Light on Shattered Water
Awakening was like surfacing from a dark pool.
There was... nothing: non-awareness. Then I was I. Aware of my heartbeat; aware I was breathing; aware of the pain throughout my body and that my burning back was lying on soft sheets. My left thigh ached with a throbbing that somehow seemed familiar. I lay quietly, my eyes closed as what had happened to me slowly came back. I remembered being beaten, then the lid of a crate closing and after that... nothing. Now, I was lying in what felt like a bed and... and when I tried shifting an arm, it hurt, but it moved. I wasn't tied.
Opened my eyes to a net of pale blue moonlight and shadows thrown across whitewashed walls and ceiling decorated with geometric bas-reliefs in cracked and stained plaster. Fear mixed with confusion and uncertainty of what had happened and where I was.
"Mikah?" a low voice murmured.
There was a glazed window with a sliver of moon visible through it. Silhouetted against the light, a Rris shape rose from a chair. For a few seconds the shadow stared at me in silence and I just lay frozen in place, my heart starting to race again. I saw the head shake and the Rris moved across to a table: a metallic rasping and flash of sparks cast eldritch shadows before a small gas lantern popped, then flared to a steady light that reflected off a copper jug and mug. Backlit hands glowed, the fur a golden halo as the Rris lowered the mantle and turned back to me, unable to meet my eyes.
I just stared.
"I'm so sorry," she said in a monotone.
I couldn't say anything.
"Mikah, I'm sorry." She stepped closer, her hand starting to make a gesture then closing and falling to her side. "It was necessary, but..."
I lunged at her driven by nothing but a surge of blind rage and with the movement the throbbing in my left thigh exploded into agony, a fetter around my ankle yanking me up short and sending me sprawling over the edge of the bed in a mess of sheets, screaming and thrashing at the pain that assaulted me from everywhere. A door flew open somewhere and suddenly there were more Rris there, hands grabbing me to lift me back into bed. I struggled, then gripped at the sheets, clenching my teeth while the molten nerves through my leg and across my back slowly cooled. Rris voices hissed urgently as Mai ushered the others out of the room assuring them: "It's all right. No problems."
The door closed and we were alone again.
She stood at the foot of the bed. Watching me watching her; ears down in utter dismay. Her clothing was different. It wasn't the light comfortable stuff I was so accustomed to seeing her in, instead she was wearing dark clothing: heavy leather tunic and trousers. It had the feel of a uniform, perhaps armour. "I had to," she said after a while. "I had no choice. I'm so sorry."
She'd betrayed me. She'd left me to be beaten and tortured. She'd used me; led me and manipulated me and used me and when all was said and done... the fury inside flickered and died.
Fool, I was just a fool. I sagged back. "Why?" I croaked to the ceiling.
A hot sigh. "Politics, Mikah. Politics." She actually hung her head. "This was never meant to happen."
"Never meant to happen?" My dry throat ached and I almost laughed. "You left me, Mai. They ignored you and took me. You led me there and left me. It was quite deliberate."
"You don't understand."
"You're right. I don't." I looked at her, that face I'd thought I knew so well. "Please? No more lies."
A soft clicking as Mai tapped claws together, then silently padded past the small lamp to catch the rickety old chair and pull it up to the bedside. It brought her closer to my level.
"All right, Mikah," she sighed again. "My name isn't Maithris. My real name... Hai, I haven't used it for a long time. I've lived and been Maithris for so long, so deeply, that perhaps I've become her," she looked down at her hand, turning it over as if she'd never seen it before. "But it isn't the real me. If you knew that person, perhaps you wouldn't like me so much."
I swallowed. "Your real name...?"
"I can't tell you," she said, chittered slightly. "Not my name, not my country, my employers... Probably the best thing for both of us. Mikah, I came to Shattered Water years ago, took the place of the real Maithris. I lived here, I worked, just like any other person."
As if she were confessing to me, laying the weight of a life of lies on somebody else's shoulders. I just lay there and listened to the litany as she talked, tearing down the old facades, the pictures I'd painted in my mind.
The alien eyes flashed a metal-rainbow shimmer as she glanced at the lamp, the edge of the bed, my face. "It was a few months ago I got my first orders."
"There were troubles in my homeland. There was the government, then... factions. One tried violence to settle their issues. There were uprisings in some provinces, small attacks against government properties in others, and they were being supplied with weapons of military quality. Efforts made to trace the supply lines met with little success until..."
This Rris that I'd thought I knew, she raked her ears back with both hands and didn't meet my eye. "Until they started using new weapons."
"New weapons," I echoed faintly. I knew where this was heading and a leaden weight settled inside me.
