Light on Shattered Water
Two days after that meeting I started working again. They weren't wasting any time.
The weather had changed: that morning a mass of gray cloud had blown in across the lake, bringing cooler air and a heavy, short-lived shower that was finished and gone with as quickly as it'd come. It cleared the dust from the air and left water droplets hanging from eaves and leaves. Sunlight broke through the clouds, islands of light scudding across the countryside.
I sat on the cushion at the conference table, watching the last fat raindrops racing each other down the windows. It was another room I'd never seen before, although with over 800 rooms in the Palace, there were a lot of those. The French doors looked out over the northern Palace grounds: the trees and the gray mountains of the sky beyond. The walls were hung with pale velvet wall covering that showed different textures depending on the light striking it. There were paintings: more of those big old things. I have to say Rris've got a better taste in frames than humans: instead of those revolting rococo gold-plated things our classic art seems to come packaged in, the Rris use more tasteful wood and metal. Some decorated, some plain.
I took a sip of water from the glass on the table in front of me and glanced at my watch. 9:47. My damn leg was going to sleep. I was almost glad when the door finally opened to admit Kh'hitch with the ambassador from Wandering and his assistant following.
"You'll understand if time is short today," Kh'hitch was telling the ambassador and his staff. "Mikah is still recovering after his incident. I trust you understand you're fortunate to be granted this interview."
"And it is greatly appreciated," Ch'thrit said and ducked his head toward me. "I trust you are feeling better."
"I am," I said, not missing his glance at the bandages around my wrist: just a wrapping to cover the healing scar. He was... flamboyant. His attire seemed to be chosen with an eye to hues that lived as far away from each other on the color chart as was possible: a blue jacket with bloused sleeves as far as the elbow, orange trim, calf-length red breeches with yellow brocade. There was gold filigree around the end of his tail, gaudy jewels on bracelets on his wrists and his chest fur was shaved and dyed in geometric patterns that seemed to center around his six almost non-existent nipples. I didn't know if Rris had homosexuals, but every time I saw him I felt as if I might be looking at some stereotypical rendition of one.
"Pleased to hear it." He flipped the tails of his jacket back as he sat himself down with his secretary beside him. Further down the table Kh'hitch settled himself with a sigh, the furry folds of his stomach spilling onto his lap. "I have to say we were most distraught to hear of your accident. And just so you know, Wandering's hospitality is always available if you ever find yourself in need of a change of scenery."
"Most appreciated." I glanced at Kh'hitch but was disappointed: he hadn't flinched. "But I think I will stay here a while."
He'd probably expected as much. He didn't press it. "As you wish. Now, perhaps we could discuss business. There was some question of what you could offer us? I have prepared a list of some areas in which we think your ideas might be of some help."
Kh'hitch took the envelope the ambassador handed over and inspected the blue seal before running a claw under it, breaking it. He spent a minute poring over the letter, occasionally twitching his muzzle or ears or uttering a small noise as he read. Ch'thrit watched him for a short time, then studied me, my clothes, the laptop on the table. I stared back, counting the tiny gold rings he had threaded through the edges of his pointed ears.
The paper landed on the table and Kh'hitch tapped at it with a claw, then slid it across to me and leaned back. I turned the sheet around for all the good that did: I still wasn't able to read it. I was able to recognize the occasional term, such as the marks for steam-engines and boats, but most of the others Kh'hitch had to translate.
Wandering was a wealthy kingdom. It controlled several hundred kilometers of both the Meander and Earthy rivers as well as some of the southern lake districts. Roads networked the country which drew its revenue from the markets and trade as well as the tolls and tariffs on traffic passing through. And they seemed keen to keep the monopoly on that transportation empire. Most of the list was geared toward meeting that end.
Steam engines, the designs and specs along with the equipment for manufacturing them. Also details on the hulls and propulsion systems we were using, along with improved pumps, goods-handling equipment, storage facilities and communication systems. The first items were available but the rest of it would involve work. A lot of work and a lot of resources.
"Of course, that is quite within your abilities?" Ch'thrit inquired.
Kh'hitch looked at me.
I nodded. "That's possible. The pumps and engines are no trouble. Some of the other items though, they will need more time."
"You don't foresee any problems?"
"If I could do that, then they wouldn't be problems." The Rris didn't smile and I shrugged. "There will always be problems. The communication system would be the trickiest. Are you going to be wanting just information on how to build a new system, or will you want the... parts to be made for you?"
"We would want the plans along with some working samples. If we're pleased with the result, more orders will be forthcoming."
Kh'hitch ducked his head. "Very good. And within the next two days you will receive a [something] of what you can expect to pay."
I was watching Ch'thrit's face but I still didn't see a twitch. Not bad. Steam engines, machinery, new technology, upgrading their entire transportation system: he must have had some idea just how much that was going to cost.
The other Rris kingdoms hadn't been idle while I'd been recuperating. I was only just beginning to get some idea of what kind of uproar my near-death had caused, the rumors of assassinations and hoarded technology, that I'd been seriously injured while creating a weapon. I found out some of the consulates came to the Palace with accusations that the whole affair was a hoax perpetrated by Land-of-Water so they could claim I was dead then hide me away for their exclusive use. All that time more Rris savants, scholars, philosophers, physicians, crackpots and even nobility with interests or pretensions to the sciences had been arriving in Shattered Water. There would doubtless be more arriving as savants sent by kingdoms further afield arrived.
In the meantime the Palace was inundated with questions and demands from increasingly impatient embassies. Their experts wanted to talk with me, to study me, as if they still weren't convinced I wasn't something more than a hoax. And eventually Hirht bowed to the pressure.
I was taken to the university once again. Under armed escort. At least this time they were good enough to tell me what I could expect, so I wasn't walking into that auditorium blind. Maithris had seen me off that morning, laughing as she patted my arm and told me not to frighten too many of the poor fluff-heads. But there was still concern in her expression. I told her not to worry.
