Light on Shattered Water
I'd never been there before. It took a while to find: a single door in a corridor of cream satin wallpaper and many other white doors. The servant I'd waylaid to lead me stepped away with ears plastered flat to its head, "Here, sir."
"Thank you," I said and the servant took that as a dismissal. Claws rattled against the floor as the Rris bolted. No scratchplate on the door, I rattled the handle as was the custom.
A pause. Was she in?
The door opened and a tired face peered through the opening, blinked at my chest, then looked up and was suddenly wide awake. "Mikah? Where've you been? You weren't in your rooms..."
"I had to talk to you," I interrupted.
"A." Mai hesitated, then opened the door, "Come in." She hadn't paused for clothes.
I stepped inside, looking around while she lit a candle. The first time I'd ever seen her room at the Palace. It wasn't extravagant: a single small room with a glazed window and plain curtains, a bed with a simple wooden frame and rumpled sheets and the imprint of a body still visible on the recently-vacated mattress. A few papers were spread out on a low desk, along with Mai's notebook. Mai put the candle down on the desk, setting monstrous shadows to jittering on the walls and ceiling as she turned back to me. "So... talk, a? About what?"
"Mai," I said. "I'm sorry. For what I said: I'm sorry." I took a breath and let it out slowly. "My rooms. They're... watched, aren't they."
A flinch, and her eyes darted aside. That told me all I needed to know.
"They are," I nodded. "And you aren't allowed to tell me."
"Mikah..." she started, then hissed softly like a deflating balloon and just said, "A."
"I think I understand."
"Rot everything. I wish I could've told you. They just..." she trailed off again and just made a small, helpless gesture.
I moved closer and touched her, gently stroking the fur of her brow and muzzle: like velvet rubbed the wrong way. "Would you... I don't want to impose, but I don't think I could sleep well back there tonight."
She flinched, pupils flickering as if she were perhaps expecting me to say something else, then a small chitter escaped her. "And I don't blame you in the least. You know you're welcome here."
I leaned a bit closer, to nuzzle the longer fur around her ear. It flickered wildly, she chittered and I whispered, "And there are no other eyes tonight."
"Huhnnn," that soft rumble as she leaned into my chest and I embraced her, just holding that warm life in my arms, feeling a slow heartbeat while the candle slowly puddled and guttered. And in the flickering darkness we moved to the bed.
The bed was just big enough for one. Not really big enough for what the two of us used it for.
And last thing that early morning she lay partially atop me and cradled my face in both hands, her muzzle scant inches from my nose. For the few seconds she stared into my eyes I saw something flicker, a brief flicker of pain that was gone before I could ask. Then she ducked her head to nip at my nose before a rough tongue gently lapped at my eyes.
A door slammed open. I started from secure and aimless slumber into the cold certainty of morning sunlight while in my arms Mai also flinched awake. A tangle of blood-warm sheets fell aside as I sat up to see an armored Rris in the doorway. Standing stock still and staring at the pair of us, nostrils working to take in the unmistakable scents hanging in the small room.
"What is it?" Mai growled.
The trooper took a second to respond, then blinked and ducked. "I'm sorry Ma'am. It was a problem that... huhnn... it seems to have resolved itself."
"I see," Mai said and waited for a second. "If that's all?"
"Huhnn, yes Ma'am," the guard bowed again and retreated, popping back in to say, "Sorry, Ma'am, Sir," and shut the door.
Mai settled back, sinking down beside me. I stroked the ruffled fur on her shoulder, then scratched behind her ear. She subsided with a low sigh and presently said, "Mikah?"
"You didn't tell anyone you were here, did you."
She leaned against my chest and chittered, "Oh, dear."
Predictably, I spent a portion of that morning in the advisor's office explaining why I'd run off that night, what the disturbance during the reception had been about... putting it mildly, Kh'hitch was annoyed about that. I'd been supposed to circulate, interface with potential clients; powerterms I'd expected to have heard from Elliot while wooing a prospective billfold. Instead, my own agendas had surfaced to drag me down and the upper echelons of the Land-of-Water government were none-too-happy that their plans had been interfered with.
So, I just listened while Kh'hitch went on at me. When he'd run out of steam I apologised, quietly and humbly. He seemed a little taken aback, sat and listened with fur bristling, one hand stroking the back of the other. I asked if there was anything else.
No. They let me go back to my rooms.
I stood there in the short-lived sunlight spilling in through the windows. What Mai and I had done last night we'd also done here, and there'd been others watching us. From where? The room was in a corner, so those two walls were out. As was the one to the bathroom. The other wall... what was I expecting? Microphones? Hidden cameras? Peepholes? Perhaps a painting with removable eyes? There was nothing there.
It was obvious when you thought about it. A vantage point that could see everything in the room, in both rooms.
For a while I sat at the window seat, watching bulbous clouds tumbling across a patchwork sky, flashes of sunlight briefly warming a chorus line of swaying treetops. Oh, shit. Everything. Watched and judged and noted, alien eyes and minds studying everything I did... everything we did. I sighed, shook my head, then went to pick up a candle, lit it.
I held the flame directly beneath the lens-like glass bauble in the middle of that ridiculous lamp, slowly waving it around, making sure to coat the whole damn thing with a layer of black soot.
The trio of Rris in the corridor stood aside, watching intently as my guards and I walked past. As we passed by, one caught my eye and raised a hand, claws extended and tongue lolling. There was a low comment, then chittering laughter sounded down the corridor after us. I sighed and glanced at the guard to my left who stared fixedly ahead with a stony expression reminiscent of the one Hirht kept tucked away.
