Light on Shattered Water
The carriage's iron-rimmed wheels squealed on the cobblestones as it turned a corner, sending its occupants sliding on the upholstery. We grabbed for the handholds to stop ourselves slipping across to the other side of the car. Mai hissed, "Leather! Fabric would have been fine, but no, they have to be [something] and use leather. Why don't they just grease the [something] seats!"
I listened to her halfhearted mocking tirade against the coach's designers and grinned into my hand while the carriage rocked and jolted its way through the narrow streets in the southern quarter of the city. I recognised the area: not too far from the Thieving Cormorant, or Mai's place for that matter. And she was still smugly coy about refusing to tell me where we were going.
There was a lot of activity outside when the carriage finally stopped. Through the window I could see Rris street vendors bustling by, carrying trays or pushing carts laden with their wares. The air was filled with the hackle-raising sound of many Rris voices raised in competition with each other. Mai patted my leg, "We get out here."
'Here' was a narrow, winding side street taken over by the morning market. Shops spilled out into the thoroughfare, the traffic of furry figures bustling around stalls and awnings and shop windows. The smells of cooking food, garbage and animal dung hung in the air between the walls that rose above the street to where eaves almost closed overhead. That familiar ripple of stunned silence spread away from Mai and I as we made our way up the cobbled street, the usual babble rising behind us. The owner of a stall backed away with its eyes wide enough to show the white around them when I stopped, my eye caught by its... his wares: carved wooden bowls painted in bright geometric patterns. I almost touched one and the stallowner dropped his jaws in a primal hiss, one hand coming up with claws extended.
"You won't do much business with an attitude like that," I said and had the dubious satisfaction of seeing the Rris freeze with a comical dumbfounded expression before Mai caught my arm.
"Stop teasing," she chided as we continued and the commotion picked up behind us.
"Hey, he started it."
And she slapped my arm, chittering. Our destination was just up around a bend in the road. Mai led the way into an ubiquitous dark tunnel passing through to the central court. This was smaller than the cloistered atrium in her building had been: little more than a lightwell with doors around the ground floor and off a second-floor balcony above us. The staircase up to that balcony was stone, worn blocks that looked a lot older than the rest of the run-down building around us. Perhaps part of some old structure long overgrown by the rest of the city.
Mai stopped at a door and slapped her palm against it. For a time nothing happened. She leaned out over the balcony to yell up, "Eserét! You mange-taken rat! Travellers seeking lodging."
Eserét... I knew that Rris.
Another pause, then a muffled voice and clattering of claws before the door was opened to reveal a steep staircase and Eserét blinking out at us. He was wearing an apron that at some time in the past might have been sacking. Now it was spattered with psychedelic smears of paints and other colorful material and getting grubbier as he wiped his hands on it. "Huhn, you could have just knocked," he said to Mai, then past her to me: "Ah, Mikah. This will start the neighbours talking."
"Well, we could have wrapped him in a carpet," Mai said, "But I wasn't so sure he'd like that."
"You thought right," I said.
Eserét squinted at me, then snorted. "There's no point giving them more morsels to worry over. My threshold is open, please."
I didn't recognise it as 'come in' until Mai started following Eserét upstairs.
The loft room was almost a stereotypical struggling artist's pad.
A cluttered space directly under the peak of the roof. The sloped ceilings were plastered, the cream plaster discolored in places, completely broken away in others. In one corner was a disarrayed mess of blankets that I guessed served as a bed, an iron-bound chest similar to Mai's tucked into a corner. A windowed cupola looked to the south, the wooden shutters cast back over a vista of sky, tiled rooftops and chimneypots and providing ample light for the table and easel set up before them. The subject was a rather spartan still life: an old chair and a bucket standing on a coarse-woven drapery cloth. Stacks of frames stood against the walls, some with canvass already attached and being stretched ready for use, others just bare paint-spattered wood. Charcoal sketches were tacked to the sloping ceiling: pictures of skylines and roofs and still-life arrangements of geometric odds and ends and Rris models. The few vertical spaces carried paintings, often completed versions of the sketches. Among them were scenes from the city, the skyline, a craftsman (person?) at a table littered with tools and curls and offcuts of wood, the docks, a ruined tower bathed in twilight... all in the Rris stylistic motif.
