Light on Shattered Water
"You want it WHEN?"
"There's a problem with that?" Kh'hitch asked, the lay of his ears indicating displeasure.
I looked at the advisor in disbelief, then took a deep breath. "Sir, in fifteen minutes I have a meeting with Haekira who's interested in lifting equipment for lumber. Later there's Mi'itchi's Trail's ambassador, the Mason's Guild and Chitri Foundries. Directly after that there's the work on the lathes, the engines for Hunting Well, the forging techniques for the Inlander Line, some suspension ideas for a wagon merchant and Rraerch had something she wanted to discuss. Time might be the only problem."
Amber eyes flickered, looking me up and down. "Khorasch did say it was important."
I sighed. "They all say it's important."
"You don't think you'll have time."
"Sir, you write my schedule. If you can fit him in, you're going to have to use very small writing. There's a whole planet of you and only one of me and I'm afraid there's only so much I can do."
The advisor settled back in his cushion and slowly stroked the fur on the back of a hand, glancing at the papers on his desk. "You do have time to yourself though. It's enough?"
Testing. Prodding. A diplomatic way of asking if I was cracking under the strain. I waved an acknowledgment. "Yes sir. Thank you for that. It helps a lot; gives me time to think."
"Time to think," Kh'hitch repeated and his ears flickered, a small tic. Then he said, "Very well. A week. I'll tell his lordship. The embassy won't be happy about it though." He looked back to the papers on the desk and clicked his teeth. "Now, there was also that matter the doctor told me about: that person you saw. You said you recognised... him? from Westwater."
"You're sure about that?"
"It was the first Rris I saw. He tried to kill me, and then I was accused of a murder I'm sure he was involved in. I don't think I'll forget that."
"And you don't think it's strange that the first Rris you saw should turn up here?"
"Yes sir, I do. That's why I mentioned it to Mai."
"She did say you do have trouble recognising Rris. And this was someone you haven't seen for some time."
"Him, I remember," I said slowly, starting to feel annoyed that no one would take me seriously. "I remember the Rris who tried to kill me. I remember his clothes, the way he stood, moved, the patterns in his fur. And he wore a bracelet."
It was a word I had a lot of trouble pronouncing. I had to clarify what I meant before he understood. "It was... very not-ordinary. Green stone. I haven't seen others like it."
"Ah. And you saw him with another?"
"Yes. They were talking about something. I don't know who it was, but Rraerch recognised him."
The advisor studied me for a few seconds, then snorted. "Someone will look into it. Now, I suggest you hurry if you want to keep your other appointments."
Dismissed. I offered a perfunctory bow before retreating from his office.
Cooler weather. As my guards followed me through the halls of power I looked out windows overlooking the Palace grounds and saw the patches of gold and red amidst the greenery. I stopped and stared as I remembered the last time I'd seen autumn colors. A year. I'd been here a year. It was a realisation that refused to settle; just buzzed around in my head without touching any nerves. Hard to grasp: only twelve months, twelve months that'd gone by in a lifetime.
"Sir? Is something wrong?"
I blinked, looked around at Rris features beneath a gleaming metal helmet. The eyes flickered and the pupils went black, the nostrils flaring. I shook my head in a gesture they didn't understand, then settled my laptop strap more comfortably and started walking again.
The doors closed after the Guild Members, their voices fading off down the corridor. I heaved a sigh, then closed up the laptop.
"You all here now?" Rraerch asked.
"Sorry?" I looked at her, across the room at the top of the horseshoe of desks from where she'd been overseeing the meeting: acting as a buffer between me and the Guild Members. Now she was leaning forward, elbows on desk and chin resting in cupped hands as she watched me.
"You here now?" Rraerch repeated. "You seemed... distracted. Something more interesting than the meeting?"
"Oh." I looked back to the grey oblong that was my laptop. "Just thinking."
"Must've been important."
Slightly irritated, I could tell that. I'd been woolgathering in her time. "I'm sorry. I'd just..." I shook my head and studied the opposite wall, where sunlight fell across white-satin wallpaper. There were abstract trees and plants embroidered in it, highlighted by the oblique lighting. Frescos on the ceiling looked down at us. "Just time. I've been here a year now."
"Ah." I just heard that one little sound, then silence in the large, bright conference room. She was watching me intently. "A whole year. You've been counting the days? How's it been?"
I ventured a tight smile that I didn't really feel. "It seems longer."
Yellow-amber eyes flickered, she looked a little startled. "That bad?"
When I shrugged, it was human-style. "I really don't fit in here. Every day there are... difficulties. What happened earlier, I can look forward to a lifetime of it. It's a sobering thought."
The Rris merchant watched me. Alien eyes in that salt-and-pepper speckled muzzle, the thoughts in an inhuman mind beyond. "But, that's just a few people. I mean, not everyone's like that."
"What did you think when you first saw me?"
"If I recall, you looked like you weren't quite sure whether you wanted to go out the window or hide under the table."
She chittered, then clamped her mouth shut and looked guilty. "Sorry." Another abrupt little chitter, "I think that sums it up."
"And when everyone you meet acts the same way? For your entire life?"
A second thinking it over, then the laughter stopped. I saw her ears lay back and she looked at her hands. "I... see."
"Still," she looked up. "There are people who like you. I like you. Chaeitch thinks you're a good person. I know a lot of people around the Palace have grown accustomed to you."
"A," I nodded. "Accustomed."
"And there's the doctor," Rraerch added. "You do get on well together."
"Yeah, that we do."
"And she's been more careful with your back?"
I looked at her, her head cocked and the slighest hint of amusement flickering about her features. For a few seconds I stared, unable to decide whether to be embarrassed or angry at her presumption. And finally just shook my head and gave her a small smile. "We've both learned," I said, softly.
"Ah." Her ears twitched and she ducked her head, smiled at me. "You see? People can learn to like you."
"I think Mai's an exception."
"That might be an understatement," Rraerch chuckled, then brushed at the fur on her forearm: "You're enjoying your time with her?"
"Yes," I said, then nodded. "Oh, yes. She's full of surprises."
"I can imagine. It would seem you have a few as well."
"You haven't told anyone?"
Now she waved a 'no'. "I kept my word."
