I said.
He snorted. "Seriously."
"Seriously." I sank back in my cushion and contemplated the piles of notes and scribbles on the desk. Where did you start? "I'm not too sure. Keep it simple. Start at the bottom, maybe better furnaces? Then better metals and tools... build up from there."
Chaeitch flicked his lips back and hissed through his teeth then reached over to run a single digit over the laptop's keyboard. His claw sounded click, click, click across the plastic. "His lordship had wanted to try and keep this within the workshops here. I don't think that's going to be possible. I think I can [something] the [something] engine. I've got a few ideas to work from, but the rest... I think it's going to take a long time."
I nodded and sighed, "I'm not going anywhere."
He blinked, then asked, "How long are you staying?"
"What?" I stared, not quite sure I'd heard him right.
"How long are you staying? I mean before you go back to your home?"
"Didn't they tell you..." I swallowed, and told him, "I can't go home."
His irises flicked to black pools with a lambent corona. "I... they said you came here by accident; you are a guest. I didn't know you couldn't go back."
"It's no great secret." I said and reached for my mug, polishing off the last dregs in one mouthful.
Chaeitch stared at me a while longer, then asked, "Another?"
The guards came for me later that evening. They were polite but firm when Chaeitch wanted more time. "Ah well," he hissed, his tail lashing, "Until next time then. I'll have another bottle waiting."
"Sounds good," I smiled and he only flinched a little.
Dark again outside, cold enough to freeze sound, but the sky had cleared and a blue moon hung over the skyline. My guards' breath were puffs of crystal in the moonlight as they escorted me across the shipyard compound to where the wagon waited. Rris voices called out questions from the darkness and a couple of my guards replied, telling them to go home.
22:46 by my watch. I did my best to doze during the ride back to the palace, gave up after I'd almost been jolted out of my seat for the third time. My guards were watching me. I stared back, then on impulse asked, "Is this what you joined for?"
They both looked surprised, then confused. "Sir?" one asked.
"This," I gestured at the cab, "This is what you were expecting when you joined the guard? This is why you joined? Did you want excitement? See new places? Money? Maybe you liked the uniform?"
The younger one on the left snorted a burst of laughter, the older one took a closer look at me and sniffed, then reared back. "You've been drinking?"
"Only to excess." In the darkness I saw them both stiffen, as though I might launch myself at them. "That is a joke," I hastened to add.
"Huhn," the older one rumbled. "He gave you wine? I'm not sure..."
"Lighten up," I said. "I only had a few."
"I think it might have been a few too many," he said.
I didn't feel drunk. Effervescent, maybe, more mellow than I had for a long time, but not drunk. Was that forbidden to me also? That realization came like a splash of cold water in the face. Conversation lapsed for the rest of the trip. My guards were more tangible shapes in the darkness opposite. Dim patches of moonlight periodically washed through the windows as the carriage rattled through the cobbled streets, the dim, blue-tinged illumination painting the pair in eerie half-light.
Back in my quarters there was a fire roaring away in the grate. It took the edge off the chill, but couldn't do much more than that. I dragged the cushion across and dumped myself into it, wrung out after a long day. Minutes later a mute servant ducked in to deliver a covered tray and retreat again with tail lashing. Dinner: Chunks of liver cooked to some degree with side order of salad, berries, bread and water. I was hungry enough to eat it. Maybe I was drunk I reflected as I pushed the remains of the meal away. Liver... unggh.
A scratching at the door heralded the arrival of Shyia. He closed the door and hesitated, eyes flashing like oil on water as they caught the firelight. "The guards said you've been drinking."
"Did they," I said.
He coughed, "Chaeitch wasn't supposed to do that. They really don't want you... doing things like that."
That rankled. "Goddamn it! Why? It was just a couple of cups. I'm not going to go crazy."
He didn't say anything but his tail lashed.
"That's it, isn't it," I sighed. "They don't want me getting drunk. 'Monster goes crazy. Kills eight.'... Shit, Shyia, I can handle my drink."
"The guards said you were acting a bit... strange."
"There's a difference between strange and drunk, isn't there?"
"In your case?" He bobbed his head from side to side. "Who would know?"
