Light on Shattered Water
Nobody woke me before the sun was up. I wasn't bounced from place to place around town. I wasn't poked and prodded like something under a magnifying glass. I didn't spend days being questioned about a piece of machinery.
I didn't know what to make of it.
They left me alone, giving me time to think and try and get my life together. Maithris visited a couple of times a day. Other Rris let me be. I didn't see Kh'hitch or Hirht. There weren't any doctors or scholars, just a solitude that I knew was probably enforced, but was still a welcome oasis. I found the time to pick up a pencil and for the first time in a long while used it to sketch something besides machine parts: the view from my window. Nothing spectacular, but it was therapeutic and gave me something to occupy my hands.
Why were they doing this? Fear, probably. They were scared of me trying to kill myself again.
Why didn't I?
Again, I didn't know. I could try, I guess. Rip out the sutures, hang myself, dive headfirst through the window... They might stop me; then again, I might succeed. But somehow that urge was gone, either the desolation inside had dimmed or something else had taken its place. And now... I started to think about more positive steps I could take.
Perhaps I could bargain my way. Exchange what I knew for... for what? My freedom? It wasn't like I could just walk out onto the street and start up my life again. A home somewhere? And I had to laugh to myself at that thought, picturing a suburban house in the middle of Shattered Water. No, that wouldn't be very practical. Perhaps Maithris would have some ideas. I'd have to ask her.
Meanwhile, she was company. Openly talkative and tolerant and friendly. She brought me food, a variety of safe dishes and delicacies I'd never tasted before. She made jokes and laughed at my bumbling attempts at Rris humor. I wasn't sure if she was amused at the jokes themselves or just my efforts. Friendly, yes, but I knew it wasn't completely sincere. How much of that was an act for my benefit? I wasn't sure, but there were the times I caught that furtive look. A sidelong glance, maybe a flinch when I made a sudden move or grinned too broadly. A quick lapse in her guard, just as quickly masked by bravado and cheer.
But she was trying; she was doing her best. For that I liked her.
"That's one I haven't seen. Those are words, aren't they?" Maithris asked, squinting at my T-shirt as we walked. "What do they say?"
I pulled the bottom of the shirt to tent it out and looked down at the lettering and cartoon, "Ah, 'Rebonk, Stay Hard'. I don't think your language can say it."
She waved a hand at Rris we passed then asked, "What does it mean?"
"It is a... a pun. A joke. It takes a familiar saying and makes it into a sexual joke."
"A joke about sex?" She looked puzzled, then interested: "What is it?"
I sighed and tucked the shirt in again. "Maithris, it really doesn't come across into your language."
"Oh," and damn me if she didn't look disappointed. I almost laughed. "Then maybe you could teach me your language?" she said.
"I'm still learning to speak yours."
"Ah, there is always later," she smiled as we stepped into another hall. The doors at the far end were open, beyond them the palace grounds. I hesitated.
"Maithris? Where are we going?"
She smiled, a sort of innocent 'what, me?' expression, "Huhn? I thought you might enjoy a walk outside."
I blinked. "Outside? But... can I... I thought I wasn't permitted out there."
A violent snort. "Huhn, that was clutching foolishness. The palace is fenced and there are guards. Come on."
The guards at the door watched as we passed but didn't make any move to stop us. Outside, there were a few unimpressive clouds seeming lost in the vault of the sky. The wind stirring the treetops and rippling the grass in the fields around the Palace was warm, not doing much to take the heat out of the afternoon. Small birds darted and swooped over the meadows, picking tiny insects out of the air. I could taste dust and greenery as we stepped out onto a path of neatly trimmed grass, crossed that to the calf-high unrestrained glory of the meadow. Dirt crunched under my boots, grass brushed against my legs.
Maithris walked beside me, her fur rippling in the wind like the grass of the field we were walking through. Her breeches were knee-long, green, trimmed with bands of decorated leather around the cuffs, waist, and seams and a small leather pouch bounced at her belt. I could hear her panting slightly and stalks rustled against her legs as she moved in that fluid, stalking gait. I noticed burrs sticking into her fur.
"What?" She asked me curiously and I realised I'd been staring.
"Strange legs," I said.
"You think so?" She glanced pointedly down at my own legs. First time I'd worn shorts in a while and the differences were - so to speak - glaringly obvious.
I grinned. Point taken. "So, do you have a destination in mind, or is this just a walk?"
"Ah, keep a grip on that patience," she smiled. "We have a destination."
"In here?" I raised an eyebrow as we entered the edge of the forest. Cooler after that walk across the Palace garden, the sunlight diffused by the canopy overhead. And it was beautiful there under the trees: Thousands of shifting points of light worked their way through, motes and insects flickering in the beams.
There was a path, of sorts. A track of packed earth, moss and smooth stone cut through the undergrowth, following a winding path through the trees and bracken. Leaves crackled under my boots: Maithris' pads were almost silent as we climbed a low knoll. At the top I hesitated to look back: the green-copper roof of the palace was just visible through the trees, not so unlike so many buildings back home. Everywhere else was trees. Last time I'd gone wandering off had been with the cubs back in Westwater and I'd been...
