Light on Shattered Water


          Something was going on.
          A guard brought me my breakfast the next morning, but then there was nothing.  My usual escort didn't show up to cart me off to the waterfront workshops or some other meeting in a remote corner of the city or Palace.  I waited, thinking maybe Chotemri was going to be stopping by, but nobody showed up.  So all I could do was keep waiting as the day dragged on and morning turned into afternoon.  I passed the time by going over my language notes and replaying phrases Chotemri had dictated to the laptop in an effort to improve my pronunciation.  Monotonous, a dull way to spend a day, but I was getting very tired of Rris criticizing the way I mangled their language.
          The midday meal arrived and I tried to question the guard, but s/he wasn't very keen to stay and chat; just dumped the tray and left.  Water, grilled rabbit, something like sweet potato, and - surprisingly - slices of tomato.  I wondered if I might be able to get the cooks to make ketchup.  It'd be something to spice up the meals.  Anyway, I took my time eating, sitting in the window alcove staring wistfully out at the sunlight and greenery.  The first time in a while I was able to relax, but I had to wonder just what was going on.
          It was quiet for hours, until the light outside was turning to the suffused gold of evening sunlight.  I heard the voices in the hall outside first; muted through the door, but someone sounded mightily agitated.  A guard opened the door and held it as Kh'hitch bowled in.  "Mikah," the portly Advisor greeted me.  "There's been a rather sudden development.  His highness asks that you meet with him tonight."
          "Development?" I asked.
          He growled softly, a deep rumbling as he crossed the room to gaze down at the work on the desk.  "It seems that your activities have attracted a great deal of unwanted interest.  Immediately following your work last night several [something] from foreign embassies arrived to demand explanations." His ears went back flat against his skull.  "They... insist on meeting with you.  They are quite [something] about it."
          Someone else... quite a few someone elses had seen the trial of the boat last night.  They knew I was involved and I was doing more than just improving on what Land-of-Water already had.  "If you don't show me?" I asked.
          He stiffened and stared at me, as if trying to judge just how much I knew of what was going on; how much I could guess.  "They have been quite insistent on seeing you," he said, not really answering my question.  "His lordship has decided you will meet with them this evening.  There is to be a [something] and meal and you will be present.  This will require you to be properly presentable and to show appropriate respect to their honors.  You can understand that?"
          "Yes." Contrary to what he might think, I did have a couple of brain cells I could knock together.  But if he wanted me presentable, there was a slight problem.  My wardrobe didn't offer the most elegant of ensembles.
          "That's taken care of," he assured me.
          'Taken care of' involved what seemed like a small army of servants, tailors, seamsters and stylists.  I put up with poking and prodding and whispered comments I guess they thought I couldn't hear because my damn ears weren't pointing their way.  They measured me: arms and legs, waist and chest.  Swatches of cloth were brought out, colors compared.  They copied the cut of my human clothes and then applied their own flourishes: a velvet and cotton shirt of cobalt blue and green with bloused sleeves trimmed with gold thread and buttons.  The trousers were black and overly long, designed to be tucked into the top of my boots so the bottoms bloused out like something a character from 1001 Arabian Nights might wear.  Parts of it didn't hang too well: the tailors were accustomed to working to Rris proportions and I guess they reverted to those in a few places.  Anyway, the jacket was a bit tight across the shoulders and the pant's crotch was too snug.  The whole outfit looked garish and overdone to sensibilities accustomed to austere black tuxes and formal wear, but Rris found it acceptable.
          My hair and beard were done while the clothing was being sewn up.  A pair of Rris armed with elaborate versions of those familiar roll-up kits of clippers and combs timidly tried to get me to sit so they could work.  Rris groomers, barbers, hairdresser... whatever you want to call them.  I cooperated and sat where they wanted: on the desk cushion in the sunlight.  A male and female pair, they gingerly touched my hair, made surprised noises and ran their fingers through it.
          "Is this normal for your kind?" the female asked.
          So, they at least knew I talked.  "Is what normal?"
          There was a sharp intake of air and a hesitation.  Perhaps they didn't believe everything they were told.  "This color," she finally said.  "The length.  It's normal?"
          "I don't usually let it grow so long," I confessed.
