Light on Shattered Water
I'd fallen asleep on the couch again. I could hear Jackie out in the kitchen, clattering pots around while the television murmured background music: The Lion King again.
"You're watching that again?" I murmured and shifted and my waking dream shattered into fragments, my body scored with burning lines and I screamed and there was a twisted figure above me, raking me with razored claws again and again and the mouth gaped to bare inch-long fangs.
Hands pinned me and the visage snarled. "Mikah! Rot take you Mikah. All right, it's all right. Be calm."
Slowly I did, the words finding their way through the pain. The face was Chihirae's, her hands holding my shoulders. Hesitantly she released me; slowly, making sure I stayed put and just the slight rocking from that made me gasp. More pain, like a vast papercut across my ribcage. "No, don't." The voice buzzed through the ringing in my ears. A hand moved into my field of vision and Chihirae touched me again, just a fingertip. "Don't move."
I tried to move my mouth and that hurt. The entire left side of my face swollen so I couldn't open my left eye and felt the raw wound inside my mouth. I felt stitches and scabs tugging at my skin as I tried to say, "It hurts," in Rris.
Even to my ears the words were barely comprehendible, but she understood. "I know," she whispered. "I know."
Her home. Her bed. That small cubby set into the wall. Wrapped in sheets and blankets. My sleeping bag rumpled in the corner, looking slept-in. Sunlight spilled in through the small window, across the desk where the laptop played an old Walt Disney animated movie. Chihirae sat beside me and gently took my hand, wrapping her fingers around bandages covering my raw knuckles. I saw her face and I knew that expression: worry, fear. Her ears laid down. And I felt a pang of fear that momentarily pushed the pain aside:
"The cubs," I tried to say.
"What?" she looked pained. "Mikah, say again."
"The cubs," I croaked again through screaming muscles, squeezing her hand harder. "The cubs."
Her head flinched back and her pupils widened. "They... they are fine." She hesitated and licked her lips. "Feher was asking about you. They are worried. They saw you and thought you were dead and you..." She stopped, clamping her jaws together.
I closed my eyes, taking stock. Stitches, I felt those everywhere: minute tuggings like ants biting at my skin. My left arm: felt like it was in splints. Cuts on my arms, my hands, deep pains down my legs. I remembered those: the Rris' toe claws raking my legs again and again. My face, the bandages and stitches there: I remembered the teeth, the inside of a Rris' mouth coming right at me is an image I've never managed to forget. My right ribs, the pain there: it was deep, a searing ache every time I took a breath. What was that?
"What happened?" I tried to ask.
"I'm not sure." She leaned her head back, ran fingers through her facial fur. "We don't know who they are. I don't know why they did this to you. Mikah, you didn't do anything to provoke them?"
"No," I breathed, barely audible.
"The cubs said you didn't." She hesitated and once again reached out to stroke a finger down my skin. "You don't know who they were? Do you? You haven't... seen other Rris before us?"
"No," I echoed, not really comprehending what she was trying to say. "They... just... I didn't..."
"All right, all right," she stopped me as I started to get upset. "The cubs told us what happened. You aren't to blame. Mikah, why did you do that? Why didn't you run?"
It hurt too much to smile. "From Rris?" I whispered.
"A," she glanced away. "I forgot." She patted my arm and asked, "Thirsty?"
Yes. Very. Incredibly.
She damped a cloth and touched it to my lips, gave it to me a drop at a time. It helped. I lay back on the bed, trying not to feel anything, just closed my eyes and began to remember: just snippets, little flashes of what had happened; The editing room of my brain clipping the footage of my memory together in some sort of order. "Four."
"What?" Chihirae cocked her head.
"Four of them."
"Yes," she said, her eyes flinching down to the water in her hand. "You don't remember what happened?"
"A," she licked her lips, "You... you killed two of them. Shyia found you just before they killed you. He heard you had gone off with the cubs and went after you. Just as well he did, a?" She made a small noise: a snort, lowered her muzzle and looked small. "Mikah, they nearly tore you apart. I don't know how you... I was afraid. I didn't know..." She trailed off into silence.
Killed them? Oh, shit. I closed my eyes and was mildly perturbed to find the news didn't really kindle any emotion in me. They'd tried to kill me, I'd killed them. I hadn't been trying to. She was watching me with her ears laid back. "Did not mean to," I mumbled.
"It's fine," she hastened to assure me. "I know, I know."
It didn't do much to comfort me. I sank back, feeling searing lines all over my body throbbing in time to my pulse. I tried to raise my right arm - just a bit - and nearly passed out from the effort.
"Mikah!" Chihirae caught my arm, pressed it down again. "Don't, just lie still!"
I grimaced through the swollen muscles. "How bad?"
"Uhnn." Her ears went down and she rubbed at the fur of her neck. "Mikah, I don't know..."
Her tongue flicked around her lips. "Not good. Not good. You left a lot of blood on the ground. Your arm - there - is broken. There were over a dozen cuts in your legs that needed sewing up. Also your arms and your face: she almost bit it off. Your ribs there... the sword cut deep, cracked a rib. Your coat saved your life there. What is it made of? I've never seen material that can slow a sword so... never mind."
"Sword." I closed my eyes. "Don't 'member." I don't even know if she understood me then. My Rris - not the clearest at the best of times - slurred through swollen lips.
"What can we do to help you? Mikah? Is there anything we can do? Do you need food? Medicine? I've tried to find something in your machine but it's all in your language. I cannot..."
"She," I mumbled, my brain drifting back and forth through conversation and memory.
"The one who did this?" She touched my face, almost imperceptibly. "Yes."
"I kill she?"
