Light on Shattered Water
Esseri was waiting in the library, ensconced at her desk in the puddle of sunlight that seeped through the leaded windowpanes. She didn't say anything when I rounded the corner, didn't even look up from the paper she was scratching away at, but I saw her ears go flat against her skull. My boots made soft noises on the carpet as I walked over to stand in front of her desk. I had a flash of the times I'd walked up to the teacher's desk at school, back in another world.
"Ma'am?" I asked.
"Sit down, ape," she rasped and I did so. "My name is Michael," I said.
She looked up at me. A narrow face, with graying fur drawn tight over the bones and eyes that were pure Rris: the lambent amber rings around pupils like polished black stones. She just snorted and a grayed furred hand shoved a book and a piece of paper across the desk, being careful to come nowhere near me. "Eighth verse. Read it."
Nothing more than that. I carefully leafed through the pages until I was pretty sure I'd found the page she was referring to. A history text, a section on the trade embargoes leveled against Overburdened after an incident known as Ghirits Ridge that'd happened a hundred and fifty years ago. I stumbled my way through it, not understanding one word in ten. Rris writing... it looks like, well, chicken scratchings on wet clay and it's just not... I don't know why, but it's hard to read. It's similar to the differences between the legibility of a serif and a sans-serif font in body copy, only far more pronounced; like trying to read binary, the way the characters blend together. Maybe because it's a script never intended to be read by human eyes or processed by a human brain. Perhaps Rris eyes saw that as a model example of fine typographic layout, but mine kept blending it into a mess of crosshatching.
And Esseri sat there and picked everything I did to pieces. I tried to pronounce the words as she directed me, over and over, and eventually she hissed disgust. "You are useless, you know that."
I looked at her, then slowly put the book down and leaned forward. Her nostrils flared wide as she jerked back, away from me. I reached out and laid my hand on the desk, palm upward. "Touch me," I said.
She stared: rigid and trembling. What if she had a stroke? Did Rris have strokes? "What are you..." she started to snarl.
"Touch me," I told her and she looked down at my hand. Her ears vanished down into her silvered mane but she made no move. "You aren't supposed to..." she tried to bluster and failed miserably. "You're getting out of place, ape. If I call the guards..."
"Why would you? You're afraid of me?"
"No! Shave you, you twisted..."
"Then touch me." She looked down at my hand in utter horror.
I slowly drew my hand back and cradled it with my other, feeling the scars on the knuckles and up the back where a Rris' teeth had ripped the skin. The marks across my face ached slightly in the chill. "They told me what happened," I said. "In Africa. I'm sorry, but that wasn't me. That wasn't any of my kind. I don't do that."
"You've killed." She was panting: her breath forming strings of transient puffs in the cold air. "They told me... you've killed Rris."
"I've killed," I acknowledged, looking down at the marks on my hands. "I fought for my life. I fought for people I cared about. I... barely won."
"You murdered a farmer! That wasn't defense!" she spat.
That stung. I opened my mouth to protest, to say I didn't do it, and then saw her eyes and knew it was what she was wanting. "You believe I do that?" I quietly asked.
"Look at you," she snarled.
"Because I look like this, that means I must have done it?" I asked. "Why're you here? You hate me so much, why're you doing this?"
Esseri turned her head away, then back to stare at me with those immobile obsidian eyes in that silver-dusted face. "It's my job," she rumbled in a timbre I'd never associate with a human that old. "They told me to teach. I'll do it. I don't have to like it, or you, ape."
I looked away from that hatred, down at the desk where the book lay open to a woodcut of Rris aboard a barge or something. I nodded, then stood. "Neither do I," I said and she didn't try and stop me when I walked away.
The guards outside the library doors were startled to see me. "Sir?" one of them asked when I appeared. "Do you need something?"
"Let's go," I said and kept walking.
"Sir? Is there something wrong?"
One of them overtook me, blocked my way. "Sir, you can't..."
They were all around me and now I saw their expressions: eyes wide and ears flat against their skulls and hands hovering near their weapons. I was walking on eggshells. "I don't have to stay there to be insulted," I told them. "I can do that anywhere."