That hadn't been the first incident. There'd been that noble earlier on. She'd been somewhat more... direct. And that's all I'll say about that matter.
I guessed where we were going when the guards came knocking. I was sure of it when we made the first familiar turn off and headed deeper into the halls of power.
The King's office was bright, with sunlight reflecting off the white marble that was so prevalent around the room. Hirht was working, bent over the desk with a pen jotting away at a piece of paper. The scratching was the only sound and he didn't even look up when I closed the door and walked across the room. My boots made muted thumps on the marble tiles as I walked across and stood, waiting. He knew I was there.
And presently he laid his pen aside and looked up. "Ah, Mikah. I hear you've been doing some modifications on the fixtures in your room."
"News gets around quickly here."
"May I ask why?"
"I think you know why." I said, watching him carefully. If I'd guessed wrong, perhaps they thought I was cracking again. "It surprised me a little: I thought Rris valued their privacy."
He cocked his head a bit. "You think you're being watched."
"No," I corrected. "I know I am."
"Please, Mikah," he said, trying to sound placating. "How can you be so sure?"
Oh, please. "She didn't tell me. She didn't have to. I am capable of putting two and two together, you know. When my sex life becomes a topic of conversation, I know something's wrong. My kind may be more... crowd-liking than Rris, but not when it comes to our own lives."
He sighed and leaned back. "For that, I have to apologise. That... that was never intended. Those responsible have been reprimanded."
"And that puts the genie back in the bottle?"
"I'm sorry?" The short fur between his eyes furrowed. "What does that mean?"
"That makes it all better?" I clarified, raising my hand in emphasis. His eyes flickered to the movement and widened, as if he was expecting me to show claws. I let my arm drop to my side: "Christ! There... are times when I want to be alone. To have my privacy. I know Rris need this. I need this."
"Mikah, you know that for your own safety..."
"I have guards at my door and in the corridors and more outside. Surely that's enough? Outside the Palace, I can understand that. I can accept that. But all the time?"
"You'll keep blacking out the lights."
He hesitated and looked down at the papers on the desk for a second, then took a breath and said, "Mikah, did it ever occur to you that the doctor might have told us what happened those nights?"
"Yes. She didn't."
His ears twitched, just a fraction. "How can you be so sure?"
"She said she wouldn't."
"'She said she wouldn't'," he echoed and chittered softly. I swallowed my pride and didn't reply: so he thought me a fool. "You really trust her."
"Yes." Hell, I trusted her. I believed her; I believed in her, and nothing he could do would change that.
"Mikah, you're sure this isn't just because she has sex with you? You aren't clutching at the first hand offered to you?"
I felt muscles bunch in a surge of anger and took a deep breath. "Sir, I have to trust somebody sometime. What she's done for me is more than I could ever ask. I think I... she means a great deal to me," I finished lamely, feeling I'd said something I shouldn't have.
Hirht slowly bobbed his head. If he'd been human that might've given me some clue as to what he was thinking: understanding, approval, comprehension, even just a hollow placating gesture... As it was, all I could do was make a conscious effort not to try and place a comfortably familiar human label upon alien mannerisms. "Your kind, your relationships are different from normal peoples', aren't they. A mated couple stays together for life."
It was a bit more complicated than that, but essentially... "Sometimes. Yes, sir."
"Ah," that bobbing gesture again, then he said, "She does seem like a good person. I hope things work out between you." He exhaled with a soft hiss, leaned back on his cushion and raised a single clawed finger. "There was one other thing."
"What I've heard, from these stories circulating, the sex between you and the doctor seems to be quite... unique. You seem to be able to elicit responses that Rris men can't. What exactly do you do?"
I felt a warm, prickling flush crawling up the nape of my neck and looked away from the king as I rubbed at it, gave a shrug and a smile, "Just sex. Like any normal person would do."
He didn't look that amused.
"... wanted to know what we did in bed."
"A?" Mai said, looking at the dish before her.
I set my fork down and leaned my elbow on the table, watching her. She poked at her stew, then noticed me watching her and abruptly livened again. "A? What did you say to that?"
"Something bothering you?"
She frowned: "Doesn't seem like much of a riposte."
"Please observe how I can't stop laughing. No, you look a little preoccupied. Problems?"
Her eyes flickered up to study me intently for a second, and I saw the pupils were black pools almost blotting out her irises before she dropped her gaze and stabbed at a hunk of meat. "Problems? No, no." She bit, chewed loudy and swallowed. "Just personal affairs."
"Anything I can do?" I asked sincerely.
A grimace flickered across her features, along with a chitter: a strangled sound that quickly choked off into sudden hiccups. She looked startled and thumped at her chest, which didn't help much and she subsided with a resigned sigh and another hic. "No. No. It's... personal. Something I'll have to work through." A flick of her ears and she said, "It'll work out. Eventually."
"I hope so. You sure there's nothing I can do?"
Hic. "You know how to cure these?"
I grinned and hastily covered my mouth. "Well, one suggestion among my kind is to drink out of the wrong side of a cup."
We both stared at the mug of water sitting before her. After a moment she said, "Are you serious?"
"Ah, I'm not sure about it myself. Maybe you spend so long trying to figure out just what the other side is that you forget about your problem."
At least I could help her forget her troubles, whatever they might have been. She stared at me, scattered expressions of disbelief and amusement chasing like clouds across her features, and then she laughed again. The light after the thunderhead has broken, a sound I was learning to love. "You..." she chittered. "You bring wonders with you, concepts of great refinement and thought. And then there's things like this."