"Uhn, yes. That upsets you? She almost killed you."
I tried to breath shallowly, tasting a coppery tang on my breath as I digested that. "She'd hurt cubs?"
Wrinkles marched across her broad muzzle and she studied me - just for a second - as if she'd realised I was seeing something she took as gospel through different eyes. "Yes. She would've. Now, I think you should rest."
Pain and disorientation swept over me, fear and hopelessness and a tsunami of confused emotions. I was shaking violently, tears wetting my face and bandages and taking the world away into an amorphous blur. A warm presence stayed by me: musty fur and harsh breath and the susurrus of a low voice.
They were endless days of hell. Sleep was impossible. The pain kept waking me, dragging me out of troubled sleep where dreams and pain mingled and intertwined, turning any rest into something far from therapeutic. Day after night after day, only sinking below an alpha state when the exhaustion and fatigue poisons were enough to dull the edge of the pain, the spasming muscles.
There wasn't a lot the local doctor could do. He cut off bandages, applied a poultice of some kind, but he couldn't give me any Rris medicines. They didn't know what would hurt me, what might kill me, and I wasn't in any shape to help them.
Chihirae was there a lot. Some of the scratches became infected and that spread. When I started running a fever she was there with cloths and water to cool me down, to stop me dehydrating. When the deliriums took me... those are times I wish I couldn't remember. Not nightmares: I was awake, horribly awake, seeing terrors that didn't exist:
Once again Rris tore at me and this time it didn't end.
A warm and familiar place, the rooms of my apartment, and there was something else there. I remember I was looking for something or someone, going from room to room. Claws came out of nowhere, viscious fangs ripping at me while eyes burned amber in the dimness.
Shapes H.R. Giger couldn't have dreamed of, coming out of the walls.
Jackie watching me wake up, changing even as I saw her, claws coming at me.
The sheets catching me, suffocating me.
Light streaming through windows scorched like molten metal, I was burning as it touched me.
I don't know why I remember them. Like dreams; I often remember those, but what I remember from those nightmarish days was so much more vivid. Compare a greyscale image with a 24-bit one; a charcoal with an oil. Vivid, yes, but they aren't memories I cherish. It's disturbing the stuff I'd dredged up from my subconscious: I've been through some pretty bad shit over the past few years, but far and away the worst's the stuff from my own psyche. It's not something I like to think about.
Darkness and confusion. I was hurting unbearably, the support of the desk the only thing keeping me standing. There was a weight in my hand: I looked down, blinking uncomprehendingly down the empty barrel of the Mediator's pistol clutched in my bandaged hand.
I just stared, not understanding what was happening.
A muffled noise and a furry hand flashed past to grab mine, firmly prised the gun away. I looked up into amber eyes: wide and shocked. "Mikah? What are you doing?"
I looked down at the gun again and honestly said, "I don't know." Then the last of my energy was gone and I collapsed across the desk, crying out at the pain in my broken arm. Chihirae cursed and grabbed me. It hurt as she helped me back to bed: stiff and weak and with sutures pulling at my skin. She helped me down onto the edge of the bed and sat herself beside me, still supporting me while I just stared at the gun on the desk, feeling numb and empty inside as I realised what I'd been trying to do.
A small noise came from the Rris beside me and I looked at her as a furry paw came up to touch my good cheek and the dampness there. Her ears were still back in distress while her amber eyes tried to read mine. "Are you all right?" she asked softly.
"Yes," I answered, almost inaudible even to my own ears. I didn't feel it: I was shaking violently now.
"Hnnnn, Mikah," She held me, laid my head on her shoulder and just held me while I trembled and clutched at her fur. In the background I heard a door open and a voice ask, "What's going on? Is he..." and Chihirae's reply vibrating through her body: "Not now. Leave us. Please."
A hesitation, a sound of assent; the closing of a door.
I don't know how long we stayed like that, just holding each other in the darkness. Something rough and warm and wet rasped against my forehead, just for a split second, then she patted my head and helped me lay back and pulled the sheets back over me. Cold in there by now, until a furry figure slipped in beside me and got close.
"Mikah?" a voice murmured in my ear. "What were you doing? Do you want to talk about it?"
"What?" I answered unthinkingly.
A claw poked my skin, making me flinch. "Don't do this, please. You were trying to kill yourself, weren't you."
I didn't say anything. Wasn't it obvious?
"Mikah?" she ventured, then hissed softly. "That... that isn't something... I know you've gone through a lot, but surely it doesn't mean you have to do something like that? Why?"
I closed my eyes, trying to remember, but it was just a blank. "I don't know."
She didn't say anything; didn't press me. I felt her hand as a comforting weight across my chest, gently stroking my skin. A pleasant sensation beside the pain that was a constant companion. It was just so... impossible. How had my life come to this? A cottage in the snow, a dark room and a small bed with an alien. A world where I stood out from everyone else, where I was hunted. A sharp world, one that tore me inside and out, physically and mentally.
"How often?" I asked the darkness.
"Huhnn?" I felt Chihirae shifting beside me.
"This," I moved slowly to try and touch bandages and cuts. "How often will this happen?"
There was a hesitation, then: "I don't know."
I licked my lips and swallowed, wincing at the stab of pain just that motion caused in my lacerated face. "I can't live like this." I whispered and heard her intake of breath. She sat up to look down at me. I could see her eyes in the darkness and she didn't say anything as I continued. "This isn't my home. Chihirae, I don't belong here. I had friends. I had a family. It was my life. All gone. Now, just pain; too much pain."
