Light on Shattered Water
Through the window I saw the helmeted head of the guard at the shipyard gates turning to follow the carriage as we passed by. Animal hooves and wheels clattered on stone as we drew to a halt and then guards were there to open the door. I stepped down, blinking in the morning light as I looked around. The shipyard hadn't really changed much: there were still the brick walls and the wooden sheds, a few boats in docks and more under construction on the quayside. The sound of hammering rang out across the courtyard from one of the cradles where Rris were working on the superstructure; another was smearing something thick and tarry on hull planks. I set off along that familiar walk toward the workshops, the guards falling in behind me.
Smoke hazed the air inside the buildings. Sunbeams from the high windows transfixed it as phantom wisps wound in the draughts. As soon as I stepped inside I could smell burning charcoal, wood, hot metal. A few Rris workers moved around inside the shop, shadows through smoke and twilight: bent over workbenches, a steady ringing of metal on metal rising from where one was laboring at a small forge. The boat was nestled at the head of the slipway, the boards of the hull polished far more than I'd remembered and now with twin fluted smokestacks rising from the stern. They'd been doing some work.
A Rris figure vaulted out of the boat onto the scaffold, then down to the ground in a fluid movement like quicksilver on marble. "Suppuration take it, Mikah! It's been too long," Chaeitch called as he came over. "Where've you been hiding yourself?"
I stared: the fur covering the left side of his face, chest and left arm was crisped to short curls. Black grease covered his hands. "What happened to you?"
"Ah?" he looked down at himself. "Oh, a bit of trouble with one of those furnaces you were talking about."
"Just about lit yourself up like a candle, you mean." Rraerch appeared around the boat's prow. "A bit longer and you'd end up looking like Mikah."
"Then it wasn't all bad," I said and Chaeitch flicked a mock-glower at me.
A time of greeting and catching up. They hadn't been told exactly what had happened to me. They'd heard there'd been another attempt on my life, but that was the all of it. I didn't enlighten them, but Chaeitch still noticed the scars on my wrist and gave me a faintly puzzled look.
Then it was their turn to show me around the workshop and the boat. I was surprised at what they'd achieved while I was gone. There was a centrifugal governor on the steam line now. The finishing on pipes and joints was of a much higher quality than the prototype I'd last seen; polished brass fittings, varnished wood, a cast-iron boilerplate with a Rris head moulded around the door. No less than eight props were stacked round against walls and on the benches: all slightly different designs and sizes. Different models they'd been trialing. One thing I noticed that they didn't explain were the steam lines running to the foredeck. They weren't connected to anything but had sockets where something could be plugged in, along with reinforcing on the deck. I asked.
"A [something]," Chaeitch told me, then saw I didn't understand. "For lifting heavy loads. Nets." He made winding motions with his hands. Ah, a winch or a crane. Interesting idea.
Improved alloys and tools meant that just about every piece of the boat and engine had been refitted at least twice. Stacks of old pipes were waiting to be carted back to the forges and melted down; bits of plating littered the workbenches; I recognised what had once been hoops securing the old boiler hanging from the walls.
Chaeitch had been working down inside the open hull. The top was off the gearbox, the planks alongside littered with papers covered with sketches and notes. The mechanism was a sliding-gear transmission, more complex than it'd been the last I'd seen it. "We tried stepping up the [ratios]," Chaeitch said. "The mills didn't seem to work as well at high speed."
Mills? That's what they were calling them. As in 'windmill'. And cavitation would be a problem, especially at high speed with propellers that were doubtless of less than optimal design. Nevertheless, what they'd done was still impressive.
Later, I joined the Rris up in Chaeitch's little office. The grimy window still hadn't been cleaned, giving a sepia-tinge to the light filtering through. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and not for the first time I wondered if Chaeitch had ever even thought about getting a cleaning service in.
Still, the desk and cushions were clean enough. Rraerch settled bonelessly to her cushion beside mine, hooking a leg across the other while on the other side of the low desk, Chaeitch produced a bottle from a drawer and laid it on the blotter. A trio of glasses followed.
I frowned. "I'm not supposed to..."
"I know what they said," Chaeitch said as glass clinked on glass. "They can go piss into the wind. Have a drink."
Rraerch lifted her glass and readily did as he suggested. I sipped mine, then took a longer pull. "I thought this would be a good one for those rare occasions," Chaeitch said. "And this seems as appropriate as any."
"Where've you been, anyway?" Rraerch asked. "It's been difficult getting an answer out of anyone. I heard there was a disturbance during a banquet. A foreigner attacked you? Something like that?"
