Light on Shattered Water


          "How are you doing?"
          "I am fine." I waved her help aside and kept on limping along the road, staggering through drifts that came up over my knees.  Chihirae laid her ears back and looked dubious, but let me alone.  On my other side the Mediator readjusted my fully-loaded and ill-fitting pack again and squinted into the morning sunlight at the surrounding hills.  Was he expecting trouble?  Had he seen something?  He caught my questioning glance and just said, "Nothing.  Don't worry."
          That morning was my last morning in Westwater.  I'd already been packed when Shyia had arrived to say we'd be leaving.  The foul weather we'd been having the past few days had broken up leaving achingly clear skies and a stiff breeze that raised goosebumps on exposed skin.  I huddled deeper into the collar of my much-abused jacket and kept limping toward the village.
          Main Street of Westwater was busy for that time of the morning.  There were wagons parked there, two of them, with bison in the traces ruminating and steaming in the crisp air.  Even as we made our slow way along the snow-bound road I could see Rris, hear their shouting on the wind.  They were everywhere: bustling around, shouting and waving arms as they finished loading and securing cargoes in the back of the wagons, bundles of furs, boxes and barrels being tied in place.  Of course when they saw us more and more eyes turned our way.  Some stopped what they were doing to stare openly, others just waved or shouted a greeting and returned to work.
          My boots sunk into a mulch of mud and ice churned by iron-rimmed wheels as Shyia led us to the lead wagon.  Difficult keeping my balance with one arm in a sling.  A burly Rris - I couldn't tell if it was male or female - was snarling as it struggled to hook up a final loop of rope securing a canvass covering the cargo.  "Hesya?" Shyia asked.
          "What?" the other snarled in irritation and gave a triumphant 'Hah!' as the rope slipped over the hitch on the rail and turned to Shyia, dusting hands.  "Who... Ah, you're back.  I... what the rot is that?"
          Shyia looked at what the Rris was gaping at: me.  "Ah, I did say there's another passenger."
          "That?!" The Rris looked me up and down.  Behind, I could see a small audience of townsfolk watching the display with some amusement.  "By my mother's [something].  What is it?"
          "His name is Mikah, or something like." The Mediator reached up to pat my shoulder.  "He won't hurt you."
          "I do not bite," I volunteered.
          The Rris jerked back and banged into the wagon.  "Rot me!  It spoke!"
          "He does that sometimes," some wag in the audience called out and there was laughter.  The butt of their amusement looked around with ears back, obviously confused.  Shyia's own ears flicked before he turned to wave the watching Rris away.  Some returned to work, others just retreated to the stoops along the sides of the street where they settled to watch from a distance.  The Mediator ignored them.
          "What is this thing?" the other Rris was asking again.
          "Just a passenger," Shyia said.  "You'll be ready to leave on time?"
          "I... uh... yes," the Rris couldn't keep its eyes off me.
          "Good," the Mediator swung my pack down and looked at the wagons.  "Where can this go?"
          "Uh... there," the other waved vaguely toward the other wagon, transfixed by the sight of me.
          "Come on then," Shyia snarled.  "I have some cargo to be packed away."
          The wagon driver blinked, licked his lips, then hurried off in the Mediator's footsteps.
          "Get used to it," Chihirae murmured.
          "Won't be easy," I replied and looked down at her.  She was watching me closely, like I might go off on a rampage.  "Do I look so dangerous?"
          She ducked her head.  "Sorry.  I wasn't sure how you would... It was someone who didn't know you.  I didn't know what you would do."
          "I was all right?"
          She smiled then and reached up; her fingertips patted my face, "You were fine."
          I smiled also, caught her hand and held it, exploring the contours, the muscles and bones with my fingers.  "Oh, Christ.  Chihirae, I'm going to miss you."
          Wrinkles marched up her muzzle as she fleered her lips back; a human-type smile.  "It will be too quiet around here with you gone.  I hope we can meet again."