          Stubby fingers moved toward my face and I flinched as a flash of razored claws replayed behind my eyes.  The Rris jerked his hand away, his own eyes wide: "Sir?"
          "Sorry," I said.  "Just... be careful with your claws."
          And I saw his eyes flicker to that spot on my jaw where my beard was scraggly and didn't quite manage to cover the torn skin beneath.  "Yes, sir," he said.
          They were careful.  Claws and combs pulled through my hair, making some sense out of it, then clippers were working here and there, sending blond locks falling to the catch-cloth.  Guards were watching as they worked, watching even more intently when the female came around to touch my face and beard, then gently tilt my head back and the gleaming metal of those little scissors came up.
          She touched the bristles with the leathery pads on her fingertips.  There was a tiny prickle as claws touched my skin, carefully ran along my jaw, from ear to chin.  Her eyes flickered, a twitch of muscles as the iris dilated then contracted again as they met mine.  It's hard to describe what it's like to look into a Rris' eyes.  They aren't human, but that goes without saying.  Unless the Rris is extremely agitated there's no sclera; the pigment of the pupil fills the eye and for so many is predominantly a deep amber, a hot orange with the jade black of the iris that in literally the blink of an eye could go from a slit of night to a black pool.  Inhuman, animal eyes.  How can an eye convey emotion?  For the most part it's the muscles and tissues around the eye that shift, framing it in different contexts to provide emotional cues and reading any of those movements into a Rris is dangerously inaccurate.  But there is something there, a glimmer that no animal has... that essence in the depths, that spark of something that's more than just cunning or calculation.
          And she'd also frozen, her eyes locked on mine.  Then slowly she cocked her head and a cautious little smile pursed her features.  How many of my thoughts had also been hers in that split second?
          "Sir?" she asked, and I was aware I'd started to raise my arm, as if starting to ward the blades away.  I lowered it again.
          "Go ahead."
          She was careful, as delicate as if she were practicing shaving on a balloon.  I tipped my head back and watched the ceiling as the scissors danced around my throat.

          The guards' polished steel cuirasses and helmets threw reflections from the gas lamps that burned along the walls of the hall.  The light didn't quite reach the high ceiling where carved figures lurked in the shadows of a graceful groin vault.  Pennants and tapestries and paintings hung in the shadows, the figures of elegantly attired long-dead Rris nobility gazing down as my escort and I walked the length of the hall toward the doors at the far end.  More guards flanked us, squads lined up to either side down the length of the hall.  They weren't Land-of-Water soldiery.  Offhand, I could count the troops of over eight different kingdoms there, their armor and livery differing wildly.  There were soldiers in bronze breastplates; stained and painted leather of all colors; chainmail coifs; quilted things that looked like embroidered flak vests.  Heads turned as we passed.  I could feel eyes staring at me all the way down that hall, a few incomprehensible murmured comments drifted after us.  I glanced down at the carpet under my boots and when I raised my eyes again I was staring at the gold inlaid wood of the doors.  The well-oiled hinges didn't make a sound as they were swung open and one of my guards ushered me in.
          It was another big room.  Dimly lit.  A fire was blazing in a huge hearth at the far end and in front of that sprawled an equally oversized table.  If the Rris seated at that table had been talking, they were silent now, all heads turned my way.  I stayed where I was, any confidence evaporating like liquid nitrogen in a balmy spring breeze as my chest contracted about my heart.
          "Honored guests," a voice spoke out, "this is Mikah.  Mikah, come here." A figure beckoned and with no other options I crossed the floor.  The table was a hollow rectangle, with three sides occupied and a single empty cushion at the nearest end.  There were foodstuffs, drinking vessels and utensils arranged along the table, along with huge candlesticks flickering quietly.  Hirht was the one who'd spoken, occupying the center cushion at the far side with his back to the fire, flanked by a pair of Advisors/ scribes.  Down the other two sides of the table sat the ambassadors.
          If I'd thought my outfit was a bit garish, I needn't have worried.  Compared with this lot my attire was as subdued as an Amish's Sunday best.  The light wasn't the best for me, but I could see scarlets and blues and yellows and greens, flaunted jewelry, tinted and shaved fur, bloused sleeves and even damned ruffs similar to the things that used to be in vogue in the England of the Victorian era.  Individual's fur color differed, from one individual with a white pelt that was almost ghostlike in the gloom to one with a dark coloration that could have been black or dark brown or gray, leaving a pair of shimmering eyes hanging in the darkness where its face mixed with the shadows.  Eleven of them, Hirht and his Advisors making fourteen ranked around the table.