"No," I shook my head and looked down into my wine: swirling ruby liquid. I shuddered. "No. Not that. I... I was ill."
"I see they got you your own personal physician," Rraerch smiled.
"Ah," Chaeitch chittered then. "And a nice thing she is too."
"Hnn? You found yourself a lover, Mikah?" Rraerch smiled and twitched her ears. Teasing: I felt a hot flush prickling around the back of my neck and hastily took another drink.
"Is that all you can ever think about?" Chaeitch berated her.
"You know, I do believe it is," she responded cheerfully, raising her cup again.
He snorted and made a gesture toward her, a mock slashing movement without claws extruded, then asked me, "Who is she anyway?"
"Her name's Maithris. I met her a while back; after that attack on the carriages."
"Hnn?" He looked surprised. "That one? How did she come to be looking after you? I'd have thought the Palace would have all the physicians it needs."
I shrugged. "I'm not entirely sure myself. She requested it."
Ears went up. "She likes you?" Chaeitch asked, then caught Rraerch's look. "Ah, sorry. I didn't mean it to sound like that."
"I know," I smiled slightly. "I felt the same way. It's not... usual."
"A, you do take some getting used to," he said and Rraerch chittered and asked, "So, you like her?"
Again I glanced for answers in my drink and looked up to questioning faces: "Yes. I do. I think I've been alone too long."
"Helps to have friends," Rraerch murmured, then reached out and a clawed hand gently patted my knee. "Hai, you may look different, but inside there, you're a good person." She lapped a sip from her glass then cocked her head and studied me thoughtfully. "There are a lot of Rris I couldn't say as much for."
I had to smile. "Thank's."
"Careful," Chaeitch warned me, "I think she's getting warm for you."
And Rraerch snorted into her drink. "And you say my mind's on the mattress. Beside, he's got himself female companionship for the moment."
"Hey, We're just good friends," I said.
"That's one name for it, I suppose," Rraerch smiled at me over the lip of her glass.
Not serious. I'd realised that quicky enough; just an exchange of banter and some innuendo. The drink probably did its bit, but I found myself relaxing with the Rris and it didn't matter what they looked like, I was just sitting back enjoying a good drop with some friends. Eventually, the conversation meandered around to more serious matters: the current work and ideas for the near future.
The boat would be making its maiden voyage in a few months, after a few more trials. Not too far: along the lake network to an as-yet undisclosed destination. Chaeitch was also interested in converting the engine for use on a railroad. I learned that the idea had already been tried by the Rris. Already there were over a dozen miles of line running out of Blizzard's Coat over on lake Tailtied along with some old-model engines. The project had met with limited success, as the engines couldn't handle gradients of even .25, so they were only used for ferrying heavy goods to and from the docks and along the Blizzard [Niagara] river. Now Rraerch was petitioning for government subsidies in expanding that line along the Blizzard river toward Shattered Water.
Still, the pair had their reins. Both Chaeitch and Rraerch were working to an agenda dictated by higher powers: the Palace, their shareholders and sponsors. Steam engines were high on that list, as were other power supplies. Chaeitch was trying to get a grip on understanding electrical power, something that'd require more time before any serious projects could be attempted, but he had plans for an experimental telegraph system. Rraerch had funding to produce a series of hulls and steam engines, larger than the current test bed and with more power, cargo space and capabilities. She asked about hull construction techniques, also about our use of sails. I think she was slightly disturbed to learn that apart from recreational use, they didn't play much of a part in my society at all. For a person from a culture where the wind and water are the lifeblood of society I guess that the news that windpower can be superseded might be a little upsetting.
And that afternoon, after a bit of talk and more than a bit of alcohol in the form of a very palatable wine, I realised that there was no reason I couldn't change other things. And they didn't have to be as dry and indifferent as metal and wood.
First came the sound of voices outside, a familiar chitter of laughter, then the scratch at the door.
I looked up from the papers on the desk and stretched with the warmth of the afternoon sun on my back, then glanced at my watch: right on time. "It's open," I called.
"I'd be surprised if it was otherwise," came the cheerful reply as Maithris poked her head around. "What does your kind say? He'o?"
"Hello yourself," I greeted her as she came in. "Grab a seat. I'll just be a minute."
Maithris sat down opposite, watching as I carefully dipped a quill in the inkwell and scratched a few words on the paper. "What're you doing anyway?"
"Trying to use this damn pen," I grumbled as I finished the sentence, sprinkled a pinch of absorbant sand on the paper and funneled it back into the pot. I sat back and glumly surveyed my somewhat blotchy work. "I think I need more practice."