          I looked down at our hands, her tawny, stubby fingers lacing between my longer sparsely-haired ones.  "I... I have this for you." She stared when I produced the papers.  "For everything you've done for me; It isn't much... I am sorry."
          She unfolded one: a picture of her at her desk, glasses in one hand, an almost-human smile on her face.  One of my Rotring ball-points rolled out into her hand and she looked startled, "Mikah, I can't..."
          "Sure you can.  I'm sorry it's not much... After all you've done," I trailed off and shrugged apologetically.
          A Rris smile spread across her own features, "Mikah, it is nothing to be sorry about.  Thank you."
          I shrugged awkwardly.  "I... there is something else."
          "Hnn?" Her ears pricked up.
          The Mediator was out of sight, out of earshot, nevertheless I lowered my voice.  "Back at the house, in a cupboard, I left papers.  Writings.  They are... important.  Please, look after them."
          She looked confused.  "What?  What do you mean?"
          "If I... if something happens to me they will help you.  I..." I shook my head.  "They can help you learn my language."
          Her jaw sagged.  "I don't understand," she said.
          "It is for you, for Rris.  If something happens to me they will be in a safe place."
          "But you're going to talk to others.  They will want to learn how to read the stuff on your machine, learn your language.  You can teach them."
          "I... I'm not sure how much I want to tell them." I hung my head, realising how that must sound.  "I just think maybe it would be best if there were... if there were copies in a safe place.  In case something happened.  Anyway, you wanted to learn my language, didn't you?"
          "All right.  I will look after them.  Don't worry." She smiled then, "Ah, there's a few others come to see you off."
          I looked: a small group of cubs, a half-dozen or so, scampering over and drawing up short, as if suddenly struck shy.  Shyia beckoned and they came closer.  I knew them: Chine, Ithi'tsa, and Feher.  "You're going now?" that one asked.
          "It looks like it," I smiled and crouched to bring myself to his level.  "I would like to stay longer, but..." I trailed off and just shrugged.
          "It'll be boring without you," he said and came closer, reaching to touch my face.  I suffered his finger stroking the skin of my cheek.  "Do you have to go?"
          "I think I do," I said.  "The Mediator wants me to meet some people."
          "Red tie it," he 'pouted', his tail lashing.
          "Why can't he stay longer?" another cub demanded of Chihirae.
          "It's not safe for him," she explained.  "Those people tried to hurt him, they might come back."
          "But Mikah killed them!" Chine piped up, taking a bloodthirsty delight in the fact and Chihirae gave me a sidelong look before trying to explain that there might be more.  They seemed convinced that I could take on anything.  My months of convalescence seemed to have slipped their minds.
          "Are you coming back?" Feher eventually asked.
          "I don't know.  I hope I can," I said, meaning every word.
          "They don't let you out either?" the cub grinned at me with tiny teeth.  In the background I could see adult Rris watching; trusting me enough to let their cubs get this close, but still...
          "No," I told Feher, "not often.  I think I will miss you also."
          He laughed then, then one of the others poked him with a claw and muttered something.  He hissed back and Ithi'tsa stepped up to proudly present me with a small package.  "We made these.  A travelling gift."
          "I thank you," I accepted the package made from scraps of leather.  Inside was a pair of gloves: neatly tanned tan-colored deerhide, rough stitching, and they fit and they were warm.  I flexed my fingers and grinned, "These are perfect.  How did you know?"
          "Saw it on your box," Feher exclaimed, obviously proud of himself.
          I smiled and thanked them again and they preened in the praise, laughing and joking, throwing Rris puns around in word games I still didn't really understand.  That was the enjoyable part of the farewell, a time I remember fondly.  It was the part an hour or so later that was so much more difficult.
          When I said my final goodbyes to Chihirae.
          "I have never liked goodbyes."
