Light on Shattered Water
Chihirae stayed close on our walk through the Palace. She'd once been my guide, helping me through things I didn't understand. Now I was the familiar object in a world unfamiliar to her, a world that she'd learned was dangerous.
We walked through corridors lined with polished wood and red velvet. Gilt-framed paintings and silver statuettes; wooden carvings in forms mimicking frozen Rris, animals, plants. Guards opened the door for us, closed it behind and enclosing us in the close warmth of Hirht's private study. Through the distorted glass of the windows the flurries of snow continued to dance and swirl, the grey light turning the room to a place of gloom and shadows. The light from the fire cast a welcome glow and warmth.
"Mikah. Aesh Hiasamra'thsi." Hirht stood from where he was settled in his high-backed chair before the fire. "Please, come in. Seat yourselves."
There were a pair of beanbags set out: soft satin filled with what felt and smelled like potpourri. Chihirae glanced at me as I sat before cautiously settling herself and tucking her legs in, watching Hirht with her ears visibly trembling.
"Chihirae aesh Hiasamra'thsi."
Hirht seated himself and brushed down the fur on the back of his hands. "I must say it's a pleasure to finally meet you. The female for whom Mikah would give his life."
I felt Chihirae looking at me and cringed, looking at my feet, the floor; anything but her.
"Ah Ties and I have had a very interesting talk," Hirht said, lacing his fingers and watching us over the steeple they formed. "He told me what happened; what you did. There was a reason for that?"
"Sir, they were hurting her. They would have killed her."
"So you risked your life for her. After you said you wouldn't."
"You would put more stock in words than in someone's life?"
An eye narrowed. "I think that might depend on the circumstances. You however had no idea what the circumstances were. You charged in blindly; You didn't know who they were; you didn't know for certain that the teacher was in there. You could have hurt someone entirely innocent. You could have been killed!"
"I was sure she was there," I said.
"Were you? He said you were extremely upset when you heard what'd happened in Broken Sun. You were just clutching at sunbeams weren't you. Grabbing after any hope she was still there."
I looked at Chihirae, watching me with wide eyes. "Sir, it was all there was left."
His head went back a fraction, evaluating me. I couldn't guess what he was thinking: wondering about my sanity, what might've happened if I hadn't gone after her... "You'd rather I left her," I said. "Why don't you tell her that to her face?"
Chihirae looked shocked. Hirht amused.
"Lady," he smiled to her, "I didn't mean any offence. Mikah is very important to a lot of people." He turned back to me, watching me. "We fear for him. He has a propensity for leaping into situations before thinking them through, as well as a knack for finding those situations."
A hesitant smile pursed Chihirae's muzzle. "A, sir. That I had noticed."
"And this time he pulled you in along with him. I have to apologise for what you've been through. This was never intended."
"What were your intentions?" I asked softly. "She wasn't happy about being brought here. It wasn't her choice."
He tipped his head slightly. "I know. Maithris. She put the suggestion forward. You needed a tutor, and after that incident with Esseri she said it would be best to have someone who is familiar with you and whom you feel comfortable around. Aesh Hiasamra'thsi was the best, the only, candidate. Now I understand Maithris undoubtably had ulterior motives, but at the time, Mikah, we had your best interests in mind."
"And her interests?"
The Rris king ducked his head, his lip flicking up to expose a flash of teeth. "Your's come first," he rumbled. "And she is an employee of the government: her job is whatever we say it is. However, if you really want her to go back that can be arranged."
Again I looked at Chihirae who was sitting quietly and not appearing entirely happy. "That's her decision. Ask her."
"Ma'am?" he looked expectant. "Please. Truthfully."
Her ears twitched. "Ah, sir. I'm honored to be here. Truely. But, Lying Scales is my home."
"You want to return there."
"Yes, sir," she said, glanced at me for a few long seconds before she added, "Eventually."
He pricked up an ear. "Eventually?"
"A. Since I'm already here... Mikah does need some help with his pronunciation. And I would like to see more of Shattered Water."
"I'm sure that can be arranged," he said and I noticed that he relaxed a bit. "And I can assure you everything will be done to make your stay as comfortable as possible. If you require anything, please don't hesitate to ask."
"Thank you, sir."
"Of course," he inclined his head to her. "Now, both Mikah and that mediator told me a little about you, but I'd be interested in hearing a little more about you, how you met Mikah."
