Light on Shattered Water
Who was responsible? Well, there were suspects. Over a dozen of them.
And they were untouchable.
The other kingdoms had been refused access to me. Hirht had provided them with some information, but they were convinced - probably rightly so - that he was still withholding things. He'd been wanting to try and keep me as a Land-of-Water resource and someone hadn't been about to stand for that.
Even if the assassination attempt had failed, the point had been made.
And thinking back on it, maybe it'd been supposed to fail. There'd been chances for the assassins to kill me but they'd never taken them. In the darkness and confusion they might have simply missed me, but somehow... I still have my doubts. Still, the message was clear enough: If the other realms couldn't have me, then nobody was going to have me. There was no way that Hirht could hope to protect me: If someone really wanted me dead it was going to happen.
On top of that night came renewed demands from the ambassadors, along with new promises of sanctions, blockades and increased tariffs on all trade goods. I wasn't party to the discussions. I got most of my news second-hand through various Advisors, but it was enough for me to get a handle on what was going on. It didn't sound as if it was going to turn out to my advantage. Still, a bit of good news: they found my boots and jacket.
It was Hirht's informal office. He was standing at the window, his back to me as he gazed out across the sunlit gardens outside. A sparrow landed on the windowsill, just on the other side of the glass and his head twitched that way, ears up.
I closed the door. "Sir?"
He turned and the bird startled off the sill, out of sight. "Mikah. How's you arm?"
I flexed it. I'd gotten rid of the sling a couple of days ago, but the scabs still pulled when I moved my hand. "It's fine. Just a few scratches."
"With a hide like yours that could be enough," he growled. "Sit."
The stuffing of the tooled-leather cushion rustled as I settled into it. The king sat himself down at his desk, his fur gleaming in the pool of sunlight flooding in through the windows behind him. His desk was awash in papers: illegible from where I was sitting, but I could see quite a few impressive-looking wax seals adhering to the velum and parchment. He leaned forward and scratched a finger back and forth along a small rectangle of wood: shavings curled away from his claw. "Mikah, you're aware of the demands other kingdoms have been making in regard to questioning you."
"Well, following that... incident, I've decided to [something] to their requests."
"I'm sorry. I don't know that word chaeahsia?"
He sighed. "It means: I agree to it. Understand?"
"Oh. Yes, I understand." Acquiesce.
"Good," he clawed gouges out of the bit of wood on his desk. I keep a scratch pad myself, but that was taking things a little too literally. "And you understand it is going to make things difficult. There will be more people wanting to meet with you, and I won't have authority over these. For the most part they will be foreigners associated with embassies; some specialists brought in to ask you various questions."
A soft hiss escaped him. "That... I don't know. Some are dubious about what we've told them of you. They want to confirm for themselves that you're not some hoax we concocted to drive in political wedges."
"Anyway, your schedule will be rewritten. You will need more security and will probably need longer days."
I felt my heart stumble. "Sir. I don't know I can..."
"Mikah, I know you're working quite hard, but any farmer puts in at least as much time as you."
But a farmer is in his own home. He's among his own kind. He isn't trying to second-guess what might be going on in alien minds, trying to speak a language he was never intended to. He doesn't have to watch his every gesture, to be careful not to smile. He wouldn't cause a riot if he walked through town or went to buy a piece of bread. "Sir, it's not like that. It's..."
How could I explain? The tensions, nightmares... "I get very tired, sir. It is very..." Did they even have a word for stress? The nearest I could come was the term for weight on a rope.
Hirht looked a bit confused, then flicked his ears. "Huhnn. Well, it won't be for too long. You won't snap before then?" he smiled.
Looking back on it I can see he thought I'd made a mistake and he was making a pun out of it. I took him at the English translation of the term 'snap', not understanding he really didn't realize what I meant. "I hope not."
He snorted and tapped at a sheaf of paper: "That's some good news. Now, these interviews won't be private. You'll have guards and an Advisor with you. I have details of what you'll be free to discuss and what is confidential. You understand?"
"Yes," I sighed. "Do you know who did it?"
He hesitated. "You mean that attack? No, nobody has claimed responsibility."
"Is it likely to happen again?"
Hirht raised an extruded claw above his scratch pad, then gently lowered it and studied the sharp little crescent. "I don't know. I don't think so. I believe they were trying to make a point and now it's been made, there won't be any further use for actions like that."