The breeze blowing in through the open windows was cool, but not unpleasant. I could foresee the place being freezing in winter. A canvass was set up on the easel, paints on the table alongside. On the canvass a chalk preliminary had already been sketched out: a faint tracing depicting the old chair and bucket with the window behind them. The smears of test color along the frame edge were still wet. And a pair of Rris watched as I looked around, one of them with his ears spasming in his efforts to keep them up.
"Familiar to you?" Mai asked me.
"It brings back memories," I said, looking over the material on the table. Rocks and powders, various roots and plants and oils, pestle and mortar. Literally making his pigments from scratch. The brushes looked expensive. Back home a good horsehair brush could set you back forty bucks, were they as expensive here? Off to one side were a few sheets of rag paper covered with charcoal sketches, similar to the images stuck up on the walls. The charcoal sticks lying in a small wooden box looked hand-carved.
"You know what those are?" Eserét asked, watching me intently.
I gave a quick smile: "Charcoal. I've used them. I haven't had to make my own paints though."
A snort and he looked at the mess on his hands. "You aren't missing anything."
I gestured at the sketches. "May I look at those?"
A hesitation, then he said, "Go ahead."
Nice paper. I noticed that as soon as I touched them; the rag had a weight and texture you didn't find on mass-produced stuff. The drawings weren't bad, if busy. Several sketches were jigsawed onto each page: He obviously hadn't wanted to waste paper, trying to make as much use of the space as possible. A study of a cornice was bunted up against a sketch of a stevedor straining under a load of fishing nets. No fixative, so lines were a little smudged. And the perspective was odd: that pinched field of vision peculiar to Rris artwork, an alien point of view.
"These are good," I said and Eserét visibly puffed up. "He shows that he has taste," he said to Mai.
Modest, too. I smiled slightly and laid the sketches out. "These are for a painting?"
I studied the sketches, then the rough laid out on the easel. "They're... realistic? I mean, this is what they really look like?"
Now his fur bristled again, although not with pride. "This isn't the daubing of an apprentice. Of course it's realistic. Would this be in such demand if it wasn't?!"
"I didn't... That wasn't what I meant. It's just that your art... I mean Rris art, it looks different to me. I think we see things differently."
"What?" Now he looked confused.
"Like your pictures?" Mai ventured, then at Eserét's confused expression elaborated. "I've seen pictures done by Mikah and his kind. They're... odd. You find the same with ours?"
I'd never considered how they saw my pictures, the clips on the laptop. "Yes."
"Hhnnn," Eserét watched me. "Odd? In what way?"
"Why don't you show him," Mai suggested and at our look nodded toward the paper and charcoal. "If that's all right. We can pay for any materials."
And Eserét gave me a narrow-eyed look for a second, then flashed a predatory grin, "Ah, it might be interesting."
It didn't take long for him to shift his present canvass aside and set another one up. I looked at the subject, the old chair, the cloth and the backdrop of the city through the windows behind, and frowned. I frowned: it needed something, but exactly what I wasn't sure. I bit my lip and looked around the sparse loft until I saw what I needed.
She noticed my stare, cocked her head and said, "What?"
Mai sat in the sunlight, eyes half-closed in the warmth. Her tail flicked lazily a couple of times, then she scratched at her shoulder and shifted. It didn't matter: I'd already sketched in a basic impression of her.
The charcoal was as awkward as it's ever been. The lumps were much coarser and messier than pencil, but it felt good to be able to get my hands dirty again. Eserét watched as I worked, roughing out the basic composition and construction, then proceeding to add the detail. He asked quite a few questions as I sketched in the construction lines, but for the most part he just watched, occasionally giving voice to thoughtful growls.
And for the most part I forgot he was there, just concentrated on Mai and lost myself in the play of light and shade, the relationships of space and angles. It's the fundamental secret of drawing, the trick that so many people miss: the act of actually seeing what's there. It's not just looking at the scene, but seeing it as a whole, with the way the elements interact with one another, comparing proportions and scales and textures. It's an exercise I find akin to meditation, a time when I'd lay out the illustration board on my desk, put on some non-vocal tunes and pick up a pencil or stylus and create something.
A time that was in the past and a world away, but I felt an echo of those moments that afternoon in that loft studio. Just for a few moments, before reality snapped back and I was drawing a grey-furred bipedal lynx dozing in a chair. Hovering at my shoulder, Eserét asked another question about the perspective.
Perspective, world-view, relativity... it was all a matter of perspective. To them, my work appeared odd. Not exactly distorted, as far as I could tell, but arranged in a way that just seemed... unnatural. That was as close as Eserét came to describing it to me. The lines didn't flow where he expected them to. And the detail I added: he thought I was making it up when I sketched in a weathervane on a distant rooftop.
