Light on Shattered Water
Something in the warm darkness touched me. A face leaned over me and a gentle cool hand stroked my forehead. "Mai?" I mumbled.
"No, Mikah, I'm afraid not. Don't you remember?" a low voice asked.
The waking dream shattered as I started to muzzy consciousness. I was in bed, buried under a stack of warm comforters. Overhead was the dimly-visible gilt inlay of the ceiling of my quarters in Chistri Einter House. It felt like night, with the drapes closed against the winter cold, with dim light from the fireplace and lamps turning the bedroom to patches of warmth and pitch shadows. There was a Rris perched on the side of the bed. "Mai?" I said again through the clinging fogs of sleep and tried to touch and winced when the bandages on my hand shifted.
"Don't, Mikah. It's me. You remember?"
I blinked the familiar silhouette into focus and felt a fool. Chaeitch. "Oh." I croaked. "I was dreaming... sorry."
"Quite all right," he smiled a little and offered a cup. "Here, drink. You sound like you need it."
I sipped cold water, quietly taking stock. I hurt, in a lot of places. There were bandages holding pads to the side of my head, more around my torso and the stinging line across my bicep. My left hand was bound in a mitten-like swathe and what had been my little finger throbbed with a low but persistent pain. "What happened?" I whispered.
The bed shifted as he set the cup back on the bedside table, then adjusted the finely cut tunic he was wearing. "We pulled you out of the harbour. You were in quite a mess; just collapsed on deck. Scared the urine out of me. You were exhausted and frozen through. You've slept the better part of two days away."
On deck... Last I remembered was... was the Ironheart and someone looking worried. No memory whatsoever of being moved, of being treated. But other memories flared to the foreground. "Chihirae," I blurted and tried to sit up and winced as lacerations shifted and Chaeitch promptly pressed me back. "Where is she? Is she all right? I've got see her..."
"All you've got to do is stay where you are. As for her, you can ask her yourself."
"What..." My gaze followed his gesture toward the door through to the main room where fragments of darkness shifted and changed and resolved into a figure that limped into firelight. She was walking now. She'd been cleaned and brushed and had new clothes, but they didn't hide the bandages and bruised swellings and patches where fur had been clipped from around wounds. Dark marks were scored across her muzzle in dreadful lines that were a reminder of the scars that distorted my own face and she moved slowly, painfully. For a split second there was a flashback to that night she'd first come into my room: that predatory slink, as fluid as oil on water, and seeing her now was a horrible reminder of what'd happened to her. "Hello, Mikah," she said: a low, familiar voice.
"Oh, Chihirae. I'm so sorry."
She ducked her head and a pained grimace flickered momentarily. "You came for me. Thank you for that."
There was something wrong. I could hear the tension in her voice and she hadn't met my eyes; not a glance. "I had to. I couldn't leave you."
Her ears lowered and raised: there was a scabbed notch in one of them. "How are you feeling?" I asked.
"Better than you look, I'd wager." She hugged her arms around herself, stroking at the fur of a bicep and then almost snarled: "Rot, Mikah, why'd you do it? I was happy. I had a home, I had work. Why'd you pull me into this?"
My heart plunged like a stone. She was angry at me; something I'd never seen in her before. "I'm sorry. I never intended this."
"Never intended it," she breathed. "Mikah, you dragged me away from my life. I didn't have a choice! You never intended it?!" Her eyes flared wide and she planted a finger in her chest then swept down her body: taking in the cuts and bandages. "They hurt me, Mikah!"
Chaeitch was on his feet, but she ignored him. "They asked me questions, Mikah. About you. They made me answer. They tortured me!"
What could I say? Offer her excuses; tell her who'd sent those orders off. Shift the blame onto someone I still had feelings for, but ultimately there was only one person who caused all this. "I'm so sorry," I said in a small voice.
"I know," she breathed, almost a hiss.
"Ma'am," Chaeitch interjected again. "You don't understand..."
"I understand," Chihirae literally snapped and then closed her eyes, composing herself. "Sir, I thank you for your hospitality. Now, please excuse me." She ducked her head and started to limp toward the door. Chaeitch laid his ears back and started to get up, to pursue her. I pawed at his arm and he looked around. "Don't," I said. "Please."