"And if they decide they still aren't being told everything?"
He was still for a fraction of a second, the pupils in his eyes dilating. "That... I doubt anything will happen. Understand: they will learn what you are. They will see just what they can gain from you and when they do..." He sighed, "All I can say is that anyone who harmed you would [something] the anger of the other kingdoms."
"You're sure of that?"
The Rris king laughed: a sound not at all like a human chuckle. A stuttering chitter filled with uncertainty and I knew the answer myself. No, he wasn't certain.
Changes. Not for the better.
I'd sat with ambassadors and scholars and teachers and artisans. Rris from places I'd only heard occasional mention of in my lessons, from neighboring kingdoms and places on the other side of the known Rris world, they all wanted their time. I'd talked for hours with representatives from some of the most powerful kingdoms, answered questions and shown pictures. I'd even sketched a simple portrait of the Lost-Sun ambassador when she'd queried my profession.
Rules. There were always Land-of-Water Advisors there to watch, always guards - for both sides. I'd received lectures and instructions from all kinds of officials, from Advisors to upper echelon military.
General Kisti aesh Hostei. She was an imposing figure: tall for a Rris, her muzzle and torso fur peppered with gray and old scar tracks and her cheek tufts a brittle white. Old, yes, but stocky enough to look like she'd been chiseled from granite: muscles shifted under her fur like tectonic plates in motion and she wore her much-used armor like most people might wear a favorite shirt, not seeming to notice its weight. Assertive; she was used to getting what she wanted... in some ways she reminded me of Shyia, in others of a bear. And despite that, there was still a hesitation around me; a movement to keep as much distance between us as possible.
It was the first time I'd been introduced to the military establishment. Why? I'm not sure. Nobody ever told me. I think they'd been trying to find out how cooperative I'd be about military information. And when they learned that I wasn't likely to be very cooperative, they'd decided to see how much they could find out on their own. I'd often returned to my rooms to find the monitor log in the laptop full of misspelled access and search attempts. I didn't pursue the issue.
The general lectured me at length. Someone had tried to kill me in her city: that was a slight against her and her works that she took an almost personal offense at. She told me what was going to be done to make sure that didn't happen again: more guards and security, careful screening of everyone who was to go near me... nothing I wasn't expecting. Then she started explaining that other realms would ask about weapons, they would ask about ideas and ways of war.
"You would like it if I didn't tell them anything," I said.
Her left ear was a stub, but it twitched as the right one laid down. "What you feel is right," she said and I knew those weren't her words. The way she acted... she didn't believe I could feel anything.
I smiled - a hollow grimace that didn't mean anything to either of us - and nodded. "All right."
The Land-of-Water nobility refused to let me be taken to the embassies, so the foreign delegations were escorted to the Palace where the audiences were to be held. Every couple of days I was taken to the conference room to meet with the Rris. The time I wasn't engaged in those meetings was spent at the workshops where the Rris were doing their best to fit two days' work into one. My guard had been increased and it was a small army of a couple of dozen soldiers who rattled around with me. Inside the palace a squad of four heavily armed troopers followed me everywhere.
Awkward times. Rris kept their distance and I was quite aware of the whispering behind my back. Rraerch was withdrawn, keeping her distance and Chaeitch - who had been openly friendly with me - was nervous around me. They'd heard what happened. They'd asked how I was, expressed their shock, but under that there was the fidgeting, the sidelong glances. They'd heard I'd killed Rris and it really didn't matter what the circumstances had been. Maybe it'd be comparable to a guard dog killing an intruder: it was doing its job, but it was still a man killer.
How many had died? They never told me. Maybe they didn't know.
The meetings with the foreign delegations were another matter. A closed room with Rris who might have been one of the ones who'd tried to kill me; other Rris who'd never seen me before - never conceived of something like me before - and treated me as one might a circus creature: see the tricks it can do. Isn't it remarkable?
The first meeting. It was in another of those meeting rooms the Palace seemed to have a plethora of. A large room on the second floor, three latticed windows looked out over the sweeping front drive and the tree-lined avenue stretching away. The marbled top of the gatehouse was just visible above the treetops. There wasn't much in the room, nothing in the way of furniture save the seven cushions and low tables on the carpeted floor. One was over by itself in front of the windows, the others arranged in a loose crescent on the side of the room near the door.
"Be seated," Kh'hitch instructed, sweeping his arm toward that single cushion. "They'll be here shortly."