I shuddered and behind me Maithris asked, "Mikah? Something wrong?"
I sighed and shook my head. "No. Nothing. Come on, where are we going?"
She fleered black lips back from sharp teeth and I flinched before I realised she was trying to copy one of my smiles. "Ah. Not yet. It's not far, just down here I think."
She set off again and I followed her. The moss-covered stones on the downslope were a bit slippery, making me watch where I put my feet. "You don't know?"
"Hai, they don't let commoners just walk around the Palace grounds you know," she said, brushing a fern frond aside as she rounded the trunk of a gnarled old tree. "This is first time for me also."
"Great," I said as I followed her. "The inexperienced leading the incapable, a?"
And she chittered outright at that, a real laugh. "Now, where did you hear that?"
"It's similar to a saying my kind have. Doesn't quite sound the same in your words though. What exactly is 'it'?"
"The Living Hall," she said, climbing a convoluted root growing across the path. "This."
I'd been expecting a building. I didn't see one.
It wasn't bright in the clearing. Branches from trees on either side laced in the center, the canopy fracturing the sunlight into a shifting myriad of sunbeams. An oddly geometric clearing that reminded me of a church knave. The ground was covered with a short, verdant grass. Among that, moss-covered rock sprouted: weather-rounded granite bedrock, flat prominences of it forming terraces and steps and a feeling like I was looking at something grown. Twisted roots the size of my arm curled and spread like a natural net, tendrils poking down through split stone. A stream bisected the clearing, the sound of running water drawing my attention to the sparkle of sunlight on water. Maithris stepped up upon a natural stone dais, then raised her arms and turned a full circle. "Well?"
I blinked as my eyes adjusted. "Jesus," I whispered.
The trees around the clearing hadn't been left to grow by themselves. Branches and trunks were bent and twisted, entwining with their neighbors, lacing and looping and wrapping around one another. Above my head, branches were growing together to produce the unmistakable outline of a Rris torso, branches replacing the legs. All around the clearing they started to stand out from the background, like Escher pictures where you focus on a pattern of birds then realize the negative spaces are fish. The clearing was a hall, a living hall. Sculptured trees for walls, for columns and arches, loosely knitted thatches admitting light like windows.
Even more impressive were the sculptures. I saw stylized Rris, birds and animals. An eagle with skeletal wings of bare twigs, a stag's head and rack staring back down without eyes, a pair of Rris locked in an embrace... Not carved, but made by persuading the trees to grow the way the artists wanted.
I say artists, because... that's what it was; Art.
"Your kind has this?" she asked.
"This..." I shook my head. "This kind of art is... known. But nothing like this."
"A? Why are you whispering?"
Would you yodel in a cathedral? I mean, it was that kind of feeling. "Sorry," I said at a more reasonable volume and grinned sheepishly. "Is there a purpose to this place? Or is it just art?"
She gave me a curious look, then waved a shrug. "It's art, I think. The place is old, very old. I think some of these trees have been [trained] for nearly five hundred years."
"The palace isn't that old?"
"No. You'd have to ask an historian how old the palace is, but this goes back to times before the palace, when Shattered Water was a walled port. The tale says that Kathrik was a craftsman out here. He and his mate Chita had stayed together for over ten years. She was sterile, unable to bear cubs, but he still stayed with her. So of course both of them were considered quite odd. It's said that when she was killed by a bear he changed, withdrawing to his homestead. When he died the land was parceled and the townsfolk found this." She waggled a hand and smiled.
"Smaller of course, but those," she pointed at a grove of old trees down the far end of the glade, "are the original pieces. Kathrik and Chita."
The trees had grown, distorting the figures somewhat, but the shapes were still there: a pair of Rris standing, limbs entwined, bodies merging where the branches of the tree were melding. Maithris cocked her head, then chittered, "Those old ones would be shocked to see they're still together. They left their mark, no matter what some [somethings] might think." She sat herself down on a mossy rock and leaned back.
"Since then the Hall has become something of a landmark. The Palace [something] and sculptors do their work, so it grows, changes."
"It's beautiful," I said softly, quite truthfully as I sat myself down beside her. I glanced at her. "Maithris? Why is a couple living together considered strange?"
"Huhn? Why, it's just not... usual. I mean, people might live together for a while, to have cubs or somesuch, but why should they stay? There's no..." she trailed off and turned to me. "Ah, your kind does?"
"That means 'yes', doesn't it. You mean you choose one mate and stay with them? Like swans?"
I sighed. "Maithris, one thing you can certainly say for my kind is that there are no certainties. If one thing is true, then the opposite can also be true. We are quite... what is the word? Spread-out... varied?"
"Diverse. A. Thank you. In my country it's considered normal to have one mate for life. It's also considered normal to have different mates over a lifetime. It's against the law to be officially mated to more than one at any time. In other countries it's a sign of... wealth for a male to have many females."