"A. New designs," she said, "new ideas. They caused a lot of damage with them. I don't suppose it was too difficult to guess where they were coming from. Land-of-Water had acquired an outsider: a creature that wasn't a Rris who was providing them with knowledge and ideas of incalculable value."
"By pure chance I met this creature in a tavern. I tended its wounds and talked with it and what I saw in that short time was a being that'd been pulled from his own life into a situation where he was treated like a commodity: Kept in a box when not in use, locked away from the world. A mind that wasn't like a Rris, one that was superficially similar but that walked down different paths from our own."
"It'd been something I'd been studying: the way the mind works, the way people think. Studying why people in similar circumstances might solve a problem in entirely different ways; the way people observe the world and interpret it. I'd gone as far as to publish a couple of papers. They weren't well received."
She waved a small shrug. "I don't know... I guessed you weren't entirely sane. I knew what a Rris might do, but you... you, I couldn't say. Some of the questions I'd asked you you'd responded to in ways no Rris had ever done. You kept your pain inside, masking it with a humor while you turned in directions I never expected. It was intriguing, and fascinating and frightening. A Rris I might be able to predict, but you... I all I could see was that you'd try to escape, one way or another."
I lay still, listening with a numb feeling as my small island of stability eroded away from beneath me.
"My orders arrived shortly after. Seven years of building a life around myself and then this piece of paper changes everything," she held out her hands, unfolding an imaginary note. "It had to happen sometime, it was my duty, but it wasn't the thrill I thought it would be." In the lamplight I saw her hands crumple the note and drop to her lap. "I got very drunk that night."
"I was to try and find out more about you, to get closer if possible. I sent off to the Palace with my observations and as expected, they didn't take them seriously. Then you tried to take your own life. The next day they came scratching at my door. From there... you know most of the rest."
"I was able to get close to you and the work was fascinating. You weren't a Rris, but you were still a very personable character. I found I was enjoying myself; I found I liked you," a faint smile flickered.
I stared back, not feeling anything. As though my emotions were smothered in layers of cotton. In the light from that single lamp the Rris I'd known as Maithris hesitated, then continued:
"I reported back what I found when I had the chance. Then, I received new orders. They... they wanted me to gain your trust, your friendship. To stay close to you until you and the Land-of-Water government trusted me implicitly." She looked away when she added, "I did this in the best way I knew how."
Shadows flickered across the ceiling. Outside, a cloud eclipsed the moon.
"The smugglers grew greedy and took the bait. I was approached and offered a deal: freedom and a great deal of money if I cooperated or ending at the bottom of the river if I didn't. I acquiesced, as planned. I did as they wanted and... I turned you over to them."
I heard the sigh again, the creak of wood as she shifted on the chair. "You were followed, of course. We watched as they took you, followed you. And then when we had the chance we took you back. They were taking you to the docks, hidden amongst a consignment of rugs and pottery: we ambushed them easily enough. They tried to kill you then, put a bullet through the box. I suppose they forgot which way around you were: it only creased your leg. We got you back, also your clothes and foot protectors." Another flicker of a smile that quickly died.
"Please, can you understand this was necessary?" she implored. "If it hadn't been done, so many more might have died. And I never meant for you to get hurt like this, I never thought they'd do this to you. What did you do to anger them so?"
Light changed as the clouds moved on. I saw shadows shifting as the Rris leaned over to touch my arm. "Mikah?" the small voice was as uncertain as I'd ever heard it.
"What is this place?" I asked.
A hesitation. "You're still in Shattered Water. We wouldn't harm or take you, believe that. The problems that would cause..." she let that trail off.
"I should believe that?" I said, my voice strained as I tried to keep from cracking.
Her ears went flat but she didn't reply, just looked away and stroked her cheek tufts then reached for the jug resting beside the lamp. I heard metal rattle on metal, then water flowing and the Rris I'd known as Mai held a battered copper mug in her hands. "Water? You sound like you need it."
I didn't say anything. Her ears flickered a bit and she leaned forward, the cup held in both hands. And when she was close enough I grabbed the lapel of her tunic in one fist and pulled.
Water slopped and spilled and lacerations across my skin burned but I held her in a white-knuckled grip and she didn't resist. I don't know how long I stared into those wide amber eyes, my other fist raised; ready to pound her muzzle in, ready to kill her. And she just gazed back, not flinching and I couldn't go through with it and felt like a complete fool.
I let her go, dropping back and gasping a sobbing breath. My back hurt.
Quietly, she refilled the mug and turned back to me. After a while she said, "I think a Rris would've struck."
"I'm not a Rris."
"A," she murmured and leaned forward again, familiar fur around my neck as she supported me with an arm while I drank, then laid me down on my tender back. I watched as she set the mug back.