So he just stood and watched as she closed the door behind her. "She's wrong."
"No. No she's not. I'm the reason she was brought here. I'm the reason she was hurt. She has every right to be angry."
He looked shocked. "You can't blame yourself."
"She never asked me to fall into her life. I was the one who went to her." I swallowed hard, looking at some place beyond him. "She's done so much for me and then I bring something like this on her. I suppose... it hurts, but I can understand. Give her some time."
Amber eyes blinked down at me, the patterns shaved into the fur of his forehead distorting as his muzzle wrinkled a bit. "You... Just as I think I might be starting to get some idea of what goes on in that head of yours. I don't think I'll ever understand you."
"I'm afraid I feel the same way," I said, closing my eyes. "Can you just... Please, can I have some time?"
A very obvious hesitation before he said, "I'll have some food sent up later. That's all right?"
I felt my lips grimace in what might have been a smile. "I'll be here," I assured him.
Another hesitation before I heard the door close. No, Chaeitch, I wouldn't try that. The repercussions a suicide attempt might visit on Chihirae would make what she'd been through pale into insignificance. No, at the moment I just wanted to be alone.
Hot tears leaked out despite tightly clenched eyes.
I woke to mid-morning sunlight. Clear winter sun spilled through the french doors and mullioned windows, glaring off gilt and satin finishings. I lay quietly, a little confused: I'd never heard the servants open the drapes.
It hadn't been a quiet night. The dreams had crept back every time I started to close my eyes: dark and seditious and utterly terrifying, dragging me back to consciousness shaking and crying and trying to separate the nightmares from reality. It was some ungodly small hour before I finally dropped off into a bottomless sleep. And that morning I was feeling the effects of it. I started to raise a hand to rub my raw eyes and grimaced, blinked at the bandages then used my other hand.
"I didn't want to wake you."
The voice in the morning stillness made me flinch. Chihirae was standing in the door through to the main room, a hand resting on the frame and her tail lashing the air behind her. A shape I remembered from last night, her fur groomed and gleaming in the morning sun but still showing the marks of her ordeal: There were bandages around her wrists that were only half-hidden by the sleeves of the baggy russet tunic someone had given her. "You looked like you could use the sleep. I hear you had a restless night."
I flexed my wounded hand slowly. I hurt: a dull throbbing that ached in time with my pulse. "Good morning," I said.
She ducked her head, watched me with hunched shoulders. "The dreams? You're still having them?"
"Not that bad for a while," I said. "Not since... Not for a while."
She trailed a finger down the carved door frame, let it linger as she took a cautious step toward me. "Mikah, about last night... I spoke with Ah Ties. He told me everything that's happened to you. About Maithris."
"Oh," I said, laying back to stare up at the ceiling. I wasn't entirely surprised.
Chihirae sighed, her breath visible in the bedroom air despite the fire, then she limped over. "Why didn't you say something? If I'd known I wouldn't have said those things."
"You were right," I told her. "It's because of me that you're here. If I hadn't intruded on your life this would never have happened."
She sat at my side and laid a hand on my leg. "If you hadn't intruded on my life some overexcitable farmer would have put a bullet through you. But meeting you... Mikah, that's something I've never regretted."
"I never wanted for you to get hurt. How are you feeling? The cuts... they looked bad."
"I'm fine." She reached up a hand with bandages around the forearm and touched the dark marks across her muzzle. "Compared with you, these are nothing. My hide's a bit tougher, a?"
"I wish it'd never happened."
"That would've been preferable," she sighed and patted my leg again. "Ah Ties said you didn't know anything about my summons. Why was it done?"
"Mai... she only told me a short time ago." A short time? God, it felt like an eternity. "I should've known she'd do something like that. I told her how much I was missing you..." I realised what I'd said and looked away from her. "Sorry."
"Don't be. It was quiet without you around. I think I missed you as well." She laid her ears back a little and waved a small shrug. "The cubs in Westwater asked when you were coming back."
I smiled at that. "Ah, them. They're well?"
"Growing and learning. Feher is a sharp one."