          She ducked her head.  "Me neither.  It will be... quiet around here without you." She smiled wanly, then offered her hand.  I looked at it, at her face solemnly waiting.  She'd most likely seen the gesture on the laptop and I hesitated for a heartbeat before taking her hand in mine, feeling the fur and muscles and bones.  For a second we stayed like that, then in front of all those Rris who were watching us I hugged her close, ignoring the protests from my broken arm, lowering my head to the wiry fur of her head, tufts on her ears tickling me.  "Oh, Christ!  I'm going to miss you."
          She stood there at a loss, tense and uncertain, then she sighed and her arms were around me her head nuzzling my chest.  I heard Rris exclamations at this display but I really didn't care what they thought.  My friend, and christ only knew when or if I'd ever see her again.  It was hard to let go.

          "You're going to miss her, aren't you."
          I pulled my coat a little closer and looked up at the Mediator.  There wasn't much spare room in the wagon, just a none-too wide space cleared for us in the back where we sat facing each other, my feet not too far from touching the opposite side.  "Is it so easy to tell?"
          He cocked his head.  Damn, didn't he have a sense of humour?  "With that display back there I think anyone could tell.  You know that could be dangerous.  If someone wanted to get to you they could use..."
          "Fuck that.  Enough with your games for a while.  I just wanted to say goodbye."
          He huffed, fur bristling.  "Games?  Is that what you think this is?" Then he coughed and looked away from me.
          I hadn't meant it like that.  For a second I considered saying something, changed my mind and settled back.  The wagon wasn't comfortable.  It'd never been designed for passengers, human or otherwise.  No seats and no shocks, we had some canvasses bundled up as makeshift cushions, but besides that there was nothing between my butt and the boards.
          We'd headed north, up the valley, away from the town, following the stream.  I remembered looking back at that final turn before Westwater passed out of sight to see that familiar figure standing, a hand raised and fell in a final wave.  Someone who'd come to mean so much to me, into my life, then out of it.  Goodbye I whispered as the town was lost around the corner.
          It was white out there, a white world of ice and snow and trees bowed low under their burdens.  Surprisingly, the forest wasn't as dense as it'd been back home.  The trees were huge and old and widely spaced, the undergrowth not as heavy as it'd been in the parks I'd known.  Puzzling; the Rris couldn't have accomplished nearly the amount of deforestation and replanting we had.  The hills were green and white, natural patterns, none of the firebreaks and man-made scars I remembered.  The wind that came off those mountains was as cold as the snow.  Midday brought sunlight but little warmth, instead there was a white glare that - after my time in that dimness of the cabin - had me reaching for my Oakleys.  It was the first time Shyia had seen them and he stared openly, "What are those for?"
          "They are... They make seeing more... easier comfortable in much light."
          He hissed.  "Too dark, too light.  How can you see at all?"
          "We manage," I grinned.
          His ears went back a little.  "You're going to have to stop doing that.  Especially with those things on."
          Stung, my humor deflated.  "Sorry," I said and as he watched wondered - not for the first or last time - if I wouldn't be better just running.

          I don't know how they could call it a road.  I guess in warmer times it was a pair of rutted lines through the countryside but at that time it was buried under a deceptively smooth-looking layer of snow that did a damn good of hiding the worst of the pot-holes.  No bridges either: the times we had to cross a stream or small river it was by ford.
          As the sun sank the temperature plummeted right along with it.  So it was late and freezing when the pair of wagons drew up to stop for the night, the only light was the cold blue wash from the moon and stars that polarised the snowscape into a crosshatching of light and dark.  Judging by the fire-pit and small supply of wood stashed away that place was a regular stop for them.  The Rris set about unhitching the bison, getting the fire started and breaking out food.  I broke into my pack and pulled out another sweater and even with that under my jacket it was cold.  At least the wind had died.
          We sat around a small fire while a thread of smoke climbed to dissipate into a sky dusted with the pinpoints of stars and the spill of the milky way.  I still find it soothing to look at that, to know something in my life was staying constant.  The Rris had their near-raw meat, mine was shish kebab: well done with meat, potato and citrus on the skewer.  Sounds weird but it sure tasted alright.  I chewed slowly, my jaw aching as the cold got into the scars.