"It was all a lie," I said. "Everything. Lies."
Her ears laid back again, a finger stroking the battered copper.
"The time we spent: the lake, the plays and music and nights. It was just your orders."
Amber-rimmed eyes flashed my way again, the pupils dark holes into her soul. "There were orders. There was a time I was told to find out more about your people, how you thought, what you were going to do; a time I was ordered to have sex with you. I tried to be what you wanted, what you needed. I tried to understand how you thought and... and I realised how different you are up there." A finger reached over to touch my forehead.
"You need," she said. "It's the simplest explanation. You need others; to be around, to be near you. You need to bond with others in a way that just isn't normal, not for Rris. I tried to understand it; I tried to empathise with it, but Mikah, I can never feel it. Not the way you do. I'm sorry."
I remembered the times we'd laughed together, the times I'd held her and she held me, the times when we'd been happy together... or rather when I'd been happy. I closed my eyes and shook my head, feeling pain and solid metal around my ankle: "Just acting."
"Hai," her voice admonished me. "No, it wasn't just that. Mikah, I enjoyed the time we spent together. They're memories that'll always be sunny days. I'm just sorry... I'm sorry I can't be what you wanted me to be. Can you understand that?"
Trying to cross a barrier of minds and cultures. I'd believed... I'd known there were differences, but that knowledge had never really percolated through to my hindbrain. I'd never felt that difference, grasped the alien. There'd been the flashes, the times when there was something behind those eyes I couldn't recognise, when that face was so inscrutable, but there were other times when I felt she was part of me and that part would always be there.
Feeling the same way for this alien as I'd felt about Jackie.
Anthropomorphising; humanocentric hard wiring; that tendency to lapse back into a anthropoid viewpoint whenever my guard lapsed.
Whose fault was it really?
My hand spasmed as I clutched at sheets and a voice ventured, "Mikah?"
The tears blurred my vision when I looked at her and a hot trail traced its line across my cheek. My voice sounded very small in the dark. "I... I understand."
A slow bob of her head. "I do like you. If you'd been Rris... you would have been a wonderful mate. As it is... I can't be what you want and I know you can't be anything more than what you are."
"Worlds apart," I heard myself say.
"A," a gentle hand touched my face and the wetness there. "There'll be others," she said. "You have other friends."
And that triggered recent memories I'd rather stayed buried. A dread welled up from inside and to the Rris face above me I whispered, "Chihirae."
The finger touching me hesitated, drawing back a fraction and then she ducked her head. "A. That one. She knows you..."
"No," I interjected and she looked confused. "No." I grabbed after her hand. "They said they were going after her. To get to me through her. Did you stop them? Did you get them all?"
She looked away. "Not all. Some left earlier. They were followed, but some of them..."
"They're going to Westwater. They're going after her. Oh, Christ, you have to let me go. I have to go after them..."
"You're in no condition to go anywhere," she sighed and sank back into her chair, raised a hand to rub across her muzzle. "Oh, rot. I didn't mean for it to be like this at all. Mikah," she raked the tufts on her cheeks back and leaned forward, "the teacher's no longer in Westwater or Lying Scales. A month ago I arranged with Hirht to have her brought here. She'll be on her way."
On her way? Coming here? Walking into a potentialy lethal situation she had no inkling of. I pictured that friendly face as I'd last seen it: receding behind the wagon before vanishing out of sight. Out of my life. Now back into it.
I owed her everything.
"I have to go," I repeated and tried to get up.
A hand pressed me back. For a second I debated fighting her but the pain through my back and leg talked me out of it. I lay back; sweating, shivering, concerned and frustrated. A palm with leathery pads touched my forehead and stroked my hair. "Mikah," the low voice rumbed. "I can't let you go. Not yet. After we leave we'll alert the Land-of-Water authorities. They'll find you. There's a key to the shackles out there. I'm sorry. It's all I can do."
Sorry. That was all she could say? "Mai, please. They'll hurt her."
And her eyes flickered away again. "I can't. Please, understand that."
I lay still, taking that in. "How... long?" I eventually asked.
Again she raked her cheek tufts back and couldn't meet my eyes. "A few hours. Not before."
"Mai..." I choked.
"I'm sorry," she interjected. "We have to. We need time to be away."
And at that second the door was cracked open and a Rris voice interrupted, "Doctor, we don't have long. We have to go now."
"A," she acknowledged. "A." There was a huff of breath and the other Rris said something before the door closed again. Mai rumbled softly, then sagged back and rubbed her eyes.
"Rot, Mikah. I needed longer. There was so much I wanted to talk about, to show you... I didn't want to finish this way."