I started walking again, keeping my hands in plain sight as I shouldered through. They hesitated a few seconds, then claws clattered on wooden flooring as they came after me to escort me back to my rooms.
"Come in, Mikah," Hirht gestured from his chair in front of the fire.
The rest of the day had been quiet, giving me time to myself. I spent it in my quarters; not that I really had much choice. The door and guards outside didn't worry me, the solitude was a change from the pace of the last weeks. I spent hours just sitting in the chill of the window niche, watching droplets of water beading on an icicle, hesitating, then falling. Contemplating. I started a sketch of my room on a scrap of parchment, then screwed it up in frustration as a darkness I didn't want to draw covered the paper. Wasted time reorganizing my desktop, going through pictures of home, then through some recordings I'd made a couple of months earlier.
"How does this work?" Chihirae's face moving in the screen. "It is on? Ah! I would [something] a toy like this." A close-up of her mugging for the camera.
Other stuff like that. I missed her.
I finally used a swimsuit TIFF of a sultry Lona Deiss not wearing a swimsuit as wallpaper: let them make what they would of that.
The guards had come for me in the late evening, escorted me through dark corridors with that indefinable taste of Rris habitation in the air. Seen by moonlight, the huge atrium garden was beautiful: White and pale blue, delicate lattices of frost on branches turned to glittering lace. Stark blackness of shadows against crystal whiteness with the paths through the heart of it forming a geometric pattern that was a balance to the organic intricacies of nature. I stood and stared through that second-floor window until a guard nudged my arm, moving me along.
Another wing, in a section I'd never been to. Double doors with guards in brown and crimson lacquered armor: the gleaming polished steel of segmented breastplates and coalscuttle-style helmets with engraved leather ear and cheek guards, a flaring rim to protect the neck. So elaborate it had to be ceremonial, but the pistols and swords at their waists seemed functional enough and their hands never left the hilts as they watched us pass.
The corridor beyond was carpeted with soft deep-blue pile, the walls panelled to waist height with carved wood, and above that in a royal-purple velvet-like cloth with patterns brought out as light and perspective shifted. Gas lamps set behind milky glass blown in the shape of leaves emitted a gentle glow that was reflected from the thick panes of a narrow window at the far end of the hall, glinting from the polished brass fittings of the three heavy doors on each side. A guard scratched lightly at one, then opened it and ushered me in.
Red. That was my first impression. Red everywhere, from the velvet on the walls, to the drapes to the grain in the furniture. Lamps behind globes of milky glass flickered softly, exaggerating the shadows in the carved wall panels, barely lighting the rows of books nestled on their shelves behind latticed glass doors. A fire crackled in the grate, wafting sparks up the chimney and throwing a pool of light across the low table and the pair of chairs set before it.
I blinked. Chairs. Big, wooden frames of dark wood embellished with fanciful carvings of Rris and trees and animals. The seats were quite low and broad, the upholstery was red, of course, leather polished smooth by furry hides. Waiting, seated crosslegged with a half-filled glass in his hand, the Rris king watched me as I apprehensively glanced around.
I did so. The chair was lower, and broader, than I'd expected. More like sitting on a low platform than a proper chair. I settled awkwardly and tucked my legs up in imitation of the Rris. He watched me curiously, his head following my every movement, then raised the cup and I caught a glimpse of his tongue darting out to lap: their equivalent of a sip. I shifted slightly, uncomfortably; the chair was built for different proportions.
Hirht gestured at the table between us. There was a decanter and another glass there, already filled. "Please, drink. I was told you seem quite partial to our wine."
I smiled slightly and leaned over to take it. The glass was broad and relatively shallow, without the curvature inherent in the wine glasses I knew; the liquid inside it was red, almost ruby in the wavering light. Bristles in my beard scratched on glass as I sipped, found it tartly acceptable: strong and spiced like the stuff Chaeitch had offered. I took a longer draught. I needed it.
"That's to your taste?"
"It's good. Thank you."
