Storms Over Open Fields
The white eye of the sun burned in a perfectly clear sky, blazing down over a scorching spring day. Drifting pollen and the glittering specks of droning and darting insects filled air that shimmered in the waves of heat reflecting from the dusty dry earth. Choruses of cicadas sawed away enthusiastically from their hiding places in the sienna-gold grass of the lake meadow, the sound mixing with occasional birdsong.
Spring washed across the world, chasing the last traces of winter away.
I ran. Dry grass and packed dirt pounded under my feet, puffs of warm dust coating my legs. Heat sucked rivulets of sweat from my bare shoulders, the moisture evaporating almost immediately. I drew lungfuls of hot spring air and leaned into the corner, trying to maintain the pace.
Snarls sounded close on my heels. A glance over my shoulder showed the big cat chasing close behind had gained. Teeth flashed in the gaping maw as another snarl coughed out, a strand of spittle dangling from the panting jaws. Claws in the broad toes caught the turf as the long legs flashed, the tail sweeping to the side for balance as he drew closer in a burst of speed that proved to be the final straw. His gait faltered as he staggered and dropped aside. I turned to see him bending over with hands on knees as he wheezed.
"Rot you," I heard him gasp between breaths. "Enough!"
"Come on," I grinned, jogging in place. "That was only two laps. You did better last time."
Chaeitch hissed something obscene, flagged me away with a disgusted wave and turned to stagger over to collapse in the shade of the old pine. Sprawled out there sucking oxygen, he turned into a bundle of tawny gold almost lost against the summer-burnt grass.
I went on to do another five laps of the field. Chaeitch ah Ties. He wasn't human, but he was one of the oldest friends I had in this world; one of the few Rris I felt I could genuinely catalogue as 'friend'. We'd met during my early days in the alien city of Shattered Water, when we'd been thrust together in a working relationship that hadn't been entirely amicable. Things had changed. He'd been open-minded toward me, someone to talk to. We'd become drinking buddies and I'd found he was quite willing to help me, to answer the questions I had about his world. Amused and bemused at times, certainly, but not judgemental. Now, we still worked together, but I'd come to consider him a good friend.
What he considered me was a little more difficult to define. Rris minds don't work like human ones. Yet he acted like a friend, so that's the slot I filed him under.
Rris. What to say about Rris? They're sentient felines, that's a good start. Whereas back home apes had clambered and screeched to sapient ascendancy, here a species of proto-feline had made the same transition to bipedal tool user. They're superficially similar to lynxes, with the same tufted feline features and neutral colorations. But to say they're lynxes is to say that humans are chimpanzees. There's a family resemblance, but so much variation.
They have tails: sinewy tufted things that are as much a mirror of their emotions as human expressions are. They walk on two legs with a springing, toe-balanced gait and while their stamina leaves a bit to be desired, they are capable of amazing bursts of speed that would make any human Olympic sprinter want to rethink his career choices. Their fur and coloration can differ wildly depending on geographical adaptation. And they have needle teeth and razor claws, as the many scars I carry can testify.
They're a sharp people. And here they're people; they're the norm and I'm the exception, the alien.
How did I come here?
To tell the truth, I haven't the foggiest fucking idea. Whatever happened to me is something so far outside of my experience that I can't even hazard a guess. Two years ago I was hiking in Vermont and something happened. There was an accident of some kind that I only have the vaguest memories of: a massive discharge of energy of some kind, a blinding flash of light. When I woke, I was elsewhere, I was here. Things sort of snowballed from there.
Two years later I was stripped to the waist in the heat, jogging around one of the fields behind my more-than-adequate house. Chaeitch lounged in the shade under the tree, guzzled water and panted furiously as I pushed myself around the last two laps. He'd joined me on these workouts several times, but he never really seemed to get the point. Thinking about it, perhaps exercise wasn't so beneficial to his physiology. So he blinked lazily as I eased on down and stretched, sweat rolling over old scars and war wounds, then wandered over to the parallel bar under the tree.
"You've changed a lot," he mused, looking me up and down. I could see his eyes flickering over the network of scars that covered me. "You're bigger than you used to be."
"Huhn," I grinned as I jumped up to catch the polished wooden bar. He was probably right. I never used to be able to do thirty pullups. No cars, TV, fast foods or other modern amenities really helped you get in shape. And there were other incentives to bulk up a little. "Clean living and being chased by Rris does that to you."
He didn't laugh at that.
Oh yeah. My first few months, the first year here, had been something of a trial. The situation, the demands put on me, the assassination attempts... the world around me had all become too much. I'd cracked. Big time. That was another scar across my wrist. Things had changed for the better. For the most part.
He watched as I repeatedly lifted my chin over the bar. "That's really supposed to be good for you?"
"Uh-huh," I grunted.
He snorted and plucked a strand of grass, gnawed the end. "Looks far too strenuous to be healthy. And you're leaking badly. I can smell it already."
I dropped back down. I could have probably done more, but after a certain amount of activity that old wound through my shoulder starts to play up. I flexed the muscle and winced slightly, then wiped sweat from my face and regarded the Rris. About five foot of bipedal feline. Average height for his race. His tawny furred body didn't sweat, except on the pads of the feet and hands, but he did pant like an overpressured steam engine in hot weather. He'd stripped his expensive clothes off for that run. Right off. They don't have problems with nudity as even unclothed a Rris tends to be about as naked as an Eskimo in full winter dress. Male genitalia are tucked away in a sheath and held closer to the body, hidden away in thicker fur of the belly that continues down to the groin. If you look you can tell what's what, but with the fur it's not as... blatant as human nudity is. Chaeitch did decorate his hide though. There were little geometric curlicues and sigils shaven into the fur of his chest and shoulders and three small black dyed bands wrapped around each forearm. To my eyes, the lopsided blaze across his left ear was his most distinctive feature.
"Hot for you?" I smiled.
He grinned back, bearing his teeth in a smile that was a mockery of mine. "Wait till winter."
"Touché. At least I can put more clothes on. You'll have to shave to take any more off."
"Then I'd look like you!" He coughed in mock-disgust. "No thank you. I'll suffer."
I laughed. "Would you at least accept a drink?"
"I think that I can manage. I heard rumors about an old Swampy River you received."
"You're well informed."
He lolled his tongue. Or maybe he was merely panting. "H'risnth does seem to favor you."
"In that case, so do most of the rulers of all the other kingdoms," I sighed. "Kistrechiha sent me a tapestry. Very impressive and very blatant."
"Saaa," he hissed. "The price we pay."
"Your sympathy is underwhelming."
He chittered as I caught up my gear then fell in alongside as we headed on down through the grove of bent old windbreak trees to the lakeshore.
"What about those mills you're putting up over there," he asked, pointing along the waterfront.
"Still got a lot of work to do," I said. "It's tricky. Get a good storm and they'll tear themselves apart. There're ways of designing the blades so they don't spin too fast and that's the hard part."
"Huhn," he mused and I saw his jaw drop a little. It was like that unfocused look a sort of human tends to get when they devote too much cerebral processing time to a problem. Chaeitch was that sort of Rris. He'd go after a problem like a terrier after a rabbit. But he blinked out of it, which either meant he'd solved it there and then or filed it for future reference. "And all those copper wires you're playing around with? Eserisity?"
"Electricity," I corrected.
He coughed in exasperation and didn't even attempt the correct English pronunciation. "You're going to have to find something else to call it," he hissed as we dropped down the storm-eroded embankment onto the stone beach. The water I'd once known as Lake Erie slap-slapped onto the sun warm stones, a terminator of dark wet rocks marking the waterline. Chaeitch just dabbled his feet and hands. I shucked my moccasins and dove right in.
No ozone depletion. No toxic industrial dumping, no nonbiodegradable litter, no pollution - save the biological runoff from a city of half a million Rris a few kilometers away. I was pretty sure the lake could handle that. At least that's what I told myself.
But it was wet and cold and got that dried sweat out of my eyes and hair. Chaeitch tossed pebbles at a bobbing stick and watched in amusement as I ducked and dove for a while. Rris aren't great swimming enthusiasts. The last one I'd tried to teach to swim...
I floated in memories for a few minutes before wading out.
"Half ape, half fish," Chaeitch said and skipped a stone while I pulled my footwear on again. "How are those paintings going?" he asked.
"Slowly," I said. "The paints are difficult to use. I might have to stick to charcoal for a while." That was true. The locally available media was a pain to use: more temperamental than egg tempera, and they had to be made up from scratch. No handy tubes of Winsor and Newton acrylic or guache here.
"A? You know Rraerch and Rasa are interested? They liked those other portraits you did. You could be starting another fad. Hai, speaking of which, there's another play at the Resound."
"Not... one of those?"
I rolled my eyes and moaned, "Oh, Christ, it is, isn't it."
He cocked his head and chittered a laugh.
I hoped he was right and they were a fad. I'd been to one before and had been surprised, amused and more than a little embarrassed. And if rumors could be believed, some of the other skits coming out of the Rris thespian woodwork made that one seem tame.
The breeze off the lake was cool but the sun was hot enough to roast the worst of the water from me and my shorts while we wandered back down the beach to the house. Days off here tended to be very slow and filled with nothing in particular, which we discussed at great length as we headed back home.
It was a nice place. It was a damn sight larger and better located than anything I could have afforded back home. Set back from the lakeshore behind a windbreak of aged conifers, it was a rambling two, sometimes three-story construction of dark weatherboards, slates, towers and garrets with attic rooms and windows in the oddest places. It was big, but it didn't have any of the modern construction techniques or amenities and it'd been built to accommodate Rris stature, which tended to the small side. I'd already got carpenters in to make modifications including raising ceilings and doorways so I wouldn't concuss myself. There was wetback hot water and central heating and the insulation would be in before winter. Hopefully. And also hopefully, sometime soon, there'd also be electric lighting. Candles and oil and gas lamps are atmospheric, but the novelty quickly palls.
There were two Rris waiting for us on the back verandah. Tichirik was perfectly poised, perfectly groomed, quietly standing with a neatly-folded change of clothes in her arms and water on the table. Impeccable timing as usual. As the household major domo cum butler she managed the rest of the household servants and seemed to always be there when I needed her. Damn good at her job and doubtless a government spy. I was pretty sure that nothing went on in that house that wasn't reported in triplicate to an office somewhere in the Palace.
The adolescent Rris with her wore the tunic of a palace messenger and a flustered expression. He stared at me.
"And I thought cell phones were bad," I sighed to Chaeitch. "At least they don't hunt you down. Now what?"
"Sirs," Tich greeted us. "I trust you had a good constitutional."
"Very good, thank you," I smiled as I accepted the fresh clothes. Chaeitch made a noncommittal grunting sound. "What's this about?" I gestured at the page who was still staring. New, I'd bet.
His ears went flat, but he stepped forward. "Sir... a message from the palace. Important. His highness requests your presence at your earliest convenience."
"Translation: now," I rolled my eyes. "Chaeitch, I'm sorry, but that drink's going to have to wait."
"All that running for nothing?!" Chaeitch moaned theatrically.
"All right, you incorrigible alcoholic. We should be able to find something. Tich, there was that bottle opened last night. Can you find it?"
I really don't know if that corruption of her name annoyed Tichirik. If it did, she didn't bat an eye; just said, "Of course, Sir."
The carriage waiting for me was from the Palace. As one might expect, it was an elegant affair: a closed cab of polished wood and smooth lines riding on four iron-bound, wooden-spoked wheels and expensive leaf suspension. Intricate designs were carved into the cab's exterior panels and trim while the brass fittings for lamps and handles were polished to a mirror finish that glared in the sunlight. With the Rris driver in his tooled leather tunic high on the drivers bench and the two elk in the traceries, the whole thing looked like something from a gothic fairy tale. The Brother's Grimm on a bad acid trip. I still get those moments where a sight like that clashes my mental gears.
The journey through a Shattered Water lazing under an early summer heatwave was another sort of trip. Cobbles rattled under the iron wheels as we skirted outlying fringes of the city, inward bound. We passed by the clustered smaller buildings and houses with their blank façades and shadowy tunnels leading through to the central atrium. Passed by the cheaper buildings with crazily tilted walls propped against each other by timbers, skinned with peeling whitewash over wattle and daub, unglazed windows, roofing tiles that were wood and fragments of slate and stone rather than ceramic, patches of grass - and in some cases small trees - growing high in guttering where airborne seeds had taken root. Arterial streets and open spaces were clotted by impromptu markets: clusters of awnings and shades where smoky fires burned, Rris voices hissed and snarled like background static and the smells of foods, livestock, and chemicals etched the air.
Further in toward the heart of the city changed to reflect the fortunes of the inhabitants. Some buildings were several stories high. Cheap whitewash and wood gave way to stone, mortar and brick, red tile and elegant façades with painted woodwork and murals and shiny metal plaques on the walls of the guild halls. Glass glittered in narrow windows and elegantly dressed Rris went about their business. The roads became avenues, cutting in toward the hub of the central square with its fountains and trees. From there it was north along the shaded avenue, past the old remains of the curtain wall, through the upmarket section of the Rock - or the Nipple. Nomenclature depended on which side of the poverty line you were standing.
A black, wrought iron fence marched around the palace grounds. It was ornate, curled and shaped into fancies of fronds and stems, but the gilt ornamentation along the top carried a definite air of sharpness. The cleared ground on either side was a new addition, instituted following some security breaches. Inside all that, the grounds were expansive, with forests and wild meadows and several small streams wandering off to take an interest in the lakeshore to the west. The Palace itself lounged amidst that like a self-satisfied beast sunning itself: huge and sprawling, an edifice of thousands of rooms and halls that was to Rris Land-of-Water architecture what Versailles is to the French.
The façade was a barrage of windows and glass, hundreds of them gleaming as the sun caught them just right. Walls of pale stone blocks were sectioned by columns rising to frescoed gables supporting a copper roof painted green by the elements. It was a construction that spoke of elegance and dignity and a refinement beyond the brute bulk of a fortress. But it didn't speak it with a human tongue.
It was the same sensation I get when looking at Rris artwork. Their golden ratio isn't the human one. Proportions they find pleasing aren't the same as the ones I do. They don't even perceive the world in the same way or through the same equipment. The architect had used numbers and alignments that just seemed ever so subtly wrong to my eyes.
As did the wild lawns and meadows where rippling golden grasses grew knee-high and threw seeds to the winds. The sprawling grounds were all carefully tended to, they just didn't look it.
An oak avenue driveway swept up to a gravel loop at the front steps. While the legions of tradespeople and suppliers required to keep the Palace provisioned had to use the tradesmans' entrance around the side, I got to use the front door. And those doors did look like they belonged on a fortress; which, incidentally, is exactly where they came from. Of course the guards stared as they always did, but by now they were accustomed enough to my presence to just watch me. Just inside the doors Kh'hitch of Woodmaker, King's liaison and personal dogsbody was waiting. All of him. He still hadn't lost any weight and always reminded me of a snooty plush toy dressed by a mad tailor with a penchant for bloused sleeves and bright colors.
He was good at his job though.
"Mikah, you're wet," he sniffed, looking me up and down. "And you could have dressed."
"I don't spend my days off sitting around in my finery waiting for a call from you," I said pointedly. "I was under the impression this was important?"
"Huhn," he huffed. "His highness wishes to speak with you."
"Mikah," he warned.
"Why, Kh'hitch, your nostrils are flaring."
He took a deep breath then turned and led the way. Unnecessary. I knew the layout of the place well enough by then.
Inside, the Palace was even more impressive than the exterior had been. But then, it was designed to be. The commonly traveled routes, those seen by outsiders, were quite stunning. Walls were papered in fine embossed velvet or satin in different hues and textures; floors were marble or polished wood inlaid with parquetry made from individual splinters of wood polished and lacquered smooth. There were chandeliers and artworks of all sorts including indoor windchimes of crystal ringing at frequencies I couldn't hear and wood carvings that were supposed to carry ancient scents I couldn't smell. Paintings of landscapes and portraits were displayed in frames far more subdued than the gilt rococo monstrosities with which human artists seemed so enamored.
Less traveled routes were merely extremely elegant.
My moccasins were almost soundless against the floor while Rris footsteps tended to clatter slightly as claws ticked against the floor. At least while I was around they tended to.
There were always guards around the King's offices. They were wearing polished and ornate ceremonial armor which wasn't the most functional, and I couldn't help but notice they still carried the old flintlocks and edged weapons. I supposed the Land-of-Water Rris were still sensitive enough about the leakage of arms information to outside countries that they kept the more advanced weapons under wraps. Who guarded the guards? Huhn.
The King's office had always struck me as odd. It was a huge, white room in the southeastern corner of the east wing. Almost all the room was unfurnished empty white marble and pale stone, save for the desk on the patch of carpet over in the far corner. The open french windows along the outer walls provided a great view of the Palace grounds, as well as a breeze. That room might have been cool in summer, but in winter it was frigid. At least to my sensibilities it was. Yet another example of how a species' needs dictates its design requirements.
The figure was seated at the low desk, bent over and scribbling smoothly with a fountain pen. Kh'hitch just left me standing there and retreated quietly, closing the double doors behind him.
I strolled over to the desk and stood waiting for about a minute while the Rris king finished etching chicken-scratches across the page, blotted the ink, then folded the paper and sealed it with orange wax. That done, Hirht sat back on his cushion and cocked his head at me. "Hello, Mikah."
"You paged me?"
"I sent for you, if that's what you mean. Yes. I'm sorry to disturb you on your day off. You were running again?"
"I heard you've dragged Ah Ties into it?"
Now, how had he heard that? "I had to threaten him with wine. He gave in."