Confused and betrayed, I didn't know to respond. The wound was a deep one, a hole gouged in the center of my being, and she tried to soothe it away with words. A part of me wanted to scream, instead I heard a fool venture. "I'll see you again?"
"I..." a hesitation, then, "No. No, you won't." Then she stirred and leaned forward. "Also, there's this." She pressed something metallic into my palm. I raised my hand to see: the bracelet I'd given her.
I stared at it and the pain was like she'd just turned the knife in the wound.
"I can't take that," she said in a small voice and stood. Her shoulders were slumped and her tail hung with a lifelessness I'd never seen in a Rris before. "I know this is all a shock for you. I'm so sorry it has to be this way. Mikah, please understand that this has to be. You'll get by, you'll survive." She raised a hand toward me, blinked at it, lowered it again and gave a small shake of her muzzle. "Can you promise me something?"
At another time I might have laughed at the presumption, but now all I was feeling was numb. I just looked at her: an inhuman silhouette against the blue haze of the window. There was frost there a part of me noticed, glittering in a fluctuating moonlight. "A promise?" I murmured.
Again she raised her hand and I heard claws clicking in uncertainty. "The way you tried to escape the pain before. Please, don't do it again."
It was a second before I realised what she was referring to. Then I grinned: a death's head that was all human emotion and very little humor. "You mean kill myself."
Just a gesture: yes.
I closed my eyes again. In a way she was right: it'd be an escape, a way out of this. It'd also be deserting Chihirae. When I opened my eyes she was still watching me. "On a condition," I said and when she cocked her head I held my hand out, the bracelet gleaming. "Take it?" I asked.
She didn't move.
"Please... Mai?" I swallowed. "If what we had meant anything..." I trailed off.
And it was the longest time to wait. A question that meant the world to me at that instant and the seconds she hesitated just crawled by. Then she took a step: a fluid move toward me and picked the bracelet, clasping it in both hands and stepping away again. "Why couldn't you have been Rris?" she almost snarled, then ducked her head and a peculiar sound escaped her: a small mewling. "Goodbye, Mikah Ri'ey. Have a good life."
"Goodbye," I think I said, perhaps only loud enough to be heard by myself. And to this day I've regretted that as the next second she'd turned and the door was closing behind her.
I lay quietly. There were a few remote sounds and then silence. Outside, snow fell: fat flakes adhering to the windows and frosting the glass in translucent white. Later, the lamp guttered and went out. In the cold moonlight I remembered nights of warm embraces, of someone to talk to, to be with. A sense of actual... security, of belonging.
I just clutched at the sheets and screamed. Until my throat was raw and there was nothing left. It didn't help.
There was a pale light on Shattered Water when the guards arrived.
Dawn glowed in the sky and with it came the sound of voices in the other room. Metal clattered, then the door was tried, opened a bit, hesitated, then burst open and there were armed soldiers clattering into the room. Their breath puffed in rapid white clouds that hung in the air as they stood there and panted, watching me with wide eyes. An officer pushed through, saw what was going on and snapped orders.
They found a key for the shackles. As Mai had promised. They provided heavy blankets and stood by, offering occasional uncertain hands as I stood and slowly and painfully limped where they led.
The building was a storehouse of some kind, down in a less-reputable part of town. Snow covered the ground, icicles hung from eaves and armoured guards were everywhere. The cold stabbed at my bare feet and my wounds ached as I made my way to a waiting wagon and needed help getting in.
Two guards watched me as we rattled and bumped through a white cityscape. I pulled the blankets closer, closed my eyes and suffered in silence.
When I'd arrived back at the Palace there'd been a chaotic rush from the carriage, a confusion of guards everywhere. My leg ached abominably and gave out beneath me when I tried to step down and I grabbed for a handhold and the sheets at the same time and succeeded with neither, collapsing in a humiliating tangle in the snow in front of dozens of guards. They stared until an officer snarled and troopers moved forward to help me. I tried to tell them about Chihirae but nobody seemed to be listening, or care. They just rushed me along as best as my condition would allow.
There'd been a fire blazing in my quarters, melting the worst of the chill out of the air. I was deposited on the bed while physicians clustered about. They examined me, fussed around me, changed the bandages, medicated the wounds. All very professional, efficient, thorough and completely impersonal. I looked up at eyes that continually skirted around my gaze, concentrating on anything but my face. And when I tried to get up or to tell them about Chihirae they pressed me back and told me to be quiet until I closed my eyes and let them do what they willed, moving when they wanted but otherwise just letting the world wash around me.
I was so tired.