The door closed behind me as I crossed the room and I hesitated, turned when I heard the key turn in the lock. The door was black, constructed of solid pieces of timber that looked like they were damn good at their job. I sighed and let my arm slap despondently against my jeans, then turned away and wandered over to the window.
There was activity down on the drive: Three carriages parked in the paved courtyard before the Palace, Rris moving about. I could see a few guards, their armor glittering in the sunlight, others tending the elk harnessed to the carriages. I touched the windows, the organic flow of the crude glass cold under my fingertips as I watched the Rris going about their business and the chill sensation continued on to the pit of my stomach: that emptiness that seemed to drag the world in with it.
The metallic scritch of a key in the lock jolted me out of my funk. I turned as the Advisor entered and hesitated, then gestured at the cushion. The Rris behind him also stalled for a second, her eyes going wide as she watched me take my seat. Shahi, from Hunting-Well. I'd met her... I'd seen her at that rather ill-fated reception meal a couple of weeks back. She'd seen me before, but even so there was that involuntary flinch; that twitch of eyes and ears when she saw me. The other five Rris didn't know me and they stared openly.
Five of them, all with an affluent air about them. Red and orange and green velvet, fine cottons, tooled and oiled leather glistening in the sunlight. A hefty Rris wore a torc with enough glittering rocks to start a magpie salivating; a somewhat more trim individual with delicate silver chains looping from its ears in a sharp contrast with the dark fur. Shahi was wearing breeches of supple white leather, something like suede. A light khaki vest blended with her fur while shaved patches traced gray serpentine patterns down her arms. Eyes flickered as the newcomers studied me sitting there in my human manufactured clothing: an Eldritch 'Stranger Than You Think' T-shirt, Swan-dri and blue-jeans.
"Ambassador, you've met Mikah before," Kh'hitch said to the female representative from Hunting-Well.
She cocked her head and maybe smiled a bit. "Yes. Although he appears to be feeling a little better today."
I caught Kh'hitch's warning glance and caught myself before I said something I'd regret and just sat quietly as they took their seats, joints bending inhumanly as they settled down onto the cushions. Kh'hitch was puffing a bit by the time he'd got himself seated, but he rallied admirably, drawing himself up like a furry Buddha with his paunch hanging into his lap. Again I had to wonder at the Rris aristocrats' choice of indoor furniture. A pair of guards took up stations against the whitewashed walls inside the door, their polished steel armor gleaming like mirrors in the sunlit room.
I'd been briefed on just who I was going to be meeting, but Kh'hitch ran through introductions anyway. All affiliated in some way with Hunting-Well, a centralized realm whose western borders ran along the Earthy River [Mississippi] and northern tip flirted with the southern shores of Lake Endless [Michigan]. Among their main exports: cattle and related produce, grain and textiles. Nobody had told me why they'd been chosen for the first interview; maybe they'd just drawn names out of a... well, some kind of receptacle, hats not being so popular here.
Shahi was watching me curiously, but without too much concern. More apprehensive were her associates. Alongside, her deputy was Chareth, the dark-furred male with the silver ear-chains busily producing parchments from a satchel. Retikhiasth was the consulate archivist; a twitching young Rris with an emerald green tunic that matched her green eyes and somewhat russet fur. Ch'isthori and Hatorik were merchants and Hunting-Well's Traders Guild representatives in Shattered Water. The final member was the hefty Rris with the jeweled torc, also a black leather vest and ornate sheath - empty - slung at the belt: Hiskny, their 'security' Advisor. The local military attaché concerned with consulate security and probably a few other more... um... covert departments.
"And how are you this morning?" Shahi asked conversationally.
"I am managing," I answered, trying to ignore the audible intake of breath from the Rris called Hatorik.
"Good," she smiled. "Now, what have they told you not to tell us?"
"Ambassador," Kh'hitch didn't exactly growl. "If this is going to be your attitude, we might as well..."
"Apologies," she smoothed with a single motion of her hand. Kh'hitch subsided, but was still simmering. "Mikah, that story you told the other night, it was very interesting. In fact, we'd all like to hear a little more about the place you came from. You don't know where it is?"
"It's not like that," I tried to explain. "My home is like... all of this. This world. But it's not this world."
"That doesn't make much sense."
"Look. All I've been able to figure out is this is a might-what-have been. My world is too."
