Light on Shattered Water


          The guards were hammering at a closed door, their weapons taking gouges from the painted wood.  In the distance a contingent of armed soldiers spilled into the corridor, hurrying toward the disturbance.
          "In there," I nodded toward the door and the guards looked distressed.  "Yes, sir.  It's locked.  I'm sorry..."
          I didn't need that.  I looked the door up and down, then planted my boot just below the latch: once, as hard as I could, then again and the whole lock splintered away and one more kick slammed the door back on its hinges.
          The room beyond was unfurnished, decorated in shades of pale stone, and utterly deserted.  Directly opposite the high windows were hanging open with the waving drapes framing the grey monochrome of the cloud-shrouded Palace gardens beyond.
          I dashed over to look out at a one-story drop and a freezing breeze that nipped at my skin.  Bushes directly below the window were crushed and broken and a trail of prints in the snow pointed off toward the snow-shrouded treeline but the bastard was already out of sight.  A guard clattered up to the windowsill beside me and looked out, then yelled back to the others.  With all that ironmongery I wasn't sure if they could get out there, and it didn't look like they were going to try.  If they weren't going to...
          The guard managed a bark of protest as I vaulted the sill and dropped what felt like a long way, landed on frozen ground and broken shrubbery with an impact and twinge I felt through scarred muscle as I went to my knees.  Just a moment, then I set off after those tracks.
          A steady jog.
          Letting the legs go, moving in a steady rhythm as my breath crystalised and every lungful of frigid air burned.  A steady jog: not pushing it, just keeping going after those prints through the snow.
          Rris.  Faster than I am.  Much faster.  Cheetah fast.  And like cheetahs they're best at a burst of speed.  They couldn't keep it up over a long distance.
          I hoped.
          Snow crunched under my boots and winter air was brittle against my face, burning in my lungs as I loped across the frozen meadows, following the tracks toward the trees.  There was a freezing mist flowing in from the lake, gradually condensing on branches and leaves and twigs, covering the world in a glittering patina of frost and ice, turning trees into dark shadows fading off into the grey.
          A monochromatic world: cold, ethereal, still, and it was something out of my nightmares.  I remembered running like this before and for a fleeting second I thought I heard the cries of hunting Rris behind me, but that sensation was gone almost as soon as it had come.  The gasping clouds of my breath mingled with the fog as I followed the spoor, pushing through denuded branches and the winter skeletons of undergrowth.  Along summer trails buried under snow, over fallen logs and through a lonely gazebo.  When the trail crossed a half-frozen rivulet, the ice at the side was cracked where he'd put a foot through, misjudging the ice.  I jumped it and scrambled up the bank on the far side.
          I was getting my second wind by the time I reached the wrought-iron fence surrounding the Palace grounds.  The footprints in the snow bent off, paralleling the eight-foot iron bars.  I followed them for at least a dozen meters before they ended at the foot of a gnarled old oak, the massive boughs wearing snow and ice.  The branch hanging out over the fence was really hint enough, I didn't need the gouges of claw marks in the bark to tell me where the son had gone: straight up and over.
          Maybe he could do that.  I couldn't.  On the other hand, that fence had never been built to stop apes.
          The wrought iron was freezing on my hands when I jumped and caught the icy top rail.  "Where the hell are those guards!" I growled as I swung my legs up and clambered over the gilt spikes, then dropped down the far side.  The tracks were there again, just where they'd be if someone jumped from that branch.  They crossed the belt of cleared land and into the trees on the far side.
          My question was answered when the peal of distant bells rang through the misty woods.  They had to be alarm bells so that meant guards would be behind, would be spreading out and sending troops to scour the grounds and hopefully the surrounding environs as well.  But they had to rely on messengers and word of mouth.  He could be miles away and gone before the Rris security got a cohesive search together.
          The trail led arrow-straight through the woods surrounding the Palace grounds, then the trunks thinned and a bank dropped down to a roughly east-west road paralleling the Palace and headed toward the lake.  The avenue was a natural vault, with the denuded branches of old trees arching and lacing overhead.  Opposite lay the estates of the Rocks, the Nipple, with their expensive buidlings and sprawling grounds.  Wagon, sled and animal tracks crossed and tangled along the thoroughfare, old tracks just suggestions in the snow while a couple of newer sleigh tracks were crisp lines cut into the white.  A single pair of footprints joined the road there and headed west, toward the lake.  And away down the road in that direction, through the lake mist I could see a figure.
          He was moving much slower now: not much more than a fast walk.  I picked up the pace, feeling the freezing air starting to ache in my lungs: frigid against my skin while elsewhere hot beads of sweat were trickling and a ball of tension knotted in my guts.  Concentrating on breathing and running while with every step my boots squeaked through crusting snow and ice.
          The figure ahead hesitated and turned, twisting to look back and by then I was close enough to see an anxious face suddenly go to outright terror.  He started to run again: not a smooth sprint but a ragged lope that screamed exhaustion.  Hunters: Rris are built for a short, sharp pursuit, not a long, drawn out chase.  Humans on the other hand... my distant ancestors ran their prey down in hunts that could last the better part of a day.  I wasn't in the best of shape, but the heritage was in the bone and for once I had the advantage.
          For a short distance he pulled away and was just a shape through the mist ahead of me, staggering slighty.  I could see him cast glances back as slowly the distance closed and I was starting to reach my limits as well as the burning in my legs flared and my lungs and body ached.
          A wagon appeared out of the fog, in the other lane bound the other way.  My quarry dodged in front of it, setting the team to shying and eliciting curses from the driver as wheels and animals' hooves slipped on the treacherous surface and then he was scrambling up the bank.  The teamster yelped again when I ran past in pursuit but this time his yelp was one of alarm and then he was gone and I was kicking through frozen slush as I chased after my prey.
          He was dodging through the trees and scrub, close enough that I could hear his panting gasps and the breaking of branches, close enough that I could see his wide eyes when he looked back.
          Dodging through bushes, around trees, branches and twigs scratching at my face and hands and then the trees were gone and there was a steep earthen berm rising ahead of us: an artificial-looking hillside of white that the Rris was pelting up.  He slipped once, continued on all fours and I felt my own legs about to give out as I gave it my all to reach the crest.
          Part of the town floodwall.  I was gasping white clouds that lost themselves among the chill fog swirling in the air when I reached the crest and looked down on the vast expanse of the icebound lake.  At the shoreline a thick slush of broken ice churned at the stones; further out larger floes jostled and cracked and groaned, shifting with the movement of the water.  There was a guard tower there: a squat, multifloored edifice of old stone standing lone guard over the shore and the end of the palace fenceline.  I saw movement behind the crenellations at the top: heard voices shouting but didn't hear what they were saying because the staggering Rris I was pursuing halted, then rounded on me.