"Yes, sir." She wrung her hands for a second, clicking her claws as she gathered her thoughts then started telling that story again. I sat quietly as she recounted those first days in the barn and the memories were still as fresh as if it'd just been yesterday. Looking down on that small hamlet with the furry figures in the street; the sunlight spilling into the barn as she moved among her class and I watched from hiding; flashes of the shock on her face, the light on the quarrel in the crossbow, the...
A twinge shot through my shoulder, reminding me of that deep knot running through muscles and tissue. I realised I was rubbing the spot, something that Chihirae didn't miss. She was watching me as she spoke, those amber and black eyes level and cool and utterly inscrutable.
"He left," she was saying. "I saw him look back and thought that was the last I would see of him. I'd said it'd be quiet without him: it was. The cubs missed him." She brushed at the fur on the back of her forearms. "I missed him."
"Huhn," the Rris king mused. "He certainly has an effect on people. I think everyone who's met him can testify to that."
Chihirae chittered a little and cast me another uncertain glance. Doubtless wondering what he meant.
Hirht leaned back. "All right. Now, thank you Mikah, but could you leave us? I'd like to talk with Aesh Hiasamra'thsi alone for a while."
Talk about me, undoubtably. I hesitated, looked at her. "You be all right?"
She smiled a little and I realised the question sounded both absurd and perhaps a little insulting. "I'll be fine," she assured me.
Hirht tipped his head a little but otherwise his expression hadn't changed. "Thank you, Mikah. We'll talk later."
Dismissed. I climbed to my feet and left them. Royal guards outside the room watched impassively as I closed the door, then sighed and looked toward the windows at the end of the hall: dusk falling outside. We'd been in there longer than I'd realised. A pair of armed guards fell in at a discreet distance as I made my way back to my rooms.
Mist swirled around an indistinct figure standing alone on a deserted night-time dockside, back towards me as it stared out across oily black water. I turned away, and the same scene was there in front of me again. Walking forward and the figure didn't move, but the voice was so familiar.
"Why'd you leave?" Jackie asked.
"I didn't," I said. "It wasn't like that."
She turned. Rris eyes flared in the dimness as Maithris stepped toward me. "But you know it had to be. There wasn't any choice."
"Why?" I implored. "You didn't have to. We could've been together."
"A," she nodded. "I did love you, you know that. But there's so much you don't understand."
"You can teach me."
She raised her hand and the mask that was her face came away and Chihirae was watching me. "Where did she go?" I asked.
Chihirae shrugged. "It's a big world. Somewhere out there," a clawed hand swept toward blackness lapping against the shore and when I looked back the docks were empty.
Nothing. Just a silent desolation.
Gravel crunched under my feet and then I knelt to look down into black water lapping against the shore. Cold, bottomless, trickling through my fingers when I dipped my hand and my reflection stared back.
The blackness exploded in a soundless spray and gaping jaws lunging toward me in a blur of flesh and sharp whiteness. Pain ripped through me as I was caught and it tore and burned as the darkness closed around...
And yanked me out of sleep with arms flailing to ward off an attack that existed only in my mind. For a few seconds I sat staring into nothing before I really awoke, then collapsed back and just lay panting in the freezing dark. "Oh, Christ." The bed was clammy, old and new wounds aching, throat raw. I'd been there before.
Dark. Just a single monochrome strip of moonlight stretching across the floor. I'd no idea what time it was.
The evening had passed and Chihirae hadn't returned. I'd waited, going over old pronunciation lessons again and again in the hopes I might be able to improve. Finally I'd called it a night and retreated to the warmth of the sheets. It hadn't been a peaceful rest.
Remnants of confused and disturbing, sometimes terrifying, dreams still lurked in the shadows when I closed my eyes and sleep just refused to come. When it had finally come... the nightmares returned as well, snuck in alongside.
I pushed the heavy covers aside and braved the chill of the night air. The bathroom tiles were freezing underfoot as I leaned over the fine porcelain basin and splashed icy water across my face. The shock cleared some of the muzziness away but still left the disturbing feelings those night terrors had engendered lurking at the edges.
I sighed and grabbed a towel, wiping away the water as I returned to the bedroom. I just sat on the bed amidst the rumpled sheets, feeling my skin pebbling in the cold. Memories: of a gentle voice in the night, of someone who was there during the loneliness.