"Thank you," I said, meaning it, watching as she bobbed her head in acknowledgment. I sighed and then asked, "Rraerch, how long can it last?"
"Huhn?" Her muzzle wrinkled: puzzlement. "What do you mean?"
"Your kind... you don't form lasting relationships. Mine do. And even if you did, she's Rris while I'm... I'm not." I hesitated, leaning on the desk as I toyed with the laptop. "She's got a life to lead. What she's doing now, the time she's spending with me, she can't keep doing that. There's going to come a time when she's going to have to lead her own life."
Rraerch waved a small 'yes'. "I don't doubt it. But that's in the future, Mikah. A long way in the future. Things will change. You'll have other friends."
"Yes," I acknowledged in a small voice, my fingers tracing the milling lines on the computer's casing.
She studied me, silent for a few seconds. "You pair for life... your kind, I mean. You want to with her?"
And that observation tore at something inside. I lowered my head into my hands to rub at my eyes, then nodded; very slightly, very slowly. "Yes," I whispered.
"A," she exhaled, a drawn-out hiss. Then: "With that... I don't think I can help you."
I shook my head and sighed again. "I know. I know it's impossible. I know that." I raked my fingers back through my hair: shoulder length again. Frustration, trying to explain emotions to something that simply didn't think that way. "She's... she's a friend... I mean, I understand that up here," I laid a finger on my temple. "It's just... I want to. When I look at her I feel... I feel the same way I used to feel about my female friend at home. I know it's impossible, but I just want to stay with her." I looked at Rraerch, hoping to see some flicker of comprehension, of empathy, there. But yellow-amber eyes watched me levelly, as if waiting for something else. I sagged and those eyes flickered: aware she'd missed something but not sure just what.
Anyway, that was the moment the doors opened and a page stepped in, hovering at the threshold and looking uncertain. Rraerch waited a second, then demanded, "You wanted something?"
"Ma'am. Ah Ties told me to inform you that your presence is requested at the workshops."
Ah Ties? Chaeitch? Then...
"Rot! He's back," Rraerch chittered, then she was on her feet in a move I never saw clearly. "Mikah, I have to go. You'd better hurry to make your next appointment on time. I'll talk with you later."
Flashed a wave and then was gone out the door. The Page stared at me.
I sighed, then clambered to my feet at a more sedate pace and gathered up my stuff. I didn't hurry. If Chaeitch was back then I guessed I'd be plenty busy over the next few days.
Ironheart lay at dock, shifting and bumping almost imperceptibly against the wharf where pairs of armed guards patrolled. I walked along a deck that'd had its first week experience with the rigours of nature. A Rris sailor was busy scrubbing it down, others polishing metalwork and removing soot where it'd adhered around the smokestack. I touched the wood of the central cabin, feeling solidity and wood grain warmed by the morning sun under my fingertips. I'd helped build this. The thought went some way to satisfying that creative beast inside of me.
"Smooth running," Chaeitch hopped up atop the cabin in a single fluid bound and crouched to grin down at me. "No seizures, no burst lines. Like a fish through water. Fastest vessel on the lakes."
"That good, huh?"
"A," he grinned. "A lot of curious eyes on the docks in Cover-my-Tail."
"You didn't give away too much I hope," Rraerch put in.
Cheitch waved a 'no' as he led the way back to the wheelhouse and the lower accessway. "We were careful. We let it run a couple of times in open water, but otherwise it's just an odd-looking boat."
Just as well the Rris didn't have cameras. That'd add a whole new dimension to their espionage games. I had a mental flash of a spy sitting on the docks working on a painstaking oil painting of the ship.
Down below, bent over nearly double as Chaeitch led us through familiar narrow walkways built for Rris stature on a survey of the Ironheart's interior. As we made our way through the ship he reviewed the trip, telling us how the Ironheart had performed overall and pointing out potential modifications he'd noted. The cabins, the stores and holds and equipment rooms all had a used feeling to them now, with a patina of smells and stains on surfaces, clawmarks on wooden decking. Back toward the stern, the engine room was a claustrophobic tangle of boiler and pipes and driveshafts. Despite the ventilators it'd be as hot as hell when the engine was fired and I wondered how the Rris firemen could stand it.
The boiler had cooled since yesterday, the outer insulating jacket stained and warped from heat. A reek of smoke and fire, lubricants and overheated metal and wood still hung in the air, condensation dripping from cooling pipes. And it'd worked.
For a maiden voyage the new systems had performed better than I could've ever hoped. Allowing for Murphy and the general perverseness of the universes, I'd have expected something to burst, burn, or blow up, but for the most part things had performed smoothly. There had been a few minor teething problems, and Chaeitch did have a list of points that could be improved, one of them being that the ship wasn't quite as fuel-efficient as we'd been expecting. He thought that could be remedied by using a richer coal. Also, the ship's maneuverability wasn't what it should be, especially at low speeds. Faulty rudder design was his best guess, and that wouldn't be so easy to fix.
We spent a long time going through the boat, poking into this and that, talking. Rraerch left us after about an hour and half, begging an urgent appointment. I stayed: my previous schedule had been pre-empted. As far as the powers-that-be were concerned, this was more important. So it was all business as the Rris engineer and I went through and he listed the modifications he had in mind. When we got abovedecks again, it was to a cloudy afternoon with a cool breeze which was frankly refreshing after the fug below. Chaeitch leaned into it and panted.
"Warm down there," I said.
"A," he said. "And your scent when you're hot doesn't help much."
"Thank you," I growled and he chittered, then went to perch himself up on the cabin roof. Sitting tailor-fashion as he watched me. I stared back, then relented and joined him, sitting on the polished wood and looking out across the river.
"I didn't ask," he said. "How was your week?"
"While you've been off playing around with boats, some of us have been working."
He chittered. "They're riding you hard again, a?"
"A," I said, watching the clouds on the horizon: charcoal-grey banks climbing into the sky, glimpses of blue and gold contrasts beyond them.
"It's not too much? You're not unhappy with what we're asking?"
I glanced at him, noticing the flickering of tense muscles around his muzzle. I smiled a bit, then waved a 'no'. "Don't worry. It's nothing I haven't done before. And the days I have to myself help a lot."
"Good to hear." He looked relieved, then reached into a pouch at his belt to produce his pipe and tobacco. "You've had a chance to do anything interesting?"
