Light on Shattered Water
We were treated very well. Like visiting royalty.
Our lodgings were in the Chistri Einter House. Loosely: an exclusive guest-house, not quite similar to a hotel. It was a sprawling old stone building near the city hall, a foreboding exterior facade with an interior that'd been remodeled recently. The windows were glazed, there was indoor plumbing with hot water, and the floors had a newer feel than many of the panelled walls. We were housed on the third floor under armed guard, each with our own rooms. 'Plush' would go a ways to describing mine, with patterned russet velvet wall coverings, elaborately carved wood and leather furniture, a fur-covered bed big enough to hold a hockey match on in the bedroom. In the main room glazed french doors opened onto a balcony overlooking the green of a park. Mai - as my 'servant' (something I objected to but she insisted I let lie) - had a single small room adjoining mine. It was small and sparsely furnished compared with my more than sufficient suite, but she proclaimed it luxurious. I guess when compared with her little room near the Cormorant, it was.
Chaeitch lolled his tongue when he saw the interconnecting doors.
During our stay we didn't spend much time at the House, but at least it was a comfortable place to end the days. The rest of our time was filled with the reason we were there in the first place.
An armed escort lurked in the background as we went about our work. The lines on the docks were basic things: narrow gauge steel tracks pegged directly to the ties. There were about a dozen kilometres of line, running from the upper dockyards down to a yard near the docks below the falls. When the engines were working properly they could haul an amount equivalent to about fifteen wagons - about ten tonnes - but they were something less than reliable. They'd just been a trial, a joint project between the Government, Wilder shops and the Mining Guild trialing the use of steam power to haul goods. So far it'd met with mixed results and the main drawbacks seemed to be the power and reliability of the engines.
Looking at them, it wasn't too surprising. They were the old model of engine, the types that'd been state-of-the-art when I first arrived, but they simply didn't have the durability or sheer horsepower to make them practical. Every one of the three engines we inspected showed signs of wear, from leaking seams to loose rivets and bolts. There'd have to be changes there: in the boilers, the pistons, the axles and wheels... rebuild the whole thing. It'd be easier in the long run.
And the tracks would have to be upgraded, and that in itself posed an interesting little problem. Future demands would doubtless be much greater than the present time, requiring wider gauge and stronger tracks and foundation. If we built to such specifications they'd be able to handle larger cars, but would also need a whole new class of engine to haul them. Possible, but it'd mean a lot of work would have to go into getting the engines up and running as quickly as possible.
Alternatively, we could work with a narrower gauge track for the meantime and upgrade the line as need be. Chaeitch favored that approach, saying that it was necessary to demonstrate to the providers of the funds just how effective the rail system could be. Then there'd be plenty of time to change. He had a point, but I could see the current gauge tracks slowly spreading out, a bit at a time; people always saying 'later', until things reached a point where replacing all the lines and ties and sleepers and embankments would be a major undertaking.
Mai was at my side, looking faintly bored as Chaeitch and I followed the Mining Guild representative through the yards, examining the sleepers, places where the ground hadn't been prepared properly and the lines had subsided slightly. It really wasn't very interesting. I saw her stifle a yawn and let the others go ahead down the line so I could whisper to her, "I know. You didn't have to come."
"No, no," she protested. "It's..." the hesitation was all I needed.
"Not your idea of a good time, a?" I provided and she looked sheepish, a drooping of her ears that made me laugh. "I don't blame you. Why don't you head on back? I can fill you in on all the fascinating details later."
She chittered. "I'm sure. But, this is an improvement on sitting around waiting for you, and at least I can see some of the town."
"Sorry it's not the most exciting parts," I said, gesturing to the goods yard with its wooden fence and the battered cars we were walking beside. "Still, maybe we'll have a chance to see the falls while we're here. If they're anything like the ones in my world, they're supposed to be quite spectacular."
"I should think so," she said. "They did name the city after them. Perhaps some evening, after your work is finished."
"I'd like that," I said. "If our keepers let us."
"Speaking of whom," she said and gestured at the others, who'd gotten some distance ahead of us and were waiting beside an engine shunted off onto a siding. Chaeitch beckoned.
"No rest for the wicked," I sighed and we picked up the pace a bit, and as we rounded the last of the flatbed cars I looked out across the yard and over the rickety wooden fence to the buildings overlooking the yard. For a second I was mildly amused that they'd bothered to post guards on the roofs, and then the silhouette registered.
... Crouching, braced against a chimney stack with the gun raised to a shoulder. The longarm foreshortened because it was aimed directly at me...