She also tipped her head, trying to see. "That's your writing?"
I nodded. "My name. I'm not so good at your kind. Anyway, it's just some ideas I wanted to keep straight in my head."
She blinked at me, maybe trying to see those ideas, then gave a small twitch of her ears. "You've been busy lately? I haven't seen a hair of you for what... Two days now?"
"Down at the shipyards again," I said.
"Sai," now she smiled. "I hear you're quite friendly with those two."
"You seem to hear a lot."
"With these?" She raised both hands to brush her tufted ears back, letting them spring back into place like a pair of Weebles, "How could I not?"
I had to grin at that and she affected a stern expression and motioned toward her mouth: I hastily rearranged my smile. "Anyway," she continued, "I also heard you wanted to see me about something."
"Yes." I glanced down at my hands, suddenly feeling awkward. She watched me, and with those amber eyes it was quite disconcerting. "I've got some time to myself now. I wondered if you'd like to watch some of the... plays I've got. Plays from my kind?"
She looked a bit surprised, then amusement pursed her features. "Of course. That'd be fun. Why'd you even have to ask?"
I gave an awkward shrug. "I don't know. I just thought you might have had something more important to do. Or you just didn't want to..."
"Enough," she chuckled, holding up a hand. "No, please. It sounds interesting. I haven't seen much of your kind. What kind of play?"
I just swept my hand toward the laptop: "Your choice."
So a few minutes later she was ensconced at the desk, the laptop screen propped in front of her while she scrolled through the movie preview icons. I crouched beside her and answered questions:
"What's this one?"
"Ah, that's about a man who'd been a crippled as a soldier in a small, insignificant war. Now he works as a servant for a rich household. The story is about how he tries to... impress a woman who's already... taken by another man." Concepts I'd grown up with simply didn't translate into Rris.
Muzzle wrinkled and head tipped thoughtfully, then the next icon.
"Hai! Those look like Rris."
Hmm, the old Lion King. "Not quite. They are not-real characters. Animals shown to behave like people. It's a story for cubs, but it's also fun for elders; about growth and change and responsibilities and a people's place in the world."
"Animals?" She leaned forward to squint at the screen. "They look like people. Ah, they're the ones you told me about."
She cocked her head the other way. "Sounds quite intriguing. And what's this one?"
The scratch at the door interrupted my reply. Mai's head came up, her ears alert, "Who's that?"
"Don't worry," I smiled. "Just food. Good timing too."
She looked surprised, then interested as I answered the door. The Rris servant waiting there with the trolley ducked its head and watched me carefully. "I'll take it," I said and the servant backed off, looking a bit confused as I pulled the trolley inside and closed the door. The tray on the cart was silver, as was the cover, with a handle formed by a pair of entwined silver swan heads. Mai was standing, sniffing the air as I wheeled the trolley back and presented it to her, "I just thought we could use something to eat. Let's see if they got it right."
Raised the lid with a flourish. Hot steam and a mouthwatering familiar aroma rose into the air; Mai pulled her head back, looking almost comically startled.
"First time I've had pizza on a silver platter," I mused. "Doesn't look too bad."
Pizza. Jumbo sized. Already sliced. Tomato sauce, cheese, carefully selected garnishings and a plethora of meats. All laid out on a huge platter among silverware, fine china plates and fingerbowls with intricate gold and blue patterns. Maithris ran a shockingly pink tongue around her chops, then asked me, "What is that? A dish of your kind?"
"Sort of," I said. "A tradition. Something to eat while watching plays. If they got it right, that side should be cooked more to your taste."
She took the offered plate - somewhat dubiously - sniffed, then picked up the piece: awkwardly, considering the size of it. A lump of topping slid off the base and fell to the plate, but she managed a mouthful, chewed in the openmouthed way of all Rris, then swallowed and licked crumbs and cheese from the fur around her mouth: "It's good," was her verdict.
"Glad you approve," I smiled, then gestured at the laptop, "Shall we?"
"Certainly," she bowed, then took another bite from her pizza, licking her chops again. "And bring the rest of this stuff, ah?" Barely understandable through that mouthful.
The first film she settled on was - ironically enough - The Lion King. I wasn't too certain how she'd take it and kept an eye on her as the opening credits rolled. When she first saw the characters a visible flinch jolted her and she leaned forward, watching as the animated cubs romped.
"Do you want me to tell you what they're saying?" I asked.
"Huhn?" She cocked her head, considering, then tipped her hand. "Ah. No, thank you. Just watch I think."