          "Please be seated," Hirht said and I folded myself down to the cushion, aware of the eyes watching me.  For some reason my camping cutlery was laid out, the clunky red plastic handles completely out of place amongst the fine porcelain and crystal.
          "This is your mysterious visitor?" a Rris spoke.  "The descriptions really don't do it justice."
          There were a few snorts.  "And something like that is supposed to be responsible for all these developments that have been popping up all over Shattered Water?"
          Someone said, "Can it really talk?"
          "Yes, I talk," I said.
          A brief pause.  Then agitation and noise raced around the table as the ambassadors all started up at once: talking, snarling, demands and questions.  Some were directed at Hirht, fewer at me.  I flinched back from the commotion even as Hirht was appealing for calm and when the last of the guests was quiet - not necessarily happy, but quiet - he sat back.  "Gentle folk, I've told you all I can.  We don't know where Mikah comes from; we don't know how he got here.  We are helping him as we can and in return he is providing suggestions..."
          "Suggestions," one snorted.  "Honored Hirht, from what I have heard of these 'suggestions', there is more at stake here than a homeless... animal.  Just what IS this thing?!  Where is it from?  I..."
          "Ma'am," Hirht gently interrupted.  "I've told you all I can.  Perhaps you would like to hear his side of the story."
          There were dubious looks.  "Can it do that?"
          "He has a surprisingly good hold on proper speech," Hirht assured them.  The ambassadors exchanged looks, then assented.  "Mikah," The King said, "Tell them, as you told me.  Gentle folk, it would make things a great deal easier if you could wait until he finishes before asking questions.  Mikah, please, proceed."
          I swallowed, glanced around at the feline faces intently watching me, and once again started telling my story.  They listened.  There were few interruptions, mainly when someone couldn't understand what I was saying, but for the most part they listened.  Perhaps there was a fascination in the faces around the table; perhaps not just in what I was saying, but in the fact I was speaking at all.  I told them what I knew about how I'd come here, which wasn't much.  I related my time in Westwater, and there was some agitation when I mentioned the incident in the woods; Rris eyes flicked to the scars across my face, and ears went back.  I told them about Shyia, the trip to Lying Scales and the few days I'd spent there.  After that there was the river journey downstream from Thief's Lament and then the final trip to Shattered Water.
          My throat was aching with that familiar rasping that was a symptom of speaking too much Rris by the time I'd finished.  There was hesitation, then the questions started, turning to angry shouting as they tried to outdo one another.  I shrank back, anxiously turning from one demanding Rris to another and without a chance to reply until Hirht brought his mug down with a retort like a gunshot.  They shut up and heads leveled to glare at Hirht as he nonchalantly laced his fingers.
          "Thank you, good folk," he smiled.  "I'm afraid you might be overwhelming Mikah.  It would be easier if your questions were more ordered, yes?" I saw some flickers or reaction at that.  Annoyance?  I wasn't sure.  "Mikah, if you would take questions from Aesh Shahi." He gestured to the Rris directly to my left.
          "Ah, sir," I croaked, cleared my throat and tried again.  "Sir, could I have water?"
          "My apologies.  I forgot." At a slight gesture a servant moved in from the shadows around the room's periphery to fill a mug at my right hand.  Her hands were trembling slightly, the crystal pitcher tinkling against the pewter mug.  It was clean water though, and the Rris stared openly as I drank.  Beyond them Hirht steepled his fingertips as his ears flagged amusement, hastily stifled.
          "You are quite done?" the Rris... Shahi... asked.
          "Yes, thank you." I smiled sweetly and she twitched, then clamped her jaws and asked, "Why did you come here?"
          "Here?" I set the mug down.  "I told you, I don't know."
          "No, to Shattered Water.  Why did you come here?  Why are you helping them?"
          The question startled me.  "I haven't had any choices.  I came here and I didn't know what had happened to me, I didn't know anything about Rris or your kingdoms.  Since then, I've... I've gone with the current."