"Good with a snowball too. Those were good days, a?"
"A," she affirmed. "Doesn't seem to be too much change. You still seem to be chasing down trouble."
"This does seem familiar." I thumped a hand against the bed spreads. "We've been here before, haven't we?"
A chitter of amusement. "At least this time you can talk."
I also had to laugh at that. "That does help."
She patted my leg. "You feel like eating? They said they can bring some food if you need it."
Food. The last time I'd eaten was... "Food would be wonderful. I'm very hungry. But the servants can get it..."
"You wait," she said and limped off through to the other room. I heard the door open and distant Rris voices carried. She was hurting and she still went off and waited on me while I lay like a lump on a log. Rot everything... and now I was starting to swear in Rris.
I threw the sheets aside and swung my legs over the side. The movement made me dizzy and I just sat on the edge of the bed for a second, feeling my naked skin pebbling in the chill air. My clothes, now where were they? The chest at the foot of the bed was my best guess.
My clothes were in there. A mix of a few remaining items of my old clothes along with a far more extensive wardrobe of Rris garments. I was picking out a shirt when I heard Chihirae's voice from the other room:
"They're bringing something more substantial for you. Meantime, there's some rolls here..." Chihirae's voice got louder before abruptly cutting off with the sound of shattering crockery. I spun to see her standing in the doorway: her ears back, a tipped tray in her hands and smashed plates and scattered buns on the floor. She was staring at me with an expression of shock.
"Chihirae?" I ventured with a twinge of alarm. She'd seen me naked before, so it couldn't be that causing that look of horror. "What's wrong?"
"Rot," she set the tray aside, just let it lay forgotten beside the door as she came up to me and touched my arm, turning me. "Hai, Mikah. Your back. Rot... your back."
The scabs were breaking away, leaving a cross-hatching of angry weals scarring me from shoulderblades down across my thighs to where the healing bullet wound was a viscious knot. I felt a leathery fingerpad touch a scar and move so gently: Just the pressure of the touch, no texture, no warmth. The sensation made my skin crawl.
"Who did this to you?" Chihirae asked in a small voice.
"You met them," I said quietly.
Another gentle touch on my arm as she slowly turned me, walking around me. Her ears were flat against the fur of her scalp as she looked me up and down, at the scars and cuts and gashes mapping my hide. "What's happened to you?"
I shrugged, feeling the scars on my back shifting. "Just Rris. You tend to forget your claws. You're a sharp people."
"Your back. Those..."
"They beat me," I interrupted, feeling a surge of fear as dark memories flashed back. It wasn't something I wanted dredged up.
Her eyes were black pools. "I should never have let Shyia take you."
"You know it would've happened sooner or later. I couldn't stay there forever."
Chihirae sighed and took my hands. "I never thought it would be this bad." She turned my hands over and the pale tracks across my wrist were very visible. I saw her head tip slightly to the side and hastily pulled away. "I think I'd better get dressed," I mumbled, turning back to the clothes chest.
"You need help?"
"No. Thank you," I said as I tried to step into a pair of Rris-made pants, overbalanced and managed to catch myself on the edge of the bed. "I'm all right," I held up a warding hand as she stepped forward.
"Your decision," she said and watched for a second while I carefully stepped into them and pulled them up, then she limped over to the spilled tray.
"Let the servants get that," I said.
She huffed. "I've never had to rely on others before and I'm not about to start now."
"That's what they're paid for. You want to put them out of work?"
She chittered but nevertheless crouched to put shattered dishes and fallen pastries back on the tray. By the time she'd done that and was putting the pieces aside on an exquisitely carved table. I was trying to tie a belt around a baggy satin shirt of Rris manufacture. For a second I considered the jigsaw of broken pieces on the tray: was that expensive china? Hell, they could bill Hirht.
"You look almost civilised." Chihirae was watching me, looking me up and down. "You've got yourself a tailor as well?"
"A. Still has some trouble with my sizes though. And this rotted belt..."
"Huhn," she flicked her ears, pushed my fumbling, bandaged hands away from the belt and tied it herself. "Better?"
"Thank you," I sighed and added, "I wish I didn't have to rely on others."
