Light on Shattered Water
The blades circled about the side of my neck, hesitated, then moved with a purpose. A few locks of hair fell and fingerpads brushed against my cheek as the Rris tipped my head, ran a comb through my hair and clipped away a few more strands. She cocked her head to study the result, flicked an ear, ran fingers through my hair to primp it into a new configuration. I think she was enjoying herself. Another somewhat frustrated attendant used a much finer brush in an attempt to smooth down the hair on my left arm, without much success. My right hand was taken by a Rris who started paring my nails down with a file... a goddamned manicure; or maybe they just wanted my nails at a length that couldn't hurt anyone.
I'd been washed, cleaned, trimmed and brushed, then doused with some liquid that might have been a Rris perfume but certainly wasn't appealing to me: it smelt vaguely like the lion's enclosure at a zoo. Was this how a Cruft's entry felt before the show?
Thankfully, I was allowed to wear my own clothes. I suppose Hirht had a reason for that: some psychological reason, some power-play... whatever it was, I wasn't complaining: Blue jeans and a loose white cotton shirt weren't Savoy Row, but they were still more comfortable than an outfit tailored by someone who wasn't familiar with human proportions. They'd also been scrupulously cleaned and I almost laughed at the thought, I hope they followed the washing instructions...
"Please, sir," the Rris trimming my beard quickly pulled the scissors away. "If you would be so good as not to move..."
I tried to be still while Rris hands moved sharp metal around my face. The previous night and early morning had been the culmination of three intensive days of cramming. My fatigue-fuzzed brain was packed with the facts and details that'd been drummed into me: kingdoms' and monarchs' names, especially the three visiting kings and queens from some of the closest neighboring kingdoms: Overburdened, Cover-my-Tail, and Bluebetter. I hoped that one would be less abrasive than his ambassador had been. There'd been detailed explanations about their staff, geography, populations, ports and cities and areas of production, imports and exports... I don't know why they wanted to cover so much extraneous stuff: I guess they didn't want me making any foolish mistakes that might reflect poorly on Land-of-Water.
And later that morning I was taken to meet the nobility.
A herald stalked the hall ahead of me. Nervous, I could see that. In the stiffness of his gait, the way his tail bottled slightly, his ears turned back slightly to catch the sound of my footsteps. Early afternoon sunlight was prismed by the crude glass in the windows, enough finding its way through to throw a glare off the marble floors, from the gleaming steel and lacquer carapaces of the Royal Guard squad pacing us. We followed a route that was familiar to me, through halls and down staircases to the ground floor and the bustling of Rris and the faint of sound of music.
Even in daylight, there were lamps burning everywhere. Gas flames flickered through crystal and glass. Gold and silver gleamed in the airy halls, huge portraits peering down from their perches at the Rris who walked the corridors below them. Gilt threads glittered in the weave of pennants and tapestries and high overhead a gold-trimmed groin vault shouldered off the arches of a marble ceiling. Carved feline figures stretched out along the arches, intertwined with one another. That same hall I'd been ushered down on that disastrous formal dinner those months ago, it looked a lot different in the light of day.
And the Rris there...
Royal guards in their polished cuirasses and helmets stood at their posts along the halls. Not many of them, almost a part of the backdrop as they stood with pole-arms at port. Palace staff were equally unobtrusive as they lurked on the sidelines, always ready when any of the dignitaries needed a merest whim granted.
Ah, the nobility. Not so many of them, but by sheer dint of presence they seemed to fill the hall, doing their best to overshadow one another. As my escort led me down the hall to the huge doors at the far end we passed several knots of these Rris and their entourages. Eyes turned to stare at me, amounts of cloth Rris would never normally wear swirling and shifting. Not as much as human dandies might drape themselves in, but what they wore was gaudy, outfits intended to make the wearer stand out: brilliant hues, colors like scarlet and emerald green, were predominant. I saw a female with nothing but loose strips of silver-filigreed red satin hanging from her shoulders to her hips and belted at the waist; red streaks painted in the fur of her forehead. A companion decked in a tooled vest of stiff black leather with bloused white sleeves that went to his elbows while a heavily carved leather panel hung from his belt as far as his knees. Another hung down his back, with - I reasoned - a slot in it for his tail. Huhn, try sitting down in that getup.
The music was louder as we neared the closed doors, louder and with an underlying hissing of Rris conversation. The guards posted there had feathers in their polished steel helmets, apparently from some now-denuded bird that had once been very big and a fire-engine shade of red. The cutlery on the end of their pole-arms flashed as they snapped to attention when the herald approached, then simultaneously opened the doors and I didn't have any choice but to enter.
Conversation faded but the music played on.
The hall was different in the daylight, much lighter and seemingly much larger. The drapes that'd covered the western wall were spread, the ceiling-high French windows behind them open to the world beyond. A cooling breeze meandered under the high ceiling, teasing the fronds of high plant arrangements around the perimeter of the room. Planters overflowing with intricately arranged flora stood to each side of the doorway, arches of fern leaves and foxtails framing a room of Rris nobles who - individually and in groups - turned their eyes my way.
That tension in my guts, my muscles tightening and twitching...
The herald glanced at me, a look that was as nervous and as fleeting as the deer in the gardens. "Sir... this way."