          "But you had choices concerning the decisions you made here," the next Rris said, extruding and retracting a single claw to make a tiny tic, tic noise on the tabletop.  "You are providing Land-of-Water with information on how to build these new devices, aren't you?"
          "But... why?"
          I glanced at Hirht, then back at the Rris who'd questioned me.  "Sir?" I guess I got the gender right; I wasn't corrected.  "Why not?  They asked me, and I am a... guest in their land."
          He was about to say something, then closed his mouth again.  The Rris to his immediate left took his turn to speak: "Why did you choose to give them those devices?  The engine and... whatever it is that makes that boat move."
          Again I glanced at Hirht, but he seemed to be letting me field my own questions, and that confused me.  "Sir..."
          "Ma'am." The pupils flexed.  "You can't tell?"
          "Not very well, Ma'am.  No.  I'm sorry if I offended."
          She tipped her head to stare at me down her muzzle, then flicked her thin black lips back from her teeth.  "Huh.  Go on."
          Where was I?  "Ah, I was asked to demonstrate what I knew.  I thought they were small changes that could..."
          "Small!" There were snorts from several Rris.
          "Rot it all..." the Rris with the neck ruff started to snarl, then deliberately caught him/herself.  "Honored Hirht, news of this... discrepancy has already been dispatched.  I know my superiors will not be pleased to hear you've been [something] a [resource?/ opportunity] that should be open domain!"
          "And now what do you intend to do with him?" a dark-furred Rris with a red pendant earring asked.  "He's given you metals, those engines... How much more does he know?"
          Hirht cocked his head.  "That is something we aren't sure of.  His kind are... they are more knowledgeable than we are, but what we can learn from that is still to be determined."
          "Who do you mean by 'we'?" the dark-furred individual growled.  "You're talking about Rris in general or just Land-of-Water."
          Hirht gazed around the table.  "Ch'thrit, perhaps your country would be [something] to remove the tax on passage along the Earthy and Meander Rivers?  Mrethi'k, would Cover-my-Tail give us access to your coal?  Would Serimuthi let us mine their gold fields?"
          "I don't think these are the same things," Mrethi'k said, a bit stiffly.
          "You're saying you want payment for this?" a clawed hand swept toward me.
          "Sir," a tawny ambassador with gold inlays gleaming in his black and sienna velvet vest spoke up.  "For now, we would ask a chance for our various [somethings] to examine your guest."
          Hirht frowned.  "You can ask of our scholars.  They have ample information on Mikah."
          "Thank you, sire.  But I for one would like to hear [something] opinions." Echoes of agreement rose from around the table.
          "You are saying any information we provide might be incorrect?" Hirht asked.
          "Not at all.  Merely that it might be... limited."
          "And does anything in your information answer the question 'Is this thing's story true'?" the Rris directly to my right asked.  "It is quite incredible, and that little story just raised more questions: Where were you traveling to?  Why?  Why is it no-one has ever heard of your kind before if you are so numerous?  In such a short time you've made more changes than any kingdom has seen in the past fifty years." The Rris - a male, I guessed, due to the lack of visible nipples under the open-fronted tooled leather waistcoat he wore - looked to his fellows.  "Doesn't this concern anybody else?  Because it scares the piss out of me!"
          Brash, yet tactless.  Agitated chitters escaped a couple of the other ambassadors.
          "How much else does it know?" the dark-furred Ch'thrit mused.
          Hirht's ears flickered slightly.  "That, we're not sure, your honors.  Your staffs will be provided with what information we have.  And that will tell you what you need to know." He looked around then, at a steward who'd materialized from somewhere and ducked its head, murmured something.  "Ah," Hirht purred and stretched, "Food.  Excellent.  Yes, we'll eat now."
          The steward gave another duck of its head and retreated.  There were a few irritated looks from various Rris around the table at the change of subject.  "Sir," one leaned forward, "what of the information he has already given you?  Do you intend to [something] this information among other lands?"
          Eyes flashed cold reflections as Hirht turned and metal rattling in the background startled me until I realised it was only cutlery.  "I'm sure something can be worked out," Hirht was saying as I turned back.
          "You are referring to payment?"
