Light on Shattered Water
A crystal winter's day, with the sun like a white eye in a clear sky. Brilliant light that glared off snow and ice and didn't do a lot toward taking the bite out of an air that nipped at exposed skin. The motionless frigidity didn't worry the locals going about their daily business: storekeepers and stall vendors and peddlers out in the trampled and dirty snow that covered the streets, shouting praise of their wares. Those yowls only mingled with the cries of their competitors, the noises from animals and carts and other traffic.
I sat back in the carriage bound for the docks and let the sounds wash past me. There were periodic glimpses of the city outside as the curtains swayed, but I was too wrapped in my own mourning to pay much attention. Occasional wagons passing the other way; the facades of buildings so similar to the ones in Shattered Water; a lot of baroquely-detailed wrought ironwork around windows, on fences and gates. On the seat opposite, Chaeitch sat and watched me, occasionally flicking his curtain aside to look out.
Back to Shattered Water. For a paranoid second I considered that this might all be a plot. Chaeitch might be in on it. Chihirae might not be dead. It might all've been a story they cooked up to keep me from this jaunt across the countryside. Just a story. And she wasn't really...
Ridiculous thoughts like that. Hopeless hopes. Dreams that maybe they'd been mistaken. And I knew I was a fool for even considering them. Grasping at sunbeams the Rris called it.
Still activity on the docks. There were fishing crews still braving the late October weather to fill their nets a final time before the lake ice closed in completely. Rris worked at unloading crates; ice-frosted stacks of traps and nets piled up near companionways; animals trampling snow to slush as goods drays rumbled across icy cobbles. A forest of masts rose against the cobalt horizon, frost glittering in rigging and along rails, sunlight washing across a few brightly colored sails as they were unfurled. I read the names of vessels up against the wharf as we passed: Hichi's Gull, Sea Eagle, Water Sparrow, Fall-Farer, [something] Gannet... Other names, things I still couldn't read. I let the curtains fall back into place and sat back against the polished leather upholstery.
The Ironheart's crew was already at work: scraping ice, loading coal and water, stocking supplies and equipment. Eyes turned my way as I boarded and stopped at the top of the companionway to look out over the docks. There was something niggling at the back of my mind...
"Mikah?" Chaeitch asked. "What is it?"
"Nothing." But there was something. It just wasn't about to reveal itself at that moment. I shook my head and sighed a white breath in the morning sun breaking over the warehouses. "No, nothing."
Down in the cramped little cabin I stowed my gear, dumping my pack on the bed and flopping down beside it. Abovedecks I could hear occasional thumping, clatterings. Sometimes the light would flicker as a pair of legs went past the window. I leaned back and closed my eyes.
Oh, God, Chihirae. I failed. After everything you did to protect me, I failed to help you. I'm sorry.
A fire. A fucking fire. She had her escort with guards and soldiers and a careless candle or unattended hearth steals her away. So close. So damn close.
I squeezed my eyes tighter but was still forced to wipe away the trickle of moisture that escaped. I caught an unsteady breath, then banged my fist against the bulkhead and clambered to my feet, headed abovedecks to try and escape that miserable litany cycling through my head.
The cold air helped, a bit. The prow was quiet and out of the way of the crew still loading coal into the hoppers. I leaned against the railing, hugged my arms across my chest and huddled down into the collar of my jacket. The sun was a warmth across my right side as I stared gloomily out at the other vessels moored in that exclusive area. Their clean lines bespoke the wealth behind them: lords, guild leaders, a few lean courier vessels. On a neighboring vessel a sailor came to the railing, did a double take and kept staring. The ship's name was announced in gilt characters on the prow: Long Drake. A carved and painted mallard with spread wings as a figurehead.
That was what had been nagging at me.
Birds. And words that'd been misinterpreted. The connections slipped into place like the tumblers in a well-oiled lock and the revelation they unlocked left me standing stunned. I didn't want to accept it; it was just too impossible to be true. I turned the concept over and over in my mind, touching it gingerly lest it fall apart into a hopeless grasp at nothing. But it fit; all the pieces fit.
