Light on Shattered Water
I cast a sidelong look toward Chihirae, her face turned up toward the old paintings with an expression of wonder that was almost childlike... that's if I wasn't anthropomorphizing again. The winter sunlight streaming down through the gallery skylights filled the long room with flat light, washing across the checkered floor, the pale walls and the multitudes of pictures there. Chihirae stood in that wide space, hands clasped behind her, her fur golden sienna in the light: a splash of color against the monochrome floor.
And god, it hurt to look at her. Lithe, lean, as sleek as Maithris had been despite the differences in coloration and the lines of scars that ran across that hide like dark rivers through golden plains. She was a predator, conjuring images of Our World specials on big cats that were so out of place in that elegant chamber. I felt the pangs as emotions she couldn't feel hooked at me and fought rational thought.
I'd told her it was over; that she didn't have to worry any more. A lie? Maybe. If this little game I was playing and putting so much on didn't work, then it certainly would be. So much was hinging on this maneuver: justice, truth, revenge for everything I'd been through... for everything people I cared about had been through.
"What?" Chihirae was watching me with her head cocked to one side. I'd been staring.
I guiltily flinched away, then back and offered her an embarrassed smile. "I'm sorry."
"A?" She also smiled: a little quizzically. "Looking at me like that? What's going on in that head of yours?"
"Huh? About what?"
I shook my head. "Just... differences."
"A," she said again and her eyes glanced down, then up again to meet mine: Pools of ink in amber. "Differences, hurrr?"
I felt the flush climbing the back of my neck and shrugged.
"Mikah, I'm not her," she said gently.
"I know," I sighed. "I know."
"She showed you this," Chihirae moved her head, indicating the art gallery, "didn't she."
"A." I looked back at the walls of paintings. "The first time I saw anything like this. First time I'd been allowed to do anything but work. It made me feel like a person. And it's beautiful." And I looked at Chihirae and saw those images, those pictures of her imprinted in my mind: watching her through a crack in a wall; standing in barn doors; sitting at my bedside in the flickering candlelight; dark eyes in a moonlit sleigh; a battered and moisture-slicked face in a cage.
"So are you."
The words seemed to echo in that big room. Her head went back, her eyes wide and black. "Mikah... why'd you say that?"
Oh, god. I'd said that once before, long ago, but that hadn't been tinted with the undertones I was feeling now. I swallowed and forced a smile that can't have fooled her, then ducked my head and reached to gently pat her shoulder. Just once. "All these paintings," I said. "All this wealth and property and power around here. The money I'm being paid... I would give that all away. It can't compare to you."
Her eyes didn't leave me, her muzzle twitched as transient emotions followed one another across her features like weather patterns. "That's... flattering," she said uncertainly. "But I don't understand why you're saying that. Why now? I don't understand."
"I..." I caught a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I know. I'm sorry."
She tipped her head, ever so slightly. "Sometime... sometimes you sound like you're using our words to say something completely different. It can be disconcerting."
"I'm sorry," I said again.
"No. Don't be. It's just... I thought that as you learned more of our language it'd be easier to talk to you. Sometimes... you just seem to create more questions."
As did they. Although... perhaps I had a bit of an advantage. I was the one learning their language, even starting to think in their language. I've heard of a language described as a conceptual framework upon which a subjective model of the world is built. By learning Rris I got some idea of how they saw their world, how they thought. Not exact by any means though: I could learn the words for things Rris could experience, feel, sense that I just wasn't equipped for. I could parrot those words but never really know them. A word for a lashing of the tail; for a particular scent; a kind of wind-chime that made a sound out of my hearing range...
Describe violet. Or the difference between indigo and violet.
To a Rris the words would be different but both colors would be black. I was bending their language to try and convey concepts from English that didn't have any exact translation in their tongue. It did confuse them and at times made me sound like a fool.
"I know the problem," I said and looked back at the paintings: an exaggerated perspective of towering trees with a fan of light shining through the spreading branches. Then I looked back to the golden-furred alien woman standing quietly watching me with her hands clasped in front of her. "I didn't mean to upset you. I'm sorry. I just wanted to... You mean so much to me. I wanted to tell you. I've wanted to tell you for a long time. That was... that just came out. I'm sorry. I'm sorry it sounded so foolish."