I followed. My feet followed. Rris parted to either side and a muted chatter went up behind my back as the crowd closed behind me. Not a solid mass but small knots and congregations, clusters orbiting and mingling while eyes darted my way. A few hundred individuals, groups scattered around the big room. Color and light, sunlight on fur of all colors: natural and dyed. Red streaks in sienna fur above suspicious eyes; a tie-dyed effect with pastel tones on a dainty female's arms; curlicues shaved into chest fur and lined with russet and gold. The clothes were costumes, were statements of affluence: silver chain mail so fine it resembled cloth, velvet tunics; filigree wound through pointed ears so the flesh resembled the traceries of a circuit board; a female with a technicolor harness cut to allow her six nipples - painted scarlet for some reason - to protrude.
A masquerade, I thought as the inhuman moved around me. A tiny part of me kept expecting the guests to take the masks off. Music drifted above the sibilants of Rris speech. Over the crowd I could see the musicians on their podium in their corner playing a mixture of strings and soft percussion. No wind instruments. It was the first time I'd heard Rris music: an eerie sound I felt, the time and pitch skewed in odd ways. And the tune was familiar. I realised with a shock dulled by the confusion around me that it was the Blue Danube.
"I'd wondered if you'd notice," said a voice. Hirht was watching me from the edge of that circle of clear floor that seemed to follow me around the room. Other Rris were gathered around him, gazing at me in fascination. "An... unusual sound to say the least," the king mused.
"It is a matter of personal taste, I think," I said carefully. Rris ears pricked up.
"As you said," another noble said to Hirht, "an [uncouth?] accent, but comprehensible. Mikah, was it?"
"A. That's about as close as anyone can get," Hirht smiled. "Khostyia, this is Mikah. Mikah, may I present Khostyia ah Myri."
"Sir," I bowed slightly, the facts ticking over in my head: Khostyia ah Myri, king of Overburdened, the land to the North of Land-of-Water. Lighter Skies was the capital, an economy based around seaports on the coast and lumber on the lake networks.
"So, this is the one who's been making the waves," the Rris mused, staring at me as he stroked a fingerpad down the leather trim of his red velvet tunic. "He's not quite what I was expecting. A kind of ape, I was told."
I felt my jaw tighten. "Distantly related," I said.
"Ah," he mused and continued to scrutinize me while curious Rris milled around. "Most unusual, Hirht. And some of the other things I've heard about him?"
"Can be discussed later," Hirht smiled.
"Of course." His head bobbed, sending his cheek tufts and mane swaying. "So, why did you come here, Mikah?"
I shrugged. "I really have no idea. I don't know why I'm here, I don't know how I came here. I was... home, then I was here."
"It was an accident?" Khostyia looked surprised.
"Huhn. That's common where you come from?"
"I've never heard of it happening before."
The music changed and turned to something I'd never heard before; probably no human had ever heard it before. I assumed the off-key scales were real Rris music. I also realised it would take me some time to grow used to it, let along appreciate it. I walked with the kings of Land-of-Water and Overburdened while they talked and asked me questions and a swarm of their aides and hangers-on and sycophants orbited around. I was startled to see a pair of Rris wearing breeches that looked familiar; right down to the stitching, the rivets and the leather patch over the back pocket. The nobles drifted through the crowd, towing me along with them as we talked. I answered the questions and the smalltalk for some time before Hirht told me that we'd talk later and gave me a duck of his head that seemed to say 'behave' as he and Khostyia left to circulate.
I stood there as they vanished into the knots of Rris who moved around to stare at me. When I did move there was an island of clear floor that followed me around the room. I wandered for a while, catching the occasional words from conversations going on around me: friendly talk, business talk, promises made and indignation over broken ones. Nothing I really understood. There was food on a table: a spread of all manners of delicacies from small pastries to drumsticks and fragile crystal glasses. I took one up and tried it: wine. I drank and grimaced at the tartness, the tang of spice, but it helped settle my stomach. I took another glass and headed toward the open doors to the outside.
Socializing guests were gathered in the sunshine on a marble verandah, drinking and talking. A sweeping staircase led down to calf-high golden grass rippling gently in the warm breeze under a clear sky, a few scattered guests sitting relaxing in the grass in a way that wouldn't be seemly in a diplomatic function back home. And as I was about to step through the doors someone said, "Sir," and the haft of a halberd came down before me like the arm of a toll-booth.
"Apologies, sir," the guard told me. "You can't go out there."
"What?" I asked stupidly.
The guard ducked its head, but the pole-arm didn't waver. "I can't let you go outside, sir."
"Sir, it would be better if you didn't," one of my own guards told me. I looked around: all my own guards were a bit closer and I wondered again if they were there for my protection or as my leash. I sighed and flicked the wooden haft of the halberd with a finger. The guard snatched it back and looked annoyed and I just turned my back and headed back into the crowd.
Rris eyes watched me. Nobody I could recognize, not immediately. Eyes ran over me as Rris came close to stare then moved away again. As I headed back toward the food a Rris - female, by her hips - came a bit closer than others and I was startled by her facial fur: completely gone around her eyes, cheeks and nose baring the grayish skin in an unsettling parody of my own face. Shocking green eyes met mine. She smiled and faded back into the crowd.
I blinked, did a double take, but she'd been lost in the swirl of bodies. What was...
"Unusual fashion, isn't it?" Kh'hitch ambled up to my side, a wine glass in his own hand. "Can't see the attraction in it myself."
"I don't think it would suit you," I assured him.
He looked at me, eyes narrowed, then he snorted. "I never had any intention of trying it." He dipped his head and his tongue flickered as he sipped from his glass, then regarded me thoughtfully. "How are you coping?"
Did he think I was going to go berserk? Run amok? "I will manage."
