Light on Shattered Water
I woke with a jerk, my heart still racing, blinking at a plaster ceiling illuminated with a flickering orange light. Shit. I licked my lips. I'd dozed off, still fully dressed, but something had woken... there was a Rris standing there with a lantern, staring at me squinting into the light. Finally it said, "I brought you food," and pointed to a tray on the table.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. "Thank you." I glanced at my watch: about six hours. The Rris was still there, watching me curiously. No shock there, just watching. "Do I know you?"
A slight wrinkling of the muzzle. "We met earlier."
I tried to remember the name. "Eseri?"
"Escheri," she corrected my pronunciation. "A. You didn't remember?"
"I'm sorry. I have trouble telling Rris apart." I looked at the dishes: covered by small woven baskets but the aroma seeping through set my mouth watering. I lifted one.
"Shyia said you liked your meat overcooked," she volunteered. "You have some time to eat that, then the Commissioner wants to meet you."
I looked at my watch: 23:47. "Now?"
She looked me up and down. "They seem to think you're important enough. Hurry up and eat that."
And they'd got it right: Cooked meat, gravy, and a heavy, warm bread with a mug of water. My stomach growled eagerly. I took up the Rris fork and ate while the female Mediator leaned against the wall and watched me intently. When I'd finished she was still staring. "Thank you," I told her.
She cocked her head, her ears twitching. "That was all right for you?"
"Very good. Thank you."
She smiled then, that pursing of her face. "Good. Now, please come with me."
I did. There were a pair of guards outside the door and they were staring at me like they hadn't known exactly what they were supposed to be guarding. With their ears still back the pair fell in a few steps behind us. Escheri led the way back along the hall, through more doors and around one of the balconies in the atrium; I could see stars above the rooftops, my breath frosting in the chill air. The opposite wing was warmer, furnished differently with more paintings and lamps casting their eerie orange-tinted light. A loud bang made me jump violently and stare at the Rris who'd just come out of his room and slammed the door. Escheri in turn had flinched and was staring at me with her ears plastered flat against her mane, the guards standing back with swords half drawn. I just froze, afraid to move and for a second that tableau held, until she shook her head and glanced at the interloper who ducked his head and scurried off, then she turned back to me, "Just a door. Nothing to worry about."
I looked at my hand: I was shaking. I clenched my fist, trying to keep control. "Sorry."
"How did you guess?" I asked.
She touched my arm then; just a tap to get me moving again.
The Commissioner's office was situated in the corner of the building. Escheri scratched at the door, then opened it and ushered me in. I stepped inside and hesitated, taking stock: a simple room, plain white-plaster walls with a couple of small black and white portraits hung up, some shelves with a couple of books and other curious trinkets, a potbellied stove shedding heat from a corner. Across the room red drapes were drawn and in front of them squatted a low desk, set low to the ground like a table in a traditional Japanese tea room. My laptop was sitting there alongside a weird-looking lamp and other items of mine: toiletries, clothing, flashlight, medical kit, compass on top of my opened map, my notebook, all strewn across the desktop.
Shyia was there, watching me from an ornately tooled leather beanbag-type cushion, a similar unoccupied cushion beside him. The other occupant of the room was a dark-pelted Rris just as bulky as the Mediator with streaks of gray through its mane watching me from his seat on the far side of the desk. 'He', I was fairly certain. Amber eyes looked me up and down, then he grunted and said, "Thank you," to Escheri. She ducked her head and closed the door behind her. The Rris - the Commissioner - studied me again, "Mikah, that is your name?" Deep voice, the gutturals of the Rris tongue like growls.
"Yes sir," I nodded.
He was expecting it, but I still caught the flinch; a dilation of the pupils and nostrils, the ears jerking. He scratched a clawed hand through his cheek fur and gestured at the second cushion, "Please, sit."
I did so. He watched as I moved, as I lowered myself into the Rris-designed cushion. It was leather, felt like it was stuffed with... what? Tiny beads? Maybe real beans. "How well can you understand me?" he asked.
"I do not know some words. Stay simple and I won't have too much trouble."
"Huh," he breathed and glanced at Shyia, then reached out to touch the laptop's keyboard. "This is yours."
He sighed and said to Shyia, "Shave me. Shyia, you do find a way to present me with interesting puzzles." He looked at me again: "Why don't you tell me your story. Why are you here?"
With the time that Shyia had been in there he'd had plenty of time to relate my story. The Commissioner probably wanted to hear it from the horse's mouth and see how it corroborated with the Mediator's. I took a second to gather my thoughts. "I was taking some time away from my job..."