Mai stirred and slitted an eye at him, "Why not trot on over and have a look then?" she asked. "It'll be there."
The Rris artist looked a bit put out. He opened his mouth, then frowned and snapped his jaws shut, huffed something to himself and looked askance at me: "You can really see that far?"
"My eyes are different. I mean, they're good at different things than yours. I see still objects further than you can, I think I see better small detail and color."
"Color?" he asked, looking puzzled. "How can you see better color?"
And that trail led off into a whole other neighbourhood of questions, and that led off into a session of mixing paints. I never realised there was so much involved in simply making a primary color, especially from scratch: Grinding and pulping and mixing powders. I'd seen chemists go through less to fill out a prescription. The end results were the primaries and a range of other hues. Eserét watched as I mixed a palette, just a sample batch.
"Hold," he told me. "Why're you doing that?"
"What?" I looked down at the palette, not understanding.
"The colors. You've mixed three blacks there."
Three blacks... "No," I said. "They're different."
"Different?" He furrowed his brow. "They're black."
No. They weren't. There was a black, then there was an ultramarine and dark violet, ranging around Pantone two-seventy or two-eighty. I could see the difference, but Eserét insisted they were black.
"Try this," Mai suggested. "Paint some paper with each color. Cut them into pieces, put a mark on the back and see if Mikah can find the piece with the mark."
Eserét squinted at me, then grinned and reached for a knife.
About ten minutes later he stood back and looked at three pieces of paper lying on the paint-spattered table, his ears laid back. I hadn't got a single one wrong. "All right," he sighed. "Either there's a trick there, or you can see something I can't." He touched the pieces, one after another. "What does it look like?" he asked.
"What? The colors?" I tried to grab the words, but wasn't sure I knew them. In either language. "I don't think I can answer that," I admitted.
He looked at me, then ducked his muzzle and snorted. "Ah, foolish question. Shave me... new colors. Ah, what I'd give to see them."
"There are plenty I can't see. Anyway, Rris see better in the dark than I do. Also smell and hear better."
"Anything else you can do that we can't?" he asked.
"You'd be amazed," Mai chittered.
And Eserét's brow furrowed, then he asked me why my face was changing color.
Rris... people... stared openly as we left Eserét's building. Nothing new. It was almost possible to ignore them as Mai and I walked through the narrow streets and alleys that were so prevalent in this quarter of the city. Pedestrians moved out of our way, females grabbing their cubs as we passed, a few questions shouted out after us. We both ignored them.
"You enjoyed that?" Mai asked me.
I looked down at my hands, the stains on them. "A. It's been too long since I held a brush."
"You're quite good. I think you've got Eserét worried."
I let slip an involuntary grin. A passer-by recoiled. "I don't think I have the time to compete with him."
"A? And I think the artists Guild might have something to say about it."
"Would they let me join?"
She hesitated and turned to study me, "Is that a joke?"
I felt slightly insulted. "I was just wondering."
She blinked and scratched at her neck. "That... I don't know what they'd say. I'm sure there's nothing written against such a thing. I'm sure we could ask."
And it didn't take a lot to read between the lines. Doubtful, the answer to that was, very doubtful. "I'm sure their expressions would be something to remember," I said quietly and Mai almost laughed, then maybe caught something in my tone and ducked her head. Around us, her kind stared at me and shifted out of our way. I felt a familiar pang and sighed.
Overhead, far above the tiled roofs, the rectangle of sky visible between the wood, brick and plaster walls rising above us was turning to the pink that heralded the end of an interesting day. A lot of those not-so-important questions had been answered and those revelations might go some way toward helping me understand my hosts.
I glanced at the alien female at my side.
Or perhaps vice versa.
We ate out that evening. There wasn't any shortage of stalls, peddlers, and shops where one could buy food, and Mai knew the good places. From a small shop with a distinctly pregnant Rris behind the counter we bought pastries, similar to spring rolls with a soft outside of dough and a mixture of steamed meat, vegetables and spices inside. Mai asked the shopkeeper what herbs were used before buying and I didn't recognise the names, but Mai thought they were safe enough. They certainly tasted fine to me. I polished off three of them.
