Light on Shattered Water
Light woke me.
I yawned and blinked into early sunlight suffusing the room, a beam shining through a small window. God, my back was sore, with burning lines scored across my shoulder and the small of my back stinging; I was stiff, lying on an unfamiliar floor under a thin blanket and... and a Rris was asleep in my arms.
Mai's head was nestled up close, her eyes closed and mouth open a bit, exposing thin black lips and harsh breath. For a while I watched her sleeping, then touched the fur on her muzzle, just a fingertip; she made a small sound and fur brushed against me as she moved, then settled again and didn't stir as I disengaged her arms.
Outside, the sun was breaking through pendulous clouds hanging over a Shattered Water washed clean by a night of rain. Around the courtyard below Mai's window water glistened, droplets beading and falling from eaves, the air feeling renewed. Tiles and cobbles and plants shone slick with moisture, the morning sunlight waking a faint mist from stone: a ghost of rain that hung in the cool air. I shivered slightly as my bare skin pebbled, leaned forward to rest my hands on the rough wooden windowsill and the splash of light washing across it, feeling the warmth across my knuckles. Somewhere below, a door slammed and I heard Rris voices; just before the couple crossed the courtyard still engrossed in conversation. They didn't look up, which was probably just as well.
"Good morning," a muzzy voice behind me said.
I smiled, "Yes, it was."
"Huhn." A rustle of sheets. "How's your back?"
I rolled my shoulders and stifled a wince. "A bit sore," I lied and turned to see her looking me up and down, an appraising look. "Different in the light, isn't it," I asked, wondering if she was realising what she'd done: what we'd both done.
"A. I was just... you look so odd without a tail. Nice rear though."
I shook my head: "Is that all females ever think about?"
She laughed, then flowed to her feet in one sine-smooth motion and it was my turn to stare as she stretched, reaching for the ceiling: an inhumanly exotic sculpture under that fur, every muscle on her body as clearly defined as if they'd been chiseled from stone, her tail flicking. Michelle Pfeiffer, eat your heart out. Just for a second, before she relaxed and worked her shoulders, then cocked her head to meet my stare, "What?"
I smiled in a somewhat awkward manner and started to gesture: "I was just thinking how odd you look with a tail."
She laughed and came closer, pirouetteing to flick the limb against me. I caught it loosely, the sensation of pelt whisking through my fingertips as it twitched back and forth and Mai leaned back against me, "You don't like it?" She growled over her shoulder.
"I think I do," I said, and gently tried tying a knot in it.
"Hai," she protested, turning and pulling it out of my hands at the same time, fetching up with her hands planted on my bare chest and I looked down in time to receive a small pounce and a nip on the nose. "Hey!"
I caught her and pulled her closer, ignoring the twinges across my back as she leaned against me and laid her head on my chest. We stood like that for a while, just holding each other and watching the dawn breaking over the city outside. It was too soon when she rumbled, "Mikah?"
"I really think we should think about starting back."
I sighed, "I suppose you're right. They might be getting concerned."
"To say the least. Huhn, I've really got to wash," she said, glanced down between us and sniffed, then jabbed me lightly with a claw, "And you could do with a bath yourself."
After last night, after a night of sweating... not surprising. There wasn't any plumbing in that place, hence no baths, sinks. Mai left me for a short time to fetch water from the building pump, returning with a pitcher from which she filled a crockery washbowl. It was cold, probably not too safe to drink, but adequate for washing. We did what we had to, and again the Rris lack of inhibitions regarding sanitation made me distinctly uncomfortable as Mai cleaned herself, then offered to tend to my back for me.
It was a half-hour or so later, while I was shaking out my still-damp clothes, that we heard the commotion beyond the door. Metal rattled, banged against walls on the staircase, Mai was already moving toward the door with her ears down and claws out when it was thrown open and armed troopers burst in. A tableau: Mai facing off a quad of armed and surprised soldiers with only her claws and teeth, the guards staring at me standing there with my clothes in my hands.
There'd been a small army waiting outside. Guards escorted us out of the shadows and into the morning sunlight of the street where curious neighbours rubbernecked from windows and doorways. Mai stalked ahead of me in a furious huff, her fur bottled and claws rattling on the cobbles as we were led to the carriages. The guards kept their distance.
"I'm sorry," I said to Maithris as the carriage rattled and jolted through cobbled streets. "I didn't mean to get you in trouble."
She waved her hand; an aborted slash at the air turned to a shrug and then a grab at a handhold, "Not your fault. It's... Mikah, what they did was simply beyond call. Bursting into someone's home... Those... those..." she trailed off with a hiss of disgust and went back to staring out the window.