His ears flicked. "Mikah, I heard you had some trouble today." Uh-huh. It was what I'd been expecting. "What happened? Was there something about Esseri you didn't like?"
I turned the glass, watching the wine orbiting slowly. A memory flash of blood in a crystal-laced stream. I shuddered. "It wasn't... working. Sir."
"The guards said you seemed upset or angry. Esseri said you walked out on her. Is that true?"
"This is related to the questions the Mediator was asking, isn't it." The Rris snorted softly and I saw the tip of his tail curl out from behind him and twitch. Maybe that was why they had such odd chairs: their tails got in the way. "He shouldn't have told you."
"Sir. Shyia told me what happened to her, and I'm sorry, but it really doesn't have anything to do with me. She seems to think it does though. I think she remembers what happened more than she wants to. Every time I've seen her... she..." I trailed off, shook my head and took another drink.
Hirht was watching me, a tension about the cant of his head now... if I was reading him right. Damn light made it difficult to tell anything. Was that intentional? "She said there were a few problems, but not of that sort," he said. "She said you were a slow learner; you were disrespectful; you didn't follow her instructions." He ticked points off on his fingers then cocked his head. "It doesn't sound like she was the one with the problem, does it?"
I gave the tiniest shake of my head. "Not when you hear it like that. No."
"Then why don't you let me hear your memories."
Mem...? Oh, he wanted to hear my side of the story. I told it, as best as I could remember. From when I'd first met Esseri, the talk I'd had with Shyia, to when I'd walked out on her. He was a good listener, not even interrupting when I mangled his language.
"Can I believe that?" he asked when I was done.
I shrugged. "She is Rris and I am... I am not. You can choose what is easier to believe."
His face stayed impassive but his tail lashed. "Do you think that makes so much difference?"
"To her it did."
"Huhn," he made a noncommittal growl and turned his head to watch the flames, his fur scattering light into a faint halo about his inhuman profile. "Can you be sure?" I could see shadows morphing as he spoke, muscles shifting as his jaws moved. It was inhuman, fascinating, distracting attention from his words for a second.
"I... I think I can." I had enough memories of that. "I have seen it before."
Hirht's head shifted again, watching me. "A lot of people have said you have trouble understanding them. Are you sure you [something] her right?"
"I know what I saw," I said again.
"You can't be sure..."
"I know!" I snapped, my voice raising and torn muscles in my face spasming and I saw him flinch, his hand moving an inch toward the crack down the side of the cushion. What'd he have tucked away down there? I really didn't want to find out. "I'm sorry," I said in more subdued tones. "Since I've been here it's something I've become very familiar with. Yes; I'm sure."
He stared at me, at the scars ripped across my face, then looked away and I saw him shudder. His fur was bottled. "I will see what we can do," he said eventually. "I'd hoped... She's a good teacher. It will be difficult to find someone as good as she was and get them accustomed to you."
I almost said 'Chihirae', but that was... it wasn't fair on her. Dragging her away from her home and her work.
"I'll talk with Esseri again. Perhaps something can be arranged." He picked up his glass again and this time didn't just sip. I watched his throat working as he swallowed, then blinked at me. "What about you? How are you doing?"
"I am doing all right." I hesitated before asking, "I haven't seen anything of the town. I would like to see a bit of your world."
Hirht sipped again. "You realize we can't just let you walk around town by yourself."
I nodded, then added, "Yes."
He glanced at the fire, then said, "I'll see what can be done."
I nodded again, but didn't say anything.
"There were a few things I'd been wanting to ask you," he said after a while. "Some questions about your home. Do you feel like answering?"
"If I can," I said.
"Huhn," he scratched at his leg before asking, "The place you come from, you have kingdoms, don't you?"
"Similar things. Yes."
"I don't know, not exactly. Maybe two hundred?"
"That many?" He made a low sound. "How many of your kind? Do you know?"
"I don't know the Rris number. It is like a thousand multiplied by a thousand multiplied by a thousand by eight."
Hirht took a second working this out, then I saw him jerk rigid in shock. "You... you are sure?"
"Not exactly. It is close."
He stared at me for what seemed like ages. Trying to decide if I was lying or not I supposed.