I shrugged. "We're like that. Sometime I'll tell you how throwing a pinch of salt over your shoulder can bring you good luck."
"Next you'll be telling me the world was spun from clay by a giant potter."
I laughed with her. Umm. Yes, well.
Another couple of days of work. It was a time during which I was pretty preoccupied and only had the opportunity to see Mai a couple of times. She still seemed pretty down about something. My efforts to cheer her up worked, but they were short-lived.
My work took me around Shattered Water, the familiar places like the workshops and foundries and factories, as well as new places like embassy grounds to visit with various commercial attachés. That was interesting work: the couple of embassies I visited were Shattered Water buildings, but the decor tended to vary to reflect different cultures from far parts of the continent. The embassy from Nights-in-Wonder had a series of spectacular floor-to-ceiling bas reliefs carved into a sandstone that must've cost a fortune to transport here. In one of the northern embassies there was an impressive tapestry woven entirely from Rris fur; quite naturally and properly obtained I was told, but of a finer texture and greater length than that from their southern kin. Apparently they had regional competitions to find the best pelt, which were then sold for considerable sums.
You learn something new every day.
The rest of the time was the usual stuff. Huh, looking back I guess that might sound odd: a situation that - to the best of my knowledge - no other human had ever been in and it was becoming mundane. I was taken around a Shattered Water settling into winter. The snows had arrived: a first heavy flurry that left the city blanketed by a clean white shroud, soon churned into a slurry by wagons and animal traffic on the icy streets. Crusts of ice were forming along the river, heralding the fact that the waterways and then the lakes would soon be closed to shipping. I met merchants and nobles and inventors and scholars and industrialists and printers and even a couple of representatives from an Art Guild. The conversations did vary from the standard and repetitious questions to fields I found interesting, such as the shop talk with the Art Guild, to more disturbing talks with xenophobic Rris that set my hackles on end.
So the evening before my next break day, I was only too happy to accept Mai's invitation to go into town for an evening meal.
In the cold night air my breath crystalised in a cloud that looked almost solid, a momentary vapor lit by the pale light of a moon that was nothing but a feeble glow behind a cloud cover. At my side, Mai was as silent as a ghost. While my boots squeaked in the inches of snow that blanketed the docks, her pads were silent. I looked at her as we walked: hunched down into the collar of her quilted vest while flecks of frozen water drifted out of the night to settle on her shoulders.
"You're cold?" I asked.
She looked up, her eyes catching a light from somewhere and flashing a spectrum shimmer. "Cold? No."
I shook my head. It was cold enough to set my ears tingling, but neither she nor the two guards tagging along behind wore much more than down-quilted vests. "You sure?" I touched her arm and she flinched, still jumpy. "What is it? What's the matter?"
She looked down, then stopped and for a few seconds there was only the sound of the docks at night: water and ice knocking against stone, creaking of timbers from vessels still in the water, some distant shouting and a muffled cough from one of the guards. "I... I can't," she said quietly. "I'm sorry, I have to."
"I don't understand."
I didn't hear the sigh, but I saw it: a soul of moonlit crystal rising from her. Then she touched my arm. "Later, Mikah. Please."
I wanted to help her, but if she didn't want to tell me... "All right. In your time. Can you tell me which way we're going though? Some people do find this a bit cold."
Her place was further south from here, and she gestured at the cluttered sidestreet cutting through from the docks. "Here."
Not too much snow in that street. I looked up and saw most of it must've been caught by the eaves that also blocked the moonlight, turning the alley into a mass of darkness and deeper gloom. Mai had my arm, leading me on toward the lighter patch at the far end.
A muffled clatter behind us...
One of the guards had probably knocked something. I half turned, but couldn't see anything. Not even the silhouette of the guards against the lighter patch of the alley mouth. "Mai," I said, then, "Hai, you two all right?"
No answer. Mai just tugged my hand, "Mai, the guards..."
"They're there," she said, leading me along.
"I can't see them," I said and there were other noises: soft thuds, a silken scraping noise, and there were alien silhouettes against the light behind us, in front of us.
"Mai," I said, starting to feel more than a little uncomfortable, and then I caught a pale flash of watered steel and my guts turned to ice. "Mai, get back," I tried to get in front of her, do what I could to protect her.
And her hand pulled away. Deliberately twisted out of mine and slipped away and left me alone in the dark. I spun in desperation, trying to find her. "Mikah," her voice came from somewhere nearby. "Don't fight. It'll be all right."
"Mai?" I was confused, now frightened as shapes in the darkness circled me.
"I'm sorry, Mikah," her voice sounded in the darkness, moving away, through the shapes that encircled me. "I'm so sorry. Please, don't fight."
"Mai?" the cry echoed in the alley and there was a sudden impression of movement toward me. I swung wildly and my fist glanced against something before a weight slammed into me and sharp hooks raked across the back of my hand and there was an impact against my head that was almost gentle...
... and I was face-down against freezing wet cobbles, trying to move as clawed hands seized me and a pain clenched my skull. "Mai!" I cried in utter despair and confusion. "Mai!"
I don't know if it was a real voice or just something my terror made up as alien hands and bodies pinned me and clawed hands grabbed at me and ropes burned at my skin. And when I tried to fight there was another pressure on the back of my head and the cobbles cracked against my face...
... a numb remoteness as I was lifted...