"No," she was gentle when she touched my face. "It won't be like this all the time. Mikah, I don't know why they did this to you, but we're not all like that. You've only seen this village, but we have cities like yours, we have arts and music and great works. You haven't seen a play in the [resound] theatre, you haven't seen the carving walls in Lying Scales or the carvings in the Living Hall... There is more than violence. Please, Mikah, think. I know you are not that foolish."
I closed my eyes again, feeling the stinging as tears welled and a choked sob clawed its way out.
"Mikah," her finger touched the soft skin under my eyes and the moisture there, "don't, please. It will be all right." She stroked, just lightly. "Such thin skin. It hurts a lot doesn't it." There was a sigh, a wash of harsh breath. "I'm sorry, I just don't know what [something] would do to you."
Yeah, it hurt; inside and out. I just lay there, panting.
"Is there anything I can do?"
Send me home?
She waited during that silence, then made a small noise and her hand left me. Another pause, then she swung out of the bed and I saw her silhouette pad across the room to the desk, return and stand by the bed; she was holding the laptop. "Can you... would this help? Can you use it. Perhaps you could find something to help. Something that might help with the pain. Is there a plant? Something that might be here? There has to be something..." she trailed off and I could see her head shifting in the dimness, the dark pools of her eyes watching me.
I took the laptop, fumbling at the latch with bandaged fingers, and she leaned over to pop the catches for me with a clawtip. The bluish light cast up from the screen turned her features into something surreal, something demonic. With my hands bandaged up it was difficult to hold the stylus or type with anything other than finger-pecking. Chihirae watched, absorbed and silent, watching both my fingers and the screen as I accessed the encyclopedia and slowly pecked out text searches on drugs and barbiturates and anesthetics. There were things that were totally unsuitable: chemicals and synthetics with names I couldn't translate and weren't likely to be found in the village or anywhere on the whole damned planet for that matter. I narrowed the search down to herbs and natural sources and there was more success with those; she recognised some of the poppy flowers, some of the opiates. Too cold to cultivate this far north, she said. Too expensive. Unlikely the local doc would have any on hand.
However, it was a familiar green leaf she recognised. "That?" She leaned closer to the screen and her ears perked up so that the tufts atop them were practically quivering. "How do you use it?"
I tried to remember the words. God, I was tired, my head was throbbing, "Uhn... Dry it, burn the leaves. The smoke... You understand?"
She chittered, "Wait. Please. And don't do anything stupid."
"Please," she said and I felt the pads on her hands press against my hands and then she took the laptop, the mattress bounced and she was out of the room, gone. I heard the front door bang shut behind her.
I opened my mouth, closed it again. She'd recognised the encyclopedia entry: Cannabis Sativa, common-or-garden marijuana. I laid my head back and shut my eyes, but sleep wouldn't come, not through the pain. Again I lay there and stared at the grain of the wood over my head, feeling my lacerations burning like live wires under my skin while cool moonlight filtered through the frost on the window.
Oh Christ, let this work...
"You are awake?" It was a different voice. A piece of shadow in the doorway shifted, green eyes flashed.
"Uhn." He came into the room and snagged the chair at the desk, straddled it. I saw his tail lashing across the patch of moonlight on the floor as he watched me. "How are you doing?" he finally asked.
"Be worse if you were not there." I forced a smile; "Thank you."
"Be dead if I wasn't there." I caught a glimpse of light glinting off teeth, and then he said, "Who were they?"
"I don't know."
His head shifted, as if he was looking down at his hands, "I think you do. They knew you. They were trying to kill you."
"But I have never seen them..." Then I trailed off, thinking back to the first Rris I had ever seen. "I might have. The barn."
Just the figures in the door. Their faces were nothing, meant nothing. I had no points of reference, all I remember are androgynous, anonymous feline shapes emerging from barn doors. There were details: grey and gold clothes, a greenstone bracelet, but they're not individuals. No, I didn't remember. They all looked so alike.
Shyia studied me, like he was trying to decide if I was lying or not. And I didn't know why he didn't believe me. Was it simply because I wasn't Rris? I already had an inkling he wasn't entirely comfortable around me, so was his mistrust just xenophobia on his part? Maybe he had a better reason.
"Maybe later," he said, then: "The teacher looked upset. Any reason?"
I licked my lips. "Me," I confessed.
"Ah," I saw him turn in the chair to look back at the desk where his pistol still lay. His ears went down. "Do you want to discuss it?"
I couldn't shake my head; that movement hurt too much. "No," I murmured.
He didn't reply to that, just ducked his head and swung off the chair. He took the pistol with him when he left.
It wasn't really sleep. Sheer exhaustion dulled everything into a haze, the fatigue poisons dulling the constant throbbing from several dozen deep gouges. Only dulling; never completely easing. The sudden painful spasms in my right leg snapped me back to sweating wakefulness, listening to the darkness for some undeterminable length of time while a moaning wind fumbled around the walls.
Voices from outside were loud in the stillness, abruptly growing louder as the front door was opened. A pair of shadowy Rris entered, lighting the lamp to reveal Chihirae and the town doctor whose fur was ruffled and peaked as if he'd been dragged out of bed. Probably had. "... it doesn't work. Is there something else we can try?"
"I'm not sure," Chihirae fiddled with the lamp, then came over to kneel beside the bed. "How are you doing?" she asked, stroking my forehead.
"I have felt better."
She looked confused, then gave a small chitter. "I can imagine." She patted my face, then eagerly said, "I found some. It isn't much, but it should help."
The doctor had a small leather pouch. There was a pipe, an actual pipe. Also a packet filled with dried weed. He showed it to me and it felt and smelt like the real thing. The pipe was simple: handcarved, with a carefully polished bowl and stem.