"Huhnn," his eyes flickered, glanced past me. I turned to meet more Rris nobility: the Cover-My-Tail ambassador Mrethi'k, his aides in attendance, and another elegantly attired female watching me with interest.
"Advisor," the Cover-My-Tail ambassador greeted Kh'hitch. Then, "Mikah."
"Ambassador," Kh'hitch greeted him, then turned to bow to the Rris at the ambassador's side. "Ma'am. It is a pleasure to be your host. Everything is to your satisfaction?"
"Quite. It's been a long time since I've been to Shattered Water. I see there've been a few changes." Disquieting amber eyes studied me intently, watching my face, "Not the least of which is this."
"Mikah, Ma'am," Kh'hitch provided.
"Huhn... Mikah. You do stand out in a crowd, don't you. Is half of what I've been hearing about you true?"
"That would depend on what you've been hearing," I said.
Her ears flicked back, "Well, that part at least is true. Not a Rris / person. What was it that you're called?"
"A human," I said.
"That noise, yes." The eyes wandered, unabashedly looking me up and down. Expensive clothes of fine white cotton and olive suede, with expensive metal in the jewelry threaded through her ears, on the circlets through the van-dyke brown fur of her arms. A silver-inlaid knife was sheathed at her left hip. One of the visiting monarchs I wondered? One of the trio of visiting lords was a female, so that was quite probable. The eyes noticed my glass. "You drink wine?" she seemed surprised.
"Only to excess."
She looked a bit startled. "I think that was a joke, Lady H'risnth," Kh'hitch provided. "He has an... unusual sense of humor."
"I hadn't expected him to have any at all," she replied. Lady H'risnth... she was a monarch. The Queen of Cover-My-Tail I remembered. She was younger than I'd expected, younger than Hirht, even though I wasn't sure exactly how old he was. Cover-My-Tail was a nation on friendly terms with Land-of-Water, but even so, Kh'hitch had his poker-face on again as Lady H'risnth studied me and cocked her head: "And I hadn't expected him to be a [something]."
I blinked and looked to Kh'hitch, but he didn't provide a translation.
"Is there any [something] you favor," she was asking me.
"Ma'am? I'm sorry, I didn't understand that word: chikeae'ch?"
"He hasn't completely got his grip on our language," Kh'hitch explained. "Mikah, chikeae'ch: it means someone who appreciates quality for what it is. Someone who enjoys the best of something. You understand that?"
"I think so. Connoisseur."
"You know that kind of person?" the Lady asked, a touch of surprise widening her eyes.
"Yes. My kind has them too."
"Ah," She glanced at her ambassador. "And is there a particular wine you favor?"
It wasn't what I'd expected: a day discussing Rris wines and vineyards... "I'm afraid I haven't had much experience with your wines."
"You like them? the one's you've tried?"
I rolled my glass between my finger, the dregs swilling around. "Oh, yes. My kind don't usually spice wine though."
She was interested in that and for a while the conversation centered around wine-making: the methods and differences. No, I'm not a vintner, but I'd done some work - brochures and illustrations - for a vineyard out in the Finger Lake districts once and I'd learned a lot about their techniques. Not gospel for the entire industry, each winery has its own tricks and secrets, but it was enough to give me some insights into how the process worked.
I have to say I was actually beginning to enjoy myself. The Lady asked questions as they all did, but she did it in an easy, conversational sort of way. I found myself liking her as we walked and talked, ambling back to the table for a couple more glasses. Behind us my guards and H'risnth's entourage tailed along, Kh'hitch engaged in a subdued exchange with the ambassador. We talked about wines, the differences in our tastes. She recommended some of the older vintages from grape-growing regions of the Swampy River valley areas in Cover-My-Tail, even offered to have a few bottles sent over from the embassy.
"Most generous, but I think you might have to ask my hosts about that," I said.
"Oh. They wouldn't approve?"
I lightly dipped my finger in the remains of my wine and ran it around the rim of the glass. Several Rris turned their heads at the clear tone that produced. "I think they're a bit... over-protective," I said.
"Huhn..." she breathed, then stood a bit straighter with her ears going up as more Rris nobility materialized out of the throng. It was getting crowded in that crowd: I felt like a target with the arrows that were the nobles' entourages centering on me. I recognized the Bluebetter ambassador among that pack of newcomers, so the larger Rris at his side would probably be Chita ah Thes'ita, king of Bluebetter.
Big guy for a Rris, probably wasn't used to looking up at people. The top of his head came up to a bit above my chin, the tufts of his ring-bedecked ears another eight centimeters above that. His clothes were fine purple cotton and velvet, hanging loosely and more for decoration than practical reasons in the warmth. He gave me a once over with his head cocked, then spoke to Lady H'risnth, "Obviously, you've already met. Is this guest of the Water Landers everything I've heard?"
She smiled, "He seems quite civilized."
Chita's ears twitched in a gesture that could be loosely construed as a raised eyebrow. "Huhn? Really?"
"Sir, this is Mikah. Mikah, this is his majesty Chita ah Thes'ita. I'm sure your hosts have told you everything you ever wanted to know about his kingdom."
Maybe it was the wine, or perhaps just her laid-back manner. I wasn't thinking when I stepped forward and smiled broadly.
I saw the armed guards moving, just as blurs before it felt like I was hit by sandbags, the world spun and knocked the breath out of me and I don't remember the crack when the back of my head hit the floor.