A couple of blocks from there, among twisting streets and alleyways, Mai led me through a small lopsided doorway into an old stone building. Huge flagstones paved the floor, ruts worn in them from the passage of time and countless alien feet. Overhead, barely, blackened ancient rafters braced the ceiling. Off to the left were barrels laid on their sides. I'll call them that, despite the fact they'd be big enough for Mai to stand upright in. She told me to wait there, then ducked off along a dim hall.
I waited, a bit uneasily. The place smelled of old wood and smoke and alcohol. The barrels were sealed, without a tap, the words pokerworked into the front unfamiliar. A Rris pattered out of the shadows, froze with an audible gasp when it saw me and bolted. I listened to claws spattering off into the distance, cut off when a door slammed.
Five minutes and Mai was back, with a dusty black bottle in hand and a spring in her step. "All right?" she asked.
"Fine," I nodded and looked at her new acquisition: "What's that?"
She held the bottle up to the light, cradling it in both hands. There was a crest on the glass. "I thought we could do with something to drink."
Oh, differences. You couldn't just run down to the 7-Eleven for a coke. Water was cheap, and dangerous. Wine was probably the safest drink around, but to actually buy it from the vinters... "Isn't that expensive?" I asked.
"A," she said, then waved a shrug. "I thought... well, this is supposed to be a good vintage. I heard that you had a taste, so I thought you might be interested."
"Mai..." I looked at her anxious face and chuckled, gave a slight shake of my head, "it wasn't necessary."
"No," she admitted. "But I wanted to."
I reached out to carefully touch her shoulder and she didn't flinch, just smiled. I remembered the shocked expression on a fleeing Rris and stroked the fur under my fingertips, just a couple of times. "Thank you," I said, then looked around. The area seemed vaguely familiar. "Where are we going?"
"I thought my place would be closer." She didn't look at me.
And a flash of what'd happened last time. "Oh."
Getting darker now. The shadows lengthening and melting together. No streetlights, so some avenues were black as pitch under the eaves of overhanging buildings. I stuck close by Mai's side, trusting her to be my eyes in the gloom. Occasionally we passed Rris who'd hurry on their way and from the surrounding buildings came the faint sounds of people going about their evening business. In the hearts of those buildings, through gateways and brick tunnels, I could see lights flickering. Rris homes: sheltered, intensely private, turn a blank wall to the world.
Mai's building was the same: a dark facade broken by the slits of small windows high up in the walls. Lights glimmered at the end of the tunnel, just a couple of small oil lamps that flickered in the breeze. Barely enough light for me to see my hand in front of my face as Mai opened the door into shadow. Her room seemed... different that night, and it wasn't just the fact she had a new mattress there. Maybe it was the silence of the place: it was lacking that underlying backdrop of drumming on the roof, the hiss of drops on the tiles outside the window. The air was warmer, without that cleansed freshness the rain had brought with it that night.
It was a clear evening. Through the window and above the rooftops the stars were becoming visible as the final twilight died, the light faded over Shattered Water. Mai and I sat in darkness, leaning back against the wall as we sipped at a surprisingly good year and watched the heavens, talking. Not about anything in particular, just a quiet, comfortable conversation.
"You know what they are?" came up, Mai waving her mug toward the pale specks far away.
"The stars? A," I nodded and sipped.
She waited, then chittered and nudged me. "Go on?"
"Oh. Oh, they're suns. Like our one, but a lot futher away."
"Suns?" She looked at the glittering flecks again. "You mean there're other worlds like this?"
I looked at the silhouetted profile of the Rris beside me. She caught the movement and glanced at me, at my expression, and her ears went back. "Huhn, of course. I forgot. Sorry."
"No," I sighed and turned back to the night sky. "Don't be. I don't know if they're... quite the same sort of thing." I raised my mug again and realised it was empty. I didn't know I'd drunk that much. Mai passed me the bottle.
"You really miss it," she said as I poured. It wasn't a question.
I put the bottle down in easy reach and sipped, pondering. "I don't know that I miss it. Not the world itself," I told her. "The people, a place where I'm not... what I am now. A place where I can be myself, live my own life, my friends, Jackie; those I miss."
"Huhn," came the low response. Beside me, the silhouette raised its mug but didn't drink. I saw her finger toying with the rim. "Your female friend. You had cubs? You've never mentioned."
"Kids?" I shook my head. "We'd been considering... joining." Their language has no word for marriage, never has and never will. "I never asked her. I mean... there was no reason not to, I just never... I guess I never got up the courage."
"Courage?" The Rris looked at me and ventured a chitter. "She was so terrifying?"