          "What happened to you?"
          I squinted across the fire at the Rris who'd spoken.  One of the wagondrivers.  The first time one of them had spoken to me.  "Happened to me?"
          "Your face," he pointed.  "Those marks... Or is that normal?"
          I touched the scars.  "Oh.  Trouble with a bandit."
          "What happened to them?"
          Shyia coughed, drawing attention his way.  "They were taken care of," he said softly and I saw the others' ears draw back as they stared at me.  A sure way to kill a conversation I thought as I returned to my meal.  Until one of the drivers startled me by venturing, "Where do you come from?"
          "A place... a place where there are a lot like me."
          "Near here?" the other - Hesya - asked.
          "No.  It's... It's a very long way away.  I don't know just where."
          The Rris tipped his head, in a gesture or just because he had a kink in his neck, I wasn't sure.  "Then how did you get to Westwater?"
          "An accident, I think.  I don't know.  I didn't have any choices."
          "So how are you going to go back?"
          That hit close.  I glanced at Shyia and he looked away.  "I don't know," I finally said.  "I... don't think I can."
          The pair exchanged looks before one asked Shyia, "Are you taking it to Shattered Water?"
          "I don't think you need to know," the Mediator replied.
          The other looked annoyed, then shrugged and looked at me again, "What are you anyway?"
          "A human."
          "H'an," he tried the word, laughed along with his companion.  "Why is that so hard to say?  H'an.  Are you male or female?"
          I blinked at that, somewhat taken aback.  Still, I have the same problem with Rris.  "Male."
          "Wouldn't know it to look at you." He smiled and tore another mouthful of meat.  "How did you learn to talk?"
          "I had a teacher."
          "Teacher?  Oh, that one.  She comes here every winter."
          "Nice female," the other agreed.  "Very nice." Then flashed his companion a peculiar expression, with his jaw dropped and tongue lolling.  A leer?  or perhaps they were just commenting on her pleasant personality.
          Yeah.  Sure.
          "That explains your [something]."
          "My what?" I asked.  "I don't know that word, c'rocth."
          "They mean the way you speak, the way your words sound," Shyia told me.
          "Right," one of the wagoneers said.  "You sound like someone highborn."
          His friend waved a hand and said, "From you it's like a bison wearing pants." There was laughter from all three Rris, Shyia included.  I shrugged.
          No beds that night.  The Rris drivers settled their bedrolls on top of their cargo; not very comfortable, but better than the ground.  I used the last of the firelight to pitch my tent.  The Rris made surprised noises and sat up to pay attention when I gave the bag a practiced flick of my wrist and the small igloo popped into shape.  It was a couple of minutes work to stake it out in a rock-free patch of ground and make sure the poles' joints were locked.
          Shyia cocked his head and said, "Useful."
          "Ai!  Where can you get something like that?" one of the teamsters called.
          "A long way from here," Shyia retorted.
          At a pinch it could take two people; human-sized people.  With a smaller Rris, there was a bit more room.  Shyia lay back on his bedroll with just a light blanket and his fur.  While I wormed myself one-handed into my own bag he reached a furred hand up to touch the Thermstal fabric, poked the tent with a claw and snorted.
          "Something you don't like?" I asked.
          "You need another wash," he said.  "You smell like sweating hands."
          I just looked at him.  For someone whose sodden fur had an almost-unbearable wet-dog reek, he was a fine one to talk.
          And he didn't even seem to notice, just lay back and stared at the roof.  "You enjoy sleeping in these things?  So flimsy, like climbing into a trap."
          "You would rather sleep in the snow?" I hinted.
          He lolled his head around to fix me with a glittering stare, then snorted and rolled over.