          "I'm referring to whatever is most acceptable between our realms," Hirht said as servants came and went from the table, silent as ghosts as they laid out platters and covered dishes of meats, woven baskets holding breads, crystal decanters and pewter mugs, utensils like surgical tongs and chopsticks with tines at the end.  "Perhaps some other service."
          "Maybe an easing on tariffs?" an ambassador suggested.
          "Maybe," Hirht smiled.
          "Don't you think that might be a bit extravagant?"
          I was startled again as a servant appeared at my right hand to lay a dish before me and be gone before I could ask what it was.
          "An engine with twice the strength of your current ones that uses less than half the amount of fuel," Hirht looked amused.  "I think that any asking price would pay for itself."
          My meal was predominantly meat, several types that'd been properly cooked, thank god, as opposed to the dripping gobbets presented to the Rris ambassadors.  I had a steak soaked in what looked like a bernaise sauce, smaller chunks of crumbed meat and strips of filleted fish laid along the side.  Sprigs of greenery to the other side, circlets of tomatoes and potatoes.  My drink was - surprisingly enough - water, but overall the meal actually looked appetizing.
          "Mikah?  That is how you say your name?" The ambassador halfway down the left side of the table idly brushed at the lace ruff on a bloused sleeve and eyes flashed in the candlelight.  "You think that what you know should be [something] by your hosts?  You have no desire that it should be [something] to other Rris?"
          Putting me on the spot now.  I swallowed as Rris stared at me, "I'm not able to say how you manage your own affairs.  I did what I was asked to."
          "And if you were asked to make weapons?"
          I hesitated, cast a glance to where Hirht sat with the same poker face Shyia used.  "Sir," I said finally, "I cannot support anything like that."
          "Why?  You've killed Rris.  You said as much yourself."
          I looked down at my hands then back at the intent visage, the amber eyes.  "I never had a choice.  Making weapons... I don't want to hurt anyone."
          He cocked his head then casually stabbed a piece of raw meat with a fork and popped it in his mouth, chewed a few times and swallowed hard, not taking his eyes off me.  "So, what do you WANT to do?"
          I shrugged slightly.  "Go home," I said and picked up my own utensils to cut into my meal.  The other ambassadors stopped their own meals to watch me raise a morsel of steak and grimace.  God!  The sauce was bitter, almost metallically so.  My tongue wanted to smear itself against the roof of my mouth to rub that taste off.  I coughed, swallowed then took a draught from my mug.  "Jesus!" I gasped.
          "Something wrong?" Hirht inquired.
          I blinked at my plate and gestured with my fork.  "This sauce.  It is quite... ah... strong."
          "Ah," he smiled.  "That's the point of it.  It gives the tongue something to interest it."
          "Oh." This was their version of tabasco sauce maybe?  I hesitantly tried another piece and it was just as unappetizing the second time around, a bitter sting that was metallic in its unpleasantness.  There were a few Rris chitters.
          "I suppose it can't be to everyone's taste," Hirht chuckled as he slowly shredded a crust of bread in his hands.
          The fish was better, only slightly tainted with the sauce, and the breaded stuff turned out to be veal McNuggets.  But the taste of that sauce lingered and I finished my water trying to get the taste out of my mouth.  The vegetables weren't bad at all.  I wished I could have had more of them.  Those, along with the bread and cheeses, were quickly polished off.  The ambassadors still had their questions, asking me if I was prepared to work for another kingdom?  Would I work for whoever could pay me the most?
          Would I do that?  If I did, what then?  How would the other kingdoms come to feel about that?  Would someone decide that if they couldn't have me, then nobody would?  That thought tightened the knot in my guts and I nursed my cup.
          "And your metals?" the Rris female named Irthiasi from Nights-in-Wonder far to the northwest, "I hear you have interesting new amalgams."
          "I'm sure the Guildmasters will be interested to listen to any petitions you might have," Hirht said.
          "And you know nothing about how they might be used?"
          "I don't..." I missed his reply.  My cup was empty again and I was still thirsty and now faintly nauseous.  The candlelight seemed to glow brighter in a washing glare that hurt my eyes.  I tugged at my collar and turned my head away and the room swam like a tide, existence drifting away then back again.
          "Ai?  You are all right?" the Rris to my left was asking me.