Like the world was moving in slow motion. I was turning and Mai was rounding the last car as I screamed at her and started to run and she was looking puzzled as I hit her in a flying tackle, bodily hurling her back behind the bulk of the flatbed car and there was a smash of splintering wood and a flatter crack following that. We hit the cobbles with a force that knocked the breath out of me even as I tried to cover Mai and she was struggling back, trying to do the same. More gunshots were sounding out and more bodies hit us: fur and muscles and armor piling around. And I huddled on the dirt and cobbles under the carriage and held tight to Mai while chaos reigned around us.
Shouted orders. The gunfire petered out to be replaced by more shouting and voices. The weight smothering me shifted as the bodyguards got up and then there were flashes of pain as clawed hands grabbed at me and hauled me to my feet amidst a shield of alert Rris soldiery. I saw Mai, standing beside a car with her arms wrapped around herself, looking dazed.
"Mai!" I shouted and guards laid hands on me. I shrugged them off, ignoring claws raking across my arm as I pushed through to her and grabbed her shoulders: "You're all right?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine," she said in a distracted manner, then looked up at me, down and her eyes widened. "You're bleeding!"
"Uh?" I glanced at my arm: the four marks where a guard had been over-zealous were bleeding freely and I wasn't feeling a thing. "Oh, just claws."
Eyes that were just glistening black pools stared at me, then back to the rooftop where soldiers were already appearing and her muzzle twitched, baring a flash of white teeth. She snorted and turned back to me, suddenly steady as a rock once more. "Let's see that," she said, catching my arm. "Huhn, looks familiar. Idiots."
"He's all right?" another breathless voice asked. Chaeitch was wild-eyed, panting as he ran up with his own escort. "Rot, what happened to him? Was he hit?"
"I'm fine," I lied: it was starting to hurt. But there was something else that had begun to itch more than the wound...
"Just a scratch," Mai assured him. "I think we should get him somewhere I can clean it though."
"Good idea," he said and looked around at the surrounding buildings, his tail tucking between his legs as if he were suddenly feeling very exposed. "Good idea."
That incident pretty much put the lid on the carefully laid-out schedule that'd been prepared. I was sent back to my quarters under heavy guard, with armed soldiers at the door, down the hall. Mai showed up to help tend to my scratches and we sat in a patch of sunlight in the main room of the suite while she dressed them.
"You sure you're all right?" she asked after a while. "You're quiet."
"Oh, sorry. I'm managing." I watched her hands dabbing gauze at my arm, "Just thinking."
Her hand faltered for a second, then she gripped the swab again and looked up at me. "They'll find him. I'm sure they will. This will pass."
Her eyes widened, just a little, and I flinched a bit when a furry hand caught mine. "Mikah, it doesn't mean it'll change. It's too early to tell." Her expression was alien, just fragments of emotion I could scrape with my fingertips but never fully grasp, but I could see anxiety, perhaps fear.
It was taken aback. "I don't understand."
Now her tufted ears flickered and slowly laid back. "Please, don't. The guards might be there, but it's not a prison. I know you've fought for life before, so it has some value for you. Please, remember what you fought for."
And I stared back, not knowing what to say. She was concerned, thinking about the changes that'd eventuate from this attempt on my life: the extra security, guards, restrictions... something that hadn't occurred to me. And she was scared to death at what I might do, remembering what I'd done in the past.
And that realisation sank in, settling like a lead weight on my other problems. I looked into her eyes, at a window into another soul that I'd so wanted to touch, and I could only make a promise I'd already broken once. "I'm not going anywhere," I managed a smile.
She returned it, a look of relief easing the bunched muscles beneath her facial fur. "I'll hold you to your word. A?" A single claw jabbed at my hand by way of emphasis.
Predictably, our visit was cut short.
Dawn arose over a city still swarming with Mediators and garrison troops hunting for the perpetrator. I wished them luck: I doubted they'd find anything. In the meantime, our little group was ushered back to the Kestrel under heavy guard. We set sail while the dew was damp on the grass and the sun was still a red eye over the rooftops and smoking chimneys of Blizzard's Coat.
I followed the high towers until they were lost in the trees and haze of distance, then made my way around to the bow. Cooler that day: a clear sky but brisk breeze that pebbled my skin while I watched glittering wavelets breaking against the bow and thought about things I didn't want to.
"You're quiet," a rough voice rumbled.
I looked around: Chaeitch. I felt muscles twitch. "Just thinking," I said, smiling tightly. Mai was... doing female stuff.
"Ah?" he rested an arm against the gunwales, his fur rippling in the breeze. "About what?"