          Three days travel.  Two nights of lying and staring at the roof and worrying before drifting into a restless sleep.  It was the second day that the track we were on linked with another, then another, with wheel marks showing there'd been other traffic using it recently.  There were other signs of civilization: stone and wood bridges over a couple of the rivers, once something I was told was a signal tower: a few huts around a small stone tower at a crossroads.  A couple of Rris wearing what looked like brass breastplates and quilted leggings leaned on the tower railings and watched us pass.  Soldiers?  Further on a much larger river had to be ferried.  A barge more than large enough for the pair of wagons nestled at the end of a short stone pier.  The ferryman was watching from the stoop of a nearby clapboard house as we rolled up.  A short, stocky Rris of indeterminate gender - a male I think - who dutifully argued fares with the wagondrivers, glared at Shyia, pulled a knife when it found I wasn't on a leash.
          After he'd been calmed and disarmed it was another quarter-hour to load the wagons and draught animals and secure them.  There was a rope as thick as my arm strung across the river, running through a heavy pulley on the barge.  The ferryman just angled a rudderlike thing against the current and the barge began scooting crabwise across the river.  Neat trick.
          A peaceful crossing.  I spent it leaning against a railing and watching scabs of ice floating downstream, shattering and spinning away when they struck the sides of the ferry.  The ferryman spent too much time watching me instead of the river.  We grounded on the far bank with a crunch of ice and a jolt that had the teamsters shouting at the ferryman as they calmed their animals.  Shyia led me ashore where we waited on the icy jetty while they sorted everything out and that night I had dreams where my old life and acquaintances and friends mixed and mingled with Rris in a tangled morass that prevented me getting much sleep.
          The third morning we left the hills behind us.  We crested the last rolling hilltop to look down on a rolling winter landscape, the Adirondack Mountains in the distance, the glittering of ice on Lake Champlain - Thief's Lament was their name - stretching away to the north.  Civilization there, more than the few odd buildings of the previous days.  Farmland, swathes cut from the forest across the breadth of the valley, kilometers of cleared land subdivided into smaller parcels, onion-rings radiating out from the sprawl of the town of Lying Scales at the southern tip of Thief's Lament lake.  Our small caravan dipped down into the valley, following wider roads passing between snow-drifted hedgerows and rickety-looking wooden fences, passing outlying farms where Rris went about their business, spreading feed for the livestock, cutting timber and firewood.  Sometimes workers saw me and stopped what they were doing to just stare.
          Closer to and the buildings were more elaborate, richer estates.  Mills and granaries.  A bunch of buildings with smokestacks and piles of coal outside, belching smoke.  I could hear machinery of some kind chugging away inside.  Another place gave vent to the most unholy reek; Shyia told me it was a tannery.  Shit, and I'd thought modern factories were a health hazard.
          There was more traffic on the road.  A lot of sleighs, fewer wagons.  We were passed several times by Rris mounted on - of all things - Llama: long-legged things with distinctly more bulk than the things I'd seen in the zoo back home.  Couriers and messengers Shyia told me, carrying news between the towns.  Foot traffic outnumbered all the other, with Rris - groups and individuals of all ages - bearing burdens of all manner and description, even drawing sleds of various types.  Most of them were wearing coats of some kind or another, leather leggings, snow clinging to their fur and ice around their whiskers.  Once a rider on llama-back drew alongside the lead wagon and chatted with the driver for a time, casting curious glances my way before leaving us behind.
          "You're all right?"
          I looked across at Shyia who was watching me closely.  "Yeah," I nodded, trying to get my breathing under control.  "I am fine."
          He cocked his head.  "You're nervous.  You smell it, rot me; you look it."
          "I will manage."
          He turned to look ahead and I saw his ears lay back for a second.  "Just be careful.  Don't frighten anyone.  Try not to make a [scene]."
          "Perhaps it would help if I wore a bag over my head?"
          He looked thoughtful, "That might..."
          "Don't even think about it," I warned and he grinned.
