Light on Shattered Water


          The key turned in the lock and the metal-reinforced door swung open on well-oiled hinges.  Chaeitch swung the key from a claw as he cast a glance my way, then snatched it up into a fist and returned it to the pouch at his belt.  "I really don't know if I should be doing this."
          "Is there really anything I wouldn't know about already?"
          He looked a little startled, then blinked and waved an acknowledgment.
          The building was in the same yard as the other workshops: one of the sheds I'd never been into before.  The same warehouse-like building: big and cold inside, but without the slipway down to the river.  The main floor was littered with machinery and workbenches, the bulk and arches of cast-iron lathes, presses, moulds and mini furnaces.  Down the far end were heavy wooden blocks, sandbags, thick padding used for soundproofing.  A few Rris were busy, a half dozen of them at benches with tools.  So similar to the other places I'd been working, but what they produced here was something I'd wanted no part in.
          The sounds of metal on metal faltered as I entered.  Rris looked up from their tasks, watching me, whispering, and suddenly the sound of my cane tapping against the floor was very loud.  Chaeitch's muzzle wrinkled up and he snarled at them; they hastily turned their attention back to their jobs.  He flashed a brief show of teeth, then looked back to me.  "Over here."
          It was a secure room with another heavy door.  He unlocked and opened it.  Inside, a few of the newer gas lamps with the gauze mantels threw light over a bare room with locked reinforced cabinets around the walls.  Chaeitch produced another key and unlocked a security bar, opening a cabinet.
          I stared.  Oh, my god...
          "These are the latest," he was saying.  "The prototypes are there.  There were difficulties.  The mechanisms require durable and precise parts which are difficult to manufacture."
          Rifles.  Not muskets, but weapons that might've come from an early picture of the Crimean war.  Breach loaders, with barrels of a hardened steel I'd shown the Rris; with rifling drilled by the same machine used to cut threads for screws.  The proportions were odd, with cut-down stocks and a smaller handgrip to accomodate shorter trigger fingers.  There were a dozen weapons in that one rack, all differing from one another in some subtle way.  Chaeitch picked one of the ones he'd called the latest from the rack, checked the breach, and handed it to me.
          The metal and wood was a solid weight in my hands.  I worked the bolt, feeling the mechanism glide smoothly and lock into place with a well-machined snick.  A single-shot bolt-action rifle, but a serious advantage over anyone with a musket.  "How many of these?" I asked.
          "One hundred and twenty-five," he said immediately.
          "They were distributed?"
          "To whom?"
          He smoothed back his cheek tufts and seemed to think about it.  "There were loads to several armouries: The Palace, main garrisons north and south.  No further afield.  There are problems with ammunition supply.  We can't manufacture as much as is needed."
          "They're all accounted for?"
          His face flickered.  "I'm not sure.  His highness asked the same thing.  We thought everything was in order, but..." he turned back to the racks of weapons and waved a shrug, "the books could have been tampered with.  It's being investigated." A hesitation before he turned back to me.
          "You believe there might be corruption inside the Palace?"
          I weighed my answer, then said, "It's a possibility."
          He hissed air through his teeth, "Dangerous accusations."
          I knew.  But it wasn't a thought that engendered much fear in me.  I just nodded and looked along the rows of cabinets.  Not just rifles: there were handguns there, revolvers; also clunky, squarish machinations of rods and assemblies that could only be efforts at automatic pistols.  I hooked my cane over my arm and picked one up.  It was ugly and complex and heavy.
          "Doesn't work," Chaeitch offered.  "The self-loaders... too complex: black powder jams them."
          I just nodded, replaced the weapon and looked at another rack.  And looked again.
          "There was more success with that," Chaeitch said, and I might be mistaken but I was sure he looked a little sheepish.
          I tried picking it up.  The six barrels swung easily, with a ratching clicking sound, but even with the handle the gatling gun was heavy and cumbersome.  All dark steel and brass, a handle and gearing to spin the barrels.  No ammunition hopper like the ones I remembered from old pictures, instead it appeared like they'd tried to make it belt fed.  I hefted the thing thoughtfully.
          "That's definitely you," Chaeitch said.
          I gave him a look before returning the thing to its cradle, then stepped back and stood, leaning on my walking stick.  "I'm responsible, aren't I."