          He was panting like a steam engine; his breath an almost solid cloud wreathing gaping jaws and animal eyes.  He crouched, spreading arms with bared claws and lips drawn back from those glistening teeth.
          "You..." he snarled and gasped air.  "You... nothing but trouble!"
          "You think I've been trouble?" I panted back, clenching my fists.
          "Huhn," he grinned, snorting steam as he started slowly circling.  "I should've made sure that first day, in the barn."
          "You killed that farmer."
          He just grinned.  I sidestepped, watching him warily as we slowly orbited one another.  "He worked for you and you killed him."
          "He panicked.  He was more trouble than he was worth."
          "And his mate."
          "Ahhh, she was more reliable," he snarled again, a pure animal sound as he started circling.  His tail was bottled from under the servants tunic, lashing furiously.  If he still had the pistol he hadn't had time to reload, something for which I was very grateful.  "Still failed to lay the blame on you though.  Pity: it'd would've been a very satisfactory end to your meddling."
          "My meddling?" I hissed incredulously and felt my own snarl turning into something that distorted my face.  "You involved me!  You chased me!  You attacked me!  You hurt my friends!  You tried to kill Chihirae!  I really don't like that."
          He froze on the spot, every limb vibrating with tension and his eyes gone completely black.  "This... Then what do you want?  Money?"
          "What I want," I growled back, "is you.  Dead or alive, you are coming with me."
          He yawned.  It wasn't a gesture of derision or contempt as it might have been in a human but rather a hostile gaping of the jaws to bare incisors at me.  "You should have taken the money, ape.  I'm going to tear the rest of your face off."
          "Big words, furball," I flexed my fists.  "You can try."
          He did.
          Slowly, his head tipped - as though he were cocking his head in curiosity - and then he launched himself at me with a shriek that a human throat could never manage and I barely had time to swing and I struck something and his claws caught my shirt as he hit me and I went over backwards with him atop.  Snarling fangs drove toward my face and I just screamed at the ingrained terror that pulled forth and swung wildly, striking him on the side of the head.  He dug claws in, one hand scrabbling on my jacket while the other punctured my shirt and skin.  I yelled again and brought a knee up to dislodge him and we were rolling over and over through the snow and ice that covered us and adhered to his fur until I was able to plant my foot in his gut and kick and he went flying back.
          Halfway to my feet when the fury tore into me again, a flashing blur of claws and animal snarls and I was bleeding from a gash across my cheek and more cuts on my hands where I'd tried to block.  Striking back to catch him a crack across the jaw that sent pain shooting through cold-sensitized hands and then we were grappling and his teeth were going for my throat.  I just reacted from adrenaline-fueled fear, drove my forehead into his muzzle and impacted with a crunch and a yowl and he twisted away with blood staining the fur around his nostrils then smoothly came around in a strike at my throat.  I caught his hand, he clawed at my legs and I twisted and we fell.
          Rolling in a struggling tangle down the lakeward side of the floodwall, through snow and ice, over stones concealed under the windblown drifts.  Struggling, both of us with teeth bared.  Over and over, the world flashing through the periphery of my vision while I fought to keep his claws away from my throat until the world dropped out from under us and the ensuing drop ended in an inpact that jolted the breath from my body.
          We'd tumbled off an old retaining wall: a drop of about half a meter down onto ice-slicked stones and gravel of the lake beach.  He was scrambling to his feet, shaking his head and sending droplets of blood flying from his nostrils as he snarled again and launched himself.  I swung a fist and the impact against his jaw sent pain shooting through my hand but he was staggered and I swung again and blood flew again as his head rocked back.
          Again and again.  He was down and his hands were up to try and block as I swung.  Just a blood haze of hate, swinging and pummeling at his face over and over.  Even when he was no longer moving I kept hammering until the pulse was an angry pounding in my ears and the freezing air made my heaving lungs ache and I just couldn't raise my arms again.  I slumped, gasping air that burned in my throat and sinuses.
          Oh, christ.
          My hands.  My hands and knuckles hurt terribly and I couldn't move them properly.  The blood on them: some was mine, some... And when I looked at the motionless figure on the frozen ground beneath me its features were no longer recognisable through gore and torn fur.
          I stared.  An exhausted emptiness in my heart as I looked at the still figure laying amongst drifting white now stained with crimson.
          And when something - a movement in the tail of my eye, a feeling, something - made me spin I saw a semicircle of Rris watching me through the mist.  Soldiers, probably from the watchtower.  They were watching me with ears flat against their manes and weapons trained.

          The commandeered goods cart rattled into the sweeping drive in the front of the palace, the unfinished wood and metal of the conveyance looking decidedly out of place in that manicured splendor.  Soldiers and guards were already sprinting toward us with their clawed feet kicking up sprays of snow.  The officer in charge of the squad who'd found me snapped to attention as a Palace commander hustled up and looked at me.  Words were exchanged and the commander's ears went flat before he barked orders.
          I ached.  My hands were burning and cuts and lacerations all over my body were stinging and throbbing while drying blood caked and stuck my clothes to my body.  It wasn't something I had time to worry about.
          Guards in the wagon, those who'd found me, flinched back when I clambered over the tailgate to drop to the snowy drive.  I almost fell as my legs gave way and I had to catch myself on the wagon before limping off toward the main doors.  Palace guards laid their ears down and got out of my way.
          There was distant shouting ringing through the marbled halls.  Guards were stationed at junctures around the place while nervous-looking servants tried to look unobtrusive.  I hurried as best I could through the now-familiar corridors while a crowd of guards trailed after.  Sentries didn't try to stop me and just recoiled when I came past.  I was too fixed on my objective to care.
          The stairs hurt and by the time I reached that last corridor my head was swimming.  The guards posted outside the room there saw me coming and one ducked inside.  When I staggered up to the door Chaeitch burst out, already taking a breath to say something and then he just stared.  I pushed past.  "How is she?"
          "What... Mikah... What happened?" I heard Chaeitch demanding.  "What happened to you?"
          Chihirae was laying quietly with her eyes closed, the sheets over her chest rising and falling slowly with her breath.  I could feel scabs tearing and scratches throbbing when I gingerly sat on the mattress beside her.  Chaeitch's ears wilted when I touched the sleeping Rris.
          "She's all right," he offered.  "They gave her something to make her sleep.  Some stitches tore.  There was some bleeding, that's all.  We got here in time.  Mikah?"
          I gently stroked her muzzle and cheeks.  Slack in repose, but soft like velvet under my fingertips.  I felt a faint surprise when I realised she was beautiful to me: no longer just an alien.
          It seemed like a long time later when I felt the touch on my shoulder.  I looked up at Chaeitch through swimming eyes and when I blinked I felt heat run down my cheeks.  Muscles in his face twitched and his ears went back in distress.  "You need a doctor," he told me.
          "I'm not leaving her."
          "Mikah, please.  Look at yourself."