He smiled. "At least you're in one of your good moods. There are a few things I want to talk to you about. You know that there have been frictions with more than a few of our neighbors. There have been claims that we are 'monopolizing a unique asset'. Some of them are becoming quite <something> in their protests."
I frowned. "I'm sorry, Sir. I don't know that word... hesira..."
"Hesirethir'k," he gestured. "Loud, continual, outspoken."
Oh. Vociferous. "I understand."
"You understand that that sort of situation is dangerous for all involved? Especially you."
"Yes, sir," I sighed. It wasn't an entirely new situation. It was something that tended to ebb and flow. Other Powers' protests would get louder and louder and Land-of-Water would have to make placating gestures. "What are you doing to keep them happy?"
"Oh, not us," he smiled.
I hesitated. "Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like this?"
He gave a dismissive wave. "It's really not so bad. You were always wanting to see more of the world, so we're giving you a chance. You're going to visit a neighboring kingdom as a gesture of goodwill."
His ears flicked like someone had blown into them. "How did you know?"
"Lucky guess." I probably shouldn't have given that away. It was a pretty obvious choice though: an influential country, nearby, an already amicable relationship and doubtless Land-of-Water was looking for allies they could call on if other Realms started putting diplomatic pressure on them. Cover-my-Tail was a prime candidate.
"Huhn," he looked at me curiously. "Good guess. Yes. You will be guests of H'risnth for a while. She has graciously agreed to accommodate you while you discuss business. There will of course be a pre-drawn agenda."
"'Guests'," I noticed. "Plural."
"Ah Ties and Aesh Smither will be accompanying you. They're both quite used to handling you; habits, food requirements and such. Ah Ties has logistical details to negotiate and we decided that Aesh Smither will be a good tutor for you. There are some matters we think it would not be... ah... politic for you to discuss."
"Ah. You don't want me selling them plans for a hydrogen bomb?"
I saw muscles in his muzzle twitch as he forced his ears to stand still. "That would be of use to them?"
"Very limited use."
"Ah," his amber eyes stared at my face, his head twitching as he seemed to try and read me. "You know this is a very serious matter."
"It always seems to be," I sighed. "You are on friendly terms with Cover-my-Tail? This isn't going to degrade into some political fiasco?"
"Very friendly terms," he stood and turned to gaze out a window at the palace grounds. There were fields of long grass out there, rippling in the breeze. "But you still seem to have a knack for finding trouble. Mikah, this is a simple trip. It's an easy boat ride and then a straight-line talk with their highborn."
He turned to face me, clasping his hands behind his back. "You've met Lady H'risnth before. You got along together. She said she finds you quite fascinating, so if you're polite and careful there should be no problems. Just a friendly chat."
"And how are the other kingdoms going to feel about this?"
Again he looked a little surprised. "They'll see that you're not just working for us."
"So they'll be expecting me to go on more trips. Will I?"
"That remains to be seen. This is a test case."
I nodded. "And how long will this take?"
"We've allocated three weeks. Three days there at the outside, with leeway for bad weather. Two weeks minimum there and then three days back." That wasn't unexpected. Travel time here is a great deal slower than back home.
"And I leave?"
"Day after tomorrow," he said.
"Short notice." But then I didn't have a great deal to pack. "You've been planning this for a while. You could have told me earlier."
"Things have only just been... arranged," he said. "There was a great deal of negotiation over time spans and access rights. Mikah, you do make this job interesting. Now there was one other thing."
He stepped forward and stopped just in front of me, looking up and cocking his head slowly and then abruptly grinned. I flinched at the imitation of my smile which was a threatening gesture to the Rris.
"None of that," he said, smoothing his muzzle out. "You know it causes problems. Just be careful and behave. Thank you."
That was all. Kh'hitch collected me from the antechamber outside the doors and took me to his office. There he spent the next three hours going over my itinerary and travel arrangements in a great deal more detail.
For the past few months my life in Shattered Water had been pretty quiet and I certainly wasn't complaining. Since I'd arrived there I'd had enough excitement to last three lifetimes. I'd seen murder, assassination attempts, kidnappings, threats, fights and poisonings. My body was a roadmap of scars and knots of tissue where hostile Rris claws had torn at me. Not only hostile: some of the pale marks across my back were a legacy of my first Rris lover.
That's still a painful memory.
Things had quieted considerably over the past couple of months. I'd taken the opportunity to try and get my new life in order. I'd brought the house by the lakeside. I'd been able to absorb myself in my work. In retrospect, I'd been aware of the simmering undercurrents of politics, but I'd just been telling myself they'd keep to themselves. Of course they'd boil over again.
My work was essentially a transfer of knowledge. The information I held in my head and in my laptop might have been fairly mundane by my standards, but to the Rris they had worth beyond measure. There were technologies, techniques and materials they'd never dreamt of; things that could make fortunes and countries. In the months since I'd been here their steam engine technologies had rocketed from basic single expansion to triple-expansion engines built using alloys non-existent not so long ago; they were harvesting crops using automated reapers; all advances that'd taken humans centuries.
And their weapons had undergone radical changes as well.
Just because they're not as educated, doesn't mean they're stupid. A lot of Rris are a good deal more intelligent than I am. They managed to get weapons information from my laptop by hit-and-miss techniques, simply by watching me, spying on me, copying the shapes of words and letters.
Despite PGP encryption and passwords, my system was cracked by pre-electrical alien cats who can't even speak English.
It was information a lot of parties would kill for. In fact, some did. They threatened me, they threatened Chihirae. It wasn't a state I had any wish to return to. If the political winds were picking up again, I was all for casting some oil on the waters.
My carriage was waiting for me as I stepped out onto the front steps of the palace. The sun was high in a brilliant sky, coaxing heat-shimmers from the gravel drive. Insects buzzed and razzed in the meadows of golden grass that rippled like an ocean sunset as a breeze set the stalks to swaying. There was a courier message waiting for me: my driver relayed the essentials to me in a carefully impartial voice. It was embarrassing. I was learning, but it took time.
It was from Rraerch aesh Smither. The owner of the largest industrial firm in Land-of-Water and the Government's principal shipyard contractor. She was also Chaeitch's original sponsor and an old acquaintance of mine. She was requesting an immediate meeting with me at her offices in town. I didn't need the driver's translation to know what this meeting was going to be about.
So much for my day off.
Shattered Water is always an experience. Any large Rris town is. It's one thing to look out from the relative aloofness of a carriage rattling through the streets, it's quite another to get out and walk around those streets. It's a town where humans have never even been seen or even conceived of, built entirely on alien needs and desires. Form still follows function, so there are similarities: sloping roofs to keep the rain and snow off; there are windows and doors; there are alleys and streets for wheeled vehicles. But all the things that should be familiar all have subtle nuances that just seem wrong to my senses. The architecture is built for inhabitants with smaller statures, so the doors are too small; there are few windows on exterior walls; proportion and ornamentation are designed for inhuman sensibilities.
And then there're the crowds of furry bipedal cats all turning to stare at me. It's a feeling that's hard to describe: like stage fright mixed with a disturbing primal sensation as the ancient ape sees the predator's interest. I thought it was something I could get used to, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Now all I can do is fight that nervousness down.
It's a sensation I feel all too often as I go about my business. I felt it when I got out of the carriage in the courtyard of Smither Industries. It was a complex of brick buildings with dark slate roofs. As with so much Rris architecture the complex turned blank brick faces to the outside world, broken only by the merest slits of windows. Arched passages led through the outer walls to the central courtyards and the planted gardens there; the huge windows glazed with panes of new glass. As I got out of the carriage I could see Rris around the courtyard stopping and looking my way. Even up in the windows curious feline faces appeared.
I ignored them as best as I could and headed over to where my guide was waiting. I'd been there over a dozen times and he still looked nervous.
The halls of Smither Industries were busy places. There were Rris scurrying around with that odd little scattering sound their claws make on hard floors. On the main staircase they hastily stepped aside as I made my way up to the third floor. Rraerch's offices were elegant, in Rris style. The floors were tiled in tan and gold, the walls paneled in light pine and white plaster. On either side of the office doors were two pieces of what I might normally have considered polished driftwood. Apparently they were works of art, imbued with scents from distant lands. All utterly undetectable to me.
Rraerch's secretary was at work at his low desk. He looked up as I approached and his ears went back flat against his skull. He'd always been civil toward me, but his ears had always done that: a reflexive Rris anxiety reaction. "Sir," he greeted me, "she's expecting you."
"Thank you," I said. "I know the way."
The Rris seated at the low desk turned two pairs of amber eyes my way as I stepped through the door to the inner office.
"Mikah," Rraerch greeted me. "You made good time. Sorry to do this to you on your free time."
"Not your fault," I said and glared at the other Rris. "Chaeitch, thanks a lot. You could have told me."
He tipped his hand in a shrug. "I really didn't know. I was preparing for a trip over to Cover-my-Tail and suddenly I'm told it's grown into something a good deal more than a property inspection deal."
I took a cushion at the desk: one of those uncomfortably low tables the Rris favor. They find them quite suited to their needs, but I find the experience of sitting on a cushion on the floor at a knee-high table uncomfortable, physically and psychologically. In a human office the desk is a symbol of power and entrenched authority. I suppose the Rris use them in the same way: someone sitting on a low cushion is at a distinct disadvantage when someone's standing.
At least you could count on Rraerch having good alcohol handy. I was actually growing quite partial to some Rris wines, and Rraerch had a bottle in a wicker basket sitting on the desk alongside an imposing stack of books.
"So," I said as I settled myself, "what's the deal here? You're all suddenly very keen to shift me over to Cover-my-Tail."
Rraerch snorted, wrinkling her salt-and-pepper speckled muzzle and narrowing her yellow-amber eyes. "It's simply a friendship visit."
"Oh? Nothing to do with forging alliances against possible political unrest and economic sanctions?"
She hesitated then blinked. "Hirht told you that?"
"Not in so many words."
"Huhn," she glanced at Chaeitch. I suppose the lack of phones was something that worked to my advantage in cases like that. Hirht couldn't simply call her up and discuss our meeting. "I think you're being a bit paranoid, Mikah. It's a friendship visit. It'll show to Cover-my-Tail and other countries that we aren't monopolizing you. And you'll get a chance to see some more of the world."
Okay. So they didn't have phones, but that didn't mean they couldn't work out their spiel beforehand.
She rolled her glass between stubby fingers and looked up at me. "You could simply refuse to go. We wouldn't coerce you, but it would make things difficult. There's a lot of pressure from other countries for us to... to give them greater access to you. This would pop the valve on that pressure for a while."
"Okay," I nodded. "I'm not against this. It's just very sudden."
"There wasn't a great deal of time to consult you about it," she said. "It's an easy journey. Water all the way."
That certainly beat a land journey, which would have been days of slow, hot, boring and bumpy travel in carriages. "He said the two of you are going along. You're supposed to be... tutoring me?"
"Huhn," now her ears went down. "That. Yes, well, we've had a lot of dealings with Cover-my-Tail. His highness feels that we are the best ones to cram as much information into you about Cover-my-Tail as possible. Their geography, history, trade and exports."
"And about the good Lady herself," Chaeitch sighed.
"She's trouble?" I asked. "I've met her, she seemed pleasant enough."
"She's a very pleasant person," Rraerch said. "She's personable, charming, intelligent, and a shaved astute business dealer. That's the problem. She could buy your hide off your back and sell it back to you and still make you think you got a good deal. That's what his highness wants me to caution you about. I've had experience dealing with her and I know some of her games, so I can tell you what to watch for."
"How long's that going to take?"
She slapped a furry hand down on that stack of books on the desk. "We don't have long enough, so I'll have to give you the condensed version."
I winced. Chaeitch clambered to his feet. "It's going to be a long night."
A bright three-quarter moon hung low in the velvet sky, casting a cold monochromatic glow across the world. The slats in the carriage window cut that moonglow into bars of shadow and light that fell across the floor and my legs, shifting and juddering as the carriage clattered through the nightbound streets.
I just sat back in the upholstered seat and closed my eyes, my head still swimming with facts and figures that'd been pumped into me for the past seven hours. Things I hadn't known, things I'd never wanted to know... the capital was Open Fields; the population was about three hundred and seventy thousand; main exports were coal and iron ore essential for developing industry; ruling lineage was the Esrisa family since the Wall wars one hundred and forty years ago; there were extensive vineyards along the central river valleys; the glassworkers in Open Fields produced some highly-prized materials; her Ladyship's full lineage; Reli district specialized in expensive inks... and on and on.
At least I knew more about Open Fields than I had known about Shattered Water when I first arrived. And I'd be going in as a guest rather than a curiosity. The itinerary had been planned out and from what I'd seen it did seem to be a predominantly goodwill visit. I had met her Ladyship before and she was a pleasant enough individual. In fact, I quite liked her. We'd gotten on well. Although, after what I'd been told that night I had to wonder how much of that was good salesmanship.
The motion of the carriage changed: slowing, turning. The clatter of iron-bound wheels on cobblestones turned to the muted crunch of gravel and we stopped. I heard muted voices and the door was opened.
"Squad Leader," I said tiredly, not bothering to look around.
"Sir," the commander of the Rris gate contingent acknowledged and closed the door again. I had a house of my own, but it came complete with a full set of toy soldiers: a small army of guards and security checks. Necessary in their eyes, I supposed. At least they kept the curiosity seekers from staring in the windows, and yes, there had been some problems with that. Gravel scrunched under the wheels as we started up the drive toward the house.
"Here, sir," I heard the driver say from up on the bench. I sighed and clambered out, bidding him goodnight and heading for the front door. Behind me came the jingle of harness and rattle of wheels as the carriage headed off toward the stables.
Home again. The lights were on in the living area and up on the second floor, glowing a welcoming orange against the almost indistinguishable blueblack of the night sky. As I stepped up onto the front porch the front door swung open, throwing a fan of light out and silhouetting the alien form of a Rris.
"Good evening, sir," she greeted me. "I trust it was a productive day?"
"Productive, yes," I said, handing my coat over. "And very long. Some warning about these things would be nice."
"Yes, sir," she said neutrally as she hung my coat in the closet and turned back to me. "You sound tired. Do you wish to eat?"
I was hungry. "Food would be good," I said.
"Yes, sir," the major domo said. "It will be ready shortly."
"Nothing fancy," I said. "You've already eaten?"
"Ah, yes, sir. Ah, her Ladyship has. She wasn't sure what time you'd be home."
"Just reheat leftovers," I said and she ducked her head, headed back toward the kitchens. I sighed and made my way through the living room. It was dark, the low cushions and tables where we could receive guests in the Rris idea of comfort unoccupied, but there was a light on through in the study. The study was a decent sized room lined with bookshelves. Mostly bare: my grasp of the Rris written language was still rudimentary so the only books I could handle were the rare and expensive primers and cubs' books, the Rris equivalent of See Spot, See Spot Run. Of which there weren't a great deal. The desk had been built to my specifications, which included raising it a decent height above the ground and getting a good chair. Now there was a Rris figure curled up in the chair, legs draped over the arms and engrossed in a book while the oil lamp on the desk burned low. As I stepped in the door her ears flickered and she looked around.
"Good evening, your Ladyship," I smiled.
"Huh," Chihirae arched one leg out, her odd digitigrade foot held trembling for a muscle-stretching second, then the other. "I wish she wouldn't call me that."
"But it suits you."
She chittered and then rolled her shoulders. "How do you stand these contraptions? It puts knots right up my tail and back."
"There are cushions," I reminded her, touching her shoulders. Her fur was slightly coarse on the outside with the finer fell deeper in. It was a feeling that was getting to be familiar, something my fingertips knew. When I started kneading the thick hide slid loosely over the bunched muscles beneath, as if it weren't even attached. She sighed and her head sagged forward.
"Huhnnn," she rumbled. "You're late home."
"Been one of those days."
"Another?... Sa, I see. Ah, lower... there. Hnnn..." she trailed off, her head nodding for a while. Then it lifted a little. "What do they want now?"
I told her.
Chihirae. She was the first Rris I ever truly met. She was a schoolteacher from the town of Lying Scales who'd been working at the rural community of Westwater when I'd arrived in this world. She'd been the one I'd first approached for help. Actually, she'd shot me, nearly killed me, then saved my life and defended me from villagers convinced I was a murderer.
Long and complicated story.
She was a friend. A good friend. And yes, we were lovers.
Or rather I was. Rris don't love. They can't. They don't have the hardwiring to form such connections. That's not to say they don't form friendships and affections, they just don't feel that distorting surge we interpret as love. When it comes down to it, love is a cocktail of chemicals our brains produce, and Rris equipment simply doesn't produce those chemicals. It's not a deficit on their part. In fact, it tended to make me feel like something I'd always assumed was a vital part of human existence was less than useless. "You need to need," was what a Rris had told me. It was a phrase that haunted me.
And conversely I can never really fit into their emotional worldview. Trying to understand what they feel would be like someone who's been blind their entire life trying to understand blue. I thought I intellectually understood the differences between her and I, but it was one thing to understand them and an entirely different matter to make my body feel it. My hardwiring, the way my body and ape ancestry processed emotions, was continually undermining that knowledge.
It had caused me serious grief in the past. It would do so again.
So I loved her. And she let me. And for her I supposed I was a friend, someone she knew in a new town, a current sexual partner. There would come a time when she would leave. I knew that. I didn't want to think about that.
"A busy day off," she husked when I'd finished. She was limp under my hands now, the book laying forgotten on her lap and her head lolling while a low, almost subsonic rumble resounded in her chest. Not quite a purr, but that was the best reference I had.
"And how was your class?"
"Milk froth cubs," she sighed. "They're more of a problem than usual ones."
"Attitude?" I asked.
"Ah," she confirmed. "'Specially the older ones."