She smirked and reached up to fuss with the folds of the shirt where it didn't hang properly. I ignored the twinges of pain that stabbed up from my amputated finger as I caught after her hand and held it lightly. "God, Chihirae. I know more now. About Rris; about you and your feelings. I know you can't feel the way I do and I can't understand everything that goes on inside you, but I missed you. So much."
The translation carries some of the overtones of what I was feeling, but the Rris tongue just doesn't have the words to describe human emotions. Chihirae looked up at me with a curious expression and opened her mouth...
"Ma'am?" Another voice offered. There was a Rris wearing a servant's simple kilt standing in the door. Its ears twitched as it obviously caught to keep them upright while its eyes flicked from myself to Chihirae. "You sent for food?"
"Thank you," she said, still regarding me with a puzzled expression.
And when the servant bowed and withdrew it had to make way as Chaeitch swept in with a flourish of those expensive clothes he had such a penchant for. "Morning and waking..." he drew up short, eyes widening at the sight of us, then said: "Rot, Mikah. Should you be up?"
Chihirae blinked and disengaged herself, stepping back. "He seems much improved. A night's sleep helped."
"I'm all right," I assured him.
"He won't be running any races for a while," Chihirae offered.
"Huhnn," Chaeitch growled thoughtfully and scratched at the side of his muzzle. "So long as he doesn't fall on his face."
"I'll manage," I said. "But if I don't get something to eat I might just do that."
So the Rris sat and watched as I worked my way through the breakfast. The cooks here still weren't used to catering for me: the meal was predominately meat, and charcoal on the outside while the interior was rare.
"All right?" Chaeitch asked.
"Fine," I said. It was a bit like chewing the bottom of my boots. And I was aware of Chihirae in the corner of my eye, sitting and watching quietly. I kept thinking back to what I'd said earlier and couldn't return her gaze. I was almost relieved when the household major-domo materialised from somewhere to bow and request her presence.
"The captain of the guard would like to speak with you if you're willing. He just has some questions about what happened to you. If this is agreeable with your lordships."
"There's trouble?" I asked, a little alarmed.
The Rris' eyes widened just a little and a furred hand stroked nervously at the fabric of its doublet. "No, sir. Just to inquire about anything she may remember. To ensure all the [something] who abducted you are apprehended."
Chihirae laid her ears back a little at that. "Mikah?"
"Only if you want to," I said. "Your choice."
Maybe Chaeitch gave her a cue I missed, but she glanced at him and then clambered to her feet and followed after the major-domo. When we were alone Chaeitch cast a look back at the closed door, then waggled his hand. "A nice female. Very nice."
I gave him a hard look. "What do you mean by that?"
Perhaps he could tell he was toeing the line. His ears tipped sideways in a sheepish sort of way. "She's a nice person. Sensible, smart, generous. She likes you."
"How much did you tell her?"
"Huhn. You know, a?" He flashed me a small grin: a parody of one of my smiles. "I think you knew she'd ask me. You planned that?"
I ignored the little side trail he was trying to lure me down. "How much?"
He sobered. "Not about the sex, if that's what you mean. Nor about your attempts to hurt yourself. I told her you'd been very close to Maithris. I told her how Maithris betrayed you and what you've been through. She regrets what she said last night." He waved a shrug. "She heard you had a restless night."
I folded back a cloth covering a small wicker basket. Buns. Still warm. Those were a damn sight better than the meat. "I've slept better. But she had every right: I don't hold anything against her."
"So I noticed," he said. "Mikah, are you feeling the same way about her as you did about the doctor?"
I tore a bun in half, studied the fragments before answering. "I felt like that about her a long time ago. I never truly understood why it couldn't work."
"What are you going to do?"
I shrugged, my way. "What she wants. Nobody's going to force her to do anything against her will."
He leaned forward in his chair, elbows resting on knees, and cupped a hand in assent. "A. I know. Listen, Mikah, we're going to have to leave tomorrow. We've been lucky with the weather, but there's no way it's going to hold. We sail with the first light. Does she come with us?"
"I suppose we ask her."
"And hope she says yes."