'Was'. God, that tense sounded so... so final. "Not her, the idea. The commitment."
There was a moment of silence before she ventured, "I don't understand. Mating... you were afraid?"
"It's slightly different from your kind."
Another moment's thought, then she hissed softly, "Ahh, your kind, you stay together for life, don't you."
My laugh was a single, half-hearted chuckle into my mug, then I shrugged. "For the most part. It's still a big step."
"A, spending your life with one person. It would be."
For a while we sat in silence, watching distant stars. Beside me Mai was quiet, lost in her own thoughts, her eyes a faint liquid glimmer in the starlight. I drank, the wine slightly sweet and warming from the inside. Strong too, I could feel the buzz that lay like a muzzy blanket under my thoughts. I watched the distant lights and thought back to a time when rain had poured outside that window, and there was something I had to know.
I swallowed and pressed on: "Last time we were here... I mean, what we did: why'd you do that?"
A soft exhalation. "Why?" she asked.
"Please, don't," I pleaded. "No games."
"A?" I saw her lean back, her head canted back to stare up into the darkness of the rafters. "I thought... well, you were frightened, upset. You just seemed so... vulnerable. I didn't want to leave you like that."
"It was sympathy then?"
Her head turned, eyes flashing a spectrum sheen of colors as light flickered and left them in shadow again. Then a cut of her hand through the air: "No. It wasn't that. Not just that."
I cradled my mug, staring into the dregs as I remembered the Rris back at the vinters, all those others. "I know Rris don't find me attractive. People still run when they see me. I don't understand why you're different."
A laugh, and then a leathery hand laid on my arm: a touch that just tickled the hairs, then a gentle smoothing. "I've spent a little more time with you. I've seen that there's a lot under that surface. I've said you're not my ideal of a male... not on the outside." A hesitation, then a chuckle, "Well, most of you, anyway."
I gave her a hard look.
"Sorry," she chittered. "It's just... I never expected such... such an experience like that from you."
I felt the hot prickle crawling up my neck and shrugged abashedly, hiding the flush behind the mug. "It was... a night of surprises."
"A," she said and I know there was a smile on her face. The hand moved and a single fingertip traced delicate sworls in the hair of my forearm and she leaned closer: "And maybe we could be a little more careful?"
I caught the hand, lacing my fingers between hers and raising it between us: moonlight glinted off the tips of razor crescents peeking from her fingertips. "Do you think you can?"
Her ears flicked and she bobbed her head. "I hope you don't mind, but I borrowed these..."
Her other hand plucked something from her belt purse: a small bundle like a deformed spider that the moonlight resolved into... my gloves. I stared at them, at a loss for words, then looked past them to her face that might have been amused in the dimness. "How'd you get those?"
"This morning." Her voice was a husky growl. "I didn't think you'd mind."
And I stared back into eyes as black as the shadows, visible only through the slight glisten of moonlight they reflected, and a thought started to tickle the back of my mind... and was lost when the Rris darted forward and planted a nip on my nose. Another on my chin and I laughed and caught at her, feeling fur and muscle under my palms while hers were fumbling with my shirt.
A moonlit face twisting and tossing in the dimness: fur whipping, her jaws gaping, eyes screwed shut while her hands clenched at me, the feeling of soft leather raking across my back while I pulled her close and moved with her. The noise clawing out of her, a low rumbling growl that rose, increasing with that wire-taut tension, peaking in a ululating yowl that vibrated throughout her body and seemed to fill the universe...
And sagged, panting rapidly and holding tight, moaning something small and meaningless. And as I kept moving slowly, a hammering I'd taken to be the pounding of blood, of my heart, continued.
Someone in the room below was pounding on the floor, the moonlit dust on the floorboards bouncing slightly with the bangs. I looked down at the heavy-lidded eyes of the Rris below me and she blinked slowly, then chittered. That set me off. I collapsed against my lover, rested my cheek against the warmth of her fur as I laughed uncontrollably. Gentle hands brushed sweat-slicked hair away from my face.
My whistling echoed through the marble halls: an off-key rendition of 'On Top of the World'. My guards hung back a bit as we walked. Every so often we'd pass Rris who'd stop and stare openly. At me or the noise that was so out of place in those corridors, I didn't know, and I really didn't care.
It was a glorious morning. Sunlight streamed in through the Palace windows, reflecting off marble and polished metal: statues and carvings and ornaments. Outside the sun was bright in a clear sky, promising a fine day. For all I cared it could've been sleeting down and blowing a gale: I felt better than I had for a long time.