"Hmmm," I chuckled. "Well, don't let it get to you." I leaned over and nuzzled the top of her head. "Your Ladyship."
Chihirae chittered her amusement and waggled her head, rubbing against my chin. "I never thought anyone would be calling me that. I've asked her not to."
"Awww," I sympathized. "The things you have to live with."
"Hai," she mock-growled and craned her neck back, trying to nip at me. Relenting when I scratched behind her ears. "Huhn, you know how to make peace, don't you."
"I had to learn quickly," I said.
She chittered again and directed my hands to a more needing spot. "So, how long is this trip supposed to be?"
"They said not more than a few weeks."
"You believe that?"
"When I see it," I said, moving my scratching down her neck, down to her shoulders, toward her ribs.
"Hai, Mikah!" she chittered and caught my hands. "Not now, you oversexed ape. I've got to get this done."
"Spoilsport," I murmured, trying not to grin.
She held my hands in her small ones for a second, turning them over, over again, staring and studying them as if she'd never seen them before. She traced a dark claw along one of the lines on my palm and then looked up to ask, "Have you eaten yet?"
"I was on my way to get something."
"I'm sure cook can burn something for you," she craned her head back to purse her features into a Rris smile up at me.
"That was old the first time I heard it," I grumbled as I left her to get on with her work.
I had a dining room. It was another room with Rris furniture, centremost of which was a low, Rris-style table big and solid enough to land aircraft on. The cushions were tooled leather by an artisan whose works were quite in demand, so I was told.
I hated eating alone in there.
The food was something like Stroganoff. Beef... unlikely. Buffalo Stroganoff most probably. The cook, Segihis, was elderly and seemed to regard his employers as something of an amusement. But he was good and he was learning my tastes. Which meant not working with some of the more flavourful Rris spices, such as Nightshade.
Food helped. So did the shower afterwards. I leaned my head against the tiles, turned the faucets on full and let near-scalding water sluice down across that tight spot between my shoulderblades. Damn, dealing with Rris was still exhausting. Reading them, interpreting the body language... I had to concentrate on that. I kept trying to interpret their signals as if they were coming from humans, and that was dangerous. A baring of teeth was not a smile; a shift into what might be a posture of interest in a human was a reaction to a perceived threat in Rris.
I'd known more than a few people back in that lost world who insisted on attributing human emotions to their pets. If I allowed myself to fall into that trap here it would mean trouble. Even with individuals I considered friends it was difficult to relax. There weren't many times when I could lower my guard so those quiet moments were all the more precious.
I yawned, flinched, then blinked. I'd been dozing off standing up. How long... the water was still hot so it couldn't have been too long. Yawning again, I rolled my shoulders and turned my face to the faucet, the blast helping to jolt me awake. I flipped the tap off and stepped out, wiping at the water streaming into my eyes and groping for the towel. A blurry figure handed it to me.
"Christ," I said to an amused Chihirae, clutching the towel while my heart restarted. "Haven't you ever seen Psycho?"
"If that's something from your world, then I probably haven't," she replied as she took a second towel to my back, patting gently around the tracks of scars there. "You were quite a while in here. I just thought I'd see if you were all right."
"You could have scratched."
"That wouldn't have been as fun," she chittered, then hesitated and circled me, looking up at me with a cautious expression. "You're serious?" She laid a hand on my chest, over my drubbing heart. "Hai," she murmured. "I really frightened you?"
"I wasn't expecting you," I said a little defensively. In truth, yes she had scared the hell out of me.
Her ears went down. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean it like that. You were just in here a long time."
"My fault," I half-smiled at her expression. "I nearly fell asleep."
"Under that thing? You're that tired?"
"Ah?" She tipped her head, watching her hand as she stroked it down my chest, water slicking the fur on her palm down as she traced fingertips down my shoulder, across my sternum, my belly, down lower. "Something you mentioned earlier, but if you're too tired..."
"Ah..." I inhaled sharply as she gently caressed, my body responding to ministrations and sensations that were starting to become familiar by suddenly saying it was very awake. "I thought you didn't want to."
"I was busy then," she rumbled. She looked amused, but I could feel that vibration through her chest as she slowly pressed against me, hugged against me, the water dripping from me soaking into her fur. She seemed so small, so petite I could lay my chin on the top of her muzzle, but there was dense muscle under that hide. "Not busy now. You too tired?"
"I don't know..." I broke off with another gasp.
"No," she laughed and squeezed again, "you're not. See? I can.... Ahi! Put me down!"
"You roused the beast," I mock-growled, my hands curled under her buttocks as I held her up, pressing her back against the wall, grinned down at her face. She slitted her eyes and wrapped muscular thighs around my waist, hooked arms around my neck. Her hide was a combination of slightly coarse and marvelously soft, brushing against me. "Here?" she breathed, looking uncertain.
No. Not there. Not then. That could have been... risky. For both of us. I nuzzled her, gently inhaling her dusty scent. Kissing... that also just wasn't practical: there were differences in mouth shapes and attitudes. So many differences that the act wasn't something that could just happen. We'd had practice, made mistakes and learned lessons, but still we had to be careful. I had scars from... a painful memory.
The bedroom was dark. It was comfortable. It was a place where I could be close to her. I know I enjoyed it, that she got pleasure out of it, but it wasn't and could never be lovemaking for her. Not the same emotional trip I experienced.
And I knew that while I held her, she wasn't feeling what I did; what a human did. I could look down into the shimmering titanium brilliance of her eyes and what looked back wasn't something I could read. There was depth there, emotions and decisions I could never empathize with or fully comprehend; a soul staring back and trying in turn to read me.
Nevertheless, in the dark night, when the future was unseen and unsure, she was someone to hold to.
A high, thin overcast occluded the sun, turning it to a blushing pale pink orb on the horizon. The surface of the lake was rilled with wavelets, slapping against the breakwater and leaving the sheltered harbor behind molasses-smooth, stirring slightly with the motion of the river's currents. I could smell the memory of rain from the night before hanging in the calm, cool air. Water still puddled on cobbles of the streets, on the flagstones of the docks, flicking from the iron-bound wheel rims as the carriage rolled to a stop.
The entire carriage rocked on its leaf suspension as I climbed out and looked around at a dockside already bustling with activity. Behind us, guards were closing the wrought iron gates, a couple of them arguing with peddlers outside. Stevedores and workers were bustling about their businesses in the big workshops and boatsheds, and porters were already working at unloading gear from the back of the carriage. I shouldered my own duffel bag.
"They can take that," Chihirae almost sounded like she was chiding me as she dropped down beside me.
"I can manage it," I said. I preferred to carry my own gear. It just felt odd to have someone else carrying something I was quite capable of. Beside, there were things in that bag that were valuable. In a unique monetary way to Rris: in a unique sentimental way to me.
Chihirae twitched her ears then patted my arm. "You think you're ready for this?"
"Do you think they're ready for me?"
There was moment of surprise, then she laughed. "I don't think anyone can be really ready for you," she assured me.
I almost grinned and hastily caught myself. For a species that uses their teeth as weapon, a grin isn't a friendly gesture. But it's a damn difficult thing to unlearn. "It'll be interesting," I said.
"A, that's what concerns me."
I opened my mouth, then frowned. "I am capable of going somewhere and not causing trouble, you know."
"I've yet to see it," she said and touched my arm again, watching her own hand smoothing down the hair there and then looking up at me. "You will behave? You know your sense of humour is... odd. There are those who might not appreciate it."
"So I've been told."
"Mikah," she started to admonish me and then sighed and ducked her head. "Just... don't make anyone too angry, a?"
"I'll try," I said, not sure whether to feel touched by her concern or stung by the lack of confidence. "It's only for a couple of weeks. And I'm finally going to see some more of your world." I adjusted my duffel and started off across the rain-slicked flagstones toward the wharf. Chihirae stalked along at my side in that smooth Rris walk, not even seeming to notice the shallow puddles that soaked the fur of her inhumanly-shaped feet. "Besides, I'll have my nursemaids."
Chihirae glanced over her shoulder at the guards following at a discreet distance and her muzzle pursed in amusement. "Ah. A couple of attractive females like that following an oversexed ape around. Why should I worry?"
"Oh? They're female?"
"You still can't tell?"
"Well... sometimes. I'm learning."
She flickered her ears and snorted. "A. That you are. I just find it remarkable that you know things most people've never dreamed of, yet some of the most basic things are beyond you."
I shrugged. "Sometimes... it's like learning to breathe all over again."
She was quiet for a few seconds, then said, "You are learning though. I have had worse pupils."
"Gee, is that a compliment? I've seen your other students, remember."
"Nothing to worry about. I'll bring you something."
"A?" Her ears pricked up. "What?"
"Umm... Uh." I already had a cellar full of their wine. I knew Cover-my-Tail's main exports were coal, iron ore, lumber... great gift ideas. I know a Rris' idea of a present is somewhat different from the ones I'm accustomed to, but I still wasn't sure what she'd like. "I'll find something."
The wharf was one of the multitude of similar stone moorings jutting out into the river from the quayside. This one was private and part of the shipyards, with its own checkpoint and guards. They just stared at me and let us pass without challenge. I suppose I was pretty distinctive.
A single ship was moored at this berth, a vessel I was quite acquainted with. I'd had a part in building it. The Ironheart. It wasn't the first Rris steam ship, but it was the first to be built incorporating a multitude of design innovations I'd introduced: new techniques in metallurgy, engines, hull and prop design. Shortly after I'd arrived in Shattered Water I'd been assigned to Chaeitch, so he could see if what I knew could be put to practical use. We'd actually gotten along. And he was something of a genius when it came to working out how to actually implement an idea. The results were the Ironheart. It was a prototype, a showpiece, and it showed.
Tawny bodies bustled around the ship and wharf; a swarm of dockhands and crew working at loading, stowing, stocking, sanding, polishing and cleaning. The river water gently lapped at the thirty-meter hull, the lacquered wood glistening like oil. Morning sunlight filtering through the town, rising above the shipyard roofs, turned fittings, porthole rims and the tops of the stacks to molten brass.
I noticed Chihirae's ears flick back, laying down against her skull for a second. She didn't like boats, I'd forgotten that. Was that why she was a little twitchy? In any case, her ears came up again when she saw the group clustered at the gangplank. There were several Rris there, all dressed in expensive-looking garb. The older female with the annoyed expression was Rraerch; the one with the smoking pipe in his mouth was Chaeitch; the one with the pale white leather waistcoat was Marasitha, the protocol officer and diplomat travelling with us; and the other two had the look of Palace officials about them.
One of the officials glanced up to see us walking toward them down the dock. He flinched, stepping back. The others looked at him in surprise, then around at us. Rraerch looked amused and Chaeitch's ears pricked up.
"Hi," I said in English then switched to Rris. "Hope we're not late. She's terrible about oversleeping."
"Hai," Chihirae yipped. "I had to drag you out of bed!"
"Was that it?" I snapped my fingers. "I knew it was one of us."
The officials looked taken aback by that but Chaeitch bobbed his head and seemed amused; by us or by their reaction? "You're in good time," he said. "We've got a few minutes."
"Good," I said, brushing past them. "I'll be right with you."
"Mikah..." Marasitha caught me. "We've still got things to discuss."
What? We'd spent the day before, the entire day, going over what I should and shouldn't say. "I thought we'd been done with that."
"There're still a few points..."
"Later," I interrupted, holding my hand up. "Later."
He stopped, laying his ears back. I moved past him, ignoring the others as I stepped up to the diminutive female. She blinked up at me. "I'll see you, a?" I said. "I'll be careful."
"Cross my heart and hope... I promise."
Alien hands laid on my chest and claws poked through my shirt, pricking my skin as Chihirae leaned in close. "I'll hold you to that," she growled.
I hugged her, feeling the warmth of warm fur, the compact muscle beneath as I touched my lips to the bridge of her muzzle. "Anyone gives you any trouble, just let me know."
"I can take care of myself," she chided.
"And I can't?"
She reached up and stroked my face, my beard. I hated the damn thing, but she'd insisted; had hated the thought of me shaving. A lot of them had, shaving was a symbol of humiliation and the facial fuzz made me look at least a little 'normal'. I'd compromised: I kept the beard, but trimmed it back to a length that didn't leave me looking like the lost mariner. "Mikah, you... I'd hate to lose you."
I hugged her again, ignoring the other aliens staring at us.
Waves applauded against the bow as the ship left the still water of the harbor breakwater. Through the hull I felt the engines step up a notch, the slow pulse beating a bit faster as the Ironheart turned into the fresh lake breeze. From the rail I watched the docks recede and vanish from sight behind the harbor wall, taking with them the sight of the small figure standing there.
Someone else I'd known had brought her to Shattered Water. She'd come not entirely of her own free will and she stayed out of friendship to me. The bonds Rris feel to one another, male female relationships, are nothing like human ones. There are strong emotions during the spring, the time of the female heat, but otherwise... they don't feel the emotional bonding that human couples do. It seems odd to me, cold and detached in a lot of ways, but then my Rris friends can't understand my attachments.
'You need to need', that someone I'd known once told me. She'd been right: I formed close bonds, affections, dependencies, relations, whether it was prudent or not. Someone else had warned me against that, how it could be used against me.
So while I loved Chihirae, she couldn't reciprocate. It wasn't a deficiency on their part - they certainly felt other things I never could and considered my affections bizarre - but I knew it meant that if she wanted to leave, there was nothing holding her here.
I really hoped she'd be there when I got back.
The world warmed as the sun climbed higher. The pale overcast burned away, turned the sky from the milky gray to a cutting turquoise blue. On the far distant horizon, stacks of white clouds clambered and climbed into the sky like the parapets of the gods. The sun was hot on my shoulders, the wind blowing off the lake cool and smelling of water. Any moisture the night rain had left on the deck soon burned off as varnished wood heated up. A gull swooped along after us for a while, then soared off into the distance. From my perch out of the way on the cabin roof I could see the distant lakeshore passing right on the edge of view: kilometer upon kilometer of wilderness, an occasional rooftop or curl of smoke in the trees, an occasional little jetty, but otherwise untouched.
Marasitha spent a couple of hours doing last second updates to my briefings. He sat out on the deck, shuffling papers from his valise, pinning them as the wind tried to steal them. He was a busy little Rris, shorter than most and that put him a good head shorter than me. I always got the impression he should be wearing a suit and bowler, perhaps carrying an umbrella. There were lists of things I should discuss, subjects I should avoid, backgrounds on various nobility and guild leaders I'd be meeting... on top of all the other stuff I'd crammed in over the past couple of days it all started to run together. At least it was only some late-incoming information that they only just had a chance to get to me, so it only took a couple of hours.
Shadows grew shorter as the sun and the temperature climbed. The air just above the deck hazed almost imperceptibly, like the heat shimmer above an Arizona road. I suspect that was the main reason that the panting Marasitha pronounced that we'd finished and headed belowdecks where it was cooler. At least I had the option of shucking my heavy Rris-made shirt. I laid back on the cabin roof, squinting at the azure sky through human sunglasses and ignoring the open stares of the crew. I don't know if it was my bare hide or the maps of scars that made them lay their ears back.
Damn, was it really necessary that I cram all that information? Some of it might be useful, but a lot of it was simply dross. Who said that knowledge is power? I didn't feel all that powerful, just a little dazed from trying to absorb it all. That the Open Fields printing guildmaster had had a falling out with the master of forestries; there were new books in the embassy; an advisor's daughter was bearing the child of a lamp oil merchant... did I need to know that?
A rustle of cloth on fur sounded beside me. "It is necessary, I'm afraid," Chaeitch said, settling down on the sun-warmed wood. In the brilliant glare of the midday sun on the water his eyes were the merest slivers of black in amber.
I sat up again, rolling my shoulders. "It just seems ridiculous sometimes."
"Politics," he replied.
"A," I said. "That's what I said."
I heard him chitter.
"What was that about this morning?" I asked.
"Those others on the dock. They were from the Palace? They didn't look very happy."
"Oh, there were some details about your guard. It was resolved."
"Not to their satisfaction, apparently," I smiled.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him look at me. "You shouldn't take so much pleasure in making trouble for the Palace," he said reproachfully.
"I take my entertainment where I can find it."
"Ah," I saw him tip his head back, grimacing at the sun overhead. "I think Chihirae's rightly concerned about you. Can I ask you a question about you and her?"
"Sex with her, is it like that with females of your kind?"
Talk about changing tack. I blinked and hesitated again. He and Chihirae... I'd walked in on them going at it. Literal coitus interruptus. I knew that it'd been the time of year, that what was between them was nothing like a human relationship, but that ancient ape in my hindbrain insisted on screeching at what it interpreted as competition. I knew that was utterly ridiculous. They were both Rris, they belonged together. I was the odd one out and I was jealous of that.
Whoever said instincts are logical?
Why was he asking? He was a Rris male. Without a female in season, without those pheromones for arousal, sex was just an abstract concept to him. He couldn't get off by thinking about it, seeing a shapely female with a great tail, looking at dirty pictures or even masturbating. They simply aren't interested in a sexual way. He wouldn't be thinking about their relationship at all.
"Why are you asking?"
He wagged his hand in a shrug. "I was curious." He blinked amber eyes at me. "She said scruff biting with you is quite an experience."
"Scruff biting?" I wasn't sure if I'd heard right. "Descriptive."
He chittered. "She said that aspect was... different. I was wondering if it was like that for you. If it was the same sort of experience you got with your own kind."
"Oh," I blinked out at the glare of sun on water. "No. Not the same."
He cocked his head. "Ah? How?"
"Oh," I rocked back, thinking that one over. "That's... difficult to say."
"Hai?" He ruffled the fur on his forearms, one and then the other. "Not as good?"