"A job?" The Commissioner glanced at Shyia: something he'd neglected to mention? Sheesh, if that went on we'd be there all night. "What did you do?"
"I was a... an artist of sorts," that was as close as I could come to commercial graphic designer with my fingerhold on their language.
"Ah," he cocked his head at that but didn't ask me to elaborate. "Go on."
"I... I was taking some time away from work, coming up north to rest..."
I told my story again and for the most part they listened. When my voice began to falter from the strain of speaking Rris for such a prolonged period they gave me a glass of water and some time to rest. Five minutes maybe, then I was talking again. How long did it take? With the questions the Commissioner asked, maybe two hours. When my watch read 02:16 my throat was aching. I started to raise my glass and found it empty.
"You make yourself difficult to believe," the Commissioner told me. "If it wasn't for your equipment I think I would be [something] to trust you."
"I tell you the truth."
"A. You sound bad. More water?"
Ice water. It helped. I sipped while the Commissioner watched me. "You really don't remember anything about the Rris you saw in the barn?" he asked.
"No sir. They looked... they looked like Rris." I shrugged, it was all I could say.
"What kind of Rris? Male? Female? Young, old... If you saw them again, would you recognise them?"
Shit. I'd been through this with Shyia. "I don't know. I'm sorry, but I just can't say." Hell, I didn't even know for sure that the Commissioner WAS male. At least he hadn't corrected my use of the masculine honorific.
The Commissioner glanced at Shyia who tipped his head, maybe a gesture like I told you so, then he settled back in his cushion and clicked his claws together. "You ARE going to give some people real problems."
"So I've been told."
He chuckled at that. "We will talk more tomorrow. I am interested in seeing what this," he indicated the laptop, "can do. Shyia, see him back to his room. Anything he needs."
"Sir," Shyia ducked his head and gestured for me to follow him out. The guards waiting in the corridor fell in behind us. The Mediator looked me up and down: "How are you doing? You seem a bit shaky."
"I'll live," I touched my broken arm in its sling. "It's been a long day. Tired."
"A," he ducked his head, "Do you want anything?"
I touched my coat, my beard. "A bath? Clean clothes? Shaving?"
He snorted and scratched at his chin, "The first two are no problem; good idea. That last: we'll see." At my door he stopped. "Get some more rest, a? I will call for you in the light."
The door closed behind me: heavy wood, no way to open it from this side. Once again I laid myself down on the soft bed, just taking time to kick my boots off before sleeping.
The water was deliciously warm, enveloping and soothing. I sank down into the copper tub, luxuriating in the first real bath I'd had in months.
It was light outside. They'd let me sleep late before Escheri came with my wakeup call, a breakfast, then taking me to their version of a bathroom: a small room lined with glazed brown and azure tiles, a drain in the floor, a baroquely-ornate brass faucet and sink, a small table, a stove with pots of water simmering and a hammered copper tub. Rris-sized. A bit cramped, but I wasn't complaining. Escheri told me how they used it: rinse the worst off with warm water before getting into the tub. She showed me the brushes and abrasive clothes they used, most of which were capable of taking my hide right off, then left me to my own devices.
I'd rinsed, then soaked, dunked my head to try - not so successfully - to dislodge some of the fleas I'd picked up, the first time I'd been clean in... How long had it been? That July an eternity ago when I'd been happy and knew where I was and where I was going, then months of hiding and running and hurting. Five months. December now. Huh, December 1st. Back home they'd be looking forward to Christmas and the New Year. Jackie had said something about wanting to go skiing, I'd been going to spring a weeks vacation in Colorado on her. What was she doing at that moment? She and everybody else I'd known must have thought I was dead by then, fallen off a cliff somewhere, swept away in a flash flood, kidnapped by Elvis in an UFO... any number of gruesome accidents. And there was no way I could get word to them. Looked like I'd be spending Christmas alone.
I sighed and sank down to enjoy the last of the warmth the water offered. The sound of the door opening made me jump. Escheri stood there, an armload of clothing hugged to her chest, staring at me with a sort of stunned expression. I looked down at my exposed chest and flicked water, smiled slightly, "Different, a?"
She grimaced, "I thought... I thought you might have more fur than..." she just trailed off and gave a little shake of her head, not the same kind a human might give. "I've got some clothes for you to try on. They should be the right size. It was difficult to find someone who might have something that would fit."
After my time with Chihirae any hang-ups I might have had about nakedness in front of a Rris had been pretty much hammered out of me, and while the Rris themselves don't have any real problems with nudity, I was a novelty: Escheri stared openly when I got out of the bath and began to towel myself off, her eyes roving over my body. "Those marks," she ventured after a while, "they're not normal, are they?"