"You are not joking?" he asked.
"Rot it all, I don't have that many hairs," he growled, wrinkles marching up his muzzle. "All right, you have kingdoms. What about your government? You have highborn?"
"Highborn?" I asked, thinking back to my lessons with Shyia. Oh, yeah. Their monarchy. "No. I mean some lands have a system like yours. Mine doesn't."
I twirled the stem of my glass between thumb and forefinger, frowned down at the dregs. The sordid charades and posturing of Politics had never been a particular interest of mine. "Different. Better at some things, maybe not so good at others. We like to think the good outweighs the bad."
Again I had to hesitate. "I'm not sure I... I don't think I can do it properly."
"Try." Green eyes watched me. I saw his pupils were cracked wide, reflected firelight glowing in the blackness: nervous?
I nodded and tried. Voting, elected representatives, presidents and elections, senates and the constitution, trying to put it into words never intended to be processed by a human mind. "Our government is chosen by the people..."
"H'ans," he interrupted.
"The people," I continued. "Every four years the people select new governments, with a new head."
"Where are they chosen from?" he asked.
"Anyone who wants to run."
"Anyone can become ruler of a kingdom?" he sounded incredulous? "That is... [something]! Could a woodcutter rule a land wisely? It would be disastrous!"
"That's not quite... I mean, it takes time. Your small towns have mayors and Lords. We have similar. A woodcutter could choose to work in government by starting in his town council."
"But if he was a fool..."
"Then the citizens wouldn't choose him."
Claws tinked against glass. "Maybe your people can choose wisely. I don't think ours can."
I had to shrug. "We can't either. That's one of the problems."
He snorted. "When you say that, it sounds like perhaps we aren't too different after all."
"We have our fools and we have our geniuses," I said.
"Ah," he breathed. "And what are you?"
The question took me aback. "I'd like to think I'm normal."
He laughed at that, a bark of amusement that startled me. "Normal? You know things our scholars haven't even dreamed of."
"There's a difference between knowledge and intelligence," I said.
"That's something I've heard before," he said and studied me again for a few seconds, then gestured at my glass. "More?"
I glanced down: it was empty. "Please."
Crystal chimed as he refilled my glass from a decanter. I thanked him, sat nursing my drink while he returned the bottle to its tray. We talked for a long time, the level in the bottle falling steadily. He had questions about everything: government, elections, the countries and their relations, human relations and society. I answered as best as I could, struggling to find bridges between two languages on opposite sides of a vast gulf. By the time the fire was guttering the wine was gone and I was having great trouble getting my tongue around Rris sibilants. And Hirht asked me if I had a female I was bonded to.
Jackie... Why did he have to bring that up while I was in that state? What was she doing now? She must've thought I was dead. She must've been worried. Were they still searching? Could someone find out what'd happened... everything mixed together in an alcohol-sodden jumble. I blinked, the room blurring through tears.
"Mikah?" The Lord looked shocked when he saw my face. "Your eyes... What's wrong?"
"Wrong?" I asked. "She's gone. Everything's gone. My life goes to shit and you ask what's wrong!" English. He flinched back, unable to understand a word. "I think you've had enough," he said.
"Yeah, I've had enough," I mumbled. My glass tumbled and cracked when I buried my face in my hands. "God! I've had enough!"
I flinched as a misshapen hand touched my arm and I looked up at one of my guards. Hirht watched impassively as a pair of them helped me to my feet. Damn leg had gone to sleep. I staggered, lurched against a guard who hissed when I leaned against him... her. She growled something at the king and he kinked an ear. "Let him sleep it off," he said.
The journey back took a lot longer than the journey up had, probably because I didn't seem to be able to manage a straight line. My escorts had to help me on the staircases. Back in my rooms I remember they dumped me unceremoniously on the bed and then my clothes were being pulled off, my protests ignored. Someone told me to 'drink this'. Just water.
I woke once that night to go to the bathroom and puke my guts out. When I'd finished heaving and coughing and raised my head there were the shadows of guards lurking at the door.
End Light on Shattered Water 14