I leaned back and watched her. Last night seemed a long way away, veiled behind a curtain of darkness and lust. Now I stared at her and... I'd... with this?
Back at the Palace there was arguing, the catfight noises of a heated Rris altercation as Mai dressed down the officer in charge. When Kh'hitch turned up she calmed, but was still seething.
"Sir, it wasn't her fault," I started to say but Mai stilled me with a touch on my arm. The advisor made a small gesture to my escort and I was lead off back toward my rooms while the sounds of arguing faded behind me through echoing marble halls.
I was worried about her. They wouldn't do anything? Shit, she wouldn't do anything? I'd never seen her this angry before and hoped she wouldn't push someone too far. What we'd done... shit, what we'd done... I guess running off like that wasn't such a smart move, but surely it didn't warrant such a panic. I mean, we were allowed to go off by ourselves... weren't we?
Maybe we weren't alone. For all I knew the entire contingent of that tavern could have been plainclothes. And then our 'tails' had lost us in the rain and panicked. Things snowballed from there.
In the shelter of my room I closed the door, leaned against it and shook my head, then plucked at my shirt: a warm day, but my damp clothes were hanging off me like wet sacks and beneath those my back stung. I moved my shoulder and winced. Shit, and if someone saw those, Mai would be in even hotter water. No, I'd have to be careful. I sighed and went to find something drier to change into.
More waiting. I sat and stared out open windows, watching windblown clouds above the palace gardens. And my mind was in another time, another place: a small room a night ago.
What'd happened then... I felt that I should have had some remorse about that, a twinge of guilt; what was strange was that... I didn't. The first person I'd been able to get close to for so long, someone I'd been able to hold, someone whom the darkness had reduced to a warm friend in the night. Was this going to change anything? Would it change how she looked at me? Our friendship? She'd said it was her job to look after me, to keep me happy. Was she just doing her job?
It was a thought that frightened me, and one I desperately wanted not to be true. But could I be sure? She'd seemed to enjoy herself, but compared with what? How could I tell if that had been real? Well, there was my back; she'd lost control enough to forget her claws and do something that could have serious repercussions...
The first time. Shit. I leaned back and closed my eyes, able to see future history books: and in the year (what was the year?) Michael Riley discovered the orgasm...
She really hadn't known? Okay, so I knew there were enough human women who'd never actually experienced one, but to never even know...? Other Rris physicians had questioned me at length about sexual habits, but those were analytical kinds of sessions, far removed from the heat of the act itself. There were things they'd never asked me, things I'd never volunteered, and that was one of them. Now, if they found out, there'd be more poking and prodding, more questions asked about both sides. I'd thought I'd come to understand them, and now this started to undermine the foundations of that belief. What else was there? What other things that I took for granted were completely alien to my hosts? And vice versa.
A scratch at the door disturbed my thoughts. Mai, I thought as I started to get up, then froze as it opened onto another figure: Hirht. My heart lurched, the possibilities tumbling around me. Was Mai in trouble? Was I in trouble? "Sir," I ducked my head. "I wasn't expecting you. Please, Mai didn't mean anything..."
"Mai?" the king asked, then cocked his head and slowly closed the door behind himself before turning back to me. "Huhn, Maithris. Of course. A very interesting female that one. She's making a great deal of noise about what happened."
"There's nothing to make a fuss about."
Hirht levelled a hard look at me. "You vanished. Nobody knew where you'd gone. I think that was quite enough to make a fuss over."
I shook my head. "Just because your people following us lose track of us, you assume there's trouble."
And his face set, the muscles locking but his pupils flinching wildly. "You were deliberately trying to evade them?"
I gave him a small, restrained smile. "Actually, I didn't know anybody was following us, until now."
I saw Hirht's jaw tighten as he mentally kicked himself, "Ah. Nicely done. It's strange how people keep underestimating you."
"Sir, I'm not wanting to... to fight with words. It's just..." I sighed and shook my head, trying to find the words to explain what'd happened. "I'm doing my best to learn to live my life again. Mai is the closest I've come. There was no trouble, I was never in any danger."
"You can't be sure of that. You haven't forgotten what happened at the river, have you?"
"No, sir. Not anytime soon. But..." I stopped and rubbed my face. "I mean, there was no sign we were in trouble. It was simply a decision we made, and I don't see a way to check with you every time we have to do that. I know you were concerned for me, I just think there might have been some... over-reaction."
"A," he said. "I think that's what the doctor's upset about. And I agree; things could have been handled a little more discreetly, but at the time all we knew was that you had vanished."
"Where is she, anyway?"
"Huhn," he growled and gestured at the door, "I left her with Kh'hitch. He has a way of dealing with situations like this. Although, he'll certainly be fighting his own reflection with that one."