"Thank you," I said.
"A," he said, stepped back and pulled his coat a bit closer. Whispered an aside to Chihirae and she chittered. "Mikah, it's [something]. It's common. Just a [something]. Many people smoke it. It is easy to find."
"Oh." I felt the pipe, stroking my fingertips across the slightly uneven surfaces. "It might make me... strange."
"What?" her expression changed. "What do you mean?"
"Like when you are..." I fumbled for words. Shit, I didn't know their words for drunk. "When you drink too much?" No, that didn't seem to ring any bells. "It makes humans... it makes us feel... good. Maybe be foolish. Do you understand?"
"Yes." She was quiet for a short time, then asked, "Is it dangerous?"
"No. Not small bit." I hope not.
She just took the pipe and went over to the stove. When she came back the pipe was smoking gently. It'd been a long time, and then it'd only been a few joints at a friend's place. The first few puffs set me coughing and that hurt a hell of a lot, but then it seemed to go down smoother, easier and the pain suddenly wasn't as important. Shortly, the cubicle was shrouded in sweet-smelling smoke, things were blurring pleasantly. I looked at the two cats there and pictured hippy cats with flowers in their manes sharing a joint and giggled, "What's happnin' cats?"
"Mikah?" The name was distorted and a furred face leaned closer. I reached out with my arm, fascinated by how long it seemed to be, and touched the fur. The texture was incredible, her puzzlement amusing. So was the fact she had six nipples, like leather buttons under the fur.
"Hai," she caught my groping hand and I watched as our joined limbs seemed to whirl like water going down a plughole. "You are [something]."
"And you must have trouble shaving your legs."
I don't really remember where things went from then; everything kind of runs together in a mellowed-out blur.
It worked. Grass might only be an FDA approved prescription painkiller in a couple of states, but that stuff stewed my system enough that the combination of weed and exhaustion was enough to lay me out for some time. Not a miracle cure of course: there was still the pain when I woke and it was the doc who decided to keep me drugged up as long as possible. He took advantages of one of those drugged stupors to remove the stitches, an experience I'm not going to regret missing.
While the drugs helped me get some real sleep, they didn't stop the dreams, not entirely. There were still the night terrors, the times when I was woken by things I can't quite remember crawling around inside my skull.
Still, I wasn't the only one suffering. The Rris had to look after me. Poor Chihirae had her classes to attend, as well as nursemaiding me and that can't have been a pleasant job: bedridden, I couldn't use the toilet, I couldn't wash myself, couldn't feed myself. I'd been through this before and that only made it all the more frustrating to be relegated back to this status, lying helpless while she tended to intimate needs. Claimed it didn't worry her too much; just like looking after baby cubs she said.
Yeah. Right. Sure. I was just like a baby Rris. It's not like I had a lot of say about what had happened to me, but it didn't feel right that Chihirae had to be the one who shared in my misfortunes; not after all she'd already done for me.
The Mediator was... around. Sometimes he helped Chihirae: cooking meals, cutting firewood, watching me. I remember half-waking once with him washing me: impartial and thorough. Most of the time, however, he was out. Doing exactly what I didn't know.
I had a few visitors. The cubs, Feher, Chine and Ithi'tsa, dropped by to see me; seeming somewhat withdrawn as if they thought they were somehow responsible for what'd happened. I did my best to dispel that illusion and they came back. I enjoyed those visits, a lot. A flash of color in the plodding days and they made me laugh and forget about everything else for a while. There was one time Chihirae brought several adult Rris in: all unfamiliar, watching me with eyes that flicked across my body.
The cubs' parents... guardians, whatever. They were there to thank me. Awkwardly and uncomfortably, but that I could understand. Anyway, it's the thought that counts. Unless the cubs had talked them into it, which I later realised was a much more likely scenario.
And there was the afternoon the doc took the dressings off my face.
Chihirae's ears went down as the doctor methodically peeled the bandages away. They adhered to the wounds, reluctantly coming away with uncomfortable tuggings, stained with blood and serum leaked from the healing suture punctures.
"Calm," the doc said as he worked. "Don't move your jaw too much." The last of the cloth came away and he moved back to look at me and I saw his expression change: not by much, but it was enough. I reached up and fearfully touched my left cheek, expecting and dreading what I felt: the naked patches in my beard, raised lumps of scar tissue like starbursts and tracks across my cheek and under my jaw, the numb patches where there was no sensation and never would be again.
"It hurts?" the doc asked.
"No," I whispered. "No."
"Pleased to hear it." He sounded satisfied as he packed his equipment away. "It's healed better than I expected. They were bad [something] and your skin is like paper. I thought the stitches might begin to [something]. You are lucky to still have a face."
I gave a small half-smile: The muscles on the left side of my face didn't want to work properly. Lucky?!
He inspected the other serious wounds: the one across my ribs where the sword had sliced, the deeper ones on my legs and thighs where the Rris had used her foot claws to rake at me. My broken left arm was still immobilised in a splint, still healing and sore. I'd live, he declared, but I'd have to take things very easy for a while. Later, after Chihirae had thanked the doc and seen him to the door she returned to watch me in the silence of the little room. "You are upset," she said after a while, her voice deeper than any human woman's; completely inhuman.
"Me?" I gave a small snort and looked up, studying the patterns I'd already memorized. I didn't hear her move, but abruptly she was there by the bed. "Your face," she said and it wasn't a question.
I tried smiling again, "My good looks gone, huh?"
"That was a joke?" She chittered uncertainly and sat herself beside me. "Mikah. I don't know how..." She trailed off, looking flustered and tried again, "Your face... even before, most Rris would find you..."