"God, Mai," I whispered to the solitude, "I miss you."
"She must've made a real impression on you."
I jumped wildly, looking around for the source of the quiet voice. Darkness and shadows everywhere, but over on the window seat a patch of darkness stirred.
"Who's there? Who's that?"
"It's me," a Rris voice rumbled and then elaborated: "Chihirae."
Another shift and a furry shoulder settled into the moonlight. I relaxed a little.
"The soldiers came to me. They said you were calling out in your sleep. Apparently that 'Mai' would sometimes come to calm you down when you had dreams like that. They thought I might be able to."
Oh. I never told them... they thought she was there in the same capacity Mai had been. "I'm sorry. They shouldn't have disturbed you. What are you doing over there?"
A wave of a hand. Just part of what might have been a shrug visible in the moonlight. "Watching you. Thinking. You called out that doctor's name several times. She really helped you with those dreams?"
I wasn't sure how to explain that. "She was... she helped. A lot."
A pause. "His Highness explained. I'm not entirely sure I understood. He said you and she were very close; that you were pretty torn when she left."
I sagged, gazing down at my bare hands, arms. "I loved her," I said softly.
"I don't understand."
No. She couldn't. I took a deep breath and tried to push those wounds back into the depths. "She was... I thought she was a... a friend."
There was a low exhalation from the shadows. "Huhn. I'm sorry. You couldn't have known." For a while there was silence, then she ventured, "His highness also explained how she came here. Those marks on your wrist." Another pregnant pause before she added in somewhat admonishing tones, "Why did you do that?"
"I wanted to die," I said and there was only silence. I coughed, then stared at the darkness where her face might've been. "People who treated me like an animal, watching the fear in their eyes; the same reactions day after day. Every day, being so careful. Not able to smile, to laugh, to even talk properly. Knowing it would be a lifetime of that." I saw her breath in the moonlight. "I couldn't go on like that."
"But she was able to help you? How? She could change everyone's reactions to you?"
"No. No, she couldn't change the world. She was just... there." I held my hand up, watching myself gesture at an imaginary figure at the foot of the bed. "She let me be myself. She wasn't frightened around me; she understood my smile, my expressions. She fought to make Hirht and others understand that I'm not a machine: that they couldn't lock me in a box when they weren't using me. She showed me parts of your world I never knew existed." I smiled slightly at the memories that brought up. "She made life worth living."
"And when she left, you didn't... try again."
I glanced toward the figure in the shadows. "There was something I had to do."
"Ah," she said. "Ah. And now, what? If I were to leave, what then?"
"I don't know." I caught a deep breath, slowly released it.
"His highness said he was... he said he wasn't sure if you're entirely sane."
The way that was said... Low and gently, as if she was oh-so carefully making her way through a minefield. I looked her way again, trying to see her hidden away in shadows and moonlight, keeping her distance. Was that why? The things he'd told her I'd been through, the things I'd done. And she was... she was...
"Oh, God. Chihirae. And that's why you're afraid of me?"
"I'd never hurt you. Can you believe that?"
Still silence. I couldn't see her at all; couldn't read her at all. I clenched my hands in the eiderdowns. "Please, Chihirae." A response. Anything.
The shadows moved as she stirred, stood, and for a split second the moonlight fell on her: A cold nimbus around bare fur that swished almost inaudibly as she moved, then settled on the edge of the bed beside me. I felt a warm hand touch mine. "Not of you," her voice was a husky burr. "For you."
For some reason I had an unaccountable flashback to a time in the sun on the deck of a ship where another Rris was trying to wear my sunglasses. I closed my own eyes tight and swallowed hard and could still feel her right hand gently stroking my skin, then curl around to lay a fingertip across my wrist.
"His Highness asked a lot of questions about you, also told me a lot. When you left Westwater I'd thought... I don't know what I thought. Never this." The hand squeezed lightly: When I looked I could see the darker tracks of scars against my skin in the moonlight. "It's so difficult for you? I thought you would settle, get used to it. He said you just didn't seem to be able to."
I shivered. "'Used to it'? Chihirae, it's like trying to be two people. I can't be human, and I'm unable to be Rris: minding every word, gesture, emotion. Just trying to do that every day, then looking forward and seeing a future where it never ended..." The words caught in my throat and I knew the alien fingers on my wrist could feel my pulse racing.
