Sounds of Shattered Water found their way into the workshops, slightly muffled by the wooden walls: distant shouting of Rris, wheels on roads, the cacophony of a multitude of animals. From the grimy windows high in the walls, through chinks in the clapboard walls, streams of golden morning sunlight poured, dust motes dancing in their hearts. Metal and wood gleamed in the light: burnished brass on fixtures and valve and linkage rods, lamp-black iron pipes clustered around the recumbent bulk of the boiler, the reflective oiled surface of the milled-steel piston shafts. The smokestack now terminated in bronze moldings of leaves, splayed out around the end of the funnel.
From my seat on a stack of lumber I watched as teams of engineers and laborers pushed and pulled the wagon with its heavy load of engine bolted to it toward the shed's doors. Iron-rimmed wheels clattered loudly against the flagstones, mingled with barks of advice and caution from the Rris. We could have performed the test inside with a chimney run out through the wall to expel exhaust, but Chaeitch wasn't keen on losing the whole workshop if there'd been any trouble. Good point.
The doors were rolled aside and highlights exploded from polished brass as sunlight swept over the engine. I sighed; If the thing ran half as well as it looked, we'd be home free.
There was a blur of tawny fur in the corner of my eye and I looked around to see Chaeitch sitting beside me, watching the workers as if he'd been there for minutes. Still shakes me to realize how damned fast Rris can be. "Worried?" he asked without looking around at me.
"What gives you that idea?"
He raised his head a bit and seemed to sniff the air. "You smell [something]. It's noticeable."
I looked at him: dressed up for the occasion in green and ochre breeches and a dark brown vest with green trim, his mane and ruff groomed and trimmed. A gold ring was clipped to an ear and a fine gold chain looped from a pocket in his vest, probably his supply of weed for his pipe. Quite a contrast to my mismatched hodgepodge of Rris jacket over my human shirt and blue jeans and my shaggy mop of uncut hair. I couldn't tell what he was feeling: neither by sight nor scent.
"Don't be so anxious," he assured me with a flash of a smile. "It's going to work. Have more [faith] in yourself."
I shrugged. He was right. It was essentially a shareholder meeting and the engine should work. The valves and pipes had been reinforced and triple-checked... but there was still Murphy.
A claw hooked my sleeve and gently tugged. "Come on," Chaeitch said. "Their honors will want to see you before the demonstration."
Outside: a fine spring morning, warming as the sun climbed. Light washed the eastern brick walls and tile roofs of the building surrounding the court, the others still wrapped in shadow and dew. Benches had been set up there, velvet-padded things like elaborate church pews, widely spaced out so the nobility wouldn't be crowded. A carpet, a goddamn carpet had been laid out over the cobbles: an expensive-looking rug as ornate as a tapestry and so big it must've needed its own wagon to get it here. And the engine itself... once the wagon was anchored and the thing checked, it was covered with a heavy red cloth embroidered with the Rris equivalents of heraldic devices. If that was intended to keep it low-key, they couldn't have chosen something to make it more conspicuous.
More guards arrived. Troops with the brown and crimson armor, polished steel breastplates and coalscuttle helmets of Palace guards took up stations around the inside of the courtyard wall, the northern gate, probably outside as well. I found myself with a squad of armed soldiers shadowing me.
"What the hell are they for?" I asked Chaeitch, lapsing into English. My swearing in Rris still needed work.
"Your own protection," he assured me.
"Protection? Against what?"
His ears flickered back for a second. "Just precautions. In case someone takes [something] at you."
I took a breath and glanced at the soldiers. They stared back, nothing showing on their faces, but their tails were twitching like metronomes. "You really think there's going to be trouble?"
"No. I don't. They're here on his lordship's orders. I don't have any say." Chaeitch's eyes were unnaturally wide, his pupils wide and black when he looked at me. "You're going to be all right?"
The way he said that... Used in Rris syntax I wasn't sure if he was inquiring after my well-being or asking if I was going to cause waves. "I'll manage."