"Actually, Mai took me to see one of your plays a few nights ago. That was an experience."
"You liked it?"
"A. It was fun."
"What was it? What was it about?"
I told him while he filled his pipe. He laughed, loudly. "You... they put you in a play? I think I'll have to see that. One of you is difficult enough, but two of you..." he flashed me a grin, imitating one of my smiles.
"Has anyone ever told you you're a funny man?" I asked.
"Well, they're wrong."
He looked at me. "That's an old joke where you're from, isn't it."
"Hey, not that old."
Chaeitch chittered again and fumbled his lighter out of the belt pouch. Steel and flint scraped repeatedly before he got a spark into the bowl of the pipe: smoke curled up as he puffed quickly, then exhaled a cloud and asked, "So, you and the doctor. You've had sex again?"
I looked at him: casually smoking and watching the birds settling on the river and asking the question the way I might talk about the weather. He must've noticed my hesitation because he gave me a curious look: "Something wrong?"
"I... um... no," I stumbled, then took a breath. "No. I mean, nothing wrong. Yes, we have."
"A." He rocked back and forward a little. "That'd be fun. Any time of the year, without drugs. That stuff's expensive."
I hesitated, weighing options, then said, "Chaeitch, do you mind if I ask you a question? About Rris females."
He made a low sound. "You're having some problems?"
"No. Not problems." I hesitated and realised I was wringing my hands. I clenched them into fists and pressed them hard against my legs. "Do they... have they ever..." I fished for the words Mai had taught me, then sighed in frustration. "You feel that sensation when you... finish? You know it?"
"You mean orgasm?"
"Yes, that's the word."
He leaned his head back, squinting up. "A. I know it."
"Do your females feel that? I mean, when you're with a woman, has she ever orgasmed?"
Chaeitch took his pipe out and held it in both hands as he gave me a strange look. "Of course not. How could they?"
Semantics again. The Rris word held connotations that applied to male plumbing. I stumbled on through territory I wasn't all that familiar with. "Not that. Not exactly. When you're mating, they never feel something like what you feel?"
He waved a shrug and took another drag. "I've never heard of anything like that." Then his ears went up. "You mean you have sex differently?"
"Ummm, sort of," I hedged. "I'm just... With Mai, I'm just trying to understand her a little better."
"A." Now he looked thoughtful. "Mikah, did something happen? Something go wrong? She didn't tear you up again?"
"No. No. I was just curious." Still a dubious expression. "Really," I said.
"If you're sure..."
"I'm sure," I repeated and he waved another little shrug and subsided. "There is something though," I ventured.
"What do Rris females like? I mean, as gifts?"
He blinked, looking more startled by that question than he had been when I asked him about sex. "Gifts?"
"Yes, gifts. You know, presents?"
"A. I know. You just surprised me. Why?"
"I'd like to give Mai something. It's something my kind do; a way of showing... affection. I just have no idea what she'd like. Wine? Confectionary? Flowers?"
He cocked his head and favoured me with an incredulous look before he laughed out loud.
"What?" I asked, stung.
"You..." he started to say, then chittered again and muttered something under his breath. Still chuckling he stretched one leg, then the other and got to his feet. "Come on," he said, lightly swiping my boot with his claws. "Let's go get some food. We can talk about that on the way."
The gardens were a changed place. The cool avenues and glades of sun-dappled green were gone, stolen by the seasons, repainted by nature's hand into a landscape of golds and yellows and siennas and reds. Leaves drifted down from shedding boughs, cluttering and carpeting the paths, coloring the streams with tints of tannin. The occasional stand of evergreens held their own against an encroaching army of opposing colors.
I ambled along at Mai's side through ankle-high drifts of fallen leaves, my coat collar turned up against a chill breeze that stole wisps of breath from our mouths. Mai simply garbed in her breeks, vest and shirt and a perceptibly thicker pelt that was ruffled as the wind ran fingers through it. The nights were noticeably colder, with touches of frost on the windowpanes in the mornings. Winter rolling around any time now, not something I was especially looking forward to. Ice and snow, wind rattling the windows. No central heating. The Rris just didn't understand how cold I got.
"Should be first snow soon," she said, sniffing the air. "Probably in a week or so."
"Summer never lasts long enough," I sighed.
She chuckled. "Maybe we could get some more clothes made for you. Something a bit better suited for the cold."
"I'd like that," I said, remembering the last winter with a shudder. Ahead, the path turned to cross that small stone brigde across a creek. "Still, autumn's a beautiful time of the year."
"You think so?" she said, glancing down at the stream: tinged brown and lined with leaves and sticks.
"A. The colors are spectacular. And the air seems... cleaner."
Far overhead, beyond the branches, a V-formation of birds were headed south. "Cooler too," Mai said. "That's a pleasant change after hot days."
"Strange. During summer people yearn for cool weather and in winter they wish summer would come around."
She chittered. "Among your kind also? Maybe there's more between us than I thought."
"Hey, I quite like not having much between us."
Mai aimed a playful slash at my arm. I was ready and caught it and held it fast. She looked down, then at me again. "Mikah?"
I just held her hand still as I slipped the bracelet over her wrist and fastened the clasp. She froze, eyes twitching wide and when I let her go she pulled away, turning her hand over to examine the silver links. "What is it?"
I jammed hands into my pockets and shrugged, smiled wanly. "A gift. After everything you've done for me, I wanted some way to say thank you."
"You didn't have to."
"No," I said. "But I wanted to."
She touched it again. A simple silver chain with a simple motif on the plate: two entwined figures. The same figures I'd seen in the Living Hall. When Chaeitch had taken me to the shop I'd wondered if I'd be able to afford it. Turns out I could've brought the whole shop if I'd wanted.
"I didn't know any other way to say it," I told her. "I'm sorry if it's..." I just trailed off.
Hesitation, as her amber eyes flickered from me to the figures on the bracelet and my heart sank. Twice the fool. The way I felt could never be the way she felt. It couldn't be.
Rris have no word for love.
Not in the human sense. Not in the sense I was feeling. Affection, high regard, esteem, admiration... those terms might come close to conveying their sense of the word, but I don't think english has words to describe their emotions properly. That couple in the Living Hall, they'd been the closest to something I could identify; and to the Rris, what they'd had was unnatural. And now I looked at Mai's eyes and couldn't see what she was thinking.