"Oh," I stared at him, watching closely. "Tell me, how far away was the shooter?"
And the doors closed. Almost imperceptible, but it was there. "You're worried about that?"
"Ah, I'm not sure. I would say... perhaps seventy meters?"
"About what I thought. Good shooting for a musket. Very good."
"A professional..." he started to say and I cut in: "You're making them, aren't you."
"Chaeitch, please. Don't. That range... it was too accurate, and it didn't sound like a musket, and the bullet struck before the sound and I know you've been milling rifled barrels and searching my laptop for information on weapons."
His ears went back. "You knew?"
"I knew. That was why Hirht let me out of the Palace? Just so you'd have a chance to look for ways to kill each other? Every time Mai and I... Oh, Christ... she didn't... that was why she did it? Just to get me away from the laptop?"
He studied me for a second, then turned back to gaze out over the water, his tail tucked. "No," he said, exhaled loudly. "No, she knew nothing about it."
I felt... relieved.
"So, you're making weapons. And one of those almost killed me. Almost killed Mai."
And he just waved agreement. "I know," he said morosely. "I don't know how it happened, but I'll find out." A hesitation, then he added, "You knew about your machine? You could've stopped us, couldn't you."
"Why didn't you?"
Why didn't I? If I'd put a password lock on the thing, this wouldn't have happened. Not yet, anyway; not with a rifle, anyway. "You might not have asked so nicely," I said.
A second for that to sink in, then his head snapped around with his eyes black pools ringed in amber. "You think we'd do that?"
"I really don't know what to think."
"But that we'd try to... to coerce you?!"
I raised my hand, then let it drop onto the railing. "I don't know. Hirht... I don't think he would. But once I asked someone, a Rris, what would happen if I didn't cooperate. He said things might not go so well."
Chaeitch's ears laid back. "That wouldn't happen."
"What would happen," I asked, "if I left? If I just went out there," I gestured toward the passing shoreline and the wide world beyond, "somewhere?"
He looked, then back at me, then away again. "I... don't know."
"You'd come after me," I said, answering my own question. Saying what he didn't want to. "I've been hunted by Rris once. It wasn't enjoyable."
Wide eyes turned back to me. "You fear us so much?"
Fear... Caution, with every Rris I ever met. Trying to fathom out just what each was thinking. Never able to instinctively read the emotions, to feel the empathy that'd come naturally with humans. "I don't know. I can't read you as I could my own kind, like I'm standing outside a conversation looking in. I don't know what Rris are thinking, whom to trust. Everyone seems to have their agendas."
He looked away again, obviously uncomfortable at the reference. I hadn't meant it like that, to insinuate that he... oh, god. It was a long, awkward time of silence, both of us watching the water until another voice ventured, "Something going on?"
Mai strolled up with a clicking of claws on the decking, her head tipped to the side. "Nothing," I said. "Just talking."
"Ah?" She pushed in close, bumping up against my side. I could feel her warmth through my shirt. "About what?"
"Oh, the world, trust, friendship."
For a while she didn't respond, then while Chaeitch watched, she put an arm around me and leaned her head against me. "They can be difficult to find, a?"
I returned the familiar gesture, hugging her to my side. "A."
"I don't know how I can apologise," Hirht said. "An incident like this... it's simply unthinkable. I can assure you we will do everything in our power to find out who's responsible."
About what I'd been expecting. I sat back on the cushion in his big marble office and looked out the expensive windows as I asked. "Any ideas yet?"
The Rris king looked uncomfortable, stalking back and forth; looking for all the world like a caged big cat. "As yet, no. Embassies deny all knowledge of such action and all have sent condolences and offers of their support."
"Mikah, I'm truly sorry about this."
"Sir, I suppose I should learn to expect things like this. It sort of comes with the territory, I'm an obvious target for anyone who doesn't like me or changes, a?"
"A," he murmured and stopped his pacing to look out at the Palace grounds. "If you wish... your security can be increased."
That was most likely what Mai and the Shattered Water officals had discussed on our return. "More guards, bars, that sort of thing?"
He snorted. "Not so simplistic, but following those tracks."
I nodded. "I think I'll take my chances."
"Quite," I said. "I take it Mai's already discussed this with you though."
"Maithris, a," the Rris king sighed. "We spoke. She was concerned about your health, your reaction to this incident." He turned, regarding me. "She was quite... emphatic about it. After last time, I did feel it was prudent to take her advice."
"She can be persuasive," I agreed, smiling a little.