She'd stormed the Palace, turned the system around, faced down nobility to get her way. A, Kh'hitch would certainly be batting in his own league there. "It'd be a fight worth seeing."
"A," he curled his hand in a yes, then cocked his head. "A, indeed it would. There's a lady who knows what she wants, and when she wants it..." He looked past me, out the window and his voice was a lot quieter. "Ah, the rain can wash away a lot, can't it."
I followed his gaze, to the verdant wilderness of the Palace gardens, lush from the heavy rain. "Yeah," I murmured in English, "Or it can bring other problems."
He didn't ask for a translation, just made an acknowledging noise and a small gesture that meant nothing to me. "A. Well, you understand that we have to take some steps to ensure your safety. I don't think it would be in anyone's interests to change that. However, I will grant you what happened this morning was a little excessive. There will be a few changes."
"I'm sure Mai'll be pleased to hear that," I smiled a bit, then swallowed. "Sir, I never meant to cause trouble. For everything you've done... I just want to say, thank you."
He flicked a hand, a small, dismissive gesture. "It is all we can do. You're a guest at our hearth. Still, for someone who doesn't mean to cause trouble, you're very good at it."
"No. Not necessarily your fault. The tallest stalks are always harvested first..." He sighed and stared at me for a few seconds, then shook his head. "And now, I'd best go throw some water on that doctor. Until later, Mikah."
It was a long morning. Restless hours spent waiting, sitting, pacing to and fro on the carpet before I heard the voices out in the corridor. I was standing when Mai came in, smiled at me before closing the door behind her.
"You're all right?" I asked anxiously.
She stopped and looked surprised. "Me? I'm fine."
I stepped toward her, hesitated. "You were so... upset. I thought you might make someone angry."
And she chittered a little, then came over to meet me in the middle of the room and reach up and caress my face: a fleeting stroke of fingertips against my cheek. "Worried, were you?"
"Well, for them, yes."
Another laugh. She'd calmed down; relaxed, her fur brushed back into shape. "I had a few words with the advisor. They've agreed not to let something like that happen again."
I touched her, stroking down a piece of fur on her shoulder. "It wasn't really their fault. I mean, they thought I was in trouble. They were trying to help."
"Huhn," her ears flickered and she caught my hand, holding it in hers as she studied it, a claw poking against my palm. Then she met my eyes again, "Mikah, what they did... it was uncalled for."
"It upsets you so much?"
She tipped her head and there was pain in those eyes. "It's my home," she said plaintively. "Invading it like that... it's a violation."
"I think there were larger things at stake than privacy."
Mai opened her mouth, then caught the words before they escaped and looked down at our hands again: my larger, pale-skinned digits cradled among her fur and dark pads and claws. The eyes flickered again, meeting my bemusement. "Mikah, the hearth is very important. The home, it's a private place. The idea that others can intrude on that is... uncomfortable. To actually do so is extremely rude. You understand?"
Maybe, in an academic sense, but not as this Rris did, not as she felt it in the bone. But what she'd said did go some way toward explaining their architecture, and if that instinct could influence their cities so strongly, it had to have considerable sway over them. I just nodded and she cocked her head; muscles in her face twitched. "Just words to you, aren't they," she said.
"I... think I know what you mean," I replied. "My kind are... similar in some ways."
"Ah, a start," she smiled and patted my hand briefly before releasing it and reaching up toward my shoulder. "And how's your back doing?"
"Much better," I said, the small white lie compounded when I said, "Just stings a little. I can hardly notice it."
And her ears tilted in a gesture that might be analogous to raising eyebrows. "A? That much better?"
"Huhn. Surprising. You'll be working tomorrow, it won't cause any problems?"
Scheiße. And she watched my face as I remembered my schedule and forced a smile: "No. No problems."
Sunlight was visible through chinks in the wood, beams of light cutting through dust in the air. The bulk of the ship nestled amongst its framework of wood and ropes and chains. The hull and deck were polished, engine hatches open where pipes were continuously being re-routed and shifted. Sounds of activity filled the workshop, hammering and sawing and Rris voices, the throbbing pulse of a steam engine underlying it all. Over at the drill press the Rris craftsman carefully adjusted the piece of steel sheet, then reached up to grasp the handle, his fingers flexing around the wooden grips. I saw his tongue flick around his lips before he pulled down and the bit lowered, metal touched metal and screamed: curls of steel and a wisp of bluish smoke drifted up. The transmission whined and he let up a little, then bore down again and metal protested, the bit slowing, then punching through with a squeal. The Rris gave a triumphant yip, pushed the handle up and cut the power. He held the result up: half inch of steel with light spearing through the hole bored through it.