As I tried to do as I walked down that dark little wooden corridor toward the sound of a multitude of Rris voices. I took a breath as I passed through the doorway and out onto the auditorium's floor. Wood creaked under my boots. From high above the skylights threw down shafts of light, spotlighting isolated parts of the stage. Around the rim of the stage gas lamps did their best to compete, without much success. There were chairs out there on the stage, eight of them lined up through patches of light and shadow. Rris were waiting in those, looking around as I entered. I recognized Achir in the center, also Rasa and Chotemri. Other facial markings were familiar but I couldn't put names to them; maybe they'd been present at... examinations.
There was one more chair, set in front of the others in the rectangle of light cast by a sunbeam. Why? As time passed that light would move on and leave the chair in darkness. Still, that was incidental. It was quite obvious who that chair was intended for and for a second I flashed back to that dark room in Westwater and similar circumstances.
This time there were more Rris in the gallery. More eyes watching me. That sibilant noise like dry leaves blowing in the wind surged as I entered and the shadows of the gallery stirred. More Rris... it was a full house. Okay, so the place wasn't the Superbowl, maybe a few hundred of them, but for me that was quite enough. I stalled for a second, then kept walking because it was too humiliating to turn and run back the other way.
Rasa met my eyes and actually acknowledged me with a nod. Chotemri, I hadn't seen him since the... incident, stared at me. I could see a muscle on his neck twitching under the fur and guessed he didn't like this any more than I did. It helped, a bit. And when I took my place on a chair that'd never been designed for my anatomy, they were behind me, out of sight but not out of mind. And that damned sunlight made it difficult for me to see the audience while pinning me like a bug on a board.
Two hundred pairs of eyes watching. There'd been more than that in the Palace during that disasterous ball, but I hadn't been set out for them to stare at, then. Eyes flashed as they caught the lights, metal and jewelry glittered, fur of all colors and styles. Although the place was full, they weren't packed in. Individuals kept their distance from one another, and the gallery itself was split up with token dividing walls along the isles, quartering it into sections. Constructed like their homes, like their towns and cities: designed to give an impression, an illusion of privacy. Maybe for Rris, this was packing them in. There was a group of Rris who might have been students from the university; other groups would be visitors from other kingdoms, maybe ambassadors... I wondered if Maithris was up there. I couldn't tell. It helped to think that maybe she was.
That day was predictable. It reminded me of show and tell back in grade school. Rasa stood to carry the introductions and then was gone. If they had a system to handle the questions, I couldn't pick it out. There'd be a roar of noise and an individual would be picked out to shout a query. There were the usual ones, there were the unusual ones, and then there were the downright weird: how would I know how the harvest in the midwest would turn out? Or the best place for a fleet to fish? And a couple of questions about my sex life were quite unnecessary. Anyway, I did my best to answer them, but there were always some I didn't understand or couldn't explain. The Rris behind me helped a bit on those and handled the questions that were directed at them, and there were more than a few. I think there were a fair number of Rris in the audience who asked them questions just to avoid having to talk to me, and others tried to make it difficult.
The acoustics in the auditorium were good enough that the voices of speakers on the stage carried, but sounds from the gallery were somewhat muffled. Maybe the Rris didn't have so much of a problem with that, but I did. If people asking questions didn't speak up, I had to ask them to repeat themselves. A waste of everyone's time.
The sunbeams drifted across the floor as the morning passed into afternoon. I talked, while the light described its slow passage across the floor I talked, until my voice was hoarse and my throat felt raw from its fight with the Rris gutturals. There wasn't any water available, a lamentable oversight on someone's part. It was only when my voice gave out completely that the day had to draw to a close. I just opened my mouth to try and speak and all that I could manage was a rasping croak.
That scared them. The presentation came to an impromptu end as I was rushed out in a congregation of panicked physicians and specialists, bodies bumping against me in that dark corridor off in the wings. I flinched wildly as hands touched me in the dimness, turning from one to another in confusion as they gabbled questions and I couldn't see properly or answer, I could hardly swallow: my throat felt like it was lined with sun-dried cactus. And more shouting snarled out:
"Move it, shave you! Out of my way!"
"Who..." Someone else barked. "Rot it! Guards!"
"Rot you, clothead! I'm [something]! Hai! Mikah?" Someone caught my hand: furry fingers wound around mine. "It's me, Maithris. Come along, we'll get you out of this."
She led me, pushing through the crowd that was growing as some of the audience found their way backstage. We met a contingent of guards coming the other way and Mai growled a few words to their commander and left them to crowd control duties as she ushered me away down the corridor until the noises were lost behind us.
In the solitude of a quiet side-corridor Maithris stopped. I leaned back against a wooden wall and closed my eyes while I took rasping breaths. "You really don't look so good," Maithris said, studying me. "What happened there?"
I shook my head. Somewhere, there were running footsteps: the sound of claws pattering on wood. A pair of guards in lightweight armour turned the corner and drew up short at the sight of us. Maithris ignored them.
"Ah?" she asked, drawing my attention back to her when she squeezed my arm, letting her claws press against my skin. "Too much talking?"
"Of all the clot-headed..." Maithris snorted. "I warned them. Can you talk?"
"Not well," I croaked, the Rris words cracking into incomprehensibility. I felt a stab of fear at the thought of laryngitis, remembering the helplessness of not being able to make myself understood. Dammit, I didn't want to go through that again! Even if it was only for a few days.
"Oh, suppuration take it," she sighed and raked at her mane with claws extruded. "What can I do?"
I mimed raising a cup to my lips and she brightened. "A! Wait there," Mai told me and turned to the guards, snapped something and held out her hand. The guards exchanged looks, then one of them fiddled with a belt canteen, detached it and handed it over. Maithris pulled the stopper to sniff it before she passed it to me. "They've been known to fill them with stuff besides water," she explained when I gave her a questioning glance.
The canteen was a hard leather flask with straps to tie it to a belt. The spout had a flattened mouthpiece. God only knew where the water had come from or if it'd been boiled. I tasted it: warm, tasting of leather. I chugged half of it.
"Better?" Maithris asked.
"Mikah," she said gently. "I know what that means, but most people don't. It might be a good habit to break. Ah?"
This time I held out my hand, palm up, and curled my fingers in.
"That's better," Maithris smiled and took my hand in hers. I pulled away, but not before she'd felt the trembling. She drew back a bit, lowered her muzzle to look at me, then reached out again to touch my arm, "We'll get you back home now, all right? Come on."