... lying on a hard surface that rattled and jolted. Bound hand and foot, gagged on cloth tied in my mouth and everything was black and muffled and smelled of suffocating leather. I started to struggle again and the weight of what had to be a Rris foot immediately stamped my head back to the floor. A distant voice snarled, "Don't move. You hear me? Don't move or you'll regret it!"
I lay as still as my trembling allowed, trying to breath through the stifling smell of leather and my own fear.
A carriage; I was in a carriage. It had to be. I could feel the movement, the change in the vibrations as iron-bound wheels went from a rough surface to a smoother one and then back to the former. Crossing the flagstones of a bridge? I didn't know, and when I tried moving again to get some circulation into my hands the foot kicked me back again and this time stayed pressing against my head. I could feel claws poking through the leather of the hood, by now drenched with my sweat and clinging with a ghastly clammy sensation that was almost organic.
And in that slick darkness my mind reeled, trying to grasp, to understand what'd happened? What'd happened?
Mai. Oh, god. Mai.
Something within me died like a rose crushed in a fist. Inside my darkness I cried, choking on the grief and the gag.
I don't know how long we traveled, or in what direction. There were no clues, no sights, all sounds muffled into a single blur that was almost drowned by my own pulse which kept hammering through my aching head. I desperately tried not to think about throwing up.
The vibrations from the wheels changed. From the staccato clattering of cobbles to something much smoother that set the carriage rocking. Whatever that surface was, it only lasted a short distance before movement stopped. A pause and then voices, one snapping orders: "Get it out of there."
Hands grabbed me and I was dragged across wood which abruptly dropped away. I was caught, but my cheek banged painfully against the edge and a louder voice snarled: "Careful. It has to be able to talk."
Clawed hands grabbed my arms and legs, lifted. I groaned in pain, my tied arms feeling like they were being twisted out of their sockets. And when I started to struggle a hard knee was driven into my side, knocking the wind out of me. After that I was too busy just trying to breathe to do anything until I was unceremoniously dumped onto a stone floor.
They searched, found my leatherman and searched me again. Then they stripped me, of everything. They had to remove the ropes, but there were enough of them to pin me while they worked, and they weren't careful with their claws. My clothes, underclothes and boots, even my watch were stripped away. Hands grabbed me again and I cried out into the gag as my skin was lacerated while they forced me back and into what felt like a high-backed chair. A shock of cold wood against my skin and then straps were cinched around my arms and legs and neck and when they were tight they finally took their hands off me.
I ached, every muscle rigid and trembling from shock and sheer terror and cold. A dozen claws cuts across my body stung and not a few of them hurt enough that they must've been bleeding profusely. The binding around my neck dug in, holding me immobile as I tried to breathe; the cold air leeched the heat from my body; and I tried to understand, tried to make some sense of what'd just happened to me. I could hear voices in the near distance, carrying an odd echo like they weren't in the same room and they were muffled by the hood but they were comprehensible.
"All right. He's secure."
"How long do we have?"
"A few hours. Tomorrow dawn at the latest."
"Right. We try for what we can now. Make sure that Lying Scales teacher is intercepted and taken through. I think she'll be leverage if he gives trouble."
"Now, get what you can."
Lying Scales? Teacher? My heart missed a beat and I tried to struggle, to scream into the gag. The bindings shifted, but they didn't give, and then something struck me hard across the face and I froze, head spinning as I tried to get enough air. "Mikah," the voice growled near my ear, one of the voices that'd been speaking. "You understand me, don't you."
I didn't move.
Something sharp jabbed my shoulder. "Don't you."
I tried to nod.
Another voice snapped, "We don't have time for this. Get on with it."
"All right. You've got it?" the first voice said.
"A," a third voice said. "Right here."
"Huhnn," the third voice sounded unsure. "Bigger than we are. Double it."
I didn't know what was going on. Hands caught my right arm and despite the strap, held it tight. And then a pain ripped elbow to wrist and I tried to scream into the gag.
"Rot! Thin skin."
"I... no. Just blood. It'll heal. Now, put it on."
Something rubbed along the wound, burning terribly. And I realised what they were doing and tried to break free, to pull away, but it was too late.
"A few minutes," the third voice said.
I started to laugh into the gag, choking and shuddering under the suffocating hood. And then fingers were working around my neck and suddenly the smothering leather covering my head was pulled away with a wash of cold air and a dazzling light that cut straight to the bruised back of my head.
Just a lantern, hanging from a hook on an undressed stone wall and casting crazy shadows around the dungeonlike room and the half-dozen Rris. Several were gathered near me, all wearing dark clothing - breeches and kilts, quilted and leather vests - most with weapons of various kinds in their hands and their breath orange smoke in the lamplight. One of the Rris in the background had a scribe's kit: pen and paper waiting on a writing board. One at my side had a bloody scalpel in hand and a bag opened to display an array of primitive surgical equipment. I shuddered, looked from there to the bloodied mess on my arm: dollops of dark syrup was smeared in amongst the blood. Oh, god.
I closed my eyes and swallowed hard, then flinched wildly when a finger pressed against my cheek, the claw dimpling my skin. The Rris was behind me, leaning over my shoulder. "Listen closely," that one rumbled. "We've got questions for you. You will answer, and that is all you will do. Do you understand?"
I was able to move my left hand in a Rris, "yes."
"Good." The Rris came around in front of me. A male, I was pretty sure, with russet fur, wearing a dark brown quilted cotton tunic and a black cloak draped over his shoulders. He knelt, calmly studying my face with glistening black eyes, then reached up to either side of my head to loosen the gag. I coughed, then sucked lungfuls of air and rasped, "You can't..."