          The town proper was fortified.  A sawtooth pattern of earthworks encircled the center of the town: a broad, shallow ditch the fallen snow turned into a gently sloping white field overlooked by an earthen rampart topped with masonry constructions that looked a hell of a lot like bunkers.  There were cannon up there, some big, serious-looking things with bores I could poke my arm into alongside smaller ones mounted on swivels, also armored sentries carrying a variety of weapons from muskets to pole-arms.  The road crossed a causeway across the ditch and zigzagged through a gap where the two ramparts overlapped.  There was a gatehouse there, with guards in those quilted leather leggings and breastplates who saw me and got interested enough to pull us over.
          Shyia stepped down to meet them, producing a scrap of paper and exchanging words.  They ducked their heads and withdrew, waving us on through.
          A mixture of packed earth and cobbled streets covered with trampled snow, animal droppings, and frozen mud.  Boxy looking buildings half-buried under drifts, a lot different from the ones in Westwater.  Blocks were occupied by large, high-gabled stone and wood buildings with surprisingly few high-set narrow windows, brightly painted shutters and trim, playing sardines in the confines of the town wall.  There weren't many exterior doors; most buildings had single large entryways, like dark halls.  As we passed I could see doors in those halls, sometimes stairways.  I thought they looked like quite unpleasant places to live, but then I didn't know much about Rris architecture.
          A central boulevard took a direct north-south route through the heart of the town, smaller roads curving off to either side while things that might have been fountains in the summer now spouted only icicles.  Rris, everywhere I looked, Rris.  A dazzling swirl of bodies and color in the snow.  Fur: browns and fawns and grays and speckled and striped, some with dyes or paints adding greens or red or other colors, some with shaven patterns on cheeks or arms.  A couple of shocking-white Rris wearing nothing but belt pouches in the freezing air were almost lost against a snowdrift.  Even in this weather there were stalls with Rris shouting at the passerbys, shops with gaudily colored awnings and wares displayed on racks or trays or behind glass so thick and distorted that it was difficult to make out just what was being advertised.  Rris sweeping streets, repairing roofs, driving or pushing carts.  The noise was everywhere, the catfight of Rris talking, shouting, the cacophony of animals and wheels rattling on cobblestones.  I knew Rris, I'd lived with Rris, but this... it was giddying, confusing.
          I closed my eyes, opened them and it was still real as the wagons rattled their way along that snow-covered boulevard in a town in a world that wasn't mine.  The skeletons of trees lined the avenue.  Probably glorious in the spring, their cloaks of snow and ice crystals gave them their own chill beauty.  Cubs playing in the snow: an impromptu snowball fight that had small bodies tumbling and scattering ice.  An adolescent pulling a younger sibling on a sled that looked just like the ones my friends and I had played with in our childhoods.  The Rris who saw me and pointed and stared and I wondered if this had been such a good idea.  Maybe I should've tried to find my own way...
          A train of thought that was derailed when Shyia had the driver stop at the next intersection and helped me out, hauled out my pack and his small duffel and then we were standing calf-deep in snow in the middle of a Rris town while the wagons rumbled on without us.  Shyia slung the weight of my pack, did his best to settle straps that had never been intended for his frame, looked around at the Rris staring at us, then touched my arm, "Come on.  This way."
          Down a sidestreet lost under fresh-fallen snow.  I followed his stalking gait that left a trail of alien footprints in the whiteness while from between coat tails his own tail lashed.  Rris would cross the street to avoid us then stand and stare.  And there were colors on the buildings: murals and maybe graffiti, paintings of Rris and animals and trees between the windows.  Winter-bare trees here also, everything spaced out far more than they would be in a human town of a comparable period.  Cubs following us and shouting questions and Rris came out of houses to watch, houses with funny-shaped doors and paths cleared through the drifts, with smoke spilling from chimneys.
          There was another wall further on.  A big one; the old curtain wall Shyia told me.  Three stories high - higher than most buildings in town - with crenellated ramparts and age-worn stones.  The tunnel through a gatehouse was dark and ice cold and something skittered across the road in front of us while Shyia's claws clicked on rock and the soft soles of my boots were almost soundless.  It was a relief to get through and into the winter sunlight again.