          "All right?" I blinked.  "I... yes.  Please, more water?"
          I drained my glass almost as soon as it was filled.  My hand was shaking and I clenched it in a fist, not really hearing the sibilants of Rris language that was beginning to mix with the roaring in my ears.  Nausea washed across me again and I clutched at the edge of the low table.
          "I don't feel so good," I mumbled and clambered unsteadily to my feet.  "I think I... I am..." I croaked and managed a step before my knees buckled and I stumbled and fell.  I tried to get up but my arms didn't want to cooperate; I half raised myself, fell back and was aware my name was being shouted and hands caught me to roll me over to lay and blink the dazzling blurs above me into the features of Rris.  "Food," I tried to say poison but didn't know the word.  "Medicine..." I choked off, trying to breath through the smothering weight all around me.  There was a lot of noise, audible through the dull pattering of my pulse and my limbs felt like they belonged to someone else: dead weight, like trying to move an arm after it's been asleep.  Light and darkness shifted as Rris moved around me, furry faces came and went leaning over and speaking nonsense, hands caught me and lifted me and the world went out of focus.
          Blinked, and I was flat on my back watching a groin-vaulted ceiling passing overhead, the nightmare face of a cat in a gleaming metal helmet turned to glance down at me....
          Blinked and someone else was moving me, laying me down among blankets and I struggled in feeble panic as inhuman features looked down on me and grinned with needle teeth.  Claws pricked my skin as stubby hands pressed me back down on soft sheets, my muscles twitching and heart stuttering while damp cloths wiped at bare skin and coolness laid across my burning forehead and it was too much effort to stay awake.

          Distant sounds.  Like water on shale, wind in trees, sibilants and susurrus of muffled Rris voices.  I took a breath, becoming aware of cool air, the blood warmth of the bed and the feeling in my limbs, opened my eyes to a blackness that was almost solid.  Another sound in the room: a hiss of breath, then the unmistakable sound of claws on wood and a wedge of light briefly stretched across a pale frescoed ceiling as a door was opened, then closed again and the sound of voices was abruptly stilled.
          I closed my eyes again and took stock: thirsty, washed out and slightly nauseous.  My muscles ached and I felt as weak as a kitten, but I could move.  Laboriously I levered myself up to sit in darkness amidst a nest of tumbled sheets while shaking wracked my limbs.  Cold air, or my skin was hot.  The slight scents of alcohol and illness permeated the room.  I shuddered, closed my eyes and rolled my head to try and work some of the stiffness out of my neck.
          "Rot take it!" a voice snapped and I opened my eyes to faint lamplight shining through the open door, eclipsed by the silhouette of a Rris.  "What are you doing?" it demanded as it entered, two more close behind it.
          "No..." I tried to protest as they laid hands on me, pressed me back to the sheets.  "I am fine."
          "Fine!" The voice from the darkness snorted.  "That would be the last word I'd use to describe you." I flinched away when a leathery pad touched my face.  "Calm," the unseen Rris urged and the hand returned to touch my nose and then my brow and a Rris grunted.  "His heat is down a bit."
          "And his heart?"
          In the dark, leathery hands touched my chest, the hollow of my neck and the Rris said something I didn't understand.  They weren't having any difficulties seeing; to me there was nothing but vague shadows while patches of darkness with a bit more solidity than others moved around, occasionally haloed by the feeble glow from the door.  When a light was struck I had to gasp at the pain that stabbed into my eyes.  Just a candle, but I had to turn my head away from a glare that seemed to go straight through my skull.  Not my quarters, I realised.  Not a place that was intended to impress anybody.  Just a bare, functional room with whitewashed walls, high ceiling, a pair of narrow shuttered windows to my right and a tiled floor.  The candle sat on a low desk with its ubiquitous cushion.  The Rris doctor touched my face, then told me to hold still while holding my eyes open and peering into them.  A hand was waved in front of my eye, alternately shading it and exposing it to candlelight until the doctor huffed and stepped away.
          "How is he doing?" I heard someone ask and the doctors offered muted replies.  Another Rris approached my bedside and I watched dazedly as the King of Land-of-Water settled himself on a cushion at my bedside.  "No, don't move," he told me, then his thin black lips twitched back.  "Huhn, Mikah.  At least you are looking better."