She moved closer to lay hands on my chest, looking up at me. "Don't be. Thank you, and... I think I understand." Her hands described small circles, claws scritching lightly against my jacket. "You have your own feelings, don't you. Something I can't really grasp."
"Mai, I know... I know you can't feel what I want you to. I know this up here," I tapped my temple, "but my body... It's like I'm sitting up here driving a wagon that has its own idea of where it wants to go. I feel things I know are impossible." I sighed, then touched her face, letting my fingers play through the long speckled tufts on her cheeks. "I sometimes dream of you being human."
Her eyes flickered, her hands toying with the fringes of my beard. "Maybe if you were Rris. Then perhaps... Well, things might not be so complicated."
I sighed. "If wishes were fishes..."
Mai chittered a small laugh at how ridiculous that sounded in Rris and a falling leaf autorotated down, spinning about its own axis before settling on her shoulder. I plucked it off, running it up to tickle the tufts of fur in her ears. She ducked her head, dodging away and chittering again. I twirled the leaf around in my fingers: dry, yellow and brown and brittle, tatters of desiccated material around a skeleton of veins. Intricate, complicated, branching and spreading out...
"I think I could do with a little less complexity in my life."
Mai ducked her head, her ears tipping back. "Then I suppose this isn't the best time to tell you," she said in a small voice.
"I'm not going to like this, am I," I said.
"Huhhnnn, it's not so bad. Another reception, two nights from now. Royalty, nobility, ambassadors... all the usuals. They want you to attend as well."
I picked at the leaf, tearing little bits off. "I have to attend?" I asked, remembering what'd happened the last times. Had they told her? They must have.
"They'd wanted me to make sure you're willing. His highness thinks it's important that other countries see you're well and happy. They'll be used to you by now."
They had. I just nodded.
I ran my fingers over the leaf, feeling a universe of veins. "If it helps you, I'll go."
She reached up and caught my hand and gently squeezed. I didn't resist, both of us crushing the leaf until fragments fell and were scattered by the wind, her fingers twined in mine.
Still holding hands, we walked off into the drifting leaves.
Much longer evenings now, with a distinctive chill in the air. I sank down lower into the steam rising from the surface of the bath, sighing as I let the heat soak some of the tension out of me. Outside, the shadows were lengthening, a final glow from the sun turning the sky the darkest blue. In the bathroom the orange light from the single oil lamp cast leaping shadows on the wall, leaving the room in a twilight that was as restful as the warmth seeping into my bones.
I could've stayed there for hours. Unfortunately, that wasn't going to be an option.
"Mikah?" The call heralded the sound of the front door opening. "Are you... You're not still in there?" Mai appeared at the door, silhouetted against the brighter light from the other room.
"We've got time," I mumbled.
"Not much." Mai moved a bit closer. I caught shadowy flashes of brushed and combed fur, black and brown breeches with gold embroidery and matching armbands: clothing that must've been provided for tonight. She came across to the bath and perched herself on the rim, caressing my water-slicked shoulder with a leathery palm. "We've still got to groom you into some semblance of respectability."
"Maybe we could ask them to put this off until another night," I suggested drowsily.
"Mikah!" multiple pinpricks jabbed my shoulder.
"Ah! All right, all right," I relented and hauled myself out of the tub. Mai tossed me a towel from the pile and as I dried off she watched me intently. Close enough to make me a little uncomfortable.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Huhn? Ah, I was just thinking: you look so different, but you have your own grace. Especially when you're wet: Rris look drowned, you look... interesting."
"I thought we didn't have time for that," I grinned.
"We don't. Now hurry up," she said and headed through to the other room, pausing in the door to turn and say. "I don't want to remind you not to do that with your mouth tonight."
I sobered. No, I didn't want to do that again. I finished drying off and threw the wet towel aside, wrapping a fresh one around my waist. Mai was spreading the contents of her grooming kit out on the desk and a set of clothes were laid on the bed. "They should fit," she said.
Dark green velvet pants, a white shirt with bloused sleeves and a lightweight black vest over that. They were comfortable, cut to fit me, and made me feel like a folk singer.
"Don't be ridiculous," Mai snorted. "You look fine. Now come here: I have to prune that hedgerow you call fur."
"Hey, nonny nonny," I muttered.
"Ah, sit down," she hissed and I seated myself where she indicated, wrapping the towel around my shoulders. Claws tipped my head back and forth, raking my hair back, then the comb started tugging through it. I winced as she bulled through knots, then relaxed when the going got easier. She worked quickly, brusquely: combing out my unruly mane, then bringing out the scissors to tidy up the loose ends.
"Well, you look presentable," she proclaimed with a few final snips at my beard. "You ready to go?"
"No. But we're going anyway, aren't we?"
She patted my shoulders, also brushing away a few errant strands. "You'll be fine. Just be polite."
I'd heard that before. But I'd never had Mai at my side before.
She stayed close as we walked the Palace. Through marbled halls ablaze with lights from chandeliers and candelabras and sconces. Servants scurrying to and fro, carrying trays and changing wicks while guards stood at their posts, like inscrutable furry statues with light reflecting from the polished steel of ornamental weapons and armour. As we approached the wing housing the halls where the reception was being held there was more activity. There were nobility in the corridors; Rris in their splendid and garish costumes and finery stepping aside to stand staring as Mai and I passed. I heard the gossiping start up behind us but never bothered to turn and look.
Standing at the top of the sweeping staircase I could hear the sounds drifting up: disjointed strains of music surfacing above the white noise of many Rris talking. I swallowed and looked at Mai who flicked her ears, then together we started down, step by parquetry-inlaid step down into the crowds.
A swirl of furry bodies and colors under the bright flickering lights of a dozen chandeliers in the big room, the static snarl of voices reverberating in the big room. The Rris moving around me were a kaleidoscope of colors and regalia: red and ceruleans, golds and silvers, jewelry and armour. Feline heads nestled into voluminous ruffs; glittering eyes behind token masks; a vest made of thousands of tiny diamonds of polished silver; dyed and shaved fur... over a hundred in that room, circulating in random patterns across the green and white tiles. The french doors across the far side were open to the balconies, but the cool breeze was offset by the heat of furry bodies and open flames.