"It scared you that much?"
I nodded. "Being alone like that."
"His Highness said your kind... you stay with your females for life. Like swans. Like those plays you showed me. You have to be with someone?"
"Not have to. It's... I don't know how to explain. It makes things easier, knowing there's someone there with you."
"And you would like someone."
That was said in a low, level voice and I suddenly realised how she might be construing this. "Oh, shit no. I'm sorry. I never meant you should... I mean, I never wanted to involve you in any of this. I certainly never intended they use you to replace Mai. Your choices... Chihirae, it's your life, your decision. I tried to tell them that. They're not forcing you to stay, are they?"
"No. He was most civil about that. He just said that since that Maithris left you'd been very withdrawn. You frightened them. He said seeing that change since you've returned was a pleasant surprise. They would like me to stay, so I will. For a while. I hate travelling in winter anyway."
"Thank you," I breathed.
The hand squeezed again. "The only time I'll ever see Shattered Water. It's something I'd have never seen otherwise. And it'll be good to have a guide."
I had to smile at that. "Me showing a Rris around. Why does that sound odd?"
There was a low chitter in the dark. "I imagine Maithris showed you some interesting things."
I tensed, immediately wondering just how much Hirht had told her. "She was a good teacher."
"Huhn," she huffed and I felt the warm wash of breath across my shoulder. "I suppose that might have been because you and she had so much in common."
"A?" I didn't understand what she was saying.
"Both trying to be something you weren't?" she said quietly. "Both trying to fit in. I'd imagine she'd have had a difficult time as well. Perhaps that was why she understood you so well."
"I'd... never thought of it like that," I admitted.
"She never left because she wanted to. She had to. It wasn't up to her. And what she did to you... I know that was horrible... but she might not've had a choice." A gentle touch on my bare shoulder, the soft stroke raising goosebumps before withdrawing. "Two dark roads. It can't have been easy for her."
The lesser of two evils.
I sighed. "It would've been nice to know."
"I know," she rumbled sympathetically. "I know."
"Maybe someday..." I shrugged and shook my head, knowing how unlikely that sounded. "But thank you. For what you've put up with, for staying... Thank you."
She touched my shoulder again, stroked down my bare back to lightly touch scars and scratches. Fingertips traced the weals, tracing other marks and I tensed when I realised she was exploring the pale reminders of that first night with Mai. "These... claws, aren't they."
"Not new," a fingertip touched so very lightly, almost a caress. "How?"
I swallowed. "Accident," I said. "It was an accident."
"Huhn? What happened? They're... oddly placed."
I took a deep breath and stepped off into the deep end. "How much did Hirht tell you? About Mai and I?"
A hesitation as if she were wondering why I'd be asking that. "You know... what happened to you, why she came. How she looked after you and became a thorn in the foot until the ones-who-decide would change the way they treated you and you were so fond of her..."
I think the penny dropped then. She cut off into what I interpreted as shocked silence.
"He didn't tell you we were closer than that?" I said to the stillness. "Mai and I, we had sex. There were... differences. The claws were an accident."
The hand around my wrist, the finger laying across my pulse, were motionless. The dark was such a frustration for me, making this kind of interaction so one-sided for the Rris. I couldn't see her, couldn't see any reaction or tell how she was taking it, but that cold silence made me feel as if I'd transgressed. I was terrified of how she'd take that news; how she'd interpret me telling it to her then and there.
"You would've heard," I said, trying to fill that silence, horribly aware I was sounding as if I were trying to explain something I still wasn't sure of. "Someone would've told you."
In the darkness her hand tightened around my wrist again: just a light squeeze. "That was something his Highness didn't tell me. From everything else I'd heard... I'd wondered. I didn't know." I heard a sigh and then a leathery fingerpad touched my shoulder and slowly stroked downwards. "Why'd you tell me now?"
I shrugged and looked down. Her hand was a dark spider around the pale skin of my wrist. "I don't know. It was something between us. Others knew about it and there are... stories circulating. I didn't want someone shocking you; asking a stupid question. I thought it would be better if you knew... heard it from me."
"Huhn," came the low growl. "I remember that morning, waking to find you sexually aroused. That surprised me, and quite frankly Mikah, it frightened my fur straight." There was another intake of breath, then in coaxing tones, "She didn't have that problem, a?"