And she gave me a look, confusion etched across her face. "Laws can change in countries here also, but that... how can anybody live in peace in a world like that."
"Who says we live in peace?" I shrugged. "We fight and squabble."
"A lot like Rris," she said. "You're not so different."
"That is news to me."
She chittered and rocked back, tilting her face to the light filtering through the canopy: it dappled her fur with bright speckles, a sunspot flicking across her eyes pushed her pupils down to narrow black slits in amber. I settled back as well. The moss wasn't damp, was soft enough to lie back on while watching branches overhead swaying and a few wisps of high cloud passing beyond them. Quiet. Just the wind and water, a few birds and insects. Warm enough, even under the boughs woven into shapes and patterns that caught the eyes and led them into deeper and deeper geometries, into shadows where odd silhouettes played. A squirrel dashed across a branch, leapt to another limb and scrambled up a tree: a blurred stop-and-start spiral up the trunk with the sound of claws scritching on bark. I just closed my eyes...
... and a hand was shaking my shoulder. I woke with a start, my heart racing as I sat bolt upright and the Rris standing over me fell back a step. "Huh? What?"
"Mikah?" Maithris cocked her head. "It's all right. It's just time we started heading back."
"What?" I looked around. The light had changed, the shadows longer and the air cooler. My back was damp from the moss and my watch said four hours had passed.
"I didn't want to wake you," Maithris told me. "I think the rest is doing you good. But you must be hungry?" My stomach answered for me and she glanced at my belly, an amused expression on her face. "I thought so. Come on."
She offered her hand and I stared at it for a second before taking it. Not something I'd done very often and the appendage felt weird in my hand, the bones in the wrong place, not a very strong grip. "Huhn," she coughed as she helped me to my feet, "Heavier than you look. A good sign, a?"
She stayed by my side as we left that strange grotto. At the treeline she paused by a leaning bole, raised her hands with fingers splayed and slowly, almost luxuriously dragged her claws down the bark. Pale scratches appeared in the bark, fresh among a multitude of older ones.
"Mai? Should you be doing that?"
She brushed her hands off as she rejoined me, "Don't worry. It's traditional for visitors to do that."
Ah. A sort of guest book. I looked back at the tree: the trunk was so scored with scratches around its circumference that it was a wonder the thing was still alive.
Maithris suddenly frowned, her muzzled wrinkled as if she were mulling something over. "What did you call me?" she asked.
"Hmmm? Oh, sorry," I gave her a small smile. "Maithris."
"Ah," she chittered. "You have trouble saying my name?"
"No. I just... I'm sorry. I offended you?"
"No, I was just curious why you called me that."
"I suppose my kind has a habit of shortening names. It is a term of... of familiarity."
"Ah," she looked gravely serious. "Then we are in a state of familiarity?"
I didn't know how to answer that and her expression fractured into laughter, chittering at the sky.
Maithris sat in the window niche, her feet tucked up in a tailor's squat as she watched me eat my breakfast. She was wearing a kilt that morning, a wrap of heavy pleated material belted at her waist and colored in a green and brown tie-dyed pattern. It bared her chest and the lighter fur peppered with black running down her front. I noticed her tail protruding down alongside her right leg, the tip flicking back and forth. She had something on her mind.
I finished my piece of smoked turkey, and toyed with another slice before asking, "You're worried about something?" When she gave me a questioning look I nodded pointedly at her tail.
"Ah," she whipped the appendage around and caught it in her hands, then began preening the white tuft at the tip. "In some ways you're fortunate not to have a thing like this chasing you. Seems to do what it wants most of the time."
I smiled slightly. "That's what you're worried about?"
Maithris cocked her head. "No. It's nothing, really. I..." The scratching at the door interrupted her. She glanced at the door behind me, then at me. "You're going to let him in?" she asked.
Him? I hesitated before twisting around and calling, "Come in."
Hirht hadn't changed. Was I expecting him to have? It'd been three weeks, not such a long time really. The king was alone when he stepped into the room, then almost as an afterthought closed the door behind him and approached me. Stopped. Standing a few meters away, just watching me. That poker face again, restrained courtesy as he ducked his head. "Mikah," he rumbled.
And I couldn't meet his eyes. "Sir. I'm sorry."
"Don't be," he sighed and seemed to sag a little. "Please. I didn't come hunting after your apologies. I just wanted to know if you're all right."
I realised I was clutching at the edge of the desk, my knuckles white. I took a breath, forced myself to relax, but the knot in my guts persisted. "I... I am fine. Thank you, Sir."
"Good to hear." Hirht shifted, glanced past me at Maithris and back to me again. "Mikah... Hai. We haven't been very thoughtful hosts. If there are any apologies to be made, they are ours. You have them."
"Sir, that's not necessary..."