I never finished the sentence. A furry hand cracked across my face, knocking my head back against the chair. When my vision cleared, the Rris was watching me with that same serene expression. "No, you don't talk. You don't speak except when we tell you. Understand?"
"Yes," I croaked. It wouldn't be long... probably for the best. If their drugs killed me then they wouldn't need me, or Chihirae. Oh, god. Things were too complicated. An end to it would be almost welcome.
"Good. Now, we've got some questions for you. You'll answer?"
"I don't know."
His lips flicked back: lamplight glistened on his teeth. "What does that mean?"
"It depends..." I worked my jaw: my cheek was bleeding. "It depends on what you ask."
"A." He cocked his head, offering me a slight smile. "You're going to be that way, are you? I think you'll find you feel like talking shortly enough."
"I don't..." I started to say and shut my mouth when he raised his hand.
"Good," he said. "You can learn." Then he gestured at one of his cohorts who handed him a leather folio, popped the metal clasp to reveal it was packed with papers. My questioner produced a sheaf of high-quality looking rag paper and held it up in front of me. "This. Can you tell us how to make this?"
I stared, then almost laughed out loud. It was a weapon all right, a pen and ink line drawing sketch of a gun: a blaster pistol from Star Wars. How the hell had they gotten that?
"Can you?" the Rris demanded.
"No," I said, then blinked as a wave of giddiness washed over me.
"Really? Now, why don't I believe that. I think that you know more than you're telling us. Now, why don't you tell me? I know you want to."
The Rris voice droned on, and the lights were doing funny things: the shadows stretching out across the walls and roof shifting. I felt pins and needles, a cold sweat breaking out.
"I don't know," I insisted, my heart lurching as a knot grew in my guts.
"Then, this?" Another picture. An aircraft this time: an old F-18 Hornet. The picture swam in and out of focus, the black markings writhing and threatening to skitter off the page like spindly insects, monstrous shapes lurking in the corner of vision. Fear grew, clenching an ice-cold hand around my bowels, the drubbing of my heartbeat growing in my ears. I knew it was the drug, that poison they'd introduced to my system, but the knowledge didn't do anything to alleviate the terror, the pain as my heart started hammering uncontrollably, the terror that set me panting for air as the room spun and horrors reached for me. Shapes from my darkest nightmares seizing me and shaking me and snarling into my face. I just wanted to run, to get as far away from there, thrashing and struggling and choking as a constriction around my neck grew tighter no matter how I fought and the room spun and my guts clenched, gagging on bile.
Howls and screaming, fighting with muscles taut enough to sprain tendons. Just terror and uncontrollable fear that grew and grew and I don't remember what happened after everything blended into a mash of raw emotions and utter confusion and pain and faded into a suffocating red haze.
A light flickered in my eyes, then the hand released my hair, letting my head drop to my chest. "Still Alive. Still out," a voice said.
"Red tie me. Ugly son, isn't it. What happened?"
"Don't know. He went crazy or something. Didn't like the drugs, I heard. Nearly choked himself."
A metallic rattling, then a dull thud cut of all sounds and left me in a freezing silence. I waited before cracking an eyelid. Empty room, lit by a feeble red glow.
I was alive. I ached; every muscle ached. I was freezing and thirsty. Someone had thrown a threadbare blanket over me, not that that did much. I'd half woken with three strange Rris poking around me and managed to fake unconsciousness. Not that difficult: I was as groggy as hell and felt as though I'd been through a wringer. It was easy to stay limp as they examined me, roll my eyes up when they raised an eyelid.
When the door had thudded closed and the voices were gone, I tried stirring. I ached, in my muscles and guts and my head. In some places there was the pain of pulled muscles and where I was restrained my skin stung, suggesting I'd cut myself. There was a raw line around my neck where the band that'd held and almost strangled me had been removed. A faint odor of vomit hung in the air, the acrid taste of puke in my mouth. If I'd been sick, they must've cleaned me off afterwards; I didn't remember any of that.
The room was undressed stone with a single wooden door in an alcove opposite. The only light was an unsteady red glow coming from a perforated metal drum nearby: a brazier filled with hot coals. If it hadn't been for the fact that my other side was freezing I might never have noticed the warmth it put out. Just enough to take the edge off the chill. And apart from a soft snapping and tink of hot metal, the room was as silent as the grave. Underground, I was pretty certain of that. Perhaps the room had been a coal cellar once, now adapted for a more restraining role.
And I was still alive. That thought awoke mixed emotions.
She'd done it. She'd known. She'd led me right into it.
Someone I'd trusted implicitly had betrayed me in a way I'd never imagined. Those nights I'd laid with her and trusted her claws and teeth at my throat, and then she'd led me like a lamb to the slaughter. How long had she been planning it? Had that been what it was all about? just cultivating my trust to the point where she could use it.
And I remembered the times we'd spent together. That couldn't have been all it was. It simply couldn't. We'd had something together. We'd felt something for one another. I know we had...
Or I had.
Those feelings had been all mine. I had no idea what her real emotions had been. Alien. I'd only seen what showed; what she'd allowed to show. And as that realisation sank in the blackness crawled back over me.
It would've been so easy to give up then, just give in to it all.
And that'd mean someone I cared about, somebody to whom I owed a lot would be hurt. I couldn't let that happen.