She stepped a little closer and touched my arm, brushing her furry knuckles across my forearm and wrist. "That was what you wanted to say the other night, wasn't it?"
"A," I nodded.
"Why didn't you?"
I sighed and stuffed my hands into my pockets. "After what you said, about that morning... when you saw me... aroused. I thought... I thought you might be angry or frightened."
She was horribly still. "You mean you think of me in a sexual way?"
"No. I mean I... I mean..." I stumbled with the language, tripping over pronunciation and grammar, trying to word it in a way that wouldn't give her the wrong impression. I took a deep breath: "Until that time with Mai, I'd never known it was possible. I felt like this, but I never knew any other kind of relationship was possible. Between Rris and me. Not until Mai."
"And now?" she asked quietly.
"Chihirae..." I wanted to scream in frustration. "I don't know how to tell you. I love you. I don't know how else to say it. Your language doesn't have words to say my emotions." I turned to her and raised my hands, half prepared to grab her before I saw the look in her eyes. Instead I shook my head violently and raked my fingers through my hair. "You're the most important person in the world to me. You mean more than they could ever pay me. You saved my life. You've put up with me, you've understood me, you've been kind to me. You've been a friend."
"Friend," she echoed softly in a level voice, just watching me.
High above us, flakes were settling on the skylights. More snow. I sighed deeply. "It was about this time we first met, wasn't it," I said.
"About," she said. "Close."
"I frightened you then. You were so nervous around me."
"A," her ears drooped.
"You feel the same way now?"
She tipped her head. "Mikah, my Mikah. I think I know you well enough that I couldn't be frightened of you. And I'm not angry: you're alone here, it's a sort of solitude I understand. It's just... You're strange Mikah. So strange. The idea of sex with that strangeness is just... it's that idea that scares me. Not you."
Like the sensations I'd felt that night in Mai's little apartment when she first touched me: uncertainty and fear, deep and quite disorienting. I tentatively reached up to touch her shoulder, then her neck. "I think I understand."
She lowered her head and gently rubbed the velvet fur of her cheek against my wrist. "I suppose I should apologise to you, a? If that insults you... I'm sorry."
"No," I moved my hand, stroking the bone and flesh and fur of her cheek. And no matter what she looked like, there was a person under there. "Friend?"
"Friend," she rumbled and leaned against me.
I could feel her relaxing as I gently stroked her but it didn't do much to calm me. In fact, it just made things all the more difficult. Those moods. I didn't understand them and maybe I couldn't. Like white water: they ran fast and unpredictable and all you could do was try to ride them out. Now... I still had something important I had to tell her and I had no idea how she'd take it.
"What's wrong?" she asked without turning.
"Wrong?" I said stupidly, my fingers faltering as they stroked her.
"Mikah, your scent... you smell nervous."
"This has something to do with last night? Don't pretend nothing happened: you came back with a cloud of old fear and anger hanging around you. Do you want to talk about it?"
Talk about it... I felt my stomach plummet and she reached up to gently take my wrist in her hand.
"Please, don't," I said, tugging against her grip. "That always scares me."
She hesitated then moved her finger away from my tell-tale pulse and just held my hand, cocked her head, watching me. "Am I that transparent?" I asked miserably.
"I know you," she said quietly.
A. She did. After the time we'd spent together, the time she'd spent tending and looking after me and protecting me, she did know me. And because of all we'd been through I had to tell her. Not doing so would not only be selfish, it would be a betrayal.
"Chihirae," I choked. "I was wrong."
"Wrong?" Her ears flickered. "What do you mean? When?"
"When I said it was over." I saw her head go back, just a fraction. "Chihirae, it can't be over. Not while I'm still alive. Anyone who knows me, anyone who's close to me... It's too dangerous to be close to me."
Muscles in her jaw shifted and she looked down at my hand, then back at my face. "What's happened? Tell me. Everything, Mikah."
I told her and she listened and when I was done I hung my head and waited for her judgement.
"You knew about him before," I heard her say and it wasn't a question. When I looked up she was regarding me with a level stare. Trying to read me.