"These?" I touched some of the red streaks winding around my arm and said with a tinge of bitterness, "No, not since I came here."
"Crossbow," I interrupted, pointing them out one after another, "Crossbow, sword, teeth, claws, more claws, and some more claws. You have a lot of claws."
She didn't seem to be able to take her eyes off the scars. Slowly her ears wilted, then she shuddered and tore her eyes away. "It's a pity you couldn't have met us on more [amicable] terms."
"Believe me, nothing would have pleased me more," I laughed wryly, then hurried to placate her when she flinched. "Sorry, that's how I smile."
"By showing your teeth?" she eyed me like she wasn't sure that I was being entirely straight with her. "That is... that's not something to joke about, Mikah. It could get you hurt."
"So Shyia keeps telling me," I sighed. "It's not a joke. That's how I smile."
"Oh." Her tail lashed back from behind her legs, agitated. "You can't smile properly with those ears, can you. I suppose those teeth can't harbor too much anger. Just be careful who you do that to. Now, see how these fit you."
I looked through them. All Rris outfits. "What about my clothes?"
"They'll be cleaned and we'll try to have them repaired," she told me. "Wear these for now."
She'd brought me a green tunic that came down past my hips and was too tight across the shoulders. Over that there was a tan quilted jacket, also too tight across the shoulders and chest. While I gingerly eased my broken arm into the sleeve Escheri was inspecting the pants she'd brought. Then I heard, "Oh." She was holding up a gray pair, poking a finger through the hole intended for the tail. "I forgot." She looked - if I may anthropomorphize - sheepish.
"It shouldn't be too difficult to sew it up," I said.
"I never thought I'd be asking someone to do that," she said, hanging the pants out in front of her, then tossing them over to me. While I sized them up she watched me, her head tipped to one side, then asked, "Are you usual for a male of your kind? I mean, your genitals are... strange."
Strange? No, I wasn't about to ask. I turned away slightly, "I haven't had any complaints."
I stopped what I was doing to eye her uncertainly, "What does that mean?"
A twitch of her ears and a wave of her hand. "Don't try [something] with females. That might scare them off."
I just stared at her, not sure what to say. It hadn't been something I'd been thinking of, and looking at that... person in front of me, the thought was ludicrous, the idea was... it was... it brought to the surface memories of a night with someone who'd come to mean so much to me, holding each other, afraid to say what I was feeling unless I was stoned. In an undefinable way I'd wanted to love her, I'd wanted her to be a woman, but what had she wanted from me? There had been nights she came to me, she'd kept me warm. Why? A hollow sensation caught at my gut and I had to turn away from Escheri, embarrassed, confused.
"Didn't worry that teacher too much though, a?" Escheri said after a short time.
I looked at her face: impassive now, studying me, and I realised that for a Rris who'd first seen me under 24 hours ago she was damned relaxed. "Shyia told you quite a lot, didn't he," I said.
"Not as much as I'd like to know," she came back. "He's right about you, you know: you are going to cause some real ripples in the pool."
"Escheri," I hesitated, not sure how it was going to sound. "Has there ever been... have you ever heard of anything like me being here before? Any story... or something?"
She watched me again. "No. No, never. Then, I've never been one for the old literature. Maybe someone in Shattered Water will be able to tell you more."
An ear flickered again. "Come on, stop standing around like a water spout and get those pants on. I'll find someone to fix that hole for you. The Commissioner wants to see you again, preferably sometime today."
Today the drapes were open in the Commissioner's office. Winter sunlight ebbed in through the windows overlooking the outer courtyard, refracted by the warped panes into myriads of rainbows and prism-smears on walls and papers on the desk. The Commissioner was seated, waiting. A pistol sat in prominent view beside him, primed and most probably loaded. He'd stared at me when I came in, as though he thought the previous night had been a dream, as though he still didn't quite believe I was real.
We talked. He had questions of course, a lot of them. Parts of my story he wanted me to repeat, parts to clarify. He wanted to see more of what my laptop could do: the multimedia, the games, the films. It was late evening when I was taken back to my cold little room and once more the door was locked.
Shyia brought my food that night. He closed the door behind him and set the tray on the rickety table with its flickering candle. "A long day?"
I dropped down off the bed, where I'd been standing to get a view out the window to the courtyard and open world beyond. "A good way to describe it." I sat down and raked my fingers through my hair, clean for the first time in a long while. "I could get tired of these very quickly."
"A," I saw muscles under the fur moving as he tried to stop his ears going down. "How are the clothes?"
Changing the subject, I noticed. I tugged at the collar of the jacket: I couldn't button it all the way. "A bit small."