          I looked at my hands: the blood, the cracking scabs and growing bruises.  And they were shaking violently; even when I clenched them and felt the pain from lacerated knuckles shooting up my arms.  When I closed my eyes the room felt like it was swimming, hot and cold prickles chased over my skin: the exertions of the past couple of hours catching up with me.
          "Don't feel so good," I mumbled and tried to stand and my knees refused to support me.  Chaeitch cursed and caught me as I folded back to the bed.  I just needed to rest for a second.  I lay back at Chihirae's feet and closed my eyes while the room spun around me and somewhere in the distance Chaeitch was calling for a doctor.

          The young Rris trooper was half-hiding behind the door, shifting uneasily.  "Sir, you wanted to know when she woke up.  She is.  That is, she's awake sir."
          "Thank you," I said and the guard hurriedly backed out.
          I lay back in the unfamiliar bed and sighed, wondering what stories were circulating about me now.  They'd half-carried me out of Chihirae's room to the nearest spare one just down the hall.  I'd lain quietly while the doctor tended to me.  Those ministrations hurt, but it hurt more to move.  And with the adrenaline flushing out of my system and the shivering traces of shock already set in, it was so much easier to lie there and let the world flow around me.  But afterwards I'd called the guard in and given those orders; he seemed intimidated enough to obey them.
          They'd taken my gore-soaked clothes when they set me to bed.  I gathered the bedclothes around and grimaced as I gingerly stood, then limped toward the door with my makeshift wrap trailing on the floor.  The entire squad of guards in the hall actually stiffened and watched with wariness as I made my aching way the few doors to Chihirae's room.  I knocked gently, then went in.
          She was lying still, a couple of pillows propping her up so she could stare out the windows.  Someone must've brought them for her: Rris don't use pillows for sleeping.  At least I didn't see the one that'd been pressed across her face.  A blocky little Rris-made stove nestled into the niche where a fireplace might have once been was radiating enough heat to keep the cold at bay, enough that she didn't need the heavy eiderdowns.  She lay with her arms on the blanket and the bandages across her chest and shoulder glaringly visible.
          "Hi," I ventured.
          She lolled her head around, blinked.  "Mikah."
          I stood uncertainly.  Was she angry?  In pain?  I just stood in agonising silence.
          Then she smiled and patted a hand against the sheet.  "Don't look like that.  Come here."
          I did so, feeling my feet freezing against the marble floor, my legs wobbling as I crossed the room.  Chihirae's eyes widened as I sat at her side, wincing as stinging gashes made themselves felt.  "Oh, red tie you, Mikah.  What did you do?  What did he do to you?"
          "Hell, you should see the other guy," I almost smiled.
          She lifted a hand as if to try and brush aside the blankets draped over my shoulders, then visibly winced and let it fall again.  "Open those."
          "You don't..."
          "Let me see," she said quietly in that deceptively calm tone.
          I swallowed, then quietly moved my hand, the sheet.  She hissed and her ears lay flat.
          I closed the sheets and said quietly.  "A fine pair of invalids we are, a?"
          She gave a little twitch of her jaw.  "You can't keep doing this.  The way you get yourself torn up... Your luck's going to run dry."
          "You think I'm lucky?" I forced a smile for her.  "Looking at life from this side I certainly wouldn't say that."
          "Mikah... you don't... I wasn't joking about it."
          I looked down at the dressings on my arm and across my knuckles.  There was a strong smell of alcohol: the antiseptic used on the scratches.  "Sorry.  I mean, it's something that seems to happen a lot.  For better and worse.  Your claws and teeth... you're a sharp people." I waved a slow shrug.  "I think I've said that before."
          She didn't answer right away but I saw her eyes flickering: from my hands to my face, down again.  "You killed him?"
          That... was something I'd been trying not to think about.  I remembered the numb exhaustion and the figure laying there, the guards leading me away, but I never checked.  I sighed.  "I don't know."
          She didn't answer.  I saw her close her eyes and little muscles around her jaw twitched.
          I'd left her.  She'd been hurt and I'd left her.  Then I'd run a Rris down and mercilessly torn into him in a way that must've seemed horrible to them.  I'd done it before, that time long ago in Westwater, but that had been self-defence.
          This time it'd been nothing but revenge.
          "He hurt you," I whispered.  "He was the last.  I know it.  If he'd lived... there would've been more.  I had to end it." I clenched my hands, embracing the pain as a penance that couldn't possibly do anything to undo what I'd wrought.  "I had to."
          "A?" she said without opening her eyes.  "You had to.  And what about you?"
          I blinked.  "I don't understand."
          "Mikah..." she started to say, then sighed: a sound that seemed to come from her bones and when she opened her eyes they were full of hurt.  "Oh, Mikah.  I know."
          "I'm sorry," I said.  Confused, with the uncomfortable feeling we were talking at cross purposes.
          "I know," she sighed again, staring past me at the roof.  Then she focused on me and asked, "It's really over?"
          "This time?" I nodded, "I think so.  I really think so."
          "Huhn," she lay still for a few seconds, then gave a small chitter.  "Not worrying all the time.  No guards and bars... What are you going to do with that freedom?"
          I opened my mouth to answer, and found I couldn't.  The idea of freedom like that... after so long it was almost an abstract concept.  And that thought was disturbing enough that I had to shake my head.  "I don't know," I confessed.  "Try to live something like a normal life, I suppose.  If that is possible."
          "You?" She bared her teeth in a careful imitation of my smile.  "Normal?"
          "Hai," I protested.
          She chittered and then froze when I leaned over and carefully planted a peck of a kiss on the end of her muzzle.  I felt her flinch and started to draw back but fingers insinuated themselves behind my head and held me still while she dabbed her tongue against my skin: a series of butterfly touches before she patted my hair and released me, panting slightly from a movement that must've hurt her wounds.  "Never normal.  So strange," she whispered.  "Bare skin and hidden mind.  I wish you could've been Rris."
          Those words brought back memories: of someone else who'd said that, of emotions I felt myself and desperately tried to keep buried beneath rational thought and denial.  I'm not sure she understood when I laid my cheek against hers so my tears dampened her fur.

          "I heard she's going to live," said the voice as I closed the door to my rooms behind me.  I had a flash of alarm before I recognised the figure sitting quietly in the window niche: Hirht.  Huh, the guards hadn't told me he was waiting.
          "Yes, sir," I said as I slowly limped across to my bed and sighed as I sat down, my back to him.  I was feeling exhausted and I had a feeling I knew what was coming; I didn't need it.
          "And what about you?"
          "Me sir?" I sighed again and started to raise my hands to rake fingers through my hair.  My hands ached, I let them fall to my lap.  "I'm fine."
          "Fine huhn?  Look at yourself Mikah.  You can hardly walk.  You're shredded.  You left a lot of blood out there; I'm told that the beach is red in places."