Hirht and Kh'hitch were waiting for me in a sunlit second-floor office, a pollen-scented breeze blowing through. The two high-ranking Rris looked up from the papers spread out on the low table as I entered and both of them cocked their heads:
"Greetings, Mikah," Hirht smiled. "You're in a good mood?" It was a question, and I didn't exactly answer it.
"It's a good day for it," I shrugged, gesturing past them at the blue sky through the window.
"We don't often see you smiling. It's a change for the better." The Rris king studied me for a second, then nodded toward a cushion at a vacant place: "Please, be seated."
I did so and he laid a finger on a paper, sliding it toward him to blink down at the figures scratched there. "Now, things are... excited. Extremely so. I know the Guilds are chewing one anothers tails for access to some of the innovations you've introduced, as are other countries."
Some of my good cheer evaporated. "That will cause trouble?"
His muzzle wrinkled, v's marching through the fur between his eyes. "Huhn, you've already caused more upset than a spark in a gunpowder store. They'll want more, there's no doubt of that, but I think they'll pay for it. Nobody seems to be willing to start something serious. Some of your ideas have opened quite a few new possibilities. Losing those, and the profits attached, is not a thought they'd clutch to."
A bit of a relief. Perhaps the Rris knew me well enough to tell that because Hirht watched me for a second before continuing:
"From from what I've heard the projects are doing very well. Aesh Smither is well pleased with the results. I've been informed the current project underway in the workshops is nearly ready for trial runs. Within the next couple of weeks if there're no setbacks. In the meantime, you wanted to see more of our land."
Kh'hitch leaned over his paunch to move another piece of paper across the tabletop. A map of Lake Erie - or their facsimile - Shattered Water and the immediate environs. "Chaeitch has been investigating the practicality of using his engines to move things on land," Hirht explained. "There are some trial engines and the trails they needed at Blizzard's Coat, under evaluation by the Mining Guild there. They haven't been all we hoped for."
I nodded. Those I'd heard about. The king glanced at my face, then back to the map.
"Chaeitch feels the new engines, and your knowledge, will make a difference. He thinks it's best if you saw for yourself what's been done there. So, you will be going on a short trip; no more than ten days."
Will be going on a trip... My leash had been lengthened, but it was still there. I tried to think of it as a proposed business trip. And as he'd said, it would be interesting to see more of the Rris world. My travel arrangements and itinerary involved a boat down to the Blizzard River. Blizzard's Coat had grown up as a sort of way station between the upper Lake Windswept and lower Lake Tailtied. Now it was prosperous port, receiving goods and traffic from the local surrounds. Any shipping making the transition past the Blizzard Falls had to be routed through the port facilities there, making it the gateway from the upper to lower lakes. As such, it was a bustling port and a rapidly growing town.
"Your boat will be leaving the day after tomorrow, the weather willing. Chaeitch will be joining you, along with a compliment of guards and a Royal deputy. Anything you may want to take - clothes, food - will be provided, just ask."
Now Kh'hitch leaned forward. "Still, there is the question of your... friend. Do you wish to take her?"
As if she were a possession. I felt more than a touch of annoyance at that. "I don't know," I responded tersely. "Why don't I ask her if she'd like to go?"
Kh'hitch just cocked his head and watched me through alien eyes. I didn't even know if he'd picked up on my rancor, especially when he simply said, "Of course."
Two days later I stepped out of a carriage, the weight of my pack hanging from my hand. They'd been worried about the weather: they shouldn't have. The morning sun was already hot on my shoulders as I stood and looked around at the bustling on the docks all around me. Moored ships moved restlessly, shifting and creaking, the forest of masts with their canopies of ropes and sails and pennants swaying ever so slightly in the breeze. My Rris escort gathered around me, keeping their distance but obviously uneasy at the attention I was drawing. On the shore and shipside, eyes were turning my way, and when the carriage moved off with a clatter of wheels and hooves on the cobbles, I started feeling very exposed.
I turned toward the shout to see Chaeitch stalking toward me from the direction of the warehouses and buildings, cutting across the foot and vehicle traffic rattling up and down the docks. It was a relief to see a familiar face. "You're ready, I see," he said as he approached, cocking his head to study me. "Clothes of your kind? You certainly stand out."