"No, not that. It's..." putting it into words wasn't easy. "The feelings are different. She doesn't... It's not like a human female. She's not human. I mean everything; her feel, her scent, her... inside her... it's different. I mean, it's the same, it does the same thing, but it all feels so different."
"You don't like that?"
He was acting like he was just talking about the weather, but suddenly I wanted a stiff drink. "I don't know. In some ways, it's... it's frightening: we have to be careful. I mean, there are the physical differences. She... her claws and teeth... she forgets them sometimes. And I'm different enough... I'm heavier than Rris; my... penis is larger and she... she's made for a different shape so it can be uncomfortable for her if I'm not careful." It wasn't saying what I wanted to say. I sighed and looked down at my hands and then at the Rris.
"It's... frightening, confusing, exhausting."
His ear twitched, "Yet you persevere?"
"It's also fun, pleasurable, reassuring, and it's... arousing."
Now his muzzle wrinkled in confusion. That word, arouse, didn't translate properly. Rather, it translated but I had to use it out of its usual context. "It's more than just the time of year for me," I reminded him.
"Ah," Chaeitch said dubiously, not sounding entirely enlightened. "So she said. You can be aroused by just thinking about sex, or when she touches you. She said in the night, while you're asleep, you get erections and she can..."
"Thank you," I interrupted and he blinked amber eyes, then flicked his ears. "Hai, this makes you uncomfortable?"
"I went through enough of it with the physicians," I said. "How much did she tell you?"
Now his amusement faltered as he realized that this was another area in which my attitudes differed from the ones to which he was accustomed. "You... didn't want her to say anything, did you."
I did a brief estimation, then raked my fingers through my overgrown hair. "That much, a?" I sighed.
"Sorry," he looked uncertain. "I didn't know she wasn't supposed to discuss it."
And thinking back on it, I'd never asked her not to. I'd just assumed...
I shook my head. "I never said anything to her. I just never thought she would."
"Ah," he said. For a while he just sat there, staring at the glittering water. The breeze ruffled through his fur, setting it rippling like golden fields. He'd been shedding his winter coat, but it still must've been hot. "You don't discuss other mates?"
"Not... usually. You obviously do."
"Sometimes. But you're quite exceptional. I was curious."
"I... see. She answered your questions?"
"Hai, yes," his tongue lolled in a Rris leer. "I see why you're so popular with them."
I reached around to rub at a heat that wasn't sunburn climbing up my neck. "Wonderful," I muttered. "Chaeitch, I'm trying to keep that..."
"I know. Don't worry. I haven't published yet."
"That was a joke," he said reproachfully.
"Oh. Thank you."
"You do enjoy her, though, don't you."
In a word: "Yes."
"But your kind... you mate for life? One pair? You're quite... protective of her."
That set off alarm bells. This wasn't just a casual talk stemming from curiosity about an alien's sex life. He was beating around some kind of bush. He'd discussed my sexual habits with Chihirae, that could also mean they'd talked about other things. Like my feelings. Like how I'd felt when I'd walked in on them making the beast with two backs.
"Are you worried that I'm angry at you? Because of your... relationship with her."
Out of the corner of my eye I caught his tail twitch; just enough to tell me that I'd scored. "You did seem upset."
"That was some time ago," I remembered. It'd shocked me, it'd hurt me, but it was completely right. "No. I was being stupid. Being human. You... I won't stand in your way. I won't interfere."
"But how would you feel about it?"
I swallowed. "I can't help that," I said. "But it's best for her. I can't offer her what you can."
"You wouldn't be angry."
"Chaeitch," I almost laughed, "if I was going to hurt you, it'd have to be for a damned good reason, and that isn't it."
"Thank you," he said. "I think."
The Ironheart was a prototype, but it was still the fastest Rris vessel on the water. Shallow and frequent wavelets, a byproduct of Erie's unusual topography, slapped against the bow. Belowdecks the engines throbbed steadily, transmitting that metal heartbeat through the ship's frame as it pushed along at about nine or ten knots.
It's over four hundred kilometers across the lakes from Shattered Water to Open Fields as the crow flies. Back home I could have made the journey in a matter of hours by road. Here, the fastest and safest route was the one we were taking, and it took two days. We stopped overnight at the midway point of the southern-shore town of Tearing Ice to take on more fuel and set off early the next day. The weather blessed us again, giving us blue skies and clear sailing.
I spent most of the day sitting out on the deck, lolling in the sun and talking with Chaeitch and Rraerch. I don't know why I got on so well with them, I just did. It seemed like they didn't judge me, they just accepted me. At first I'd thought it might have been because of the business I was bringing them: the technology and innovations. But it didn't seem to be that at all. At least, as far as I could tell that wasn't the reason.
We discussed business: the ship, the upcoming job, where we could go next. And we talked about more interesting things: what Open Fields was really like, the places to eat and drink, the sights to see, general gossip. That chatting was also useful for me. I'd been living the Rris experience for over a year, which really isn't that long to learn a language. There're always new words - colloquialisms, places, references and historical events - cropping up. Just asking for elaboration about unknown words can lead conversations off down entirely new avenues.
But we had the time. And it was a good way to pass it.
Rraerch aesh Smither was another Rris I'd known for a long time. In fact, I'd first met her and Chaeitch at the same time, at a rather impromptu meeting Hirht had convened of highly-placed academics in Shattered Water. I suppose they'd been there to find out if I - and what I knew - were for real. Rraerch, as Chaeitch's patron and principal sponsor, had worked with him and I and we'd found we got on together. They'd been the first to try treating me like an individual and not a commodity, which hadn't been easy with the guards and schedule I'd been assigned. Now it looked like that sort of schedule would be on again in Open Fields, so I took the time to kick back and just talk with them.
In my world that lake would have been Lake Erie, here it was Windswept. The waterways back home would have been bustling with vessels of all types, from the big iron ore and container ships down to small pleasure craft. In this world I saw the occasional billowing sail in the distance, perhaps a few more around the small lakeside villages and towns, and that was heavy traffic by Rris standards. Rraerch knew all those places by name, and I found a lot of those names quite strange: Tearing Ice, Where Is This, Running Still... She knew some of the history behind those names as well. Tearing Ice had been founded during a particularly bad winter storm. Windblown ice had cut up some of the early founders; Where Is This? Well, that was named courtesy of an ancient expedition who'd gotten themselves lost.
I was able to answer a few of their questions as well. They wanted to hear more about my home. My home world, to be more precise. They were fascinated by things I'd always found quite mundane: cars, fast food, shopping malls and cities, flying, television and phones, the internet. Back home we were pushing into the informational revolution while Rris were still back in the opening throes of the industrial revolution. They were still concentrating on the distribution of physical materials, not the distribution of knowledge. They'd seen my laptop and Chaeitch literally drooled over the thought of CAD/CAM applications, but the idea of just what computers and networks were capable of still seemed to slip by them. For example, back in that world I wouldn't have been able to use the fact that I was on a boat in the middle of a damn huge lake as an excuse for being out of touch. Just hook up to a cellular network and carry on as normal. For Rris, that was unimaginable.
It's not that they weren't intelligent. They were, smarter than me by quite a margin, it was just they hadn't had the exposure to machinery and concepts. Consider Leonardo da Vinci. A brilliant mind, way beyond just anybody in my own world, yet he didn't know what a light bulb was.
So a lot of that trip was spent chatting, exchanging information the old-fashioned way. Funny how when other Rris demand me to do that it seems like a chore. Company and environment I expect. What was that Confucious said? Choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life. Hell, he also said that wise men say and fools quote, but in a way he was right about career choice. Maybe I just had a perverse nature, but keeping it casual was far preferable to being grilled by merchants and monarchs out to make a quick buck.
In the afternoon we passed Pelle Island. Hours later we entered the St. Claire River at the north-western most end of Lake Windswept and our progress northwards was slowed slightly by the two-knot current. The sun was creeping down toward the horizon by the time we got to lake St. Claire... Season's Door.
It's a small lake. Well, relatively small when counted against the great lakes. And there was a lot more traffic there. Across the open water I could see several sails on ships under way making for the city, bare masts on others moored out in open waters, probably avoiding harbor tariffs. Calm lake water slapped against the bow as the steersman followed the channel and current eddies out into the lake and then turned toward the sun, toward the western shore and the city there. The westering sun hung low over the roofs of Open Fields, reflected in a golden path leading across the dark water toward the shore. Engine sounds changed, dropping as the steersman throttled back to become a low idling throb, water gurgling around the hull as the ship glided smoothly through moored vessels toward the outstretched arms of the harbor wall.
The stone and granite breakwaters arched out into the lake. Fortified guardhouses squatted at each end, flanking the harbor mouth, covered ports in the thick walls doubtless concealing cannon. On the towers I could see Rris figures moving around a framework. Sparks flashed, then blossomed as a beacon on each wall were lit and flames, mere specters in the evening light, flicked up.
"About time those were replaced," Chaeitch remarked as we passed. Heads appeared at the crenellations to watch us.
Within the embrace of the walls lay the harbor proper, sheltering a lot more moored vessels. Ships and boats of all shapes and sizes tied to wharves and docks and just anchored out in the harbor. Masts of all description reached up, silhouetted against the sunset in a tangled forest with a canopy of lines, rigging, spars and sails that rose above us as the Ironheart coasted in towards its berth. The trickle of smoke from the twin stacks died down to the merest wisp even as the engines picked up for a second: water churned as the screws reversed, then shut down. There wasn't a bump as the Ironheart glided to a halt alongside the wharf. The berths directly adjacent were empty, the other ships on the pier were sleek and elegant sailing vessels. Nothing like the dumpy shallowwater traders and haulers that filled the rest of the harbor. A VIP berth.
Of course we were expected and the reception committee was already there. Either they'd done a damn good job estimating our time, or they'd been waiting a while, or they had a good messenger network that'd alerted them. Guards in armor were posted along the length of the wharf, their polished silver breastplates gleaming in the evening light. Off in the background, near the gatehouse separating the private dock, stood a group of carriages and their attendants. More Rris were waiting at the dockside while the gangplank was run out. There were more soldiers in that group, wearing Shattered Water livery. The others were Rris in civilian garb. Expensive clothes.
"The Ambassador," Rraerch whispered to me, gesturing toward them. "Some embassy staff and guards. Those others will be from Cover-my-Tail government. Just looking after you."
That many guards? Was there something going on that I didn't know about? More likely they were erring on the side of caution. Marasitha ignored them as he bustled down the gangway and over to the group waiting for us. I moved to follow but Chaeitch laid a finger on my arm. Wait.
I did. There was a brief exchange onshore and then Marasitha glanced our way. "Hai," Chaeitch said. "Come on."
I slung my duffel and followed them down the gangway, the wood bending much more under my feet than it had with the Rris. I saw soldiers stiffening, hands flexing on weapons and tails lashing. I didn't like that. Nervous Rris make me nervous, and these were armed. Their armor was ceremonial, polished and engraved and flaring orange gold in the final light, but the weapons they carried were still lethal.
I tried to move slowly and carefully.
The higher ranking Rris knew what to expect. I saw some heads going back but they held their ground as I approached.
"Aesh Smither, Ah Ties," the Rris Chaeitch had tagged as the Ambassador, a male with the tongue-twisting name Maetoi Tr'hrichetfer, greeted us at the bottom of the gangplank. Waiting a few paces behind him was a group of Rris. Foremost in that group was an androgynous individual with creamy tawny fur, dressed in a light pleated kilt, pale peach bloused cotton shirt and a thing like a cutdown poncho: a pair of finely tooled leather panels hanging over chest and back. Amber eyes looked me up and down.
"And this is... Mikah?" the Ambassador said, "That's the way it is pronounced?"
"Yes, sir." My name is Michael, but correcting them is pointless: Rris vocal apparatus has serious problems with the consonant 'el'.
He had good control. He barely gave a flicker when I answered him, but there were stirrings amongst the others. "Very good," the Ambassador said. "May I introduce Chriét ah Hesethari, Host for her Ladyship."
The Rris in the odd-looking poncho stepped forward. He was a young-looking fellow, but I wasn't certain what his age might be. I got the impression he was trying not to stare at me, to appear dignified and controlled and he doing a pretty good job of it. "Honored guests," he ducked his head briefly. "Welcome to Open Fields. Ah Mikah, we are most gratified that you're able to join us."
"Thank you, sir," I said.
"Your journey was clear?"
"I'm pleased to hear it. Two days from Shattered Water, that's remarkable time. But you could doubtless do with rest and refreshment in more comfortable surroundings."
The Ambassador looked at us and said, "Her Ladyship has offered lodgings at Eisher House, a most magnanimous gesture."
"It's no trouble whatsoever," Chriét smiled. "It's acceptable to you?"
"It would be impolite to refuse," I replied.
"We would be honored," Marasitha said.
There was that flicker again. I guessed Chriét had been briefed in detail on me and was trying to look nonchalant and take it in stride, but the reality is always a bit more real than the telling. "Thank you," he ducked his head. "If you would care to follow me, there's transportation waiting."
As we headed toward the waiting carriages I looked around at the new Rris city. All that was visible were the docks, and those weren't a great deal different from the ones in Shattered Water. The pier we were berthed at was in the VIP section, so it was isolated from the commoners berthing by walls, spiked railings and guardhouses. That evening there were probably more sentries than usual posted.
Dusk crawled across the world, from the ground up. Darkness in the lowlands, in the streets and the shadows under trees grew and spread like ink spilled in slow motion. Delineators of dark crawling up hillsides and along valleys while peaks and rooftops glowed rust in the dying light. The Rris were unperturbed: their nightsight was inhuman. That goes without saying, but what was nothing but vague hints of shadows to me were quite clear to them. Useful: Chihirae sometimes read books in what was near-pitch to me. Scary: when she touched me in the night without warning.
They did have uses for lights though. Rris night vision was good, but apparently it was monochromatic. "All the color goes," was what Chihirae'd told me when I asked her, looking down on her looking up with glowing eyes.
Navigation lights like the harbor beacons were lit, as were smaller lights on boats and on the docks, for safety's sake. And in the town others' lamps were flickering to life: Not the glare of sodium, neon and argon smeared across the shoreline, but isolated pools of naked flame and oil and gas lamps.
So I walked along the docks as the shadows retook the world. Sentries in their glittering ceremonial armor, their bulky muskets carried at port arms watched from the sidelines as our little procession passed them. The carriages were elegant affairs, as fitted royal transportation. The wooden panels weren't painted, but they were carved by Rris craftsmen with a skill and intricacy that made most human carving look like whittled corncobs. The trim on the carriage - the gleaming light fittings and rails and door handles - that wasn't chrome, but real silver. This time I handed my duffle to a porter who almost dropped it before tightening his grip and looking from me to the bag. I guess it was a bit weighty. Not too surprising.
Our carriage seated four comfortably. Rraerch nestled in beside me while Chaeitch and our erstwhile guide sat opposite. Marasitha and the Ambassador had taken the following carriage. If the liaison had been irritated about being relegated to the second cab, he didn't show it. Our guards piled into other carriages and several mounted up on spare llamas brought along by embassy guards.
In the dim moonlight coming in through the carved privacy screens I could see Chriét watching me: his eyes wider than usual and his nostrils twitched. I could see that he was disturbed: at me, or at the fact that despite everything he'd been told about me, he was still nervous. I almost grinned and hastily converted it to a stifled smirk, hidden by looking out the window as iron wheels rattled on cobbles and swung around out the gate.
I almost missed the group of black-clad Rris standing back against a storefront. Just watching quietly while other spectators gave them room. I guess even Mediators get curious.
Open Fields was a well-planned city, intelligently laid out following a grid system, but with those intrinsic Rris touches to the layout. Broad avenues headed away from the lake district, toward the west and the fading glow over the horizon. North-south roads intersected at intervals, some of them with distinct curves to their constructions. I knew that if I could see the city from the air some of those roads would be forming concentric circles centered on plazas, like ripples in the gridwork of the city infrastructure. It was the same as the trees in the avenues and parks, the carvings on the coaches, the organic touches to the most austere buildings. As if something in the Rris psyche couldn't stand being subject to pure geometry.
I guess my own found it restful as well. I did find the cities beautiful in their own way. Quaint is probably too patronizing a term. There was no traffic noise or hydrocarbon stink but there were the pollution problems associated with half a million beings and animals in close proximity along with an antiquated sewer system. Doubtless milder than you'd have found in a human city of a comparable period, but nevertheless there. By their standards it was probably quite unpleasant - their sense of smell is a lot more acute than a human's.
We traveled westwards down a dark boulevard. Huge old trees hung their boughs overhead. Through the leaves I could catch glimpses of stars coming out. The moon riding low in the sky behind us was casting enough light to emphasize stark shadows. Occasionally there'd be a streetlight or a lamp glowing gently, illuminating a doorway or a sign, but there weren't many. The locals who were out, and there seemed to be a fair number, went about their business in the darkness.
"I understand you haven't been outside Shattered Water," Chriét was saying. Some moonlight was making it in through the windows: a couple of slivers that fell across Rris arms and torso, just enough to screw up my night vision and leave their faces in absolute blackness.
"This is my first time outside of Land-of-Water," I said. I had seen more of that land, from the village of Westwater to the town of Lying Scales and onwards to the capitol.
"I don't doubt that you've been told a lot about Open Fields. Is there anything in particular that you'd like to see while you're here?"
"I was told that Aesh Resir'tsa's museum collection is very impressive. As is the royal gallery."
"It was mentioned you had an artistic interest," Chriét said. It was difficult to interpret any sort of tone in Rris voices: I had enough trouble reading their moods when I could see their faces. "I'm sure we can find some time to accommodate you. If there is anything else you require or want, please don't hesitate to let me know."
"Thank you," I said.