That... there was something in the way she said that I didn't understand. "No," I said simply.
"And she told you the truth in all other matters?"
Oh, god. That again. "No." I shook my head vehemently. "She didn't. I know her. I knew her. I could see she not tell not-truth. Most honest she tell... No... I mean. She lied, but not in that. Not lie that..."
I choked into silence, the feelings trying to spill out through the congestion of my tongue stumbling over the Rris language. I knew it, dammit. I knew.
But there'd been those moments when something behind Mai's eyes had slipped and I was sure there was something else looking back at me. Those moments... there was fear, but it was something so much like my occasional lapses: The rational mind beating back the shadows of fear that crept from the recess of ancestral memory. I knew... I just felt it in my guts, that what we'd had was built on something besides those foundations of lies on which she'd constructed the rest of her life. I took a deep breath and tried to compose myself.
"She... didn't have to come back. She could've just dropped me from her life and gone. What she told me..." I looked at the moonlight streaming in through the window and for an instant I was back at that moment, in that freezing little room and that familiar form was sitting there in the night glow telling me things that hurt so much.
"Mikah?" a voice ventured into my awareness. I blinked back to the here and now and was aware that I was trembling and that the alien hand on my arm could doubtless feel it. I pulled away, perhaps a little too abruptly.
"Mikah?" Maybe she sounded a little hurt. "I'm sorry. I suppose I could have been more tactful. I suppose... You're right." There was a feather-light touch on my back. "You're frightful. I have to admit that. But one can get used to you." The hand gently stroked, avoiding the marks of scars. "I think I might have forgotten what you were. Being away from you stole some of that familiarity. And I think I started to think of you as more like a Rris."
As I was guilty of doing to her.
"I suppose that while I was forgetting the real you, that Maithris was learning the real you." The hand stroked gently, reassuringly, and a bony, furry pressure laid on my shoulder: her chin. I could smell harsh breath: "You have enough redeeming features for someone to become quite fond of you."
I leaned my head against hers and for a while we shared a silent moment. Then I put my arm around her and hugged her closer, feeling the warmth and the coarseness of her winter coat. An underlying slight twitch of muscles as she tensed, then sighed and those muscles went completely lax as she sagged against me and snugged her head a bit closer. "You're cold?" she murmured.
"You're warm," I countered.
A small chitter. "Like those nights in Westwater, a? Winter nights."
I smiled at that memory. "A. Good memories." I ventured a light scratch of nails through her fur; the sort of familiarity that Mai had liked. She breathed a low rumble.
"Chihirae..." I started to say.
"I wanted to say... I mean, back in Westwater I never told you... I never got the chance..." I just couldn't say it. That admission of feelings her language had no word for, those desires that... that would probably insult her. After what she'd said that night, I just couldn't bring myself to say something that might frighten her away.
"Mikah?" she asked quizzically.
"I never said thank you," I was aware of what a cop-out that was. "For everything you did for me: thank you."
Her head raised and I think she was staring at me but I didn't turn to look. "That's it?" she asked and there was something behind that question. A touch of amusement? Curiosity? Gas? I couldn't tell.
I heard a quick chuff of air, a stifled laugh, and then she pressed against me and something rough and wet and warm lathed across the bare skin of my neck. I hugged her back and for some undeterminable length of time she stayed with me.
Safe now. As I'd told her, it was over. At least, for her it was over. There were still things to be done, a trail to be followed to the end before everything could be laid to rest, but at that moment I could set that aside.
I must've fallen asleep with her watching over me, as she'd done in Westwater. I don't remember exactly when I dropped off. Not that it mattered.
The morning sun looked down upon a white world. High wisps of cloud formed wind-sculpted curlicues across a blue sky that washed to pale on the distant horizon. Just outside the windows fat icicles hung from the eaves while the palace gardens were buried beneath a blanket of fresh snow. Cold and pale and pristine. Like someone had shaken the globe of the world and let the flakes to settle.
My breath frosted, fogging the chilled windowpane with its latticework of frost. Winter again, well and truly here. The roaring fire in the grate kept the temperature within tolerable bounds, but it wasn't what I'd call warm. I shivered in the folds of the eiderdown wrapped around my shoulders and drew it tighter, trying to foil an errant draught.