"I think it is. Nobody wants to hurt you, but we had no idea what was happening. If you need anything..." he broke off, his eyes flickered to something beyond me and he sighed and made a small gesture with his hand. "Mikah, just so you know. This time is yours. Anything you want, please ask."
I closed my eyes and swallowed. "Thank you, Sir."
The Rris king ducked his head to me, "Mikah." He turned at Maithris and there was a flicker of an emotion there when he bade her, "Until later, Doctor."
"Sire," she inclined her head slightly, but her ears were trembling. As if she were keeping them up with an effort. And when he'd left she did lay them back, then shook her head violently and raked her mane back into shape with her claws.
"What's happening?" I asked.
"Oh, it's nothing," she said. "He's just a very stubborn person."
"What does that mean?"
Maithris screwed up her muzzle. "It means he doesn't like doing what other people want him to do. It can make things awkward."
"You mean like persuading him to give you free run around the Palace?"
She smiled: "Among other things, a."
I also flashed a lopsided smile and picked a pastry off the silver platter, examined it carefully. I'd already learned my lesson about biting into unfamiliar Rris food: not only do they prefer a lot of their meats raw, but they consider a great deal more of the animals edible than we do. A Rris might be capable of ripping off and swallowing chunks of muscle, but if I tried something like that I'd probably choke. This pasty seemed to be safe, some kind of fish pâté inside. Strong flavor, but quite palatable. I took a bite, then looked at Maithris and raised my eyebrows. "He was serious about anything I want?"
"I believe so. You have something in mind?"
I had wondered how far I could push it this first time. Not too much, I decided. "I'd like to see more of the gardens."
"I think that can be arranged," she said.
I suppose one could have been forgiven for thinking it was an untouched wilderness. Acre upon acre of rolling verdant forest and woodland; centuries-old pines and oaks, birches and elms towering and spreading their canopies over a lush undergrowth of bracken and ferns. The clearings were naturally rugged, filled with uncropped grasses and scattered rocks, the summer air filled with specks of sun-warmed dust and insects, the smells of hay and greenery. But under those trees were paths, occasional shelters where users of the park could find refuge from the weather, sculptures and other signs that this area was inhabited. I saw a lodge nestled in amongst the trees: a wood and stone building with slate roof and glazed windows. A place where high-ranking Rris nobility could rough it Maithris told me as we wandered west through the Palace grounds.
We talked as we walked, just idle chatter. I asked her a few questions about herself. She'd been born the daughter of the mayor of a small town along the southern borders, months away to ride from Shattered Water. She'd studied under the town physician, then her father paid for her to study under a master in Shattered Water. She'd been apprenticed to a physician in the south-eastern quarter for seven years and now...
"Not like this," she smiled - ruefully, if I was judging correctly. "Poorer. Crowded. Cold and hungry a lot. I wanted to get out of there quickly. I didn't have much money; I had some ideas but..." she trailed off and waved a shrug.
"What?" I pressed.
"Oh, they weren't taken very seriously." She hissed slightly, then raked fingers through her mane and smiled: "What about you? You were an artist, weren't you? How did you choose that?"
Changing the subject. I glanced at her, then shrugged myself. "I always enjoyed drawing, and I was good at it. I wanted a job in which I could enjoy myself and make a living."
"Did you apprentice?"
"No. We've got schools that teach art. I went to one of those."
"A school just for that?" She skittered over a root laying across the path. "How long?"
"Four years? Shave me! Ah, well, I suppose some artists spend their lives on their work." She brushed a frond aside and glanced at me. "That's not such a long time for you though, is it. How long does you kind live?"
"About eighty-five, ninety years. It varies."
Now she looked startled. "Ninety... they said you had a longer [lifespan] than Rris, but that... that is more than I'd expected."
They'd asked me about it before, but my questions had never been answered. "How long do Rris live?" I asked.
"Mikah, I suppose most would live about forty five years. Sixty is very rare but it's not unheard of." Maithris gave me a sidelong glance, up and down. "You didn't know?"
"They never told me."
She hissed slightly. "They expect you to live among us and they don't tell you things like that. What else haven't they told you." Then she forestalled my interjection, "Perhaps I should rephrase that, a? Is there anything you'd like to know more about?"
I laughed a bit. "Just about everything, I think. Is there any chance I could see more of Shattered Water?"
"I'll have to see about that, but I'm sure something can be arranged." The path turned to cross a small stone bridge spanning a stream. Down below, in still eddies and the calm offered by the lee of stones, boatmen skated across the water's surface, raising ripples as they darted about like miniature dodgems. I stopped to watch them for a second while Maithris continued for a step, then turned to watch me.
"You've heard that before, haven't you," she said after a while.
"Ah," she sighed, then stooped to pick up a pebble. Her wrist moved strangely when she tossed it and downstream a kingfisher dove at the ripples, pulling out at the last instant in an affronted flutter of wings. "I'm sorry, Mikah. I should say I'll do my best. I can't make any promises that you'll be allowed to walk by yourself through the square on market day, but I will try to arrange something. You have my word on that."