          "For all this," I waved a hand melodramatically and slumped back.  "All this.  Shit, sometime... maybe it'd have been better for all if I'd just died in the hills."
          The Rris' ears went back in an expression of distress.  "Rot, Mikah.  Why do you say things like that?"
          "Why?" I tapped a finger against the cane, looked at the Rris and said, "Everything and everyone I cared about are gone.  I'm the only one of my kind in a world filled with a people I can never be a part of.  A person I trusted and loved betrayed and lied to me.  Someone else is in trouble because of me.  And... and now I find I've been used to create a hundred new ways to kill someone."
          Chaeitch didn't meet my eyes.  "You can't blame yourself for that.  There's everything else you've done.  Everything you can do.  Mikah, people need you."
          "Need," I said.  "Like a tool.  I'm something to be used.  Sitting outside looking in.  I can never be part of your world."
          His ears hadn't come up.  "You have friends."
          "Yes," I had to acknowledge that.  "Thank you."
          And when I glanced at him again he was studying me, ears still down.  "It's like they said," he ventured at length.  "You... need, don't you.  Not just friendship; a... a bond.  Something like you had with the doctor." His head tipped a little and in the dim light I could see his pupils flex and contract.  "That's why you're going after this old friend of yours, isn't it?"
          I rounded on him, about to tell him just how wrong he was.  That wasn't the reason at all.  It was... it was... Maybe it was.  I subsided, gingerly picking through the hollow place where my emotions lay in tatters.  "I don't know," I admitted.  "I want to help her.  But I want..." I heaved a shuddering sigh.  "Oh, god."
          He looked puzzled.  "What does that mean?"
          I took a breath and shook my head.  "Maybe.  Maybe you're right.  I don't mean to.  I know she can't feel the same way about me, but it's what I am.  Your kind can't feel this; I can't not feel it."
          His muzzle twitched and he said, "We all have limitations."
          I shook my head: I hadn't meant to insult him.  "I didn't mean it like that.  It's just the way I am: I can't change it any more than I could grow fur and a tail."
          "No." The Rris' amber eyes flickered up and down, then he chittered a little.  "No.  Apologies.  I suppose... it's difficult to understand what you mean sometimes.  And what you do.  You do seem to be different, not just your appearance.  More than just a person in a costume.  It's like..." he trailed off and blinked at me.
          "Like what?" I asked.
          He glanced down at his hands and clicked claws together, then cocked his head and pursed his face in a quick smile.  "The way you act: sometimes it reminds me a little of a male in rut.  The fixation on a single female.  I suppose being in season all the time might have something to do with it."
          I started to snap back an answer, then caught myself and waved a shrug.  "We all have our limitations."
          A chitter.  "So that's why you're going after this teacher?  You're in heat over her?"
          "You can get your mind out of the bed.  Wouldn't you do the same if you knew a good friend was in trouble?"
          Chaeitch glanced at the guns.  "I'd want to help, but you can't be sure that she's in trouble.  And the trouble, the risk you're going to... it would have to be a very good friend."
          "It is," I said.  He bobbed his head once, then turned to follow my gaze.
          Racks of weapons.  Steel and wood.  They weren't like the older muskets at all.  I remembered Shyia's old pistols: the delicate and beautiful engravings on them, turning devices of mayhem into things of beauty.  These had none of that: just a lethal practicality.  I reached out and touched a particular item.  "This.  Does this work?"
          Chaeitch looked.  "That.  Huhn, cumbersome.  And the ammunition is expensive..."
          "Does it work?"
          He looked uncertain, trying to figure out why I was asking.  Then he slowly gestured, "yes."
          Cumbersome for a Rris, yes.  A shotgun, single-barrel with a pump mechanism slung beneath.  I'd been shot at before, I'd been kidnapped and attacked with swords and firearms.  I didn't have any illusions about my marksmanship: I doubted I could hit the side of a barn if I was standing inside it, but a shotgun... you didn't need to be Davy Crockett to use one of those.  I didn't want a gun, I wished I didn't need one, but the universe didn't seem to be catering to my wishes at the moment.
          "Can you do something for me?" I asked.
          Furrows creased his muzzle.  "I'm not going to like this, am I," he growled.
          "Put this on board, in my cabin.  Somewhere others won't find it."