"Fugly," I interrupted.
"Not good to look at."
"I... yes," I don't know if I was reading those expressions correctly, but she seemed both relieved and embarrassed at once. "You aren't Rris. They won't care if you have a few more [something]. I don't think anyone will even notice." I saw her face twitch. "Even without those a first look at you can come as quite a shock."
I don't know if she caught the sarcasm. "I suppose you feel the same when you look at us."
Completely inhuman. That face, the body, every muscle and mannerism: fur and fangs and eyes like nothing I'd ever seen before. "You are different. Not unpleasant. Sometimes frightening. Sometimes... beautiful."
She was taken aback by that, just stared at me.
"Sorry," I mumbled, and I was. Why'd I say that? Just complicated things. "Do you have a... a..." I didn't know their word for mirror.
Turned out she did: a tiny piece of glass backed with a layer of silver that was peeling in spots. It showed enough, my face, the angry-red worm-tracks through the pale hair of my beard. The scars twisted my face, raising the left corner of my mouth in a permanent small sneer that I could only iron out with an effort. Soon as I relaxed it sprang back like a rubber Nixon mask. I stared at the tiny reflection with a hollow sensation in my gut. Maybe it didn't mean anything to the Rris, but it meant something to me! Shit, it was my face!
"It could have been worse," Chihirae volunteered.
I almost snapped something, then bit back the words before they escaped. She was right, in everything: Rris wouldn't care; and it could've been worse. It didn't really make me feel any better, but there wasn't any point taking it out on her. I handed the mirror back with a half-smile I hoped was convincing. "True," I admitted.
She turned the mirror over in her hands, studying it for a few seconds before looking at me. "Can your kind... fix your face?"
"Oh," her ears drooped. "I'm sorry there's nothing we can do. We just don't..." she trailed off with small wave of her hand, as though grasping something I couldn't see. "There is so much you must take [something] that we can't do for you."
"I don't understand that word, schethey."
"It means what you are accustomed to, things you are used to. Understand?"
"Yes." I tentatively tagged the word as 'granted'. Rris words often changed depending on their context. "There are things I miss."
She smiled then and reached out to touch my face, just gently. Her fingertip felt coarse against my skin as she stroked it down my temple, seemingly fascinated by the sensation. "Do you still hurt?" she asked and brushed the scar across my face, drawing away when I flinched violently. "Sorry. [something] you do. Do you want your drugs?"
I was shaking, not entirely sure if the reaction I'd felt was real physical pain or just a knee-jerk reaction to her touch. Already the flash of pain was ebbing and I licked my lips, "No. I think... I will be all right."
Amber eyes blinked. "You are sure? Maybe best. You were acting... strange."
"Strange?" That confused me and I was beginning to realise just how little recollection I had of the days I was stoned into unconsciousness.
"You got a bit silly," she elaborated. "Talking about things in your words, making noises I didn't understand. You didn't make any sense a lot of the time. I think sometimes you were upset about something. You wanted to mate with me sometimes, and some of those jokes you tried to tell... Why would a llama climb a..."
"Hey!" My heart skipped. "Wait! Rewind! What was that? I wanted to what with you?"
She squinted, as if going over what she'd said. "Oh, you said you wanted to mate with me." She studied me for a second, perhaps fishing for a reaction of some kind. "Your kind does seem to chase after [sex] a lot. No wonder there are so many of you. You don't have [something] do you; just whenever you feel like it."
I didn't know what the hell to say. She waited for me to speak, then cocked her head. "Mikah? What's wrong?"
"I am sorry. I... I didn't mean to say something like that."
Her ears twitched. "Ah, then you wanted to keep it secret."
"No! I meant I didn't want to mate with you."
"You find me unattractive?"
"No. I didn't mean that. I..." I trailed off, realising she was leading me on. "You are angry with me?" I asked, somewhat sheepishly.
"Not angry, no. When you first asked I was... [something]. It was a little [disconcerting]. But... you were not thinking properly." She gave a small chuckle then and looked down as she scratched at her pelted chest. "After all, I don't look like one of your females at all, do I?"
I struggled for something to say and came up with, "You have better ears." She flicked the tufted appendages in a smile. "And you have beautiful fur," she responded, reaching to lightly touch my hair.
It was an awkward moment. Just a second when there was nothing to do or say and her hand stroked my hair where it was growing in again. I touched her hand in turn, feeling the fur along her arm: coarse and wiry outside with the softer layers further in. Eyes met and there was confusion as I tried to read something in those features and knew she was trying to do the same and no words would come.
Or perhaps I was putting more into that moment than was really there. Anyway, if there had been something there it snapped when the front door banged, heralding the Mediator's return.
"You're sure you don't recognize any of them?"
I shuddered against the cold and the gooseflesh that crawled down the back of my neck and once again looked over the dead Rris laid out among blocks of ice and other chunks of frozen meat in the village icehouse. Frost rimed their fur and their eyes were frozen over. One's head was twisted back at an unnatural angle, another with two blackened gunshot wounds in the chest and back. The third corpse looked like someone had taken a hammer to its - her - face: tongue protruding from broken jaw, a missing canine, frozen blood plastered across the muzzle. She'd suffocated, choked from a crushed windpipe and I looked to my own scabbed knuckles, remembering bone and cartilage crunching under and in them.
But their dead faces didn't stir any other memories.
"Pity," the Mediator replied, his breath visible as he exhaled loudly. "There was that one who got away. He's had plenty of time to talk to friends about you now."
"You think there are more?"
He huffed and scratched at his chest through the quilted vest he wore. "I think that fine mistress Raeya is [something] in things she should not."