I shook myself out of it and looked around. More Rris were staring at me, small crowds gathering along the rails of neighboring vessels to rubberneck while the sun rose and time fled. Chaeitch was standing behind me, looking more than a little concerned. "What're you doing?"
I still wasn't sure. "I... just thinking," I said and looked at the harbor and then back at him. "Who would know about the boats here? What's been come and gone in the past few days?"
There was a flash of pink as his tongue flicked around his muzzle. "Ah, the harbormaster would know that."
"Where is he?"
"She. Huhn... talking with the captain at the moment. But what do... Mikah? Mikah! Rot you..."
They were at the foot of the gangplank. The captain and a stocky individual dressed in a dark leather jerkin decorated with brass studs, a clipboard in hand and satchel slung over one shoulder. The harbormaster, I guessed. She looked up and that familiar expression crossed her grizzled grey face: a fleering back of black lips from white teeth as the muzzle wrinkled in a frightened snarl reflex. I heard Chaeitch shout out and the captain glanced around then hastily caught the harbormaster's arm.
It took a short time for Chaeitch to calm her down and explain things. She still regarded me with a dubious eye: "It... he's got questions? About what?"
"A ship, Ma'am," I said and she stiffened, glanced at the other Rris as if making sure it wasn't a joke.
"A ship?" she echoed.
"A. Kingfisher. It was called Kingfisher. Have there been any vessels of that name through Blizzard's Fall?"
Again she looked to Chaeitch and if he made some sort of gesture I missed it. "Kingfisher. Fair few boats of that name about."
I sighed and nodded. It'd been a slim hope.
"But, there was one that arrived about a week ago." She leafed back a few pages on her clipboard. "Huhnn, offloading and berthing. To receive cargo from Broken Sun."
"From Broken Sun?" Chaeitch looked at me.
"A," she said. "It arrived yesterday. The Kingfisher's due to sail today."
I felt muscles tensing, my heart starting to pick up the pace. The Rris all glanced at me and I saw nostrils working. "When?" I asked.
The harbormaster tipped her head. "They're lakers. They'll want to catch the winds, so certainly before noon."
"Where is it?"
"Pier 3 berth 2," she said. "Other end of the docks."
I nodded. It fit. It all fit too nicely. The Kingfisher wasn't a pub as Hirht had believed, and now there was a ship of the same name here. Okay, so the name was commonplace, but here? Now? And there was that fire that had so conveniently destroyed any trace of Chihirae in Broken Sun. Now, this boat was receiving a cargo from said city and I wasn't about to forget the way my kidnappers had tried to ship me out of Shattered Water.
She was here. She had to be.
I turned and ran back up the gangway, nearly brained myself on the overhead going belowdecks. Chaeitch caught up to me in my cabin. He grabbed both edges of the doorway and laid his ears back when he saw what I was doing. "Mikah. You can't!"
I laid the slats under the mattress aside and lifted out the bundle beneath. The shotgun was in there, along with a box of shells. I examined the weapon, then buttoned the stubby magazine out and slotted a half dozen shells into place. "They're here," I said. "She's here."
"Leave it to the guards!"
"How long will that take?" I said and clicked the magazine back into place, started putting shells into my pockets. "We can go and look at least."
"Rot! Careful with those: they're not stable! And you need that cannon just to look?!"
"Better safe than sorry, huh?" I asked and wrapped the shotgun back up in its leather and headed toward the door. For a second Chaeitch didn't move out of the way, then hissed softly and stepped aside.
The carriage was still on the docks. "Shave you," Chaeitch was saying as he tailed me. The troopers stationed at the gangplank looked uncertain as I passed by. "This isn't a good idea. Wait for the guards."
"And if they see a horde of soldiers approaching, what then?"