          "Shyia?  Ai!  Shyia!" a voice called.  Another Rris was hailing him from the door of a shop across the way.  It trotted across the street kicking snow flying, the same kind of coat that Shyia wore flapping around its legs, a steaming half-eaten pastry in its hand.  "Good to see you back.  Rot me you've been away a while!  Now what in the name of my [somethings] swollen [testicles?] is that thing?"
          "Good to be back," Shyia sighed.  "Long story.  Remember that Westwater affair?"
          "That did it?"
          "No.  Not him.  Look, this thing, it's sprouted heads.  King's business now."
          The other blinked at me with parti-colored eyes - left one amber, the other a darker almost brownish tint - disconcerting, looked me up and down like it might study a slightly-foaming Pitbull-Ridgeback cross, then took a bite from the pastry.  "That bad?  For that?  Shave me but it's ugly."
          I gave Shyia an exasperated look.  "Do you want to tell him or shall I?"
          Worth it to see the other sputter pastry.  "It talks?"
          "Aye." Shyia looked at me.  "He talks.  His name is Mikah and he's got a peculiar sense of humor.  Mikah, this is Escheri and 'he' is a she."
          "Oh.  Sorry."
          The other Mediator looked from him to me in drop-jawed astonishment, then brandished her pastry and demanded, "Shyia, you red-tied [something]!  Where did this come from?  What is it?"
          He laid his ears back and nodded his jaw toward the few Rris who'd stopped to rubberneck.  "Not here.  There's already been trouble so I want to get him back to the [something] before we left.  Tell you on the way.  Can you carry my bag?" He handed over his duffel and nodded at me, "Come on, Mikah."
          And as we walked they talked.  Shyia related snippets of what had occured at Westwater and in return Escheri filled him in on what had been going on in town: a merchant killed, thefts, something being built, a lot of things I didn't understand.  I tried to keep track of their conversation and what was going on around me and avoid slipping on the icy cobbles as I listened.  Shyia was more open with this other Rris than I'd ever seen him.  Old friends, they had to be.
          And in those streets, away from the boulevard, I saw the lower side of their society: the legless cripple huddled in a dirty alley with ribs poking through its fur and an empty bowl buried in the snow in front of it; the other beggars in scraps of clothing against the cold, the Rris who kept their distance and watched the Mediators with more attention than they did me.  It wasn't an utopia.  I watched another Rris stare at me and hastily duck away and Escheri asked, "Have you seen a town before?"
          I blinked at her and gave a small smile: she flinched.  "Not like this.  No."
          She turned to Shyia.  "That thing he did with his mouth..."
          "That's how he smiles."
          "Oh." She stared at me again.  "What do you think of Scales?"
          I opened my mouth, closed it and looked around at the buildings: narrow windows, some with glass others with closed shutters.  A Rris ducked its head and hurried on its way.  Like something out of a drug trip, I wanted to say, instead said, "It is... different."
          Shyia strangled a laugh, then answered Escheri's quizzical look with, "He knows towns but I can imagine this is different from what he is familiar with."
          "Where are we going?" I asked him.
          "The [something]," he said.
          "I don't know that word," I did my best to repeat the sound.
          "No," he corrected my pronunciation.  "The Mediator Guild house.  There," he pointed.
          A brick wall.  A HIGH brick wall with a gatehouse and armed sentries.  The guards reacted uncertainly, obviously familiar with the Mediators but confused as to just what the fuck I was.  "Sir?  What the [something] is that?" one asked Shyia.
          "Not your concern," he said, then looked at me and added, "You see anything or anyone out of the ordinary around here, you report it.  Any windblown talk about something like this," he gestured to me, "you report it.  Got that?"
          "Uh, yessir," the guard shifted his weight, moving his halberd back to rest.  I eyed it uneasily: the damn thing was twice the height he was, with a nasty assortment of cutting, slashing and stabbing blades at the business end.  "Ginsu?" I asked and Shyia caught my arm to yank me along through the gates.