Sprawled on my back on something hard. Noise all around, someone shouting my name. Something was shaking me and with each movement the pain in the back of my head set off surges of nausea. Opened my eyes to a blurred world of light and milling shapes.
"Sir!" Blinked and it was a cat in a tin helmet crouching over me. Blinked again and it was a Rris guard patting my face. The hand was yanked away when I moved my head and winced up at the foreshortened circle of Rris hanging over me, Kh'hitch and other nobles staring down at me. The noise wasn't the blood in my head: there were raised voices in the background, arguments. "Sir?!" the guard said again.
"I'm okay," I mumbled in English. "I'm all right." The world swam when I sat up and the muttering went up a notch. I touched the back of my head and winced: a lump that felt like it was the size of a goose's egg and a trace of blood on my fingertips. There was shattered glass and spilt wine on the floor. All I'd done was smile...
"Can you walk?" Kh'hitch leaned over me, his face impassive.
"Yeah... Of course I can."
I got partway up, then my legs decided to turn to jello. Kh'hitch snapped something to the guards, they crouched to catch my arms and helped me to my feet, then hooked my arms around their shoulders and tried to half-carry me out. I saw Hirht, the other monarchs watching me with wide eyes, hundreds of other Rris faces watching intently: whispering and murmuring. It was too humiliating: I shrugged the guards off and made my unsteady way to the doors.
"Pestilence take you! What were you thinking?!" Kh'hitch snarled in my face. "Showing your teeth to a lord like that... were you trying to get yourself killed? Maybe start a war? Of all the rot-brained things you could do!" He spat, a drop-jawed hissing in my face then spun to stalk off across my quarters, only to round on me again. "You've been warned about that. Many times, yet you still..." He just broke off and snarled again.
"It's not something I can help," I said quietly. My head was still throbbing, but nothing seemed broken. I couldn't feel anger. In fact, I wasn't feeling much of anything: just smiling, just that act could...
"Nothing you can help," he rumbled, then exploded again: "What were you thinking?!"
"I was trying to be friendly."
"Friendly!" Was there an echo in there? "By showing your teeth?"
"How else am I supposed to smile?" I asked dully.
"You..." he stopped and I saw his eyes flicker across my face, my ears. No, a Rris smile was impossible for me. "You can keep your teeth politely covered," he finished.
After the reaming out, after Kh'hitch had stalked out and slammed the door behind him, I sat on the edge of my bed, put my pounding skull in my hands and squeezed my eyes tightly closed. I ached, the pulsing in my head mixed with nervous exhaustion. I sighed and looked around, to where the Rris on my walls were staring back, judging me.
"So, what do I do?" I asked.
They didn't bother to reply. I rubbed my eyes. A bath; I needed a bath.
I started the water running and just stood there, staring at the broad stream of water as it fell on its journey from the sluice to the bottom of the tub. Swirling water, bubbles and undercurrents... Only when it started slopping into the overflow did I blink back to awareness and shut it off. Back in the other room I stripped off, left my clothes in an untidy pile on the floor and picked up the glass and pitcher of drinking water.
Not wine, but then I wasn't really tasting it much.
I sat in the bath for hours. Afternoon light coming in through the leaded glass of the small bathroom window made a tic-tac-toe pattern of shadows and sunlight on the pale cream wall, the brilliance hurting my eyes. I drank, sat with glass in hand and arm along the rim of the tub.
Just smiling. It almost got me killed. A gesture that my instincts told me meant friend, something I've grown up knowing to be an innocent gesture, now it was hostility to souls that'd never known my learning.
A life of that. A life of wearing a mask to hide what I was. The rest of my life. A life of these rooms, this routine; Day in and day out. A life of things that wouldn't see me as a person. A life of those looks and those reactions. A life of guarding my every motion, my every expression and movement. The thoughts ran through my mind but never really hit anything. If the emotions were there they weren't firing, just hid in that empty place deep inside. Jackie? Where were you? What had I done to deserve this? If I could see your smile just once again...
Just a smile...
I never felt the glass when it shattered in my clenched fist. I didn't feel the cuts but when I looked at my hand there were dribbles of blood from the slash on my index finger, the other on my palm.
The sunlight was warm, bright.
The piece of glass was big enough to hold easily between thumb and forefinger, a curved piece with an edge that fuzzed out of vision.
"Chihirae, I'm so sorry..." just a whisper.
Sharp enough that it cut deep when I slashed hard across my left wrist. It hurt, a sudden and brief rage of pain up my arm that slowly faded to a dull pulsing in the warmth of the water. The shard of glass vanished into the depths of the bath: a final glitter spiraling and flipping down into the ribbons of pink, the cloud of red that spread and embraced me.
I watched the sunlight for a long time. So bright it brought tears to my eyes. Moving so slowly...
Noises. Stabs of pain across my shoulders as I was grabbed and lifted and dragged onto a cold surface turned slick by splashed water. I was muzzily aware of Rris guards frantically moving around me, the tiles of the bathroom floor smeared with red; soaked, as were their hands. I tried a vague movement but they held me down and I felt a remote amusement at the fear in their eyes.
Something was around my arm, pulling tighter and tighter. The limb hurt for a while, then feeling ebbed to a wooden numbness. Again I tried to move. There were more voices. Bespattered guards, their polished armor no longer immaculate, held me still and I could feel their claws. More Rris, doing something with my arm and all the sensations seemed so remote, then hands sat me up suddenly and the world washed out of my vision.
Up at a ceiling moving past, a lurching motion. I couldn't move.
Another blank in my memories...