I'd been through this before, and I hoped this time would be better than that. I stood out; being head and shoulders above most of the room didn't help. Dotted around were a few Rris whose ears might have come up to my eyes - giants among their kind - but for the most part I could easily see over the crowd. And of course they could see me.
Eyes everywhere watched me, conversations hesitating, veering off in new directions as Mai and I entered. She kept going but I saw the way her ears started to lay back and then stood rigidly: she was nervous but held it in check. And that probably did more to help me keep going than anything anyone could've said. At least I'd been through this before. I patted her shoulder in what I hoped was a reassuring way.
And the sharks were starting to circle. I'd already spotted several of the Rris I'd been dealing with, ambassadors and merchants alike, starting to drift in my direction. A chance for them to try and pump me a little more, off the clock. I casually caught Mai's arm and steered her in the direction of least resistance, toward the buffet table. Not that I had any real hopes of being able to dodge them all.
"Mikah." A stocky Rris in a turquoise doublet materialised in front of us. "I'm pleased to see you could make it."
"Ah Mhyra," I ducked my head. "It's an occasion I simply wasn't able to miss."
"The guild has been trying to get an appointment to see you but there seems to be some difficulty."
"I know, sir. I'm afraid I really can't do anything about..."
Another Rris noble wearing a vest decorated with elaborate lace brocade stepped up. "I've heard about you. Is it true you know the future?"
Damn! "Ma'am, I'm sorry..."
There were more gathering, a barrage of questions coming my way. Mai looked from me to the Rris surrounding us and her ears went back in fury as someone pushed between us. "Mai," I snapped and shoved the offending Rris out of the way, an outraged yowl going up. Golden hackles started going up.
"Hold!" Someone snarled and the commotion died as Hirht and a pair of armed guards parted the crowd. "Mikah, causing a commotion already?"
"I'm sorry, Sir," I ducked my head and Mai stepped forward. "Sir, it wasn't..."
The Rris king gestured, a single raised finger, and she fell silent. As did the Rris around us. "Good folks," Hirht addressed them, only raising his voice a little, but it carried. "These are my guests. I expect them to be accorded the respect that such entails. Mikah can talk to you, but I doubt he can manage all at once. Now, Mikah, doctor, walk with me."
We fell in beside him. He was wearing an odd, long jerkin of maroon velvet with dark leather trim engraved in painstaking detail. A ceremonial dagger hung from a belt supporting a pair of green breeches; he tucked a finger into that belt as we walked toward the cooler air spilling in through the french doors. The crowd parted around us, the sounds of conversation starting up again and Hirht said, "Making ripples again."
Again I apologised. "Sorry."
"Don't be." He sighed: a sound halfway between an exhalation and a growl. "You don't do these things, they just seem to happen to you."
"Succinct way of putting it, sir," Mai said.
He cast a look her way. "We didn't anticipate quite that sort of reaction. Unforgivably rude. I have to apologise. It shouldn't happen again."
"You can guarantee that?" I asked as we reached the doors. The crowd had thinned considerably, possibly because of Hirht.
His expression went to that stony impassiveness that Shyia had used. "I wish I could. Just try to behave yourself. If there is an incident, whatever you do, don't hurt anyone."
Mai bristled and hastily ducked her head, hiding her expression from Hirht.
"He has a way of snatching attention, doesn't he," another voice spoke up.
I turned with the others: A Rris noble adorned in pale cotton garments halted a few paces behind us, watching with interested eyes. The features were familiar and it was a second before I realised that I'd spoken with this Rris before, under very similar circumstances: Lady H'risnth.
"An understatement, good lady," Hirht said. "You're finding everything satisfactory?"
"Oh yes." She waved her hand in a gesture that encompassed the bright room with its glittering occupants. Her escort took their place behind her: four large guards with armour but no visible weapons. "Music, food, and entertainment." I didn't miss that the last was said with a pointed glance in my direction.
"I apologise for that," Hirht said again. "I trust you weren't inconvenienced by that little incident."
She cocked her head. "For a while I thought there might be a repeat of last time."
The King of Land-of-Water didn't flinch, but there was something sardonic in the way he ducked his head. "Something we're doing our best to avoid."
There was something I was missing. I wondered what sort of political play was going on behind the scenes between these two.
"Doubtless," she said with a smile and turned to eye me. "Mikah, from what I hear you're doing a lot better. Your friend here... Maithris wasn't it?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Mai said.
Lady H'risnth looked her up and down. "Huhn, a doctor. Odd that no one's ever heard of you before."
"Not so odd, Ma'am," Mai said. "Meddling Times isn't such a big place."
"A. And some of those theories you've put forward... You're causing quite a stir."
I looked down at Mai who looked uncomfortable. I was about to ask 'what theories' when Hirht stepped in: "Doctor, that reminds me: there were some things I wanted to discuss with you." He touched her arm and sketched lady H'risnth and I a small bow. "If you'll excuse us..."
The Lady waved her hand in a fluid little 'yes' and Mai took my hand to squeeze it. "I'll find you later, a? Be good."
"Of course," I smiled and she swatted my arm before moving off with the King. I saw him saying something to her before the crowd closed around them. Rris eyes watched us, Rris circling like glittering sharks with the King's public warning and lady H'risnth's presence keeping them at bay.
"Interesting woman," H'risnth mused, her head cocked.
"A. She's always surprising me."
"I can imagine," she smiled slightly, then looked around at the curious crowds shifting around and beckoned for me to follow. The guards fell in behind us as we stepped outside onto the terrace. Oil lamps were mounted at intervals along the balustrade, their flames dancing in the cold breeze that set the trees in the Palace grounds to swaying against the deep blue of the clear night sky. The Milky Way was a wash against the vault of heaven, a light as cool as the wind washing over the landscape. There were fewer Rris out there: a few groups and couples quietly talking.
Our shadows stretched across the terrace, thrown by the light spilling from the doors behind us as we walked over to where steps led down to the grass meadows surrounding the Palace. H'risnth stood at the top of the steps looking out across Hirht's lands. "You've been busy recently."
"A very interesting ship paid call to a couple of our ports."
I didn't say anything, not sure of where I stood in this matter.