"That she can," he rumbled and I caught the tip of his tail twitching and curling around on itself. "That she can."
"And you don't like it."
His amber eyes locked on me and the tail froze, his slip hastily brought under control. "No. I can't say that I do," he said. "You're a very valuable commodity. Losing you would be a disaster of extraordinary magnitude. Now your life's been threatened, and she tells us that our very efforts to protect you could be more dangerous. It's not a situation to set my heart to rest."
"I'm sorry, sir."
"Sorry, sahhh," he hissed. "Trouble stalks you, doesn't it."
I just ducked my head. "Sir, I don't mean to."
"I know. Red tie me... how much is true? The doctor said you don't think like us and I don't pretend to fully understand what that means. But I try to skirt the safer side of a situation and that necessitates following her advice. There will be more security watching you, but they'll be keeping their distance. Your schedule... that won't change." The Rris studied his feet, then exhaled: a deep sigh before he raised his head to fix me with an amber stare.
"Mikah, I'm listening to the doctor, but is she right?"
I hesitated, trying to frame my reply. "Sir, I... I don't know. She knows me... she tries to understand me. I don't know just how well, probably no more than I can fully understand Rris, but what she did..." I sighed and started to make a Rris gesture, then closed my hand tight. "She saved my life. I know I couldn't go back to the way things were."
His irises flinched, expanding and contracting in a heartbeat. Then he extended a hand and tipped it. "No. No, that won't happen. You are friends, aren't you."
"Sir, she's taught me more about your kind and your world than books and lectures ever could."
"A," his eyes twitched away for a split second again. "A, I suppose it is for the best. Thank you, Mikah."
My dismissal. I ducked my head respectfully. "Sir," I bade him and stood. I could feel him watching me as I left his office: a prickling between my shoulderblades.
It was chilly that early morning. My breath fogged as I stood at the quayside, my hands in my pockets as I watched the Rris workmen going about the final preparations. Their own breath formed brief clouds as they carted sackloads of coal, loaded them down into the fuel hatches. Cool weather, but most of the laborers were stripped off: furry bodies of all shades of brown and fawn and grey. The revealed bodies were like studies in the Rris form, inhuman muscles rippling under the hides, the proportions all wrong to my eyes: long legs, short arms and small hands. I caught snatches of the conversations they carried out while they worked, fragments of exchanges about the work, home life, jokes, mutters about me, the ship...
Ah, the ship. It had a name now. The Rris working on it had taken to calling it something that might translate as Ironheart - in reference to its metal guts - and the name stuck. Ironheart was nestled up against the quay at the foot of the workshop slipway. At twenty-five metres from stem to stern it wasn't a small vessel. The laminated hull was low, sleeker than most Rris waterborne craft. The majority was constructed from wood, varnished and treated to emphasize the grain. Trimmings - the rails, scuppers and waterline - were painted black, in counterpoint to the polished metal of brass fixtures. The steersman's cockpit was set at the stern, just fore of the twin metal smokestacks with ornate tops. Like a modern cabin cruiser, the cockpit was just behind and above the central passenger cabin positioned amidships, while fore of that was the cargo hold.
Chaeitch was on the forward deck, talking with someone out of sight down an open hatch. Too far to hear what he was saying, but he gesticulated a couple of times, then vanished belowdecks.
"The time for telling, a?" A Rris voice at my shoulder asked. Rraerch glanced up at me when I looked around. "It's a good-looking vessel."
"If looks were everything we'd be home free."
Her muzzle wrinkled. "Home free?" she asked.
I thought it over, then admitted, "I don't think that translates very well."
"A," her ears flickered. "One of your famous sayings again. Well, so far everything is performing as expected. Barring unpleasant surprises, I think this run will go well."
Over on the ship Chaeitch re-emerged, still talking with someone down below. "You shouldn't discount unpleasant surprises," I said.
Rraerch glanced my way, followed my gaze and her ears went back.
Just under an hour later Ironheart cast off from its moorings and slipped out into the current. Morning sunlight glinted off the stack, tinting the smoke that puffed out slowly at first, then in a darker cloud. I could see crew moving about on deck as she smoothly swung around; a figure I recognised as Chaeitch raised an arm in farewell. I hesitated before waving back. A pause, then the water under the stern churned and she picked up speed, moving downstream past a lone fishing boat.
Rraerch stood by my side and together we watched as the first ship and then the smoke was lost beyond the breakwater.
"Now, we wait," Rraerch said.
I nodded. Rris workers were beginning to drift back to their jobs.
Furry knuckles brushed my arm, making me look around at Rraerch. "Chaeitch told me what happened."