He cast a glance toward the gates. "Just be polite and try not to frighten anyone."
"That's not always my decision."
Chaeitch snorted, then chittered slightly. "Ah, I see your point. Well, do your best."
It wasn't much later when the first of the spectators began to arrive, and they did it in style. The carriages that drew up in the courtyard came in varying degrees of 'fancy': from simply 'quite', up to 'Rococo'. The sounds of wheels and animal hooves clattering on the cobblestones vied with the sibilants and spats of Rris voices as carriage after carriage pulled into the courtyard to deposit its passengers before moving off again. A crowd of high-ranking Rris lords and their escorts gathering in the yard swelled. A blaze of colors, fur and clothing and jewelry: gold and bronze and scarlet and sky blue and forest green and sun yellow, a circus of colors and textures. Self-possessed individuals, males and females wearing attire and attitude that said they were important; others following them in the more subdued livery of servants and stewards, others who could have been personal guards.
Chaeitch was supervising the engine now the covers were off and the boiler was lit, stokers working to get the steam pressure up. I waited where he'd told me and tried to be inconspicuous. I didn't do a very good job and almost immediately drew more attention than the engine. Rris stared from a distance, then drew closer, a crowd gathering. As strangers stared at me and more began to drift in my direction I became more and more uneasy.
"What the rot is that?"
A trio approached: an elder one with graying fur in its Vandyke brown mane and the thicker fur of its - his? - chest and a pleated wine-red kilt around his waist, the other two were younger: a male and female I think, the male wearing bloused pantaloons with a satchel slung at his side and a clipboard under his arm; the female in plain dark-blue breeches, carrying a powder horn and several pouches at her belt. Bodyguard? Not even up to my shoulder, but she was wiry and it was pure muscle shifting under that tan hide.
"You," the older demanded of a guard, "What is that? Is it supposed to be here?"
"A guest of the Lord," the guard answered.
"But what is it?" he demanded.
Another Rris spoke out, "I've seen it around the palace. Quite valuable apparently."
"Valuable?" The elderly male looked up to meet my eye. "It is [something]."
My guards stiffened, looking around at the small crowd that'd gathered to rubberneck. Maybe a dozen high-ranking Rris with their hangers-on gathering in their own individual clusters. There were military officials there as well: I saw a Rris in the decorated leather jacket and kilt of an officer with a conspicuous bracelet glittering on a wrist watching me intently from the back of the crowd, gone the next time I looked. "Is it dangerous?" a Rris was asking, moving a bit closer to stare up at me and I moved back a bit when I saw the hint of claws visible at the fingertips.
"No, Ma'am," the guard replied.
"Ah! I saw something like that in the [something]," another noble spoke up. "An animal brought back from Africa. It was called an Ape. Dangerous beasts."
"Ape? I heard they..."
"I'm not an ape," I said and everything stopped, just for a second before the water-on-hot-iron noise of excited Rris broke out: questions jabbered at me and the guards. I jumped when a clawed hand locked on my elbow and Rraerch stepped up beside me:
"Good folk, this will all be explained to you shortly. If you would be so kind as to take your seats we can proceed with the [something]. I'm sure you're all anxious to know what your [something] has [something] you in return. His Highness is due shortly and the demonstration will start when he arrives."
Most of them slowly moved away, but there were reluctant ones, more questions and assurances before they deigned to return to the seats. Rraerch kept a grip on my arm: not especially hard, but the claws were out. "Mikah, skin you," she sighed when they were out of earshot, "You have to go and scream in the streets, don't you."
"Never mind." She hissed, then quickly smoothed her facial fur and mane down where it'd started to ruffle. "Now, you know what's happening?"
"Good. They're going to want to ask you questions. Please, just answer. Be polite, don't insult anybody. Saaa, his Highness."