She glanced my way, looking amused. "I'd have thought you'd have an opinion. You did have a lot to do with it."
"I don't know if I can talk about it."
"Ahh," the silhouette of her head bobbed. "Mikah, we already know. We were consulted. Land-of-Water needed our permission to use western facilities."
And Lady H'risnth ducked her head again as a small chitter escaped her dignity. "Sah, Mikah, I'm not trying to trick you or cause you more trouble. I just wanted to congratulate you."
Seriously? I tried to read something in her expression and found only sincerity. All I could say was, "Thank you, Ma'am."
"The least I can do," she said and looked out at the silhouette of trees in their stately dance, the stipple of stars across a dark sky beyond them. "I've wondered: are there others of your kind here?"
"I don't know for certain." I waved a small shrug. "I doubt it."
"Huhn," shadowed amber eyes flared momentarily as she studied me in the lamplight. "Are you happy here?"
I took a breath and the reply caught in my throat as I tried to honestly weigh up my life. Eventually, I just gave a small smile: "I suppose it's like any life: it has its ups and it has its downs. There are times when I'm happy. Yes."
I could feel her eyes invisible in the gloom watching me, never wavering. Then she said, "I think I can only wish you the best. But Mikah, if there is ever any reason, there's a place across the lakes where you're welcome."
Then she patted my arm and turned away. I watched her silhouette stalking back to the bright lights and music, her guards falling in behind: two by two. I shivered a little: a mixture of cold and tension. Go back in? No, not just yet. I huddled down a bit further and tried to put my hands into nonexistent pockets, then settled on clasping them behind my back.
Another petitioner. I turned, preparing myself for more shop talk, then stopped and stared. The Rris who stood watching me wasn't anyone I knew: slightly built, and most shocking of all, the yellow-amber eyes were surrounded by naked skin.
A parody of my own face: naked skin and a beard-like fringe of fur. A white tunic bore a remarkable resemblance to one of my t-shirts, right down to the abstract geometric design printed on it, and Rris-manufactured blue jeans finished above clawed digitigrade feet. I'd seen the style before, but never this close, not so I could see the grey, dimpled Rris skin on the face, the neck, the hands and arms. "Hello," the Rris said again. "You're not an easy person to meet, you know."
"That's not something I have much control over," I shrugged. "Do I know you?"
The Rris blinked, looked puzzle then amused. "I don't know. Do you? I'm Heasch. And your name is... Mikah, isn't it? Red tie it, but it's difficult to talk to you. I've been trying for a while but they say you're busy. You know you're taller than I thought. Is that usual for your kind?"
I stared, nonplussed. Talkative person. "I... I'm about usual height. Do you mind if I ask... your fur," I gestured at the shaved face and hands and the Rris flinched a little. "Why've you done that?"
"It's amusing," Heasch said. "I'd have thought you'd be quite used to it."
"On a Rris it looks... different," I hedged.
"A?" The Rris looked down, then slowly reached out and touched my hand. Fingerpads and bare skin stroked over mine, caught my finger and flexed it. "Doesn't feel like yours. You don't have claws."
"No. I don't... Look, I..." clawed hands were moving, pushing up my sleeve to stroke the hair on my forearm. "What are you doing?" I asked.
"You do have fur," Heasch chittered and looked up. "And there's more in other places?"
"Would you like to meet later? I'd like to find out if these things about you are true."
"Ahh... Wait. Things? What things? What'd you mean?"
Claws scratched lightly at my skin and I suddenly had a horrible flash of enlightenment. "What things?" Heasch growled in a tone I'd heard in darkened rooms. "You can have sex anytime. You do it differently, and the women seem to get something extra out of it."
I stood there with my mouth hanging open.
"Mikah?" Heasch peered up at me.
"Where... where did you hear that?" I croaked.
"It's true?" she rumbled. "Can you show me? It sounds like it'd be fun to find out."
I looked down at our hands: my pale skin held in her grey ones. Without fur her hands looked smaller, the differences in joints and proportions more apparent. Oh, God, Mai? She didn't...
I jerked away. "How did you know?"
She cocked her head and her lip fleered up, just the tiniest flash of teeth. "I have my sources. And you never answered my question."
I pulled away a step. "I'm sorry, but no. I don't think so."
"And if I were to insist?"
Now I stopped and stared. Her eyes were glowing in the lamplight: her pupils dilated to flare with all the fury of a bad snapshot. "I'm sorry. I'd still have to decline."
She closed the distance between us again and reached up to touch my shirt, stroking up to my neck. "Huhn, some prey to chase. You know, I'm quite used to getting my way."
"I'm sure you are." I caught her hand and claws came out, turned slowly where I could see them. "But I'm not used to being a toy."
"You seem to enjoy it enough with your commoner friend," she rumbled. "You find claws quite interesting, don't you. And fur: quite different from your hide, a? You like to be ridden by females?"
I felt a flush creeping around the back of my neck. "I think that's our business and ours alone."
"Really?" she flashed a small smile. "Perhaps you should re-evaluate your position."
"What do you mean?"
She favoured me with another small grin and withdrew her hand, pretending an exaggerated interest in watching as her claws retracted.
"She's not disturbing you, Mikah?" I startled as another hand touched my arm and Rraerch stepped up to my side.
"No. No," I told her. "Just discussing the nightlife."
"A," Rraerch eyed the other female: her tail lashed against my leg. "Heasch, I do believe your father was looking for you."
The other's ears laid back, then she looked at me and bestowed a small grin on me before she bowed decorously and turned to stalk off into the crowd. I sagged as I let a pent-up breath escape: "Thanks."
"Anytime," Rraerch said. "What was that about?"
"Something I don't need," I sighed, and leaned against the cold stone of the balustrade. "Rraerch... You and Chaeitch, you haven't told anyone about Mai and I?"
"I certainly haven't and I sincerely doubt Chaeitch would," she said. "Why?" Then her head rocked back and she glanced toward the lights of the ballroom, where Heasch had retreated. "Huhnnn," she rumbled a low growl of comprehension. "She knows."
"Yeah," I nodded slightly. "She knows." Rraerch said she hadn't talked and I believed her. Chaeitch? Had he talked about it? But he'd sworn he wouldn't.
"She was teasing you about it?"