The carriage swayed into a right-hand turn, the moon shifting around to shine in my window. I judged we were travelling north-northwest. Thinking back to the maps of Open Fields, that would be about right.
"This is Limemine Hill street," Chriét was saying. "Offers a wonderful view onto Sward Square. Ah, I was told that you have difficulty seeing in poor light, but I'm afraid they were not very specific. This is too dim for you?"
"The moon helps, but yes, it is."
"Ah. A pity. Perhaps sometime in the morning then. Dawn across the lake is quite spectacular."
"Is there going to be much time for sightseeing? I would imagine you've already got a very busy schedule worked out."
Something pricked my leg: Rraerch's way of telling me to behave.
There was a point after half an hour or so that the buildings thinned out. Through the coach windows I could see the black on velvet silhouettes of trees scratching against the night sky, the sound of their branches swaying in the wind like the sound of water over gravel. The dark forest, the shadows beneath the canopy where wild things were. I shuddered. The scene reminded me of some of the worse dreams I had.
Through the branches I caught the first glimmerings of light: fireflies dancing in the distance. Then the trees were gone and the moonlight was flooding down on open fields, down on rolling hills of long grass washed moonlight gray rippling in the night breeze. A rolling panorama laid out under a sky painted with the wash of the milky way. And the palace blazed like a fallen star.
It was built along the lines of a toppled capital H, with a broad central east-west transom and wings to the north and south. Lights must have been burning in every room. No electric lamps, of course, so every oil and gas lamp, torch, chandelier and candelabra must have been ablaze, spilling light from windows and doors. Burning torches lined the sides of the drive, laying a carpet of light leading across the moonlit fields toward the palace.
"Impressive," I said. If we'd been in a car, the roadside lamps would have flashed through the windows. At the speed the carriage moved, the light merely panned through the carriage as we passed by, briefly illuminating Chriét's features. He was smirking, I swear he was. Impressing the alien: he'd be considering that a good start.
The carriage drew to a halt right at the front steps. Footmen and stewards hustled forward to open the door, to put steps in place. Chriét stepped out first, and as he was stepping out the door, Rraerch put her hand on my leg and squeezed, just a gentle prick of claws through my pants. I caught her look: a caution. I was about to step out into a place full of heavily armed guards who'd never seen anything like me before. She was right, I should be exceedingly careful.
So when it came to my turn to disembark I did so slowly, with my hands in plain sight. There were guards out there, there were a lot of guards out there. I could see troopers in their polished armor ranked up the steps to the front door. They might have been disciplined, but I still saw more than a few flinch and stare at me while ears laid back. They were carrying muskets, weapons which might have been clumsy and unwieldy, but they were certainly capable of putting a thumb-sized lump of lead through an oak door. Quite lethal if someone got trigger happy. No red carpet, of course.
Gravel crunched under my feet and under the wheels of the carriages drawing up behind us. The Ambassador and his entourage climbed out, all trying to keep from staring too obviously. No photographs here, so all they'd have had to go on would have been descriptions. I gathered they didn't do me justice. Land-of-Water guards fell in behind us, ignoring the fact they were grossly outnumbered.
I debated going to collect my bag, then decided against it. Chaeitch had assured me it'd be quite secure. After all, if any luggage was mislaid there'd be hell to pay, but I still felt uneasy about letting it out of my sight. So I followed the other Rris up the stairs, past the ranks of armed guards.
The building was impressive, which was the point of it after all. The central part of the palace rose in front of us, the wings off to the side. In the moon and torchlight things were distorted, shadows were harsher and the proportions different. Polished granite blocks made up the three stories of the facade. Windows on all three floors were glazed, the second floor dominated by windows stretching from floor to ceiling. Those windows were separated by columns carved into details that were difficult to see in the light, but they seemed rococo in their detail and complexity. Not structural, but ornamental. High on the roofline, silhouetted against the sky were figures I at first thought were more guards, but were probably statues.
"Mikah," Chaeitch hissed and I realized I'd been gawping. I shut my mouth and went where my hosts led me.
The doors were huge elaborately-carved bronze things. Every inch of the two-story portals were covered with figures of Rris bodies, interlacing so the gap between one figure's legs became another's arm. Not carvings. The entire things looked like they'd been cast in one piece. The vestibule inside was white marble lit by chandeliers hanging from braces in the stained-glass dome three floors above. Alcoves in the colonnaded walls contained busts of Rris carved in stone and wood. Some of them were old, split and gnarly looking things with barely discernable features. Beyond that was a great hall, an atrium with an arched, leaded glass ceiling. Wrought-iron railings ran along second and third floor galleries where curious Rris faces lurked and stared. Staff, I noticed. Servants trying to be unobtrusive about their curiosity.
The air was cool, the scent a faint one of spices and potpourri and the dusty scent of Rris. Claws pattered on the inlaid floor, accompanied by the faint clink of buckles and armor and equipment as our guide led us down the hall toward the double doors at the far end.
"Her highness is awaiting you in the Sky Chamber," Chriét was saying. "We hope you will forgive the simplicity of the reception. Given more time we could have prepared something a little more elaborate."
"Quite sufficient," Rraerch said. Oh yeah, our hosts were trying to impress.
"She has been looking forward to this meeting," the Host went on. "As have many others. We thought you may be fatigued after your trip, so we ensured the invitations for tonight were limited to a select few. Later on, after you've had time to rest and refresh, more appointments will be granted. Those have been drawn up and submitted to your embassy."
"Ah Marasitha will wish to peruse them, merely for formalities sake. I'm sure everything is quite satisfactory," Rraerch said.
"Of course," the Host said. "If there are any difficulties, please don't hesitate to inform us."
A low underlying susurrus had been getting steadily louder as we approached the doors. When the doormen swung them open the noise peaked, like a gust of wind through autumn leaves, then died. I felt my heart lurch into overdrive.
If it was the Sky Chamber, it was aptly named. We were standing on steps leading down into a ballroom that was like being in the middle of a fabergé egg: patterned powder-blue satin wallpaper, ornate plaster moulding that was almost rococo in its extravagance climbed the walls and ceiling to the central dome of wrought iron and glass. Huge chandeliers of crystal and silver hung from the dome, flaring with hundreds of candles, their light reflecting from the dome above, from the polished floor, from the gilt and silver in the room and in the crowd below.
The crowd. A sea of Rris faces turning to stare at us. At me. A crowd of Rris in fine satins and cottons and leathers and glittering metal. My first thought was 'this is a select few?!' The nobility and the court of Open Fields, there to see just what all the fuss was about. Just as their counterparts over in Shattered Water had done. It was a situation I'd experienced before, and not all of those experiences had been good. Some of that had been due to my own carelessness, some of it Rris attitudes.
In order to get through I had to put on a careful act and watch my every move, and that wasn't easy. These were Rris who didn't know me, who had no idea I had different mannerisms and that some of those mannerisms, while innocent, could be construed as hostile. These Rris were powerful, often arrogant and used to getting their own way, and could be quick to boil over if they perceived something as a slight. And it wasn't so easy to put the lid back on.
I really didn't like those situations.
But the others were looking at me. I saw Rraerch's ears lay back and knew I was emoting something strong enough for them to pick up on. I swallowed hard, put on my best poker face and descended into the throng.
The rustle of Rris whispers was picking up again around the back of the crowd. Whispers and soft chittering while the crowd stirred in curiosity. However, they kept their distance and parted like the Red Sea before us. The guards were like a moving cordon, never touching their weapons but keeping the Rris bystanders back with just a bit of attitude, armor and the promise of sharp metal.
Chriét led the way through the crowd and I followed, somewhat relieved that they weren't just cutting me loose in there, although if there was a point in parading me past the entire court, I didn't get it. So I walked along behind the guards, taking deep breaths and trying to keep my racing heart under control.
The crowd was a continuously shifting mosaic of sound and details. Multitudes of eyes: amber and orange of all hues, rarer flashes of green. Fur in shades of ochre, brown, sienna, tawny, grey, cream, black stripes and speckles. Gaudily colored clothes; lace and satin; ruffs and bloused sleeves; gold and silver filigree woven through fur dyed and shaven in abstract and geometric patterns... The crowd was all around and I couldn't look everywhere at once, so I focused my eyes ahead, at the point where the courtiers were stepping aside to let our party through.
"... is it?"
"Red tie me! Frightful!"
"... one they were talking about."
"... like the [something] in..."
Fragments of dozens of conversations and exclamations tangling in the air around us. Nothing I hadn't heard before.
And our escort led us right through that room and that crowd. Right through to the double doors on the far side. Footmen opened them and we entered a hall, an antechamber rather, with another set of doors ahead of us and a single door in the other two walls. The room was brightly lit with gas lamps. The walls were red velvet and the floor was inlaid with a cheerful parquetry mosaic of a Rris dying of grievous and graphic bodily wounds while being succored by a small distressed-looking group. I'd seen a statue a great deal like that in Pinnacle Square back in Shattered Water. Beside the inner doors a pair of guards stood watch, looking our way but otherwise not reacting when we entered. The doors behind us swung to and the white static of the crowd was muted and I was able to breathe again.
Damn. I thought I was growing accustomed to situations like that: I'd been through enough of them at receptions in Shattered Water and whenever I had to walk the streets in public, but they were still stressful. Especially in an unknown room full of strangers.
"You all right?" Chaeitch murmured. I realized I'd relaxed with an audible sigh, but he was the only one who'd picked up on it.
"Thought I was used to that," I whispered back and he flicked his ears.
"I'm sorry?" Chriét looked around. "Everything is all right."
"Oh yes, perfectly," Chaeitch said.
"Groovy," I smiled. It felt forced.
Chriét blinked, appearing momentarily puzzled, then he ducked his head. "Very good. Now, if you would please, her highness would be pleased to meet with you. Your escort... they will not be needed in there."
Marasitha hesitated, then nodded at our guards. They quietly stepped aside to take up positions along the walls. The Open Fields guards opened the other doors and we walked through, onto deep carpet. It was a big room, and it was blue. I'd thought the outer hall was the sky chamber and I'd obviously been wrong about that.
The wallpaper in the room we entered was a deep blue trimmed with gold across the scotia and the concave ceiling was a deep purple in which gleamed hundreds... thousands of little points of light. Pinpricks in the arch of the ceiling, backlit to produce a representation of the night sky. There were bookshelves around the walls, well stocked with old volumes. Down the far end of the room cushions were arranged in a semicircle before a single figure hunched over a low desk in a pool of light from a single lamp. Behind us, the sound of the crowd vanished entirely as the doors closed again and the only noise was a low scribble from the scratching pen of the figure at the desk. There was a final flourish of the quill, then furry fingers carefully laid it aside to dry and she looked up at us.
"Welcome to Open Fields," Lady H'risnth aesh Rei's smiled cordially. "I hope your journey was a good one."
"Very good, ma'am," Marasitha replied. "And a spectacular reception."
The Lady was a young Rris. We'd met before and my briefings had had more than a bit on her. I knew she had one cub and Chaeitch had told me she was considered very attractive by Rris standards. Her pelt was a light tawny color and quite long, a trait inherited from her grandmother who, from accounts, hailed from more northern climes. Visible through her ochre velvet sleeveless vest, her belly fur was a pale cream and dotted with salt and pepper flecks that must've trailed around from the larger dark speckles on her arms and down her tail. Her eyes were that amber color so common to Rris, so inhuman to me. She ducked her head. "It was the least we could offer such esteemed guests. Ah R'y, wonderful to see you again. I have to thank you personally for making the trip. It wasn't too strenuous?"
It took me a second to realize she was talking to me. "Please ma'am, just call me Michael," I said. "Mikah. The trip was fine. Very restful. And from what I saw of your city it seems very beautiful. I look forward to seeing it in the light."
She graciously smiled and gestured affirmative. "It is, and we shall afford you every opportunity. I understand you have an interest in seeing some museums and galleries."
How the hell had that snippet of information gotten to her so quickly? "Yes, ma'am, very much. If there's time."
"I'm sure there will be," she assured me. "If there is anything you would like to see or do, please just ask."
"Thank you," I said and had to glance up at the ceiling again. "This... this is the Sky Chamber?"
I thought I heard Chaeitch sigh but the Lady looked unmistakably amused. "It is. Aptly named, I think. Supposedly an exact depiction of the sky at the time it was created. Fifty six years ago I believe. It is a quite exceptional work."
"Ah," I agreed. I'd wondered why the background color was deep purple, then had to recall that Rris couldn't see that color: to them it was the same as black. "It is."
"You must see the Dawn Room sometime. It's designed by the same artist. When seen at the right time of the morning it is quite... spectacular."
"I would like that," I said.
"It will be arranged," her face pursed in amusement again. "Now, I expect you're all discomforted after your journey. I have rooms prepared for you. Also food and refreshments and staff. I know you want to get down to business, but it is late, and since you made such excellent time, there's no rush. In the morning we can discuss business, but for now, please; rest, relax, enjoy our hospitality."
"Thank you, ma'am," Marasitha bowed.
She gave him a look and twitched her ears, then turned to me and grinned. I heard intakes of breath from my companions and flinched myself, but I think I recognized it for what it was before they did: An imitation of one of my smiles. "Mikah, I think the next few days will prove to be most interesting indeed."
I wasn't given a room. It was an entire suite.
Chriét showed me in through open doors, into an antechamber of white marble. Fine-veined white marble on the floor, the polished walls, up to the vaulted ceiling. Opposite the door an alcove housed a gnarled and weathered piece of wood. On either side stood a plain white vase, each containing a small bundle of artfully arranged dried bullrushes.
There were Rris waiting in there. A row of seven of them standing at nervous attention, but they weren't guards. Their clothes were neat, but not expensive. I saw ears go back like a row of dominoes, one after the other as soon as they laid eyes on me. The staff who attended the suite, and therefore me, Chriét informed me. There was Hiesh, the steward of the suite. Then the attendant, the trio of chambermaids, the waiter, and the personal groom. Those individuals weren't introduced by name, they were just servants. They'd probably been hand-picked and extensively briefed, and they looked more than a little nervous of me.
"If you need anything," Chriét told me, "Anything at all, just ask. It will be provided."
The rest of the suite was through an archway to the right and down a couple of steps. They opened out onto a big living area. It was luxurious. By anyone's standards. The floor was carpeted in intricate patterns of woven green and gold; the paneling on the wall lacquered white and embellished with carvings and scrollwork and gilt. There was a desk, there was a table and polished leather cushions, Rris sculptures and artwork scattered around. A cold fireplace lay below a huge mantle embossed with plaster grapes, above was a mirror in a gilt frame, a big one. It must've been worth its weight in gold, given the laborious process that glassmaking was here. Drapes were drawn over the high windows along one wall, the light coming from the glowing flames of new coal gas lamps. The candles on the hanging crystal chandelier were unlit.
Then there was the bedroom. It was big, with a similar color scheme and decor as the outer room. The paintings hanging on the walls had a feeling of age about them, and the mirror opposite the bed reflected the light of more gas lamps. The bed... well the huge bed with its satin spread looked about the right size to double as a parade ground. No pillows though. My luggage was neatly laid out on a bench just inside the door, and while I wasn't about to check there and then, the red royal seals looked to be intact.
The ensuite was all fine white tile, green trim, and silver fixtures. At one end of the room was a huge bath on a dias, at the other water continuously trickled into a basin from a silver swan head. The toilet... that was one of those convoluted Rris saddle-affairs against the far wall. No door or curtain. I'm still not used to the Rris laid-back attitude to bodily functions.
Chaeitch, Rraerch and Marasitha had lodgings in the same wing, but their quarters, while plush, weren't on the same palatial scale as mine. The guards in the corridors were the Land-of-Water personnel who'd come with us. Obviously they were going all out to be hospitable, and probably to impress me. The rooms were extravagant in the extreme and the extras like the gas lighting, the mirrors and the indoor plumbing were the latest word in Rris amenities. They probably never realised that to me they were not only mundane, but expected. I wondered how long ago they'd been installed. Was it just for my sake?
"Is it to your satisfaction?" Chriét was asking.
I had to ask. "You've got cable?"
"Sir?" The confusion on his face was mingled with a flash of what was almost panic.
"Relax," I sighed. "Old joke. It's most satisfactory."
"Yes, sir." He still looked decidedly uncertain. Would inroads be made in trying to find out exactly what 'cable' was? "There will always be someone attendant to your needs. If anything is required, at any time, simply inform them. Hiesh," he gestured at the steward lurking in the background, "will endeavor to fulfil your needs."
"Thank you," I said and the Host ducked his head, took a couple of steps back and turned and stalked away across the room toward the antechamber. Hiesh bowed his own head as his superior passed and then stiffened again. Okay. Severe pecking order. And the servants were probably under strict orders and even... I hesitated and looked at the big mirror over the fireplace, considering it for a while. Then I shook my head: No, that would be ridiculously cliched. I shrugged, then headed on back to the bedroom and stopped in the doorway.
"Hiesh," I turned to the steward.
"Sir," he flinched.
"You can relax too," I said, looking at the Rris. I couldn't guess his age, but he was elegantly groomed and obviously aching to do right. "How much did they tell you about me?"
"Is that all you can say? Loosen up a bit. I'm pretty informal and I don't bite or scratch. They didn't tell you anything about me? I find that hard to believe."
"Sir, they said to treat you like highborn. Sir."
"They did, a?"
"Okay, first thing: Did they explain about my smiling?"
Ohboy. They hadn't told them. "I can't smile like a Rris. Different ears, different face. When I smile sometimes I show teeth. It's not a hostile gesture, it's just the way I am. Understand?"
"I believe so, Sir."
"Good," I smiled. He flinched then caught himself. "Well, better," I said and turned for the bedroom. "Is there somewhere I can unpack my clothes? And no I don't need help; I am quite capable of doing it for myself."