"A," she glanced away. "I'm sorry. That really bothers you so much?"
"Bothers me? That you lied to me? or that a weapon you made against my wishes almost killed me?"
"Huhnn," she rumbled, a low exhalation, and her ears tipped back just a little. "That wasn't intended. Never."
"Intentions," I said dully, my hands in my pockets. "Good intentions lead to bad places. I trusted you. I wanted to trust you. Now this."
"You must've known that at some time..." she didn't finish, instead hissed and gave a quick shake of her head. "Mikah, I'm sorry. I can't undo what's been done." Another hesitation, then: "I have to ask: you won't help us, and that I can sympathise with, but will you stop us?"
There was a familiar tension in my guts again. I looked out over the river, toward the far shore, the boats and buildings there, then toward a pair of guards stationed on the waterfront. "I... I can't get involved in that. You understand? A target I would be a..." I stammered to a halt, swallowed and looked at her, feeling my heart knocking. "And you... if I did, what would you do?"
And she looked back at me and her nostrils flared, eyes blinking before her expression melted into shock. "We wouldn't do anything. You understand that? Mikah, we wouldn't hurt you. On that you can trust me."
The squad of guards outside my door stiffened to attention as I returned. "Hi," I said as usual and as usual received a perfunctory 'sir'.
Inside, went over to stand in the window and look out at the late-afternoon sunlight spilling across the meadows and trees of the Palace grounds, vented a profound sigh of weariness. I shucked off my boots, one at a time, letting them lie where they fell, then just dropped facefirst onto the bed and tried to relax. It'd been an exasperating day: my meeting with the Woodworkers Guild had been incredibly frustrating and now my neck muscles felt like knotted wood. I had a tension across my shoulderblades, and the ache went deep into old scar tissue.
When I heard the door open - my dinner, same time as usual - I didn't turn over. "Just leave it on the desk, thank you," I mumbled into the eiderdown.
The door closed again and I sighed, trying to dredge up the wherewithal to go and eat something.
And I almost screamed when a furry figure sprawled across my legs. I twisted around to look down at grinning teeth and a flash of mischievous eyes. "Surprise?"
"Christ," I collapsed back, breathing hard as my heart settled back down to merely twice its usual rate. "Mai, did you have to do that?"
"No, but it was amusing." Clawed fingers walked up my back and her hand rubbed. "How're you feeling?"
"Oh, just a bit tired. Long day."
"Ah," her hand pushed a bit, prodding my muscles. "Huhn, you're tense."
I sagged under the impromptu massage. "Hmmm?"
"A," she said, kneading hard enough that claws poked through my shirt. "I know something that might help you unwind. You interested in some entertainment?"
"Hnn? Now?" I raised an eyebrow. "I don't know that I can be very entertaining at the... Ai!"
She retracted the claw and chittered. "Not that sort! A play. I thought you might like to see one."
"A play? A Rris play?"
"There's only one kind," she reminded me and leaned forward to speak next to my ear: "You feel like going?"
"Does water flow downhill? Of course. Where? When?"
She laughed again and patted my back. "In town. It starts in a couple of hours, and if you're wondering we'll be able to get food there."
I had time to wash and change into a clean pair of Rris-made pants and one of my shirts. Mai studied me thoughtfully, then pulled my head over and raked claws through my hair. "Better," was her verdict. I still wasn't used to not having handy mirrors.
A carriage was waiting for us outside, draught llamas in the traces, the armed escorts riding their own animals. As we clattered off down the drive I looked at Mai sitting opposite: "You had this all planned."
Maithris looked away from the window and flashed me a quick glint of teeth, copying one of my smiles. "A. I thought you'd say yes."
She smiled smugly in her own way.
The carriage made for the south-eastern quarter of Shattered Water: an area not too far from Mai's home, but considerably more affluent. The stores there had glass in the windows, the goods in them were finer, more expensive; the Rris on the streets were better dressed, and there were fewer beggars in the alleyways between buildings.
We stopped in a small square with a fountain in the center: a squat pillar with a bronze raptor's head gushing water set into each face. As I climbed out I couldn't help but notice I had the undivided attention of every Rris around. How many Rris in Shattered Water again? I wondered how long it would take for them all to get used to me. Not a likely prospect.
The building Mai led me toward wasn't small. The outside was a two-story facade of visible wooden beams and whitewash peeling from plaster and bricks. A few glazed windows up near the roof caught the late afternoon sun while a small crowd was gathered around the double doors at the entrance. They parted as Mai escorted me through and into the now-familiar corridor through to the heart of the building.