Up at a Rris holding me down, wide amber eyes staring into my own. There was pain in my arm, a Rris doing something with sharp metal and I tried to tell them to stop but staying awake was impossible, even with that roaring in my ears.
Autumn leaves crackled under my feet. Step by step.
The forest thinned, the farmyard opening out before me. Silent, motionless. Buildings loomed to either side, gray and dilapidated, with a dead and washed-out feel about them, the barn ahead of me. The doors were wooden slats, the grain bleached and warped by weather and time, the cracks between boards blacker than they had any right to be.
Another step and they swung open. The figure in the darkness: glaring eyes, jaw dropped in a snarl and the arm with the greenstone bracelet came up, the bore of the gun huge...
A flash of bright light.
A room I knew. I'd been through high school here. The scratched and peeling cream and white glossy paint on plastered walls. There were the desks in their rows, the high arched windows across the far side of the room, the cords hanging down from the smaller fanlights set above them that'd been painted closed years ago. One of the windows hung open, the sounds of children drifting up from the yard a floor below. Looking out I could see them, but they couldn't hear me, even when I shouted.
"Don't do anything foolish," said a voice. It was English, impossibly English, but I knew the voice.
She was out of place there, sitting at the teacher's desk in front of the chalkboards. Fur glowed golden in the light, her head cocked slightly to one side.
"Chihirae," I said, not feeling surprise at the anachronisms.
Muscles shifted as she shrugged: a human shrug. "You keep surprising me. What were you trying to do?"
"I don't want to."
"Want to what, Mikah? You promised."
"I'm sorry," said in a small voice.
She cocked her head. "It's not going to be easy."
I sat. That the chair and desk were too small for my frame didn't seem to make any difference. There were words and shapes carved into the formica: things I couldn't read, but I still knew what they were. "It isn't fair."
"That's what you expect? Fairness?"
"I miss you."
"Ah," there was that look, that one I remembered so well. She was wearing glasses now and her mouth was twisted in a smile impossible for Rris. "The world is there for you to make choices. I know you'll have to make some hard ones."
"You don't have many choices," Shyia said, his black coat a shadow moving across the room. The old door rattled as it closed behind him.
Jackie was watching me, her short hair hanging in artful disarray over one eye as she regarded me reproachfully. "Michael? Why did you leave?"
I wanted to cry. I tried to tell her, but she also got up and left.
Chihirae was polishing her spectacles, slowly and carefully. The metal and glass flashing as she turned them over in her hands. "It's all right, Mikah. It's only a dream."
"I want to stay here."
She looked slightly reproachful, as she had when I kept forgetting my grammar. "You know you can't."
And the world blurred to a white light. She was still there, a shape moving in the dazzling brilliance.
"Mikah." I was aware that hands were touching me, sheets bundled underneath me. Something brushed across my face and I cracked my eyes to bright light and silhouettes. A figure leaned over my bed. "I think he's awake."
"Mikah?" I recognized the Rris.
"No," I tried to say.
"What? Can you hear me?" Hirht asked. "Mikah, what happened?"
I was tired, my left arm ached abominably. There were Rris surrounding me, looking down on me as I lay there. The king of Land-of-Water, doctors. Sun was streaming in through the windows, dust motes dancing and spiraling in the light that hurt my eyes. With effort I raised my left arm to see the splint and bandages swaddling my hand and wrist. White strips of gauze, pads of cotton and the faint dusting of sulfur.
I grabbed at them, trying to tear them away, trying to rip the sutures away, trying to escape.
Alien voices howled and hands grabbed me to pin me back to the bed. I screamed and tried to fight, crying in frustration while doctors frantically fussed around me, shouting noises that echoed through my head. Panting sobs, exhausted, my vision spinning and the room lost in the roaring noise and onrushing blackness.
They wouldn't let me go.
The doctors were always there, watching me every hour of the day. The straps were padded and quite secure; I only fought them for a short time before I learned it wasn't worth it. There wasn't any point: they couldn't stop me going back to that place inside where I didn't have to face this world. I could hide there, ignore the hell that life had become. I could see Jackie again, people I'd lost.
Why go on? Why go back? Something inside me knew what would be waiting and that spark just didn't rekindle. I knew I was dying, and I just didn't care.
I didn't eat, refused all food; fought when they tried to force it into me. I guess they managed enough to keep my body going, but I know I had no wish to continue.
It's that wish that makes life possible. Without it... I lay still while all around the transient Rris came and went, watching the light come and go and waiting for it to fade one last time.
Opened my eyes and there was something different. Different enough to draw a flicker of interest.
I lay still for a while, just trying to figure out what it was. The light, the way the shadows were moving.
A breeze blowing through the room, cool against my bare skin and hot sheets.
My neck ached when I lolled my head around. Sunlight was streaming in through the open windows, the curtains dancing and fluttering in the cooling breeze that brought with it the scents of water and trees and dusty grass. I could hear faint sounds of Rris, but louder were the rustlings of wind in branches, cicadas and birdsong.
The windows were open? Where were the bars? My dull confusion was compounded when I realised the straps were gone. I was lying on my bed, a light cotton sheet draped over my hips and legs. I raised the dead weight of my arms, the mitten of gauze and cotton on my left hand and wrist.
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't try that," a voice said. "I don't particularly want to die."
A strange Rris was settled in the sunlight washing over the desk, relaxed in the cushion and watching me with lazy eyes. I stared and lowered my hands: something in the Rris' words didn't ring right.