I don't know how long she'd stayed last night. I'd woken alone, with only a depression in the mattress beside me and a few tell-tale hints of stray fur. No reason for her to stay all night; No reason for her to come to me in the first place. But she had, and I really appreciated it.
In the bathroom I filled a bowl with steaming water and washed the sleep away. Through the swirling mist my reflection looked back; those features that were becoming more and more alien to me; the beard that I grew and trimmed in an attempt to... to hide? To fit in? To try and be something I could never be?
I took up the trimming scissors and started snipping. Just smoothing the worst of the irregularities out, then cutting more and more. Hunks of hair fell onto the bench and into the bowl of water as I cut and cut, working by feel.
"What are you doing?!" came the horrified cry from behind me. I turned to see Chihirae at the door and when she saw my face her ears went down flat. "Red tie... your face. Your fur! What're you doing?"
"Shaving." I shrugged and looked down at the tangles of hair floating in the bowl. "It wasn't really me."
"Wasn't really..." she shut her mouth with a clop. "What're you talking about?"
"I've never liked growing my face fur. Itchy, you know. I was getting tired of it."
"But you... It makes you more..." I saw her hand was clenching, the claws sliding in and out as she doubtless tried to think of a tactful way to word things.
"What? Makes me look like a Rris?" I smiled. "I'm sorry to have to tell you, but I think that maybe people have been seeing through this disguise."
She blinked, ruffled the fur of her muzzle when she rubbed a hand over it. "Mikah, you..." She gave a shaggy shake of her head, a parody of one of my gestures, then chittered. "You're really so uncomfortable with it?"
"It's just..." I trailed off. I'd known what I wanted, but now, trying to explain myself to her, it was slipping. "I just wanted to be myself for a while."
She cocked her head and studied me, then thrust out a hand. "Give me those."
"Come on," she waggled her stumpy fingers. "You can't do that yourself. You'll cut yourself. Now, hand them over."
I surrendered them.
"Right," she said, snicking the blades a couple of times. "Now come here. Let's see if we can't do a proper job of that. Just your face? Not your head or those bits above your eyes?"
"Don't be silly," I said. "That'd just look foolish."
The guards kept sneaking surreptitious peeks at my face as we walked the cold halls of the Palace. My beard was gone, shaved back with my remaining shaving cream and not-so-disposable razors. If I wanted to keep it that way I'd have to learn to shave with a straight-edge; one of those cut-throat blades. That was if the Rris allowed me to.
Chihirae had done a good job, although watching her fumbling with a can of shaving foam, sniffing at the contents, hadn't inspired a great deal of confidence for the moment when she took up the razor. Still, she'd been careful and hadn't nicked me, not once. And the look she'd given me when I'd rinsed off:
"It's a sign of humiliation or illness you know," she'd said quietly. "Shaving."
She'd found the idea ludicrous yet she'd gone along with it. To please me.
The secretary in the outer office did a double take when he saw me. "I'd like to speak with his Highness," I said and the Rris just blinked. "Sometime today would be good," I added.
He shook his head, then ducked it and hastened to the door of the informal inner office. A quick scratch at the plate before he entered. I gave him a second then barged on in.
"... and he's..." the aide was cut off with a yelp midsentence when I opened the door on them. Sitting at his desk with quill in hand, Hirht turned his attention from the secretary to me and I saw a flicker of shock there.
"Sir," the aide said to me, "you should wait..."
"That's all right," Hirht interrupted. "Just leave us."
"Sir," the secretary closed the door behind him.
"Now," the Rris king sighed. "I trust this is important. It's got something to do with what happened to your face?"
"No. That was voluntary."
It wasn't often I saw something rattle him, but that was one of those instances. "You... desired that? Huhnn. And you say that's not the problem."
"No, sir. I want to talk to you about this situation."
"Situation?" he laid his quill aside and leaned forward, head cocked quizzically. "Which situation would that be?"
"The one I've been in since the first day I arrived in your world. The reason those Rris tried to kidnap me, why they hurt Chihirae. They were involved in smuggling, weren't they. Selling weapons to anti-government forces in another kingdom."
His face didn't move. "That Maithris told you that?"
I met his stare and grinned, slowly. And this time he did flinch. "Her. A few others. Did you even know it was happening?"