"Ma'am!" a voice called and a Rris hurried toward us down the hall with ears back. "Ma'am, you can't..." the Rris said and trailed off as it got a good look at me and the jaw dropped. "Rot me... it... It's you. It is. Rot me!"
"Is what?" I asked and the Rris simply stared.
Mai made a throat-clearing noise, then waved a hand to catch his attention. "I'm Maithris aesh Teremae. Choyiath said we'd be expected."
"A... yes Ma'am. As you requested." The Rris looked me up and down again and uttered a small hiss. "Remarkable. They just got it..."
"Our seats," Mai interrupted and the Rris flinched. "Of course. Please, this way."
"What's that about?" I whispered to Mai as we followed. "Got it what? What's he talking about?"
She flashed me a glittering grin that promised mischief and pulled me along.
Upstairs. Along a dim corridor with a scratched wooden floor. An archway opened onto a room that our Rris guide ushered us into, "Your seats, Ma'am. If you need anything, just ask."
I was looking around. The room was a U-shaped gallery on the second floor overlooking the atrium. Perhaps it'd once been a balcony around the edge of the courtyard, now it was opened out, floored in polished wood, roofed over, and provided with an ornate balcony rail. Carved wooden screen doors were folded back from where they'd normally cover the balcony, chairs and tables set out with a good view looking down into the courtyard.
There were tables down there. Rris sat at them and moved among them, eating, talking, carrying food and drinks. The low rumble of Rris conversation drifted up as a muted background noise. All the tables were arranged to focus attention on the far side of the atrium. There the far wall of the courtyard had been rebuilt, forming a thrust stage covered by a peaked wooden roof. While the front of the stage was visible, upstage was hidden behind patched curtains of a faded blue with gold trim.
"Have a seat," Mai invited, gesturing to one of a pair of wicker chairs at a table. I settled carefully, making sure the chair would hold. It did, and there was a good view of the stage. There were a few other Rris up on the balcony, none too close. I also saw the guards surreptitiously taking up their positions near the door. I wasn't surprised.
A nervous Rris appeared to gingerly place a tray on the table and retreat with a clicking of claws. I examined the contents of the tray: platters of thickly sliced meat, heavy bread, wedges of cheeses and a bottle of wine. Some of the meat had been cooked to something approaching what I found acceptable.
"Help yourself," Mai bade me with a sweep of her arm that turned into a grab at a piece of cheese she popped into her mouth.
I was hungry. I did.
Peculiar experience to add to my ever-growing list: Wine and cheese with an alien on a warm summer evening while waiting for a play to start. Mai laughed when I mentioned it and said she could say the same thing.
Down in the courtyard, gas lamps were being lit around the periphery of the stage. The crowd was beginning to settle down, relatively speaking. And then a yowling cheer went up from the audience as a single Rris wearing shorts and fringed bands on wrists and ankles walked out on stage and began speaking. A narrator, I realised, relating the storyline to the audience, who weren't going to take it sitting down. There was laughter, shouting, replies to rhetorical questions thrown their way. Audience participation... couldn't really do that with TV.
Hearing what was being said was a little difficult for me. The acoustics might've been ideal for Rris, but they were less than that for me. Nevertheless, I was able to get the gist of what was happening: The Narrator was setting the story, what had happened and what was going to happen. When finished, after an overly-elaborate bow that drew chitters, the Narrator withdrew and the curtains went up... across.
The stage was set up like a cross-section of a house, with platforms and dividing walls creating different rooms. A wealthy town house, occupied by a successful merchant, servants, and a host of other characters who came and went.
It was a comedy, or perhaps a farce. I learned that soon enough from the chittering laughter rising from the audience. I even managed to understand a few of the jokes myself. The plot... well, that stretched my grasp of the Rris language to breaking point. As best as I could understand the merchant's daughter had an interest in the son of a rival, something the merchant wasn't entirely happy about. He asked the girl's mother to speak to her about it and it turned out she quite liked the idea. Meanwhile, the merchant's current house-partner was also spending time with the daughter's paramour. A comedy love-triangle, or the nearest Rris society could come to such.
There was a lot of running around onstage. Actors ducking from mock room to mock room, hiding behind props. There were soliloquies from various characters describing what they were plotting, what they were going to do next. The audience cheered and laughed, shouted suggestions and replies toward the troupe as the story picked up momentum.
And I walked in.