All around, watching Rris workers started back to work, chattering in animated conversations. Perched on a stack of lumber at my side, Chaeitch gave me a satisfied grin, then bounded down with a clattering of claws and the tools in his belt. I joined him as he examined first the plate, then the bit in the drill press. A twist to remove it then he held it up to the light and stroked the pad of his index finger across the cutting face. "Ah, not bad. Your opinion?"
I took it off him and tried it myself, then took a closer squint: a little blunter and nicked. "Better than the last lot."
"A," he agreed and cocked his head. "It's still in one piece."
True, the last batch had been a touch... brittle. This was better, but there could still be improvements. The drill press was doing its job though: the cast-iron frame of the device was bolted to a cement slab in the workhouse floor. The power came from a spinning metal shaft run through from the engine room, geared up through a transmission. The steam engine providing power to the workshop was the same type that'd gone into the textiles mill, the same type as the one in the steamboat. A half-dozen new technologies gone into producing that drill, a piece of equipment that would've been impossible six months ago.
Equipment Chaeitch already had designs on. A whole list of designs in fact. As we left the noise and bustle of the workshop he turned the bit over and over in his hand, already ruminating over modifications. The chuck mechanism for one: a key would be more secure, but that was beyond our current capabilities. Chaeitch had three other alternatives lined up, ideas he bounced off me as we headed for the relative quiet of his office.
"Hai! Chaeitch!" I heard from the end of the hallway. Rraerch's claws pattered on the wooden floorboards as she caught up; elegant in a pleated beige kilt, white linen vest and her feline features pursed in a smile. "Congratulations on the textile contract. The Guild's chasing their tails over the additions."
"They're... satisfied?" I ventured.
The Rris chittered and the female flicked her ears and and gently said, "A. Mikah, they're satisfied."
"I've just got some old bottles in from Cover-my-Tail," Chaeitch mused, tossing the drill bit in the air and catching it between thumb and forefinger. "I think this might be as good a time as any to open one."
"Chiathra Vineyard?" Rraerch's ears perked up.
"Then how can we refuse? A, Mikah?" she laughed and hooked my sleeve with a claw to draw me along.
The window in Chaeitch's little office was as grimy as ever, imparting a sepia tinge to the sunlight filtering through. Sounds from the workshops were muffled but still audible, a low background noise in counterpoint to the clink of glass as Chaeitch set out wide Rris-style glasses and a bottle wrapped in wicker with a red wax seal on the neck.
"The Guild is very happy," Rraerch was saying as I sat on one of the cushions. "So much so that they're willing to commit on engines for other mills. They have been asking about the looms. How long until those're ready?"
"Ah," Glass rattled as Chaeitch poured. "Difficult to say. Maybe a month before we get the burrs out. There're still a few of those, but things are promising. Mikah's library also mentions a loom that's capable of producing pictures. I don't think that's an immediate possibility, but it does give me some ideas. Here, Mikah. Try this. I think it'll be to your taste." He pushed a filled glass my way.
I thanked him and tried it. Mellow, an unusual highlight: smokey, touches of spice. "It's good," was my verdict.
"It should be," Rraerch smiled and lapped at her own drink. "And Mikah, how long do you think?"
I twirled my drink between my fingers and chuckled. "Hard to say. Chaeitch is the one who does the impossible. If I say a time he'll only do something to cut that in half."
Laughter from the Rris. Chaeitch tipped his glass toward me and said, "Don't try to undersell yourself."
"A, you..." Rraerch started to say as she clapped a hand on my back.
I couldn't hold back the yelp of pain, the flinch that slopped wine onto the floor. The Rris both froze, staring at me with shocked eyes. "Mikah...?" Rraerch ventured.
"No... It's nothing," I gave a tight smile. "Sorry I spilled..."
"What did you do?" Chaeitch asked her. "You forget your claws?"
"No..." she looked confused.
"No," I interjected. "No. It wasn't her. It... No." I was digging myself deeper.
"Then what's wrong?" Chaeitch asked. Rraerch had laid her glass aside and was leaning toward me.
"Nothing," I started to protest and she laid a hand on my arm. "Mikah, don't."
Chaeitch's ears started to go back. "If there's a problem..."
And Rraerch caught the tail of my shirt and just yanked it up to expose my back. I heard the shocked hiss escape her: "Mikah." I twisted to try and knock her hands away and ended up wincing as skin pulled and she pushed me back, rucked my shirt up a bit higher. "What happened?"
"Nothing. I just slipped."
"Marks like that? Nothing? Rot it, what happened?" I felt a fingerpad tracing across my back.