          "Oh?" I heard him snort.  "You're going to keep doing stupid things like that?"
          I shuddered and didn't look up.  "Sir, I really hope that's the last time I have to do anything like that."
          "But why?  You didn't have to risk your hide.  The guards had matters in hand."
          "No.  They didn't.  He would've gone and he would've tried again."
          "But Cho'tai's dead.  He wouldn't have any reason to."
          "I think it was personal.  Even though I only saw him that once..." I shook my head and had to ask, "Who is he?"
          "'Who was he'," Hirht corrected quietly.  "You killed him.  You didn't know?"
          I just shook my head again, too tired to fumble with Rris hand gestures.  I could feel him staring at me and the sensation raised the hairs on the back of my neck.  "Huhn," the Rris king growled eventually.  "We don't know who he was.  Most likely a smuggler.  A runner.  An in-between.  You risked your life for that."
          "He hated me," I said, remembering the venom in the Rris' eyes.  "He would've tried again and again.  He wouldn't have left me in peace; everyone around me would be in danger."
          "You believe that?"
          "I don't know.  I don't know that he wouldn't.  Can you tell me for sure he wouldn't?"
          A long hesitation before the voice behind me admitted, "No.  I wish I could, but no."
          I leaned my tired head into my hands.  "How often?  I mean... how many times will this happen?  Would Rris try to kill me just for what I am?"
          Another hesitation, then a gusting sigh.  "You know, Mikah, a storm brings changes: It blows away the deadwood and dust of the past, but it also breaks things.  People know that.  There are those who'll feel threatened.  How they'll react to that... I can't tell you."
          "What I can tell you however, is that your impulsiveness hasn't helped anything.  You killed someone, Mikah.  Quite viciously.  It's not the kind of thing that people forget.  There are already rumors festering through the Palace, probably the town as well by now.  You know that sort of reputation's not going to put people at ease around you."
          "I suppose I'll just have to live with it."
          "You don't regret it."
          "No.  I did what had to be done."
          "A," I heard him murmur, then heard a rustle of cloth and fur shifting, then almost inaudible footfalls on carpet.  When I glanced up his highness was standing over me.
          I just shook my head.  "And now what do you think of me?"
          "I think I know you."
          "Do you?" I said.
          He cocked his head, then reached out a single hand and touched my hair.  Two of us, each trying to prove something: him touching something that killed Rris, myself trying desperately not to flinch from those claws.  Just a couple of strokes before he drew his hand away and looked thoughtfully at his fingertips as he rubbed them together.  "Always wondered what that felt like," he mused and then fixed those unreadable eyes on me again.
          "You don't think like us," he said quietly.  "Odd sentiments in that head of yours.  I don't pretend to understand them exactly, but you have your own way of caring for someone like that teacher.  You won't run amok, you won't hurt people without cause.  I can understand that."
          "Thank you, sir."
          "She is quite attractive though, I'll grant you that," he rumbled thoughtfully.  "You've had sex with her?"
          That straightforward question hit me where I wasn't expecting.  I felt muscles ache when I looked up incredulously, started to tell him to fuck off, then sighed.  "No.  No sir.  She certainly doesn't feel that way about me."
          "No?  Huhn," he took a step back, tipping his head from one side to the other.  "That upsets you?"
          "That?  No, not really.  I mean it's her choice, her life.  It's just knowing that even she's sometimes uncomfortable around me..." I trailed off and let him make what he would out of that.
          "So even the ones you call friends are afraid of you sometimes," he stared, then his eyes flicked aside.
          "Sometimes." It was too easy to remember the times Chihirae or Chaeitch or Rraerch would look at me with trepidation or even fear in their eyes.  "A, sometimes."
          "Huhn," I heard him breath again.  "That hurts you."
          "A.  Of course.  But I think it's something I'm going to have to live with, isn't it."
          "I think so.  I'm sure it'll get easier with time.  Speaking of which: the future.  Which path do you want to take?  What are your plans with the teacher?"
          "Plans?" My mind was an exhausted blank.  I closed my eyes and laid back, staring into the nothing which beckoned with promises of rest, but no answers were forthcoming.
          "Mikah?  You alright?"
          "Just tired," I said to the aching darkness behind my eyelids.  "The future.  I hadn't even considered that."
          "Give it some thought," I heard him say.  "Now, I think you could do with some rest.  You certainly look like you need it."
          "Sir," I mumbled and there was a long pause before I heard the door close and I was able to lie back and just give in to the utter bone-numbing exhaustion.

          A heavy, unchanging snow fell silently from the black of the night sky.  Like magic, the flakes appearing from the darkness of the sky only to vanish once again when they merged with the drifts lying in the pools of light on the balcony outside.  I exhaled, watching the ghostly clouds of my breath swirl among the flakes, not affecting them in the slightest.  A few individual flakes landed on my sleeve.  I held my arm up, watching the flecks linger for a few seconds before dissolving to a dark spot on the black fabric.
          Almost time.
          I brushed a few more flakes of snow away and stepped back into the room, closing the balcony doors then adjusting the sit of the Rris-tailored suit.  The black pants and jacket over a plain white shirt were an acceptable addition to my wardrobe, even if they weren't quite the right proportions and the cut was decidedly peculiar.  "You look good in that," a cheerful voice offered.
          I turned and then gave a polite duck of my head to Chihirae leaning against the doorframe.  "Thanks," I smiled carefully, "You're not so bad yourself."
          She seemed to mull that over for a split second, then returned a Rris smirk.  "That's a compliment, isn't it."
          It was.  The tunic, jerkin and pleated skirt she was wearing were in shades of red: from almost brownish ochre to bright red trim.  It might sound garish, but on her it worked: Gold and red, amber eyes and muted rusts.  And the collar hid the ragged fur and skin over those healing wounds from a couple of weeks ago.
          "You're ready to go?" she asked.
          "A," I waved an affirmative.  "I hope this goes better than the last."
          "Huhn," she huffed.  "His highness said you've had a bad run with these affairs." She leaned against my chest and reached up to brush at my face, perhaps flicking some errant hair back.  "We'll try to change that tonight, a?"
          "You'll be all right?" I asked and couldn't stop my glance at the patch of ragged fur visible through her neckline.  She noticed.
          "I should be asking you that," she said, sounding a little reproachful.  "I think my hide's a little tougher than yours."
          She'd been shot.  Yet now, scarcely two weeks later, her wounds were rough patches under scraggly fur while my scratches were still angry red and tender.  I found it unnerving and a little unfair.  She touched my hand where I'd been stroking the fur of her neck.  "I think we'd better go now.  Before they send someone for us."
          Nevertheless, there were still a couple of guards tagging along behind.
          Once again the palace was ablaze with lights of all descriptions.  Servants hurried around, replacing candles and oil and wicks.  From an inner hallway I could look out across the central courtyard where drifting snow filled the night and turned the windows on the far side into warm glows in the nothingness.