"Of course, Sir."
"And my name's Michael."
Satin sheets were wrapped around my legs. My face was flat against more satin, the smooth fabric sliding against my beard. I blinked muzzily, still mostly asleep and floating in a weird warm place where Chihirae and Jackie were playing mah-jongg.
"It's morning, Sir," a voice was saying.
I opened my eyes, blinked. The voice was right. It was. Dim light was filtering in around the side of the curtains, and then suddenly flooded the room as the drapes were pulled aside. "You slept well I hope, Sir," the steward, Hiesh, was saying as he opened the curtains, then stalked across the expensive rugs to stand at the side of the bed with his hands clasped before him. "Your schedule has been prepared and is waiting on the desk. Her highness wishes to start as soon as is possible. Kiesh will help you with preparations, Sir. And is there anything you would prefer for your breakfast?"
"Huh?" I responded and struggled to sit up, yawned and stretched. Tendons popped and crackled.
"Breakfast, Sir?" He was staring. Not at me. Matter of fact he was being pointedly careful not to stare at me by keeping his eyes locked very fixedly at a point over my head. I scratched my chest, amused, then his question registered.
"Oh," crap, I hated not being able to order a simple continental. "Bread rolls or grains are fine. Cooked eggs are good. Not too much meat, and if there is make sure it's very well cooked. Almost burnt, please." By Rris standards that would be medium rare.
"Yes, Sir," he said and went to organize it.
Outside, it promised to be another flawless day. The sun was low, turning the horizon white and leaving the sky overhead a deep and bottomless blue. Young light touched the hills, washing over the golden grasslands around the palace. I stood in the window and admired the view as I ran through a few vigorous stretches, then a few dozen crunches and pressups. Going for a run would have been a good start to the day but I wasn't sure how my hosts would have taken it.
I was on my dozenth crunch when I heard the voice venture, "Sir?" I kept going but glanced around at the Rris standing in the doorway, carrying an armful of blankets and staring at me. I guess it had good cause: it's not everyday you walk into a room to find a giant hairless ape lying on the floor, feet tucked under the edge of the bed and repeatedly folding and unfolding himself.
"A?" I grunted as I touched elbow to knee. "I'll be done in a few minutes."
It... she was still there when I'd finished. As I got up her ears went back and she got that look that said she was seriously thinking about running. "Can I help you?" I asked, grabbing a towel and wiping sweat away from my eyes. "I met you last night? You're on staff?"
"Sir," the Rris with the stack of linen squeaked, then tried again. "Sir, we were told to attend you."
"Attend me?" I wasn't entirely sure what that meant.
"Yes, sir," she squeaked again and glanced around, as if looking for someone else. "To assist you this morning."
Her ears went back and she was looking positively distraught. "Sir, anything you need. I... I'm here to clean. I didn't mean to stare sir. I'm sorry."
"Ah, Okay. Thank you. Don't worry. Go ahead," I said and caught myself before I smiled at her, then slung the towel around my shoulders and headed for the bathroom.
The bath was impressive: sunken into its dais and lined with white tiles painted with small green lilies, it was big enough to be a small swimming pool. The faucet was a big silver sluice in the shape of broad lily leaves: definitely not mass produced judging by the quality of the engraving on it. There was hot water. Well, tepid at best, but the morning wasn't cold and it was a bearable substitute for a brisk shower. Arranged along the side of the bath were brushes, things designed for raking through Rris fur and coarse enough to scratch me raw. The soap was the grey, grainy stuff like coagulated porridge with sand in it so common here. Horrible to use, but it was all there was. I dunked my head, rinsing the coarse stuff out of my hair, and when I lifted it again there was another Rris standing there and staring at me.
The rotted groom there to 'attend' me, which included helping me wash. I had to persuade him that I was quite capable of doing that by myself, but did agree to let him lay out my clothes. That was enough to salve his professional pride and give me some privacy.
Although when I saw what he'd laid out I started to wish I'd brought Tich along.
If the day had started off hectic enough, the pace picked up. Within an hour I was walking the corridors of yet another alien palace. Chaeitch, Rraerch, and Chriét had been waiting in the antechamber when I'd emerged from the bedroom, Chaeitch chittering aloud, Rraerch looking distinctly amused and the Host seemingly a little bemused. They'd been there long enough to overhear my... discussion with the groom over the outfit. Is it really so difficult to understand that pants with tail slits might not be appreciated by someone without a tail?
That had been sorted out. My clothes might have been a peculiar cut by Rris standards, slacks, moccasins and a loose-shirt weren't haute couture here, but it was a cut that fit me. I'd had them custom made by one of the best tailors in Shattered Water, using my well-worn clothes from home as patterns. The materials were unorthodox, but they were comfortable. I'd also unpacked my laptop from its padded and sealed travelcase and carefully slung that over my shoulder. Back home it'd been expensive; here, 'priceless' still didn't come close to describing it.
A small procession made its way from the guest quarters into the halls of the palace. The Shattered Water Rris - Chaeitch, Rraerch and the guards - and I were escorted by Open Fields royal guards in a cordon around us, some in front and some behind. Their weapons were holstered or sheathed and secured with yellow ribbons. A mark of courtesy Rraerch told me, showing that the weapons couldn't drawn quickly.
Soldiery was becoming a part of the background by then. It wasn't difficult to not even notice them while seeing the rest of the world. Sunlight flooding in through windows we walked past was warm against my skin and gleamed off marble floors and expensive ornamentation in the palace halls. Outside the heavens were a cloudless blue vault, arching high above a vista of summer-golden grass and the green of trees. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day.
We walked through marble halls and past history. Not a human history, but it was still a past deeper and richer than my young United States had known. There were tapestries and paintings hundreds of years old. There were cracked and time-bleached wooden totems imbued with the ghosts of scents of notable Rris long-dead when Lincoln was in diapers; polished maple wall panels with bas-relief carvings depicting stories of people and places, no two the same.
Chaeitch prodded me with a claw and reminded me that we did have an appointment to keep.
It was in an audience chamber off a suite in the southeastern wing of the palace. The setting was informal and minimalist. The room was bright, with light colors: pale creams and white embossed wallpaper void of any pictures and coarse woven white rattan carpeting. A dozen pale leather floor cushions with side tables were arranged in a circle, nine of them occupied by Rris. The only one I recognized was the Lady H'risnth. She was across the room, on her cushion in a pool of sunlight flooding through the windows at her back. Daylight flared from her loose white cotton blouse and the golden torc around her neck.
Rris gaped and openly stared at me. The Lady simply inclined her head and for a second I thought I saw a flicker of amusement. "Good morning, Mikah. You slept well?"
"Very well, thank you, Ma'am," I bowed. "My thanks to you and your staff for your hospitality."
"And our thanks to you for being here today," she smiled. "Please, sit."
I carefully folded myself down to the indicated cushion then unslung the laptop and placed it on the table beside me. Rris watched me. I guessed that a lot, if not most, of them had probably been in that crowd the previous night, they'd seen me before, but I was still a novelty. Chaeitch and Rraerch took the vacant cushions to either side. I saw Rraerch give me a careful glance: trying to judge my mood.
"Good honors," The Lady said to the assembled personages, "your presence today is a welcome occasion. Our guests have come a long way and the least we can do is ensure it is worth their while. I am sure this [something] will prove to be a productive and peaceable forerunner of many more such unions."
I almost frowned. There was a phrase I didn't know. And underlying all that there was something else. A warning? I didn't have time to puzzle over it. After that little speech The Lady settled back, folded her hands and let the Rris to her immediate right - an advisor - take over. Her Ladyship's amber eyes turned to me and she blinked, lazily it seemed, and I had to turn my attention to the advisor.
It was introductions first. The Rris in the room were leading Guildmasters; those the Open Fields government had considered highest priority. They knew I was only there for a limited time, so they'd picked representatives from various guilds and institutions. There was the Metalworkers and Miners Guild administrator; the printing guildmaster; Merchants and Traders master; a representative from the Engineering Guild; a couple from the University, one of them a 'life-studier'. In other words a biologist. They were fields that they thought could profit the most in the time available. No military representatives there. Or rather, nobody was introduced as outright military. But when it came down to it, a farmer was a military resource.
Reactions to the introductions were... mixed, to a certain extent. They were there by the good graces of the government and they knew it. They were courteous, polite and a couple of them, the biologist, seemed openly friendly, but it was difficult to tell for sure. They'd doubtless been briefed about me, and it'd doubtless been made absolutely clear to them that if any of them gave me any trouble their hides would be used as doormats. So they were as gracious and polite as they might be to her highness herself. I only noticed a couple of instances of ears twitching back, of lips flicking back from sharp teeth.
I was getting used to meeting Rris. It didn't work both ways. There were a lot more of them than there were of me. But they were willing to listen to me, and especially to what I could give them. Nothing circumvents prejudices like good, old-fashioned greed.
They were primarily interested in industrial applications. Especially where they could be applied to their mining and refining industries. Iron and steel were major industries in Cover My Tail, so therefore so were transportation, coal and coke mines and products related to them, like the increasing demand for coal gas. New techniques and equipment were of serious interest to them.
And so was the fact that Land of Water had massively improved steam engines and that these engines required high-grade coal to run. It wasn't difficult to see that if these machines gained in popularity then there would be a corresponding demand for fuel. You could almost hear the cash registers ringing up the totals in their heads.
Those engines also provided opportunities and solutions to other problems. Like improved pumps and lifts for deeper mines; like boats and trains that could haul more goods further and faster; like reduced workforces and therefore reduced costs. Just one technology could start an avalanche of other possibilities, each bringing with them further opportunities. These Rris were businessmen. I could practically see their nostrils twitching as they scented rich meat in the air.
And through it all the Lady H'risnth sat quietly and watched, seeming almost disinterested in the whole thing. She watched, she twitched an occasional ear, but she didn't say anything. She watched me, I know that. Once I glanced at her and caught her eye and I'm sure I caught a flicker of an amused smile, as if there was a joke between us, quickly hidden again under serene imperturbability.
I'd been warned that she was a sharp player, but for some reason she was sitting this one out.
"And are these designs so difficult to produce?" the Metalworkers master was asking me. He may have been one of the most powerful members of that guild, but he had spent time actually working at the craft. He knew a thing or two about the subject. Probably more than I did when it came down to the practical aspects of ironmongery.
"Sir, some of the innovations look simple enough, but if they're not carried out correctly and with the right materials, they can be lethal. Simply raising the pressure of boilers is pointless if the plating and seams won't take the extra strain. And simply making the walls thicker makes it more expensive, larger and heavier and therefore any extra power you gain from the size is lost in simply moving the engine and its fuel."
He looked thoughtful. "And these materials and tools for manufacturing, they are complicated."
"Some of them extremely so."
"So of course we would be buying them from you."
Chaeitch stepped in: "Initially, yes. For the time it took you to develop your own. Which I'm sure you could do in admirable time."
I saw the guildmaster's head go up fractionally and there were slight movements from the others: shifting weight, twitches of tails, flicks of ears... Lady H'risnth glanced at me again and I saw her pupils dilate momentarily. Two years I'd been there and I still couldn't interpret most of that body language. The head going back in a human would have been wariness, but in them I thought it was something a little like... would pride be the word?
It was dangerous ground for me. That was why Chaeitch and Rraerch were there.
"Faster than we were able to," Chaeitch drove it home. "We've been down that trail so we know exactly what will have to be done and the footsteps to follow to get there. You won't be going off down any of those interesting dead ends."
It sounded good. Like the computer industry back home: You can buy the product, brand spanking new off the assembly line, but the supplier will always still be a few steps ahead of you. If you want to troubleshoot or upgrade, then you and your cash'll have to go back to them. By the time Open Fields got any sort of engine running, Shattered Water would have the next generation.
The morning continued in that vein. Each side trying to take while making it look like they were giving. Which is what salesmanship - and politics - is all about. It all felt decidedly... unclean.
I didn't have any regrets about my chosen career path.
Except that my former career was as a graphic artist, not an engineer. My training was in arts and design. My work exposed me to a lot of different fields, but only fractional aspects of them. In the past I'd produced brochures for vineyards, interactive displays for pumping manufacturers, animations for tool manufacturers and shows for petfood producers. I'd covered some aspects of those industries in detail while other sections I didn't have the foggiest idea about. When it came to retooling a society on the cusp of an industrial revolution, artistic ability didn't rank highly on the scale of desirable skills.
I was all they were going to get.
Our hosts must've been aware of my limitations and my difficulties with the Rris language. Speaking a tongue my vocal chords had never been intended to speak for any period of time was uncomfortable for me. Actually physically debilitating in fact. They made sure my water glass was full, the servants also bringing trays of snacks and titbits which were good excuses to shut up for a few seconds. Some of the hot pastries they brought through were extremely good, although the way the Rris watched me masticate each mouthful made me feel like I was putting on a sideshow for them. If they were annoyed by the interruptions, they didn't give any outward signs of it.
There were so many of those little snacks that when the stewards announced that the midday meal was ready, it came as a surprise. I hadn't felt the slightest bit hungry, but when I looked at the window the shadows were shorter: it was noon. Time had passed faster than I'd expected.
Lunch was served in an adjoining room. White gauze curtains billowed into the room like insubstantial sails. Behind them an entire wall of french windows opened onto a vista of summer skies and the grass and tree covered hillsides of the palace grounds. Food was laid out on the huge table in the center of the room and as you might have expected, it was a lavish spread with bowls and trays of assorted meats and pastries and breads and more meats. The plates were a fine porcelain, looking and feeling a little like bone china. The cutlery was silver, and polished spotless. I was able to use the Rris utensils pretty well by then. At least, the forks and knives I didn't have any problem with, it was the things like chopsticks with little tines on the ends I had a bit of trouble with. I was all too aware of the Rris watching me as I manipulated bits of food from my plate to my mouth. Her Ladyship... I glanced her way to see her staring back, just staring unblinkingly at me with her head tipped slightly to the side and an expression that might have been amusement insinuating itself about her features. Might have been. I wasn't sure.
There was an appetizer of filleted slivers of fish marinated in wine. The main course was some kind of tiny birds, roasted and filled with a mildly spicey stuffing. I felt a pang of apprehension when I tasted that.
"Not to your taste?" Chaeitch inquired. I looked up. I hadn't realized I'd reacted to that mouthful and now all the Rris were staring at me.
"It's very good," I said. "But the spice in this..." I trailed off, gesturing at the main course.
"It's all quite safe," the life-studier spoke up. "If that's what you were referring to. There was a list..." he also hesitated, looking around at the others as if he might have committed a faux pas.
Chaeitch's ears twitched and he looked at my dish. "There's nothing you haven't eaten before," he said and added, "Safely," with another flick of his ears.
They'd tried to think of everything, hadn't they. The reassurances helped, but...
I glanced around the table. Rris nobility stared back. A circle of feline features watching me, hands hovering halfway between plate and mouth with food momentarily forgotten. They were curious, I could see that, but they didn't ask. When I took another mouthful there was an almost imperceptible ripple around the table: a loosening of tension, a relaxing of ears and muscles in our hosts.
I'd been honest when I'd said the stuff was good. It was. It was simply experience making me wary. The unpleasant experience I'd had with Rris condiments hadn't killed me, not quite, but it'd certainly been enough to make sure I'd never forget it. There'd been suggestions of poison, but in the end it'd seemed most likely that it'd been a flavoring the Rris used like we used peppers. Harmless to them, toxic to me. I'd made my own cook quite aware that experimentation in his cooking wasn't a good idea, not without being absolutely sure. But my hosts and my friends were assuring me the food was safe and I had to trust somebody.
Sounds of cutlery and enthusiastic Rris mastication provided a background to the conversation, which drifted back to technical talk interspersed with questions about other subjects. Like the impromptu language lessons, a single topic could branch off into all sorts of unexpected scenic routes. A simple question about the construction of new smelting facilities led off into questions about supplies of kiln lining material from Shattered Water, exchanges of coke and iron ore, possibility of drawing and fabrication machinery and questions about production capability from back home. That last one... I didn't really have the foggiest idea. But I dropped some figures I did know, like GMs annual production numbers from a couple of years back. The Metalworkers' Guildmaster almost choked on his mouthful.
The plans for the afternoon revolved around a flying tour of some of their facilities. On the list were a coal mine, a foundry and metal workshop, and lumber and a grain mill, all out in the western districts of Open Fields. Chriét handled the summary of the programme, quite transparent in his efforts at applying a gloss to the descriptions to make it sound like the glittering tour that it obviously wasn't.
The Lady sat quietly, decorously lapping from a small china cup as the Host enthusiastically described the program, using quite a few elaborate adjectives I didn't know. She was watching me, I was quite aware of that, and it rattled me a bit. I could feel the stare and every time I glanced at her those amber eyes were on me. She didn't speak, just watched.
When the meal was done the Host politely announced the carriages were waiting. I rose with the Rris and before leaving bowed to the Lady, thanking her for the hospitality.
With graceful ease the Lady returned the bow. "The pleasure was mine," she rumbled, then smiled slightly and blinked slowly at me.
I was staring. I felt a hot flush climbing up from my collar as I turned away. Out in the hall Chaeitch smirked at me, lolling his tongue slightly.
"Oh, shut up," I growled out of the corner of my mouth.
He just looked smug.
Iron-rimmed carriage wheels bumped and rattled on the unpaved roads, the afternoon sun low enough to shine in through the windows. Draught animals bleated and complained, the sounds mingling with the strident rasp of insects and birdsong in the sward beside the road. Dust disturbed by our passage hung in the still air, smelling like hot summer and farms.