"She is in cahoots ... She knows these?" I nodded toward the corpses.
He shrugged. "One of you is lying about about something. While I think you haven't told us everything about yourself, I think you are telling the truth about this. Raeya... she does seem to be trying to hide something." He nudged a frozen corpse with his foot. "These were after you for a reason, Mikah. Even if you don't know what it is, you saw or did something you shouldn't have." He grunted then, "Huh, maybe they just don't like you."
There was nothing more we could do in that frigid little building. Rris were outside on that dreary day, watching us. Groups of furry spectators gathered on porches and stoops along the mainstreet, gossiping and chattering as Shyia assisted me back to the sled he'd commandeered: I think it was the same one they'd used to cart me back to Chihirae's cottage after that debacle with their truth drugs.
It was a smooth ride back. The snow was deep and the sled was built solidly, with enough weight on its metal runners to iron out the worst of the bumps. What was uncomfortable for me was the freezing air that set my scars and wounds to aching, especially bad on my face. I huddled down further into the fur-lined collar of my torn and bloodstained jacket.
The cottage was quiet, almost buried in the drifts banked up against the walls. I could see a trickle of smoke rising from the chimney of the small stove over in the barn where Chihirae had her class to attend to. Low clouds embraced the hilltops around the valley, tendrils of mist wending down into the frost-rimed trees along the slopes. It was a sober, motionless scene; drably serene. I gazed up at the mists, remembering the assailants who'd ambushed us there, wondering if there were more watching us then, at that minute.
"You see something?" Shyia asked.
I flinched, looked around. He was hunched down in his long coat, watching me intently while behind him the draught bison snorted steam and pawed at the snow, clearing tufts of buried grass to tear up. With snow up to his knees the coat concealed most of the Mediator's body: a feline head perched on what - in that coat - could pass for a human body; snow and mist and dark denuded trees in the background. I was staring. He cocked his head quizzically and I pulled myself out of the weirdness fugue. "No," I assured him. "Nothing."
Wisps of steam escaped his keyhole-shaped nostrils as he studied me. So many of them do that to me. If I'd brushed off a human with the 'nothing, don't worry about it' routine, they'd usually accept that. Rris don't. Maybe it's because I'm not Rris they aren't sure whether or not to trust me, they take that extra time to assure themselves I'm not going to go for their jugulars.
I've only done that a couple of times.
With a final glance up at the hills the Mediator helped me back into the house. I slumped in a chair while he got the stove going again. First time I'd been out for a long time and it'd taken a lot out of me.
A hand touched my head, "How are you doing?"
"Your ribs. How's that cut?"
It was stinging. "It'll be all right."
"Do you want to lie down?"
"It's all right. I should study. Chihirae wanted me to understand maps today."
He glanced at the books on the desk. "Good. I asked her to make sure you did. I'll sit with you. There are a few things I want to make sure you understand. I think you might need help."
"Only all I can get."
He blinked, then chittered. "I understand."
It was those maps again. They made me nervous. Now I had the chance to study them and compare them to maps on my Atlases the differences were apparent. Not many, too goddamn few. I'd been trying to avoid thinking about it, but the geography lessons I'd had with Chihirae kept rubbing my face in it. Vermont... it wasn't Vermont here. Oh, yeah, the Green Mountains were still there, the upper end of the Appalachian chain, but Lake Champlain was all fucked up; the Connecticut River went way out of its way, and there was a new lake in what should've been the north-eastern tip of the state.
Other states hadn't fared much better. Long Island was no longer an island. The Chesapeake Bay was twisted slightly to the west, as though the Potomac was entering in a different place. The Great Lakes had undergone more changes with Lake Erie seeming to have grown somewhat; Lake Huron lost some of its girth, turning into a long banana-shape. A lot of Chihirae's maps were poorly detailed, especially regarding areas like northern Canada and the far west and south. Either California didn't exist here, or it hadn't been properly explored. There were a few examples of places that could only be England and maybe parts of South America and Africa, but they read like medieval human maps, right down to the Rris equivalent of 'here be dragons' emblazoned across unmarked areas.
And Shyia told me about the people who inhabited these maps.
Lying Scales: The closest town to the village of Westwater and the seat of government for the local demesnes, lying about 50km to the northwest. 50km as the crow flies, probably a lot further than that by ground if the Rris roads were in the condition I suspected they were. There were other towns and cities marked on the maps, a lot of them on tributaries, lakes, others along lines delineating roads or trading routes or something.
"Lying Scales," Shyia extruded a claw to point out the town nestled at the southernmost tip of Lake Champlain. "Not one of the largest towns, but many roads lead there, also trade from [something] lake. You understand?"
"I did not understand the name of the lake."
"Ah." He repeated himself and explained the words I didn't know. Thief's Lament: It sounded like there was a story behind it but it wasn't the time to ask. Names were a minor problem, especially translating them into English. That's something I don't often do now - I find I do a lot of my thinking in Rris - but back then it was something I couldn't help and certain names became somewhat unwieldy. 'You-Mangy-Bastard' is a small coastal town that reeks of fish; It doesn't translate exactly - because of their social structure 'bastard' is a pretty meaningless phrase - but in Rris it's a sharp bark, useful as a mild insult. Something that doesn't seem to worry the occupants of You-Mangy-Bastard too much. There were other problems: the names I couldn't pronounce, the fact that he'd been immersed in this environment for his entire life and I was coming into it not only as ignorant as a new-born, but not even having the same mindset. Ideals and values I'd taken for granted back home changed here: their attitude to town planning, family values, color, pleasant weather, food, personal habits, recreation... the list goes on.