          The expression on his face was as if I'd asked him to kill Hirht: pure, uncomprehending shock.  "You... you're not serious," he croaked, then caught my look and rubbed hands over his eyes.  "Oh, rot.  You are."
          "Chaeitch, you're the only one I can ask for this.  It's not even likely that I'd need it.  It's just... in case."
          "In case," Chaeitch hissed.  "If his highness knew I'd let you in here he'd have me skinned.  If he knew I'd given you a loaded gun... Rot everything, I just can't do that!"
          "I can't." His eyes were wide.  "Mikah, I won't be responsible for that."
          "Responsible," I echoed.  "Chaeitch, this knowledge was taken from me without my consent and you used it to build these," I swept my hand, gesturing to the ranks of dark weapons.  "Now, if you're worried that you might end up responsible for me hurting someone, I think you should take another look at reality."
          Again his ears went down and he didn't look happy.  "Not just that.  Mikah, there was an incident with you and a gun."
          Uh-huh.  It was that again, was it?  "If I wanted to kill myself, there are plenty of other ways," I said quietly.  "I wouldn't ask for your help."
          He was shaking slightly.  I knew suicide was a concept outside the Rris mindset, but had no idea it would effect someone so badly.  Then again, if something did happen to me and he was implicated, things could and would go very badly for him.
          "I'm sorry." I said.  "I thought... I might need it.  Rris have claws, teeth which I don't have; or swords and muskets which I don't know how to use.  If we find these bastards I don't want to be helpless."
          "Mikah, if we find these individuals, I'm sure you won't be going anywhere near them."
          I nodded.  "I know.  I just... Just in case.  Please."
          His tail was dragging the ground as he sighed.  "I'll see what can be arranged."

          Soft footsteps in the darkness, claws ticking on wood.  A familiar figure moved out of the shadows: walking toward me from the distances down the hall, through pools of light cast by torches until she was standing in front of me.  Chihirae smiled slightly.
          "I missed you," I said.
          "Your life's been interesting?" she asked.
          "Too many changes," I said and she laughed a human laugh that rang from stone walls and pulled her old coat a little closer around herself.
          "I brought you this," she said and held out her hand, a small square package bundled in leather.  Laid it on the desktop.
          I laid aside soft chamois folds, looked down at the book laying there, the old leather binding worn and polished smooth from countless years of handling.  The title didn't make sense, the words inside unreadable, pages spattered with red.  I looked up and there was another figure behind Chihirae.  A hand reached up to push back a hood to reveal a face I'd trusted so much, smiling an empty smile as if the features were just a mask.
          There wasn't a flicker on those features as a hand came up, the cloak falling away from the pistol aimed at the back of Chihirae's head.
          I tried to scream a warning even as the gun went off.
          I woke with the gasp of the shout still in my throat.  Sprawled amongst scattered sheets with the night air freezing on my skin, heart racing, muscles trembling, one hand still half-raised to ward off something from a dream.  Beyond it, light spilled in through the open door, silhouetting the guards standing at the foot of my bed.  I shuddered, then slowly folded back into the bed.  My back burned mercilessly.
          "Sir?" an alien voice growled in the dark.  One of the guards, I couldn't see which one.
          "Just a bad dream," I croaked, trying to get my heart rate down to something approaching normal.  "Just a dream."
          "You're all right?  I mean, this hasn't happened.  Not for a while."
          Not like this, no.  "I'm all right.  Just... please, leave me."
          A head ducked, then they turned and left.  They closed the door behind them and the room was left in darkness, only a faint glow from the remains of embers in the grate.  I braved the freezing air to get a drink, then returned to bed and tried to sleep again.
          The dreams returned.

          A pale grey winter sky hung overhead, the morning sun a diffuse glow beyond the distant hills.  A mist clung to the land, melting into the white and ice, blending the horizon into the sky.  The chill air was calm and utterly still, columns of smoke rising vertically from the city's chimneys, reaching toward the drab overcast.  Breath hung and settled like white clouds with every exhalation; frost and ice crackled with every footstep.
          Hirht walked beside me as I limped across the Palace courtyard toward the waiting cavalcade.  His coat was quilted and trimmed with fur, his breeches heavy velvet, and he still had his fur ruffled up against the morning chill.
          "Again, Mikah, think about this," he said, carefully not looking at me.  "This is completely unnecessary.  There's really nothing else you can do."