So we did. Settled ourselves on the floor with a few pillows as cushions and leaning back against the foot of the bed. She sprawled out, bonelessly, her legs splayed and claws hooked into the carpet while the tray of pizza was sitting handy between us. The stuff wasn't half bad actually: the crust was different and the cheese had an unusual flavour, but all in all it was quite palatable. Besides, it was good to have a taste of home again, and this was as close as I'd been for a long time: Watching movies with a friend and eating junk food. All right, so there were a few niggling differences, such as the nature of my companion; but hey, those I could live with.
Anyway, Mai wasn't such an unappealing companion. I glanced across at her as she smiled, laughed at scenes that tickled her in some way, munched away on slices of pizza. A friend. No matter what she resembled, I liked her. If only she were...
No, that was getting into dangerous territory. A borderland where it might be possible to cross for a time, but anything beyond that was impossible. I'd been there once before and I didn't need it again, but it wasn't so easy to close the doors on those emotions.
I watched her wince as flames rose on the screen and Scar vanished for the last time. Yeah, he was scum, but he had style. The final credits scrolled onto the screen and her ears went back, "What's this?"
"The play's over. The names of the people who made this."
She watched for a few seconds. "There're a lot of them."
"It takes a lot of work to make something like that."
"Ah," She rubbed her muzzle, "I suppose it would. I wouldn't know where to start." Then she stretched her legs: one at a time, her peculiar feet pointed and quivering, held for a short time then lowered. "Sai. That was intended for cubs?"
"That was the idea. A lot of adults enjoy it though."
"All that for cubs. It was very..." She seemed to hunt for words, then said, "Mild, I think would be the word. No hunting, no blood. Violence was hidden. Real fighting is quite different. And no sex or real excitement."
I blinked. I'd never looked on it that way. What were Rris plays like? "It was intended for children."
She cocked her head. "So you said. You have different standards?"
"I don't think anyone makes entertainments especially for cubs. Maybe toys and songs and there are books for education, but not plays."
Maithris waved a shrug. "The [something] are trying to make money. I dare say it would cost more to produce such a show than it would earn. Anyway, if they can they simply go to the ones that are showing."
"Do you have age limits for plays?"
She looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"Uhn... are there age restrictions? I mean, plays where only Rris over a certain age are allowed in?"
Now surprise widened her eyes. "What? Of course not. I think the idea is to try and attract as many people as possible. You mean your kind do that?"
I nodded. "As you said, that film doesn't show violence or sex. Cubs' films don't."
It was her turn to ask, "Why?"
"It can be... disturbing. We try to keep them from... what is the word? Unpleasantness?"
She chittered at that. "Sex? Unpleasant?"
I shrugged slightly, "There are things they should learn about when they're a bit older."
"Huhn," she mulled that over, then flickered her ears and her muzzle pursed in a smile. "The differences between us run a lot deeper than simply looks, a?"
I returned a tight smile that I didn't entirely feel. "I'd noticed."
"Yes," she said slowly and then hesitated, looking to the screen where the Disney logo sedately rotated. "I suppose you would have," she said in a small voice, then smiled again. "Well, perhaps we could have a look at another play? Is there one you think's particularly good?"
So, I showed her through some of the other films on the cards, translating the synopses for her until she picked one. Basic Instinct isn't my favourite film, in fact there're a lot I'd choose before that one: the only reason I had it on record was because I wanted to grab the leg-crossing scene and splice Elliot's head onto it. Don't ask: private joke. Still, it was her choice. Anyway, there'd be plenty of time to see the rest.
We finished the pizza in the first quarter. Mai watching wide-eyed and absently gnawing her way through slice after slice. Maybe the Lion King was entertaining, but it really didn't show anything of back home. Basic Instinct though, that had the cars and buildings, gadgetry and conveniences, the people, the sex and the murder. When the clothes came off Mai's ears went up. Then she said, "Oh."
A bit later, above the soundtrack from the bed: "That's a female, isn't it."
"But what's she... Huhn..." She trailed off and just stared with her head cocked and jaw slightly open.
She watched, and I could see confusion on her face as the film went on. Things like the car chases, the telephone conversations, they all needed explanations. I gave them when she asked, but for the most part she was content to watch the characters, all their running to and fro. Still, there was a reason that film had been so controversial, and that held just as much mystery for Maithris. I know a lot of it went right over her head: nuances and hints that I could read readily enough simply didn't register with her. The notorious leg-crossing scene however, did elicit a confused expression, as did the final sex scene.