Still, this lesson with Shyia began to differ from the ones Chihirae had given me. Not so much geographical as political. I knew the Rris had a hierarchical government of some kind; The town mayor answered to a higher power and both Chihirae and Shyia worked for various branches of it, but I didn't actually know WHAT it was. This was what the Mediator was trying to lead me into, one step at a time.
There wasn't one government, there were a dozen. Different countries, subdivided into smaller city-states dividing up the continent I knew of as North America and the Rris called Mainland. Not too surprising, after all; our name for our planet is also our word for 'ground'. Poetic, huh?
Thri'te Ish: Land-of-Water. That was where I was. The territories along the northeast, delineated by a jagged southern border approximately where the New York-Pennsylvanian would be back home, the northern border ranging up into the Northern Territories, what I'd known as Canada. To the south, Land-of-Water was bordered by Bluebetter: a long, narrow realm occupying the southern east coast down as far as the Florida peninsula. Cover-My-Tail lay to the southwest, encompassing the Appalachian chain. The majority lay to the west, landlocked countries, clustered around the Great Lakes, spreading across the plains to the Rockies: Overburdened, Nights-in-Wonder, Seas-of-Grass, Hunting-Well... all the others whose names are so familiar to me now I've visited so many of them in one role or another.
Land-of-Water, all of the lands, were monarchies. Land-of-Water's dynasty had ruled for generations, a line by the name of Chihiski. Hirht ah Chihiski was the current liege lord: a decent ruler from everything that Shyia told me, but I had a suspicion his opinion might be biased. The capital was based in the city of Shattered Water, situated about where Buffalo should have been on the north-eastern tip of Lake Erie. From there the town had access to the ports on Erie, Ontario, and through those, the waterways throughout the kingdom. Shyia showed me some maps and illustrations of Shattered Water and judging by those, it was several orders of magnitude larger than Westwater, but still not approaching the size of a place like Richmond.
Relations with neighboring kingdoms were generally amicable: cooperation, open trade flourished, especially around the Lakes where rivers and canals and the lakes themselves provided an excellent natural transportation network. According to Shyia, Land-of-Water had a substantial industrial base and was a land rich in minerals. Their major exports included ore and coal, with lumber and cattle coming a close second, importing grain and things I didn't understand.
That was where the problem started. Chihirae had kept her lessons basic, working with concepts I could understand: physical things, things I could see. My Rris had improved vastly, but it wasn't up to being force-fed a political manifesto. Shyia began outlining the relationships and alliances and what-not between the kingdoms and that was where I lost him. It was too vague, to far removed from anything I'd been able to cover. The political lesson bogged down into language and grammar lessons that frustrated me just as much as they did the Mediator.
We were still at it when Chihirae returned. Shyia's facial fur was ruffled where he'd rubbed at it in frustration. "You spend your life teaching?" he growled at her. "I would go mad."
She laid her books down on the desk beside my laptop. "It is something you learn to [something]," she smiled.
"I don't think I'll live long enough," he sighed. "Rot it all. Just as I think I'm [something], there is something else he doesn't know."
"I am sure you could do better," I growled.
"Mikah," Chihirae warned me and turned to the Mediator. "I don't think he's doing too badly for someone who has only learned to talk a few months ago."
The Mediator huffed, ruffled fingers through his mane. "True, but he's still hard to understand. What happened to his face hasn't helped."
She looked at me and I saw her ears tip back. I turned away and there was a pause before she coughed, then said, "Well, Mikah. Do you think you learned anything today?"
"That there is a lot I don't know."
She chuckled and lightly swiped the tip of the Mediator's tail. "You see: you have taught him something."
He snorted. "Don't think I'm going to change my [something]."
Chihirae laughed at that then sat herself down on the edge of the bed to begin brushing away lumps of melting snow and ice matted into her leg fur. "I don't think anyone's going to be asking you to do that. Think about what you're trying to do though. You've spent your life doing what you are trying to teach him, you can't expect to [something] that into him in a few days."
His face muscles twitched into some expression I didn't recognise. "We have to."
Chihirae stopped what she was doing. "'Have to'? What do you mean."
"I want to take Mikah out of here on the next caravan to Lying Scales."
"That's..." Chihirae burst out, then looked at me with her ears down. "Why? Not so soon. He's not ready for that."
"I know." His tail lashed as he perched himself on the edge of the desk, letting the limb thrash back and forth across the wood like an animate duster. "I don't think it's safe for him here. Those corpses out there were after him and I think there are more where they came from." He hissed softly, then continued, "Mikah saw someone he was not supposed to, doing something they were not supposed to. They will try again and this time he probably won't live. Maybe others will get hurt also."
"But he's not..." Chihirae started, then looked at me with distress in her eyes. "You want to take him to Shattered Water?"
"You know what will happen. You know what it will be like for him."
"I know. I'm sorry, Mikah, but it is better than ending up like those things in the icehouse."
That wasn't a pretty picture. "Do I have any other choices?" I asked softly.
"No," Shyia said.
"If I go away? Like I came here, if I just go away... out there somewhere," I waved in the general direction of the window.
There was a silence and the Rris glanced at each other. "Mikah," Chihirae coughed, "they would come after you. They would hunt you."
I had suspected as much. I met the Mediator's green eyes, "Would you try to stop me?"
A moments consideration before he said, "No."
Fear of me? or was there some feeling there? or was he just saying what I wanted to hear. Whatever it was, his tail was lashing like something with a life of its own. "But you aren't going to try that, are you?" he said.
"It isn't something I want to go through again," I smiled weakly then tried to brush my hair back, feeling scars across my scalp. "Maybe this will be more fun, a?"