I sighed and I remembered everything I'd been through. "And hope she makes the right choice," I corrected.
Chaeitch's muzzle parted a fraction, as if he were going to speak, then he muttered something under his breath and looked away.
The air was still and freezing. The approaching dawn stroked the bellies of the clouds in the eastern sky with tinges of salmon pink but hadn't yet touched the hills or roofs of the town. Toward the west the sky was still dark: not the empty dark of a night sky but the leaden solidity of storm clouds building. Cold. A motionless chill that nipped at the skin and seeped through clothes.
I shivered and pulled my jacket a little closer as the Ironheart nosed through the breakwater toward the harbour mouth and the river beyond. Crusts of ice parted before the bow wave. Inch thick in places: the bow was plated with metal so it could handle that, but the ship had never been designed as an icebreaker. A few more days and the Ironheart would have to resign the lakes to the winter ice.
The pulse of the engine picked up as the Ironheart left the shelter of the breakwater. I looked back beyond the twin stacks spilling smoke to the waking city. A few lights still burned. Two times I'd been to that town, both times I'd been shot at; I hoped it wasn't going to be a continuing trend and sighed and turned to amble back along the deck. I stopped to look again at the steam lines built into the deck, the web of reinforced bracing.
A crane. Huh.
I prodded a pipe with my toe. A large-calibre, steam-powered, breach-loading black powder gatling. Crude, but it was enough firepower to chop a ship's deck to kindling. Now it was broken down again, stored back in the hold where it'd been on the way out. I'd given them the pieces, the fragments of knowledge, and they'd put them together to build that. Building swords instead of ploughshares, just like we'd built a bomb before powerstations.
"It was necessary," a familiar voice spoke up.
"A crane," I shook my head, turned. "I actually believed that."
Chaeitch was sitting crosslegged on the cabin roof, watching me with his ears flagging wary caution. The ruffled sleeve of his exquisitely tailored scarlet doublet swayed as he waved a small shrug and said, "A. Actually, there is a winch. That is what it was designed for. The cannon was secondary."
One word for it. I sighed. "What else haven't you told me?"
"Mikah, it saved your life."
I nodded. "I suppose I should be angry."
I looked over his shoulder to where the city was falling behind, soon to be lost behind a headland. "If I'd found out about it earlier, perhaps in different circumstances..." I shrugged and added, "As things stand, I think it solved a problem."
"And gave you something you'd been hunting for?"
I blinked at him. "What's that?"
An ear twitched and he reached up to brush back one of those cheek tufts. "You can't say you don't have a personal interest in being rid of them. After all they did to you... to the teacher." I stiffened at that and he ducked his head. "In a way it's you who destroyed them."
In a way... So in a way I was also responsible for a weapon that destroyed a ship. That would doubtless be used to destroy and kill long after I was gone.
"You're upset by that?"
I had to shake my head, not necessarily meaning no. "I don't know. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I'd rather this never happened."
"But it did. They weren't going to let you go, you know that."
"A," I sighed and slapped my palm against the polished wood of the ships rail. "For what they did to Chihirae... For that they deserve what happened."
He tipped his head again and the sigils shaved into his forehead fur writhed as he wrinkled his brow slightly. "You're upset about her decision?"
"I just hope it was the right one."
"You don't think she's capable of choosing?"
"I'm just not certain she knows what she's stepping into," I said.
He huffed and those amber eyes studied me. "She doesn't strike me as a foolish type. I think she had some idea."
"And you didn't take her aside for a little talk that might've had some influence on her decision?"
His ears laid back. "No. No, it was all her own choice." He glanced past me, back toward the stern. "You can ask her yourself."
Chihirae was making her unsteady way past the wheelhouse, stepping aside as a sailor hurried past. She'd lost her possessions in the fire. Her clothes, some mementos, and her books - her precious books - they'd been lost in that conflagration, but someone had salvaged that tattered old coat of hers. Now it clashed with the fine clothes she'd been given and didn't look comfortable in. She favoured me with a curious look as she approached. "Ask me what?"
Rris hearing. Those ears weren't just for show. I met Chaeitch's expectant gaze then shook my head. "Nothing."