"I do. And I know I wasn't drunk. I've had stronger than that."
He raised a hand to scratch at his ears, maybe to also try and hide the fact they were laying back. "Mikah, I really don't have the authority... If his lordship doesn't want to risk you drinking something you shouldn't, there isn't a lot I can do."
"They'd listen to you," I said. "They think you're an expert on me." The Mediator's eyes flickered but he didn't say anything. "Chaeitch treated me like I was a person. He talked normally, he joked, he offered me a drink... Not many Rris do that."
"No, they don't, do they," he said and scratched at his ear again. "I will do what I can. No promises."
"No expectations," I said and this time he didn't try to hide his ears when they laid flat, he just turned and left, the sound of the latch closing quite loud in the stillness. I sat for a while longer, not really intending to doze off.
The water was as dark and sluggish as oil, swirling around me. A speck of light fell into the depths, glinting like metal as it spiraled away into the depths and the river swept me away. Downstream, buffeted by the current like a twig, and the river branched, branched again, moving onwards, viscous, endless, the trees on the banks hunched and stunted. Darkness moved across the sky, twisted limbs knitting in a net that captured the moon and the blackness closed over me and I fought and...
Woke gasping and lunging on the floor before the fire, feeble light of dying embers outlining the inhuman silhouette of a guard, glinting highlights off armor as the Rris bobbed uncertainly on his ankles, "Sir?"
"Uhnn?" My muscles protested as I tried to sit up, cramped and getting cold. "What...? What's going on?"
The guard shifted around, keeping a safe distance. "You were sleeping badly."
"Oh." I sat dumbly for a few seconds, then rubbed my eyes and flicked the light on my watch: 03:26. God.
"Are you all right?" the guard said.
I saw the guard's ears flicker back and tail lash. "Perhaps you should be in bed? It would be more comfortable."
"Yeah," I nodded. At least there was only one guard this time, not the whole damn squad like last time. The guard watched me warily as I got up, yawned and still watched me as I stripped to get into bed. I realised I didn't know the bug-eyed guard's gender, then realised I really didn't give a fuck. Give them something to gossip about.
The guard was still staring. "Is there anything else?" I asked.
"Ah?" The guard flinched, then laid ears back, "No sir. You will be all right?"
"Yeah," I nodded wearily. "I'll be fine."
With a respectful duck of the head and a glimmer of brighter light as the door was opened and closed, the guard was gone. I lay back under the mountains of sheets and furs and tried to listen to the silence of snow on the windowpanes.
The following days followed the same tracks: early mornings and late nights, a lot of work. I went to bed exhausted and cold and often hungry. I guess the cooks did their best, but they were still learning just what I found edible... and that didn't consist of just overcooking a heart. They didn't seem to know the meaning of weekends, or if they had them, they didn't apply to me.
For the next week or so I had more meetings with Chaeitch. Sometimes with him alone, a couple of times with other Rris associated with his guild in various capacities: engineers, metallurgists. There were more questions of course and a couple of times Chaeitch took me down to the workshops where Rris were working on the steam engine.
Every time I went in there something had changed. On the first trip the paddle wheels had vanished and I could make out the props and braces where a driveshaft was going to be run out through the stern. On the following visits the engine itself was being reworked. I could recognize the changes being made to the boilers and steam lines where they were intending to install secondary piston chambers. Chaeitch showed me parts of the drivetrain they were working on, a gearbox to let them increase the gear ratio. He explained they wanted to build a high speed pump to power a blast furnace, so there was more work to do on that: researching the compressor and the material needed to line the converter. They were also making some progress in processing tungsten: they'd at least been able to identify most of the chemicals used in extracting it from the raw ore.
That was essential to the refitting. We needed to work to much higher tolerances and harder materials than the Rris were accustomed to, and to do that we needed better tools. High-carbon steel bits would cut cast iron, but to cut steel we needed tungsten bits on the new machine tools the Rris wanted: the lathes, die presses, saws and planing machines. They were coming, but again they'd take time.