So I started struggling against the leather restraints again, back and forth until my wrists were bleeding. The straps didn't give, but the wooden uprights securing the left arm of the chair moved a little. I managed to hook my fingers under the edge of the arm and put more effort into it, waggling it back and forth. And with every movement it got looser, nails pulling out until the arm of the chair peeled up and away from the support. The straps slid off easily, and from there the rest was a piece of cake.
Then, all I had to do was get out of a locked room.
Metal rattled on the other side of the door, then rasped as a bolt was drawn back. I felt my muscles locking up, my heart starting to pound all the faster. The door swung outward on well-oiled hinges, admitting a widening sweep of lamp light and a couple of low Rris voices which broke off in mid sentence when they saw the chair and blanket toppled over backwards. An oath sounded, then they moved in, two armed guards taking care to check to the left and right as they came in the door, a third coming in behind them as the others started toward the chair.
Wedged into the alcove above the door I relaxed my muscles and dropped straight down on the last one. The Rris was fast, faster than any human: looking up and actually starting to move before I hit him. He broke my fall, collapsing in a tumble under my weight. As he went down I brought the arm broken from the chair around in a vicious arc terminating in the side of his head. The other two were turning, registering what was happening even as I scrambled for the door.
The heavy door swung closed with what seemed like agonizing slowness as I shoved with all my might. And then a weight hit it from the other side with a shock that jolted me and the movement stopped, a furry hand with claws extruded slashed around the gap. I threw my weight against the heavy wood and the door jolted back a little. Again, and there was a yowl as the arm stopping it closing tried to wriggle back. Again and there was a high screech of pain as it slammed against the hand and then the obstruction was gone and I was able to ram the bolt home.
The door kept jolting under muffled thuds from the other side as I stepped back, panting hard. It'd hold... for a while. Long enough, I hoped, to let me get a long way away before the alarm was raised. Sucking ice-cold air, heaving breaths that crystalised in the chill as I took stock: I was in a dirty little stone corridor that smelled of oil and coal dust. There were a couple of other doors - closed - and a tight spiral stone staircase at the other end. It was also freezing cold and I was naked.
Grit and grime stuck to the bare soles of my feet as I padded over to the stairs, trying to see or hear something up there. Nothing. I started upwards, my hand convulsively gripping at the broken chair arm, the corners of the varnished wood cutting into my palm. A few turns before I reached a landing where a door stood ajar and the stairs changed from stone to wood.
I peeped through the crack in the door. The room on the other side was a kitchen. I could see wooden beams in the ceiling; a big work table standing on a decorative blue and white tile floor; a huge black-iron range equipped with an elaborate black hood trimmed with polished brass. An open door on the far side of the room led outside: I could see crystal-brilliant snow under a cold sun that threw glare from ice outside and the white tiles on the floor inside. A cold wind blew in.
I was shivering as I touched the door and pushed. It squeaked like nails on a blackboard and I froze, then heard the Rris voices approaching the kitchen from some other direction, suddenly louder as another door was opened.
I took the only other option open to me: scampering up the narrow wooden stairs.
It must've been a servants' staircase; tucked back behind the scenes so the necessary unpleasantness of household duties could be performed out of sight. I went up to another landing and cracked the door there, peeking through to see a brightly lit corridor and the receding back of a Rris carrying a stack of linen. It stopped then started to turn around and I ducked back.
Herded upwards again.
The staircase ended at the next floor and the door there. My heart was hammering as I touched the door handle, my makeshift club clutched in hands and my stomach tight enough to make me feel like vomiting. The handle turned silently, letting me open the door a fraction. I was at one end of a corridor like the one on the floor below: quite long, high ceiling, doors along the whitewashed walls, a black wooden floor mostly covered by a red carpet running the length of the hall. A stained-glass window at each end of the hall threw shards of yellow and green light down the hall, illumination that'd be replaced by three crystal chandeliers when night fell. But what mattered most to me was the fact that the hall was deserted.
The carpet was a relief under my bare feet. It also muffled any sound as I crept along the hall, trying to look in all directions at once and not to break into a run. I didn't know where I was going, I just kept moving; passing by door after closed door and afraid to open one lest I got an unpleasant surprise. The main staircase was up ahead, but going down there would be suicide. I needed a room, somewhere I could hide, get some clothing and perhaps escape out a window.
I never found it. Ahead, a door opened and I saw a Rris arm holding it open. Heated voices drifted out into the hall as the Rris talked to someone back in the room. All I could do was dive for the nearest door which turned out to be a broomcloset without enough room for a Rris, let alone me. The next one... a freezing draught blew down a narrow little staircase leading upwards.
I took it, easing the door closed behind me. The stairs led to the attic.
It was a big, cold, twilight place. A dusty wooden floor was gritty underfoot while overhead a peaked framework of coarse wood supported a gridwork of countless tiles and dried cobwebs. There were mounds of stuff scattered away into the dimness: boxy shapes under old dustcloths. Grimy sunlight spilled in through small dirty circular cupola windows scattered down the length of the roofline. I made a beeline for one of those and couldn't see much more than a grey blur through the dust. It took a while to rub the dirt of ages away.
Not reassuring. The window pivoted open on its y axis and outside was a steep, ice-covered tile roof leading to a three-story drop-off. I'd run out of places to run. The building was a private residence, a wealthy one from all I'd seen. It was nestled amongst a small forest of full-grown trees: a mixture of evergreens and the winter wire frames of deciduous. The area called the Rock, I didn't have much doubt about that. That meant I was still in Shattered Water, near the heart of it. In fact, I could see a few distant rooftops and towers under the gray sky, but the trees hid everything else from sight.