          "I have to go.  I have to try."
          He cast me a sidelong glance.  His ears were still up, but there was a tenseness to the muscles across his brow.  No, he just didn't understand.  "I'd like to stop you.  Is there anything I can say?"
          "Just leave it be," I said.  "I'm going."
          "A," he sighed: a ghost of breath settling around his shoulders.  "Then all I can do is wish you well.  I hope... I hope there are no problems."
          "Thank you, sir."
          "Ah Ties has a writ of passage bearing my seal.  It will ensure cooperation and safe passage.  However, I think it might be best if he handles the diplomacy."
          "Yes, sir."
          He abruptly laid a hand on my arm, the claws partially extended, halting me and turning me to face him.  His unusual green eyes flickered across my face, a crease wrinkling his muzzle as he studied me.  Around us, guards in their polished armour also stopped, watching impassively.  "Something wrong?" I asked quietly.
          Hirht's pupils went to black pools and he pulled his arm away, took a step backward.  "Mikah, just..." he started to say, then sighed a white cloud.  "Mikah, don't do anything impulsive."
          Anything impulsive.  Uh-huh.  I settled my meagre load and started walking again.
          He caught up to me at the carriage door.  "Mikah, this is important.  You're the most important thing that's ever happened.  To lose you would have indescribable consequences."
          "I've heard this before."
          "But you have to understand..."
          "No, sir.  I know what's at stake: my life and my sanity." I shook my head.  "I'm trying to keep a hold on both, and sometimes I think my grip's slipping." I awkwardly clambered up into the carriage, the metal of the handhold I caught freezing cold even through the gloves.  After I took my seat I looked back out at the king.  "That promise you want: It's one I've made before.  I'll try to hold to it."
          He stared at me, then hissed and reached up to rake his fur back.  "You..." He hissed again then just wished me, "All the best." Then he spun away with his coat flaring around him and stalked off across the snow-covered courtyard, his tail lashing.
          And as the carriage rattled off into the city, I looked down at the gloves on my hand.  Raised my left hand to sniff the fingers and probably imagined traces of a musty scent there.  I let the fist drop back to my lap, gingerly leaned back on the cold upholstered leather and remembered that promise I'd made, and the one I'd broken.

          The rhythm of the engine permeated the ship: a steady heartbeat that you could feel through the deck no matter where you were.  Water rushed past the bow, slapping against the timbers and splitting aside in a white wash that trailed out behind us, a white V cutting through the grey waters of the lake.  Occasionally a scab of ice would dash and shatter against the prow.  None of them very thick: just crusts that broke easily.
          I stood in the prow and watched the city breakwaters - the weather-beaten stone-and-mortar arms that sheltered the harbour - fall away behind us.  There were Rris in the lighthouse towers at the ends of those arms, gathered to watch as the ship passed.  I still stood there as the shore fell away, about a kilometer before the Ironheart came about to run parallel with it.  From belowdecks the heartbeat picked up and darker smoke pumped from the smokestack as the engines were throttled up, the bow cutting through a light chop and sending a mist of icy spray across the deck.  I ducked down into the warmth of my jacket and shivered, then turned away.
          Not as much activity on the decks as there were on the ships with rigging.  There were a couple of Rris up from the heat of the engine room sitting against the wheelhouse, panting into the freezing air and wearing nothing more than their natural winter coats.  Further astern a Rris clad in more seasonal garb stowed ropes.  A pair of guards stood nearby, trying not to look as if they were watching me.  I brushed an icicle from my hair and shook my head before ducking down the companionway belowdecks.
          The cabin was small, cramped, built to Rris scale, but it was warm.  The Ironheart certainly wasn't designed as a passenger vessel, therefore there were only four small cabins: three for the usual crew and this small one for a couple of passengers.  The contingent of guards we were carrying were riding in the forward hold, their officers in another cabin, the crew in theirs, and myself alone in this one.
          It certainly wasn't spacious: a cubicle with two bunks recessed into one wall.  In the other was a fold-out desk, a couple of cubbyholes and cupboards and hooks for lanterns.  A tiny glazed square of a porthole up near the ceiling admitted grey winter sunlight, just enough for me to see by as I slumped onto the bunk and slowly leaned my tender back up against the wall.  Nothing much to do except wait and listen to the drubbing of the engine, watch the feeble rectangle of light from the window crawling across the far bulkhead.