"Thank you," it was all I could say. Like that kingfisher: too many bits of bait dangled in front of me.
The gardens were quiet but not quite deserted. The pair of armed guards a few dozen meters down the track dispelled the illusion of solitude. They didn't do anything, just stood aside and watched us pass with wary eyes and helmets tucked under their arms before stalking away in the opposite direction. A warm day, I was quite comfortable in the shade in my only pair of shorts and Eldritch T-shirt. Maithris was only wearing her kilt, her tail protruding from a slit at the back, her ears flickering when an occasional midge buzzed them.
It was further than I'd expected, about half an hour of walking before the trees thinned, opening onto broad sky. A narrow strip of grass separated the rocky shore from the treeline and beyond that Lake Erie was a vast expanse of glittering blue stretching away to the horizon. Sunlight tracked a path of sparkling white highlights toward the skyline, a light as harsh as if it were reflecting off burnished metal. To the north there was a darker haze of land in the distance: that'd be Canada... no, still Land-of-Water. Small waves lapped against the shore, a quick and steady pulse carrying pieces of driftwood and a few leaves. Out along the skyline there was a flash of red and white: the billowing sails of a ship under way tacking into the wind. The wind: a breeze cooled by the lake, bringing with it the scent of water and greenery.
"Your world looks like this?" Maithris asked as we walked along the lakeshore on that glorious day.
"My world," I smiled a bit. "I think this is part of a city. This would be docks or roads."
A tree at the lakeshore. An old, gnarled spruce with the soil under its roots eroded to leave an exposed tangle of wood, leaving the trunk tipped out toward the lake. Maithris touched a hand to the trunk and looked up to the sun shining through the branches, "I think I prefer it like this."
"So do I."
She chittered, then turned and leaned back against the trunk. "So we do have a few good thing to offer."
I nodded and looked around. Down along the beach a single crenellated gray stone tower was perched on a rocky lakeside prominence. I squinted and shaded my eyes, able to see the figures of Rris on the ramparts. A Guardtower. I guess they'd need some kind of security along the beach. "That must be a dull job," I observed.
"Ah?" she squinted. "Oh, the guardhouse? I suppose someone has to do it."
I sat down on the grass and dangled my legs over the small bank where storm-blown waters had nibbled at the earth. Now the lake was placid in the heat of the afternoon, the tiny wavelets lapping the shore like a hurried metronome. Maithris dropped down beside me, staying in the shade offered by the tree. She was panting a bit I noticed, her jaw hanging and tongue protruding. "Warm for you?" I asked, grinning a bit.
"All right for some," she growled. "You're not carrying this." She pinched a fingerful of fur on her arm.
"Hey, get me some scissors and a razor and I can fix that."
She affected a shocked expression, "But then I would look like you!"
"That's a bad thing?"
She chittered and leaned back against the tree, the light filtering through the leaves and branches dappling her fur in gold and shadow. "Ai, I suppose your hairlessness does have its advantages. It's hot in Africa, isn't it?"
"Hotter than this," I smiled, then gestured at the water. "Why don't you just go for a swim? That'll cool you down."
"There?" she looked at the lake and her ears went down a bit. "It's... big. I mean, how deep is it? I don't know if it's safe..."
"You can't swim, can you," I smiled a bit. "Hey, come on. It's a great day for it. I'll make sure you don't sink out of sight, all right?"
"I don't know," she looked dubious.
"Okay. I'm going in," I said as I started pulling off my boots and socks.
"Mikah!" she protested. "Your hand?"
"It's healed enough. It won't get infected."
"Are there... dangerous animals in there? Large waves?" I asked and she waved a hesitant 'no'. "Then what's the problem?" I asked and stripped off my shirt, leaving it beside my boots. The stones on the beach were almost hot under my feet, even where they were water-slicked they were warm. I whooped, splashed through water up to my knees then dove under and surfaced with a strangled gasp. It wasn't that cold, but after the heat of the day it was stimulating contrast. I shook water from my eyes and floated on my back, "Come on!" I called to Maithris, "The water's fine."
Inside, I wondered how far she was willing to go to humor me. I didn't want to push her over the edge or get her in trouble. Hell, I liked her, I just wanted to try my leash a bit. Now she was pacing on the shore, stepping awkwardly on the rocks while her tail lashed furiously. "Come on," I called, teasing her. "It doesn't bite."
Her muzzle twisted and she took a few hesitant steps forward, just up to her ankles, then hastily moved back again and stood there, shifting her weight uncertainly. Where the water had plastered her fur down she looked like she was wearing dark socks. Then she slashed her hand at the air and said, "Ah, shave you," and stripped off her kilt, throwing it back onto the beach where it fell in a crumpled, multicolored lump. Even without clothing it's difficult to call a Rris naked; that fur covers everything. Hers was a mottled tawny hue, with darker almost coffee-colored patches across her flanks, the lighter, dark-speckled fur of her front running down to the longer fur around her crotch. She had a scar on her outer left thigh, a narrow strip maybe as long as my hand where the fur grew ragged. I saw her take a breath as she walked out toward me, determination in the set of her face and the cool water climbed, up to her waist, chest.