Days I wasn't at the workshop I spent over at the university. The Rris doctors had a seemingly endless number of tests they wanted to try on me: How well could I see? How strong was I? What kind of endurance? What light levels did I find comfortable? What kind of temperatures? At the same time they were absorbing and mulling over what I could translate from the medical resources in the laptop: tidbits about diseases and viruses, operating and first-aid techniques, antiseptics and the two-edged sword of antibiotics. Their microscopes were still in their infancy: enough resolution to make out some of the larger inhabitants of a drop of water. A Rris savant in another town had been postulating that these might be responsible for diseases and illnesses. I remembered Chihirae saying something about that back in Westwater.
It was another four weeks, my watch telling me January had turned to February, before I had something extra added to my schedule. I guess someone complained about the effect my difficulty with the Rris language was having: slowing things down while I struggled to make myself understood. In any case Kh'hitch was the one who led me through the palace corridors to another wing. The library was constructed along Romanesque lines with a central 'nave' bisected toward the far end by a perpendicular transept and separated vertically into two tiers by a wooden balcony. Each of the tiers was lined floor-to-ceiling with shelves and these in turn were packed with books and scrolls and envelopes and wooden tablets. Sunlight streamed in through an arched stained-glass window high in the far wall, throwing shards of multi-hued light across the maroon carpet that ran the length of the room. Low-set desks and cushions were set out like pews in a church. Mobile stepladders squatted at the foot of the shelves. If the library had ever been a busy place, it was deserted now.
I followed Kh'hitch's substantial bulk along the 'nave', squinting into the brilliance of the stained glass: A stylized sun flared against a darker backdrop. To each side the shelves were weighed down by bulky leather-bound volumes: brown, red, some stark black covers. Gold and silver foil embellishments gleamed. We passed a rack of books behind glass, the leather bindings and covers so worn that on most of them whatever had originally been there had been polished down to a few flakes of gold foil or a few etched lines. "How many books?" I asked.
The Advisor snorted, his breath condensing. "Nearly a thousand I think. I don't have the exact figures. The collection at the university is larger but there are more [somethings] here."
"What is that word?"
He glanced up at me, then said, "First ones. Before there were copies made."
"Ah." Originals. "Impressive."
His ears twitched. "Being able to fit all this into a box you can carry around with you... Now that I find impressive."
More conventional lattice windows filled the ends of the transepts, the left-hand one flooded with early-morning light. There was a Rris seated at a window desk. He looked up as we approached and I was momentarily shocked by the gauntness, the almost metallic grayness that dusted what had once been a tawny coat. Black eyes rimmed by amber flashed at me from what could have been a bare skull covered with velvet. One ear was a ragged stump. Old, really old. This was my tutor?
Kh'hitch ushered me forward and introduced us, "Esseri, this is Mikah, your student."
"This?" The elder grinned slowly at me: a front fang was broken, the other capped in gold. His? Her? voice rasped, adding a grating tone to the normally sibilant Rris language. "Bigger than he looks in the pictures."
"He'll behave himself." The Advisor gave me another look before ducking his head and leaving us.
Esseri leaned back and watched me, I saw the tip of a tail lashing agitatedly. The tip of a walking stick poked from where it lay behind the desk. "Well, come on," the old Rris growled. "Sit down. You can understand me?"
"Yes, sir," I said as I hastily settled myself on the cushion opposite. It smelled like Rris.
Esseri's one good ear laid back and something like a laugh escaped the wizened old muzzle. "Not 'sir', ape."
I flinched at that, "Sorry, Ma'am." I used the female honorific.
"Huhn," she snorted. "I think some parts of your education have been seriously neglected. You speak like you've got a mouthful of rocks."
I blinked, taken aback but unable to refute that. Chihirae had tried, she'd done her best, but the final fault lay with me. "Ma'am, I just can't speak like Rris. My mouth is a different shape."
"Yes," she stared at me with a tautness around her muzzle, her pupils flicking down to narrow slits in those amber eyes: sharp as obsidian. "I had noticed. Well, maybe there's a chance it can produce something that sounds acceptable. Can you read?"
"A little. I haven't had much practice."