Mai blinked, then her ears tipped back. "Mikah," she asked slowly. "Why does she tie his hands? Is that... common?"
"Not uncommon. It's a... game. Showing dominance."
"Huhn," a low growl was all the opinion she offered as she watched Sharon Stone riding her partner, then: "Doesn't that hurt? I mean, [something] him like that?"
I remembered similar scenes with Jackie and gave a small chuckle, "Hurt? No." I didn't know what Rris male physiology was like in those areas, but by now I was quite sure it was considerably different from mine. "No. It's quite enjoyable."
She glanced at me, then back to the screen. Her ears laid back a little but she didn't say anything more until the titles ran. For a few seconds she blinked at them, then leaned back and stretched her arms out. "Your world... It's really like that? Those vehicles and buildings... so many paved roads. To hear you speak about it is one thing, but to see it..." she broke off and scratched at her neck. "Hai, I suppose to you it's quite normal."
"Ah, these plays," I gestured at the laptop, "usually... ah, try to make things look more interesting than they really are. It's as real as any story can be."
Mai just leaned back, staring up at the ceiling. "The story was about dominance, wasn't it. Control. Not just in the sex, but in their lives. That female was teasing the male, letting him get so close but no further. He was trying to think he was leading the hunt, but she had him following trails leading nowhere. Letting him believe he was in control and using that mistaken belief to lead him like reins."
I looked at her, more than a little surprised. "I thought you couldn't speak my language."
The Rris doctor smiled. "I've seen enough of you and your expressions. I could understand some of theirs. A story about a state of mind; we have such, but I haven't heard of one so subtle. Using frustration as others might use a knife."
Sharon Stone, subtle? An alien with no understanding of the language and yet she'd picked out details I'd never considered. "You can see all that through expressions?"
She clicked teeth together in a snap at the air, then glanced sidelong at me. "They're something you have an abundance of. Once you're accustomed to them, they do say a lot about what goes on inside your head."
"Ah. And you're an expert on that, aren't you?" I teased.
"Perhaps in the differences," she retorted, then her pupils flickered to black in sudden distress and she turned away: suddenly interested in the outside sky. "It's getting dark. You think we'd have time to see another?"
I shrugged. "Sure. You like a drink? I'm afraid I can only offer water."
"Fine," she smiled and stretched a leg out, then pulled it back to her chest. "First though, I've got to urinate or something's going to burst."
While she was gone a menial came by to light the ceiling lamps, a touch with a burning taper on the end of a pole and the gas wicks glowed to life. The Rris servant ducked its head and left as silently as it had come. It didn't take long before the light drew the bugs, a half-dozen butting against the ceiling and lamps and more bouncing off windowpanes. I paused before closing the drapes, watching the last of the sun vanishing beyond the silhouette of treetops in the west: a darkening sky, the underbellies of high wind-streaked clouds painted sienna and salmon by the setting sun. Shadows fluttered against the sunset as a few late birds fluttered to their roosts in the trees.
"Something interesting out there?" the voice behind me asked.
"Just a pleasant evening." I closed the windows, drew the curtains and turned back to Mai, who finished tying the drawstring on her breeches before perching herself at the foot of the bed. "You don't find it a bit warm?" she asked.
I smiled at that and raised an eyebrow: "What do you think?"
She hissed softly and scratched at a temple with a clawtip. "Foolish question, a?"
"I've heard worse," I assured her. "Now, you've chosen a story you'd like to see?"
"I don't know..." she hesitated. "Are there any you find amusing?"
"Ah," I grinned and knelt down at the keyboard to begin sorting through some of my clip files. "I think I can help you there. I've got some plays that're considered classic humor."
"There's no color," she said as the preview icons appeared on the desktop.
"No. They're from a long time ago; before they could... show color. There's no talking either, but I don't think that's going to matter. They're from when my kind first started making plays like this, but they're still amusing." I shrugged. "At least I think they are. I'm not sure you'll think the same."
"I'll try to understand them," Mai patted my head then scrambled down to sit beside me as the film started. She stared. For a while she watched the screen and I saw her jaw twitch, then she shuddered and chittered once; then again; and again.
I don't know what was funnier: Chaplin's slapstick antics, or the furry felid rolling around in helpless spasms of laughter.
I'd spent enough time in the university, but this was the first time I'd actually gone in through the front door.
I sat back, watching with interest as the carriage turned and wrought-iron gates passed by outside as we entered the university grounds. Gravel crunched and rattled under iron-bound wheels as we followed the short avenue through the grounds, a sound that changed to a low rumble on the flagstones paving the sweeping drive directly outside the main buildings.