I looked down at myself. "They're comfortable," I said, a little defensively. Well, they were. My boots, jeans and a t-shirt. The Rris tailors could copy them, but my own clothes just felt... I don't know... made for me. And as for the clothes Chaeitch was wearing - a lightweight linen vest and a small kilt - I didn't think they'd suit me.
"Those are words?" he squinted at the t-shirt. "What does it say?"
"He's never told me," another voice spoke up and we turned to see Mai approaching, a small carpet bag slung over her shoulder. Her face pursed into a smile at my unabashed grin, "It's some sort of joke," she said to Chaeitch. "He'll have to explain that sometime."
"I've told you, it doesn't make sense in Rris."
"Ai," Chaeitch raised his hand. "Sorry to interrupt you, but there are people waiting for us."
I offered to carry Mai's bag and she simply gave me a curious look. "It's not heavy," she said and kept walking. For a second I stood there feeling stung, then a bit of a fool for expecting courtesies I'd grown up with to mean the same to them.
The boat was what you'd expect the government to have access to: a three-master, sleek, black-lacquered hull with clean lines and rigging, a vessel that looked built for speed and not cargo capacity. Sailors at work on deck stopped what they were doing to stare as we approached along the pier. I flexed suddenly sweaty palms on the strap of my pack where it was slung over my shoulder and a hand patted my arm. I looked down into Mai's reassuring face.
I was glad she'd said yes.
Midday sunlight sparkled and glittered on wavelets whipped up by the breeze that made the green sails overhead billow and snap. High above the masts, birds wheeled in the bright sky, their cries audible through the creaking of timbers and ropes, the slapping of water against the hull of the Kestrel, the shouts of the Rris sailors. Off to the right, starboard, lay land. Here the forest was broken by cleared land: farms, hamlets, a couple of villages. To the west, away in the distant lakeward haze, the far shore was almost imperceptibly drawing closer as the lake narrowed into the Blizzard River.
It wasn't going to be a long trip, nowhere nearly as bad as the one that'd brought me to Shattered Water. Blizzard's Coat wasn't far: about fifty kilometres from the capital. We'd been given a small, stuffy cabin belowdecks, but Mai and I stowed our gear there and spent most of the trip sitting in the sunlight on top of the central cabin. Talking, relaxing. She gave me a lazy impromptu lesson in the names of various parts of the rigging, and I let her try my sunglasses.
"Peculiar," she chittered, holding them in place and tilting her head to survey our surroundings. They really didn't fit properly: her muzzle was too broad for the nosepiece. I lounged back against the mast and smiled.
"An understatement," said a voice at my shoulder. Chaeitch joined us, sitting crosslegged on the warm wood of the cabin roof. Grey skin showed in the shaved sigils on his arms and I wondered if he'd have to worry about sunburn.
"Finished?" I asked him.
"A. Thankfully. Huhn, politics: unpleasant but necessary." He brushed at the fur of his forearm, smoothing it out.
"What's Hechic like?" I was referring to the deputy, our government representative.
"Ah," He waved his hand in a shrug, "He knows his business, but that would seem to be what he lives for."
"Not a barrel of laughs then," I said and both Rris barked sudden amusement, drawing a startled glance from a passing sailor.
"Another of your kinds' sayings?" Mai asked when she'd stopped chittering.
"Hey," I shrugged. "We've got a lot of them."
"A," Mai took off the glasses to bob her head in an exaggerated nod, handed them back to me as she said to Chaeitch, "Just when I think I know him, another surprise gallops over the hill."
And he glanced at me, flicked his ears in an expression that might have contained amusement: "So I've heard."
She gave him an odd look. "You've heard?"
Now he smiled again and gestured at me. "I work with him. It seems like every day we uncover something new."
He was. The bastard.
"Familiar feeling," Mai agreed.
"Hey," I protested, "I am still here, you know."
"Uhnn," she mock-growled in return and twisted, flopping backwards to lie with her head in my lap, blinking smugly up at me. "It's hard not to notice."
I stroked her cheek, then scratched my fingers through her warm fur: like petting a giant cat. Chaeitch cocked his head at the familiarity, but Mai stretched out in the sunlight and rumbled, "I could get used to this."
"This doesn't seem too new to you," Chaeitch said and caught my look. "I mean, this," he gestured at the shipboard activity around us.
"Huhn," she moved my hand to scratch at a point just behind her ears. "Oh, I saw plenty on the trip to Shattered Water."
"A, I didn't think you were local," he said. "Where're you from?"