I never really noticed when they finished. All I remember is that the hands that'd been touching me weren't there anymore and there were more voices in the background. I hurt when I moved my head to see Rris leaving my quarters: the guards and the physicians trooping out the door. Why? The reason was watching me from over by the window. Hirht standing and regarding me solemnly, not even his tail twitching. Beyond, Kh'hitch stood with a scribe's board in hand and a neutral expression.
"How are you managing?" Hirht inquired.
"I'll... live," I said without feeling anything.
For a few seconds those eyes studied me before he ducked his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm afraid I really don't know what else to say. We had no idea."
No idea. I stared, frustration and anger stretching something inside me to breaking point. They'd no idea... I'd had no idea. I'd lived with her, I'd slept with her and I'd never had the slightest inkling. The fury inside me died and I sagged back. How could they have known?
"No sir," I said quietly, simply and pulled a blanket closer around me. "No sir. Sir... who was she?"
A rustle of fur on cloth as the king shifted. "I don't know. An agent, that much is obvious. Not mercenary, something more than that." He waved a small shrug. "The matter is being investigated."
I caught a shuddering breath. "She said Chihirae is coming here."
A hint of reaction around the eyes, then in somewhat displeased tones: "She told you about that."
"It's true?" My fists were clenching, nails digging into my palms.
He waved a small gesture. "A."
"Oh, no," I moaned, then demanded: "Those bastards, you got them? You got them all?"
Hirht's muzzle rumpled. "If you're referring to the individuals who abducted you... We don't know. There was a disturbance near the docks. When the patrol arrived they found a number of bodies, one with a note containing directions to an estate in the Rocks pinned to it. When we stormed the premises there was resistance. We found a handful of individuals who were doubtless involved in your abduction."
"Haies?" I grated.
"Haies?" Hirht blinked at the name.
"Haies aesh Tohi... Tohikenishi... something like that," I shook my head. "An... assistant to someone. In the military I think. She was there. She was responsible."
"Military?" Hirht threw a sharp glance back at Kh'hitch.
"It would explain a lot sire," Kh'hitch rumbled and scratched something with a quill pen. "It'll be investigated immediately."
Something tightened in my guts. If they didn't know about her...
"The other?" I ventured, dreading the response. "The one with the bracelet?"
"Bracelet?" Hirht looked surprised then furrowed his muzzle. "Him again?"
"Please. Did you get him?"
Another glance at the advisor who cocked his head slightly: "Nobody of such description, sir."
"Oh, god," I felt ill: things were accelerating out of control and headed in her direction. "Sir, I have to go. They're going to harm her. I have to go."
"Hai!" he barked as I started to wobble to my feet and then he was across the room to lay clawed hands on my shoulders, pushing me back. I yelped as he scraped lacerations, bandages shifted and I sat back down on the edge of the bed, lightheaded with the pain from the welts covering my back.
"You're in no condition to go anywhere," Hirht admonished. Behind him, Kh'hitch waved guards back out. "What do you mean? Who's going to hurt her?"
"They've gone," I choked. "You didn't find them all. Not all. Others... go. They find her. Hurt her. Not know others gone now..." I stuttered to a halt, trying to speak faster than my ability with the Rris language would allow.
Like chasing after a burning fuse. They'd got the one that lit it, but now the flame was chasing off toward the keg without any awareness of what had happened to the hand that started it. And if they found out their operation had been shut down?
A hostage would become superfluous.
"I have to go," I repeated, imploring.
Hirht's ears laid back. "No, Mikah. We'll look after this. Don't worry. She's on the water route, through Shashi's Gate, Tailtied, Broken Sun and Blizzard's Coat. She'll be escorted."
"Please, sir. I want to go to her."
"Out of the question. It'll be handled. Meantime, there are some other questions I'd like to ask you."
I sagged, the breath and fight escaping me. "Yes, sir."
Questions. That there were: what had happened? What did I remember? Describe the faces, the sounds, smells, what they'd said. And I answered as best as I could remember, and while I talked the reality of what had happened weighed in on me again: the utter disruption of my world, for the second time in as many years, the loss of something so close to me. The questions kept coming, prying and incessant and I kept seeing that face that used to lie so close to me at night.
I broke down, shuddering uncontrollably. And when the Rris king said something I just exploded in rage and grief and frustration; tears streaming down my face as I screamed at them in cracking Rris and English to get the fuck out of there and just leave me the hell alone. Guards appeared at the door, Kh'hitch's ears flat against his skull as I raged at them, but Hirht just ducked his head and turned and left me, the others following in his wake.
And for uncountable hours I just wallowed in a grief that scoured the places my wounds never met. A grief that stormed through my soul and emotions, ripping and tearing and breaking as it went, and in the depths of despair I could find only one reason to go on.