"She was..." I trailed off and shook my head. "Yes. She was teasing me. Who is she?"
Rraerch waved a small shrug. "Offspring of a local merchant who made money investing in profitable caravan routes. She stands in line to inherit it, but from what I've heard she seems to prefer chasing after other pastimes." She stopped and again looked over her shoulder at the lights, turned back:
"Is that what she was doing? Chasing after you? It was, wasn't it."
"A," I said. "Look, it wasn't just that. She knew things... she just knew things that were between Mai and I." I sounded a small laugh and slapped my palm against the smooth stone, "Well, I thought they were."
The Rris appeared a little nonplussed. "And you think the doctor might have said something."
"I don't know."
"Well, why're you so concerned? I mean, you didn't want anyone to know you had sex together, but is it so disasterous if people find out you have?"
"It's not just the sex," I shook my head. "It's just there's something I'd rather had stayed between us. There are... other things that might just cause problems I really don't need right now." I slapped my hand on the stone again.
"I don't understand." She looked confused.
"I know the feeling," I sighed, then pushed away from the balustrade. "I'd better find Mai."
I headed back for the doors. A second later there was a spatter of claws on stone as Rraerch caught up and fell in at my side, still looking concerned. Inside, I scanned the crowd, wondering where to start looking for a pair of familiar ears in a sea of furry heads. Rris nobility and merchants gravitated to me like metal filings to a magnet, clustering around with a restrained urgency. I worked my way through the crowd, shedding them with small promises, politeness and courtesies. It took time, like pushing back water: a few steps further through chatter and glitter and staring faces before another petitioner approached me and I'd have to wriggle off the hook. Slow, but short of standing on a table and screaming her name, it was all I could do.
I wasn't having much luck.
My meanderings through the crowd had taken me back to the buffet tables where I'd managed to procure a glass of wine from among less palatable offerings. Rraerch was nearby, delicately nibbling chunks of raw meat and vegetables from a stick while she talked with an acquaintance. Rris watched as I sipped and I saw a few making sniggering remarks to neighbours: probably commenting on the fact I didn't lap up my drink like a civilized person should. Spiced wine. Room temperature.
At least I had a second to myself. I spent it surveying the crowd, wondering where Mai could have vanished to. I tried to spot Hirht or perhaps the helmets of his guards, but didn't have any luck there either. However, over by some potted plants against the far wall I caught a glimpse of a face that was naggingly familiar, although I couldn't place it. The Rris was decked in the dress uniform of a Land-of-Water military officer: dark green breeches with red piping and a matching quilted vest with a cross-slung bandanna provisioned with hoops for carrying a pair of silver pistols that I took to be ornaments only. The individual in question was engaged in conversation with a pair of gaudily dressed nobility.
"Rraerch," I ventured, and pointed when she glanced my way. "Who is that?"
She followed my finger and her muzzle furrowed. "Her again?"
"Again?" I asked. "Who?"
"That one you were asking after," she said. "You pointed her out from the carriage. I didn't think you had such a memory for faces."
Her? Not so much faces, but the markings in the fur, the demeanour... And the subject of our attention chose that moment to glance our way and see us staring. I saw the officer flinch visibly, then her eyes narrowed and ears went back flat against her skull.
"I thought I knew her, but I wasn't sure from where."
"Huhn," she rumbled and glanced thoughtfully at me. "His lordship asked me about her as well. Haies aesh Tohikish, she's secretary to Marah ah Cho'tai, commander of the city's southern militia, a very powerful man."
Whoever he was, his secretary didn't look happy to see me staring at her. Haies said something to the Rris she was talking with, then started stalking our way. A pair of Rris fell in behind her: big Rris, in expensive civilian clothing but they had the look of guards about them. As she approached her eyes stayed locked on me, her head tipped to one side, but her ears didn't come up, not even when she stopped and looked me up and down. Not a large Rris. A slight build and dark tawny fur that just emphasised her unusual eyes: a glacier-ice green. "You wanted something?"
"He was just curious," Rraerch said. "He thought he saw you from somewhere."
"He did, did he," Haies rumbled.
"A, he did," I said. "Just a question about someone I thought I saw you talking with in town. Wears a green stone bracelet? Maybe been to Westwater in the last year? You know him?"
She didn't flinch but Rraerch hissed, "Mikah! I'm sorry, Ma'am, but this has been a burr in his fur for some time."
"A? I assume there's reason you're asking about this individual."
"I just thought this person might know something about a murder."
Around us, Rris conversations faltered and ears swivelled our way. Haies tipped her head the other way and looked amused. "A murder. Really?"
She actually chuckled, then delicately scratched at her muzzle with a clawtip. "Well, I'm sorry but I can't help you with that. I'm afraid I really don't know this... person you're referring to."
"Really?" I asked and Rraerch sucked air.
The green eyes flickered the tiniest bit before Haies said, "Really."
"Strange. I could've sworn it was you I saw talking to this person. I know Aesh Smither saw you."
"Truly?" Haies seemed interested in that and Rraerch looked uncomfortable.
"A," she admitted. "I saw you. I... didn't see anyone else."
"A," Haies expressed a small sound of enlightenment. "Well, that's understandable. I know that this ape... Huhn, apologies: It's Mikah, isn't it. I know Mikah here does seem to be a little unstable at times, to say the least."
A small chitter went up from those who heard this. I felt tendons in my arms twitch, but managed to stop my hands clenching into fists while we stared at each other. She flashed me a small smile. "I do hope I was of some help."
"Oh, yes," I smiled back, painstakingly careful to keep my teeth covered. "Most useful." Let her chew on that.
A small mocking bow and Rraerch caught my arm, turning me away.
"A moment, Aesh Smither," Haies spoke up and Rraerch turned back. "Have you had sex with him? I've heard tell that he's quite remarkable in that area."
More laughter and murmurs from our growing audience. I flushed with a heat I knew everyone could see; Rraerch squeezed claws into my arm and propelled me out of there.
"Red tie everything!" she hissed when we reached the outskirts of the crowd. "What were you trying to do?"
"She was lying."
"And you'd just say that to her face, wouldn't you," Rraerch sighed. "Rot it... you couldn't find a better way to make enemies if you tried. Mikah, without some sort of evidence, you're just..."