Sitting in a slow-moving box on a hot afternoon, feeling a combination of heat-induced lethargy and plain tiredness after the tour. At least with cars you can crack a window for a bit of ventilation, but an elk-drawn carriage didn't offer that sort of option. The windows were wide open but the thing simply didn't move fast enough to produce much of a breeze. I found it warm: for my fur-clad companions it must've been stifling.
Chaeitch, Chriét, and Rraerch were sitting and panting steadily. I glanced at the two males sitting opposite with their jaws gaping and tongues lolling and then quickly looked back at the scenery scrolling by outside, choking back a laugh. At my side Rraerch gave an inquisitive chirrup, looking from me to the other, but she didn't say anything.
The mine we'd visited had been about twenty minutes ride to the west of the city. I'd been expecting a small strip mine. The actual thing didn't meet my expectations.
The initial prospectors had struck a rich seam and they'd been following it ever since. And that'd apparently been for a long time. The hillside in which the original mine had been struck in was almost gone, cut in half. What remained was a terraced pit larger than several football fields surrounded by a wasteland of cleared trees, heaps of broken rock and trampled earth. There were buildings around the periphery of the pit: several rough-looking sheds of rough-cut lumber with chimneys dribbling smoke and a couple more newer-looking constructions of brick with glazed windows.
There was activity everywhere. Rris and animals moved around the pit, hauling carts and buckets. I saw a group of Rris emerging from what could only be the opening of a shaft in the side of the pit and had to stare. They were staggering with exhaustion. Their hides were plastered and dripping with mud and grimy layers of coal dust that turned them black as night. Several of them sneezed violently and as the bunch began a weary slog out of the pit I remembered some of the stories I'd heard about early mining back home and had to wince.
If anything those stories had been understating things. It was hell down there.
The open cast mine had been getting the easy stuff. The original vein had followed close to the surface and it'd simply been a matter of chopping away the hill to get to it. They'd found other veins of hard coals branching away from that main seam and those were more difficult propositions. Shafts had been sunk, chasing those deeper veins, and those mines were black holes in the earth. Cramped, poorly lit, ventilated or drained. The Rris workers toiled in near blackness, continually rained upon by freezing water and mud, smothered in coal dust that played havoc with their acute senses. Material dug out by hand had to be hauled along claustrophobia-inducing tunnels and then up to the surface. Again, all by hand. The whole process was slow, inefficient and absolutely appalling for the workers.
What raw material was brought to the surface was sifted and graded into only a couple of different sorts. Some was carted off for use in heating or industry smelters while - more recently - other grades went for gas production or use in engines. Wagons hauled loads of the stuff off toward the city and the smelters.
A managerial type had been cashiered as our guide. He must've been briefed well because he only stared at me for a few seconds before starting the tour. He still kept a safe distance between us though. An hour was spent showing us around the brick and wood facilities. The stables and rickety bunkhouses, the new brick enginehouse where a feeble and unreliable steam pump managed to wring a trickle of seep water from the mine. Our guide pointed out various features, proudly extolling the state-of-the-art techniques.
God, just off the top of my head I knew about improved engines for pumps and winches, improved lamps and safety equipment, railroads for distribution, silos for storage and loading, safety lamps for the miners. My laptop encyclopedia would have information about techniques and specialized machinery that would improve conditions and productivity.
However, it'd been made abundantly clear to me that we were just there to look; to observe; to evaluate. Land-of-Water didn't want me giving away information for free. There was definitely a market there and they had what that market wanted. But I looked at those miners collapsing in exhausted bedraggled heaps beside the mine, the muck covering them caking in the hot sunlight, and I had to feel guilty. Land-of-Water would milk this for all it was worth, and it was worth a lot.
After the mine came the foundry. Practical considerations had placed it near the mine; about fifteen minutes travel southeast, situated at a point where ore and coal supplies congregated. I'd seen places like it before, with the big furnaces and the open casting pits where molten metal was poured into sand moulds. The foundries in Shattered Water had been almost identical when I'd first been shown them. It was something I'd been through before, so I had an excellent idea of what would be required to upgrade the place.
Although, as we were shown around, I couldn't help but notice there were closed off areas where our tour didn't take us where there were indications of construction going on. I knew industrial espionage was alive and well in the Rris business world. I didn't doubt that they were frantically trying to make their own upgrades. Well, some were obvious enough, like using rail and overhead winches for shifting bulk cargo, but other things weren't as simple. For example: the non-sublimating lining for the blast furnaces.
Overall, however, providing what they needed wasn't going to be a problem. Although, just what they were willing to pay might be.
The lumber mill was next. It was in actuality a cluster of busy wooden workshops surrounded by stacks of logs and planks. Inside, the work was done by hand. Teams of Rris worked with huge saws. Not rotary or band saws, but giant, unwieldy, hand-powered toothed ripsaws powered by four Rris at each end. Each team could handle over a dozen logs, on a good day.
In contrast to that was the grain mill. I'd been expecting something like a windmill. What I got was a huge old building that'd obviously grown and expanded over time, built on the hillside below an old stone reservoir fed via an aqueduct from a river a couple of miles away. Five massive overshot wheels were set in the millrace running along the side of the building, each groaning as the water ran over the top, filling buckets and turning the wheels before running along to do the same to the next wheel. Inside, huge, chunky wooden gears squealed like living things as they meshed. Patches of lighter color flashed amongst the aged wood, indicating sections where worn parts had been replaced. Millstones the size of monster truck tires ground with the unstoppable ponderosity of tectonic plates. Corn flour was the main cereal milled there, but they also managed some strains of what I thought of as bread wheat and barley.
Back home, our cereal products had been selectively bred over millennia to become modern wheat and barley and corn. Rris were predominantly carnivore: they put more stock in livestock, but they also extensively cultivated grains and vegetable produce. There was a great demand, and that mill was able to supply a great portion of that demand. But population growth continually put a strain upon supplies. They were sniffing the winds of change.
Rris methods were antiquated by my standards, but they all worked, they were simple and reliable. Why change them?
To get more. To get more faster, cheaper, more efficiently. To feed a growing population and industrial base. And the Jones' had nice things, why couldn't they? Some things transcended species differences I mused as we left the mill, bound back toward the city.
"May I ask what you thought?" Chriét asked.
Talking to me. I glanced at Chaeitch, who just flicked an ear, looking interested but not offering an opinion. "Impressed," I said. "I didn't know you could do that much with just water and wood."
He tipped his head slightly. "I'd have thought that it would seem quite... old by your standards."
That was leading the conversation into treacherous territory. I didn't need to inadvertently insult my hosts. "Sir, it was impressive by anyone's standards."
"But you would recommend changes?"
I hesitated, then said, "Sir, to the mining and lumber facilities, yes. To the mill, no."
"No?" He looked surprised. And there was a slight reaction from Chaeitch as well.
"I think the machinery is simple and working well. New machinery could work better and faster, but not quite yet. And new facilities could be built anywhere. You'd be better off building new facilities elsewhere to add to your current output." I shrugged and looked at the countryside passing by outside for a second. "And I think it would be a mistake you'd regret in the future: it's a beautiful old building."
Chriét blinked and Chaeitch coughed. "It might be a little premature for final decisions," he said and I caught his glance. "We're just here to evaluate."
I pulled the drapes aside and fumbled with a latch designed for fine claws before the balcony doors swung open. Cool evening air washed in. To the west the sun was just a fading glow over the horizon, the sky fading through dark violet toward night blue. High overhead a few stars were already peeking out. Behind me, back in the suite, I heard the sounds of Rris voices and then the front door closing as the servants left.
Wind blew across the meadows around the palace, sending ripples through dark grass.
"Kh'hitch wouldn't like the way you handled that," a Rris voice murmured and Chaeitch stepped out on the balcony beside me. "Telling them they don't need to buy something."
I shrugged. "Kh'hitch can take a long walk off a short pier."
I didn't turn. "Selling them something they don't need, that's not a way to treat a client. Lie to them, it could cause serious problems in the future."
"You really think they should leave that mill?"
A pause. "That was 'yes'?"
"Uh," he huffed. "You said they might regret it later."
"A. It's true. It's a nice old building. In the future they'd probably regret destroying something like that, something that showed how the city grew up."
"Ah," he said, not sounding entirely sure. I guess they weren't at a point where preserving historical buildings was a priority.
For a minute or so the evening was silent. Meadow grass waved in the wind. I could see a Rris couple wandering across the Palace grounds, their shadows stretching away in the moonlight.
"Is there... something about the Lady I'm missing?"
"Missing? What do you mean?"
"I mean, she was staring at me."
A slight chitter escaped him. "I'd have thought you'd be getting accustomed to that by now."
"Not... it wasn't that. Just... the way she was watching me. It was... not usual."
"Huhn," he huffed, leaning forward with forearms on the balustrade and not looking at me, his feline profile silhouetted against the evening. "That was what embarrassed you. Why?"
I shrugged, watching the last glow of the sun fading. The air was already noticably cooler. "Because I didn't know what it was. I couldn't tell what it was. In humans... it'd mean different things. I've learned it can be risky to assume it means the same in Rris."
"Different?" his ears pricked.
"Different," I said.
He knew me. "As in male female different," he suggested, then chittered, his furry shoulders shaking. "You... rot, Mikah, led by your genitals, ah?"
I flushed. "Wait till spring."
"Not all year long, though," he retorted. "Perhaps she knows that."
Perhaps Chaeitch noticed something because his ears twitched and he chittered again. "Smooth your fur. Joking. It's just curiosity. You are something of a novelty after all. She was probably just nipping you to see if you'd twitch."
"She wants to play those games then I'll smile back at her," I grumbled.
"Hai," his head turned. "Be wiser not to. You know where that's landed you in the past."
I sighed and waved agreement.
"Anyway," he straightened and swatted at a bug buzzing his muzzle, "time's stalking. We'd best be getting ready. I've got to get my fur brushed out, and you should do the same. And try not to frighten the staff, ah?"
That wasn't so easy.
Okay, so there wasn't a lot of time and the staff were trying to respectfully hurry me along, but there were times they were a little overzealous. I tried to keep a rein on my temper as I tried to explain things to the groom.
"Sir," his ears were flat against his head, "I'm supposed to..."
"I don't care," I said, holding the towel with one hand and moving my other arm to block the bathroom doorway. "I'm quite capable of washing myself unaided."
He looked from my arm to my face, wearing an expression as if what I'd just proposed was incomprehensible. "But sir, I'm supposed to assist you..."
"And you can do that by not helping."
"Sir, your fur needs tending. Your back fur... your..." he trailed off, looking at my chest.
"Exactly," I said. "I'm low maintenance."
The servant looked utterly confused and actually upset. Dammit, he was just trying to do his job, and Chaeitch would have my ears if I teased him too much. "Look," I sighed, "I won't be long. Just lay your stuff out. When I'm done, you can do... whatever you have to do."
"Yes, sir," he acquiesced.
I shucked the towel and sank down into the hot bath. Animal-drawn vehicles might have their rustic charm, but they've also got the full range of dust and smells, lack of suspension and heat. It felt good to sluice that off, to sink down and dunk my head, washing away the grime of the day. Through the bedroom doorway suite staff bustled around, sorting out armloads of varicolored cloth and murmuring amongst themselves with occasional glances in my direction. That was a reminder that I didn't have time to linger. As soon as I climbed out the chambermaids were there, armed with towels. Rris fur required a lot of drying, so towels had to be expansive and absorbent. They also had to be made by hand, so they were expensive beyond the reach of the average citizen. Chihirae had never owned the like, making do instead with dishcloth-like swatches of cloth and patience. The palace could afford luxuries, like those towels. The chambermaids patted at me with them as they ushered me through to the bedroom.
The Rris idea of formal clothing differs from what I'd been accustomed to back home. I'd been through occasions requiring formal garb before and I knew there'd be more in the future, so I'd wanted to get a proper suit tailored. That idea was shot down before it even got off the ground. They didn't want something that looked like I'd just come down a chimney. It had been explained to me that the clothing should suit the station; that just the cut didn't cut it. Color was required, and texture and something that looked as if some effort had been made. Think baroque Victorian-era lush mixed with imaginative leather and metalwork.
I'd brought several formal outfits with me, all custom tailored back in Shattered Water. They might not have approved of a black suit, but I can't say I was that fond of some of their styles. The kilts weren't too appealing, and I was damned if I was going to be stuck with a pair of bloused breeches with a tail hole in back, or a Robin Hood's Merry Men type of outfit like I'd been stuck with in the past. My hosts had picked out one and it'd already been pressed and laid out on the bed. Red and black and silver featured predominantly.
I was slightly taken aback at the attention as hands toweled me off, others guiding me to sit on a cushion, lowering me so the groom could start on my hair and beard. I saw ears twitching, spasming with the effort to keep them upright and not lay them back down against their heads in a gesture that could be interpreted as insulting. They were all nervous and jumpy, but they worked smoothly, their hands gentle on the numb tissue around my scars. The groom working on my hair did so carefully, with practiced but wary movements, as if he were around a skittish animal.
There were a few instances where my physical differences caused them some problems. Brushing down the hair on my arms was pretty fruitless, as was attempting to trim my claws. Apart from that, things went pretty smoothly. The clothes had been well attended to and fit comfortably, even if the material was pretty coarse. Back home the cut would have been called martial: red creased dress pants with silver frogging, a red and black tunic with a high collar and double button-over front with silver buttons and trim. The whole thing was quite garish and way over-the-top by my sensibilities, so it'd be perfect for Rris eyes.
"You look good," a voice behind me said.
I looked past my reflection in the mirror at Rraerch and Chaeitch. He was dressed in greens and browns: felt breeches and a gleaming leather vest, intricately tooled and trimmed with gold. She was also in green, although her tunic and kilt were in tiny patchwork squares of more shades of green than I could immediately count. Wrapped around her torso, her arms, was gold filigree: like tiny curls of vines and ferns. Ummm. Green and red. It felt pre-planned.
"It's not a bit... bright?" I asked as I adjusted my collar. An understatement, if anything. The red was almost a bright orange. To a Rris' sense of color that would be red: they had difficulty seeing quite the same spectral range I could.
"It's quite spectacular," Rraerch said and I wasn't sure if she was being honest or tactful.
"Tell that to Adam Ant," I said in English and hefted the final touch, the yellow and orange sash. "Do you think I really need this?"
They thought I did.
Doors swung open.
Crystal chandeliers hung from a ceiling glittering with golds and silvers, a heat shimmer haze rising from the hundreds of blazing candles. Below them shifted a chaos of colors and shadows: a crowd of a couple of hundred brilliantly costumed aliens, moving and orbiting one another in intricately interlocking patterns of influence.
I felt my heartrate start to pick up and sucked a deep breath. Both Chaeitch and Rraerch glanced at me and then at one another. I don't think Chriét noticed as he stalked in ahead of us. When I stepped through and stood at the top of the sweeping staircase, heads were already turning our way.
That wasn't too surprising. I suppose we were a sight: An honor guard of Land-of-Water guards with weapons trust-tied escorting a couple of high-class Rris in their green and gold finery and a human in red regalia looming a full head and shoulders above everyone else in the room. The noise in the room - the indescribable sound of Rris conversation like ocean surf on gravel mixed with coughs and rolling growls - that dimmed noticeably. Ripples of silence spreading outwards, the hissed whispers following right on their tail.
My boots were inaudible as I descended the marble steps and waded into the crowd.
Seen from above, the room around me might have resembled an exercise in brownian motion. The Rris were particles, clouds of particles thinning out immediately around me. In that vacuum they were orbiting uncertainly: approaching, curving away again, just watching. Lords and ladies, the wealthiest and most influencial of guild houses and landowners and merchant families with their brushed fur and finery gleaming under the lights.
That caution wouldn't last, I knew. I'd been through a situation like that before, and I knew there'd be those who'd take this as an opportunity to try and skip the usual screening, to pick my mind, to ask questions and petition me. As I walked out into the sea of Rris I could already spot the wakes heading my way.
It was something I had to deal with as tactfully as possible. The next couple of hours or so were spent carefully fending and deflecting requests and offers and invitations. I'd been explicitly warned that accepting or committing to anything in such an informal setting would almost certainly lead to resentment and schisms later on. Behave myself and try not to frighten people, that was the advice Chaeitch had given me.
My escort hovered in the background, drifting in an out of the technicolor crowd, eclipsed by bejeweled finery but keeping me in sight. Always just there while I talked with the Metalworkers Guildmaster, was politely interrupted by the Weaver Guildmistress, moved a few steps to find a merchant I hadn't met before wanting to talk buisness. Again and again, one after the other. Those hours were spent just getting across the room.
Food was laid out on white benches. A continuous procession of servants replenished dishes and took empties away: silver trays and platters. All sorts of breads and pastries, corn, potato wedges and spices and things I couldn't identify. Meat, there was a lot of that: Slabs and strips and chunks and cubes, ground, minced, in pies and pasties and shish kebabs; smoked, grilled, roasted and of course raw. I eyed a spoked platter of grilled venison and its sauce uncertainly, then just took a handful of popcorn. Rris stared as I nibbled a mouthful.
"At least you're not flashing your fangs this time," a Rris voice at my shoulder said.
I turned to tell Chaeitch, "Go cough up a..."
It wasn't him this time. Her Ladyship was standing there, looking up at me with her head cocked slightly.
"Ma'am," I blinked. "I thought..."
"Ah Ties still dragging that carcass around, is he?" Lady H'risnth looked amused. "Ah Thes'ita does draw that sort of reaction sometimes."