"A what?" she and the others looked puzzled. Also Kh'hitch. It was the first time I'd aired this theory.
"I'm not sure. You understand time? Say that time is like a tree." I moved my hands and saw tails start to twitch, placed them back in my lap again. "There is the trunk, then a decision might be made, a choice taken and that trunk branches. In one world one path is taken and at that moment another world is created where the other path is also taken."
There were looks of confusion.
I sighed. "Look, what happened at that meal: maybe there was a world created where I died, another where there was no poison, another where someone else ate it by mistake. All possibilities branching off from the main trunk. In my world the branch led to my kind rising to the top, on this branch it is your kind. Somehow I... jumped from a branch where my kind existed to this branch."
Shahi's head was back, her fur was slightly bristled. "And this is an idea you just... had?"
Well, there was that old series Sliders that led me on to do a bit of poking around quantum physics... "My kind have thought about this for a while," I finally said.
"Your kind," she mused. "We've done a bit of research and came up with this." She held out a hand for the roll of parchment her deputy handed her, opened it in a smooth movement. It was a detailed ink line-drawing of an ape perched on a branch, its mouth open in a grin that bared long teeth. "This look familiar?"
I sighed, nodded and belatedly waved an affirmative. "An ape. Not my kind."
"No? I wouldn't look at you and say that."
"I said that in my world Humans are like Rris are here. I think that is what happened to my kind here."
Rris eyes glanced from the paper to my face. To my eyes there wasn't much similarity, but what were they seeing?
"Excuse me," another Rris - Retikhiasth - ventured. "Ah... if that is what his... sahh... kind looks like. What do Rris look like where you... ah... come from?"
Everyone looked at her, then at me. I smiled slightly: nervous young lady, but sharp. "Different," I told her without elaborating and saw how that peaked her interest.
"All right," Shahi gestured with the rolled paper and handed it back to her deputy. "Enough of that for now. We have a few more important matters to cover. Mikah, you have been giving our hosts information, haven't you?"
"Various things. There were improvements to the steam engine they were using, also changes to boats. A more... economical way of producing steel. Changes to the textiles mills and looms. There were some changes to maps. Also, new metals for tools..."
"Please, clutch it," Shahi forestalled me, looking flustered and I stopped, somewhat confused at the command myself before realizing it was a figure of speech I hadn't heard before. Kh'hitch's nostrils flared but he said nothing while the ambassador rubbed at the fur on her forearm. "You're doing all this, by yourself?"
"Huhnn... You said your kind is more... knowledgeable than we are. How much more so?"
"That's... difficult to know. We went through a time like yours, I think a couple of hundred years ago."
I couldn't help but notice how the fur of her ruff was lifting, literally getting her hackles up. "That doesn't make any sense."
Time. It wasn't something they easily understood, how much things could change in two centuries. "Maybe two hundred years ago my people were like Rris are now. Time went on. We learned. We made more tools, better tools. Our knowledge grew. As a cub learns as it grows."
Maybe not the best analogy. "You think we're like cubs?"
"Not like that. You still have a lot to learn. So do we."
She snorted and rubbed her forearm again, ruffling the sigils shaved there. "Saaa... Did you have a profession?"
"Yes. I was an artist."
Outright surprise. "You? An artist?"
There were a few smiles. "That's not a profession I would've expected in something like you. But if that's so, how do you know about expanded-water engines and metallurgy?"
"I know a bit about it. It was enough to give suggestions that Rris could... build on."
"Ah. Just suggestions. And from those Land-of-Water has made these changes. I would like to know a little more about what you have done."
I glanced at Kh'hitch who said nothing. I took that as a sign that he'd no objections and started telling them about some of the work I'd done so far. That took a while, quite a while; about two hours by my count, and all the time the ambassador's deputy was scribbling away, taking notes with a quill and inkwell.
"You've been quite busy," Shahi noted when I finally finished.
I nodded, rubbed my throat. Speaking Rris wasn't getting any easier. "Could I have a drink?"
Kh'hitch made a gesture and a guard exited. Amazingly quiet for someone carrying that much metal.
"You're all right?" Shahi asked.
Nothing like last time, just a sore throat. "I'm fine," I assured her. "I'm not made to speak like a Rris."
"Ah," uncertainty flickered across her features, then she snorted and muttered something to her aide who scratched away at his notes. Her tail flicked and she turned to Kh'hitch. "Advisor, this is... You were intending to keep this to yourselves."