The mask returned. "There were discrepancies, but we didn't have a true picture of the scale of it. Then you were kidnapped..." he growled softly. "We hadn't realised they had their claws in the Palace."
"Haies aesh Tohikish?" I said quietly.
"A. That one."
"It was her?" I asked. "You're sure?"
His amber eyes narrowed a little, then he sighed and waved an affirmation. "We're sure. She tried to run, then to fight. And we found incriminating documentation hidden in her home. She was the one." His ears twitched. "You're worried about your teacher friend now, aren't you? Don't be. It's over."
"Thank you," I nodded. "That Haies; whom did she work for?"
"Huhn? Marah ah Cho'tai. Commander in the city Militia. You know him?"
"No," I said. "No. But I would like to meet with him."
He cocked his head. "Why?"
"I'd like to ask him some questions."
I could see he was thinking, probably trying to work out what was going on in my head. "What sort of questions, Mikah?" he asked very softly and I knew he already had an idea.
I told him.
I crossed the threshhold into the office of Marah ah Cho'tai, commander of the western militia of Shattered Water, 4th in the affluent Cho'tai lineage and veteran of the Southern Border wars.
It was an office that exuded wealth and power. This room and the other chambers where his personal staff and guards waited were all carpeted in a plush pile that must've cost a fortune. The walls paneled in wood and papered in crushed and patterned velvet. Paintings in frames so ornate they stole the eye away from the mediocrity of the actual subject: almost invariably long-dead high-ranking Rris going about everyday tasks. There were crystal chandeliers suspended by gold chains from a high ceiling plastered with bas-relief patterns. Sunlight poured in through high windows, the old glass panes working like melted prisms: fracturing it into a ragged net of light and shadow. The Rris behind the low desk in front of those windows was obviously waiting for me.
"Dismissed," the commander snapped to his guards who'd escorted me in and they ducked their heads. The double doors boomed slightly as they closed and I saw the inner panels were festooned with intricate carvings.
"So. You're Mikah," Ah Cho'tai said, calmly looking me over. He was an elegant Rris, with finely-brushed golden fur like the grass in summer. Darker spots dusted his arms and his muzzle while the white ruff of his chest was visible under the expensive leather jerkin he wore.
"The talking ape," he mused. "I was told you wanted to speak with me. I wasn't told about what though. Perhaps you'd like to clear that up?"
Patronising bastard. "I just had some questions."
"Ah? About what?"
I smiled slightly and went over to the desk. He watched, perhaps with a bit of a flinch as I unslung the laptop and set it down, rotating it toward him and tapping the keyboard. "This," I said, making sure he had a very clear view of the screen.
He went stock-still. I swear I saw the fur around his neck bristle. The laptop was running through a series of pages from the history file, the encyclopaedia entries that'd been accessed by hit and miss: rifles, pistols, aircraft, a Star Wars blaster... weapons of all manner and description.
"And what about those?" he asked quietly.
"I think you know," I said. "Your assistant certainly did. Unfortunate what happened to her. Also convenient, wasn't it? No way anybody could ask her awkward questions, a?"
He was sitting absolutely motionless, not even the tip of his tail twitching. It was the conscious freeze I'd seen in so many Rris politicians when they wanted to hide their cards. "Do you know what you're saying?"
"A," I grinned slightly and he did flinch this time, drawing back a fraction. "I don't think the trail ended at her. Interesting that the guards who shot her were yours. Interesting that Rris spoke of their superiors in the Shattered Water government: Rris who kidnapped me, who worked for you; Rris who hurt a friend of mine. Smuggling, wasn't it?"
"Westwater was a stepping-stone. A handy little spot away from the main trade routes. I arrived and drew a little too much attention to the place. I also saw one of your agents. That's why they tried to kill me, especially when they found out I was a little more than an animal. I could identify people, couldn't I. Am I getting close?"
Those amber eyes glared at me. "Accusations like that can get you into serious trouble. You have evidence?"
"I know what's going on."
A slow grin spread over his face. Not humor, never that. "Then you have nothing. Really, ape, you do need something more substantial than that."
"And you were the one responsible for what happened to Chihirae."
"Huhn? Ai, the Teacher. My clients felt that she would've been an excellent incentive to help you cooperate. You both should've vanished without trace." He favored me with a small and deliberate grin.