He growled and slashed at the chill air, then stopped to snarl some orders to a guard. I was halfway to the wagons before a blur of tawny gold pulled up, a flat dash to a walk and he wasn't even breathing hard. "They're alerting the commander. News will be sent to his lordship to send reinforcements to the dock. Red tie everything, Mikah. Just wait!"
The perturbed carriage driver just gaped when I gave directions for Pier 3 as I reached for the door and then stopped. The driver was just sitting there with reins in hand and eyes wide, looking from me to where Chaeitch was just standing, watching, his tail hanging limply. I stared at him and he didn't move, didn't meet my gaze. I sighed and let the door swing closed and set off on foot with the bundle of the wrapped shotgun in hand.
Ten steps before Chaeitch called, "Shave you, Mikah."
I kept going.
"All right," he called again. "Stop. Please."
I drew up.
"All right," he said and I turned to see a resigned Chaeitch holding the carriage door open. "All right. We'll go. Just... just don't do anything stupid."
I jogged back and gave him a completely transparent smile. "You know me."
Chaeitch barked an order to the driver and flopped into the opposite seat as we moved off. He cocked his head: the patterns shaved into the fur around his face were starting to grow out. "I know you. That's what worries me."
Chaeitch nudged the curtain aside with a finger and peered through the gap, then reached up to rap on the panel of the driver's hatch. The rattling and swaying ceased as the carriage eased to a stop. Sounds and smells seeped in from the world outside.
"There it is," Chaeitch told me.
I peered through the crack and the slightly distorted glass of the window. Dockside traffic went by outside: the furry heads and tufted ears of Rris; the steaming miasma enveloping a team of bison and the dray they were hauling. When it'd passed by I could see the pier and the ships berthed there. About six of them along the length of the wooden jetty; a tangle of masts and lines and wooden walkways.
"On the far side," Chaeitch told me. "The second one. That's berth two."
I saw it. A bulky two-master that looked all trader: stocky, wide-beamed, paintwork that had certainly seen better days. On deck I could see crew moving around bundling sails, carrying goods and ropes. Nothing to indicate the ship was different from any of the others moored at the pier. There was barely-visible lettering on the prow, several words I didn't know.
"What does that say?" I asked.
"The name, on the prow."
He squinted. "You can see that?"
"A, but I don't know the words. Like this," I copied the letters out on the upholstery with a fingernail. He clicked his own claws together. "Kingfisher," he verified. "But you don't know... They look like a trader. How can you tell?"
"Maybe they'll put up a nice big sign for us, a?" I asked, still watching the ship.
"You pick odd moments for humour," he rumbled and sat back, watching me as I watched the ship. "Fine fools we'll look if the guards don't find..."
"I wish I could be as certain."
"It's them," I said. A small group had appeared on deck, some sort of argument going on as they headed for the gangway. "I'm sure. It has to be. I..."
"What?" Chaeitch prodded.
Four Rris, one of them brandishing a piece of paper at another and greenstone glittered in the light. I watched as the group headed along the pier and then the docks, bound for the town. "It's them," I said, all uncertainty gone. I picked up my bundle and scooted for the door on the far side of the cab.
"What..." Chaeitch started to say, then moved to scramble after me. "What do you think you're doing?"
"He's here," I said as I dropped to the cobbled quayside. "That Rris with the... the wrist thing... the bracelet. He's here. So she's here also. I know it."
"Hai, red tie it. All right. So we wait for the guards to arrive and we... Where do you think you're going?"
"Following them," I said.
"You can't be serious!" he hissed and I ignored him until he physically grabbed me and shoved me up against the side of the wagon. A head shorter than me but still strong. "Mikah, think! Rot you! If they're the ones, if they see you, everything'll be ruined!"
Clawtips poked at my shoulder as he kept his hand there and stared at my face with urgent eyes. I looked from him to where the Rris were vanishing into the crowd and started to tell him he was... he was... he was right. Oh, christ. There was no way I could follow them inconspicuously. But I didn't have any choice. If I lost them, then... then...
"I have to," I said in a small voice.
"Wait for the guards."