Kh'hitch's expression didn't flicker. "In the beginning we had no reason to suppose there would be any interest from other kingdoms. By the time we were aware of what was happening, so were other lands."
"You saw no reason to inform us?"
She growled something that could be translated as: "That's beside the point," but didn't push it.
The guard returned with a pitcher and a glass. If s/he wasn't happy about being relegated to the status of a servant, the furry face showed no signs. I drank greedily, then looked at the mug and wished they had refrigerators.
Shahi was muttering something with her aide, glancing at the transcripts then leaning over to confer with the two traders. I couldn't quite make out what they were murmuring about, but they exchanged a few words before she turned back to me. "You claimed that you had no intention of dealing exclusively with Land-of-Water. You came here by accident?"
"Would you be willing to offer some proof of this? You've given Land-of-Water examples of your knowledge, would you share that with other Rris?"
"I'm not really able to say. I think it depends upon circumstances."
"Hnn. A very [something] answer," she mused, tapping her muzzle with a forefinger. Before I had a chance to ask her what that word meant, she continued, "We would be interested in an example."
Shahi looked to her left, to the merchanters, where Hatorik squirmed slightly and his ears turned back but he said, "We thought you might have a better idea of that. There were a few uncertainties about just what you knew."
"I will have think on that a bit," I said. This had been something I'd been warned about so I'd had time to prepare a few ideas based on Hunting-Wells main products. "Would an improved method for harvesting grain be of interest?"
Shahi's muzzle wrinkled very slightly. "What sort of improvements?"
"In one hour a single Rris could harvest as much grain as it would usually take five Rris working all day."
That got them. Even their tails were still, then Shahi said, very slowly, "We... we would be interested."
I thought they would be. Even Kh'hitch seemed a bit taken aback.
The other merchant raised his hand to point a stubby finger at my legs. "Those coverings... I don't think I've seen their like before. What kind of material is that?"
Slightly surprised at that line of questioning I plucked at my jeans. "This? It's called Denim."
"Most unusual." He murmured something to his associate, then asked, "May I look closer?"
"Mikah..." Kh'hitch started to say.
"It's all right," I said, raising my hand and the Advisor subsided but still looked wary. The guards shifted almost imperceptibly when Hatorik stood to approach me. His toe claws were out, I saw, catching on the carpet as he stepped over. Those alien tendons in those peculiar digitigrade feet and ankles flexed as he knelt and his glance flickered from my face to his hands as he touched the denim at my ankles, then pinched it between thumb and forefinger. "Strong... Very unusual stitching."
A finger ran along the seam. "I've never seen a weave like this before... and [rivets]; I'd expect to see those on a suit of armor."
I told him a bit about the fabric: how it was derived from cotton spun on mechanical looms, but I didn't explain the details of the process. The zipper left him intrigued and frustrated: I demonstrated it, but refused a closer examination. Rather Kh'hitch did. They had a sample of what I could show them and he wasn't going to give away too much. Hatorik had started to complain but Shahi had uttered one word of warning and he'd backed down.
There was one final issue, the delicate reason the military attaché Hiskny was present in the delegation. Shahi's tail twitched slightly, betraying her agitation when she said, "Advisor, my apologies, but this is a matter of some concern. Mikah, you did say you weren't willing to provide information on weapons."
I felt my own muscles twitch and Kh'hitch tensed a bit. "That's right," I said slowly.
"Your kind, you said you are more... knowledgeable than we are. This applies to those fields as well?"
So that's where this was leading. "Yes," I said. "I'm not dealing in those. I think I have enough problems without making myself a military target."
"You think you haven't?"
It was the first time Hiskny had favored us with spoken words. His muzzle twitched slightly when I looked at him and one finger tapped at his belt where the knife sheath hung. "That engine. That alone has applications that are far from peaceful."
I nodded. "I know. I regret it, but it can be used for..." again, my grip on the Rris language wasn't strong enough and the words I wanted eluded me. "They can be used for better purposes. I can't tell you how to run your... business, but I won't tell you how to build weapons."
The military Advisor tipped his head and looked somewhat puzzled, either at the attitude or the vehemence. "Why? Your kind have weapons? What do you have against them?"
I took another drink and idly reached up to rub the old wound through my shoulder that was aching again. "You... you carry a knife," I said, glancing at the scabbard. "You ever had to use it?"