I nearly fell out of my chair. Down there on the stage was a Rris actor hidden behind an elaborate mask of what was obviously meant to be my face. A golden-blonde mane, jeans, long-sleeved shirt, peculiar boots and shaven hands completed the picture, and the picture painted was... grotesque. I stared, looked at Maithris who was regarding me with ill-hidden amusement, looked back to the stage, and blushed with a heat I felt to the roots of my hair.
On stage, the merchant's histrionic reaction of surprise mirrored mine. My character mimed ill-disguised boredom while waiting for him to settle down. Mai chittered, her laughter drowned by the audience.
It... I... my character offered some unspecified knowledge, promising great returns for the investment. The merchant agreed, and from then on my character made other spot appearances: scaring other characters, paying more attention to paintings than important guests, making grammatical faux pas that had the audience in stitches, and generally playing complete counterpoint to the pompous dignity of other characters.
I started to realise I wasn't being portraited in such a bad light. But some of the mannerisms were so clearly mine that... I cast a suspicious glance in Mai's direction. Whatever their source, it was disturbingly accurate: a glimpse of the way Rris saw me. And the rest of the play added to my growing encyclopaedia about the Rris.
No marriage, no mating for life. The Merchant looked after a daughter had by a previous mate. They stayed in touch as they went on with their lives, but there were no fixed ties, no permanent commitments. A solitary, polygamous people. I know there're human cultures with similar mores, but with the Rris it's not simply a matter of environment and society dictating their lifestyle, it's hard-wired into their psyche.
Less inhibited as well. I'd known that beforehand, but I still didn't expect to see a sex act on stage. Simulated, of course: it was the wrong time of year for that sort of thing. Still, it was a joke that seemed to appeal to the audience: a Rris couple going at it hammer and tongs in a room while next door the merchant was discussing business. Short and sharp, the two furry bodies reminded me of big cats in rut.
And the play ended with the successful merchant meeting up again with an old lover, his current mistress running off with his daughter's paramour, and his daughter running off with my character. I wasn't too sure if I approved of that conclusion, but if the howls that went up when the curtains went down were anything to judge by, the audience liked it.
"You had something to do with that?" I asked the smirking Rris sitting opposite once the carriage was under way.
"Not I," she said, leaning back out of the flickers of illumination coming through the window so her face was in shadows. "That play's been running for about a week. It's been very popular. I thought you might be interested." A hesitation, then she asked, "You're not offended?"
There'd been awkward moments leaving the playhouse. Patrons had seen us and for a second thought I was the actor in costume. Then they realised their mistake and hastily fell back.
"Hai," someone called out. "Where'd you find a creature like that?"
"Oh, she followed me home," I replied. "So I kept her."
Jaws dropped, ears sagged like dishcloths, just before the exclamations started up. The guards closed around us as we pushed through the growing crowd toward the carriage. There was a considerable mob gathered to gawp as we clambered in, and I'm sure I saw a few of the cast still in costume among them.
And a few minutes later, rattling through darkened streets, I reflected on her question. "Offended? No, I don't think so. It was... amusing. Interesting to see how Rris perceive me," I cocked my head. "They seemed to know quite a bit about me. They had some help?"
There a pause before she answered. "I really didn't have anything to do with it. Servants maybe. People who've seen you around town. You liked it?"
I couldn't help myself, I broke into a broad grin. "I liked it."
In the flickering shadows she might have looked pleased. It was difficult to tell.
It was going on half-twelve before we got back to the Palace. On the way we talked; about the play, about some of my work, what Mai was doing, a painting Eserét was working on. All to soon I found we were in the hall outside my door, the everpresent guards watching us from their posts. She asked if she could come in for a while. For a while, I agreed.
"A good evening," I sighed, closing the door behind her. "We'll be able to do it again sometime?"
"Sometime, most certainly," she assured me, reaching for the ceiling in a sinew-crackling stretch. "You'd like to see that play again? It'd be interesting to see what they come up with."
"Of course." She shook herself off and looked at me oddly, then at the laptop. "Ah, I see. No, the troupes change the plays. There's a different ending every few days. If someone thinks up a new joke, or there's something they think might be interesting or fun, they add it."
"Why, thank you," I grinned.
She cocked her head, then caught on. I dodged a mock-swipe and she spent a second smoothing her fur down. "You flatter yourself."
"Someone has to," I responded.
She chittered and moved a bit closer, to gently cuff my chin with her hand as her eyes regarded me. "Ah, you're not so bad to look at. Someone might almost be able to get used to you after a while."
"Oh. Insults. Just what I need," I said and she laughed. I also grinned, then scratched at my neck and frowned. A warm evening: I'd worked up a bit of a sweat. "I think I need a wash."