The Rris watched me quietly, calmly.
"You... don't want to die?" My throat hurt, my voice rasped and my Rris sounded worse than ever.
"Ah," an ear flickered and the Rris waved a hand: a languid and flowing gesture. "You die, I die. Do you want a drink?"
"Drink," I blinked in confusion, trying to think things through as the Rris stood and fetched a glass, filled it with water from a pitcher. It... she, I saw when she turned my way, a pair of loose-fitting breeches belted low at her waist. "What... what you mean?"
The mattress shifted when she sat, scooting up beside me. I dully realised I was naked and she was a stranger and I really didn't care. "Here, can you sit up... ah." A furry arm went under my head to help hold me up. I gasped at aches and stiff muscles and she stopped, just holding me, then slowly raising the glass. "Here, it'll help. Just slowly, just a sip."
I was running on automatic, just doing as she suggested, and the water was good on my parched lips.
"Well, Mikah," she said when she took the glass away, "If you die, then I will be killed."
"I don't understand," I said in a small voice.
She looked down at me and smiled slightly, then lifted the glass and I drank again. "It was their terms for letting me talk with you."
"Who... are you?"
"You don't remember?" Her breath gusted and she started to wave a hand in an aborted gesture, brought it back to tap on the rim of the glass. "You weren't in such good shape that night, either. You'd just been swimming in the river."
I remembered, dredging through the murk for the nuggets of memory: the grey and tawny fur, the face sitting across the table from me, those same eyes glancing up from their work to study me. "Maytris?" I ventured.
"Huhn. Close," her ears twitched. "Maithris."
And I stared. "Why're you here?"
She let me lie back and glanced down at the glass cupped in her hands, the fur of her fingers matted down by the condensation beading on the outside, then smiled. "I heard you weren't so well. I came to see how you're doing. You've got a nice place here, you know." She looked around. "Just one thing I've been wondering about though."
I bit. "What?"
She gestured at the paintings staring down from the wall, "Who are they?"
Who... I blinked stupidly at her. "I don't know."
"Oh," she cocked her head thoughtfully. "There might be some interesting stories behind them. That fellow, he might be related to the Liaison, you know:" she poked her flat belly and patted it. "Same build, huhn?"
I found myself smiling at that, and her ears twitched, then she reached over and without a qualm gently ruffled my hair. "Might be interesting to find out, huh?"
What the hell was going on?
I gingerly sat down in the window alcove seat, panting hard and light-headed from my short journey across the room. The bars had gone, the cool morning breeze coming in through the open windows and brushing across the hairs on my skin made the effort worth it. No sun yet: my room wouldn't get that until the afternoon, but I settled, let the sheet drop down from my shoulder and leaned back to stare into the crystal blue of a June sky while the stridulation of cicadas in the palace grounds was carried on the wind. My wrist ached distantly as I cradled the bandages and splints on my lap: less than nothing compared with other pain I'd been through.
Maithris. What was she doing here? From what I'd gathered she was a not-too-well-off everyday town doctor who couldn't afford gauze bandages. The king of Land-of-Water had the pick of the cream of the crop; he could choose from the best, so why use her? Had she been responsible for getting rid of the restraints? Getting the bars removed from my windows? How had she got the leverage to arrange that?
A scratching at the door and a polite pause before it opened. Maithris, trying to balance a covered tray on one hand and close the door with the other. "Morning and waking," she greeted me cheerily. I watched quietly, warily, while she set the tray down on the desk, then squatted with her hands dangling between her knees and smiled at me. "Ah, walking around already? A pleasant day, isn't it?"
"Who are you?" I whispered.
She looked a bit taken aback. "Mikah? I'm Maithris. You remember? You asked yesterday..."
"No." I shook my head slowly. "No. They value me too much. They've never let me speak to anyone. I've been kept behind guards and soldiers and walls and bars." I looked back at the open windows. "How can you change it like that? Who are you?"
She tipped her head quizzically. "I'm just a doctor. I heard you were ill; I offered to help."
Her ears flickered and she smiled again. "I like you."
My turn to be taken aback. I stared, then said, "Maithris. When Rris see me, they don't like me. I can see the thoughts when they first lay eyes on me, and those thoughts aren't nice ones."
Now she leaned forward a bit. "I didn't just see you, I talked to you. I saw you after you'd saved that guard's life; a life which by all rights he should have given to save YOU. I've heard some of your story, of what's happened to you and I know that somewhere there's a woman who's come to see you for what you really are. You may not be my mind's ideal picture of the handsome male in my life, but that skull of yours harbors something more than an animal's mind. Besides, you have quite beautiful fur. Now, maybe you feel like some food?" With a flourish she lifted the cover from the tray.
I was floundering, not sure what to say now. She came over to sit beside me on the window seat and persuaded me to try a bit of this, some of that: soup, some light meat pastries. I'd eaten them before I knew what I was doing.
"You do have some appetite," she observed, a flicker of amusement touching her face and ears. Then she stood to set the dish with its few remaining crumbs back on the tray. "Pretty good fare you're getting here. It's to your liking?"
"Yes," I said and looked out the window, then glanced back at her. "How did you hear about... me? I mean, I'm sure Hirht didn't spread it all over town."
She snorted. "They came to me. I think they were desperate. I already knew about you, so there wasn't much to lose, was there?"
I made a small sound of affirmation and she scratched her chin, then smiled. "Well, why don't you get some rest, ah?"
Probably good advice. While she picked up the remains of the meal I leaned back, just listening to the sounds of the world outside. I only intended to close my eyes for a second.