"Did you enjoy it?"
His chin came up and I could see tendons flexing under his fur. "I had the satisfaction of doing my duty and my [honor]."
Honor. That was the best translation I could come up with. Another concept that had no real analogies and in time would just become part of the way I thought as even that changed to click in with the world around me. I nodded. "You'll learn. I had no choice; I didn't enjoy it and I have no wish to be responsible for more."
"And what do your hosts say to that?"
"They know," I said. I never mentioned the laptop, or the fact my hosts had been doing some research of their own.
Kh'hitch was studying me, unblinking eyes set in a furry face that didn't have as much fat as the rest of his body. "It hasn't been a subject we've pressed him on."
"Then you're not working on developing weapons," Shahi asked.
"No more than you are," the Advisor smiled.
The ambassador smiled back. Her face at least; a plastic expression that didn't entirely reach her ears.
It was early evening by the time affairs were finished up. The light outside was going, the sky darkening with high, wind-sculpted wisps of cloud burnished to glowing metal by the dying sun. I was hungry, tired, and my throat was raw. The ambassador wanted another meeting, scheduled more talks with specialists. She wanted the designs I'd offered as soon as was possible and discussed bringing in experts from her homeland to carry out further talks. When the time finally came to leave they offered their respects and flowed to their feet, not showing any sign of discomfort after being seated for so long: my own had turned to lumps of wood long ago. The guards stepped aside as they passed, then followed with a hint of noise from oiled leather and metal scraping. When the door closed even I could hear the outburst of voices from the far side, indecipherable noise that faded into the distance.
"Ten more of those?" I said to Kh'hitch.
"At least," he snorted. "Go on. Get some food and rest."
It was advice I wasn't about to argue with. My legs wobbled a bit, but they got me back to my quarters. God, another ten days of this. I stripped and sank into a hot bath, just letting the knots in my shoulders and back seep out. The Rris who delivered my meal showed up to put the tray at the side of the tub. I noticed the glances at my wet skin, but I was too tired and too hungry to care.
Kh'hitch had been right; a fact that didn't make me too happy.
That day had been typical of the days that followed. Some went a bit better, others went a lot worse. All of them wanted some token that I was what I said I was; some proof that I did have something to offer them, as if what I'd already done for the Land-of-Water Rris wasn't relevant.
I gave them what they asked for. The Hunting-Well delegation were given the diagrams for a basic threshing machine based on the McCormick reaper intended to be drawn and powered by animals, but with provision for addition of a steam engine. Other kingdoms went away with plans for microscopes, seed drills, spinning jennies, barometers, denim fabric, powered shearers, powered trip hammers and saws along with several metallurgy suggestions. Most took their samples, albeit with the air of somebody who's been sold something without quite understanding what the salesman was talking about. A couple of ambassadors, that surly one from Bluebetter for example, weren't as civil. He wasn't convinced I wasn't more than an animal. More of his words were directed at Kh'hitch than myself as he protested that Land-of-Water was producing new weapons and supporting dissidents in their own land. When he did talk to me it was in a respectfully patronizing manner, as if I were less than a fool.
I suffered through it. At the end of the first meeting I found my hands were sore from being clenched into fists for so long. My nights weren't any better: I'd wake in a cold sweat from nightmares. Once I woke to find myself standing in the middle of my room in a pool of silvered moonlight filtering through the windows and clouds outside: naked, heart pounding and shaking violently as the night terrors faded.
And there were more changes outside the diplomatic talks as well. Scholars from two other neighboring kingdoms arrived on the docks: courier ships from other Realms along the lakes routed to Land-of-Water specially. Again, the examinations; the experience of being treated like a piece of machinery, and now that some of the cloak of secrecy covering me had been withdrawn there were more Rris interested in me; more ways of making me feel like a side of meat.
"Come along," Rasa aesh Wilder urged me. "We don't have all day for this."
For what? I wondered as I followed. Another part of the University, this was. The newer buildings on the tree-lined campus were brick, with high, peaked tiled roofs while the older ones were predominately dark wood. In many places the two styles merged and mixed together and the red, angular faces of the brickwork melded into the more flamboyant and gothic wooden architecture with its weatherboards, slate tiles, turrets and steep roofs. Now, my guards followed me and the trio of Rris teachers through the university halls into one of those older wings. Rasa kept up a steady chatter as the tiled floors turned to squeaking boards under my feet, the black wood scratched and gouged from the passage of countless clawed feet. Her voice was a steady patter: pointing out details of interest through the university, a lot of reassurances; which only served to worry me more.