"Huhn." Her eyes never left me as her nostrils flared, scenting me. Then she flicked her head and reached for a sheaf of paper lying on the black lacquered desk between us. Her hands were wrinkled, completely gray, and shaking slightly as she pushed the paper across. "All right. Let's see how much you do know, ape. Conjugate those."
"My name is Michael."
I hesitated before picking it up. It was a list of basic verbs. I went through a fair few of them without too much trouble but there were a lot I didn't know. She sat back and watched me as I read them. I mean really watched me, studying my mouth. Her remaining ear flickered when I had trouble with anything or was forced to mispronounce a word, but she didn't try to correct me. It didn't take long.
"Now, count to twenty."
I did so and she listened, the tip of her tail lashing like a metronome, then she asked, "How's your history?"
Almost nonexistent. I'd picked up a few snippets here and there, but not much. She quizzed me, asking questions: who was the first to cross the Spine mountains? When did K'trei usurp the throne? When was the Atlantic crossed? Who was involved in the Highland Alliance or the Chiret Treaty. Things like that. I couldn't answer any of them.
"Who was this teacher?" Esseri spat. "She doesn't seem to have done a very satisfactory job."
"You... you don't know what she had to do," I said, with what I considered restraint. "She did the best she could."
"Doesn't seem to be enough," she said.
"She saved my life," I retorted, getting angry. "She taught me to speak Rris. She also had to look after me and do her job at the same time as well as standing up for me against Rris who wanted me dead. I think she did more than enough."
Esseri stared at me and her good ear laid down again, "You do, do you." She snorted, "Truly, your accent is terrible. For a start 'K'Kchirshi' is pronounced 'KI-ah-Ki-chirshih'."
I opened my mouth to say something, then swallowed it and instead tried to repeat her.
A strange one that old teacher. She was scared of me, I could tell: The way she leaned back in her cushion, away from me, that little flinch whenever I had to lean forward, the way she kept sniffing the air. She still taught me though, and that was something I couldn't understand. Why? If she was so uncomfortable around me why did she do it? Perhaps she didn't have a choice.
If that was it, she tried to take it out on me. Everything I did was wrong in some way. My vocalization, my grammar. She made me drill words I had trouble with over and over again. A lot of the time it didn't make any difference: it couldn't. That same day she started me on a history text, reading it through. She wanted me to learn the words I didn't know, both definitions and pronunciations, and I tried, I did my best.
It was a long day.
The sun was long gone and the puddle of light the lamp cast around the desk left the rest of the library in darkness. Esseri was a silvery indistinctness in the dimness, leaning back into shadows with her eyes reflecting pools of flame as she watched me. For a while she sat there while I fumbled over a word that didn't seem to have any vowels in it before I realised she wasn't saying anything. I stopped and she watched me for a while longer, then snorted and picked up her twisted walking stick, using it to help her clamber awkwardly to her feet. She didn't say a word as she detoured around me, as stiffly as I'd seen any Rris walk, and then was lost in the darkness. I couldn't hear her footsteps, just the dull boom of the library doors as they closed.
I sat there a while longer, staring down at the vellum pages of the book on the low desk before me.
"Sir?" A voice from the darkness behind me. One of my guards.
"Coming," I told him. I was cold, stiff as I stood and picked up the lamp to follow him.
Shyia stopped by the next evening, while I was washing up after a day in the workshops down on the wharves.
"His lordship said Esseri was quite aggravated with you." The Mediator was leaning against the doorframe. Didn't bother him in the slightest that I was in the bath. "Said you were being stubborn."
"What?" I stopped scrubbing, twisting around to see him better. "What do you mean?"
He snorted. "You aren't trying. You didn't listen to what she was telling you."
That wasn't something I'd expected to hear. I blinked at him, then protested, "I was! I tried! It was all day and I tried I talk better..." I was tripping over my own tongue. I sagged back in the bath and took a breath, hearing water dripping in the silence, a mist rising from the surface into the freezing air. "I tried. I did."
"I believe you," he said. "I'm not sure... there's something about her. I don't know... she was angry at you."
I remembered how she'd been acting. "She was afraid of me."
Shyia scratched at his arm, frowned. "You're sure?"