"Shit! It doesn't matter!" Irritated, defensive, I squirmed again and this time she let me go. "They're from claws, aren't they," she asked from behind me. I saw Chaeitch look up at her.
"It's not serious," I insisted. "Don't worry."
A silence. Perhaps she made a gesture behind me where I couldn't see it because Chaeitch reacted, his face twitching before he glanced away. Rraerch took her seat at my side again, picking up her glass and watching me over the rim while I was busy slowly tucking my shirt back in.
"They're claws." A statement of fact. I looked at her and she flicked her ears. "How'd you get them? Someone you're protecting... your lady friend?"
I sighed and sagged. "It was an accident," I said.
"It was her?" Chaeitch looked disbelieving. "How'd something like that happen?"
"A," Rraerch added. "She's alway so protective of you. Why'd she go and do something like that? Something to do with that fuss the other night?"
"What was that about?" Chaeitch inquired. "I heard the guards were turning the town over. That was to do with him?"
"Isn't everything these days?" Rraerch chuckled, taking a sip of wine.
"Hey, it was noise over nothing," I protested.
The industrialist snorted. "I heard you and your lady vanished and the Palace was... was..." she trailed off, sitting up straighter with a peculiar expression crossing her features. "She didn't [force/rape] you?"
"No, it wasn't like that..." I started to say, then realised what I'd done. Too late. She cocked her head, incredulity fighting laughter. "You did. You had sex with her, didn't you?"
And I slapped my hand over my face, rubbing my eyes. One night. One bloody night. That was how long it stayed a secret. And Rraerch was chittering out loud: "You did, you actually did. And she..." She curled her arms around, miming an embrace and laughed again.
"True, Mikah?" Chaeitch leaned forward over his desk, his ears perked up. "Just good friends?"
"It was... we were," I tried to find a way out of it, then sagged and shook my head. "My back was an accident. She didn't mean it. Please, don't make a fuss about it. We really don't need that kind of attention."
"That kind of attention," Rraerch chuckled. "Ah, you must make an interesting couple. But why'd she do that to your back?"
"We were... learning," I fudged, not giving them any more. No. The exact circumstances behind my behind were something I wasn't going to go into; not there and then.
"It must've been a painful lesson."
I flashed a quick smile. "I think I frightened her more than she hurt me."
Jaws spasmed in laugher, then a thoughtful expression cross Rraerch's face. If she was going to say something she was forestalled when Chaeitch said, "You had fun?"
I hesitated, not sure whether to answer, then snorted a laugh and said, "I think I did."
"You think? What was she like?"
That was over the top. I levelled a glare at him and he laughed again. "Sorry I asked," he said and lapped at his drink.
"One thing," Rraerch mused. "I'd have thought she'd have treated you like fresh eggs. She knows how thin your hide is. Why'd she do something like that?"
I looked down at my cup, then back at the Rris, "Please, is this something we have to talk about?"
"You don't want to."
"I'm sorry. No."
They were a little taken aback, glancing at one another. "Apologies," Rraerch said. "It was just... surprising. You did enjoy yourself though, that's the important thing."
"And we couldn't have chosen a better time to open this," Chaeitch added, raising his cup, and at our bewildered looks he crowed, "Your first time! May there be many others!"
I had to shake my head: exasperation and amusement. Why me? I wondered while Rris chittered laughter.
There were still mysteries in my life, even if I didn't realise it at the time. With so much going on around me there was no way I could keep track of everything; the present was the most important moment and niggling little details tended to get lost in the past. From day to day I was vaguely aware there were things going on behind the scenes, things I only caught glimpses of: the powers-that-be working in the wings, readying the stage for their plays.
Those machinations I was vaguely aware of, but what could I do? I'd known there'd be bickering and backstabbing, the arguments that'd been so prevalent at early meetings with foreign dignitaries, the tenseness that'd underlain the veneer of civility at more recent meetings. Shyia had warned me; I'd been expecting them, I lived with them. But there were other questions, loose threads from the past still lying tangled and buried under other pressures. All it took was one jog to uncover them.
I remember the day: a warm evening riding back from the workshops, a dusting of misty mare's tails high in a sky already touched by gold. Rraerch was sitting opposite, lost in her own thoughts as she stared out the window, her hand hooked around one of the straps as she swayed back and forth in time with the motion of the carriage. For a while I watched her: that feline profile, the salt-and-pepper fur around her muzzle, darker streaks through the fur of her cheek tufts and neck ruff, yellow-amber eyes focused on something beyond the window. A decent sort. She treated me like a person, albeit their kind of person. There was tension there, the times when she was nervous of me and the involuntary flinching when I made a faux pas: moving too quickly, too close, my laugh... But she talked freely with me and laughed at my jokes, or at my attempts at humour, and seemed to like me. I felt comfortable around her, someone I could like in return.