"I guessed," I told her. "I didn't know for certain. I didn't know he would threaten you. I never thought he would threaten you. I'm sorry."
"'You guessed'." She narrowed her eyes. "You knew it wasn't over."
"I couldn't be sure," I said guiltily. "I never knew they'd pull you back in. I didn't think... I didn't want you to worry."
She hissed, long and slow. A sound that held more exasperation than anger. "Didn't want me to worry. And you thought by not telling me that would protect me?"
"I just didn't... I don't want you to be thinking about that. I don't want you waking at night with the kind of fears I have. I just thought you might be able to get your life back to normal."
She barked out loud, a yelp that echoed through the hall then faded to chittering that had her jaw spasming and shoulders shaking. "Normal?" she choked and sucked a deep breath, finally snapping her teeth a couple of times. "Mikah, since I've met you I think I can safely say that my life hasn't been 'normal'."
"Don't be. It hasn't been all bad."
And I could see her lying amidst that filthy straw in that cage, that anguished and torn face twisted up in the light, the fur plastered to her face. I laid a finger on a dark line under her fur and gently traced. "But some of it... I don't want that to happen again."
"There was nothing you could do," she said softly. "That wasn't your fault."
If I hadn't... if I'd... On the walls of that empty gallery the ranks of long-dead Rris looked down on me in silent judgement.
"If I'd known..."
"But you didn't. You couldn't have. Mikah, stop blaming yourself, rot you. There was nothing you could have done."
"But if I go ahead with this then you might get hurt again and it will be my fault."
"No. Mikah, no." A black-palmed hand laid itself on my chest, right over my heart, and she said as slowly and as clearly as possible, "What you're doing is the right thing."
Her hand over my breastbone clenched: ever so slightly. Claws pricked through my shirt to kiss my skin. "A. I approve. I want you to go through with this."
I looked down into her face: teeth peeking through in a slight grin and muscles locked with determination. I just nodded, a gesture she understood that said what I wanted to say.
"And Mikah, I want to be there."
"Yes," she almost snarled. "They dragged me into this. They started this. I want to see the end of this. Mikah."
I closed my eyes. It was so easy to remember those first days in Westwater. The cubs, that was all she had to care about. Teaching, a quiet profession without murder and assassinations and political backbiting and treachery. Now she'd been pulled into something she never wanted.
That was something I could understand. And I could also understand that need to blame someone; for revenge. It was something I'd hoped to never see in her. The end of the innocence: A blemish on a beautiful picture.
"I'll... ask," I choked out. "I'll tell them."
Then the cool pads on her palms touched my cheeks and cupped my face, gently pulling me down to the level where a rough tongue dabbed at my eyes.
"Salt," she murmured.
I shivered in the cold dimness of the hallway: partly through tension, partly from the chill. Outside, through the grills of mullioned windows, the trees of the gardens were black sawteeth silhouetted against a blue-grey sky. Shoals of grey clouds sculled across the twilight, the pale moon periodically visible through fractures in the amorphous greyness.
Fur brushed my hand and then small, furry fingers caught after mine. "Calm down," Chihirae said gently. "You reek of fear. Just be calm. Don't be afraid. You'll be fine."
"I'm trying," I said, trying to breath steadily while my heart labored as though I were running a race.
"I know. Just do your best. That's all anyone can ask."
At that moment I was so glad she'd bullied me into getting Hirht to let her accompany me that night. I squeezed her hand again and for a long, quiet moment we watched the dread, closed doors beyond which the Rris council was meeting.
"I remember this," she said eventually. "That day. That walk to town."
"A," I nodded slightly. It hadn't escaped my notice either: the second time I was going before a jury in a trial to decide my future. Only this time if I screwed up there was somebody who was going to be dragged down with me. "At least this time I can understand what's going on."
A steward was waiting for us. Standing before those doors with hands clasped, watching us with trepidation.
I took a deep breath. "We're on."
"A." Her hand squeezed once, then she reached up to fuss with my hair. "I think I told you before. Just tell the truth."
I hugged her, just quickly. Then turned back to the startled steward and guards and straightened my jacket. "All right."