"I'm sure," I shrugged and tossed the brush across the tub. Damn thing was Rris, intended for their hide; It just about took mine right off. "Trust me. I'm getting good at telling."
"Huhn." He looked at me and I saw the tip of his tail lash. "There wasn't supposed to be a problem. Why? What happened? Did you do something?"
I shook my head.
"That's 'no', isn't it," he growled. "Don't do that. I know what it means, no one else does. You didn't insult her? She'd had enough warning, but you didn't smile or do something like that?"
"No." God, a gesture I'd always seen as so innocent, something so ingrained that repressing it was like trying not to breathe, now it was something that could earn me enmity I couldn't afford. But, I hadn't smiled; there'd been no reason to. "No, I didn't."
He growled again and stalked across the room, his toe claws sounding staccato clicks on the floor tiles. The washbowl pinged when he flicked it with a claw. "I'll have a talk with Kh'hitch." He moved along to touch a towel. "How're you being treated?"
"It's a pretty cage," I said. "Pass that over here."
"Huhn," he tossed the towel across. I caught it as I climbed out and hastily toweled off before the chill froze the water on my body. The Mediator watched me, his ears flicking. "You're not happy?"
I reached for my shirt. "Happy? Tomorrow I'll be down at the docks. Day after that I have to see Rasa again. After that they want me to meet with the Foundry Guild. Then it's back to Chaeitch. On top of that I've got that tutor. I wake up in the morning. I eat. I am taken to where I'm supposed to be that day, then they bring me back with barely enough time to wash and sleep."
Distracted from watching me dress, he blinked. "You were expecting different?"
"No. But, I..." I shook my head. "I would've liked to've seen some of the town."
"Hnnn," he growled. "I know. It's really not up to me." He glanced at the narrow slit of a window. "I'm sure you'll get your chance."
"In this decade?" I muttered.
"What was that?"
He snorted a cloud of steam, tinted orange in the dim gaslight. "Someday somebody is going to understand what you say."
"In this decade?" I grinned.
"Probably not," he conceded. "Now, I think you should get your hairless hide out of here, before you freeze."
Good advice. I paused to pull the plug on the bath before retreating back to the main room and the warmth of the fire there. The meal tray had arrived unannounced and Shyia amused himself with lifting the covers and wrinkling his muzzle at my food while I finished toweling my hair dry. "What are you doing these days?" I asked him.
"Me?" He replaced a cover. "They're keeping me busy. The Guild and the Palace have questions about you, also about that situation in Westwater."
"Do you know what it was about?"
"No idea yet," he said.
I've noticed it before: he's got a good poker face, a bit TOO good: When he's using it it's as if his face is cast in stone: his ears freeze, jaw takes on a certain immobile quality, and that moment he was as inscrutable as a feline Rushmore. Something he didn't want to tell me.
"Uh-huh," I said, and let it go at that.
"How's your work with Chaeitch going?" he asked, blatantly changing the subject.
"Better than I expected. I never thought you could build a boat so quickly. Another couple of weeks and the engine will be ready for testing."
"So we can do something well, for a backwards people," he grinned then, and I really wasn't sure if he was imitating one of my smiles or using a genuine Rris grin, with all the connotations that went with it.
"You said it, not me."
"Huhnnnn," The Mediator growled. "Eat your meal, if that's what you want to call it."
He stayed around a while longer and I welcomed the company and conversation. It passed the time and - hell - I needed the practice. Later that night when he'd left I lay back in the furs of the bed, looked at the portraits staring back at me in the light of the dying fire. "Hey, Guys," I asked them. "How long've you been here?"
They didn't answer. I burrowed deeper into the blankets, eventually to sleep and dream twisted juxtapositions of Rris and human memories.
Days passed and scarcely any of that time was my own.
At the university there were more interviews. I spent untold hours talking with a small cadre of Rris scholars, answering questions about everything from biology to cooking. They'd set up an interview room in that wooden university building. It was a small room, with a tiny window throwing light across a single low desk and a few cushions. There were always a couple of them, with a scribe lurking unobtrusively in the background and taking notes in an indecipherable shorthand. The Rris savants were always prepared, with their questions worked out beforehand and written down. They would go through their lists and their questions and when I couldn't answer, there was always the laptop. The images on that helped a lot, illustrating concepts I couldn't explain.