"Careful," I said, "It drops off a bit about..."
She gave a yelp and vanished.
I caught her as she bounced up again, coughing and sputtering with water streaming from her fur. I pulled her back to her depth where she coughed a bit more, wiped water from her eyes and shook her head violently, sending a glittering spray of water flying. "You..." she growled and spat water, more streaming from the sodden tufts on her cheeks, "Why didn't you tell me?"
"You took it a bit quickly," I tried not to smile at her appearance: thick fur turned slick and almost black clinging to her frame. "I tried to tell you. If you're careful, it's fun."
"Fun? I feel like a beaver."
"Cooler though, a?"
She narrowed her eyes, then very deliberately splashed me in the face. "Hey!" I snorted water.
"Cooler, a?" she smiled.
I splashed back and she ducked, chittering. Things escalated from there and for a few glorious minutes it didn't matter what she looked like, it could have been anybody I was splashing around in the lakeside with. She was fast, I could scoop more water, but her energy seemed boundless while I was still a bit below par. I ran out of puff before she did and held up a hand while I sat down in surf shallow enough to be warmed by the sun. Hah! And I didn't even have to worry about a thinning ozone layer. "You cooled off enough now?" I asked the dripping Rris.
Maithris shook again and a rainbow flashed in the spray surrounding her before it settled and she raked her facial fur back into shape. "Huhn, I haven't done anything like that for a long time."
"Then you must be naturally good at it."
She chittered. "And you must be part otter. Does all of your kind enjoy the water so much?"
"A lot do."
She cocked her head and regarded me, up and down, a curious expression on her face. I looked down and touched my chest; still wet, with the tracks of not-so-old scars quite obvious. "What?" I asked.
"Your hide," she gestured and smiled. "It could be made for water. It even looks better wet. Well, better than this." Her face twisted in a Rris expression that could be construed as a wry grimace as she held up an arm, her fur slicked down. All over. I tried not to laugh as a sodden tail slapped the water. "And it must be easier to dry. Huhn... do you think you could teach me to swim?"
"Hmm? I thought you weren't keen on the idea."
The Rris hissed a bit and sloshed water at me. "I think I was being overly cautious. I still remember you half-drowned after your last swim."
A twinge went through my shoulder, even though that was a wound that had healed cleanly. "That was... different."
"I know. I know," she said. "When you consider the situation, you did the extraordinary. It's just something I overlooked. Now, I can't think of anyone better qualified. Ah?" It was a question.
"All right. You've got yourself a deal."
So, that afternoon was one of the more unsual ones. It's not often I've given swimming lessons to a felid doctor and I realised I was enjoying myself when several hours passed without me noticing. I was able to teach her a bit: She learned that trying to breath underwater was not a good thing; she got pretty good at a dog paddle, but she still had to expend a lot more energy to stay afloat than I did. It was a bit unsettling to see her panting head raising a wake as she paddled in circles. If I hadn't known, I'd never have taken her for an intelligent being.
I wonder what the occupants of the watchtower made of it. Maybe Maithris didn't see it, but I saw the guard up there with the telescope trained on us. Maybe they got a few laughs out of it, but it was a reminder that I was still being watched.
"You're expected, sir," the left-hand guard said. There were a pair of them at their stations on each side of the door, the long steel blades of their pole-axes reflecting the blue of the sky visible through the windows down the hall behind me. They watched me closely as I knocked on the piece of wood guests would normally scratch on to announce themselves, then entered Hirht's private office.
The windows behind his desk were opened onto the atrium, letting a breeze circulate through the room, stirring papers and tapestries, ruffling the fur of the three Rris waiting for me. Hirht was sitting at his desk, a couple of papers and an inkwell arranged on the blotter before him. Opposite, Kh'hitch and Maithris turned on their cushions to see me: she smiled, the Advisor flicked an ear but otherwise remained impassive.
"Come in," Hirht said, waved me toward a cushion beside Maithris. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine, thank you sir." The way they were watching me... They were worried. Did they think I'd try again? Would I? It was something I couldn't answer.
"That's good to hear." The Rris king glanced down at the papers on his desk, then cocked his head at me. "Mikah, I realise this is an awkward time. For everyone. After that little... incident, other kingdoms have been expressing their concern that perhaps you're not very happy in our care. There have been several offers to take you out of our hands."
I didn't know if I was expected to have an answer to that. Offers. I wondered if that was an euphemism. Perhaps some of the other kingdoms had been a little more insistent in their demands than Hirht was letting on. A claw extruded from a fingertip and snagged a sheet of paper, drawing it toward him and those amber eyes flicked up to meet mine. "Would you like to? If you wish to leave... Nobody would stop you."