          "I suppose I ruined the meal," I said.
          He chittered at that.  "A.  I have seen other ways to [something] an evening.  None quite so dramatic though."
          "They are still here?" I asked.
          He looked taken aback, then leaned toward me.  "Mikah, that evening was two days ago."
          Two days?  I'd slept two days away?  Perhaps he knew enough about me to be able to read my shocked expression for his ears went down.  "You haven't been well.  You had a lot of people very worried."
          "What happened to me?" I croaked.
          He clicked claws together.  "That... we're not sure.  We thought [poison] but there weren't any traces.  The kitchen staff were made to eat from your meal, but they didn't suffer any ill effects." Harsh, but practical.  "Maybe the culprit had taken an [something].  Maybe it was something that was specific to your kind."
          That sauce.  I was convinced it was that foul-tasting stuff.  Maybe to the Rris it was their equivalent of a chili sauce but to me it had a far more potent effect.
          "I don't know the details of how to prepare it," he said in answer.  "It will be looked into.  Meantime, I suggest you try and recover."
          He paused, then said.  "What you said about weapons; you meant that?"
          I had to think back to understand what he meant.  Oh.  "Yes," I said softly.  "I meant it."
          "You understand that other kingdoms might not understand that.  To them, you'll also be a potential source of new weaponry as well as an industrial advantage.  Would you hold to your ideals if someone decided to declare war over you?"
          Again there was that sinking feeling.  "Would you really try to fight the rest of the world, even if I did help you?" I countered.
          He smiled then: diluted amusement with just a dash of teeth.  "That's something I hope we don't have to find out."
          "Sir, that's not likely is it?  I mean... what are they going to do?"
          "A." He settled back, the tip of his tail twitching behind his back.  "They were annoyed that I wasn't willing to release all the information you've given us.  They will accept what I have offered, but reactions were... mixed." That was as oblique an answer as I could possibly get.  He stood then and looked toward the door, then back at me.  "Why don't you rest now, a?" he said and left, the physicians standing aside as he passed and I belatedly realised one of them was Rasa.  She glanced my way and her ears flattened, then struggled erect again.

          I mended quickly enough.  The next day I was on my feet; albeit a bit wobbly and my eyes still ached in bright light.  They returned me to my quarters in the late afternoon, the bright sunlight giving me a nagging headache.  The squad of guards stationed outside my door at the end of that corridor stiffened to attention as I approached and one met my eyes and I saw his/her own widen in startlement and hastily flicker aside to something of interest down the hall behind me.
          My escort saw me inside and I stalled them before they left.  "Where is Shyia?" I hadn't seen him for a while.
          "Sir?" The soldier asked.
          "The Mediator who brought me here.  Where is he?"
          "I'm sorry sir.  I really don't know."
          Then they were gone.  I sighed, turned and squinted into the light coming in through the window.  Dammit.  With my hands behind them, the front of my glasses made an acceptable mirror.  I held them up, tilted them, then gaped in shock at the black pools that were staring back at me: my irises were dilated, even in the brilliance of my room, the gray of my pupils gone behind glistening blackness.  They were the eyes of a furious Rris, eyes I remembered all too-well.  I touched the skin below my eyes and understood why Rris had been so fidgety around me recently.
          What the hell had happened to me?  An aftereffect of whatever had poisoned me?  How long was this going to last?
          Later Kh'hitch stopped by to visit as I sat in self-imposed gloom with the drapes pulled.  No altruistic motives, just wanted to see how I was doing and explain there were going to be a few changes.  The ambassadors weren't entirely satisfied: Accusations hadn't been leveled yet, but they all had their suspicions about who'd been responsible for my poisoning.  Apparently, not even Hirht was immune from respectfully-phrased accusations and I had to admit that little scene had been a great way of getting me away from awkward questions.  The ambassadors had taken the information Shattered Water had offered, but they weren't happy with it.  They'd been demanding access to me, to let their own people talk with me.
          Hirht had declined.
          "We aren't expecting trouble," Kh'hitch told me.  "However, your guard will be increased.  You will not go anywhere without an escort and express permission.  You understand."
          "Yes, mother," I said.
          "What?" The portly Advisor cocked his head and his muzzle wrinkled.  "Mikah, that is a revolting concept."