"Not many Rris your size," he shrugged. "We'll have your own back to you soon."
"This is where you live?" I asked. "This town?"
"A," he gestured 'yes'.
"Have you got a home here? I mean, family? do you have cubs here?"
He looked past me and up, at the clouds outside. "I don't really know." He shrugged again. "I've mated with a few females. I don't know if they bore or not."
"You never wanted to find out?" I asked, somewhat incredulous.
"Not really, no," he replied in an offhand fashion and gestured at the food, "You want to eat that or just watch it?"
I blinked at him as another fundamental bit of my worldview eroded away. I almost said something, then shook my head and turned to the food. A stew with some kind of hard-crusted black bread to follow it down. It wasn't particularly tasty, but it was filling. While I ate Shyia filled me in on what was going to happen over the next few days. Shit, sounded like a manager taking his group on tour, and on this gig we'd be seeing some of the sights of northern Rrisland.
The Commissioner agreed with his decision: they wanted me out of here ASAP. The northern waterways were closed, the rivers and lakes being slowly choked by the encroaching winter ice. The unpredictable winter storms that blew out of the north would easily render the largest of their wooden boats kindling so the Lakes route was out. It'd have to be overland. First south, downstream; out of Thief's Lament into what I'd known as the Hudson and here was known as the Runoff River. A pun, I found.
Wait a second...
"You can do that?" I asked.
"You can get to the Runoff River from this Lake."
"Of course," his muzzle furrowed. "Why?"
"But..." I caught myself. Things were different here. They didn't need the canal network from Champlain down to the Hudson; it looked like nature had done that job for them. "Never mind. I forgot. Sorry, go ahead."
He looked askance at me, then continued to outline the rest of our itinerary. South, along the river to about where Albany should be, then west, following another river valley through the Adirondack Mountains and on to Shattered Water.
"How long will that take?" I asked.
"About two weeks."
I choked on my mouthful. "What? Two weeks?"
"You know a faster way?"
I opened my mouth, then shut it again. What was the point? "All right," I sighed. "Two weeks. When?"
"As soon as possible. The [Governor] has already got wind of you. You're King's business so that's keeping him from making a local political showpiece of you, but we want you out of here before he finds some reason to keep you around." He made an obscure gesture. "It's going to take a day or so to get the wagons and supplies and escorts arranged."
"I can hardly wait," I enthused, toying with my stew.
He huffed, wrinkled his muzzle. "When you get to Shattered Water you're going to have all the time you need to settle down."
"Hnnn," That didn't sound like it was going to be such a good thing. I scratched my chin, then remembered, "What about getting a shave?"
His ears went down and struggled back up again. "You know, telling someone to go shave is an insult?"
"Please. I'm not Rris. This," I grabbed my beard, which by now was over an inch long, "it won't stop growing like your fur does. I've never liked growing it and it's getting beyond uncomfortable."
"Uh," he eyed my locks, hanging down around my shoulders and scratched at the tufts of fur growing from his own cheeks. "I'll see what I can do."
It was the next day when Escheri stopped by. She had another one of those kits like the one Chihirae had owned: a small leather roll-up pouch with grooming tools nestled in the loops. Her's was more functional than Chihirae's had been, with wooden handles on the brushes and combs that were worn with use, gleaming metal scissors with black stone handles. She spread them out on the bed. "You really want your fur shaved?" the look she gave me was one I might give someone who asked me to cut their foot off.
"Just a bit," I said, tried to explain that I just wanted to trim it back. "I can do it myself..." I started to say.
"With that arm?" she snorted. "Anyway, it's going to be important that you look right, and I'm not sure you know what 'right' is."
"You don't have any problems with... touching me?" I asked, somewhat surprised.
She blinked. "Why should I? Shyia has vouched for you. Anyway, I've got the claws and there are two guards outside the door." She yanked the stool over beside the bed. "Now, sit down."
I sat and she started working, displaying the same sort of skill Chihirae had shown. I asked and learned almost all Rris have grooming kits of some kind. They have to take care of that fur somehow or suffer the knots and burrs of outrageous fortune, so they've had practice, but she wasn't familiar with actually cutting it. Nor was she familiar with me: I could feel her touching, leathery fingerpads stealing surreptitious tastes of my skin.
"How do you live with such a thin hide?" she wondered. "Don't you get cold?"
"Oh. That's why you need so many clothes."
"One of the reasons."
"Oh," she brushed a hand against my hair then. "I didn't think it would feel so different to fur. Softer than it looks. Would you mind if I kept some?"
That surprised me. "What for?"
"I don't know... maybe make a [something]."