The carriage jolted through a particularly overeager rut, knocking my still-tender back against the seat and jerking me back to the present. I winced, then shook my head and went back to watching the city passing outside. Buildings swung into and out of view through the window as we turned a corner onto one of the larger streets where the traffic thickened, both vehicle, animal and foot. Shopfronts and stalls were open with hawkers shouting and displaying their wares for the crowds of Rris going about their business. I sat back in the anonymity of shadows and watched them as heads turned in curiosity while the carriage passed.
It was at an intersection turning onto one of the city squares that we stopped, letting a procession of wagons laden with goods pass ahead. The building across the way was an expensive-looking place with wrought-iron gates around the courtyard. An interesting pattern to the iron, a geometric repetition that reminded me of Celtic work. And then I saw the pair of Rris standing off to one side, engrossed in animated conversation, a hand waved in emphasis, one of them glancing my way, a glimpse of a green stone bracelet...
And somewhere inside a cold hand clenched around my guts while something clicked into place. That Rris. I knew that Rris. I was sure it was that same Rris from the market, just as I was certain that I knew that Rris from somewhere else. Another glimpse of that face before a wagon rolled between us.
"Mikah?" I looked around to see Rraerch was peering curiously at me. "Is there something wrong?"
"Rraerch," I beckoned urgently and she looked dubious then scooted over to my window. "Look," I said, turning and pointing. "Over by the gate... Those Rris..."
And the crowd parted and now there was only one Rris standing there looking annoyed.
"Her?" she asked, squinting. "I've seen her around the Palace... I think. Aide to a military official of some kind or another."
"There was another..." who was nowhere in sight. The carriage started off again and I dropped back in my seat, the pain in my back dulled to a minor twinge.
"Well, she's gone now," Rraerch said and cocked her head, studying my face. "It was important?"
"I... I don't know," I shook my head, looked out to where the fountains of Wilder square were glittering in the evening light. "I think it is."
"You don't know?"
"It's a feeling. Like I knew the Rris, but I don't know from where."
"A," she regarded me gravely for a few seconds, then her expression lightened and she patted my knee. "I'm sure it'll come to you."
Running again. Between trees with trunks and limbs as white as bones, scarlet autumn leaves crackling under my feet. Running from something, to something, I wasn't sure which and only slowed as the branches thinned and there was a building there, an old barn. A peaked shingle roof, weather-bleached wooden walls, the planks warped and twisted. I didn't want to open the door, I wanted to run again, but I moved forward and my heart was racing as I touched dry wood and hinges squealed as the door opened.
Darkness inside, nothing but...
The inhuman shape exploding from the shadows, gaping mouth and eyes burning, twisted limbs spread with clawed hands reaching for me, a glitter of green rock around a wrist as I screamed and flung myself backwards to scramble away...
And awareness lurched, dumping me into darkness, sprawled naked on the carpet with my pounding heart the loudest sound in the room, huddled against a wall with a trail of bedclothes strewn across the room behind me and rugburn on my bare skin. The middle of the night, with warm air and the mullioned windows throwing a black latticework across the pool of moonlight flooding the room. And I curled up against the cold wall, shaking uncontrollably as I remembered...
I never noticed the door opening, the next I knew there was a distorted figure crouching over me and reaching out with a clawed hand. I cried out, recoiling, and the hand jerked back. "Mikah, don't. Please."
I flinched and blinked up at the figure. "Mai?"
Of course. Who else... "I'm sorry," I said in a small voice.
There was a low sigh of breath, a rustle of fur as she settled beside me and a warm hand laid on my arm, gently stroking. "It was only a dream, Mikah. Only a dream."
"Mai," I choked and was still shaking when I twisted, caught her hand and squeezed. Her face was a mask of shadows in the gloom, inscrutable. "I remembered."
A hesitation. "Remembered? Remembered what?"
"Him," I tried to explain, tried to see her face. "I know where I saw him..."
"Him?" The silhouette of her head tipped. "Mikah, slow down. I don't understand."
I stopped, then awkwardly struggled to sit up. Beside me, Mai watched quietly as I took a breath, trying to collect my thoughts, looked down at our entwined fingers. "In the market, in the town, the Rris I saw. I thought I knew him."
"A." A hesitation. "That one."
"I did." I searched for her eyes again, a vain effort in the darkness. "From Westwater, the barn. They said there was no-one there. He was."
"You're sure? I mean, you have trouble recognising Rris..." I saw her ears go back and she let that sentence hang.