"Meddling Times Tae'sashi," she said. "In the southern reaches. Not a big place, that's why I came to Shattered Water. I had some ideas... anyway, I quite filled my eyes with ships on that trip." She gestured at the masts and sails billowing overhead. "Still, this is an improvement over the fishers and coal barges."
Chaeitch chittered. "A royal schooner... I should hope so."
We reached Blizzard's Coat at about eight o'clock that evening.
Well before what I'd known as Goat Island, the ship broke away from the main channel, into the artificial breakwater of Blizzard's Coat's upper docks. The town clustered around the harbor, the stone quaysides lined with warehouses, stores, silos and storeyards. A steam-powered tug hauled us into dock, the toy of an engine stuttering and puffing smoke from the funnel as small paddle wheels churned, the crew calling directions as they slotted the Kestrel into a vacant berth among other vessels of all manner and description.
Someone was expecting us. I could see the cluster of Rris waiting on the dockside as ropes were thrown out and made secure. Official-looking types, in bright clothing and fur dye with jewelry sparkling in the evening light. There were guards there as well, waiting with musket longarms crossed over their chests. Behind them on the quayside sat a pair of open-top carriages with mounted troopers on llamas stationed around them.
Hechic was the first of the passengers off. A short Rris with russet fur and three silver earstuds through his left ear, flanked by a pair of guards he strode down to meet the reception committee. There was a short exchange before our own guards escorted Mai, Chaeitch and myself down the gangplank. The waiting Rris stared at me. One took a step backwards and I could see guards' fingers flexing on their weapons. Hechic murmured something to the Rris waiting in the center of the group and that individual's ears twitched as we approached.
"Your lordship," Hechic was saying as we approached. The title 'lordship' isn't entirely accurate, but it's the closest I can come to their term which denotes a male of rank with overtones of physical as well as social domination. "Your lordship, these are Chaeitch ah Ties of the Wilder Workshops and the special guest you were informed of. His name is Mikah, a... h'mahn, and an honored guest and client of the Palace." This last he said as if driving home a point. Whatever his motives, the other got the message and inclined his head slightly:
"Welcome to Blizzard's Coat. I trust you journeyed well."
Hy'itchshaetie ah Metari, the town's lord mayor. I remembered that from the briefing I'd received back in Shattered Water. His family was an old one, well established, wealthy enough for a Metari to hold the title for several generations. A good mayor, by all accounts: stable, just, protective of his territory and ruthless in pursuit of his goals. I followed Chaeitch's example and bowed, just a slight bend at the waist. As a representative from the king, Chaeitch was technically of equal ranking, and the papers he carried guaranteed cooperation from our hosts, but he still showed polite deference to the mayor.
"Very well," he replied amiably. "We couldn't have asked for better wind or weather. Made excellent time."
"Good to hear," the mayor replied and cocked his head at me. "Now, is everything I've heard about this one true?"
"That would depend on what you've heard, sir," I said.
Metari flinched, a jerk of his head and flaring of nostrils. "Ah, you do talk. I hadn't been sure whether or not someone was playing games."
I didn't smile when I said, "I'm almost used to it."
He blinked, cocked his head, then turned his gaze on Mai standing at my side. She hastily bowed her head and the mayor twitched an ear and then turned back to Chaeitch, as if she was nothing to be concerned with. "I suggest you start your work in the light tomorrow. For now I can offer you a roof, a meal and somewhere to sleep."
"And they'd all be most welcome," Chaeitch replied. The mayor turned a shoulder to me as he fell in beside Chaeitch, escorting him toward the waiting carriages. I hoisted up my pack and started to follow when Mai laid a hand on my arm, stopping me and peering up at my face. Her expression... anxious, worried... I wasn't sure, but I understood what she meant. And in reply I just shrugged, then patted her shoulder and fell into step with her behind the other two.
And as the carriages rattled along cobblestoned docksides, the escort cutting a swathe through the evening traffic and activity, the evening air carrying scents of fishing nets, water, and the elk drawing the carriages, I caught a first glimpse of what we'd be working on. The rails were rickety-looking things, very narrow gauge. Through the open gate of a yard I saw a couple of flatbed cars shunted aside; they didn't look as though they'd been used in a while. Nearby was an engine: a boiler on a flat rail car, pistons powering driving wheels that must've been taller than I am. Barely harnessed power straining to be unleashed it wasn't. A trio of Rris were standing around. I saw one take a hammer to some component, the ringing of metal on metal carrying until we were out of earshot.
End Light on Shattered Water 28