After that initial fuss and confusion things calmed down a bit. I spent the evening half-expecting a horde of physicians to descend on me, but Mai was the only one who visited me. She brought my dinner - a meat broth in a mug and warm bread - and also a small roll of red leather so battered it seemed brown, tied with black laces. I hadn't seen it before, but the form was familiar enough. "I thought you mightn't feel like talking," she explained as I picked at my meal. "And your fur needs some attention. You're [something] around the mane and your cheeks. You don't mind?"
After today... Even after today, I didn't really want to be alone. I shook my head, then tipped my hand in the Rris gesture. She chittered and while I finished my dinner, laid a cloth on the floor beside the desk and unlaced the kit, unrolled it on the desktop. The worn leather was a richer red inside, the tools tucked into slots cut into the leather gleamed, rivulets of orange lamplight running along polished metal. Similar to other kits I'd seen in some ways: there were wooden combs missing a few teeth, a couple of brushes, a small pair of scissors, some tweezers and other small implements. Much-used, with wooden handles polished smooth. "It was my sire's," she was wearing her spectacles, sitting tailor-fashion on the low desk as she watched my hand touch the metal on the scissors and stroke the leather before drawing back. "His before him. I don't know how old it is, but it's been handed down for generations. Tradition." She stared at the kit, thoughts almost visible behind her eyes. Then she shook herself, fluffing fur over her whole body: "Ah, well why don't we do something about that haystack on your head now. Take your tunic off and sit, here."
I did as she asked, making myself comfortable on the cloth. She moved, the cloth of her breeches brushing against my arms as she placed a foot on either side and then fingers were touching and running through my hair, the gentle touch of claws was unmistakeable: hard in contrast to the pliant leather of her fingertips. A comb started tugging and I winced when it caught a knot. Fingers and claws worked again, easing it out.
There'd been other Rris who'd done this. A teacher in a small backwater town who showed me something that went beyond kindness; a constable in a lakeside trading town who was willing to trust... Mai was as good as they had been. Her fingers knew what they were doing and worked with an adeptness I'd seldom encountered in human barbers. Rris learned how to take care of their fur early in life. And now I found myself relaxing under Maithris' ministrations as she combed and brushed and then the scissors started their work. I felt my shoulders loosen, a tension I hadn't been aware of leeching out of my limbs as I sagged and leaned back into the attention, letting her hand tilt my head as she needed. I was half-asleep when she touched my neck and brushed away bits of hair: "Mikah?"
"Uhn?" I complained.
"Enjoying it, huhn?" She rumbled in my ear. "Your face now."
"Hmm?" I blinked, more awake now and Mai chittered and stroked my shoulder. "Your face? Your fur there needs some work. I might as well do that now. Lie down."
I hesitated, flashing on Chihirae asking the same thing. Maybe it was just the way they preferred to work. Whatever, it was comfortable, especially with the carpet. Maithris shifted to kneel at my head and I blinked up at the shadowy and foreshortened figure that loomed over me, the upside-down face with that ridiculous ceiling lamp a clumsy halo in the background. Her muzzle pursed in a smile, before she touched my beard, curled fingers underneath to fluff it out. Claws touched my throat and I flinched involuntarily.
Immediately her hands pulled away. "Sorry," she said and her fingers moved more carefully. Especially when she took up the scissors again: the sharp metal moved steadily while I laid back and watched her amber eyes behind the spectacles, intent on their work. The spark that burned in there was that same undefinable glimmer that separated humans from beasts, but those eyes were so different.
I reached up and she froze when I touched her lower jaw, just stroked the fur there. It was like velvet in places: short and soft, a vein pulsing, a faint tremble...
She caught my hand and for a few seconds studied my fingertips before meeting my eyes. "Feels different, a?"
I closed my captured hand in a 'yes', and she flashed me a small grin, then let me go. The scissors worked again, trimming it down to an inch or so: a length that could be mistaken for a Rris' facial fur. I wasn't a Rris, but nevertheless they still did all they could to change me into something that might make me a bit more acceptable in their eyes. And when she was done I caught her hand before she could put the tools away.
"Mikah?" Something that could have been worry flickered behind her glasses. I gestured at the cloth where I'd been sitting, now littered with clippings of hair.
Reluctantly she sat, then tried to twist when I perched on the edge of the desk behind her and gently tugged at her linen vest. She hesitated before shrugging out of it. Not quite as relaxed as she pretended to be, but she was trying. I touched her shoulder and her hide twitched. I stroked the fur, tawny and sienna and grey, feeling the coarse hair on the outside and the softer insulating layers further in before I picked up a comb: very short, closely-spaced teeth that seemed ideal for this.
Maithris said, "Ah?" when it touched her back, then a guttural, "Huhn," as it raked through and that tension eased a bit. After a few strokes she grunted when the comb caught on a burr. "Go with the [flow? current?] of the fur."
It took quite a while: her arms, her back down to her breeches. Her mane and the longer, lighter fur down her stomach were thicker, the fur was tougher than it looked. She gave me advice: what tools to use, how to twist the comb to get to the underlying layers. It took a while to work out tangles and twice I caught small scurrying specks and crushed them between my fingernails.
"They're good for something after all," Mai rumbled sleepily, now laying sprawled on her back while I groomed her front. Apart from those six nipples her torso was as androgynous as a treetrunk. Did they become tumescent during pregnancy? Another piece missing from my knowledge of Rris.
"What?" she asked and roused herself enough to touch her chest, where I was staring. "Ah, I'm not the female you were thinking of? Ai! Careful!"
I spent longer yanking that knot in her fur out than I needed to.
Thankfully, that laryngitis was short-lived. By the next morning it'd cleared up enough to just leave me with an annoying itch in my throat. It wasn't a very pleasant way to learn what my limits were, but from then on the Rris paid more attention when I asked for a break for a drink. They just hadn't realised that for me, speaking their language was a task that didn't come as naturally.
The following days held more meetings and another grilling in front of the assembly in the University auditorium. Private meetings... well that depended upon the Rris I was talking with. Some were easier to get along with than others: there were those who settled down readily enough, while others were simply in-your-face abusive in their insistence on treating me like a clever animal. Three times I just walked out of an interview, much to the clients' fury and my hosts' annoyance.