Through a door, down a half-dozen steps, another short hall with more doors along its dimly-lit length. "You won't have any trouble," Rasa was saying. "Just do what's asked of you. Rehichia's been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long while and I'm sure they'll have questions. Take them one at a time."
"Questions...?" I started to ask as she showed me through a door at the far end.
"Go on. He's waiting."
I didn't know what was happening: as was happening so many times there was so much crammed into a day that nobody had time to explain what was planned. I had to take it as it came, and this time it wasn't what I was expecting.
Not a room, more of a hall: big, circular, with walls of dark polished wood. High overhead, rafters curved up to support the cone-shaped timber roof where skylights sent shafts of dust-flecked warm light angling down to spotlight a portion of the wooden floor before me, leaving the rest of the big chamber in shadows. There were easels there in that light: a pair of frames as tall as I, the thick papers mounted on them covered by a single blank sheet. A chalkboard stood between them and a tall Rris turned from where it'd been scratching a chart of some kind on the board. "Hai! Not before time. Over here please." A white stick tapped the floor beside the chalk board.
A stubby hand patted my shoulder and I cast a confused look at Rasa. She smiled, ducked her head and quietly closed the door. My guards took up their stations to each side.
"Now," the Rris by the board snapped, its... his voice reverberating from the curved wooden wall behind him. I hesitated, glanced at my guards who gazed back impassively, then started out into that pool of sunlight.
Stopped dead when I saw the tiers of benches in the shadows beyond the light. There were Rris there, not filling the hall by any means, but dozens of feline heads turned slightly to follow me, tufted ears peaked in interest. A dry rustling sounded along with the liquid sibilants of Rris whispers, papers shuffled and quill pens shifted uncertainly. A lecture theater...
"Here," the Rris at the board growled, tapping his pointer at the spot. I sighed, once again glanced around at the guards waiting in the wings: They weren't going to intervene, but they probably wouldn't let me leave. I stepped forward, because it would have been too humiliating to turn around and run the other way.
"Notes," the lecturer called, his voice loud in the hall and just below the echoes I heard the rustling of papers again. "This is a prime example of the [something] of adaptable growth. He is a primate, most probably of the same stock as African apes." He threw back the cover sheet on an easel to unveil a black and white drawing of an ape half-crouching on a branch with a dead bird clutched in one hand. Perhaps a chimpanzee? Maybe not, there were a few things that didn't look quite right. Whatever it was, the lecturer raised his stick and began ticking off features: the shape of the skull and jaw, the teeth, eyes, ears. Pens scratched as the Rris in the seats scribbled notes and I realised why this seemed so familiar.
A lecture hall: those were students.
And I was a glorified teaching aid. As the presentation continued the lecturer flipped the pages back, producing more sketches and close-ups of various portions of the ape's anatomy. I was the counterpoint, compared to show how elements had changed and refined. Inevitably, I was asked to remove my shirt, then my boots and socks, leaving me in my shorts which was as far as I was prepared to go. Perhaps he'd been warned about that: I wasn't asked to drop them.
Chitters rose from the audience when I removed my shirt, hastily stilled when the lecturer glared and then began using that pointer to keep a safe distance while he indicated spots of interest:
"You will note his legs are developed for a [bipedal? upright?] stance. The bones are longer and straighter for supporting weight while muscle development is more [something] around this area. Feet are unusual in that the [something] bone is [grounded?], removing weight from the toes. You will notice the [similarity] with his fingers? In his case they've [something], obviously not as capable at grasping as his ancestor. From that we can [something] that at one point his kind might have used all four limbs before they began walking upright, in turn freeing their forehands for other tasks. Something I believe would have helped their development would be their lack of claws. It would [something] the development of tools for defense and..."
He went on, covering everything, slowly, steadily and thoroughly. Dull too, not only because I still couldn't understand a lot of what he was saying, but because he seemed to be one of those natural cures for insomnia. And when he reached the last illustration the other easel was uncovered. The parchments were filled with depictions and anatomical renderings of Rris and also parts of something I recognized. Rris had found bones, fragments of bones from long-dead creatures that bore disturbing resemblances to modern Rris. A Rris artist had incorporated photorealistic illustrations of the remains into his idea of what the original creature had looked like.