          I heard the cabin door open, close again, and Chaeitch stepped into view.  "How are you faring?"
          "Well enough."
          "Anything you need?  Want?"
          "No.  Thank you."
          I heard him sigh and lean against the wall, propping one clawed foot up against the panelling.  "I suppose you're accustomed to slightly more luxurious appartments when travelling, a?" he asked.
          "A," I said.
          Another sigh.  "Mikah, you've changed."
          That didn't come as any surprise, but this was the first time a Rris had said that to my face.  I looked at him.  There were a few smudges across the fur of his face and forearms: grease and soot from the engine room.  And his eyes were wide.  That could've been from the dim light, or perhaps something else.  It'd explain why I had a room to myself.
          "In what way?" I asked quietly.
          He looked dismayed and raised a hand to express a small shrug.  "You're... you're different.  You're quiet.  You don't speak as much.  You used to joke.  And I haven't seen you do that smile of yours.  Not once.  Not for a long while."
          Not once.  Perhaps he was right, but that news didn't stir any emotions.  "I suppose I haven't had much to smile about," I said quietly.
          "No," he said.  "I suppose not.  These two females; they both mean a great deal to you."
          I looked back to that patch of light bobbing on the wall, moving in time with the slight rolling of the ship.  "They both saved my life.  They've both been people I held in great esteem; whose friendships I cherished.  I loved them."
          He moved, rubbing at his black and grey striped cheek tufts.  "That's one of your words, isn't it.  What's it mean?"
          "An emotion," I said.  "Something... I don't know if Rris feel it... not in the same way I do.  You don't have a word for."
          "And your kind does?"
          He cocked his head, his eyes narrowing slightly.  "We're missing much?"
          I gave a small shake of my head, letting him make what he would of the human gesture.  "At one time I would have said yes.  Now, I think I envy you."
          His expression showed he didn't really understand.  "This... it's got something to do with your kind taking mates for life?"
          "Something," was all I said.
          He sighed and shifted his gaze to the porthole, clicking his teeth together in a preoccupied sort of contemplation.  Then he seemed to make up his mind, huffing once.  "Mikah, what you requested the other day... It's under your bunk there."
          That took me by surprise.  I looked down, then back at the Rris.
          "Don't make me regret that decision," he said.
          "I won't," I said.  "Thank you."
          He snorted.  "Why do I have a bad feeling about this?" he rumbled, then stalked out of the little cabin.

          Our first port of call was Blizzard's Coat.  The day had gone when we arrived and a gentle snow was settling from the sky, only visible when a flurry of flakes drifted between me and the lights reflecting off black water.  Rris crewmen were up in the prow, shouting commands back to the wheelhouse.  The pulse of the engine changed, slowed, as the harbour-master's tug chugged out.  One of the officers on the Ironheart had a shouted conversation with the pilot, then brandished a piece of parchment and frozen-looking Rris hastened to throw tow-lines up.  Chaeitch stood at my side, his hands behind his back and breath whisked away on the breeze as the small steam tug hauled us into dock.
          A private berth.  A section of quayside where elaborate, sleek and expensive vessels were moored.  The surreal shapes of Rris lit by the orange glow of gaslamps moved along the wharf to catch lines and haul the ship in the rest of the way.
          The troops went ashore first and there was a period of waiting before carriages appeared from the night and rattled to a halt at the foot of the companionway.  Chaeitch glanced at my duffel bag as I picked it up and I caught the question in his eyes.  He didn't ask and I didn't offer.
          The carriage we rode in was closed and as cold as the night outside.  Periodically during the rattling trip through the winter city a light would flash between the slats of the shutters, throwing bars of light and dark across Chaeitch's features.  He was watching me, I could see that but could make out little else.
          "You'll behave?" he asked.  "And let me deal with Ah Metari?"
          "He isn't overly fond of me," I reminded him.
          "A." The shadowy head bobbed.  "We'll be out of here soon enough.  They haven't been expecting us, but there should be a courier available in the lower docks.  It'll be a full day's crossing to Broken Sun."
          And maybe she'd be there and maybe she wouldn't.  God, a world without phone, ICQ, TAG or even e-mail.  There was no way to send messages faster than we could travel ourselves.  No way to know when she'd left or even if she'd left.  Only thing to do was backtrack the route her party would be taking until we found her, and that could be anywhere along the way.