I'd forgotten about the time off I was due.
I woke suddenly and sat bolt-upright in bed, the sheets rucked up around me and my heart pounding. The room was warm with a musty heat. Midmorning sunlight was glowing through the drapes, a sliver finding its way through a chink and splitting a bright line across the ceiling. Midmorning? I wasn't supposed to still be in bed. Why hadn't someone woken me? I was supposed to be...
I wasn't supposed to be anywhere. The memory rose like a cool spring to drown the surge of panic. Slowly, I heaved a sigh, then flopped back onto the sheets, naked in the warmth of the room. God, I wasn't supposed to be anywhere. A day off, some time I could call my own. After that week it was a welcome thought.
A scratch sounded at the door across the room.
"Uhn? Who's there?" I didn't feel like raising my voice. Needn't have worried, with Rris hearing being what it is.
"Mikah?" the muffled reply came. "It's me."
Me? Maithris. She breezed into the room with a breakfast tray and an open smile. "Why aren't you up?" she asked as she set the tray down and went to throw the drapes open. I winced and turned away from the glare. "You don't want to miss the best of the day."
I squinted into the light that lit Maithris' fur with a halo of white. "What time is it anyway?"
"Time you got out of that bed."
"Hnn. Give me a good reason."
"Saaa. That's a tricky one." She sat in the window alcove and stretched out, seemingly unconcerned as she brushed at an invisible speck on her emerald green breeches. "I thought you wanted to see more of the town, but if you'd rather lie there like a hairless accident victim..."
I blinked: "You know, that's a good reason." The bed creaked as I sat up, cross-legged among the sheets, "You're serious? I'm allowed to go into the town?"
She smiled, looking for all the world like the proverbial cat with the proverbial yellow feathers hanging out of her mouth. "I'm serious."
There was a catch. Somewhere, there was a catch. "How many guards?"
"Ah. A couple. A few. Not too many though."
"Four," she said, then waved an apologetic shrug. "Sorry. They insisted."
I sighed and scratched at an itch on my leg. "Only four? Why am I not surprised?"
She leaned her head back and her jaw spasmed as she chittered laughter. "Then you don't want to go?"
"Hey, I never said that."
"Then you might want to get some clothes on. I think people would laugh their jaws off if you show yourself like that."
"At least I don't have to worry about getting my tail caught in a door," I retorted lightly.
"Saa. You can only dream of having a tail like this," she said smugly and flicked hers around to preen the white tip.
"I'm happy as I am, thank you, you walking rug," I smiled as I got up and stretched, my joints and tendons crackling audibly. Maithris cocked her head as she regarded me with an expression that might have carried a pinch of amusement while I dressed.
Later, we walked through the corridors of power, following halls through the heart of the Palace. Windows to my right looked out into the central courtyard where Maithris and I'd walked and talked those weeks ago. The geometric layout of the paths was more obvious from up here, the carefully-restrained wilderness of the greenery less so. Down a staircase to the ground floor, then through panelled halls to the northern trade entrance. A squad of mounted guards were waiting in the courtyard there, along with a carriage that could only be for us.
It wasn't as ornate as some of the others I'd been in, probably for a good reason. This carriage was panelled, the dark wood glowing with a rich gloss. The trimmings were brass, sunlight throwing molten highlights from polished lamp-brackets, handles, rivet and bolt heads. A guard was holding the door open, standing at attention as we approached. When the penny dropped I grinned, hastily smothered the expression: "Hi, Blunt. How are the swimming lessons going?"
"Sir," he ducked his head, "I really don't want to see that much water ever again."
I chuckled and offered Maithris my hand to help her step up. She looked a bit puzzled, then lightly bounced up into the cab as if her legs were spring steel. I shrugged and clambered in after her, setting the carriage rocking on its suspension. While I sat myself down on the upholstered bench opposite Mai, Blunt closed the door behind us. I was surprised to note this carriage didn't have those warped windows that the Rris used for privacy. Instead of glass panes the windows were covered with intricate wooden screens: delicate patterns of curlicues, plant blossoms and leaves. A lot of them, providing an excellent view of the world. I touched the screen to my right, feeling the breeze blowing straight through, able so see out easily enough, but anyone outside would have trouble seeing just who was riding in the cab.
"You know him?" Maithris asked, nodding her head toward the door.
"We went swimming together," I said. "You remember?"
"Ah, yes. That one." She flicked her ears and craned across to look out after him. "Huhn, good-looking," she said, falling back into her seat as outside a Rris barked something and the carriage moved off with a jolt.
"Is he?" I raised an eyebrow, wondering what she found attractive in a man.
And she looked at me, amusement flickering her ears. "Yes, very. And don't worry. You're still... unique."
"Ah. 'Unique'," I nodded. "That's very diplomatic."
She smiled, then reached over to pat my knee, "But you've got beautiful fur."
"Oh, that's all right then," I said and heard her chitter out loud as I turned to watch what was happening outside.
It took a couple of minutes to travel the length of the Palace drive. The light and dark flickering of treetrunks passing by outside paused, then we passed under the gatehouse and for a few seconds there was darkness and the echoing of hooves and wheels clattering on cobbles sounding off marble walls. Then sunlight flashed back into the cab and I could see guards, beyond them the wrought-iron fences of the Palace stretching away.
"This is the Swamp Way," Maithris told me. "It runs right to the gut of the city, through the Pinnacle Square and Smither Square. This area's the more expensive part of the city. Some of the manors along here are ancestoral Clan homes. Very affluent lines."
I'd seen that on the way in. Most of the places were fronted with brick walls or spike-topped iron fences. Invariably, beyond those were abundent hedgerows and trees, hiding all but the distant peaked roofs from eyes on the road. How many times had I made this same journey and never seen any of these things? All those times I'd been bottled up behind that murkey glass, seeing shapes and forms, but never what was actually there. Now, I could see the weather vanes on roofs, different shapes riding the arrows: a crouching Rris pointing, an albatross or some other seabird, a bear... I saw the wrought-iron gates on one place being opened to let a carriage and its entourage exit.