"And it was a shame about the doctor. She really did cause some problems but... Strange: she betrays you and yet you still pine for her. If we'd known that, we could've taken her when we took you. That would've solved a lot of problems, wouldn't it. I'm sure seeing her skinned would've encouraged you to be more co-operative." I saw his eyes flicker to where my fists were bunching and his grin widened, completely baring his teeth even as he raised his hand and laid a pistol on the desk. A heavy revolver. There was a ominous metallic click as he cocked it and didn't quite point it my way. "You can try, ape."
"And you'd find out what it's like to be flayed alive," I responded with an unnatural calm.
"Perhaps." He waved a shrug and patted the pistol. "Although you are quite unpredictable. Self-defense wouldn't be out of the question."
I'd be dead and at the very least he'd be ruined and in a way it would be a victory for me. For a few heartbeats I just stood there, the two of us facing each other in that sunlit office. I thought of all the things I'd been through and knew that this Rris... this bastard had been behind them all and for an instant I could've just gone for him; no matter what the consequences. But that meant I wouldn't be around to savor it.
"You caused so many deaths, you betrayed your country... why?"
"Why?" he rumbled softly. "That really doesn't concern you."
"You try to kill me and you say it doesn't concern me."
He chittered. "I've never tried to kill you, ape. Although, I'm beginning to regret that decision."
"Yeah? There was that attack in town, on the way back from the foundries. And there was that attack in Blizzards Coat."
The commander snorted. "That wasn't at you, you fool."
I hesitated, thrown off track. "At Mai?"
"The name was Maithris, name-breaker. And yes, it was just a warning. She was being too stubborn. It was a demonstration of how vulnerable you both were. And as for that other attack in Shattered Water... I don't know anything about that."
Was he telling the truth? Why would he lie about that after everything else he'd told me? He noticed my uncertainty and narrowed his eyes, baring teeth again. "And now you're probably wondering why you shouldn't just go and report this to his Highness, a?"
"The think... the thought had... crossed my mind," I growled, anger distorting my Rris.
"Still having trouble talking, huhn ape?" A low chitter and then he leaned forward, his lips flicking up in a Rris smile. "Well, I can give you a few reasons. You might go to his Highness and regale him with this story. I'm sure he would listen politely, and even if he believed you, I have some very influential and powerful friends in the city council: merchants, military associates and the like... They all know what an [upstanding] citizen I am and hold me in the highest regard." The smile widened back into a gape-jawed grin.
"If I were to be suddenly arrested, on the word of a mentally unstable talking ape at that, they would certainly demand answers. And proof. And proof, I'm afraid, is something you don't have. I was most careful to cover my trails."
I didn't say anything.
"Also, there's your friend: the teacher. What's her name? Chihirae? From what I've heard you're quite fond of her. I'd imagine you'd be quite upset if something happened to her. There'd be more than enough time to ensure that something did. You understand me?"
I stiffened and felt that unpleasant constriction of fear closing around my guts.
"You understand?" he snarled again.
I slowly closed my hand in a Rris 'yes' gesture that left my clenched fist quivering.
"Good," his muzzle smoothed out and now he looked almost amused. "In any case, who do you think they'd really believe? An insane creature who's tried to kill itself several times, or a fine citizen like myself?"
It was like I was looking at him through a red mist. The rest of the room drifted out of focus and there was only him and the rage that felt like a heat suffusing me from head to toe. And he blinked slowly, lazily, while his hand lingered near the pistol.
I reined it back and stiffly bowed. I had the satisfaction of seeing him flinch when I bent to pick up the laptop and closed the lid with a solid, final click. He was watching carefully as I slung it over my shoulder and turned away.
His voice growled across the office as I reached for the door. "You never answered my question."
I froze, standing there with my hand on the cold brass of the handle.
"Who would they believe?" he repeated and the voice was level and cold but I knew he was mocking me.
I swallowed hard and I don't think he saw my lip twitch in a tight grin of my own; in any case I didn't turn when I said, "You, sir. You."
Then I left those expensive offices behind and he didn't try to stop me. A few minutes later, out in the corridors away from his guards and secretaries, my own escort of royal guards stopped in concern as I leaned against a cold marble pillar and tried to get my trembling under control. I closed my eyes and clutched the precious laptop and felt the solidity of stone and whispered, "You. I hope."
End Light on Shattered Water 37