There were times when I wondered if I should be doing it. What was my interference doing to them? To their way of life? I wondered if I should just refuse. I also wondered what they would do to me.
Down at the workshops on the waterfront things were progressing. By late February Chaeitch had completely rebuilt the test boat. Now it was slimmer and leaner, the driveshaft ready for the single cast bronze screw. There were still modifications being made over the basic Rris engine and the result was looking vaguely like the drive system from Stephenson's Rocket. The steam chamber was enlarged, reinforced with riveted iron bands, integrating a wood-fired chamber running through its core. We could've increased the steam pressure by running extra pipes carrying hot exhaust gasses through the boiler, but I doubted the materials we were using could've handled the stress. I was quite sure the joins couldn't. It was something that would have to wait for a later model.
A cat's cradle of leather-insulated pipes linked the boiler to the multi-cycle piston system where condensing steam powered the cylinder on the return stroke. There were problems with the piston guides, mainly due to Shattered Water's industry's inability to machine precision guides. Another problem that'd have to be dealt with.
The engine certainly wasn't elegant to look at: an unwieldy mess of copper pipes and riveting and caulking, but we were more concerned with getting the thing working. Refining it down into a more manageable bundle was going to have to wait until better materials and tools were developed. They were working on it, but Chaeitch told me they were having some trouble with the Metallurgist Guild.
And the lessons with Esseri continued, her hostility unabated.
She refused to believe I had trouble with their language. I drilled words and phrases over and over, with the only result being a sore throat. If there was an improvement, it wasn't enough to satisfy her. Every time I moved too close or too suddenly she bared fangs. She kept to her schedule, but she wouldn't answer my questions, trying to teach without acknowledging I existed.
"Why's she doing this?" I asked one evening as I sat before the fire and tossed a bit of wood from hand to hand. "I tried to be friendly. She just... treats me like I am shit."
Shyia looked up from where he was perched cross-legged on the desk, watching as Luke Skywalker and his father dueled with light. "They're not really fighting," he said.
"Christ! Will you forget that?" I threw the stick into the fireplace, causing the embers to settle and send a fountain of sparks whisking up the chimney. "I'm worried that she'll go for me, or have a heart attack. I don't know why."
The Mediator looked up from the laptop and blinked slowly, his eyes shimmering titanium and I had that sinking feeling. "You know, don't you," I said with certainty.
He waved his hand in that little gesture that meant 'yes'.
"So? You feel like telling me?"
"His lordship wasn't sure that we should," he growled as his ears laid back, then he reached down to pause the film and turned to face me, perched there like a dark-furred idol. "It's not you she hates, not really."
"Not really?" I didn't understand.
"It was a long time ago, about twenty years. She was younger - which should go without saying - and on an expedition ship... to Africa. She was with a shore party going a short distance into the interior. They must have disturbed a [something]..." He looked away from me and waved a small shrug. "Anyway, the apes tore her partner to pieces. She had to run. She couldn't help him."
I stared at him.
"You wanted to know," he eventually said, watching me carefully.
"I'm not an ape," I finally managed to say.
He waved a hand, dismissing my words. "I've seen those pictures. Similar enough."
That... hurt. "But I'm... She knows I could never do that. I don't hurt people."
"I think she does, but she doesn't feel it," he said, his voice a rumbling growl. "You've killed Rris, she knows that. It's something that's not so easy to brush aside."
I mulled over this for a time while a chunk of ice slowly revolved inside me. "If you knew this, why choose her?"
"I didn't, but the administration probably never really considered it was going to be a problem," he said. "She's supposed to be good and she's trusted here. You know she used to be his highness' tutor when he was younger."
"I'm not his highness and as for her being good... It's difficult to tell when she treats me like I was lower than a snake's asshole." Okay, so I was feeling a bit bitter.
He blinked. "I don't know that they'll just get rid of her. It's not as if they can just [something] through tutors until they find one who can tolerate you. I think you might have to learn to live with it."
End Light on Shattered Water 13