"Sometimes this area is called the Rocks," Mai said, "sometimes the Nipple."
"Nipple?" I wondered if I'd heard that right.
"A," she chuckled and gestured to one of her lower ones. "As in the people living here suckling off the milk of the city."
Ah, a sort of derogatory term.
We were driving on the left-hand side of the road, I noticed. Past the last of the estates the carriage passed between the old towers. "Part of the old wall," Mai said as I craned to see the top. "Before my time. Hundreds of years before."
"Is there a lot of use for city walls?"
"Well... before these were built, I know there were several battles fought around Shattered Water and the city was invaded twice, I think. Afterwards... Land-of-Water kept their fighting on the borders, or did the fighting in the marketplaces and conference tables." She grinned, "But for the hundred years they stood, those walls never fell."
The birches along the boulevard were in full leaf, greenery and shade waving in the wind. Other traffic passed us: wagons and carts, buggies and carriages; Rris mounted on llamas and elk, others out on foot. The buildings here were the large, spreading types so prevalent in Rris construction. The facades were decorated, but what windows there were were small. Glazed though.
"Guild buildings, most of them," Mai had scooted over and was sitting directly opposite so our knees were barely touching. "That's the..."
"Printing Guild?" I provided, noticing the plaque fixed to the front of the building as we passed.
"Right," she looked surprised, then squinted at a passing building. "You can read them?"
"Uh, some. It's easier to see the pictures," I said, referring to the little icon of what was unmistakably a printing press that'd been stamped above the text.
"But from here?" she blinked at me, then gave an abrupt little shake of her head and turned to look out the window again. The screen threw a paisley texture of light and shadow across the profile of her muzzle, glimmering on her eyes. "Anyway, the more prominent Guilds have their halls around Pinnacle Square."
"The Mediators?" I asked out of curiosity.
Her ears flicked. "Ah, they do tend to keep to themselves. Their hall is further over toward the river." She gestured to the south.
Pinnacle Square wasn't a square. Instead it was a circle that for some reason reminded me a little of a Trivial Pursuit board. A large circular plaza with roads radiating from a ring-road like rays from the sun: four large thoroughfares leading to the cardinal points of the compass and a host of smaller streets branching off in all directions. The pie-slice shaped wedges they divided the plaza into were used as parkland, planted with the preferred unkempt grass and trees, separated by broad malls. I could see cubs frolicking among the greenery, chasing a brightly colored ball. One caught it, then was brought to the ground in a tumbling cloud of dust when a playmate caught its tail and yanked hard. I winced, they played rough.
The monument in the centre of the plaza was... interesting. Atop a square dias about three meters high was a statue: a small group of five Rris, three facing outwards towards some unseen threat with claws bared and muscles visible beneath the stone fur, guarding their companions. One of those was tending to its comrade, obviously grievously wounded, with bones actually visible through gashes in arms and across the chest. Not a touch they'd allow on a public monument back home.
"The death of Ch'rothiyah aesh Tyi," Mai told me, "A queen some time ago. She died in a battle on the Bluebetter borders and the Chihiski dynasty succeeded her."
I stared at the statue, at the agonised face of a dying, long-dead Rris. I shuddered.
It took a while to follow the ring-road around the plaza. I was still used to cars, and while the carriage was better than walking, it wasn't what you could call speedy. Maybe fifteen kilometres an hour. I kept getting the feeling we should have gone further in the time we'd been travelling.
From Pinnacle Square we continued south, to Smither Square. Again, it was circular, the birch and oak trees lining the shady avenues and around the square the fountains were filling the air with mist and rainbows.
Fountains. Dozens of them. Jets of water arching ten meters into the air where wind caught them and tore them to droplets and mist that refracted light into fans of spectral color. Marble took on a sheen like dolphin skin in the amalgam of sunlight and moisture, the statues of Rris in various poses around more abstract shapes.
"Have you seen this before?" Mai asked. "What do you think?"
I leaned back in my seat, swaying in time to the movement of the carriage. "I'm impressed. Last time I saw this it was a lot of icicles. This is... quite beautiful. Where does the water come from?"
She waved a shrug. "The river, I suppose."
Then how did they get the water pressure that high? Was there a pumping station just for these fountains? "Smither," I mused. "Is that related to Rraerch?"
"A Smither designed this," she gestured at the window. "I don't know if they're related. It's possible."
The carriage was turning off the square, still southbound. I guess they must have worked out a route beforehand, but now the road had changed to narrower streets. The cobbles were rougher and the buildings closer together: large buildings of brick, whitewashed plaster, even wood. There were a few small windows, the archways leading to the heart of the buildings usually open. I caught glimpses of the atriums those passageways opened onto, often with gardens, maybe statues, washing hanging out to dry. Once I saw a bedraggled and skinny Rris tucked away in the shadows of one of those tunnels, a ragged cloth pulled around its shoulders. It was rapidly rocking back and forth, not looking up as the carriage passed by. Elsewhere, Rris filled the streets, the sibilants of their conversation were a low backdrop to the clatterings of wheels and hooves on cobblestones.
"Is your home around here?" I asked Maithris.
"Here? No. I have a room across the river."
"Oh." The carriage hit a drain or some other rut in the road and we both caught at handgrips to keep from sliding across the upholstery. "Isn't that a long way to travel each day?"
Calm eyes blinked at me, not quite laughing. "I've been staying at the palace. Not quite as far to go."
"That does make more sense," I said, feeling a little foolish.
Outside, a congregation of Rris were gathered around a stall where a pair were bickering, their animated snarls carrying over the street sounds. Cubs ducked and darted around legs, dodging through traffic and pedestrians. There wasn't so much road traffic here, certainly not as much as back home. There were carts and wagons, but when they weren't present, the pedestrians used the roads as they willed. No sidewalks here; when there was traffic they just kept out of the way. The breeze blew in through the screens, bringing with it the smells of the Rris city: the scents of food cooking, fish frying, smells of animals and dung and sewers that perhaps weren't as good as they could have been.
The carriage paused, then turned left, and I saw we were travelling east along the riverside, the breeze carrying the smell of water and mud and fishing nets hanging out to dry. Not too far ahead was the first (last?) of the bridges across the river. Behind us... somewhere there'd be that isolated quayside from where I'd swum for my life.