          There was a courtyard inside the walls with buildings on all sides: brick stables off to my left, the sounds of animals coming from inside and equipment hanging from the walls.  The other sides were the Guild house.  Big.  Stone and brick and whitewashed plaster and exposed timbers and tiled roofs swept free of snow.  The main body was three floors counting the attic rooms; the wings and various extensions not higher than two.  All the windows I could see were narrow and glazed, a lot of them barred.  There were Rris in that courtyard, some just wearing drab, functional clothing, working at clearing a path through snow, hauling a wheelbarrow, other menial work.  Others were decked out in more expensive-looking garb: another pair hunched down into the same kind of long coat as Shyia and Escheri, others with quilted vests and pants, all with pistols and accessories slung at the hip.  Mediators.  And more and more of them were taking an interest in me.  I heard questioning murmurs rising behind us as Shyia bustled me through to the main doors, which opened onto a tunnel similar to the one under the old gatehouse save this one was clean and finished in white marble with lanterns glowing along the vaulted ceiling.  It opened into a garden.
          It was an atrium; a wide, cloistered area open to the sky above.  There was a garden here, a small place with grass and ornamental shrubs.  Above the cloister were balconies with carved railings, ornate columns climbing to the roof, glazed windows larger than the ones on the outer walls.  Inside out.  Were all the buildings in the town like this?  The garden in the atrium had felt the bite of winter: bushes were bare, grass was dusted with snow, but there were evergreens that kept their color.  A peculiarly bent Rris was clearing debris, turned a gray-furred face to watch us.  Old I realised, staring with fascination.  The old gardener made an incoherent sound, dropped the basket and fled, doddering on those peculiar Rris ankle joints.  I stared after the clattering of claws on stone, the slamming of a door, not sure what to feel or do.
          The Mediators were both watching me.  Finally Escheri flicked her ears, "He always has been a little... nervous."
          "Enough," Shyia admonished her and again told me, "Come along."
          More Rris were appearing along balconies above.  I could hear questions and comments drifting down.  Shyia led the way out of the atrium, through doors plated with engraved metal into another corridor, this one paneled with wood, a whitewashed plaster vault curving overhead, the complex, orange-tinted lamps hanging there glowed with the hiss and slight flicker of gas.  Our feet tracked melting snow and sludge across the floor, Rris footprints and my boots; up a staircase with a spectacular stained-glass window above the landing into another corridor like the one below, this one with solid black doors along the left side of its length, another heavier pair at the far end with another set of waiting guards who hastened to open the doors for us.  Another hallway similar to the others, this with patches of color where pictures hung on the wall.  I hesitated at a painting of a bridge across a garden pool with glimpses of fish below the surface.  The colors were odd: broad jumps in the graduations, lack of subtle tones in the shading, and there was something funny about the perspective and POV, but it wasn't a bad picture, better than the prints I've seen filling a blank space in a lot of offices.  I didn't have a lot of time to study the thing before Shyia caught my arm again to hustle me along to a door.  "I want some guards on him," he told Escheri as he opened it.
          "What's so important?"
          "Shyia," I asked.  "What is going on?"
          "Later," he told me.  "In."
          I stepped into the room and got first impressions of small and white.
          "Wait here," Shyia was telling me.  "Just, stay here.  I'll be back as soon as I can."
          "How long..." I started to say as I turned to find myself talking to a closed door.  There was no latch on my side.  "Hey!" I yelled at the voices I could hear outside and pounded on the black wood: almost broke my hand and there was no reply as the voices faded away.  "Hey," I said, to myself.
          It was a spartan whitewashed room.  There was a low-woodframe bed with white sheets and a small table with a stool and a candle in its holder.  Sunlight streamed in through a slit of a window high up in the far wall, my breath visible in the light.  Nothing else: an antiseptic little vestibule, not quite a cell.  I touched my broken arm and sat down on the bed to wait.  It'd been a long day with too many new things that I was still trying to assimilate.  It was a long wait.

End Light on Shattered Water 8