Another carriage was arriving, a large one drawn by four elk. The windows were louvered, the rest of the carriage panelled with dark wood whose every square inch seemed to be carved with relief engravings. Pennants bearing the intricate white on black geometric devices of the Chihiski lineage fluttered from the roof. An armed escort rode shotgun, palace guards in their glittering polished armor mounted on llamas. They were carrying hardware that ranged from everything from guns that resembled sawed-off shotguns to cut-down pole-arms and I wondered if that was SOP or if they were expecting trouble.
"Mikah, I have to go," Rraerch told me. "Just... be careful." She released me, patted my arm and stalked off toward the engine. I rubbed my elbow and watched as Hirht stepped out of the carriage, followed by the furry bulk of his Advisor and another Rris in the uniform of Land-of-Water military. She was big for a Rris, that one; half a head above her fellows, graying about the muzzle with shock-white fur in her mane and with an odd dappled pattern to her fur. Arms rippled with the musculature of someone quite used to wielding a sword.
Rraerch greeted the king by ducking her head and crouching slightly, then tipping her head back. He touched her throat lightly, said something, and she stood again to show the highborn to their seats. Hirht glanced around, saw me standing in the background and stared for a couple of seconds before flicking his ears and turning his attention to the business at hand.
The rising sun was warming my back as I stood quietly, watching the proceedings. Tails were lashing through the backs of the benches as the nobles watched Rraerch step up to the engine, few wisps of steam escaping into the air from the rumbling, hissing machinery behind her.
"Good folk," she began. "You've all been most generous in your support and [something] for this venture. You knew it was a slightly risky [something], yet you've shown great [courage] and seeing what's around the next corner [foresight?] in placing your support behind us. I know you've all had doubts about this project," There were a few mutters at that, "but I am pleased to be able to inform you all that it has [something] a success."
Reaction to that. A general stirring and pricking up of ears. Rraerch gave them a second then stepped aside and gestured to the machinery behind her. "You're all familiar with the current engine and its limitations. This [something] a lot of them. It's as powerful as three of the old engines, it can run longer, uses less fuel, weighs less, and is considerably stronger."
The engineer on the throttle slowly opened it up and the machine sniffed, then slowly the piston arm came down, up again. Smoke twisted from the jaws of the stack, the big wheel turned, slowly at first, gathering momentum and speed. Without a regulator it was the engineer's job to monitor the speed of the thing, to keep it steady, also to keep the pressure below that mark on the dial. The new joints would probably hold, but it wasn't a good time to test them to destruction.
In any case it ran without a hitch. Chaeitch stepped in to give the lords a running commentary; pointing out the modifications and changes, the new materials and techniques being used. From what I could tell, it seemed to be going well. The dignitaries seemed interested: tails weren't lashing, a few flagging ears had gone up again as they followed the demonstration. They seemed even more interested when Chaeitch mentioned some of the possibilities the new tech offered: faster trade routes, trade goods, productivity, wealth.
Capitalism was alive and well in Shattered Water.
"You see the possibilities," Rraerch summed up as the engine was wound down, venting steam pressure with a spray of condensing water vapor swirling around her legs, "We have the means for [undreamed of?] achievements within our grasps, for a hunt into new territories. With your continued support and [foundations?] we can refine and improve these innovations." She paused for a second to glance back at the engine, now at idle, then looked back to her audience, "I can see there are interesting times ahead. Are there any with the courage to [fight? dance?] with it?"
A hesitation, then a noble spoke up: "New machines, new metals and tools. Very impressive, but just WHERE is this coming from?"
"You met him earlier."
"I know Ah Ties is quite capable, but I think this is beyond even..."
"No. Not him." She took a breath, then gestured at me: "Mikah, come here."
Heads turned and I saw ears go down flat against manes. They stared as I went to her. "That?" one finally said. "You mean that is responsible for..." The Rris, male or female I couldn't tell, trailed off.
"You never told us about this," another said.
"Would it have made a difference?"
"I believe it might have. Shave me, but what is it?"
I caught the movement in the tail of my eye as Rraerch glanced at me. "His name is Mikah. He's a male H'uan. Where he's from and what he's doing here isn't the issue at the moment, but he's intelligent, at least as intelligent as a Rris, and he's the one who gave us these." She waved an arm toward the engine.