An unflappable seneschal roused me from a tattered sleep the next morning. My eyes burned, my head was thick and muggy and the sharp winter sunlight cutting through the window was in direct counterpoint to my mood. My presence was required, I was informed while a servant laid a breakfast tray and beat a hasty retreat.
I hadn't undressed the night before, and I didn't bother to change my rumpled clothing then. My stomach snarled at the smell of food and I tried to remember when I'd last had a decent meal. That night when Mai... when Mai... I stood staring down at the tray of exquisitely prepared meats and pastries, my appetite gone.
An entire squad of armed guards was waiting in the hall outside. I stopped, looking at the guns and armour with a resigned feeling. The officer laid his ears back and ducked his head under my gaze and I shook my own head then turned to limp after the majordomo.
They kept the pace slow and easy, which was all I could really manage. The gouge the bullet had traced across my leg wasn't that deep, but it was painful and enough to slow me down. My back ached every time the bandages shifted, forcing me to keep my back stiff and immobile. So the guards ambled along at my crippled pace, watching corridors, doors, any other Rris they happened to see. I limped along with the aid of a walking stick that clacked on tiles and wooden flooring, following my Rris guides while my mind wandered other halls.
In a long gallery in the outer reaches of the Palace sunlight spilled in through high mullioned windows, washing across a floor inlaid with decorative tiles, a wall hung with vibrant tapestries. I stopped at a window, looking out across a world turned white and pale and harsh under winter's touch. Echoing my mood: washed out, overloaded.
A guard touched my arm and ventured, "Sir?"
I turned and looked into lambent amber eyes, saw the flicker of muscles in the features around them, the pupils contracting and expanding. I never thought about it, never moved my eyes; seemingly of its own volition my hand reached out and smoothly caught the butt tucked into the bandolier and the gun was in my hand. The eyes widened, turning to horrified black pools as the guard realised and pulled away. Too late.
I looked down and for the second time in my life I was staring down the muzzle of a Rris pistol held in my own hands. A solid weight of wood and metal, the florid mechanism moving smoothly under my finger as I cocked it with a snick that was loud in the abrupt silence.
"Sir," I was aware of a strangled-sounding Rris saying something.
It was loaded. I could see the rough patch of wadding deep within the barrel; the scratches in the metal around the muzzle; smell old propellant and lubrication. It was a moment when everything focused on the weight in my hand, and a moment when nothing had ever seemed more real or more abstract.
Just a squeeze of my finger...
And a promise would be broken.
But it would be so easy.
Rris voices around me were rising in urgency; cajoling, imploring me to be careful, did I know what I was doing. Did they understand? It wasn't in the Rris psyche, they couldn't know how easy it'd be for me to just squeeze.
And it wouldn't help Chihirae.
I let my arm drop and immediately guards were prising the gun from my hand. I let them take it and retreat with ears plastered to their heads while I just turned and started limping off.
After a few steps I turned back to the crowd and the seneschal who was looking uncharacteristically rattled. "Are we going?" I asked and he huffed, drew himself up, and stalked ahead.
The double doors to Hirht's office swung open to reveal the imposing bulk of Kh'hitch. He stared at me for a second, then sighed a white cloud and said, "His highness will see you now."
I followed him into the big white room. It was cold in there, the sun not yet around to shine in the windows but still raising a glare from the ice gardens outside. The walking stick raised a steady tapping keeping time with the staccato clicking of Kh'hitch's claws as we crossed to where the Rris king was seated at his desk, the seneschal standing off to one side. Hirht dipped his head slightly, watching me from under hooded eyes, then gestured to the aide who sketched a bow then skirted around me on his way out.
I stood in front of the King of Land-of-Water while he looked up at me, studying me as if he were seeking something. And maybe he found it: there was a change of posture, his head going back a fraction before the mask fell into place again. "Why didn't you pull the trigger?"
"I want to go to her," I said.
His ears tipped back a little. "You do," he said and glanced down at the old wooden desktop, clear of papers and trappings for once. I was half-expecting him to try and change the subject, but he didn't. "You know I can't allow that, Mikah. It's far too dangerous."
"So I sit here while someone I owe my life is hunted. And I'm responsible. I can't do that."
"And I can't let you go running off after her. Mikah, there's nothing you can do that we can't. All you'll be doing will be putting yourself at risk."
I didn't look away from those alien eyes. "So you'll keep me here. Guards and locks and bars."
"If need be."
Now I turned, staring out at the cold lands outside. My breath frosted in the air. "You know, a gun's not necessary. There are other ways."
Now his ears went flat against his skull. His mouth opened, then closed again.