The light was fading. The dark-panelled conference room was shrouded in darkness, the high ceiling and corners lost in shadows. Carved wooden statues stood in niches, their alien features peering out from the gloom. There were candles burning on the massive old low table in the center of the room, illuminating the Rris heads that turned and set those alien eyes flickering like hot metal as they stared at me. Over a dozen of the most powerful individuals in Shattered Water: guild lords, military commanders all in their uniforms and finery seated crosslegged on their cushions around the circumference of that table. My palms were slick-wet on the laptop: I tightened my already white-knuckled grip.
Those eyes watched unblinkingly as Chihirae and I entered. I recognised a few of them: lords and guildmasters I'd spoken with before; the imposing and grizzled bulk of Kisti aesh Hostei watching me levelly through weathered fur. And directly opposite her sat Marah ah Cho'tai.
He was staring at me. Not with the curiosity and perhaps apprehension of the others, but a stare that had the sharpness and chill of an icicle. "That," he snapped as he stabbed a clawed finger toward me. "That's what been spouting these preposterous allegations. Rot me, how can you even contemplate believing such wind."
I saw heads around the table tipping. Some looked like they believed him; they looked like they wanted to believe him.
"Enough of that," Hirht rumbled and Ah Cho'tai subsided. I saw his gaze shift from me to Chihirae and his upper lip fleered back: just a fraction, just for a split second. It was enough to make my hackles stand on end.
"Mikah." I looked back to Hirht. "Do you understand why you're here? You've made some very strong accusations. We can't just take your word for it. There has to be proof."
"Proof," I echoed. The way he'd looked at Chihirae... that was a warning. Oh, god...
"You would even listen to something as ridiculous as this?" Ah Cho'tai sounded incredulous.
"He has a right to be heard."
"The thing is delusional," Ah Cho'tai growled. "You yourself commented on his mental state."
Hirht didn't meet my eyes.
Marah ah Cho'tai coughed disgust. "Who would you believe? That," he used the tone you might use when referring to something found at the bottom of an oubliette, "or an actual person."
I realised I was clenching my teeth and my grip on the laptop was tight enough to almost hurt. A touch on my arm reminded me of what was at stake here and I took a long breath. "You asked me that same question before," I said as I approached the table. Guards shifted uneasily until Hirht raised a hand slightly and they fell back.
"'Who would they believe?'" I remembered aloud as I opened the laptop and set it on the tabletop. He was watching my hands, his ears back, and when his eyes did meet mine they were black. He knew something was up.
"And I told you, I hope they believe you," I said and hit the key.
On the laptop screen was the image of his face; his voice echoed around the room: "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...
Cho'tai's face was twisting through the gamut of emotions before he settled on an outraged snarl and howled in fury. "A lie!"
"That's you," Kisti growled, jerking her jaw toward the screen.
"It's a rotted trick!" Cho'tai snarled. "That filthy thing..."
On the screen the recording of him was threatening Chihirae. I felt her tense and looked at her. Cho'tai's eyes were wide, the white of sclera flashing around the rims as they rolled and flickered to the picture, then to me, then to the guards approaching and his face twisted into a gape-mouthed snarl of threat and his hand was a golden blur that whipped up from under the table holding something small and metal.
"No," I screamed even as I twisted and dove to my left, toward Chihirae, and there was a sound like a sharp clap and something slammed my right shoulder, knocking me into Chihirae who cried out even as I bore her back to the ground and more concussions blasted out and left my ears ringing.
There was shouting and yowls and a high mewling. I looked around to see that Cho'tai had fallen and through the confusion and thick smoke left from discharged weapons I saw a trooper standing over a thrashing golden form with a pistol pointed straight down.
The flash of fire and crack of sound came at the same instant and I looked down at the wide eyes of Chihirae beneath me and then her face contorted and she cried out and I saw the dark stains spreading through the fur of her upper left shoulder and chest.
"No," I screamed again and tried to find the wound, to staunch the bleeding, to do something. But there were scores of holes torn through her tunic and below that were matching wounds torn in her hide, turning her golden fur to a sodden sheet of blood. Shotgun, I realised. As she moaned and grimaced and tried to curl around what had to hurt a lot. Oh, christ. Oh, god... I was babbling out loud as guards closed around us and someone was calling for a doctor. Hands caught me to pull me away.