"I didn't know this place was so big," Mai said as she peered through the windows.
"You haven't been here?"
"Could never afford it," she shrugged. The carriage rocked to a halt and she patted my leg, "Ah, well. Come along."
I ducked out of the carriage after her and stood in front of the university building, squinting into bright sunlight reflecting from white-framed windows in the sandy brick facade. Either a new building or it'd been recently refurbished. There were Rris around, entering or leaving the building. A group on their way down the front steps stopped to gawp at me, moving aside as Mai and I passed them on our way to the front door.
It took a while to find the library. Two Rris we tried to ask didn't seem to want to stay around and talk. The first said it didn't know while the second uttered an inarticulate squeak and ran. Third time lucky: a group of seven younger Rris who didn't run. I heard their voices before they rounded a corner and stopped dead.
"Hai," Maithris took advantage of their surprise, "We're looking for Chirit ah Riers. You know where we might find him?"
They exchanged dubious looks, then one ventured, "Ah, his study's down the hall. Last door."
"Thank you," Mai smiled.
"Ah, sir," another Rris spoke up and I stopped, surprised that the Rris was addressing me. "Forgive my asking, but you know Rehichia wasn't very happy about what happened at his seminar?"
"No?" So, he'd found out. "Good. I can't say I was either."
"So we noticed." That muttered aside drew a couple of chitters.
"Sir?" another Rris student - small, slender build with light greyish fur peppered with black - watched me with green eyes. "Is what they say about you true?"
I carefully waved a Rris shrug. "I don't know. What do 'they' say?"
Chitters, and the Rris ducked its head. "You're an ape?"
"Ape." I chewed the word and smiled with restraint. "I'm an ape in the same way Rris are those skeletons Rehichia showed. It was a very long time ago."
"Ah. You look different." Eyes looked me up and down. "Don't you get cold without fur?"
I glanced at Mai, "Why does everyone ask that?"
Now she shrugged. "I really couldn't imagine. Now, I'm sorry, but Ah Riers probably doesn't want to wait around for the rest of the day. Mikah?"
"Yeah, you're right," I sighed and bade the students farewell: "Good meeting you."
"Ah, it was," the gray-furred one said as I walked off with Mai. Chitters rose from behind and I wasn't sure if they were making fun of me or not.
A claw nicked my arm. "Made a friend, a?" Mai smiled at me.
She snorted. "You saw. She was quite interested in you."
"She? That was a female?" I considered that for a second, then shrugged. "I suppose I am a bit more interesting to look at than most Rris."
Mai hissed and took a swipe at a wall, claws retracted so her fingertips just slapped wood. "She," she chittered. "Of course that was a female. You still can't tell? And by 'interested' I mean she looked like she might have wanted to try something that tastes a little different."
"She was looking for some spice, a?" Now she lolled her tongue at me.
"You mean it was sexual?"
"A," she smirked.
"You... she... She was coming on to me?" I looked back down the hall, but of course they were gone.
"Whatever that means," she said. "Why so surprised? Looking at your entertainments, it could be hard to imagine your kind thinks about anything else."
"Oh, very amusing," I growled and she laughed even as we reached the last door in the corridor. She scratched above the latch and a muffled reply sounded from inside.
The door squeaked a bit and I followed Maithris into gloom; bumped into her when she stopped inside to look around. Some light filtered in through a small window, the only light in a room that seemed to be papered with glass-fronted bookshelves. All of these were filled to overflowing with books, scrolls, and sheaves of parchment. What didn't fit into those shelves sought refuge on the desk opposite the door. Unusual: it wasn't one of the low desks that seemed the norm for Rris, one that required you to sit on a floor cushion. Instead, it looked like something that could have come straight out of a human executive's office, a huge old-looking thing fronted with heavy mahogany panels, the wood matching that of the two low chairs set before it. The desktop itself was lost beneath teetering stacks of leather-bound volumes and slim folios that formed a parapet around the edges of the desk from behind which a frazzled Rris' face looked up at us. "I was expecting you a while ago," Chirit said.
Maithris ducked her head. "Apologies, Sir. This place is bigger than I thought."
He chuckled softly. "Ah. Strangers can find it confusing. Mikah, I haven't seen you since Rehichia's seminar."
I sighed. "Everyone seems to remember that," I said.
"Huhn. Good to see that [something] fool have some of the air taken out of him," the elderly Rris snorted. I felt slightly confused: Kh'hitch had reamed me out for that tomfoolery, but most other Rris seemed far from bothered by it. "Be seated," he offered.