          I also tipped my head to the side and looked him up and down.  "You know, you're right."
          He snorted and refused to play along any further.  "Understand!  This is being done for your own safety.  It's just a precaution.  Just in case someone tries something foolish."
          "Such as what?  Killing me?" On some level inside I was dully surprised to find how little the idea bothered me.  With everything I'd been through, and now the bars of my cage closing in; the idea of an assassin just didn't scare me.
          "Doubtful," the Advisor said.  "A precaution, as I was saying.  And there'll doubtless be more foreign ticks poking their muzzles into business around here.  A good escort will ensure they keep a respectful distance."
          For a while longer he went on to explain what was going to be happening.  I'd be spending the next few days in the palace where I'd be doing my work while security at the various facilities around the city was reviewed.  And when I was moved my bodyguard would escort me everywhere.  That irritated me but he didn't want to listen to my complaints.  At least he didn't propose having them sleep in the same damn bed.

          My eyes still ached.  For five days I wore my sunglasses whenever I had to go into bright light and still I had to put up with nagging headaches as well as the stares and comments the glasses elicited.  My tutor found them quite disconcerting and once a Rris noble approached me to ask where she could get a pair.  Five days of that before a doctor noticed my eyes were improving.
          At least that was a bit of good news, the one bit I got in a week spent being rushed around the palace with a dozen armed soldiers in tow.  Hours upon hours in closed rooms with scholars from the university, Guild representatives, nobility who had vested interests in various enterprises.  It was the usual thing: inquiries about new tools, dyes, comparative history between Humans and Rris.  The Glassworkers Guild sent a delegation to look into manufacturing new optics for microscopes, telescopes and such.
          Several days passed before I was taken out of the Palace again.  This time there were two carriages along with a mounted and armed escort riding llamas.  I had a crazy impression that we must've looked like some twisted motor cavalcade, with cops carrying blunderbusses and crossbows riding woolly beasts with attitude problems.  At least the ride was easier than it'd been in winter when the wheels skidded on ice-slicked cobbles and the inside of the carriage was a refrigerator.
          The riverside workshops hadn't changed, but now there were guards everywhere.  In the forecourt I could see armed royal guard at the gate and patrolling the yard.  I slung the laptop over my shoulder and headed for the workshops with my shadows behind me.  Chaeitch was with several other engineers clustered around a gearbox assembly.  One saw me and touched his shoulder, muttered something.  He glanced over, his ears flicked up and he bounded to his feet to hurry over, then hesitated when he saw the two soldiers hovering at my shoulder.
          "Hi Chaeitch," I said, smiled tightly.
          He cocked his head.  "It's good to see you're up and about again.  I'd heard you were quite ill.  Feeling better now?"
          "Oh, yeah, much better," I assured him.  "And I found some new friends," I said wryly, jabbing a thumb back at my shadows.
          His ears flagged amusement, then he glanced past me at the guards and his amusement faded.  "Come on.  There's a lot to catch up on."
          And there was.  They'd stripped the prototype engine out and were constructing a more refined version.  The transmission had been stripped down and new gears had been cast, but Chaeitch was interested in other designs and configurations.  Workbenches were littered with wooden mockups of gears and frames, pulleys and chains.  I spent that day sorting through schematics of everything from cycle derailleurs to the transmission from a '98 GM Impact.  There were also artificers interested in forms of wind power humans were familiar with, so I was digging out files related to eggbeater windmills and sailwings.  I'd have to study up on aerodynamics myself before I could relate human technical information to the Rris.
          Over at the foundry the foreman's fur was on end over the composition over the lining of the new furnaces: The brick they were using was sublimating, contaminating the metals and throwing off their ratios, so of course they needed a new mix.  There were questions about when the new engines for the converter compressors would be ready; clarifications on alloy mixes; news on the latest batch of lathe heads.
          Lessons in comparative geography between two worlds at the University.  There were scholars interested in finding out just where our two species branched off so drastically.
          Land-of-Water was still receiving irritated petitions from various embassies, but so far they'd not deigned to arrange interviews and I couldn't help but wonder just how far this was going to go.  No matter what might be going on in the world, it certainly wasn't making a dent in my schedule.

End Light on Shattered Water 18