"What is that word?" Another tongue-twister.
"You don't know? A decoration, to wear on the wrist. You understand?"
Yeah. I understood. I hesitated a second. What harm could it do? I was pretty sure they didn't practice voodoo. "I understand. Help yourself."
So as she worked she kept slipping choice cuttings aside. It took a while, a while during which I relaxed under her ministrations, and she talked. Different from Shyia: A more outgoing personality, one I liked. Shyia was all right once you got past the stormtrooper facade he carried around, but he didn't have quite the same... likability that Escheri had. If they'd been working together, it didn't take a genius to figure out which half of the good-cop/bad-cop routine he played.
She did a good job on my hair, even though the final result was - IMHO - somewhat unorthodox: cropped short along the fringe and coming down to shoulder length at the back. My beard she rounded off at about an inch long. Not too hippyish I hoped, not that anyone would notice.
Another friend I had to leave behind the following day.
I got to see more of Lying Scales the next day; early the next day. Shyia roused me out of bed before sparrowfart. We were already making our way through the freezing, snowbound streets when the sun decided to make an appearance, struggling through the sluggish clouds. This time there was a wagon, along with an armoured dozen guards with guns and blades. I rode with Shyia, rubbernecked, asked questions about the town. The buildings in this quarter were larger than the ones I'd seen on the way in. Guildhalls I learned later, along with warehouses, some production houses and more Mediators patrolling the area. There was an enclave larger than the Mediators' hall, with the same kind of high wall and guardhouses: the hall of the local lord.
"Didn't want him getting his hooks into you," Shyia growled to me. "It'd be months before we could get you away from him."
The docks were a kilometer of stone-reinforced landfill jutting out into deeper water, fronting the lake at the north-western end of the town. Dockside swarmed with life: Rris carrying crates and baskets, animals jostling in their traces, wagons and carts cluttering the docksides, wheels and hooves scraping the stone and ice, turning the snow to a mush underfoot. Shouting and animal noises and the sound of water and the creaking of timbers from the boats. A forest of masts at anchor there, wooden ships and boats of all types riding at rest in the lee offered by the spit of land to the north that protected the harbor from the winds and storms that could blow down across the lake. A few larger vessels loomed over the others, but for the most part the boats were on the smaller size: fat, low draught coasters; potbellied boats with drop-down Lee boards on each side; small trim-looking sloops, caravels, others ships whose names I haven't the faintest idea of. Weather-faded colors peeked out from under trimmings of ice and snow, pennants and flags caught the breeze.
Our transport turned out to be one of the broad-beamed vessels docked at the western end of the wharves. There were more guards around it, looking anything but inconspicuous. Of course a small crowd had gathered just to see what they weren't supposed to see. A snarling Shyia escorted me across to the gangplank with a small battalion of gawking, gesticulating Rris watching.
The boat was a fifteen or twenty meter, tubby-hulled, two-master hanging patched and sun-faded orange sails. There was a raised cabin running almost the length of the vessel, the roof perhaps a meter higher than the decking around it. Railings and scuppers were carved and painted with paints that had seen better days. I saw Rris cuneiform across the bow, a name that I tried to translate, then had to ask Shyia the meaning of: Shallowwater Flyer.
Crewmembers gathered along the rail to stare as Shyia ushered me across the gangplank while our guards fell in behind. I glanced down at the water lapping below: dark, encrusted with broken ice. The deck was swept clean of snow, showing mats made from woven rope, wood scored by claw-marks. It echoed hollowly under my boots as Shyia led me back along to the steps down into the cabin. A Rris intercepted Shyia along the companionway, almost grabbing his coat sleeve before pulling his arm back, "Sir? We had agreed on the [something]. You said nothing about animals! We can't..."
Shyia stopped, curled his lips to show teeth at the other Rris, "That's the passenger. And don't call him animal. He doesn't like it."
The other hastily moved out of the way, eyes wide and ears going down as the Mediator shouldered him aside and pushed through to the steps down to the cabin. He poked his head in to check it out then waved me in. It was a narrow, cramped little space without enough headroom to stand upright. There were wooden benches down each side, spaced out by posts with hooks on them. No sign of any beds. Tiny glazed windows along the walls cast slivers of light. Through them I caught distorted glimpses of Rris legs on the deck, light strobing.
"Have a seat," Shyia gestured at a bench. "Wait here." Then he was gone again. Some words outside and a pair of guards came in to take up positions on each side of the door; two pairs of fur-tufted feline faces watching me from under the odd engraved and segmented coalscuttle helmets they wore. I sighed, then had a seat and waited.
End Light on Shattered Water 9