"Is that the market?" I asked Mai, pointing at the jumble of colors and movement across the river.
"There?" her pupils dilated as she looked. "Ah. One of them. Fellwood Square market. We're bound that way."
A boat was setting out from the wharves, a small fishing vessel. Crewmembers pushed off with poles until the current caught the prow, swinging it downstream. Sideboards were dropped, stained and patched sails were run up the mast and the boom swung around, the small vessel listing slightly as it tacked further out into the main channel. Then the carriage swung onto the bridge and the boat was lost from sight.
"Redmale Bridge," Mai told me. "It's the newest of the four bridges. Built about twelve years ago."
The cadence of wheels on cobbles changed to a hollower sound as we hit the flagstones. Wide enough for two lanes with sidewalks and stone balustrade. Gas lamps hung from ornate iron lamp posts, one about every twenty-five meters. A pair of Rris were working on one: a Rris up a the ladder passing the glass cover down to an associate on the ground.
How many Rris does it take to change a lightbulb?
I smiled slightly and shook my head at the thought.
"Something wrong?" Mai asked.
"No," I said. "No... it's just that... Sometimes I see things that're almost familiar. I just find it... out of place."
"You don't expect to see them?"
"There's that. But also, they seem so human. Seeing a Rris doing it..."
"I don't know. I know it's what you always do, but it just feels odd."
She looked out the window on her side, eastward toward the heart of the town. "You're still not used to us, are you?"
"I'm not sure I ever will be."
The sound of the wheels changed again as the coach left the bridge. Off to the right was Fellwood Square market. Tents and stalls and awnings were everywhere, a garish circus of brightly colored cloth, patched cloth, patterns faded by sunlight. A lot of the stalls had signs painted on them, a few of which I was able to read: fish, wood, dairy products, tools... Rris moved among the stalls, Rris of all colors and shapes and sizes, talking, shouting, wheeling and dealing. Animals added their noises to the din, poultry screeching and draft animals lowing as they were displayed and examined. A peddler approached the carriage, waving pieces of cloth from a tray around his neck. A guard on llamaback appeared from where they'd been following and headed the merchant off.
I watched all this, glimpsing Rris life through a window. As the carriage moved these things were being lost out of sight again. I was barely scratching the surface, there were depths to that market I'd never know.
I hesitated, then touched Maithris' leg. "Can we stop here? I'd like to see this."
She looked taken aback. "You want to get out?"
"Mikah," she looked out the window at the Rris there, then at me again. "That would be dangerous."
"Do you think it would cause a riot?"
"I don't know. I..."
"Neither do I," I told her. "I would like to. I'd like to know if I'll ever be able to walk down a street without causing a riot. I'd like to know if I can at least show my face in a public place, if I can lead something approaching a normal life."
She stared at me.
"Please," I asked. I didn't know what else to say.
For a second she didn't move, then reached up to tap on a small hatch. It flipped open and she said something to the coachman. The carriage rattled to a halt and a mounted guard rode up to Mai's window. Not Blunt. "Ma'am? There a problem?"
"We're getting out," she said.
I saw the guard glance toward the market. Already passerbys were glancing our way. "Ma'am? That's..."
Mai hissed something: low and fast. The guard's ears flattened, then it ducked its head in acknowledgement and reined the llama around.
"Thank you," I told her.
The Rris doctor turned to me, her eyes trying to read my face. I'd asked, but I still felt fear, something I tried to hide and I don't know if I was altogether successful. "You're sure about this?" she asked.
"I think so."
"Think so," she sighed. "Mikah, I know you've been through this before, but you'll have to be careful."
"I know," I said and ticked off the points on my fingers: "Stay calm, move slowly, be polite, and don't smile."
She patted my knee, "I couldn't have put it better myself. You ready?"
"As ready as I'll ever be."
Maithris opened the door and looked around before stepping out. She hardly touched the step on her way to the ground, touching down as lightly as if she'd just stepped off a staircase instead of a half-metre drop. I followed, more slowly and the four guards closed in around us. I saw the squad leader give Mai a meaningful look that she shrugged off by simply turning her back. "Come on, Mikah."
I walked beside her as we crossed the street. A wagon rattled by on the other side of the road, heading back toward the bridge. The driver gave us a passing glance, then did a double take that under other conditions would have been hilarious. As it was his team veered and he had to haul them back on course or run into the market.
The reaction of the Rris wasn't too different from what I'd expected, from what I'd received before in Westwater and Lying Scales and numerous small settlements. Rris saw me, gawped, hissed urgently to their companions, and the turning heads spread through the crowd like ripples from stones dropped into water. I felt a touch on my arm and looked down; Mai smiled and gave me a reassuring squeeze.
Rris melted aside like ice from hot water as we entered the outskirts of the market. I couldn't be sure if it was the sight of me that did it or the quad of armed guards around us. I stared as much as the Rris did, trying to take in as much as I could. The sounds, the colors, scents... everything richer than I'd imagined: a living tapestry of infinite depth, infinite variety.
But for the Rris at my side, I'd never have seen this.
A Ris at one of the larger stalls stepped back as we approached, staring at me with wide eyes but not willing to desert the stand. I stopped to look at the wares on display. Cutlery laid out in rows: bowls and utensils, lathed plates, wooden spoons shaped for Rris mouths. Hanging from the awning were more elaborate products: spoon handles embraced by carved Rris and animal shapes, pointillation patterns on pewter bowls. The owner didn't make any move to try and sell me anything.
We moved on and the crowd kept shifting, new Rris moving to stare while other shifted away. There were a few calls of, "Hai! What's that?"
"Where'd you get the pet?"
Things like that. We ignored them and if anyone got too excited, a hard look from a heavily armed guard usually calmed them down.
Elsewhere there were stalls selling meats, grain products, tools and utensils, pots and pans, and odds and ends that I could rightly identify. Vendors displayed samples of their crafts to advertise their services, everything from furniture to roof tiles. Enclosures held animals of various kinds, adding their noise and smells to the crowd. Rris dickered over wagons piled with stacks of milled lumber or quarried rocks. I noticed a small stall displaying grooming equipment and curiously headed in that direction. Mai looked around and hurried to join me.