"Mai, I... Faces, I have trouble with. I know that. This was... it was the way he stood, the shape of his body, the feeling, the..." I fumbled with words, tried to mime a bracelet around her wrist, then had to settle with, "I'm sure."
A slow exhalation, my arm feeling the feather-touch of her breath. "Then... I believe you. But... Mikah, it was just a glimpse of someone you saw the best part of a year ago, I don't know that others will. You understand?"
And I did. I sagged, a hand touched my shoulder and a single finger stroked down my arm. "Come on, back to bed, a?" she tugged gently at my wrist, helping me to my feet. I acquiesced meekly, letting her lead me back to sit on the edge of the bed where she patted my shoulder again. "Wait a bit."
I put my head in my hands, hauling a deep breath, trying to pull myself together while crockery rattled in the bathroom. Shortly there were the soft footfalls on carpet and the mattress distorted as another weight settled beside me. Furry hands pressed a cool metal mug into my own and withdrew without a word. I cupped it and took a sip: the smell of pewter, cold water. I needed it; half-drained the mug then looked down at the metal in the moonlight.
"I'm sorry," I said.
She made a low noise, a chuckle? "About what?"
"This, waking you up, everything... I'm sorry"
Now she laughed and laid her head on my shoulder, fur tickling my bare skin, "Ah, don't be. That's why I'm here."
Almost involuntarily my arm went around her. "But I don't want to be trouble..."
"Mikah, if you need anything, if you want to talk about anything, I'll be here." Her voice was low, a rumble I could feel through her body. "You understand?"
"Thank you," I said and found I was scratching her ruff, fingers ruffling through the longer fur as I might pet a cat.
"Huhnn," she grumbled. "Why'd you stop?"
"Sorry," I said again and she looked up at me and there was a flash of white teeth and a nip at my chin, then a rough tongue touching that spot. "Don't be," she said again, softly.
I hugged her, turning to pull her closer, holding her, feeling her heat, her heart beating, the dusty scent of her fur. Something real, an anchor, a face I knew, someone who was there when the darkness came for me. I just held her for a time; for a long time, hanging onto that solidity while the emotions turned to exhaustion. Darkness and moonlight on fur, contrast, a rhythmic shifting of muscles as she breathed, a rhythm I lost myself in. I guess I dozed off: the next I remember I was laying back in bed, cool night air brushing me, the sound of fabric rustling, Mai leaning over as she spread a sheet across me.
I fumbled after her hand and caught fur, just lightly holding on: "Mai? I saw him."
"I know," a low voice assured me, an alien in the night. "It's all right." And a peculiar hand stroked my forehead to brush hair aside.
That early morning before I slept again, I remember the bed shifting, a warm body climbing in and moving close. I groggily stirred, snuggling closer to warmth and a half-dreamt memory of care and security. Strong arms were around me, holding me as I slipped under the veil of sleep again and this time the dreams didn't follow.
I woke to bright morning sunlight, the drapes swaying in a summer breeze. For a while I lay quietly, staring past the faint discolorations in the cream paint of the ceiling as memories of the previous night gradually came back. God, it'd seemed like a dream and I might have been able to pass it as that if it wasn't for the slumbering figure beside me. A bundle of dusky tawny-grey fur curled on her side, a light cotton sheet covering one leg, the other sprawled on top of that. Her face was calm, cradled in the crook of an arm, her open mouth revealing a flash of pink tongue as she breathed slowly.
Gently I touched, fingers tracing through the longer fur of her ruff, of her cheek tufts. Someone who'd wake in the middle of the night to rush through dark corridors because some guard might have told her I was having a bad dream. Someone who meant so much to me, someone I'd loved and who'd loved me in return, someone who was my fingerhold on sanity. And looking at her, at the alien features relaxed in sleep, it was impossible not to wonder. Love, between two so different? Or... East is east and west is west... was it that? Was it two biological systems following their inbuilt drives, two mismatched gears trying to find some way to mesh in an alignment that would eventually end up damaging them both. Just urges, each utterly misreading subtle subconscious cues from the other.
And I realised I was stroking her fur again.
"You stopped again," a breathy voice rumbled. A gentle stirring and an eye cracked to a slit of amber and black as I pulled my hand away.
"Oh, I didn't mean to wake you."
"Huhn," she growled softly, stretching a leg. "You didn't. I woke earlier, but... well, you've got a comfortable bed."
Watching me watching her. For a second her amber eyes were on mine, then lowered and she reached over to stroke a single finger around the scar tissue on my shoulder. I touched her hand, catching her attention to say, "Thank you for staying."