She never finished the sentence. A flustered Mai burst from the crowd, toe claws scraping on the tile floor as she bumped a noble, sketched a hasty bow and apology and spun to us: "Mikah? I heard there was trouble? What happened? What'd he do?"
Automatically assuming it was me. I guess she had good enough cause. Rraerch glanced at me and took Mai aside; for a few seconds there was a muted exchange of fluent Rris accompanied by sharp gestures, then Mai beckoned to me: "Perhaps we should go somewhere quieter."
Rraerch gave me a resigned look and gestured toward the terrace.
"I think he's trying to make a habit of this," Rraerch said.
Noise, music and the distant surf-sound of Rris voices drifted out to us. I sat myself on the bottommost step, my feet vanishing into the long grass of the meadows that ran right up to the Palace. Despite being cold enough to show breath as phantom clouds in the moonlight, the air was actually refreshing after the alien confusion of the reception room. I rubbed my eyes and realised I'd been sweating, now a clammy sheen on my forehead and wetness under my arms.
"It was her," I told the Rris. "She knows."
"Knows?" Mai knelt down in front of me and took my hands where they were dangling beween my knees, holding them in hers. "Knows what?"
"It's that Westwater affair again," Rraerch sighed from where she was standing behind me, further up the steps. "Haies aesh Tohikish, he confronted her about it. Of course she denied knowing anything about it and... and frankly Mikah, I have trouble understanding myself."
I closed my eyes, trying not to see Mai's intense eyes peering into mine. "Of course she denied it," I said. "She was lying."
"And you want to accuse her of that to her face?"
"Who would they believe?" I asked and caught the expression on her face. "Don't answer that," I smiled. "No, I simply wanted to see... I know what I saw; I wanted to know what she'd say. I know I can't trust her."
"A," Mai said, patted my hands then released them. Her eyes glinted, her breath frosting in the air as she studied my face. Behind her, moonlight fell on fields of grass rippling in the moonlight. "A," she said again, much more softly.
A moment's silence, then Rraerch ventured: "Doctor, there's another matter: the sex between the two of you... well, several people have commented on it. And Mikah was approached tonight by someone who could've been a little more polite about it."
I slowly lowered my head to my hand and groaned, "Thanks, Rraerch." I hadn't wanted to get into that, not there and then.
"What?" the merchant asked. "Mikah, it could be risky. You remember what happened to you the first time you laid with the doctor."
"She knows?" Mai asked.
"A," I said. "Apparently, so does the rest of the town now." I sighed a misty breath and looked up at her silhouette. "Why did you tell them?"
A hesitation, then she said, "I didn't. I..." she trailed off.
"Of course. Lucky guess, right? Mai, she knew details. I thought... you said you'd keep it between us."
"I know," she said, and I could see her ears were down. Not anger: misery. "I know, Mikah. I'm sorry."
I stood, able to look down at her. "I hope you gave them enough details. You wouldn't want to miss anything, would you. Sometimes, there are moments when I forget I'm a specimen."
She didn't say anything, just looked up at me, then away again.
I almost touched her. My hand almost brushed her fur, then I pulled away. No, at that moment I just didn't need that. Grass swished against my trousers as I turned and started walking. A couple of muted Rris voices sounded behind me, but they didn't try to follow.
I walked. Through moonlit gardens of wild grasses I walked. I just needed some time to myself, to calm down and get my thoughts in order. My breath frosted in the cold autumn air, the hair on my arms standing as I walked and tried to sort out the events of that night in my mind.
Lies. Mai... and that Haies. It had been her I'd seen. I knew it. Rraerch had proved that. And she was certainly trying to cover something. If she'd said she'd been meeting a friend, explained who that might have been, then I might have believed it. But she'd denied it outright. Denied it, toyed with me, looked me in the eye and all but dared me to call her a liar.
And she was. I knew that, but I couldn't prove it. She knew I couldn't prove it and barricaded herself behind that knowledge. Laughed at me. Taunted me in public, and knew enough about me that her parting remark was a well-placed barb.
She'd promised she'd do her best to keep what happened between us to herself. I'd believed her. Of course there was no way it could be kept completely secret, but what Heasch had said... she'd known details. The Rris could've joined the dots and got a picture of what was happening between Mai and I, but she didn't have to go and color the damn thing in. And the gossip would be spreading.
It was out. It was there. I'd have to live with it. I'd known people would learn eventually, but I'd never really thought about how it'd come to light. Perhaps gossip, talk, maybe a quiet word in private... I wasn't expecting it to be like this: an alien woman coming onto me at a diplomatic function, for Christ's sake.
My watch chimed some ungodly early hour: 03:00, or thereabouts. I'd been away for hours. From where I stood in the treeline I looked across at the Palace: the sprawling wings, pale stone, warm light spilling from a hundred windows. I'd been walking for some time, circling the huge building. Now I was getting cold and an early morning mist was starting to condense in the trees. Time I started heading back, before they sent out a search party. Not back to the crowd; I didn't think I could handle that. Hirht would be pissed, but that was something I could deal with later.
What was it about these functions? They never seemed to go right.
I found another door into the Palace: a small postern gate around by the stables. A single gas lamp illuminated a small door and there was an alarming moment when the pair of guards posted there started and moved their hands toward their weapons. I guess they'd seen me around before because they ducked their heads and let me pass.
It was an odd, unsettlingly lonely experience wandering around the Palace by night. In deference to Rris night vision there wasn't much lighting, leaving deserted corridors and hallways in shadow. Occasionally an inhabitant would hurry past with a castanet-spatter of claws. I climbed a staircase to the second floor and headed for my rooms, down one of the corridors overlooking the central yard. Ghostly moonlight spilled in through the high, arched mullioned windows, throwing pale cutouts of crosshatched light across marble and malachite.
She hadn't denied it. Hadn't offered any excuses. Just apologised and there was that torn expression... Perhaps she hadn't told them. Of course she had. There was no way they could've know...
Times I'd woken from nightmares and there were guards already in my room.
A time I'd been alone; a quick slash with sharp glass and there'd been Rris in there within minutes.
Comments about things I'd done in private.
Oh. My god.
The realisation threw light onto a lot of shadowy problems. And also made me aware that I'd been quite unfair to someone.
End Light on Shattered Water 30