Two Rris were behind the counter: a youth gaped at me and hurridly whispered to the older - much older - Rris in a dark brown tunic and seated in a rickety-looking chair. The younger one broke off and took several steps backward as I approached, looking absolutely terrified with eyes wide and fur bottling. I ignored the youth and looked over the stuff on display. A selection of leather kits without tools in them, they were laid out separately: scissors, combs, brushes, knives and tweezers. Simple and functional wood and metal.
"I hear you've got an unusual pet," the elder Rris said. I looked up, startled. It... she? seemed to be addressing me. Then I saw her eyes: milky white. Blind, her ears twitching.
In afterthought, I probably shouldn't have, but before Mai could say anything I offered, "Yes. Quite unusual."
Mai stopped with her mouth open and gaped up at me, then her ears flickered and she had to turn away to smother a chitter.
"A. My eyes here said it seems quite fearsome."
"Oh, he knows how to behave," I said. Behind us the sound of the crowd had changed subtly as Rris stopped to witness this exchange.
"Good to hear," the old one said, then cocked her head slightly, those white eyes tracking across me. "If I may be so bold, you sound very... unusual. Are you ill?"
"Ah. A condition I've had from birth," I said. Well, it wasn't a lie.
"Huhn." She opened her mouth and licked a whitened muzzle. "Forgive me for mentioning it. I have a similar [affliction]." A bony arm with threadbare fur gestured at her eyes. "You are interested in my wares?"
"You made these?"
A dry chitter. "Myself? I can't tell night from day. No, I just sell to discriminating people such as yourself."
Mai looked like she was choking. The youngling watched wide-eyed.
"How much for brush and three combs? Those, near the back."
"Ah, good choice," she said. "Those... eight heads. Each."
I looked at Maithris. "Is that a lot?"
Still smiling, she glanced at the brushes. "I'd pay four. Each."
The blind Rris frowned and turned towards Mai's voice. "What's that? Who's that? Eyes! You said there was a lady and her pet."
"There are," the youth squeaked.
"He takes exception to that word," Mai said. "Three heads."
"How much is a head?" I asked.
"Fifty heads to a gold," she said.
"Good lady," the blind Rris appealed, "what is going on?"
"Okay," I said. That gave me some idea of just how much I was being paid now. Ten golds was... quite a lot by their standards. "Thank you for your time," I told the stall owner.
She gaped, then bared teeth that were still quite white. "What are you?"
"Curious," I said and walked off. Arguing voices rose from behind me.
Mai was at my side. "I thought you wanted to buy that."
I shrugged. "I don't have any money."
Now she looked surprised. "But you're being paid..."
"Yes, I just haven't been given any. I haven't really needed it."
She glanced around, watching a Rris who'd passed by quite close to us, then flicked her ears. "Rot it, they've set up a [something] for you. I should've thought they wouldn't give you [something] cash."
I turned that over, then had to say, "I didn't understand that."
A savings account, she explained. Or something close to that. My pay was most likely handled by the treasury. Unlike back home where my money probably wouldn't exist anywhere but in a computer, my pay would be in cash stored in the treasury strongboxes. Fair enough, but it'd be handy if some of that could be handed on to me.
"I'll see to it," she assured me.
We both looked around. A Rris hurried toward us, then hastily backpedalled when two guards stepped between us. "Maithris?" the Rris called eyeing the guards uncertainly.
"Hai! It's all right," she called and the guards reluctantly stepped aside. The stranger returned their wary stares and sidled past. "Eserét! Good meeting!"
"Good meeting indeed. Maithris, nobody's heard anything from you for weeks. Now... Where've you been? What's all this? And what is that?"
She chittered, "Ah, I've been busy."
"So busy you couldn't at least have let people know you were alive?" the newcomer asked, still staring at me. Male, it was a fairly safe bet; With fur the color of straw, white chest fur with a peppering of black vanishing into the waistband of a pair of somewhat stained brown leather breeches. His left ear was also black, the gold ring threaded through the edge a startling contrast.
"A job," Mai replied. "It came up quite unexpectedly. I didn't have time for farewells."
"Huhn. People were worried. But what were you doing? It has something to do with... this?" he looked me up and down. His eyes were a cutting green: not so common amongst Rris.
"Something, yes," she said. "Oh, and this has a name. Mikah, this is Eserét. He's an old friend."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," I said.
His ears sagged like limp dishcloths. "It talks," he said in a small voice.
I thought I saw Blunt snigger.
"A," Maithris gave me a resigned little smile, "he talks. His name's Mikah: my charge for the time."
"Charge?" he echoed. "You mean patient? That?"
"Don't be like that," Mai said, then looked thoughtfully at me. "He does take a little getting used to."
"Who?" I asked. "He or I?"
She chittered and slapped my arm in mock-reproach, then she glanced around at the growing crowd, frowned, then said to Eserét, "Come on, walk with us."
He hadn't taken his eyes off of me, even while we started walking. "Maithris... what is... he?"
"A friend," she said, and those words twanged a string inside me. "He's a h'an, something like that."
"So you're a vet now?"
Her ears laid back a bit and she waved a 'no'. "It's not like that. He's not an animal. Just... different."
Eserét cocked his head. "This has something to do with those ideas you were trying to [something]?"
"A bit," she said, and the expression her face was almost smugness.
"Hai, so you're going to collect from Chesai? That's not going to please him any."
Mai's face pursed up in a smile. "I'd forgotten about that."
"He'll certainly be trying to."
She smiled again, "I'll make sure he doesn't."
"I'd like to see that," Eserét said glancing at me again, then at the guards. "Does this has something to do with the Palace?"
"He's a guest there."
"And all their lordships who've been pouring in?"
"Not unrelated," she said. "There're a lot of people who want to talk with Mikah."
"Talk? About what?"
She waved a shrug. "Ideas," she said.
Confusion tipped his head. "He has a lot of those?"
A low rumble sounded from her, and she flashed me a quick sidelong glance, a small smile, "A, yes. He does. He hasn't seen much of the city though, so I thought he needed a guide for our trails."