I had to pick up an armload of papers from my chair, looked around for a place to set it before finally placing it on the floor. The upholstery was worn, the stuffing so compacted that it felt like I was sitting on wood, save this wood had been shaped by inhuman rear ends. Not so comfortable. Mai also squirmed a bit and her tail looped out through a groove in the back.
"Now, business," Chirit continued. "You requested to see the archives?"
"Yes, sir," Maithris said and glanced at me. "Mikah, he has a question. I think the only answer might be here."
"And this question?"
"Has there ever been anything like him recorded? Anything nobody could explain?"
A slow exhalation of breath. "You're not the only one asking that. His highness has had a group working on that question for some time now. Plenty of strange happenings in the records, but as yet nothing like him."
I hadn't expected much more, but, "Perhaps I could look at a few," I offered. "I might recognise something... I don't know, I might see something that means more to me than it would to Rris."
He cocked his head and one hand came up to stroke his greying cheek tufts. "You believe there's much chance of that?"
I glanced at Mai, then looked away and shook my head. No, there wasn't much chance at all.
"Sir," she said. "There might be something that's been missed. There might be some scent that'll tell us what happened to him." Then she touched my arm and squeezed gently as she said, "He hasn't many other hopes."
Chirit ducked his head: "By all means." Then he stood, using the side of the desk to lever himself to his feet, growling a bit as he did so. "I can show you what we have, but there's so much to be sorted... it will take a long time."
He had a walking stick propped beside the desk, a tool he leaned heavily on and I saw his left hand and arm carried a long strip where the fur didn't grow. I guess I was staring because he said to me, "Altercation with someone who was a better bladesman than I. What about your face?"
"Altercation with someone who had bigger teeth than I," I said.
Chirit's head went back, the pupils of his eyes dilated to all but blot out the amber that was usually there. Maithris gave me a look and I realised then mentioning fighting Rris might not have been the smartest move. For a few seconds Chirit studied me, then relaxed and snorted. "Huhn. Come on."
It was just down the hall. A glass-panelled door that led down a short wooden staircase and along another hall. I caught glimpses of some of the rooms off to either side: storerooms they looked like, stacks of cloth, or boxes, bottles. A few workrooms with benches and tools hung carefully on the walls. The smell was musty, like dust and old leather and stronger, chemical scents. A utility corridor, the door at the end opening into the university library.
Not as ornate as the Palace library, it had a newer look and feel about it. The high ceiling and the upper walls were plastered and whitewashed, a brilliant white in the illumination from skylights. The main room was a rectangle with various antechambers and vestibules branching off down its length. Shelves filled all other available wall space. Dark wood and brass railings polished to a sheen. Spines of paper and colored leather - black, red, green, gold and brown, thousands of them, lined on shelves racked up so high they'd have to use footladders to reach the upper ones. Tables were arranged down the centre of the library, the low-style with floor cushions and perhaps a dozen Rris poring over books. Heads lifted at the sound of Chirit's stick on the floor as he led us toward the back of the library, a low susurration filled the room behind us.
Mai glanced up at me: just checking. I returned a tight smile.
Chirit led us to some private studies set toward the rear of the library: small rooms with reading tables, lamps and cushions and doors, set up for seclusion, quiet and privacy. The eldery Rris opened the door to the last and I heard a startled yelp, then, "Sir. I wasn't expecting... Sai!"
That exclamation sounded when I ducked through the door. A Rris was standing where it'd apparently jumped up from a low table scattered with literature, unrolled scrolls and writing equipment. A slate chalkboard hanging from the wall was covered with Rris text, some parts circled or underlined.
"That's him, isn't it." The Rris was staring at me, ears slowly coming up again. "That's what this is all about?"
"A, that's him," Chirit said. "Mikah, Aesh Teremae, this is Makepeace..."
"Makepeace?" I blinked, not sure if I'd translated correctly. The Rris all looked at me.
"Yes," Chirit said. "Makepeace."
"Okay." I almost made a crack about something that'd be completely meaningless to them, then shrugged. "Makepeace. Why not?"
Chirit coughed, then continued. "Makepeace has been hunting the archives for any references she can find. I think you'll want to talk to her about her findings, so I'll leave you in her care. Makepeace, I expect you to afford our guests every courtesy."
"Of course," she ducked her head.
"How many are working on this?" Mai asked. "Not just her, surely?"
"Hai, no. Malichai and Hesk are hunting the archives at the moment and there are a dozen students involved; when their studies allow. Now, if you will excuse me?"