I hesitated. Unable to help myself I looked around at Maithris, at the other two Rris in the room. They were alien, in thought and deed. It wasn't my home; it was a place I doubted I'd ever be able to fit into. But... it was all I knew. I couldn't trade that for another unknown. I couldn't. I knew that would push me over the edge and beyond.
I shook my head, very slightly. "No sir."
"A." For a split second his attention flickered toward Maithris, then back to me. "Are you willing to continue the work you've been doing?"
Now my stomach knotted as I wondered what I'd gotten myself into. Maithris reached over to lay a hand on my knee. "Hai, don't worry so much."
And Hirht smiled a bit. "The doctor pushes her deals. We would like you to continue. We would also like to offer you [something]."
Maybe Maithris saw my confusion at the word. "Pay you," she offered. "Also time when you can do what you want."
"Pay?" I asked, somewhat confused about the turn of events.
"We thought fourteen days free every month," Kh'hitch said. "The pay would be ten golds a month. There is also the [something] that would be [something] from the sale of ideas as well as..." He went on for a while using terminology that was completely beyond me. I guessed they were economic terms, but that was something my lessons had never covered in much depth. "You would be guaranteed a share of this, if that is acceptable to you."
I blinked, then ventured in a small voice, "Is that much?"
They all stared. Mai almost laughed and ducked her head as she composed herself. "Yes, Mikah," she said. "It is much."
Hirht's extended claw was tapping slowly at the paper. "Is this agreeable to you?"
"Please. Much of what Kh'hitch said, I didn't understand. I am getting a share? Of what? I didn't understand those words."
The Advisor frowned. "Your ideas can be sold to others: other Kingdoms, Guilds, merchants. From the money made from that, you will be given a share. Also, if the people who brought those ideas make money - a [profit] - from their use they will pay a fraction of that to Land-of-Water. You will also receive a share of that. You understand?"
"Yes." Yeah, I understood royalties and profits. "I'm sorry. I just wanted to understand..." I let that trail off with a tight smile.
"And now you do? Is this all right with you? There is nothing binding... if you want to change later, you have that right."
How was I to know how much ten golds was worth? Would it buy a house? Or a hot dog? Was the information I could offer worth that much? I looked to my left, "Mai... Maithris? Is this good?"
She smiled back and waved a hand in gesture: as if she were tipping out a palmful of sand. "It's good, Mikah. But it's your decision to make."
A step into the unknown.
Inhuman eyes watching me intently. I swallowed, then nodded. "I agree. You have a deal."
Hirht smiled, then gestured at the paper before him. "Would you be willing to put your mark here? It will make things official."
The creamy paper was filled with close-packed cuneiform script. At the top left was an elaborate seal featuring a Rris profile surrounded by branches and Rris words. Below that, line after line after line, so the page seemed to have more ink than bare paper. I could only read one word in ten; maybe not even that.
"I will have to trust you, I think," I said.
"You have my word there is nothing there that we haven't already told you about," Hirht said and even so I found myself glancing at Maithris. She actually nodded. I awkwardly took the proffered quill, dipped it, and carefully signed my name. I saw Hirht blink at the looping script, then he took a pinch of sand from the box beside the inkwell and sprinkled it on the document. I passed the quill back, then impulsively left my hand extended. The king looked confused.
"It's a custom of my people," I explained, "We finish an agreement by shaking hands."
His eyes flickered from my hand to my eyes, then he visibly braced himself and extended his own hand: tan fur with a darker palm, dark brown fur among the leathery pads of his palm and fingerpads. A coppery bracelet hung loosely on his wrist, sliding up his arm when I carefully took his hand and shook just once. There was a look on his face when I touched him, his pupils flinched before he squeezed once in return and withdrew his hand with a decorous grace.
"How did you do that?"
"Hai?" Maithris looked up at the question, then back to trailing a finger along the slender cast-iron columns fronting the cloister as we walked. "Mikah, they're afraid."
"What?" That was news. "Of me?"
"Of you. For you." She raised a hand to lean against one of the fluted columns and looked out over the garden in the central courtyard.
I stepped up beside her. "I don't understand." In contrast to the outer Palace gardens, these were elegant and constrained. Trees, shrubs and long grass with a symmetrical spiderweb of cobblestone paths wending through them.
Mai sighed, a long, drawn-out hiss and started strolling again. Not a human skeleton under that hide; movements and muscles that flowed and shifted in an inhuman gait, a female gait as she led the way through an archway and out into that garden. I realised what I was staring at and flinched away, blinked as she looked at me, "It's... it's your unpredictability. I really don't think anybody knows just what you're going to do next."
"I don't want to hurt anybody."
"Not just that. They don't know how you'll react to anything. You might not hurt others, but you might hurt yourself. After... after you... after what happened..." she trailed off with ears drooping.
"Mai," I said simply, "I tried to kill myself." I was mildly surprised I could say it without feeling what that had meant, like it had happened to someone else.
Now her ears went down. Not anger, but still distress of a kind. "I... know."
"What is your word for it?"