"A?" She flicked her ears then glanced at the dark water flowing past the hull and hastily moved away from the railing. "You really built this?"
I smiled. "I gave them a few ideas."
"Huhh," she breathed a glittering white cloud, inspected the roof of the cabin before gingerly settling beside Chaeitch. "A steam boat. It moves like the ones from your world?"
"What else has he been showing you?" she asked Chaeitch.
He looked amused. "It's been a very interesting time."
"That's one word," she said softly and looked down at her arms where they peeked from the cuffs of her coat; the dark scabs of healing cuts were quite visible through her tawny fur. She suddenly looked very small. When I sat beside her the face that turned to me was anxious and the hand that I took in my good one was so much smaller than mine.
"They won't hurt you again," I said.
Chihirae looked away: down, at our hands, at my bandages. Her other hand gently touched the marks of old scars on my knuckles, then fingers worked around to a fresher ridge across my wrist. She touched gently, then said, "You promised before."
That shocked me. I looked at Chaeitch who laid his ears back and avoided my accusing stare. "I didn't mean to," he said, wrinkling his muzzle. "She guessed."
"Why'd you break it?" Chihirae asked me.
"It..." I took a deep breath, trying to suppress the shudder. "It was too much. I just couldn't go on and no one would listen..." I trailed off. "I just couldn't take it."
A hesitation. Beyond her I saw a trio of guards from the complement we were carrying wandering along the deck to cluster at the prow. They glanced our way, then turned away. Breath turned to short-lived white clouds as they talked. Chihirae said, "What do you mean?"
I stared at the deck. The knots and whorls in the varnished wood blending into memories that were still too vivid: those exhausting days and nights of being treated as a thing, not a person; being utterly unable to fit into the alien world around me; living in fear of some little slip, some wrong word or gesture getting my face torn off. And now Mai was gone, now Chihirae might still choose to return to her home once the winter was past, would I return to that?
"Mikah?" Chihirae ventured and I looked down to where my hand had tightened around hers. I let her go and out of the corner of my eye I saw Chaeitch touch her arm and make a small gesture. "No," she said to him. "What happened to him? What did you do to him?"
Chaeitch looked past her at me and his ears turned back. "We didn't understand him," he said. "Please, it might be better if we discussed this later."
She met my eyes and for the life of me I can't imagine what my expression must have been, but she stared for some time. I saw her pupils dilate, contract again while the cold wind set the short fur of her cheeks rippling like distant fields of grain. "All right," she said slowly. "Later, a?"
Chaeitch waved a small 'yes'. "That'd be for the best. I can imagine you've got a lot of questions."
She sighed, then her small hand took mine again. I felt her claws pricking my skin as she squeezed. "I wouldn't know where to start."
Chaeitch smiled. "There'll be plenty of time. I'll be only too happy to answer any questions you might have. But at the moment... huhn, you'll have to excuse me: it would seem the captain is requiring my attention."
I looked around. The captain was standing and waiting, ducked his head in apology. Chaeitch bowed to Chihirae and murmured something in her tufted ear then said, "I'll leave you in her hands, Mikah."
Chihirae watched him stalk off, her head cocked to the side. "Odd fellow. He never told me what he does."
"A bit of everything, I think," I said. "He built most of this," I patted the wood we were sitting on. "I just gave him the idea, he put the thing together."
"Huhn," she rumbled. "You seem to get along well with him."
"He's a friend. He treats me like a person but I think I frighten him sometimes."
She patted my leg. "Still doing that, a?"
The soldiers up in the prow were watching us. Not openly, just quick glances and murmured asides. About me? Or about Chihirae? How was she going to feel when she realised just being with me made her a target of gossip and rumors. Perhaps she'd been through that before. I'd never really known what she'd had to go through when I was living in her house in Westwater. "I don't go out of my way to do it."
"You never did, did you," she said, then blinked at me and smiled; that pursing of her muzzle that creased the dark marks of wounds. "What's the city like? I mean... Shattered Water. I've read about it, heard stories and tales, but I've never seen it. A million people. What's that like?"