          The lower halls were more alive, with Rris everywhere.
          It was another diplomatic reception: a honorary celebration for the Bluebetter ambassador I was told.  Apparently it was to commemorate the end of their southern border wars over forty years ago, an event which had caused ripples through all the known Rris lands and established the current border geometries.
          It was a valid enough reason.  I also suspected it was a chance to show the ambassadors of other lands that after the incidents and accidents of recent months, I was still intact.  Nobody ever came out and said that to my face, but as we walked those last few corridors I felt sure that I was a showpiece of some kind.  I was almost accustomed to the sight, sound and smell of a room of milling Rris, but Chihirae looked decidedly uneasy as we entered the ballroom.
          The diplomatic persons and embassy staff were present, as was the usual retinue of upper crust merchants and industry leaders.  Again the tone of the room changed as I entered.  There were those who just stopped what they were doing and stared; those who pointed and started to urgently chatter to their associates.
          Chihirae glanced at me.  I could see that movement out of the tail of my eye.
          "Just relax," I whispered to her.
          "Easy to say," she returned as we moved into the throng.  They parted around us.  "How can you stand this?"
          "Practise," I said, pursing my lips slightly in the best approximation of a Rris smile I could manage.
          Perplexion creased her features: "What's that look?"
          "Never mind," I sighed.  Head and shoulders above most of the crowd I could already see figures I knew: a couple of ambassadors, lords and ladies, merchants and guildmasters and industrialists.  Several working their way through the crowd in our direction.  "Just... be calm.  Relax.  Be polite.  That's all I can really say."
          Her reply was interrupted when another voice cut in: "Mikah."
          Kh'hitch was standing, waiting, his hefty bulk swathed in wraps that made him look like a particolored pillow.  The guards flanking him were a lot more conservative, in polished steel armour and livery fluttering from their razor-edged halberds.  "Glad you could join us, Mikah," the advisor said.  "There are a lot of people who would like to talk to you."
          "Why am I not surprised."
          His thin black lips flicked to show teeth.  "Don't.  Mikah, don't.  That attitude of yours causes trouble."
          "Which he seems to be good at finding," another Rris voice offered.  I knew him: K'hesh, the Broken Spine ambassador with the longer, lush fur of Northern Rris and clothing of expensive cut and garish color.  "I'd wondered if we would be seeing you again," he said.  "Your hosts have been exceedingly tight-jawed about you recently."
          "Things have been busy recently," I said.
          "A." He looked me up and down, then his gaze flicked to Chihirae and I got the feeling he was weighing her up.  "There were a few stories circulating."
          "As I think Mikah should," Kh'hitch interjected smoothly and quickly.  "There are a lot of people who want to talk to you tonight."
          "A," K'hesh said as Kh'hitch started us moving and moved to insinuate himself between myself and Chihirae.
          "Hai," I snapped and took a single step closer to her and K'hesh recoiled violently.  Rris flinched.  Kh'hitch's hand came up to forestall the guards.  I ignored them.  "Chihirae," I said.
          She looked at the Rris around, at their expressions, then she caught my hand in hers.  "Still making people nervous, aren't you.  You know, it might be for the best if I left you to settle your business."
          "You're sure?  You won't be out of place here?"
          "You're asking me that?" she chittered slightly.  "Don't worry, you furless giant, I've seen a couple of familiar faces." She patted my cheek and Rris watched her melt back into the crowd.  I saw questioning glances as more than a few of the watching representatives doubtless tried to figure out what our relationship was.  Let them wonder.
          As the evening wore on I started to envy her choice.  It was dull.  It was dull, arduous and a strain as I made the rounds and talked with Rris after Rris.  There were questions and requests; asking about my health, about my work, whether promised schedules would be kept.  I answered what I could while often Kh'hitch would step in to field something he thought too delicate to leave to my judgement.  There were several thinly veiled invitations to accept other kingdoms hospitality, a bribe, and also something I'm pretty sure was a sexual come-on from a female guildmaster.  I skirted those as tactfully as I knew how.
          After several hours of that my throat was decidedly raw and the feline features in the room were blending.  So much so that when a Rris asked me if I could do with a drink I started to politely decline, then blinked several times before I recognised Hirht.
          "Oh.  Sir.  Thank you, a drink would be welcome."
          A couple of furrows wrinkled the fur at the bridge of his muzzle and he flicked a quick gesture at the nearby guards; they moved to keep orbiting petitioners at bay.  "You're all right?  You sound bad."
          "Too much talking," I rasped.
          "A," he flicked his ears and glanced at Kh'hitch.  "I did warn you about that."
          "Apologies, sir," Kh'hitch replied.
          "Huhn," the King snorted as a servant bearing a drinks tray emerged from the throng.  He picked a couple of crystal glasses of wine and handed one to me.  The liquid was amber, steaming slightly.  I sipped and found it tart, heated and spiced.  A Coke would have gone down well about then, but what the hell: it was wet and it warmed me.
          "You're improving," Hirht said and I fell into step beside him as he started strolling through the crowd.  "So far nobody has shot, struck or even shouted at you."
          "Imagine how happy that makes me," I said.
          He gave me a sidelong look and snorted again.  "And the teacher seems to be settling in well."
          "See?" he nodded.
          I looked toward the corner he indicated where Chihirae's red outfit stood out through the crowd, her figure sleek, groomed fur gleaming in the warm light from the chandeliers and she was talking wtih Chaeitch.  I saw her laugh.  I saw him touch her face and she leaned closer.
          I felt the smile freeze on my face.  "I see," I said as the crowd closed in front of them and I turned away.
          Hirht's muzzle creased again as he looked from that scene to my expression and buried his reaction in a sip from his glass.  "Huhn.  She cares for you, you know that."
          "A," I said as we walked again, out onto the terrace.  The night was black, the moon and stars lost behind low clouds.  Snow drifted from the arch of blackness down into the pools of light around lamp sconces along the balustrades.  A myriad more lamps dotted the snow-bound meadows around the palace and in the forest beyond that; flickering like fireflies through the icy trees and bare branches.  Frigid night air nipped at me with invisible teeth that stung against bare skin while Hirht's breath ghosted in the air before him.
          "There've been a lot of people asking after you.  It seems that there are more every day.  Questions, requests, pleas, demands... you're a hot coal and juggling you's not an easy task."
          "I can only do so much, sir," I said.  "I was an artist, not an engineer or doctor or scholar.  And there's only one of me."
          "A," he acknowledged and leaned up against the balustrade, brushing snow from the beveled and carved marble so he could set his wineglass there.  "Unfortunately."
          I gave him a look: I bet they'd like a few more humans around.  Actually, so would I.  I sighed and he flicked his ears.  "Don't worry, we understand you have your limits.  There won't be a repeat of what happened."
          "Thank you."