"No," I struggled.
"Fuck off!" I snarled at the voice.
"Rot... No, Mikah!" Guards caught me and pulled me away from my injured friend and I cried out as pain spiked through my shoulder as my arm was twisted.
"You were hit," Hirht was telling me. "Where is it? How bad?"
Me. That's who they were worried about. Not Chihirae writhing on the expensive carpet with her clothes and chest fur glistening red. "Help her," I pleaded.
"Doctor's coming," he said as a guard checked my shoulder, then stepped back with a startled expression. "Sir?"
I didn't want to know how bad it was: another batch of scars to add to my collection. But the Rris caught a pinch of my jacket and pulled gently and I winced as something pattered to the floor. Shotgun pellets.
They hadn't even penetrated my jacket. The fabric had dimpled into the three layers of winter clothing and partially into my skin. The blood running down my back was from the pellet that'd nicked through my ear. I was bruised and it was starting to feel like someone had taken a baseball bat to my trapezius, but it was far from life threatening.
The Rris looked stunned as more pellets rattled to the floor. I yanked away from the guards and glared at Hirht who laid his ears back as I hastened back to Chihirae.
I'd tried to protect her. I'd almost succeeded. I'd taken the worst of it: the spread that would have hit her chest and throat, but unlike me, Chihirae hadn't had a spidersilk jacket to protect her and what had struck...
She was mewling in pain: a sound I'd heard from her once before and it still tore me to my heart as she trembled and reached up to try and paw at the sodden fur of her left shoulder, chest, upper arm...
"No," I caught her hand and held it, even when she clenched it and claws dug in. Shock-wide eyes were locked on me, milky-white membranes half extruded as she panted like a wounded animal. "Don't move," I urged her. "You'll be all right."
"Rot... oh rot. It hurts," she gasped in a small voice then snarled, at the pain I guessed.
I looked up and around. From my perspective the Rris lords were taller than they had any right to be, and they were standing back and watching, murmuring agitatedly as they watched with black eyes. Guards lurked in the background, blending in with lazily swirling smoke and darkness: shapes from nightmares.
"Help her," I implored.
"A doctor's coming," Hirht said, standing with his hands clasped before him and his ears back. "Mikah..." He glanced at the bloody figure lying on the carpet and trailed off with a sigh. "A doctor's coming."
I squeezed her hand and stroked her face. In the background I heard him saying, "Esteemed ones, we should retire to somewhere more conducive to conversation. I think you'll all have much to talk about."
Their voices were still hushed as they stalked out, detouring around us. One pair of legs hesitated, then a Rris crouched opposite me: the solid form of Kisti aesh Hostei. The old general tipped her head as she regarded Chihirae, then very carefully ran claws through the shotgun wound, huffed and gave me a ghost of a smile. "She'll live. I've seen much worse."
And looking at that grizzled bearlike form with her tattered ears and scarred hide, I believed it. It helped a lot. "Thank you," I said.
The old warrior cocked her head at me and I couldn't tell what was going on behind those eyes. "You really feel pain for her?"
"She's a friend," I said, scared for Chihirae and not sure how to feel about this Rris who'd been so standoffish to me in the past.
"A friend. Huhnn," she flicked her thumb along her chin thoughtfully. "I know a few Rris who wouldn't be so loyal. All the best, Mikah."
The doctor arrived as she was leaving. All of a sudden there was an elder Rris snarling at the guards who gently but inexorably pulled me away while the Rris poked and prodded. Chihirae cried out when they moved her onto the stretcher and I tensed and felt the guards' hands tightening on my arms. But they let me go with her when she was carried off to a nearby room where the doctor could work.
It was an excruciatingly long, exhausting night. For hours I stood by Chihirae's side and held her hand while the doctor laboured under flickering gas lights that turned blood and flesh to ghastly hues, methodically digging pellets of lead out of her. She'd been drugged down to a stupor, but I think she still felt it as the doctor dug away in the gore with tweezers and one by one little slivers of soft metal plinked into a bowl and the pile of bloody rags grew. The gun hadn't been large; the load light and underpowered even by Rris standards, but if it'd hit her full on, in the face or neck or penetrated to the lungs...