"Then?" I asked. "What then? They'll have a... a... they'll threaten to kill her."
"You're more important than she is," he hissed, then his ears went back. It was the wrong thing to say.
"I wouldn't think that for a second," I said quietly, then caught his hand and prised it away. He didn't resist as I pushed past and from behind I heard a quiet oath and then claws pattering after me.
There was no chance of being inconspicuous, not there and then. Rris noticed me and fell silent and melted aside as I passed on the tail of that small knot of individuals as they made their way along the quayside. I kept my distance, as far back as possible, but they were absorbed enough in their own business that they never looked around. When they left the wharves the going got easier. There was much less traffic: Chaeitch and I could stand in a quiet doorway and watch as the small party made their way down the street until they turned off. We made it to that corner in time to see them enter an archway.
A big place. A warehouse of some kind. It had the look of several separate buildings that over time had grown together: brick here, wooden clapboard there; garrets and gables; slate and terra-cotta tiles, moss-green copper roofing. Three stories, with small windows on those upper floors. There was a yard enclosed by a high brick wall at one end of the place. And as we watched from a small side street a wagon laden with crates rattled out of the archway my quarry had entered.
"Warehouse," Chaeitch verified. "You really think she might be in there?"
I was watching the wagon heading for the docks and I couldn't help but remember how my kidnappers had been going to smuggle me out. She might be passing by right under our noses. But they'd wouldn't want to have... ah... perishable goods sitting in the hold while they finished taking on cargo. They'd want to load those goods as late as possible. That meant...
"Mikah?" Chaeitch prompted. "What're you looking at?"
"Tell me; Those shutters up there, do they look open to you?"
His muzzle turned. "A. What does..." A spasm of comprehension jolted his features and he stared at me. "Ai. No. No, you can't be serious. You can't! Skin you, wait for the guard!"
"And they'll just charge in? They'll kill her, Chaeitch. Kill her or use her as a shield. I can go in and find her, get her out before they know."
He looked up at the third-floor window again. "You can't do this. I mean, you can't even get up there."
"You forget," I gave a small smile as I unwrapped the shotgun. "I'm an ape, remember?"
"Please," he said as he raised his muzzle. "I don't want to have to stop you."
Silence. He stood there affecting an air of bravado and extreme nervousness. I hefted the shotgun and immediately his ears went flat and he took a step back. I lowered the weapon and sighed a white breath. Behind Chaeitch the building loomed against the morning sky, a thread of smoke curling from a chimney. I shook my head. "Chaeitch, you know I'm right. The guard won't be able to help her. It'll take them time to get in there. A knife in her throat would only take a second."
He didn't say anything.
"Now, are you going to help me, or hurt me?"
A second's uncertainty before he hissed and slumped back against a brick wall. "Hai, if you don't kill me, his highness will. You really think you can get in there?"
It wasn't really that difficult.
We skirted the wall, circling around to the back of the yard. There were more warehouses there, more business and alleyways and tiny doorways ducking down to basement rooms. A tattered Rris dressed in torn rags yelped when it saw me and skittered off, chittering high yelps, but it was running in the opposite direction and didn't seem to be going to raise the alarm. It was easy to find a lower wall that I could scale and from there I could poke my head over the wall around the kidnappers' yard. That move almost lacerated my hands: there were shards of glass set into mortar along the top of the wall, concealed beneath a frosting of snow.
That made it trickier. I shucked my jacket and slung the shotgun, then laid the jacket over the jagged shards. The synthetic spidersilk offered enough padding to clamber up onto the wall and perch there, my healing leg aching deep in the muscle as I squatted and took stock. There was nobody in the yard to see as I tossed the jacket back down to Chaeitch, then made my way along the top accompanied by a crunching as glass cracked under my boots. A crescent of iron spikes where the wall met the building might have stopped a Rris burglar: it just gave me something to climb up to where I could grab hold of the ice encrusted guttering on a second-floor roof and awkwardly haul myself up. The lead and copper creaked and bent alarmingly under my weight as I swung a leg up and struggled onto slick tiles. A single careless move and a cake of packed snow skidded away from beneath me. I barely managed to roll and spread-eagle myself on the roof to stop myself joining the snow on the way to the ground below. More cautiously I worked my way up to hug the planks of the wall.