Her face pursed in a smile and she moved her hand and pressed her palm against my chest: a pressure of fur and warm leathery pads. "You looked like you needed someone to keep the night away. I was here."
"With teeth like those, I think you can keep anything away," I said and she made a soft growling sound, a gentle pricking of claws against my chest. "You tease," she said, half-accusingly, and grinned at me.
"Reminds me... are you hungry?"
She chittered. "A. I think I could eat a bison."
"I don't know if they serve those. I'll ask, a?" I smiled back and rolled out of bed before her playful swipe could connect, grabbing a sheet to wrap around myself out of an old habit of modesty. The guards in the hall outside were accustomed enough to my eccentricities to only exchange glances before the ranking one volunteered, "Sir?"
"Ah, would it be possible to have two breakfasts brought this morning?"
A hint of emotion behind the guard's facade? "I think that would be possible, sir. There's something she'd prefer?"
Amusement? Was he taking the piss? I wasn't sure. "I don't know. I'm not really an expert on Rris food. Something she'd like."
"Yes, sir," the guard bowed and the last thing I saw as I closed the door was them exchanging glances. I leaned back against the door and sighed.
"Something wrong?" Mai was sitting cross-legged at the foot of the bed.
"I think they've been talking," I shook my head, then shrugged away from the door and started for the bathroom, throwing the sheet back on the bed as I passed. "I hope they got their giggles," I muttered to myself in english, irritated as I crossed the tiles and leaned over to flick the faucets on.
"I wouldn't put too much stock in what they think." Mai came to lean against the door frame. "It's just talk." She cocked her head at the water spilling from the wooden spout, then at me, "You always bathe in the morning?"
"I need it. I worked up a sweat last night. You want one?"
She tipped her head the other way and looked slightly amused. "Mornings aren't a usual time to bathe. You noticed I've got fur?"
I trailed a finger through the water and smiled at her. "Oh, is that what that is?"
A chitter, "It takes a while to dry and brush."
I went over to her, the tiles cold under my feet as I touched a shoulder and looked down at yellow-amber eyes. "Is that all? Hey, we've got time today. And I'll do your back if you'll do mine."
She moved closer, leaning up against me and loosely wrapping her arms around me. Fur tickled. "That a promise?" she grinned up, flashing white teeth.
"Only if you don't bite," I returned.
"Huhnn," she growled. "I don't know if..." and she cut off with a squawk when I scooped her up and dropped her in the bath amidst a squalling, kicking of legs and splash of water spilling over onto the tiles.
I leaned on the wooden side of the tub and smiled at her. "I do your back now?"
A good thing it was a generously-sized tub. It was a rambunctious bath, with a lot of splashing and water overflowing onto the floor. She showed me how to use some of the brushes that'd been laying around, things with bristles coarse enough to scratch my skin that were perfect for her hide. Washing her back was an experience, possibly comparable to washing a large dog, although this was one that did mine in return. I felt her hesitate at first, then moving the washcloth ever so gently around the scabs of healing punctures on my back. I tensed, desperately silent as she touched the back of my neck and doubtless felt the tension there. Perhaps she was feeling the same as I was - wanting to say the right thing but neither sure just what that was.
Later we sat in cooling water, Mai watching me with lidded eyes. "Mikah? What you said about biting... Is that what your dreams are about?"
I flinched, a sharp and painful memory still vivid in my mind's eye. "Why do you say that?"
She waved a shrug and pointed at my cheek. "When you have those dreams, often you cover your face. Just there... and when you wake you're terrified of me. I just thought that with what you've been through, the memory doesn't want to die."
Water splashed when I gently slapped the surface and Mai just waited patiently, letting me take my time. "It's that," I eventually said. "Sometimes. Sometimes other things. Mai, last night... I know what I saw. It was the same Rris. I know it was."
"I can't imagine how it could have been," she said. "But if you're so sure, I'll ask for the matter to be tracked down."
"Thank you," I said.
"It's no trouble. I just hope something comes of it." A. I also had no wish to make her look like the fool I was. I wondered what she really thought of the idea. Perhaps she thought I was paranoid, if they had such a term. Still, she smiled and stood up, water cascading from her fur in a surprisingly long-lived waterfall. She looked down at herself, patting sodden fur that clung to her inhuman curves in a way I found disquietingly fascinating. "Now, I think I'd best start drying off. I've got something I think you'll be interested in."
"A? What? Another of your surprises?"
She chuckled and shook her whole body, sending a cloud of water droplets flying to patter against me and the rest of the room. No wonder it was tiled. After that, her fur was a damp mass of spikes that she started patting down with her hands. "Just have patience," she said. "Now, where's a towel..."
End Light on Shattered Water 27