          "They'll co-operate?" I asked.
          I think he smiled a bit.  "Oh, yes.  All the holdings on this route are friendly.  Or at least, aren't openly hostile to the King.  They'll help.  We also have writs of passage from the Overburdened Embassy in case of incident in the border territories."
          "That was necessary?"
          "Moving a large armed party along borderlines can cause... tensions," he said.  "There were agreements made; a few favours called for this hunt."
          "That much trouble?"
          "Isn't that natural for you?" he asked and I recognised it as a good-natured jab but didn't smile.  He hissed softly.
          "Mikah, just don't do anything to upset his lordship and there won't be any trouble, all right?"
          "Fine by me," I said and in a brief flicker of light saw his head twitch, tipping from one side to the other as those alien eyes regarded me.

          I'd been in those rooms before, albeit under more pleasant circumstances.  I stood before the mullioned french windows and looked out at the balcony in its little world of light, the fat flakes of snow drifting into that world from a vast blackness and adding to the soft whiteness covering the angles of the stonework.  A flash of a summer's day when I'd stood at this same window and there'd been a friend at my side.
          Chistri Einter House.  The same suite I'd stayed in the last time I'd been in Blizzard's Coat.  Although this time, despite the luxurious fittings, they seemed somehow emptier.  And the door to the small adjoining servants quarters was locked.  The light was the steady glow of a few gas lamps and flickering of candles contributing to a low ambience suited to Rris eyes and still too dark for mine, covering the opulence of the room with a dimness some might have considered cosy.
          It just felt dark to me.  I looked through my reflections in all those little panes to the dusting of snow falling outside and sighed.  The waiting, that was the worst.  Set aside while Chaeitch and the military officers handled the lord, talked to the garrisons, made sure there'd be eyes watching for Chihirae if we should miss her.  And while they occupied themselves I could only pace and wait.  Just one night, I told myself, and tried to persuade myself to take advantage of the luxury: the next few days might not be as comfortable.
          So I sat back in cushions before the fire and tried to wait, staring at the dancing flames and seeing a time when the weather had been warmer and the fire glittered like the sun in lakewater splashed by a playful friend.  Fond memories of the Living Hall, a comforting presence and voice in the darkness, a promise to always be there.  Moments like photographs; precious fragments of the past to bring out and treasure, something that nobody was going to take from me.
          Perhaps somebody was watching me, perhaps not.  I didn't worry about that, just passed a cold winter evening watching my memories in the dancing flames.  Nothing else to do; nowhere else to go.
          The servant didn't knock.  I didn't even hear the door open, just a cough and then a voice asking, "Sir?"
          A slight and extremely nervous-looking Rris at the door.  Tail bottled and twitching, ears laid back.  "Sir.  Ahh... his lordship requests your presence."
          The jaw trembled and the servant swallowed visibly.  "Y... yessir."
          I nodded, stood and followed.  Through dimly lit corridors with crushed-velvet wallpaper, gilt trim, antique paintings and carved panels telling stories hidden in shadow.  The servant kept its distance, frequently glancing back at me.
          Rris looked up as I entered the room: Chaeitch and the mayor at a huge black-wood table along with another Rris in utilitarian armour that didn't carry the spotless sheen of local guards.  "Mikah," Chaeitch said, standing and meeting my eye and almost immediately glancing away again.  His ears drooped, then turned back flat against his ruff and I knew in that instant that I wasn't going to like this.
          "Mikah, this... I don't know how to break this," Chaeitch said, looking to the mayor who sat back in his chair and offered nothing.  "I think it's best you hear this.  I'm afraid it's not... You might want to sit down."
          I looked at the offered chair but didn't move.  "Tell me," I said.
          Chaeitch squirmed uncomfortably, then turned to the Rris soldier in his armour who'd been regarding me with a shocked stare.  "Commander, what you told us, tell him," Chaeitch said.
          The soldier looked around but wasn't receiving any support from the mayor or the Rris industrialist.  Then he licked his jowls and stammered, "Ah... sir.  We... we set out from Lying scales close to two moons ago..."
          "Chihirae," I murmured.
          The guard's eyes flickered.  "A, sir.  That was her name.  A large escort just for one.  Nobody told us why she was important."