The yard was still empty. A few Rris passed by on the street beyond the walls but they never looked up. The surrounding buildings turned blank facades to me and I was thankful for the insular nature of Rris architecture: there were very few windows where someone might chance to look out and see me. I glanced down to where an anxious pair of eyes were watching me, then turned my attention to navigating the treacherous roof.
Two windows closed with thick shutters. I took care while passing them, staying low so a passing shadow wouldn't attract the interest of anybody who might be inside. The third window was open, the heavy shutters hanging ajar to reveal a window glazed with grimy panes of bottled glass. I cautiously peered through the distorted murk and could make out an empty room: some wooden boxes, bales of something stacked in a corner, the frame of a bed leaning against a wall. No sign of Rris.
Of course it was latched. I tried once, then just pressed hard against one of the thick panes. The small square of thick glass didn't shatter, instead the whole pane popped out of its tin-solder seal and rattled to the floor.
I held my breath. The sounds of the city continued, but there was no other outcry.
Easy to reach in and flip the latch and slide the sash up. The shotgun caught in the frame as I climbed through and just about tipped me back out again. Not the smoothest move I cursed as I recovered and dropped to the floor and crouched there with my breath frosting as I panted and listened for any sign that I'd been detected. Nothing, no shouts or alarms or running feet.
A dusty room with a closed door. It had that air of a place that hasn't had anyone in it for sometime. I shivered, abruptly aware of how sudden this all was. Not an hour ago I'd been aboard a ship due to leave this town, mourning the loss of someone I believed dead. Now I was chasing after a tiny hope; a last chance that I was pinning everything on. Taking a weapon from the armoury, breaking and entering, and dragging Chaeitch into something he never wanted any part of. But it was the last hope I had.
I swallowed hard and swung the shotgun around, flexing trembling hands around cold metal and wood. The action worked with a heavy greased feeling: the smooth sound of mechanical parts meshing as I chambered a round. I closed my eyes, composing myself with the heavy drubbing of my heart in my ears, then tried the door.
Not locked. It squeaked a little as it opened, just a few inches. The corridor outside was deserted, still, with anorexic sunlight filtering through a grimy window above the top of a staircase. A draught wound its way down the hall, perhaps coming straight through the thin walls: the entire floor looked as if it were an addition to the original structure, and not a very solidly built one at that. Several other doors hung open along the hall, but there was no sign of life. I moved down the hall, carefully placing every step as I peered into the rooms. Beds that had been slept in, the smell of food and Rris bodies, but no sign of inhabitants. My palms were sweaty on the stock of the shotgun.
The staircase was just as deserted: steep, rickety steps descending to a landing with another hall. I hesitated, then started working my way down.
Voices sounded from below, several of them, growing louder as a door was opened.
I froze, then scrambled backwards and crouched with the shotgun ready.
"... the weather."
"Another couple of hours. We'll be gone, don't you worry."
"... one, that." That voice was muffled. I couldn't make out everything.
"She's secure. Not going anywhere. But I don't want anyone causing her unnecessary damage. Not yet."
"How long till we move her?"
"Wait till the last load. Don't want her in there too long. If she smothers she won't be of use to anyone."
Footsteps downstairs. I tightened my grip on the shotgun, hardly daring to breath and only moving my eyes as I looked down on a pair of Rris heads and ears.
"So long as you can pay."
"Don't worry. You'll get your money. More when we get what we want out of that ape."
"Almost feel sorry for that one."
"Huhn, caused us enough trouble already. As far as I'm concerned they can skin it for leather. I'm more concerned with getting through Shattered Water. You'd better be able to do what we're paying you for."
A snarl. "Don't worry yourself about that. It's all fix..."