Someone woke me.
A Rris hand gently touched me, just enough to wake me into muzzy consciousness. The light was low, late-afternoon gold on the trees and washing in through the windows; warm against my skin while the air was cooling. I was aware, made a feeble grab for the sheet and missed, when furry bodies took my arms and half-carried me back to bed.
Faces surrounding. A glittering of breath in the darkness; rushing of light through trees while masks and masquerades whirled around and around; the dazzling of sun and snow, whiteness and the trees was the glitter and diamond light of a ballroom. Grotesqueries whirled, pirouetted, drifting laughter hidden behind masks of silver and platinum. Darker shapes moved behind the scenes: wolf-lean flashes of soul-black among pristine brilliance, the terror that kept me moving while figures danced and drifted around me, hemming, herding. Darkness flitted, orbiting at the edges of vision. Laughter rose and the lean predator shape erupted from the brilliance, gaping maw darker than coal and swallowing the world, ivory fangs raking and biting deep...
Yanking me from sleep screaming and clawing at the ache deep in the muscle of my ruined cheek. Stabs of pain spasming my face up into a rictus of pain and terror while the memories of snarling hatred sank back to the depths and hands caught me, pressing my hands down, protecting the bandages. "Mikah! It was a dream. Mikah? It's all right... It's all right..."
A hand stroked my hair and the voice murmured reassurances. In the darkness and confusion I just clutched, feeling fur under my hands. A movement, then arms went around me and held me close, in familiar warmth.
"Chihirae," I choked.
Sharp claws stroked through my hair and a low voice purred something incomprehensible. I just held on and shook, until there was nothing left and sleep came again to wrap dark wings around me.
Woke with a start in a tangle of sheets.
Morning light was seeping past the drapes. The still feeling of early morning: a coolness in the air, a taste of green. I was alone in the room, but I distinctly remembered...
A hasty check of the sheets brought up a few tufts of light tawny fur. I held the strands up, then shook my head, sighed and rubbed my eyes. So, there had been someone there last night. Who? The guards had grown accustomed to my nightmares; they didn't always come running when I woke in the night. They certainly didn't climb into bed to hold me until I calmed.
The dizziness wasn't as bad when I stood this time. I still had to briefly lay a hand against the wall to steady myself, but the room didn't reel as badly as it had the last times I'd roused myself. I fumbled for shorts and found them where I usually kept them in the drawer under the bed. Getting into them wasn't easy, but after a couple of teetering attempts I managed it.
Beyond the curtains and the windows it was another crystal morning. A thin curtain of mist was burning from the fields and around the trees in the palace grounds. A V of geese crossed the sky, then another, and another... Thousands of them in an airborne caravan that couldn't have existed back home. I could have joined them, opened the windows and gone.
Gone into a world where I was the only one of my kind. I'd simply be escaping from one cage to a much larger one. But outside there was room to run. There were those hills and forests that stretched as far as the eyes could see; lands where a single person could loose themselves completely and utterly.
A land where the inhabitants would do their utmost to find me again. I remembered and shuddered... flashbacks to the nightmares that still plagued me: being hunted by Rris; it wasn't an experience I wanted to repeat.
I pushed away from the open window, went to use the toilet. The bathroom had been cleaned up; there was no way to tell what had happened there. I stood for a few seconds, staring at the tub, then went about my business.
When I came out Maithris was sitting on the bed, waiting with a covered breakfast tray on the sheets beside her. The expression on her face flickered and settled into a smile almost immediately, but I was sure there'd been something else there.
"Morning and waking," she cheerfully greeted me. "I didn't expect you to be up and about so early."
"I didn't much feel like sleeping."
"Ah. You had a restless night."
She knew? I stared, then looked away: embarrassed. "That was you? I mean, last night."
"A." She didn't take her eyes off me.
"Oh," I shifted awkwardly, clenched and unclenched my fingers. Grabbing out in the dark like that, desperate for someone to hold to... What had I been thinking? What was she thinking? "I'm sorry. I didn't know... I thought..."
Her ears twitched. "Don't worry. I know. You needed it."
Still, I sagged. She'd held me, comforted me... "Thank you," I whispered.
Maithris raised a hand, "Don't. You needed it." She smiled and hooked a finger under the handle of the silver tray cover. "As you need this. Try the quail pastries: they're excellent."
I carefully sat beside her and she laughed when I awkwardly glanced at her. "Go on. And afterwards, if you're feeling up to it, I've got something to show you. No, I'm not telling you now, just finish that."
Curiosity got the better of me.
Maithris watched while I ate. Sitting there with one leg up, hugging knee to chest. Calm. Relaxed, and as best I could tell it wasn't an act. Her tail was still as a piece of hairy rope, her ears lazily twitching at odd sounds. I couldn't figure her.
Later, she offered to help me dress. I shrugged her off and she just stepped back, took a seat and watched me. When I put my boots on she had to ask, "Why do you need those?"
"I don't have pads like you do."
"Ah. Your kind have always worn things like that? I mean, what do you do if there just aren't any?"
"The bottom of my feet can get tougher. Like your pads. But it takes a while and is quite uncomfortable."
I tightened the laces. A wave of giddiness spun the room when I sat up again and when it settled again Maithris was on her feet, "I'm okay," I held out my hand to ward her off. "I'm fine."
She stopped, but still looked concerned. "You're sure? You... your skin is pale."
"I'm sure. Just sat up too fast. I'm fine."