The doctor continued his painstaking, horrible work deep into the night and I felt so helpless just standing by, but all I could do was hold her hand and stroke her face until it was over.
When the doctor and his assistants had gone Chihirae lay quietly, more unconscious than asleep. She looked as exhausted as I felt, with her fur matted and bloody and the sheath of bandages and pads swathing her wounds. I took a bowl of water and very carefully tried to sponge the worst of the gore from tangled fur. She stirred but didn't wake.
Then I sat at her bedside and watched her sleep.
Something woke me. I lay quietly in that place where unconsciousness laps on the shore of awareness, listening to a soft murmur of Rris voices before memory returned and yanked me out of sleep, blinking into grey morning light.
I hadn't meant to fall asleep. Last I remembered Chihirae was lying quietly and I was sitting, watching her, and I just closed my eyes for a second. Now I was lying on the carpet at her bedside, squinting into grey light filtering through the window.
At some time somebody had covered me with a blanket. That helped, but old wounds ached and the muscles that'd taken a hammering the last night protested as I moved. It felt like glass moving under my skin as I stirred.
Chaeitch was sitting on the edge of Chihirae's bed, speaking softly. A faint chitter sounded from the bed in response to something he said.
"Hai," I said as I clambered to my feet, wincing as my shoulder moved. "Chihirae?"
Chaeitch twisted as though startled, then visibly relaxed when he saw me. "I didn't mean to wake you."
Beyond him, Chihirae was awake and watching me with wide eyes. The bandages were stark white against her skin and I saw someone had finished what I'd started, cleaning that blood away.
"You should have," I absently said to Chaeitch, then to my old friend. "Chihirae... How... how are you doing?"
Her face twitched as she glanced to Chaeitch and back to me again. "I'll live," she murmured.
I swallowed hard. "I shouldn't have let you. I shouldn't have... that should have been me. You should never have been there. I'm sorry."
Her eyes closed tight. "Don't. It was my choice. I remember what you did... You tried. You tried."
Chaeitch touched her good arm and slowly ran a finger through her fur. "Mikah, you saved her life."
"I should never have let her go in the first place!" I protested.
"Mikah," Chihirae opened eyes that'd already seen far too much. "Mikah, it's in the past. It's done. It's not a carcass worth fighting over."
She sounded so tired that I didn't want to argue with her. I just hung my head and kept quiet.
"Mikah," she sighed. "Rot, come here. Here."
I hesitated and her good hand flexed to scratch at the sheets. Chaeitch moved aside as I knelt and she beckoned again. "No. Here. A." Her hand touched my face and curled around, her stubby fingers stroking my hair. "You did all you could. I know that. Don't hold my decisions against yourself," she said, then her claws flexed a little, just pricking my skin. "You hear me?"
"A," I said.
She stroked, just brushing my skin. "But you stayed last night. Thanks for that."
"He's loyal," I heard Chaeitch say and Chihirae's touch faltered a little. I had to wonder what they'd been talking about while I was asleep on the floor. Me? I suddenly felt like an outsider butting into a private conversation where the participants were too polite to tell him to get lost.
"Perhaps I should leave you a while," I said. "You need some rest." I stroked the fur of her arm, then disengaged myself, straightened her sheets and stood.
"That might be best," Chaeitch added. "Anything you want? Drink? Food? Something light."
"Soup would be good," she smiled tiredly at him. "Thank you."
"Just lay still," I told her. "You'll be fine."
A faint chitter. "I know. Mikah, you worry too much."
I bit my lip and Chaeitch touched my arm, gently urging me along toward the door. I went, then shied just long enough to say, "I'll come back." But I think she was already asleep again.
Chaeitch carefully closed the door behind us, then murmured an aside to one of the two guards stationed in the deserted corridor outside. When he rejoined me he peered up at my face. "That expression, that's concern isn't it. Don't. She'll be fine. The soldiers won't let anything happen to her."
"What?" He asked.
"Cho'tai... he said he would kill her. I thought... I don't know. I thought he'd be more subtle about it, more careful. What happened just didn't seem to be his style. He must've known he couldn't be sure."