          "Anything you need, Mikah.  Just ask."
          I sighed and took the plunge:
          "Sir," I said, glancing down into the dregs of my own glass.  "What you asked me a while back... if I knew what I wanted to do with my life."
          "Huhn, a." I saw the silhouette of his muzzle raise, as if looking into the clouds.  "I recall."
          "I think I know.  I think I would need your permission though."
          "Anything you want.  We'll do all we can."
          So I told him.  He listened quietly and attentively and seemed a bit surprised when I finished.
          "That's it?" he asked.
          "A.  That's it."
          "Huhnn," he scratched his muzzle gently.  "That poses a few questions, but I'm sure something can be arranged.  What about your teacher?"
          My teacher... I took a deep freezing breath that I felt needling in my lungs, then exhaled a glittering cloud.  What I'd seen... what'd I expect?  She'd found someone she knew in a room full of strangers.  Of course she was glad to see him.
          "She... She's got her own life.  I think you'll have to ask her what her choices are going to be."
          Hirht stared out across the frozen landscape while the snow fell around us, stippling his fur.  "A," he said after a time.  "A.  I'll ask her."

          The early spring drizzle died away as the late afternoon sun peeked through the grey overcast covering the city, stroking the higher rooftops with a gold glow.  Water and the occasional scab of ice or melting snow were falling from roofs and guttering.  Rivulets ran down the streets, washing through the drifts and piles of frozen slush.
          I sat back in the carriage, in the warmth of the little kerosene heater, and watched the city passing as we rattled through the streets.  Shops and stalls were still open, a few damp Rris going about their business.  It was a scene I'd seen before, a route I'd travelled many times and by now was normal, familiar.  Enough so that I could relax and take some of the edge off the exhaustion accrued after a long day.
          Northbound.  Through the commercial districts up to the boulevards where the first green buds speckled the bare branches of the old trees.  Up to the Rocks and then through familiar streets: homeward bound.
          It was an estate on the shore.  A wooden house overlooking the lake: huge and rambling, with dark slate roof and turrets and scrollwork on the eaves and mullioned windows.  There were sprawling grounds running down to the water, with unkempt meadows and wooded with aged deciduous trees.  No way I'd have been able to afford a place like that back home, but here it was well within my means.
          I'd had a lot of the place rebuilt.  Doorways originally built for Rris were made taller.  There was insulation in the walls and central heating with hot and cold running water.  There was still a lot of work to be done, tasks which would have to wait until finer weather came around.  For instance, hopefully this summer we'd be able to install a couple of prototype wind turbines on the lakeshore and then there'd be electricity as well.
          And there was the guardhouse.
          Hirht had been surprisingly amenable to the idea of me moving away from the palace.  There had been a few stipulations attached, one of those being the guards.  That hadn't worked out as badly as I'd feared: they kept their distance, watched the perimeter of the grounds and mostly left me alone.  Still, there were over a dozen of them barracked in the new guardhouse at the gate to the estate.
          When the carriage had crunched to a halt on the gravel drive I stepped down into the bite of the evening air.  Spring growth was budding on the shrubs around the front porch, the weather vane atop one of the turrets facing out to the lake.  A warm glow shone from the front windows: the servants already had the lights on.  They had adapted quite quickly to my tastes.
          Tichirik opened the door for me.  In the hierarchy of the household staff she was ranking.  Sort of analogous to a butler I suppose and doubtless a spy for Hirht, but she was polite, professional and ran an efficient household.  "Good evening, sir," she said, ducking her head.
          "Evening, Tich," I smiled as I wiped my feet and stepped into the hall.
          "We weren't expecting you so early, sir," she said.  "I'm afraid your evening meal isn't prepared yet."
          "That's fine," I shrugged out of my coat and she neatly took it out of my hands.  "I just want to sit for a while."
          "Hard day, sir?" she inquired as she went to hang my coat up.
          "Huhn," I chuckled as I headed for the living room.  "Long day.  Is Chihirae home yet?"
          "Ah, sir!" Tichirik interjected as I opened the door.  "Mistress is somewhat..."
          Lamps were glowing softly, the fire blazing while on the hearth discarded clothes were strewn around the two furry figures wrapped together.  Two forms moving like animals rutting: one kneeling, the other atop, fur locked in teeth and claws clutching at the rug... They jumped as I barged in and Chaeitch reared back in startlement, interrupted in his task and I learned more about aroused Rris male physiology in that second than I really needed to.  Chihirae sat up on splayed knees, her eyes wide and dazed-looking.
          "... indisposed."
          I stared at them, feeling my jaw drop and something else inside me plummeted.  "Sorry," I said and turned and left them.
          "Mikah?" a voice called from behind me.
          "Sir?" Tichirik was looking aggrieved.  "I was trying to tell you..."
          I just took my coat from her unresisting hands and headed outside again.  I really needed to be alone for a while.
          The sky was grey.  The lake was grey, with a cold wind urging rapid little waves against a grey stone shore.  Broken ice floes cracked and shattered themselves along the waterline, melting back into the element they'd come from.
          I sat on a weather-smoothed slab of boulder and stared out across a drab world that matched my mood.
          Chihirae had stayed with me.  She found employment as a tutor for a merchant's cubs but she stayed with me and her companionship was welcome.  In the evenings she gave me lessons to help me understand the world I was in a little better: history, geography, lessons in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.  And in the months we'd been living here I suppose I might have grown to take her for granted.
          Of course it would happen.  She was a Rris woman.  An attractive one I'd been told.  Of course she'd find a guy sometime.  I just hadn't thought it'd be someone else I called a friend.
          I looked down at my hands: worn, with calluses on the palms and scars along the knuckles.  For a split second violence against Chaeitch flashed through my head, a thought of which I was instantly ashamed.  That primal ape screeching in my mind again.
          In hindsight it was pretty obvious: They got along well, they were both single... Perhaps I just hadn't wanted to see it.  And I hadn't expected to find them like that.  That'd been a shock.  But they were of the same people, the same kind.  Their relationship was right and could work, they could have offspring and understand one another's needs whereas I was an outsider and an alien.  I understood.  Up in my head I understood.
          But those ape instincts still hurt.
          "Mikah?" a soft voice spoke out over the lapping of the water.  I turned my head to see Chihirae not quite hiding behind a pine trunk, nervously shifting her weight from foot to foot.  "He's gone.  He thought it'd be for the best.  Are you all right?"
          I nodded and she cocked her head, then came closer.  Near freezing weather and she was just wearing a pair of rust-red breeches.  As if of its own accord my gaze flickered from her worried eyes to her crotch before I looked away, embarrassed.  "Mikah... that really upset you that much?  I'm sorry.  I never thought it would."
          "No." I shook my head and rubbed at my face.  "No.  It's not you.  It's me.  I just... I'm not angry.  You and Chaeitch, I can understand that.  It's just... He is something I can never be; He has something I never can."