"Ah. Anyplace in mind?"
"I don't know. Hai, Mikah, have you tried a roast tail before?"
"Roast tail?" I echoed somewhat dubiously, glancing at her own limb. "Uhm, I don't believe so."
She chittered amusement at my misunderstanding. "No, not that. It's just a name. Come on, I'll show you."
I smelt the stall before I saw it. One of those scents that reaches in through your nostrils and grabs your tastebuds. I wasn't the only one: I saw Eserét lick his chops as we approached. It was a wagon with a green fabric awning and three metal grills set over glowing coals on the cobbles outside. Whole haunches of animal meat were hanging from the wagon, more lay in sizzling rows on those grills. A pair of Rris were working with knives at a cutting block, cubing meat. The finished products were kept on stone warming slabs near the fires.
"Kebabs," I blinked.
"What?" Mai and Eserét said at the same time.
"You call them tail roast? My kind calls them something else."
Mai forestalled Eserét's obvious questions, "You like them? Yes? Come on."
The cooks gaped at me and I saw fingers flexing on the knives. I was very careful to look as unthreatening as I possibly could. Mai had to attract their attention then repeat her request twice before one of them backed over to place a stick back on the burner, then provided her and Eserét with a stick of diced meat. Two heads apiece. She fished in a small pouch at her belt and came up with some thin coppery-hued coins, counted them over carefully into a black palm-pad. The Rris clenched a fist around them and tucked them away into his own belt pouch, then pulled back to take the cooking stick off the grill. Mai accepted it from him, then handed it on to me.
A bit charred on the outside; pink on the inside. Sweet meat, with a slight tang and some pieces were tough to chew. I wondered just how long the meats had been hanging there without refrigeration and was doubly glad of the extra cooking. The sanitation didn't seem to concern Mai who was ripping into her's with gusto, champing away openmouthed on chunks of meat. Eserét was just as voracious in his consumption of the kebab, but he watched me while I worked at mine.
"You like that?" he asked after a while, speaking directly to me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mai's head come up, ears alert.
"It's good," I said, held up the kebab: the stick was a splinter, looked like it'd been hewn off a larger piece of wood. "What is it?"
"Ah... venison, I believe." He glanced around, as if thinking, I can't believe I'm having this conversation... "Do you know what that is?"
"I know," I said.
He ducked his head, worked on another mouthful, then looked at Mai, "I can owe you for this?"
"Why not?" She said. "You always have."
He looked a bit surprised. "So agreeable? You must be being well [something]."
Again she was faintly evasive. "I can feed myself."
I took another mouthful, looked around again at the gawping Rris. Somewhere along the way we'd picked up an entourage of cubs: a half-dozen animate bundles of fur with outsized hands and feet scurrying after us, high-pitched yips and snarls ringing above the other noises of the market as they shouted and laughed, skittering around and staring at me. I restrained an urge to throw them pieces of meat. A cub who didn't look any older than Feher or Chine had darted past my legs and away between the guards. Mai aimed a swat that never came anywhere close and the cub ducked away, chittering while its friends shouted encouragement. I turned to look at them and beyond them the crowd shifted and I saw a Rris staring at me.
Tan clothing and brown, fawn fur, wide copper eyes. Something fell into place. Not so much the features but the stance, the expression, a flash of green stone before the crowd shifted again and closed around the individual. I kept staring. I felt I knew that Rris, and that knowledge stirred something else inside: a nervousness... no, something more than that; something that sent a cold chill right through me. I dropped my kebab.
"Mikah!" Mai hissed, then looked up at me and abruptly sobered. "Mikah? What is it?"
"Did you see..." I started to say but the Rris was gone.
"What?" Mai pressed.
"I saw... I thought I saw..." Other Rris shifted around, more hot amber eyes staring at me, the noises around me not sounding like any language I knew.
I shook myself, looked into another inhuman face and I heard the blood pulse in my ears several times before something clicked and it was Maithris there, not just an alien.
And something in her face shifted also. "I think maybe we should go back now. Mikah?" The guards were watching me doubtfully.
I nodded faintly. "I..." I took a deep breath that helped a little. "Yes."
Her face set: "You've had enough. Eserét, it's been good seeing you."
He looked a little affronted, "Something I did?"
"No. No. Not you. Give my best to the pack, a?"
"I'll do that," he said and Mai handed him her food then took my arm, leaving Eserét staring after us with a kebab in each hand as the crowd slowly filled in around him again. Her sense of direction was good, better than mine; I was lost as she led the way through the maze of stalls and merchandise, cutting around and between stands. The market thinned, the press of Rris ebbing until we rounded a corner and saw the carriage waiting on the street alongside a cast-iron lamp post.
Rris voices were shouting outside as I sat back on the upholstered seat, leaned my head back and closed my eyes. Presently the carriage rocked, the door closed and we started off. A couple of minutes and the only sounds were the wheels on cobblestones, the sounds of the city outside. Then a hand touched my knee: "Mikah?"
I didn't look, just said to the blackness behind my eyes, "I'm sorry."
A snort. "There's nothing to be sorry about." Then there was another silence before she asked, "What happened out there?"
I sighed, rolled my head around to look at her: huddled up into her corner of the carriage, hugging her knees with feet on the upholstery. "I thought I saw... I saw a Rris I thought I recognised."
"I don't know," I said.
"You might have seen them around the Palace."
Again: "I don't know. I don't think so."
She studied me again. "It frightened you, didn't it."
I remembered what those feelings were, looking at Mai and seeing nothing but an animal for that split second, and I felt ashamed. "It was... It was a reminder of where I am."
Her ears flickered. "You forgot?"
I gave her a small smile. "Sometimes you seem almost human."
"I'll take that as a compliment, thank you," her features pursed in a slight smile in return. Outside, the wheels rang hollowly on the bridge flagstones. Maithris caught my glance at the window. "I thought it might be better if we started back."
I almost started to protest, then nodded resignedly.
"It's not going anywhere," she assured me. "There'll be time enough."
Through the window grills behind her ornate street lamps kept time, passing by outside as the carriage progressed. Away on the horizon a boat unfurled sails: white sheets billowing into a stiff breeze.
End Light on Shattered Water 23