The Rris industrialist gave something analogous to a frown, wrinkling and distorting the patterns shaved across the bridge of his muzzle. "It seemed pretty effective to me. If you hadn't had that coat of yours you wouldn't be here." He glanced back down the hall. "And maybe she wouldn't either."
I shivered. It'd been too close.
"Strange thing though," Chaeitch mused.
He didn't answer. He just stared vacantly up at the ornate ceiling, scratching his neck as we walked, then his ears laid back. "Red tie it."
"What?" I asked, growing a little alarmed.
"I was just thinking: his highness would never have allowed someone to bring a weapon into a [tribunal] chamber. Certainly not somone who was potentially so dangerous."
I blinked. "But then where did he..." I trailed off, not sure what he was getting at.
"Rot. He had it, but probably not when he went in."
I put two and two together. "You mean someone else brought it in and gave it to him or hid it in there. And that means... there's someone else."
We both stopped where we were in the middle of the corridor amidst fluted marble columns and niches containing the sculpted skeletons of trees and stared at one another. Chaeitch's ears almost vanished into his mane they laid down so flat. "I think..." he said. "I think we'd better have a word with his highness. It'd be prudent to... Where are you going?"
"Where'd you think?" I called over my shoulder as I started back the way we'd just come, a growing sense of apprehension gnawing at my gut. "Tell the guards. Nobody goes in our out."
"Mikah..." he started to call, then claws pattered on the floor as he fell in beside me.
The two guards cocked their heads as we entered the corridor. "Something wrong, sir?" One of them asked Chaeitch.
"There might be," he said. I could see muscles twitching under his fur. He was that concerned about her? "There might be trouble, an attempt on her life. Nobody enters without specific authority from myself, his highness, or Mikah here."
The guards eyed me uncertainly, then ducked their head. "Yes, sir. That includes that food you ordered?"
Chaeitch grimaced. "There'll be written authorisation when that arrives."
"Sir?" The guards exchanged confused glances. "But sir, he just took it in a minute ago."
Chaeitch looked at me. I think my eyes were as wide as his. We hadn't had time to order the food...
He hit the door a split second before I did, slamming it back with a sound like the crack of doom, and the first thing I saw was the Rris with the large floor cushion pressed hard over Chihirae's face look up with wild eyes.
My cry rose with Chaeitch's howl and his muscles bunched as he started to move, blurring into a headlong rush. I saw the Rris standing over Chihirae also start to move: a hand darting into the recesses of his servant's tunic...
"Chae!" I yelled and he hurled himself to the side as the gun came up and I dodged frantically as the flintlock flared and filled the room with noise and smoke and something smashed splinters from the doorframe behind my head. I skidded on a carpet and went down to one knee and heard Rris yelling and there were movements through the swirling grey then a flash of servants livery and something caught me a stinging blow across the side of the head that staggered me and a Rris figure blurred past. Startled yowling sounded out in the corridor.
And Chaeitch was pulling the suffocating cloth away from Chihirae's face. I saw the fabric was was oozing stuffing: tattered and clawed, as if by struggling hands. And underneath...
Chaeitch laid a finger in the pit of her throat, then bent to place an ear at her nostrils. "She's..."
Chihirae twitched, then coughed violently and inhaled a sobbing gasp, writhing in the tangles of bedding bloodied by reopened wounds.
"Alive," I sagged, my heart still hammering, and in that instant of looking at her sucking air I remembered the face behind the gun. "It was him," I said.
Chaeitch was kneeling at her side, holding her hand. He looked up. "You noticed."
Oh, yes. No greenstone bracelet this time, but now I knew that face. I was never going to forget that face. I touched my old friend's shoulder and saw she was breathing easier, her eyes flickering. Too much suffering.
"No more," I whispered in english.
"What?" Chaeitch stared at me with eyes still dilated.
"Enough," I said. "I've fucking had enough!"
"Mikah?" he called as I headed for the door and the commotion in the corridor outside.
I didn't turn, just said, "Look after her. Just look after her."
"Where are you... Mikah?" he called after me but I left him with Chihirae while I set off toward the commotion in the corridor outside.
End Light on Shattered Water 38