For a few seconds she studied my face, then ducked her head. "If you say so. Now, you feel like a walk?"
She held the door open for me. Outside, nothing had changed: there were four guards on duty in the hall, standing at attention with armor and accoutrements polished to a mirror finish. Maithris strolled beside me as we started off, just ambling and we were a few steps down the hall before I realised the guards weren't following.
"Why should they?" Maithris said offhandedly. "It's not as if you were going for a stroll in the Cracks with a sack of gold. The Palace is full of soldiers after all."
A doctor? A doctor who could rescind royal guards' orders? I didn't understand.
But it was a change to be able to walk without a retinue, a change to be able to set my own pace. Maithris didn't rush anywhere, just strolled at my side and gave me time to look out the windows, have a closer look at some of the furnishings and decorations. Some of the carvings were beautiful, the wooden sculptures done with a finesse and sensitivity toward the wood grain that made figurines of Rris come to life, eagles soar. Others were... odd. Maybe abstract lines that might have been pleasing to Rris eyes, but weren't very appealing to mine. Or maybe they were meant to come across as harsh and discordant.
Maithris and I took our time, wandering through halls and chambers trimmed with gold leaf, floored with veined marble. Rooms with velvet carpets and drapes, hand-carved panelling and scotia. Nobles and legions of servants, the occasional guard went about their business. When a young Rris passed us going the other way, brushing the wall as it detoured widely, I could hear claws spattering on the marble.
"You have places like this where you come from?" Maithris asked me.
"Like this?" I ventured, not quite sure what she meant.
"Here," her hands closed in a gesture embracing our surroundings: "The Palace."
"Not palaces. Not in my country. We've never had monarchs."
I looked up a wooden bas-relief carving depicting a group of Rris standing in a river with nets in their hands. "My country is quite young compared with others. We use a... different system of government. Older lands have had them; some still have them. They have palaces like this."
"Ah," she breathed, as if that explained everything. If she had more questions she kept them to herself.
We were on the second floor in the outer northern wing of the palace when we reached a closed door: a ceiling-high narrow thing of paneled wood with a carved strip across it at what would be average eye-height for a Rris: tiny engravings of Rris felling trees, dragging logs, shearing animals, mining, going on to Rris in workshops and at workbenches, grinding and mixing. The final panel was a larger Rris at an easel. Maithris laid her paw on the handle and said, "I just thought this might be of interest to you."
The door opened on a long hall. Two stories high, with a balustraded gallery overlooking the floor we were on. High above, the ceiling was peaked. Skylights threw wells of illumination down through the still air into the hall, spotlighting the black and white tiled floor. Paintings hung from the walls on both sides of the hall; hundreds of them framing the silence.
My boots were almost inaudible on the tiles when I went in. Maithris followed with the insect-like tik-tik of partially retracted claws on ceramic.
Old pictures, I was sure of that. Maybe not as old as they seemed: the atmosphere in that hall wouldn't have helped their aging any, but they still had a history. I looked up at a dark portrait, a female(?) in a cuirass, helmet held before her. A scar bisected her muzzle, in the background a bloody sun was setting over a city. Shattered Water?
"The Royal Gallery," Maithris said, her voice awakening weird echoes in the hall. "I thought you might be interested."
The brushstrokes were unusual. Again I was reminded of a Degas: a short-sighted artist translating what he saw to the canvas. No... not short sighted, just seeing things another way. There was a small landscape painting: a small white farmhouse among rolling fields while above purple and black stormclouds climbed into the sky. Like the others the focus was sharpest on foreground objects and blurred out on more distant objects. It enhanced the feeling of depth in the picture, but they lacked the detail I might have expected in similar human works. And it wasn't just a particular style an artist might have been experimenting with, they were all like that.
"I am," I murmured. "I am. God! How old are these? Who painted them? This one, what... what is used to paint it, what kind of paints..."
"Hold on, hold on," she hissed, raising a hand. "I don't know that much about these."
No. She wouldn't. She was a doctor. In this culture people probably didn't get much exposure to fields outside their own specialty. I mean, where was she going to see a documentary about local artists? Did they have newspapers? Magazines? I didn't know. So, I just nodded, moved on to a picture of a Rris frozen in the act of leaping. More detailed than others? It seemed to be a bit sharper.
"What do you think?" she asked and there was anxiety in the question.
"I... I don't know." I reached out, almost touched the cracked varnish of the frame. "Maithris, these have been made by Rris for Rris. I find them intriguing. They show me how you see things."
She studied the next painting with me, "You mean, you see things differently? How?"
"I think I see small detail and color better. Also things that are still and further away."
"Huhn," she glanced at me, seeming a bit affronted. "You think so?"
"I think so." I almost smiled. "But your kind has better hearing and compared with you, I have no sense of smell."
Maithris snorted, glanced at me before she chittered a small laugh.
We spent the better part of two hours there. I had inspiration for some pictures I'd like to work on. Sometime, when I had the time and materials. Maybe I could try emulating the Rris style, but shifting the palette further back to human norm. If I abstracted the image a little it would produce an effect quite similar to earlier impressionalist works. I didn't put up an argument when Maithris suggested we head back. I would've liked to see more, but I was very tired. I guess I still wasn't in the best shape.
That night I dreamed the sky was red and long-dead Rris from paintings were gathered around me, a crowd in a multitude of clothing styles, fur decorations. Their voices were a low sibilance that carried through the sky. I half woke, turned over and the voices were gone.
End Light on Shattered Water 21