"You couldn't watch me. Not all the time."
I'd never seen such an expression on Hirht's face before, certainly never one so stricken. "Mikah... why?"
"Why?" I hesitated, trying to package the emotions inside me into something a Rris might understand. "Because, after all that's happened since I've been here, she's the only one who hasn't betrayed me. She was kind to me even when she had no idea what I was. I... she means a great deal to me."
"In the same way the doctor did?"
If I'd had ears like Rris, it'd have been my turn to lay them back. "I didn't understand that the... that how I felt about her was something she couldn't feel about me. I mean, I knew it, but I didn't really understand it, not truly. Chihirae... I know this, but it doesn't change what she means to me. Sir, I have to go."
He studied me, then raised a hand to gesture a dismissal to his advisor. I heard Kh'hitch's claws again, then the door closing. The King looked in that direction, back to me, then asked, "Mikah, are you sane?"
I suppose I should've been insulted, but at that moment I really didn't feel anything. I shrugged slightly. "Compared to what? To Rris? I don't know. To my own kind? I'm not sure anymore."
His expression didn't change but I saw the glance toward the doors and for a second I was reminded of the first time I'd met him. There'd been the same look then. "You brought me here to ask me that?"
"No." He gave a quick flick of his ears. "Not just that. This matter with the doctor." A hissing breath escaped him. "Maithris aesh Teremae. Meddling Times is a small town near the Bluebetter border. A good choice for a cover story. It took a long time to verify what she told us. There is a Teremae holding: small, but well-established and reputable. There was a Maithris aesh Teremae who left to come to Shattered Water. The name was registered with the Medical Guild."
He stopped, watching me, expecting something, but I wasn't sure what.
"Mikah, the one you knew wasn't Maithris aesh Teremae."
"She said that wasn't her name," I said, and then started to understand. "You mean, she... got rid of the original?"
"'Got rid of'," he mused. "Euphemistic. But yes. You see Mikah, she was dangerous. That is what people will go to to reach you."
"No," I shook my head. "Not her. She wouldn't do that."
And he just blinked slowly. "You knew her so well then."
Just a few quiet words that struck home like ice stilettos and left me speechless. And the worst thing was that seditious little voice that said he was right. "No," I reiterated, my fist white-knuckled on the top of my walking stick. "No. She wouldn't do that. She wouldn't."
He must've seen he'd scored and chose not to push it, just ducked his head. "All right, Mikah. There was something else: I need to know more about these ones who kidnapped you. Is there anything more you can tell me?"
Trying to take my mind off something I didn't want to think about. I shook my head. "I told you everything."
"Nothing else. A place, a destination, a name?"
Name... "Haies?" I asked.
"That's being investigated," he said. "Is there anything more you remember?"
I flashed back on the whip coming down again and again and the network of lacerations across my back ached. And her name stayed with me, along with a memory of an overheard conversation. "Kingfisher," I remembered uncertainly. "I think they said Kingfisher. They'd meet there."
"You're sure?" Hirht asked.
I'd been tortured half to death, lying drugged in shock and terror and losing blood. I was as sure as I could be. Hirht made a small gesture: "There's a tavern of that name in the Cracks. It's the sort of place that sort might frequent. That will be investigated immediately."
Immediately. And I still couldn't get a response to the issue that was most important to me. "Yes, sir. But Chihirae, I have to go to her," I said again. "Please, I have to."
"Have to?" he rumbled.
I tried to explain, to convey the human emotions to someone whose brain simply wasn't wired to experience them. "I like her. She was the first Rris I knew, the first one who was kind to me. I owe her more than I can repay. If something were to happen to her and I didn't even lift a finger to try and help, I couldn't live with that."
Hirht's pupils dilated at that wording. "There's nothing you can do."
"I can try."
His ears laid back and whatever he was going to say then was interrupted by a distant crack that raised echoes across the Palace grounds. It was a sound I knew, one we both knew, and both our heads came up as another ragged volley of distant gunfire sounded and died out into fading rattles. Beyond the windows, the white world lay unchanged, as if nothing had happened.
The double doors opened onto Kh'hitch, standing with a hand on each handle. "Sir," he bowed, "there has been an incident. It is going to require... attention."
"Sir..." I protested and he waved a hand. "Mikah, I'm sorry. I'll take your request into consideration. All right?"
"What?" he looked surprised.
"No consideration. I'm going," I said, clenched my hand on the stick. "If you won't help me, I'll make my own way, but I'm going."
He stared. Behind me I heard movement, that of several Rris moving into the room. "You will?" Hirht asked and I wasn't sure whether he was amused or offended or angry or something entirely different.