"Busy. Alive. Rris everywhere. The Palace, huge boulevards; The Cracks, dark alleys. Beautiful old buildings, other places that aren't as nice. A mixture of the best and worst of your people." I shrugged. "In some ways it reminds me of home."
"Ahh," she breathed and stared off into the dawning sky beyond the slowly passing shoreline. "And that... the scholars and savants, could they help you?"
I shook my head, grimaced as that made a bruise ache. "They didn't have a clue. Maybe later... maybe they'll let me go back and find that place where I woke up here. There might be something there. Something I missed. I might be able to..." I trailed off and shrugged again. A hand touched my shoulder, then hesitantly withdrew.
"You still want to go back there?"
"Rot, Chihirae, it's my home. My kind. I just don't fit here, and the trouble I've caused..." I turned to her and gently reached up to touch a tender mark across her muzzle. "They hurt you. I never wanted that."
"But that's over," she looked - at my wounded hand then up at me, eyes flinching to amber behind black and her voice almost pleading. "It's over, isn't it? All this... no more?"
I stroked one of the cheek tufts. I'd never... last time, I'd never noticed how soft they were. So different from Jackies hair. And she never looked away, didn't flinch when I smiled. "A. It's over."
I saw the white cloud of her exhalation, then she was hugging me: arms wrapped around my chest. I ignored protesting wounds and returned that human gesture of affection that'd been one of so few I'd shown her; the last I'd shown her. I breathed in the dusk of her scent: unaccountably reminded of summer and sun-warmed dust and I murmured in english, "For you. For you it's over."
The guards watched with flattened ears.
We beat the weather to Shattered Water. Barely.
The sky was blotted out by swollen purple-grey clouds roiling in from across the lake. Wind-raised whitecaps slapped against the breakwater walls in a staccato applause as the Ironheart slipped into the smooth embrace of the harbour.
Chihirae stood with me at the railing as we watched the harbour, then the city dockside littered with dirty snow slowly scrolling past in the fading light. Mid afternoon, but still getting dark under the leaden clouds. And the air was heavy with the promise of snow, the rising wind from the west ruffled the Rris teacher's fur with every freezing gust as she stood and watched in silence.
The docking at the royal shipyards went fast and smoothly. Rris crewmen threw lines to shore while she ship's engines thumped faster, settled to idle and faded to silence. The lack of the background sound left an emptiness in the world that was oddly unsettling. On shore dockhands caught the lines and shipyard guards with firearms held at port watched as they pulled the ship in and made it fast. As the gangplank was run out Chihirae stepped a little closer to my side and hugged her satchel with the precious few possessions she still had. New to a strange town; I knew what she was feeling.
"Welcome home." I turned as Chaeitch stepped up beside me. "Times I thought you wouldn't be here to see this," he said.
"You should have more confidence in me."
"Huhn, with stunts like that..." he laid his ears back. "I'm not looking forward to hearing what his highness will have to say about it."
"He can bring it up with me," I said and touched Chihirae's arm. She glanced down and I saw her smile: I was wearing the gloves the kids at Westwater had made me. "No regrets. I'd do it again."
"What is this place?" she asked.
"The Royal Shipyards," I said. "Chaeitch works here."
"You own it?" she asked, sounding more than a little impressed.
"Some," he said.
"Ai," she breathed, looking at the huge construction buildings.
"It's a living," he smiled and sketched her an exaggerated bow, sweeping his arm toward the ramp. "Now, if Ma'am would do me the honor of stepping this way?"
She gave him an uncertain smile and started down the ramp. I slung my bag over my shoulder and followed; noticed her clutching the rope railings and casting a misgiving look toward the black water and scabs of ice below. She didn't like water? I hadn't thought of that. The boat trip couldn't have been much fun for her.
Word of our return must've already reached higher places. As our little group crossed the docks a contingent of mounted soldiers escorting a carriage clattered in through the main gates, snow scattering from animals' hooves. Chaeitch looked that way and wrinkled his muzzle. "Someone's anxious to see you."
The first small flakes started swirling in from the lake as we clambered into the carriage.