The voices faded. Headed downstairs I realised, and waited until the voices had died completely before cautiously moving down myself. Distant sounds still floated up the stairwell: occasional voices calling, banging of wood on wood. No sign I'd been found out. I forced myself to relax a little and glanced down the stairs after the others: nobody there now.
But what they'd been talking about... I knew what they'd been talking about, and for the first time in a long while I felt a hope.
The second floor was darker than it'd been upstairs, the walls constructed from brick and mortar. The windows were the tiny slits that were so common on the facades of Rris residential buildings, and perhaps that was what this had once been. Now, feeble light seeped through boarded-up slits to illuminate a corridor full of dust and cobwebs. A stack of wooden crates marked with Rris characters scratched in charcoal leaned against a wall. Further down the hall a door hung open. A trail scuffed through the dust led to that door.
I flexed my fingers on the heavy wood, licked my lips and started inching down the hall. Sounds still drifted up from downstairs, covering the faint groan of wood shifting under my feet. I took step after cautious step, then froze when another sound came from the room ahead: a snarl of anger, a thumping, a sound like a lid slamming. I hesitated, then peeked.
Another storeroom with stacks of crates and barrels. A Rris with bottled fur stalked out from behind the crates. It tossed a foot-long wooden truncheon onto a table beside a flintlock pistol and flopped down into a chair, snarling all the while. Clawed hands scooped up a bundle of small white sticks and spread them out onto the table, then started sorting through them: a game of some sort. When a low moaning, scarcely on the verge of hearing, sounded from somewhere in the back of the room the Rris' anger flared again: "I told you, quiet it! Now!"
Another small sound and the guard was on its feet with a bludgeon in its hand. "That was your last warning," it snarled as it started back towards the source of the sound.
I moved in. As fast and as quiet as I could, but the Rris still stiffened and turned and I saw the eyes go wide in utter horror. It tried to dive past me for the gun on the table and I just swung the butt of my own weapon and felt the impact across the side of the Rris' head. The guard tumbled, crashing against a crate and I brought the butt down again and again...
The guard wasn't moving. Blood leaked from its mouth and pooled on the floorboards. It hadn't cried out, hadn't had a chance, and the faint sounds of activity from the floor below continued unabated. I heaved lungfuls of air, then prodded it with a foot: a hand flopped limply, but nothing else. I stepped over it.
There was a cage in the back of the room. An actual cage: low box with a black iron grill over the front. Something you might keep an animal in. In the dimness I could see tawny fur amidst dirty straw, the links of chains, scratches and fresh wounds, the reek of urine and terror.
It was locked. I found a keyring on the guard and put the boot in again for good measure. There was a key that fit, and the cage door swung open with a grating of hinges. The figure in there stirred slightly, a low moan sounding.
A pathetic figure curled up in misery. Blood was caked on naked fur. A multitude of scratches raked and criss-crossed her filthy pelt, the dried gore not quite hiding markings that looked tantalisingly familiar; heavy black-iron manacles were clamped around ankles and wrists and a leather hood drawn tight over the head and tied around the neck. I gingerly reached and touched a foot, then flinched as the figure tried to pull away from me. Was it her? Was this a trick of some kind?
"Chihirae?" I ventured and the figure stopped, her chest heaving. "Oh, no. Jesus... Chihirae?" I touched again and the bedraggled figure jumped again, trying to curl up into a ball. I stroked gently, then tried to get her out of that hole, feeling muscles shivering violently the whole while. She struggled feebly, making getting that hood off all the more difficult. When it came off it dripped moisture: condensation turning the lining slimy and plastering fur against a familiar face distorted by pain and the straps of a muzzle. Amber eyes screwed up against the light as I worked at the muzzle and when it came off she gasped hungrily for air, then croaked a faint, "Mikah?"
I cradled her. Just holding her there in that dank little cell, stroking her face and whispering reassurances while she whimpered and shook in my arms. All other thoughts banished for that time when all that mattered to me in the world was held close.
End Light on Shattered Water 34