"Again?" Mai cocked her head. "Why don't your hands sweat like a proper person's?"
"At least I don't have to worry about heat stroke," I retorted. "I'll just be a minute. You really don't have to hang around."
She looked thoughtful, then grinned a peculiar little grin. "No. No, I'll wait."
So I went through to the bathroom to strip out of a shirt that'd been worn for too long and splash some water on my face. I chatted with Mai through the door as my jeans joined the shirt and I gave myself a cursory rub-down with a Rris washcloth almost coarse enough to hurt. My skin was pebbling in the cooling air as I wrapped a scratchy towel around my waist and went back out to say goodnight.
And was somewhat surprised to find the lights had changed: were lower, with the oil lamp on the desk adding a flickery orange glow. The drapes were closed, waving and rustling gently in the breeze from the open windows behind them. More surprised to find Mai... Mai was waiting for me. Waiting on the bed, legs tucked up and tail curled around, breeches folded beside her, and lambent eyes watching me. She growled, low and slow like distant thunder.
A single fluid blur of fur and muscle and nothing else as she flowed to her feet and slowly moved toward me. A sinuous movement, hips swinging as she moved: step by careful step, amber eyes locked on me, as a cat might stalk prey. Fingerpads touched my neck, traced down. Claws tickled my skin. My hackles stood straight up. "Mai?" I squeaked.
She growled softly, like a predator.
"Won't disturb us," she rumbled back and I was abruptly aware that her finger was at my hip, hooking under the towel. A quick tug and...
Cloth puddled on the floor.
Mai was moving around me: slowly, provocatively, running her fingers over sensitive places. I shuddered, my skin tingling with the touch as I turned and she moved closer, suddenly nipping at my chin and neck, pushing gently with claws extended. I retreated from the little pinpricks, moving back until I ran out of space as the bed appeared behind my knees. I sat and she didn't stop, moved closer and pushed with both hands and suddenly I was flat on my back.
A predator crouched over me, snarling softly as she moved up. Amber eyes gazed into mine, the pupils flexing as she studied me, then she lunged and nipped my nose. A pause before she finally cracked and started to chitter.
"Had your fun?" I asked quietly.
"No," she grinned back and a hand started moving, claws gently raking across my skin. "Not yet."
I gasped, responding to the sensations. "What..." I started to say, and she interrupted with another nip, then rasped a sandpaper tongue over my cheek. A low voice growled, "My turn now."
Hands on my chest as she sat up to straddle me. Squirming, small sounds from both of us as the sensations engulfed me. And as the heat built, I reached out for the inhuman woman pinning me, just touching fur before she caught my wrists and pinned my hands back to the sheets. Harsh breath panted and glowing eyes meeting mine as she moved, rocking to and fro, setting the pace even as she teased me. I dug fingers into the bedclothes, grasping handfuls of cloth as we gasped together, our pulses merging.
Movement. A motion that was the same for two so different; that tension building in both of us. Her eyes wide as she panted and mewled louder and faster, then threw her head back and yowled like a siren. Clawed fingers skimmed across my chest, the claws scratching just deep enough to...
A soundless scream through my system, muscles stretching for a release that came like a light washing the world away, and when it returned I was laying limp with a dead weight sprawled across me. I closed my eyes, listening and feeling the pounding of two hearts slowly settling.
"Mikah?" My name was spoken in a low rumble I felt through my bones.
"You all right?"
I cracked an eye to meet an amber gaze regarding me carefully. "Oh, I think so," I murmured, feeling the warmth where we were still joined. "What was that about?"
She laid her head on my chest. "From your plays. You don't remember?"
Those films she'd seen... I chuckled. "A. I remember. Why?"
She rumbled, a claw tracing across my skin. "Oh, felt like it. Wondered what it felt like to take charge. I've never been able to ride the male before." She chittered a little, then asked, "You've done this before?"
Jackie, lying where Mai was now... that was another time and another place. I smiled and touched Mai's face. "Yes. A bit different with you."
"A bit different for both of us," she amended, fingers rubbing my chest, toying with my hair. Then almost casually she asked, "Ah, your hand coverings. You have those?"
"We'll need them?"
She growled softly, "Oh, yes." And then nipped at me, lathing a rough tongue across my chest and nipple. I twitched, ticklish. She saw, started nipping again. I struggled, not extremely hard, and very quickly our play turned to another kind of rolling around.
It was early morning before exhaustion finally got the upper hand. The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes was Mai: already asleep, curled up at my side. Somewhere, deep inside, I felt... safe.
End Light on Shattered Water 29