"I will. You want to chain me? Lock me away? You can. I can't stop that. But I think our business relationship would change."
There was a stony silence. It was the longest lever I had, the only lever I had. It wasn't something I'd wanted to say, but at that moment it was the only thing I could think of.
"This means that much to you," Hirht said.
"It means everything," I said softly.
"Very well," he grudgingly hissed. "Something will be arranged. Now, you've got business to take care of. So have I."
Dismissal. I turned and slowly limped out, my walking stick tapping against the cold floor.
The sounds had been gunfire. There'd been a firefight in the Palace, albeit a short-lived one with a single casualty: Haies aesh Tohikish. Apparently she'd been trying to run, fired at a guard. Her employer's personal guard had gunned her down.
So there wouldn't be any answers from that source. Convenient. Tidy.
But I'd got what I'd wanted. I received news that the King had agreed to my demands, with a few conditions of his own: I'd be escorted by a small army; my own private guards would follow me everywhere; I wouldn't take any unnecessary risks... nothing I hadn't expected.
Two days. Two days before we could set off. They had preparations to make, I was told, but soon, when the weather allowed. And if it took too long travel by water would be impossible; and an overland journey would take ten times as long.
So I went about some preparations of my own.
The workshops were busy, noisy and freezing cold. Another reminder of a time when I'd first stepped into this building. A grey winter sunlight filtered in through cracks and grimy windows, casting a lattice of light across a dark floorspace where Rris worked around the shape of the Ironheart, loading, cleaning, preparing, voices echoing from an overhead. My breath frosted in the air as I looked around and spied smoke rising from the pipe of the particular Rris I was seeking. I turned to my escort:
"Thank's, Blunt," I said. "I owe you."
The Rris trooper ducked his head, looking understandably nervous. He wasn't supposed to be doing this, but I'd called a favour. "No, sir. I should be saying that. You know, I really shouldn't leave you."
"I'll be all right," I assured him and he stepped back, but didn't leave.
Understandable. At least he didn't follow when I limped my way across the workshop floor to the small group pouring over something on a table. As I approached one looked up and saw me, stared, then another. The one with his back to me kept talking and pointing at something on a plan on the table for a second before realising his audiences' attention was elsewhere: he turned and for a split second there was that expression so many Rris have when coming face to face with me. Then he caught his pipe and his ears came up again.
"Mikah! What are you doing here? I heard you were going to be indisposed for some time."
"I had something I wanted to discuss with you," I said and looked at the other faces. "Your office might be a better place."
"A? A, of course. Ichithshi, carry on. Mikah, this way." Of course, he couldn't help but notice my walking stick. "Rot me, what happened to you. Ai! You're hurt?"
"Not badly," I lied, trying to ignore the pain. "Just, take it slowly."
"Of course." He looked uncertain, glancing at my guard and obviously wondering just why I was there.
"You're getting the Ironheart ready for a journey?"
His eyes flickered. "I was told you were involved."
I hadn't been aware they were going to use that vessel. Still, it was the fastest thing in the water, and if anything could beat the encroaching ice, it was that ship. Nevertheless, it was a tough time of year to take out such a new vessel. "Involved. You could say that."
His office was quieter, warmer, with the potbelly stove shedding heat and frost painting intricate patterns on the window. I moved closer to the fire. Climbing the stairs hadn't been so easy for me and the heat helped ease the ache. When I looked around Chaeitch was standing with a mug in each hand and his ears down, watching me. "I'll live," I assured him.
He ducked his head and handed the mug over. Warm wine. It went down well and left a tart aftertaste. Chaeitch also sipped, and I was abruptly aware it felt more like a formality than the nearly-friendly gesture it'd once been.
"I heard something happened to the doctor," he said after an uncomfortable silence. "It wasn't too serious?"
I stared at him and he started to actually look scared. "She's gone," I said finally, quietly.
"Huhn?" He was taken aback. Of course he couldn't really sympathise with my loss, but I guess he could tell I was upset about it. "Ah, Mikah," he ducked his head and toyed with his mug. "I'm sorry. What happened?"
I started to speak, trailed off and looked down at my own drink, then up at the wide eyes watching me. And I told him. I know I shouldn't have, but the words just seemed to come of their own accord, and once I started... I told him everything.
I don't know if he understood. I don't see how he could've. The emotions she'd shattered were things he just couldn't empathise with, but I told him anyway. Just talking, not really feeling anything through the numbness anymore. And when I finished, his ears were plastered to his skull.
"Oh rot," he murmured after a while. "Oh, rot. I didn't know."
I didn't say anything.
"If there's anything you need; anything I can do..."
I met his eyes. "As a matter of fact. There is."
End Light on Shattered Water 32