"Ma'am," Chirit flicked his ears at her, then started for the door. A moment's hesitation, then he turned back to me. "Best luck," he said, then was gone.
Best luck. I hoped I'd have it.
We sat, settling ourselves at the table. Makepeace settled as gracefully as a falling feather and watched as I took my place somewhat more awkwardly, flinched when I spoke. "Chirit explained what you've been doing. If you've found anything... I'd like to have a look at anything you've found."
"Sir," her hands busied themselves with scraps of paper, "There isn't much. Such an ambiguous request and there is so much to search. What we've found... we just don't know what we're looking for..."
"Makepeace," I interjected and she stopped her babbling. Scared, I recognised that look. "I don't bite."
"He's not as terrible as he looks," Mai chipped in.
"You flatterer, you," I grumbled.
She smiled. "You get used to him. Believe me. Now, what've you turned up?"
My time with Maithris had made me forget a few things. One of those was how strange Rris tended to react to my presence. Maithris' reassurances smoothed Makepeace's ruffled fur, but she still wasn't that comfortable addressing me. For the first hour or so, Maithris acted as a buffer between us: a go-between whom Makepeace found it easier to talk to.
They'd found a lot of reports of strange occurrences. Reports of noises or lights or disturbances:
"... and there was a noise of thunder in the night and the next day the milk cattle were dry."
"... were fires throughout the town..."
"... green lights around the guild gates. A steward was slightly burned when he struck it with a poker..."
"A hamlet was struck with an unknown illness. Several people were struck down with debilitating fevers..."
Hours later: Pages upon pages of notes and references of things like that. Some were unusual, inexplicable, or otherwise mysterious; many others were foolish or simply the results of ignorance. There were histories of strange animals, most of which had since been identified and in a few cases turned out to be outright hoaxes or jokes. But there was nothing that might have suggested the presence of another person... another human. Nothing that might have linked to a way home.
"You were really expecting something?" Maithris asked.
I rubbed my forehead and eyes, then sighed into my hands and raised my head, shook it: "It was a long shot."
"Long shot...? Ai, I understand." The weight of a furry hand settled on my shoulder and squeezed; claws nicked my skin through my shirt, "There's still a lot of places to search, and the other kingdoms might have something. I'm sure they'd be willing to search their own archives."
"Yeah," I flipped the notebook in front of me shut and patted her hand, held it for a second before she lowered it, then noticed Makepeace staring at us. "How much more stuff like this is there?" I asked.
"Uhnn," she blinked and tore her eyes off Mai's hand. "A lot, sir. We've still got most of the archives ahead of us."
"You see," Mai told me brightly. "There's still hope."
"Yes, there's still hope," I replied with a small smile. "Just not much."
She looked a little pained, stared at me for a few seconds, then hissed air through closed teeth and turned to the other Rris: "Makepeace, thank you. You've been most helpful."
Makepeace ducked her head and said, "My job, Ma'am."
"Of course." Mai looked at the papers covering the table. "We'll doubtless be back again, but if you find anything..." She left that hanging. If they found anything, it was their choice whether or not the information made its way to us.
"Chirit will be told," Makepeace said and Mai tapped my arm, "Come on, there's nothing else we can do here."
"Thank you," I told Makepeace before we left her to get on with her work. As we walked away from the room we passed a pair of Rris who stopped to stare after us. I heard a few muted comments and turned to see them going into the room we'd just left: Makepeace's partners I guessed. Well, she'd have an interesting story for them.
"Not too disappointed?"
A tight smile. "It wasn't much more than I'd expected."
Faces turned to watch us as we left the library, as they did all the way back to the front steps of the university. The carriage was still waiting, the driver sitting up straight as we came out. A flick of the reins, hooves and wheels rattling on flagstones as the carriage moved to draw up at the foot of the steps.
"Sai," Maithris touched my arm, a leathery finger tracing across my skin to get my attention. "Maybe you'd like to go somewhere?"
That caught my attention, "Such as?"
"Ah," she squinted up at the sun, the light awakening highlights in the fur of her muzzle. "Hungry? I know a place we can get some food."
"And they'd let me in?"
"Well, you've been there before."
I had to think for a second before the penny dropped. "There?" I asked incredulously.
"It might not look like much, but the food's good. Anyway, I've got friends there; they'll put you up. What do you say?"
What did I say? I was tired, disillusioned. It would have been easy to go back to my rooms and hide my head in the sand, ignore the alien around me, shelter from the world: a sure path back to the scars on my wrist. No, she was offering her friendship and I'd be a fool to refuse. I returned her smile:
"I say yes."
End Light on Shattered Water 24