          A silence.  Then: "Mikah?  You're jealous?"
          The green-eyed monster.  My amber-eyed friend.  "I know it's absurd.  I know it in my mind.  I understand it.  But my body, the rest of me feels... I feel like I've lost something.  I suppose..." I struggled for some way to phrase it in Rris terms, into something she could understand; something a dark figure had told me on a tragic night came back:
          "She was right," I said, staring out across the water.  "I need."
          "I need," I repeated.  "She told me... Mai told me.  She said I need.  That I bond to people in a way that isn't normal.  Not for Rris.  She was right.  You're right.  I'm jealous... and I'm afraid: I don't want to lose you."
          Silence.  I felt like I'd just made another terrible blunder.  "I'm sorry."
          "Sorry?" I felt a hand touch my shoulder, briefly.  "Why?"
          "I didn't mean to interrupt you and Chaeitch.  I don't want to stand in your way.  If you want him, then all I can do is wish you the best."
          Water hissed on shale; a breeze stirred branches; somewhere an icicle cracked and fell.  "Mikah, spring is nothing to apologise about."
          "A.  I know it can be awkward."
          "Spring doesn't affect me," I said quietly and didn't have to look around to know she was wearing a startled expression.  "I'm not like you.  Spring doesn't mean the same thing.  They didn't tell you."
          "I..." she started to say, then in more subdued tones,  "No.  No, they didn't.  I suppose I should have known, after Westwater, those mood swings of yours.  You mean you feel... you're like that all year?"
          "Spring all year," I heard her sigh.  "I don't think I could take that."
          "I don't think it's the same," I said.
          "Huhn," she rumbled thoughtfully, then a hand touched my shoulder again.  "Do you want to come back to the house?  You must be cold."
          "Not right now," I shook my head.  "Just a bit longer.  I'm trying to get my head around a few things."
          The hand lingered.  "You'll be all right?"
          Why did they always ask me that?  When I looked at her I could see moisture from the mist beading in her fur and she was watching me with concern foremost in her expression.  "A.  I just want to think."
          A hesitation, then she gave my hair a stroke and gracefully rose to her feet and headed back toward the house.  Not without a glance back over her shoulder and then she was a tawny gold figure vanishing into the trees.
          Silence.  Solitude.  I sat by the grey lake and watched the waves lap the shore; watched the cloud-faded orb of the sun sink to pale red and then vanish beyond the horizon; watched for a long time as I tried to lay those disquieting emotions to rest.  It wasn't easy.  I can't say I entirely succeeded.

          I made my way back through the cold and misty darkness, just following my nose and the welcoming glow of the house lights through the twilight.  The french doors opening onto the meadow were hanging open, with lamplight spilling out across the verandah flagstones.
          Tichirik was waiting for me inside.  I don't know how she knew I was coming but she was there with a towel folded over her arm and a disapproving expression.  "Sir," she said as she closed the doors behind me, "you know the cold isn't good for you."
          "Thank you," I said, shrugging out of my coat and tossing it across the back of a rather expensive piece of furniture.  "I'll remember that."
          She handed me the towel and then followed as I started heading back toward my rooms, wiping away cold mist that'd beaded in my hair, my beard and across my face.  "Sir, there's food if you'd like it.  I can have some sent up."
          I started to say I wasn't very hungry, then realised what a lie that'd be: there was a gnawing emptiness in my gut.  "Yes, please."
          "Very well." She stopped outside my door.  "Will there be anything else?"
          "No.  Thank you."
          "Sir?  If I might be so bold?"
          I hesitated with my hand on the knob.  "A?"
          "Sir, there are females who can provide sexual services.  If you desire I can make some enquiries..."
          "No," I said, perhaps a little too abruptly.  "No.  Thank you, but no.  That didn't work out very well last time."
          "I see.  I'm sorry sir.  I'll see about your food."
          I thanked her and watched her ramrod straight, so-proper figure stalk off down the hall and then sighed before retreating to my room.  The central heating was doing its job well and the air was comfortable, warm.  The spacious bed had been turned down, the lights were dim.  Comfortable for diurnal ape eyes.  I wearily stripped off and left my clothes strewn behind me as I headed for the bathroom.
          Showers have never been de rigueur in Rris homes.  I'd had one specially installed in my suite and it was at times like that I was really glad I'd done so.  I leaned against the tile walls and let the hot water hammer down, working the tension and stress and cold out of my shoulders.  I stood like that for a long time while water sluiced over me and formed rivulets around scar tissue, splashing and washing down the drain.
          Steam spilled out around me as I stepped from the bathroom to the bedroom, scrubbing at my hair with a towel.  The clothes I'd strewn across the floor were gone, a robe was folded neatly on the end of the bed and there was a covered tray set on the desk: Some of the benefits of my position.
          Tichirik knew me well.  The meal was light: a marinated venison cutlet with potato slices and a single glass of wine.  Not a lot of a meal, but it was hot and it was all I needed.  And afterwards I stood at the windows and sipped the remains of the wine.  There was a moon out there now, just peeking through broken clouds.
          It was her life.  It was her world.  I couldn't interfere.  To make her suffer for my wants, that was just selfish.
          Then the glass was empty.  I studied the cut crystal, sighed, then laid it aside with the ruins of the meal.  The gas lamp hissed softly when I turned it down: the mantle faded from white to orange, dimming to red before it died.  In the darkness I returned to the big bed and slipped between cool sheets.  The pillows were something else I'd missed.
          And couldn't sleep.  I just lay there in night and shadow with dark thoughts churning in my head.
          There was a noise in the night; like a door closing quietly.  I opened my eyes to silence.  There was grey moonlight coming in, lighting a patch of floor just in front of the window but leaving the rest of the room in blackness.  A darkness that didn't feel empty and something that wasn't a shadow moved.
          "Who's that," I croaked as I felt my heart start to pound furiously; as I scrambled backwards, trying to buy a little more time to defend myself.  "Who's there?"
          "It's all right," a voice hastily replied and I tried to find the spot of night it'd come from.  "It's me.  Oh, rot.  It's Chihirae.  Mikah?"
          "A." The mattress moved as another weight settled on the edge.  "It's only me."
          "Oh, christ." I closed my eyes and leaned back against the headboard and pillows.  "Chihirae, don't do that.  Please."
          "I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to wake you." I jumped as a furry hand touched my arm, the old knot of scar tissue on my shoulder, then laid gently on my chest.  I knew those cool pads on her fingertips could feel my heart still racing.  "I frightened you.  I didn't mean... rot.  I'm sorry."
          I still couldn't see her face, but her hand a was dark spider on the pale skin of my chest.  Her touch was warm as she laid down alongside me.  Like those nights so long ago in Westwater.  "What were you doing?"