Anytime now they'd find I was gone. They'd search. I needed to throw them off the track, hide until there was a chance to make a break for it. Through the window I could see the snow lying on the ground between the trees which blended together to hide the fenceline somewhere off over there. It couldn't be that far, but...
A trio of armed Rris stalked into my field of vision: long white coats with muskets slung over their shoulders, their heads turning alertly. I jerked away from the window and when I looked again there was nothing but a few telltale prints.
I couldn't outrun Rris.
I leaned my head against the sill, trying to think.
Distant howls sounded through the house.
Pure terror can clear the mind. I just looked at the makeshift weapon still clutched in my hand. There were flecks of blood on the sharp corners: I didn't think I'd struck that hard, but it really didn't matter. It'd do as a decoy, if I could plant it properly.
I managed to get enough of my arm out the window, prayed nobody happened to be looking out of another window, and threw. The limb spun end over end, hit the ground and bounced before coming to rest near the footprints left by the guards.
And just as I pulled back inside, four or five Rris raced into view. This time they moved more purposefully: running in a partial crouch with weapons in their hands. I watched as two went right past my red herring, then the third did a double take and stopped to examine it.
I pulled back, watching through the grimy windowpane as the others came back, there was a brief consultation, then they bounded off into the trees. Hopefully, they'd think I was making for the fence. They'd concentrate their search out there and that might give me a chance to slip away later.
Shaking hard, I retreated into the darkness of the attic to find a place to hide.
I huddled in the freezing shadows behind a cluttered stack of crates, metal-bound chests and forgotten furniture watching the dust swirling in the gray light spilling through one of the little circular windows. A roll of old carpets had yielded several threadbare rugs. They were stiff and dusty and scratchy, but they were something I could wrap myself in, something that trapped some body warmth. And after a few minutes the convulsive shivering eased.
The house was silent, as still as a tomb. As the shadows slowly changed my mind filled in the silence with the sounds of footsteps; every creak and groan of timbers or faint scuttling of rodents turned into something more sinister. I tried to think of what I was going to do next, some way to get out. I could fashion a rope out of odds and ends in the attic, wait until dark before climbing down three floors and making a break.
What would my chances be? If it turned out to be a dark night I'd be practically blind while my captors would be only partially impaired. They were faster than me, they were armed and knew the territory. Maybe I should wait till early dawn, when I could at least see something...
Whichever way I bit it, my chances didn't look that good.
I sagged and pulled the itchy rugs a bit closer, trying to ignore growing hunger pangs and think of something. There had to be a way. There had to be.
A futile introspection that was interrupted when I heard a sound that made me freeze in dread: a door opening.
And the atmosphere in the attic seemed to change. Abruptly the silence wasn't the absence of sound, it was the silence of someone trying not to make any sound. And over it was the rushing of blood in my ears as my heart started to labor in growing fear.
A floorboard creaked and I tried to press back in my hiding place, trying not to breath, not to exist.
The Rris voice raised odd echoes down the length of the attic.
"Mikah? I know you're up here."
No. A bluff. It had to be.
"You know," the voice said, almost conversationally, "I can smell you, your fear."
Oh, god. No.
"Or perhaps you don't know that, a? Scent-blind, aren't you. Maybe you can't smell it, but it's there, like an arrow."
The Rris was speaking slowly, almost laconically, and moving closer. I could hear a faint creak of wood and above that a steady tick, clack: unsheathed claws on the floor.
"Come out now. It'll be easier for you." The footsteps halted right in front of me.
And in the following silence I couldn't move. Frozen in sheer terror as the crates hiding me crashed aside, spilling shattered crockery. My interrogator's eyes flared as he grinned down at me.
Then other figures moved around him, approaching with eyes glowing and clubs raised.
Pain throbbed in pulled muscles and throughout a multitude of new cuts, bruises and scratches. I must've cried out because someone cuffed my head hard and the knee in my back pressed harder as they forced my arms behind my back and secured the manacles. Only then did they release me and let me curl up around my pain as best as I could on the grimy floor.
I'd never had a chance. Too many of them jumped me, pinning me with claws and weight so they could use their saps and truncheons until I was in no condition to struggle. When consciousness returned I was being held face down on a stone floor while cold metal was clamped around my ankles, my wrists and neck.
Now, I groaned as new bruises and cuts made themselves felt and the manacles securing my arms behind my back at an awkward angle dug into my skin. I just lay still, horribly aware that I'd failed and that any chance I might've had had fled.
"I thought you were supposed to be smarter than that," a calm voice said.
I ignored it. A hand seized my hair and yanked my head around, forcing me to look up at my interrogator who regarded me with a mild expression. "You aren't going to try that again, are you."
I tried to speak through dried and swollen lips and managed only an unintelligible croak. The Rris cocked his head, then beckoned to another who came forward with a canteen. He was almost gentle when he dribbled some water over my lips then let me sip. Just a few drops before he handed the flask back. "Now," he said. "Better?"
"Why are you doing this?" I rasped, tensing in expectation of another blow.
He raised his hand and let me have a good look as he slowly extruded claws, one at a time, and grinned at my obvious fear. "That's something you don't need to know," he growled. "What you should know is that if you attempt something like that again, we will break your feet and then your legs. Do you understand that?"
And for all I knew he was absolutely serious. I lay helpless, my cheek pressed against the flagstones, and swallowed hard: "Yes."