"Word?" She turned to stare at me. "For trying to kill yourself? Mikah. There is no word for it! It's not... normal."
"No word?" I blinked.
"No. Your kind has one? It's that common?"
Suicide? "It's common enough."
She hissed softly and I saw her tail lash furiously. They didn't even have a word? Then what I'd done would have been so incomprehensible... was that what they'd meant when they asked me what'd happened? They didn't believe I'd done it myself? "Why?" Mai asked. "What could be so terrible that life would be thrown away?"
Was this about my people or about me? I just shook my head, feeling the twinge in my scarred face. "Fear. Loneliness. Anger, hatred. Need for attention. Helplessness. Insanity." I stopped talking and shrugged. To our right a statue stood nestled in among the trees: a Rris with a snake wound around the body. Fighting? I couldn't tell. Water sprinkled from the reptile's mouth, coating the entangled figures with a damp sheen.
"And for that you would die?" she said. "You would just end life?"
"Sometimes... it's preferable."
She hissed again, softly, and asked, "Do you think you're insane?"
That struck me as amusing. I laughed, a sound that came out like a kick in the stomach. "Compared with? How would I know?"
"And a lot of Rris are feeling the same way. I know people aren't sure if you're in control of your mind. You might decide to hurt someone; you might decide to hurt yourself. Do you think you would?"
I swung my arm and plucked a leaf off a bush, folded it over and over, watching it fragment. "I don't want to hurt anyone."
"You've said often enough. But yourself?"
I touched that place inside, searched my feelings. "Once, I would have been afraid to... to do anything like that. Now," I sighed, "the thought doesn't scare me."
"It scares them," she said, then hung her head and glanced sidelong at me. "It scares me."
I knew what she meant. If something happened to me, it would be taken out on her.
"Not just that," Maithris said. "I like you. I really don't want to see anything happen to you."
I stopped and so did she, looking up at me with those amber eyes. A memory of what Shyia had told me drifted by, people would say things they didn't mean; people would lie to me to try and gain my trust. I reached up, slowly, moving my hand closer toward her and those eyes stayed focused on mine, not flinching when I touched her cheek and stroked the fur on the side of her muzzle: like silk under my fingertips with the grain, velvet against. An unusual sensation.
She smiled at me.
"I'm sorry," I said, withdrew my hand. "I didn't mean to..." Even Chihirae had flinched sometimes.
"Don't worry," she assured me. "Why did you do that?"
"Most Rris... move when I get too close."
"Ah," she said knowingly, then stepped right up to me, reached up and looped her arms around my neck, looking up into my face from just a few centimetres. I felt her harsh breath, her heart beating where she was pressed against me. "And you don't?" she grinned, feeling my own tension with nowhere to retreat to. She cocked her head, then abruptly jumped up to lick my nose. Her arms released me and as she stepped back one finger traced the ruined part of my face. "Still, I think you've got more reason to fear us."
I flinched away from that hand. She waited, then gently touched my arm, leading me on again. We walked in silence for maybe a minute. At the center of the Palace courtyard was a pond: an irregular pool dark enough that I couldn't see the bottom. Were there fish in there? Aside from a few leaves drifting amidst the reflections of overhanging trees, there was no sign of movement in the darkness.
On all sides the Palace rose above the trees and landscaping: the cloister ran the circumference of the courtyard, interrupted in places by french doors, verandahs and high windows. Above the green copper of the cloister roof were the windows of the second floor. Hundreds of white-framed arched mullioned windows, balconies with carved balustrades spaced along the face of the building. The third floor sported smaller windows and again there were hundreds of them. How many rooms in this place?
And how many Rris in those rooms watching us?
I felt uneasy in this place. Beautiful to look at, but in the same way the statues were: lifeless, cut off from the outside. And I felt like the bullseye waiting for the arrow, unable to see who might be watching from any of those thousand windows.
"That's why they listen to you?" I asked the silence. "They're afraid of what I might do if they don't keep me happy?"
"Not as simple as that," Maithris said, then frowned. "Or maybe it is. They don't want you hurt, and they don't want you hurting others."
"So why do they listen to you?"
She didn't look at me. "I told them... things about you. Ideas I had. I was close enough that they decided to listen to me."
"Ideas? About what?"
"How to keep you happy." Was she telling me everything? I didn't think so.
"You think you know?" I asked softly.
"Mikah, it didn't take a genius to see that the way they were treating you wasn't right. I don't know anybody who could be happy living like that, and to see that their future didn't offer anything better, it..." she was going to say something, then changed her mind. "I asked them how they would feel. They gave me a chance."
"Will what they've offered now be better?"
She looked up at me, "And you said I have a lot of questions, hah? Well, they've given you pay and time you can do what you will with and they've begun to realize you aren't a bucket they can drink what they want from then discard. As to whether it's better, I think it'll be what you can make of it."
"All I can do is try, a?" I tried that noise she so often used in her interrogatives and she chittered a bit.
End Light on Shattered Water 22