Chihirae stared out the window at the driving snow, her arms wrapped around herself as she watched the dancing flakes or something far beyond them. Lake effect snow: a solid cloud of fine particles blowing in swirling horizontal gusts. Chill static beyond the glass, silhouetting my old friend against a grey light.
She'd been quiet on the ride to the palace. Staring out at the passing town that gradually faded into the growing blizzard. She'd pressed against my side during the walk through the Palace halls. Rubbernecking, but not saying much. Excited, a little nervous, perhaps a little awed. And now we were in my room she stood at the window and watched the worsening weather outside.
I stepped up behind her, seeing my reflection looming over hers in the glass.
"I've never seen snow like this before," she said without turning.
"It's unique to this part of the world," I replied. "Beautiful, but very inconvenient."
She watched a bit longer. "Mikah, you've really been unhappy here? Living amongst all this?"
"Before Mai came it was empty, lonely. A golden cage."
She turned, looking up at me then around at the room: the expensive carpets, satin drapes, the pictures, fire blazing in the grate, gas lamps... They'd been changed from those ridiculous wagon-wheel shapes to more elegant wrought-iron frameworks. Either the spyholes were gone completely or they'd found another place to hide them. I wanted to believe the former option. But what Chihirae was seeing was a room so much more elegant and extravagant than her little place out in Westwater.
"Golden cage," she echoed.
"It's very elegant. But nobody would talk to me." I shrugged and tried to meet those amber eyes. "Rris... Rris are more solitary than my kind. I found you don't feel the same way. You don't need the... companionship I do. Understanding I'd have to live my life like that... that was very hard."
She blinked and I saw that she didn't entirely understand. "That was what you couldn't cope with?"
I caught a deep breath. "That." I had a flash to Rris guards attacking me just for smiling. "And other incidents."
"Shyia didn't help you?"
"He told me a lot. I didn't believe him at the time: I thought he was crazy. But, he was so right about some things. Things that... things that frightened me so I didn't want to think about them. He had to leave." I looked out at the grey swirling snow. Somewhere out there were the trees of the gardens, lost beneath white. "I didn't know he'd left. Someone tried to kill me. I was hurt. I found he'd gone. I was alone and scared and didn't understand what was happening..." I was babbling. I took another breath, sighed.
"Someone tried to kill you?" Her eyes were wide.
"A." I remembered gunshots and fire lighting a dark street, those horrible cries of drowning Rris. "Tried. The government wanted to lock me away after that." I felt my lips tighten in a rictus that was closer to a grimace than a smile. "So, spend my life behind bars and guards and doors or become a target. One way I die slow, the other much faster."
Her ears laid flat against her scalp.
"Mai. She was... she was a friend. I thought she was a friend. She made them treat me like a person. She accepted me. She listened to me, talked, answered my questions. She made life worth living, more than just an existence. I never thought... Of all the people who might have betrayed me I never dreamed she would be among them."
Those amber eyes studied me with that worried intentness that I'd known so long ago. She touched my arm then took my good hand in hers. A finger laid along my wrist and I knew she could feel the drubbing of my pulse, my distress. "You're so upset."
"Chihirae. I don't know what to do. I don't know what to think; whom to trust; what to do." I squeezed her hand again, trying to convey at least a fraction of the conflict and confusion that continually churned within my head. "What I want to do is wrong; what I have to do... I can't. It's not what I am. Trying to think as you do... it's tiring. It's so hard to hold on."
Her head tipped slightly and there was a flash of pink as her tongue darted to lick her lips. Nervous: was I doing that to her? "I don't understand," she said softly.
No. No, she wouldn't. I sighed and was aware that I was holding her hand a little too tightly. "I'm sorry," I said as I released her.
Her ears flickered and she looked past me, just before there was a scratch at the door. I turned as it opened and Kh'hitch stalked into the room: imposing in dark purple and blue satins. He sketched a perfunctory bow: "Mikah," his level stare cut into me, "We're pleased you managed to make it back to us, albeit not entirely in one piece."
He didn't wait for me to answer but turned to Chihirae. "Aesh Hiasamra'thsi, welcome to Shattered Water."
"I was sent to inform you that his highness demands your presence. At your earliest convenience."
In other words, now.
End Light on Shattered Water 36