"Mikah," the Mediator looked like he had something he wanted to say, then changed his mind. "Mikah... it won't be easy."
"You're really great at inspiring confidence, you know that," I sighed in English.
The Rris exchanged confused glances.
I couldn't sleep that night. Too much to think about. Long after the Rris had turned in and the fire had died to embers I lay in darkness, staring up at nothing while the events of the day played through my thoughts; the possibilities of the future as indistinct as the wooden ceiling not two metres above me.
There was a low cough in the darkness, a momentary rustle of fur on cloth from over where Chihirae was bedded down in my sleeping bag. I felt uncomfortable about that; I didn't mean to be such a difficult houseguest, forcing her out of her own bed.
I flinched at the quiet voice and looked over at Chihirae: pointless, there was only shadow. "No," I sighed, swallowed. My voice caught when I asked, "Chihirae? What will it be like?"
A pause, then again the rustle of cloth and I caught a glimpse of her surreal figure against the dim blueness spilling in through the window, a puff of her breath in the air, then the bed shifting as another weight settled. "Move over. It's cold out here."
I moved, not thinking, and warm fur and cold feet slipped under the covers: incredibly weird against my skin. A hand laid against my ribs and my skin flinched at the cold touch, "Don't worry so much."
"I'm sorry. It is just that... Chihirae?"
"Have you ever heard of... mouth wash?"
"No. What is it? A drink?"
"Never mind," I shook my head. "It is... hard not to worry. What you and Shyia tell me, it scares me. Will it be so bad?"
Her hand flexed - so slightly, but claws kissed against my skin. After a time she answered: "I can't say for [something] what will happen. Understand: you are going to a place where many people will try to use you for their own purposes. Some will try to use you against others, some will try to make you do things you don't want to." She sighed then and harsh breath washed over me. "And there will be people who are afraid of what you are, what you represent, of the changes you might bring. There might be... accidents."
I didn't say anything, I understood.
"You need more time," she murmured. "Sending you to the court is like sending a cub to judge a [something]."
"It can't be so bad," I forced a smile.
"I hope you're right." I couldn't see her expression, but in the darkness her hand came up to touch my face, to gently touch the scars there. "You've already made someone angry. I don't think that's a good start."
"But they won't come back, will they? Why? I haven't done anything."
"They thought you had. It wasn't an accident Mikah."
"You are not helping."
She almost laughed, a choked sound, "Mikah, this is the only way I can help you. You must understand: a lot of people won't see you as another person. To them you will be an animal: maybe useful, maybe annoying, but to a lot of them you'll be a [something]."
I shuddered, caught after her hand with my good one and laced my fingers around hers.
"Maybe they'll learn," she murmured.
"Ah," she chuckled. "I did."
"Am I so horrible?" I asked. "I don't want to hurt anyone. I am not built for it like you are." I squeezed her hand and felt claws extrude a little.
"I know." I felt her shift again, fur rasp against my shoulder as she laid her head there. "But you have killed two Rris, Mikah. It isn't something that's going to go unnoticed." She raised herself up then, to look down at me I suppose: all I could see were indistinct highlights on fur as she spoke. "Mikah, don't let them upset you. Whatever happens, stay calm. If you hurt someone, accidentally or not, I don't know what would happen."
"I will remember."
"Good," she settled down again, hooked an arm across my chest and actually hugged me, wary of my broken arm. "I would hate for anything to happen to you."
"You make my... what is to happen..." I touched the fur of her arm, stroked it sadly. "It does not sound like a life I will enjoy."
"Don't say that." There was another hesitation and when she spoke again it was a low voice, gentle and unsure. "You... what you did with Shyia's gun; you won't try that again?"
How do you answer that? I'd never intended to do it; the pain, the fear and shock had just gotten too much. In a way it'd been someone else who'd raised that pistol, pulled the trigger. I didn't know what the future held for me, I didn't know if it would happen again.
"I... I don't..." I took a deep breath, to calm down, and made a promise that I had no idea if I'd be able to keep. "No, I won't."
A rough tongue touched my cheek, felt like wet steel wool rasping against my beard. "I know you will do your best," she murmured and licked me again. It tickled and confused me. "What is that? What does it mean?"
"It is a [something] of [something]."
"I don't understand those words."
"Sorry." She laid her head down again and I felt her breath in my ear. "It's to calm cubs. It shows... I am here, I am close, I care for you."
I swallowed hard and rolled, trying to see her. "Chihirae, I..."
Oh, shit. Oh, Christ, I wanted to say it, I really did, but I didn't know the words. Even if I had, even then, it would've sounded stupid. A foolish sentiment. I closed my eyes and just held her close.
It was another two days. Two days of waiting and tension and lesson upon lesson: names, places, customs and protocols, do's and don'ts... information just piled on top of itself, too much to absorb. I did my best, recorded more on the laptop to review when I had the chance. Even so, I've made enough faux pas in situations that we'd covered in those cram sessions, lessons I'd forgotten.
Shyia continued my education, sitting with me through the days while Chihirae took up the evening shift until long after the light was gone and the town down the valley asleep. At the end of the day I'd collapse into bed, my head still full of Rris and words and sounds and concepts.
There were dreams those nights, some good, others not so. The one I remember most vividly: lying on a table under shifting red lights while Rris with surgeons' masks gathered around, brandishing knives gleaming bloody, now we'll see how it works. The knives pricked my skin and I woke with Chihirae asleep against me, embracing me, her claws dimpling my skin.
I snugged closer. A cold night. The last time I'd be sharing a bed for a long while.
End Light on Shattered Water 7