"How could something like that build that?" some skeptic growled.
"It wasn't easy. I had some help," I said and there was hesitation before a spatter of chittering. Rraerch looked slightly startled at that, but she recovered quickly. "Huhn, Mikah. Yes, he might be... unusual, but he carries new ideas. A lot of them. This is just an example of what he can do."
"Not that impressive." Heads turned to stare at the speaker: A Rris in military uniform. The same one as before? Something was nagging at the back of my mind. "A few improvements? Is that so world-moving?"
Rraerch's ears twitched back. I saw Hirht's muzzle wrinkle, just a spasm in the short fur before he resumed his impassive mask. "Just improvements?" Rraerch asked.
"That is what they are, isn't it?" the other said and kept staring at me. "It couldn't do something useful? Could it let us fly?"
"How high?" I asked and the officer's ears went down flat at the chittering from the others.
"Mikah," Rraerch quietly warned me, but I think her reaction was more relief at their amusement than annoyance toward me. "There are more impressive devices. There are ideas you've never dreamed of, possibilities that can reach beyond our grasps. His Highness has already honored us with his pledge of full patronage and support and I urge you to consider your commitments. You have the opportunity to share in the rewards of the hunt; I think it would be a mistake to turn away from it."
Of course there were questions then, a rising snarl of Rris voices asking, requesting, and demanding answers. Rraerch ducked her head and raised a hand and didn't say a word until there was silence. "Now, good folk, I know you have questions, but may I suggest we [something] to more comfortable and private quarters to further discuss this. The Green rooms at the Shi'his Halls have been reserved and you are expected. If I can meet you there in an hour, then any questions or problems you have will be answered."
She ignored the babble that rose behind her as she turned away. "Mikah, come along."
The guards fell in around me as I followed, an itch developing between my shoulder blades as she led me away from the Rris nobility and their chairs and the carpet out there in the courtyard. In the privacy of Chaeitch's little second-floor office she stood at the window overlooking the courtyard, then sagged with an exhalation that could have come from her bones. "Rot, I'm glad that's over. All things considered, I think it went quite well." She turned to look at me. "You could have shown a little more respect."
I shrugged. "I thought I was quite restrained."
"Shave you..." she caught herself and chittered slightly. "Too late for that, ah? I meant these people are important. Your future will hinge on their decisions. It would help if they had a favorable opinion of you."
I sat myself down on one of the cushions at Chaeitch's desk. "If they're important, did you have to... tease them like that?"
"Tease? Saa, that." She looked out the grubby little window again. "It works well with them. With some of them, the best way to hold their attention is to dangle something [tantalizing?] and keep it just out of their claws. Fishing for their favors in a way."
"Ah. And I'm the bait."
Her tail stopped moving, froze, then just the tip started flicking back and forth. "Mikah, they have to know about you. They'll have to deal with you sometime and I'd prefer they know about you now than having to try and persuade them you exist later on. You understand that?" She turned, and grime-dimmed sunlight bathed half her face, yellow-amber eyes startling in the darker fur.
"I understand," I said.
Rraerch almost looked relieved. "Good. That's good. Now, I'll be going to the hall to try and settle the rest of this business. They're going to have questions all right." Her ears tipped down and she studied me, then snorted, "I hope I have the answers. You... Chaeitch is going to want you around to check over your little toy there so you stay here for a while. You'll get your chance to meet them soon enough, you can expect that like the sun in morning."
"I'm looking forward to it."
She gave me another curious look, obviously unable to tell if I was being facetious or not, then snorted and stalked over to the door. "It'd be [something] for you to wait here, at least until things out there have settled down." A clawtip flicked the simple wooden latch open and she hesitated, a hand on the door; "There'll be guards outside."
The door closed behind her.
I sighed, then leaned forward on the desk, held out my right arm and unclenched my fist: My hand was trembling, I was wound tight as a spring.