The Rris reached down and the clawed hand patted my bruised face. "Good. Then for your own health I'd suggest you don't try anything foolish." He stood then, looking down on me. "You'll get some food later."
"I'm freezing," I blurted. He regarded me expressionlessly, then turned and walked back to the door. Before stepping out he muttered something to the guards stationed there and left, the door closing behind him. The guards looked at each other. One waved a shrug and came over to move the coal brazier closer, then knelt to have a better look at me.
Chains rattled as I turned away, trying to find some position that eased the aching as I curled up on the cold stone. And as time passed I tried to think of some way out of this, but under the wary eyes of two guards there was nothing.
When the door opened I dully looked up through my misery in the faint hopes it might herald an improvement in my situation. It didn't seem to be; just another guard coming in and throwing an unmistakably hostile glare my way. I noticed the splint and bandages around one hand: must've been the guard whose hand I'd slammed in the door. On duty again?
The guard with the injured arm exchanged some words with the other two and they glanced at me, then muttered something and pushed past the other on their way out. The door closed with a thud, leaving me alone in the cell with the wounded guard. The Rris stared at me and slowly the ears went down and the other hand went into the cloak to emerge with the sharkshide length of a Rris cattle switch. A couple of times the end flicked thoughtfully against the Rris' ankle, then claws clicked on the stones as the guard started toward me.
I tried to squirm away, fear blossoming once again as the guard raised the whip. "No... don't..."
The whip came down across my shoulders and I screamed at the shock of it. Again it hissed and I cried out, fighting the restraints, trying to escape the searing pain. Again and again.
A rough whip intended for buffalo hide. Again and again and again, the hiss and crack of the blows punctuated by my screams. I couldn't escape it, only curl up in a tight ball and try to hide my face while the agony flared across my arms and back and shoulders and legs. It kept going, past the point where my awareness washed away into red and there was nothing but the sheet of agony across my back and arms.
I don't remember when the flogging stopped. Next I recall the sounds of Rris shouting were filling the room and there was a circle of Rris faces hanging over me, a hand prising my eyelid open. I think I cried out again and tried to cover my face but my arms wouldn't work and the floor under me was slick and wet. There was more pain as something cold touched my back.
A familiar face that terrified me leaned close and said something.
"No more," I moaned in terror and agony. "Please, no more."
"No more," he said, touching my face. "That wasn't supposed..."
"It tried to escape," a voice in the background snarled.
"Shave you!" the Rris crouching beside me snapped back over his shoulder. "You get out of here! I'll deal with you later!"
Muffled cursing. Someone tugged my arm and I cried out.
"Rot," my interrogator snarled. "We can't move him like this."
"We have to. We don't have long."
"At best he'll just die in that crate, at worst he'll give us away. That red-tied fool!"
More voices, arguing, it all fuzzed in and out. Then a hand was holding my head up and there was a glass at my lips. "Drink."
Water. There was something in it: bitter, alkaloid. I coughed and sputtered.
"It'll help the pain," the voice said, and then more insistently: "Drink."
And at that moment I didn't care if it was poison. I drank, right down to a gritty residue lining the bottom of the glass.
Voices kept talking. Someone moving around behind me and more touches on my back: gentle, cold dabs. Touches that seemed to be slowly receding, along with other sensations, along with the pain. When I tried to move hands pressed me back down again and I lay in a growing pool of warmth as the pain receded. A tingling pleasure seemed to suffuse me, pushing the fear and hunger and other emotions aside. And through the languid cloud I saw a couple of Rris leaning over me and beyond them a pair of Rris in the doorway; my interrogator gesturing at me, the other turning with a snarl on her face:
Haies aesh Tohikish.
"I delivered my end," her voice carried. "Now it's in your hands."
"Only until the package is safely out of the city and underway," the other responded. "We'll consider the contract fulfilled then, not before."
"You'll make it. My employer's ensured you've got a free run to the docks. From there... you've got the clearance."
"A," my interrogator looked down at me. I tried to focus, tried to say something but my tongue was numb. What'd they given me? The spike of apprehension was washed away on a tide of lassitude. "We also want that teacher he met. The one from Lying scales."
A hesitation, then Haies said, "[Leverage]?"
"A. He bonds to people he trusts. That should do what drugs won't."
She chittered. "A, I've heard about his 'bonding'. I'll have to clear that."
"Do it. We'll pay the standard amount for a full load."
"Something will be arranged." She looked down: "I don't like him seeing me."
"He's drugged to the eyeballs. Besides, who's he going to tell?"
"Huhn, risky. See that you don't loose him."
"Does it look like he's going anywhere?"
Another growl and she studied me. "About time someone put him in his place. Doesn't seem so impressive now, does he. I don't see what the fuss was about." A flash of needle teeth before she turned to the others. "There'll be the matter of payment."
My interrogator flicked his ears. "I'll see you at the Kingfisher. We'll sort out the details there. The rest of you, get that ready. We're moving out."
The figures were out-of-focus blurs standing over me, then they turned and swept away. Other figures moved around me and I felt remote touches as hands worked at my back; bandages were wrapped around my ribs and pulled tight; the gag was replaced.
I was still aware when they lifted me, moved me, lowered me into straw and wooden walls: a tiny space where I was curled up into a foetal ball in a nest of straw. Slowly, the lid came down and there was an indeterminable period of silent darkness before the hammering began, reverberating in my head and body. And the drug just made the darkness spin and blur and gradually mingle with body warmth and fatigue.
End Light on Shattered Water 31