          "I just wanted to look at you.  To see if you were sleeping all right." There was a movement in the darkness, as if she were gesturing.  "After today, you seemed upset.  I wasn't sure how you were doing."
          I touched her hand, feeling the softness and thickness of her winter pelt, the underlying structures of muscles and tendons and bones.  All alive.  So like mine.  So different.  "I'm all right."
          "You got your head around those things?"
          "I think so.  There's such a difference between knowing and feeling.  I never understood that before.  I'm not sure I do now." I sighed and felt her fingers under my own, the hard little crescents embedded in their tips.  "Perhaps it'll get easier with time."
          "A," she rumbled quietly, almost sadly.  Her hand twisted in mine and I felt her touching my skin and gingerly exploring that place where my little finger had once been.  "Not Rris," she said in those same tones, then asked, "You're really envious of Chaeitch?"
          "How could I not be," I said to the darkness.  She squeezed my hand a little.
          "Mikah, there is one thing I think you might be forgetting.  I'm not like you."
          "I had noticed."
          The hand squeezed again.  "I mean, I'm Rris.  We don't 'need' like you do.  Chaeitch and I... it's just spring.  It's just sex." I felt her roll over and her hot breath washed over my bare shoulder.  "I'm not going away with him.  I'm not going anywhere."
          And I... and I felt like a complete fool.  Aware of our differences and yet I still persisted on thinking like the human ape; on thinking of her as human on a level I wasn't even aware of.
          "Mikah?" she sounded concerned again.
          "I... I never thought of that," I said in a small voice.
          Chihirae's hand stroked my arm.  "I'd noticed.  You've already got a lot to think about." She chittered very softly and I felt the heat of her breath on my shoulder, then the tip of her tongue touching my skin where a crossbow quarrel had once stuck me.  "Water.  Salt and ash.  Moss, that's the other scent.  Moss after rain."
          "Chihirae," I said, aware of what was going on and not entirely wanting it to stop.  "You know... what you're doing... I mean it's... arousing."
          "Huhn," she rumbled and nuzzled at my neck.  "Is it?"
          "But, you said you didn't want... that."
          "Maybe I changed my mind."
          "Chihirae... Chihirae, hold."
          I stroked her hand again.  "Please, you're a little distracted at the moment.  Is it you talking or the season?  I don't want to be part of something you're going to regret later."
          "Hai," I felt the mattress shift and her low voice burred almost in my ear.  "You think we lose our minds in spring?  I've just been doing some thinking of my own."
          "Your own?" I murmured.
          A pause as she digested that.  Then: "A.  My own.  The palace had nothing to do with it.  I thought, that after all we've been through... In a way I suppose we are bonded.  And after seeing you today, I thought you might want the company tonight."
          I held her hand in both of mine, clasping the warmth.  A moment I'd thought about, wondered about, dreamed about.  Now it was here and I felt that same trepidation that Mai had stirred: questions, concerns...
          A moment too long.
          "You don't want to?" she asked quietly and I couldn't read anything in those tones.  I wished I could see her face.  In the darkness I fumbled and touched coarser and longer fur.  Her chest ruff.  Then fumbled my way up to a throat pulsing with breath and blood, up to a velveteen cheek and muzzle.
          "I think..." I started to say with a voice that caught in my throat.  "I think..." Then sighed.  "I think too much, a?  Yes.  Chihirae.  I want to.  I want to very much."
          I could feel her smile.  Then feel and hear the movement of sheets as she came closer and fur pressed against me as she lay beside me.  A leg rubbed against mine, her hand explored further.
          "I thought that happened in the mornings," she whispered, touching gently.
          I shivered.  "It can make exceptions."
          She chittered softly and I scratched at her ribs; gently, the way Mai had shown me.
          And that night I taught my teacher.  I taught her what Mai had shown me and what I'd shown her.  I knew the Rris female body now, but Chihirae still had to learn about me.  I taught her, I loved her; and when she yowled and shredded a pillow at her height I finally knew that the nights with another woman hadn't been lies.
          Spooned together in the night, in the heat and the scent of the afterwards.  A small body embraced in my arms, tight muscles quivering as two hearts raced in synchronicity and breathing slowly returned to normal.  A blissful eternity before a small voice said:
          "Chaeitch said... it was different with you."
          "It was all right?"
          "All right?" A quick chitter, almost dazed sounding.  "A.  All right.  Very all right.  Like my whole body sneezed."
          "I think that's good."
          Another chitter.  A hesitation, then a gentle rasp of a tongue against my arm.  "Again?" she murmured.
          So there were a few other things I had to explain.  But there was time enough.  For recuperation, for play, for love and rest.
          And much later I lay in the silence, listening to the breath of sleep from the figure against me.  She stirred slightly when I disentangled myself and swung out of bed to pad across to the window.  Beyond, the grey light was coming and going as clouds chased each other across the face of the moon.  The trees stirred and rustled in the darkness.
          And I stood there and took stock of my life: Where I'd come from, where I might go.  And when I'd summed it up I touched the glass and thought of someone far from here.
          "I forgive you," I whispered in Rris and turned back to the bed.
          The breathing had changed but there wasn't a word as I laid back down again.  But as I closed my eyes a warm body snugged up to my back, an arm looped over my side and warm breath stirred the hairs on the back of my neck.  I closed my eyes and welcomed sleep, knowing that for the time all was right with this world.


          The end?  No.
          Just the beginning.  Of that part of my life at least.
          I've lived a unique life.  I've been from one side of this world to the other.  I've seen things no human ever dreamed of.  I've lived through hell and high water, despair and the highest hopes.  I've seen friends come and go.  Seen life and death of all description, acts of horror and humanity from a people who aren't human.
          But they're my people now.
          I've tried to chronicle my life as best as I can.  I began where I thought best: where an old life ended and a new one began.  I've tried to be accurate; I've told it as best as my memory allows and if there're any mistakes or inconsistencies they're mine and mine alone.  Time has passed and it has the habit of stealing the details, but there have always been things that stayed with me, and it's those facets of my life I've tried to imprint on these pages.
          I hope I succeeded.
          I know I won't be here forever.  And whatever happened to me all those decades ago is, to the best of my knowledge, unique.  As is my life that followed those hot summer days in the hills.  Maybe these volumes will help somebody understand what happened.  Maybe they'll be able to unlock those doors between worlds.
          So many maybes.  For now, I've lived my life.  It's been longer and fuller than I'd ever imagined and there's so much more to be told.
          No regrets.


"And the question there were many,
Like how can you survive,
When it's the moment you've been waiting for,
This is the moment of your life."

Simple Minds
And the Band Played On

          Of course the Rris have their own calenders and time-keeping system.  It's the one I now use myself and pivots around the solstices, dividing a Tropical year into ten 'months' of approx. 36 days each with a leap-year every ten years.  However, for convenience's sake, during the course of this account I'll translate to Western Standard time.

End Light on Shattered Water