          "Oh, god," I think I said.  I remembered my lips moved, but I don't know if any sound came out.  The soldier's muzzle twitched before he continued:
          "There weren't any difficulties.  The weather was mild.  The water routes were open and clear.  The [writ of passage] gave us priority passage through the ports, cleared us without trouble."
          "It was when we got to Broken Sun..." He clicked his jaws shut and glanced at the other Rris again.  "Three nights ago.  There was inclement weather.  We had to wait it out overnight.  Myself and my immediate subordinates were away from the others, hosted by the lord who was curious as to our business.  Then we received word that there was a fire..." Another hesitation.
          "The lodgings where Aesh Hiasamra'thsi was sleeping.  It was well alight when we got back."
          Now he caught a deep breath, staring past me at a point somewhere behind me.  "Only a few got out.  Hurrh... sir... She didn't."
          The words didn't seem real.
          "We tried, sir..."
          It wasn't real.  It couldn't be.  She was... she was... I didn't know what to think.  The world seemed distant and distorted and brittle, stretched like a piece of spun glass.  Rris faces watched me and someone said something.
          "I'm all right," I said, my voice sounding odd to my own ears.  I tried to say something else, but this time my voice failed and all I could do was turn and walk out into the dark hallway.  My legs carried me, not sure where.
          A voice called out from behind and I kept going.  Something grabbed my arm and spun me back against the wall, leaving me looking at Chaeitch's concerned face as he asked me something.  "I'm all right," I croaked and tried to catch a shuddering breath.  "I'm... I'm..."
          My legs wouldn't hold me anymore.  I slid down the wall to curl up in a small ball and bury my head and try to deny the world.  Just hide and hope it would go away while I collapsed in on myself and shook and sobbed and my nose and eyes ran.  Oh, god, Chihirae.  Chihirae who'd never hurt anyone; who'd always tried to help.  Now, because of me...
          I don't know how long I was catatonic out there in the hall.  Next I recall I was vaguely aware of my arm being shaken, a hairy hand cupped my chin and raised it to meet lambent amber peering at me in concern and not a little fear.  Chaeitch.  I recognised him and tried to say something but just ended up shuddering and gasping breaths, hyperventilating.  He patted my arm, then gently helped haul me to my feet.  I went along, letting him guide me.
          He tried to talk to me but that was the last thing I felt like doing.  I just wanted to be left alone.  Eventually, they did so.  Leaving me to sit huddled in the middle of that huge bed and stare at nothing, the empty black beyond the windows.
          The two guards at my door, however, stayed.

          The morning light came as a bright surprise and the world hadn't changed.
          Chihirae was still dead.
          I went through my morning routines by rote: dressing and washing and taking a single mouthful of food while guards watched me.  I didn't throw them out, complain about the effronty of it, do anything.  I just didn't feel like fighting.
          Chaeitch showed while I was sitting and staring morosely at the cooling food on the tray.  No sharp cutlery.  I looked up at the industrialist standing there, hands clasped behind his back and his tail hanging limply behind the legs of his uncharacteristically somber brown breeches.  "How are you doing?" he asked.
          "I am all right," I said in a quiet monotone and his ears went back.
          "That... I'm sorry," Chaeitch said.  "I didn't want to tell you, but... you had to know.  I really don't know what else to say.  The truth seemed best."
          I nodded and tried to take a deep breath that shuddered uncontrollably.
          He moved to crouch down beside me.  "You didn't sleep, did you," he said.  "Rot.  Is it like your attachment to the doctor?  Your bonding?  So when you loose someone it's a lot harder."
          Trying to understand.  Aware that somewhere he might have blundered, but not sure when or how.  His hand touched my leg, then withdrew when I flinched.  He tucked his chin.  "Is there anything I can do?"
          "You can bring her back," I growled on a surge of fury that ebbed just as abruptly as he managed to look even more crestfallen.
          "If I could..." he said and waved a small shrug.  "If I could."
          "Are we going on?" I asked softly.
          "We weren't planning to."
          "Just... leave her?" I said, and once again those human instincts forced themselves through rationality.  He laid his ears back again.
          "You're sure you would want to see that?"
          I closed my eyes and swallowed at the vision my mind flashed before me.  "No... No."
          He closed his hand in a small yes.  "I think that's best."

End Light on Shattered Water 33