Slightly twisted, but it was a cat's skeleton, of course. The problem was that because of its unsettling similarities with Rris, they'd tried to portray it in a bipedal stance. Now they were toying with the idea that it might have been a quadruped. With my interest piqued I stepped a bit closer, noticing the paper was rag mat: nice stuff too, with tiny flecks of fibers and wood giving it a character and enhancing the slightly bluish ink of the crosshatches...
"Hai," the lecturer snapped. I looked at him: standing there with arms crossed and tail twitching. If it had been anatomically possible for a Rris to tap his foot, he would have.
There were a few chitters from the gallery as I moved back to where he wanted me to stand and the lecture continued. This time comparing that fragment of the past with my ancestors, comparing modern Rris with their ancient cousin. Evolution, I realised somewhat belatedly. That was what he was discussing. And with me he had a walking, talking 'after' sample to prove it was possible for an animal to change over time, to become something more. It didn't surprise me too much that the Rris had taken to the evolution theory so readily. Creationism would have probably been puzzled over, then some very fundamental and basic questions would have been asked. The standard answers would - understandably - never hold water with Rris.
Evolution however, the seed of that concept was already being bantered around in academic circles before I appeared to add my two cents. Now it had not only acknowledgment that evolution was an accepted theory elsewhere, but something that was evidence species could change.
Still, that didn't do anything to make lecturers like that Rehichia any more interesting. I could see there were a fair number in the gallery with heads resting on their hands as they took notes, a lot of them watching me instead of the lecturer, and more than a few yawns. In fact, that set me off and there were a few muffled chitters before I could stifle it.
He never noticed, kept going on with a diatribe about the differences in Rris finger structure that were so full of physiological references that I couldn't understand. I turned slightly away and made a casually unobtrusive 'yak-yak' gesture with my hand. Apparently it was a universal gesture.
The lecturer - pondering on how climatic differences would affect growth of fur - never noticed.
Well, he went on: At length. I amused myself, and not a few of the audience, as best I could. He never saw the little gestures, and his flinching when he turned to find me peering over his shoulder was quite amusing.
"Just what were you doing?" Kh'hitch growled, leaning forward on his desk to brandish the sheaves of paper at me, the parchment a yellowish-orange in the lamplight. "Skin me! I've read the guards' reports. Do you have the faintest idea what kind of trouble would sprout if Rehichia decided to lodge complaints?"
"He never even noticed," I shrugged.
"That's not the point. Rot it! You've got your [something], you know. There are people who disagree with your ideas, with what you're doing. They would feast on cub pranks like that!"
"Would they?" I asked.
"You think it doesn't matter?"
"I think that I haven't had much of a choice about what I do," I retorted.
He cocked his head, ears going back slightly, but there was that Rris stone-face lack of expression settling in. "You're unhappy about something?"
Unhappy... my jaw dropped, then I swallowed and took a breath. "Do you know... do you know what it is like to be a thing? To be on show? To be run around like I was an animal?! To be an exhibit in a goddamn zoo?!" I hissed, lapsing into English and the Advisor twitched back just a bit. I saw that flinch in his eyes, as he glanced past me at the door of his office. There were guards out there and if he felt threatened...
I unclenched my fists, took a breath and sagged. "I'm sorry. Sir, I'm very tired."
For several seconds he didn't budge, then: "Huhn." He tipped his head, but his expression didn't change. "That would explain a lot, but it doesn't excuse it. Mikah, it's dangerous for you. Can you understand that?"
I sighed quietly. "I understand that. I've been told it often enough, but it... does that mean the rest of my life will be like this?"
A pair of copper bracelets jangled as he moved his hands in a shrug. "That... I doubt anyone could tell you the answer to that. Things change, situations tack in their winds. For the most part, it's what you do that influences your course."
An unencouraging oblique answer. My heart sank a little lower and I didn't reply. I guess that silence reassured him a little; the Advisor settled back in his cushion and laced stubby fingers across his ample stomach. "It's something you should remember. For now, I think you should get some rest. We're anticipating the arrival of several important guests within the next few days. They've all expressed great interest in meeting you."
He made a sound that might have been a cough. "Their majesties from some neighboring lands. They all found occasion to take the trouble to journey here."
"Oh." That was all I said. Inside: oh, god. No more...
End Light on Shattered Water 20