The evening was warm so she was dressed lightly, in the Rris idea of elegance. Tan seemed to be her color. A pale leather collar lay about her neck: a narrow V down to her clavicle. From that, across her front and back, hung cream cotton strips, belted at the waist and weighted at the base with silver disks to form a loose kilt. Those disks were elaborately engraved. With what, I couldn't quite make out. She'd worn that light tan and brown look the first time we'd met, at that formal night back in Shattered Water where... Back when I'd... I'd... She was right, that incident wouldn't die quietly.
Her own guard was spread out behind us, forming a loose cordon that nobody seemed particularly eager to try and cross. But they were certainly watching her, and me.
"You might want to try these," Lady H'risnth suggested, indicating some small pastries. "They're really quite good. And should be quite safe for you."
Rris do have some unusual ideas of what constitutes a good filling for some of their snacks. Really, no part of the poor animal is safe. I tried the proffered treats, gingerly. She noticed.
"Goose liver [something]," she offered and looked amused.
Foie Gras. I'd had something like it before, at a very expensive function back in the other world. "It's good," I said, taking another bite. It was.
Her ears flickered again. "Come. Walk with me."
This time the parting of the crowd before us was due to her guards. There were more than a few disgruntled looks, but nobody tried to interrupt as she led the way through the crowd. Over the heads of the crowds I saw a trio of mediators off toward the back, their utilitarian garments incongruous amongst the garish attire of everyone else. Did they get invites? Or were they gate crashing.
"You're enjoying yourself?" she asked.
"Oh, yes," I said.
She gave me a sidelong look. "From what I understand you've been talking business non-stop all evening. You really find that enjoyable?"
This time I hesitated, trying to think of a tactful way to phrase it.
She chittered. "I didn't think so."
The air out on the terrace was cooler. I didn't realise how warm the room had been getting until I stepped outside. Black and white tiles made geometric patterns in the light spilling from inside, out through the wall of windows. Lamps blazed along the balustrades: tall granite sconces spaced along the edge of the verandah filled with oil, burning like olympic flames. Moths congregated, orbited, suiciding into the light.
The Lady leaned up against the marble balustrade. "This is the sort of work you enjoy?"
These.... weren't usual questions. Over the railing was the night, the fields under star and moonlight. "If it was enjoyable would it be work?"
Her eyes flashed a multihued shimmer as she cocked her head, then chittered. "That was very good. Answering a question with a question. Those plays were right: your sense of diplomacy is a little different, a?"
She'd seen those? I felt a flush crawling up my neck.
"Huhn," she looked me up and down again, then leaned back against a lamp support and slowly stroked down the fur of her chin and throat. The light from that angle did weird things to her features. "There was something I wanted to discuss: An artist, weren't you?"
"Ma'am? I mean... yes Ma'am. Sort of... It was slightly different, but that would be the closest, I think."
"Ah, I've heard some good things about your work," she said, turning to look out across the starlit fields. "I'd like to talk to you about that. Would you be interested in a doing a commission?"
"More specifically, a portrait," she said. "You're interested?"
I nodded, then gestured a Rris 'yes'. "I'd like to hear more about it before I could commit, but yes, I am."
"Excellent," she smiled. "I'm afraid this isn't the place to discuss it. Monopolizing your time isn't polite." Her feline chin nodded toward the doors where guards politely kept hangers-on at bay. "There would seem to be plenty of others who'd gladly do that."
"Perhaps I should charge them by the minute," I said.
She looked thoughtful. "Interesting idea," she said, then smiled again. "Don't worry. I'll send somebody to rescue you in another hour or so and we can talk somewhere more private. And I think there might be a good vintage waiting to be opened."
The tip of her tail flicked against my leg as she turned and stalked back across the terrace, her retinue following back into the ballroom behind her until they were swallowed by the crowd. Immediately, that crowd started to spill back out onto the verandah, Rris nobility heading my way with a predatory gleam in their eyes.
Behind me, the sound of the function faded into the distance. All I could hear were the insect-spattering of my guide's claws on the marble floors, rattling faintly in the dim corridors.
Male or female, I couldn't tell. As her Ladyship had promised, it had been near midnight when the messenger had approached and stood respectfully off to one side while a Rris merchant talked at me about his idea of pulling ships around the lakes with huge ropes pulled by land-based steam engines. I'd managed to find a spot in his diatribe to acknowledge the messenger who'd offered me a respectful duck of his head and passed me a note. All that was on it was a seal embossed in red wax: her Ladyship's mark. She was trying to keep it low-key. I'd begged an urgent appointment to escape.
As the messenger led me away through a side door I caught a glimpse of Chaeitch heading my way, looking panicked with ears back and eyes wide. Last I saw was Chriét intercepting him and speaking urgently before a guard closed the door. "Her Ladyship?" I asked when we were away.
The messenger waved an affirmative. "Sir, she said to tell you, 'it's a good vintage'."
"A," I said. It sounded a bit too much like trite cloak-and-dagger stuff, but it let me know this individual was representing her Ladyship. She was trying to reassure me.
My guide led the way through the nightbound palace. In deference to Rris night vision, there weren't a lot of lights so we were walking through halls of shadows. Statues peered from black niches, doors and arches led into foreboding darkness. In another hall, moonlight seeped in through skylights to wash across the wooden paneled and white-plaster walls, turning Rris paintings and tapestries to monochromatic facsimilies of daylight. The occasional lamp was a welcome pool of warmth.
"Sir," my guide said as we stopped at a door. We were on the third floor, somewhere in the south wing. I thought. "Here, Sir."
The room was a study that was obviously well used. There were books on the shelves, paperwork on the desk. French doors hung ajar, letting the slight breeze stir the gauze drapes. Several gas lamps hissed and popped quietly, moths gathering and bumping around the milky glass globes. Lady H'risnth aesh Rei's closed a folder on the desk in front of her. Sitting beside her hand was a tray with two glasses and two bottles: wine and water. "Mikah, please, sit."
I folded myself down onto the cushion she indicated. Getting off my feet felt good but I was a little apprehensive. The atmosphere was... cosy. And that conversation that Chaeitch and I had had before kept creeping to the front of my mind.
"I find this sort of environment far more conducive to good conversation," she smiled. "Peace and some good wine makes it far easier to get things done. You've been talking for a while. I understand that's not so easy for you. You must be a bit thirsty."
"'A bit' begins to describe it, Ma'am," I smiled, carefully keeping my mouth closed.
She was calm and smooth while pouring. Her hands were perfectly steady on the glass, gently swirling dark red wine from the ornately blown dark green bottle. I took the offered glass and she watched as I sipped and then raised her glass. I saw a faint flash of pink as her tongue flicked into the liquid: their version of a sip.
I was beginning to gain an appreciation of Rris wines; an appreciation beyond the blunt reality-obliterating effect of brute alcohol. That bottle produced a wine that was slightly sweet, left a faintly tart aftertaste with a hint of spices, and was obviously quite expensive, and - I realised after the alcohol vapor blitzed past my sinuses - was one helluva proof.
"You're enjoying your trip?" she asked. A personal question. She'd have pages of reports of exactly where I'd been and what I'd done but they couldn't tell her what I was thinking.
"Yes, Ma'am," I said. "I've been very impressed. Your hospitality has been wonderful."
I got the distinct impression she was trying not to look amused. "Ah, good answer. Very diplomatic. You've been taking lessons, haven't you."
"No Ma'am, it's not that. You've been most generous."
Now she did smile. "Thank you," she said. "Although I can't imagine looking at holes in the ground is anyone's idea of fun."
"I've never done it before," I said. "New experiences are always interesting."
Her ears flickered. "Then by all accounts you must be leading a very interesting life."
"Putting it mildly. There have been times when I would prefer things to be a little more mundane."
Her eyes flicked, just a bit, but I caught the glance at my scarred cheek. "Then perhaps you might be interested in that offer I mentioned."
"A," I sipped. "A commission?"
"Yes. A portrait." She ducked her head slightly. "To be more specific, my own."
I blinked. "Ma'am? You want me? I mean... I'm flattered, but surely you have artists who're more than qualified?"
"Of course there are Rris artists," she said. "But I gather you're quite qualified. And I think it would be a... unique opportunity. I would love to see your work."
"A full portrait? That is a fairly ambitious undertaking."
"Oh, not a full oil, nothing like those," she gestured at an old cracked portrait hanging on the paneled wall. "You work with charcoals, don't you? Those colorless renderings? Perhaps something like that."
"Yes, I suppose..."
"Would tomorrow be too soon?"
That startled me. "Ma'am? Tomorrow. Isn't there a schedule...?"
"Oh," she smiled. "That's quite flexible. And you requested a chance to see some of our own galleries."
"That would be wonderful."
"Would the Estate collection interest you?"
It took me a moment to understand what she meant. I'd only seen a mention of that in text. Apparently there was an extensive collection of fine art in the Rei's family estate: very rare and very exclusive heirlooms. Not many people had had an opportunity to see it. I stared and realised she was staring back.
"Mikah? Your answer?"
"How can I refuse an offer from a queen," I smiled. "That would be most undiplomatic, wouldn't it?"
She chittered slightly. "A, most impolitic."
"In that case I would be honored. But I don't have any material. Papers, sticks... I wasn't expecting to be doing anything that required that."
"Is there anything in particular you will need?" she asked.
"Umm, good quality paper, individual sheaves as well as stretched on a canvass, quite large; charcoal and chalk sticks of varying hardness, a sharp blade. Oh, and some clean cloths."
"A?" the Lady blinked at me. "That's all?"
"I believe so. Ah, a fixative would be useful, if such a thing is available. Something to stop the charcoal smearing? A linseed varnish can work if sprayed on. Umm, I'm afraid I don't know what is available here."
She inclined her head slightly then gracefully reached to pluck a quill from an inkwell on her desk and sketched a quick note in the angular scratching of Rris script. "I think we should be able to provide something," she said and carefully replaced the quill. Then raised her glass, regarding me over the rim. Her eyes contrasted strongly with the wine: yellow amber and burgundy red. "If there's anything else, please just ask."
"I think that should be all."
"A carriage will meet you in the morning to take you out there. I'd expect it will take the entire day to do everything?"
"A charcoal can still take some time to do properly," I said. "But a day... that'll be enough."
"Good," she leaned back, still looking quite relaxed. "A carriage can meet you in the morning to take you out there. The journey takes about an hour, and I know being on the road when the sun is high isn't the most pleasant so I'd advise an early start."
"Not a bad suggestion."
"I would expect that you could return that evening. After the worst of the heat."
I sipped and nodded out of old habit, having recent memories of the heat in those wheeled ovens. "Ma'am, I was meaning to thank you for that wine you sent me. It was quite good. This is from the same vineyard?"
Now she looked intrigued. "You noticed?"
I'd never considered myself a connoisseur, but the Rris wine had a very distinctive flavor: much stronger than anything I'd known back home. "It has the same taste."
She blinked at me again, then flicked her ears quickly. "I don't know many Rris who'd pick that up."
"I think my sense of taste is a little different."
"A? Like your sense of color? You do continue to surprise, don't you. I look forward to having a talk with you alone. Who knows what else we might find out?"
Alone? I felt another pang of apprehension at the way she'd said that, then a flush of embarrassment. Chaeitch'd been right: I kept reading human nuances into their remarks. I took a swallow of wine, the last few drops.
"But that's for later," she said. "Now, it's getting late and you've had a full day. Until later, Mikah."
Soft morning light washed across the world. Fields lay under a faint blanket of mist while high overhead a V of ducks winged their way across the clear sky. The morning sun peeked through windbreak trees along the crest of the hill, just a handsbreadth above the horizon. If I'd been travelling in a car those trees would have caused it to strobe through the window. As it was, the carriage moved slow enough that it simply blinked every so often.
The day was already heating up. She'd been right about that.
About an hour of slow and bumpy travel later the carriage turned sharply. The sound of iron bound wheels on the packed dirt road changed to the squeaking rattle of gravel. I caught a passing glimpse of a stone gatepost and wrought-iron gate just before we started up a long drive. On one side I could see the side of a hill, trees, grass and wildflowers; out the other, cornfields gently sloping away downhill, the rows of stalks motionless in the still morning air.
We followed the drive up and around the curve of the hill. I wasn't sure what I'd been expecting. They'd called it a manor house, or something that translated to that anyway, so perhaps a large house. What came into view was a damn sight more than I'd expected. More of a small castle than a house. Perhaps chateaux would be a better term.
It was a light stone building set among wild grass and dark pines. There were towers and garrets and elaborately decorated dormer windows set into the steep black-slate roof. Profusely ornamented cornices blending the line between wall and roof. I could see two floors, each with balconies with wrought-iron railings, ornate windows made from hundreds of smaller panes of glass and bay doors.
I rocked slightly as the carriage drew to a halt with a jolt and the driver rapped on the side. The door was opened by a footman, whose expression visibly faltered before he was able to regain his composure. I pushed up my sunglasses, caught the strap of my carry case and stepped out onto flagstones at the foot of the main staircase.
While it wasn't on the same scale as the palace, it was still impressive. More so when you consider that it was a family residence. At least two main floors, not counting the attic and basement. Building material was a pale gray stone shot through with paler streaks. Granite or some kind of sandstone? A few steps led up to bronze-face double doors, polished bright enough to reflect the world. Above them, the tympanum was engraved with almost-Celtic geometric patterns intertwined with a pair of facing Rris heads and shoulders: Rris heraldry.
I was staring. The waiting Rris were staring at me. Behind me I heard the sounds of metal rattling as my two guards, the pair Chaeitch had been absolutely adamant accompany me, dismounted. They were armed, heavily, but their weapons were honor tied. They fell in behind as I shouldered my bag and headed on up the steps to the doors.
I shucked my glasses as I passed through the portals, tucking the stem into my shirt as I looked around. Decor wasn't as elaborate as the palace had been. Not bland, just deliberately austere. The entry hall was spacious and bright, the light shining in through high windows gleaming off pale marble. There was a grand staircase sweeping up to the next floor. Pale stone also dressed the walls, which were hung with huge but very beautiful tapestries. I saw scenes of fields and harvest and also battle and warfare.
"Mikah ah Ri'ey?" a voice said.
I looked around and didn't see anyone else who might have passed for me. A Rris stalked toward me from a side door. Tall, elegantly attired, pretty muscular with glossy speckled fur and female. Well, I was pretty sure it was female. "Good morning, Sir. Her Ladyship bids you welcome to her home," she said with a polite duck of her head.
"Thank you. I appreciate the invitation," I said.
She was good. I didn't even catch a flinch that time. "I'm Thri'mir, her Ladyship's steward. Her Ladyship will be with you shortly. In the meantime may I show you to a place where you can rest and refresh yourself after your journey?"
That was a welcome suggestion. An hour in a carriage on the unpaved roads outside most of the cities wasn't entirely pleasant.
A servant hovered at a discreet distance.
"Ah, your luggage, sir?" Thri'mir indicated.
"I'd prefer to carry it," I said and nodded at the servant. "Thank you."
Thri'mir looked a little taken aback at that, but then ducked her head and turned to lead the way upstairs. I followed, eyeing her rear ahead of me swaying, the tip of her tail switching back and forth. Hmm, not so calm after all.
The room she led me to was huge, bright, and dressed in marble as white as snow. Sunlight gleamed from the pale stone, streamed in through skylights, windows and balcony doors along the southern side of the room. That half was lower than the other side by a bit, separated by a low balcony and about five steps. On the upper tier were cushions, a table set with a centerpiece of dried grasses and flowers.
My escorts took up positions on either side of the door while Thri'mir utterly ignored them as if they didn't even exist. "Sir, there is food, drink," she gestured at covered trays, glasses and decanters on a sideboard. "Anything else you require, please just ask."
"Thank you," I said.
"Her Ladyship will be with you momentarily," she ducked her head and backed out, closing the doors behind her.
There were drinks on the sideboard and I was parched. For a long second my hand hovered over the cut crystal decanter filled with amber liquid, then reached for the water. Glass in hand, I wandered over to the mezzanine. Down in the lower half of the room were more cushions and a couple of big padded loungers, and off over in the light beside the windows there was an easel and a wooden trolley. I stepped down into the sunlight.
I was impressed. There was a frame on the easel with paper professionally stretched. Very good stock: rag mat soaked and dried on a frame. Back home that stuff was handmade and cost a lot more than the factory stuff. Here, it's the norm. On the trolley were other tools: a lacquered box containing a range of black sticks. Charcoal of various types and grades. Another held sticks of white chalk. There was also extra media, cloths, some small glass jars with oily liquid in them, brushes, and some small blades. I was a bit surprised to see those; they were just slivers, more like razor blades, but they were knives. What puzzled me for a second was the small brass container with the nozzle and plunger on top. I picked it up and turned it over a few times before the penny dropped: of course, they didn't have aerosoles.
"I think that's everything you requested. An artist was able to assist us in regards to that substance you requested. It's all to your satisfaction?"
Lady H'risnth aesh Rei's was standing on the steps, hands clasped behind her back and watching me with interested eyes. She was dressed in a simple, short-sleeved green tunic that shimmered with the tell-tale signs of fine satin. The same movement showed that the material incorporated multiple weaves, hiding a design similar to paisley that showed under certain angles of light. It was cinched at the waist with a belt of copper links. The light kilt she wore was simply knee-length strips of soft leather. In that warmth, anything more would have been horribly uncomfortable.
"Yes, Ma'am," I said. "More than adequate. Thank you."
"Ah," she hissed softly and strolled over to look at the. She was alone, no guards. My guards were nowhere in sight. "Your trip was comfortable enough?"
"Yes, thank you, Ma'am."
She snorted. "Hai, and I think you can dispense with that. From everything I've heard about you, formality is not your strong suite."
"Isn't it? I thought I was doing rather well."
"There's polite, and then there's obsequious," she flicked her ears. "Why do I think you're deliberately overdoing it?"
Damn. Rumbled. I smiled carefully and shrugged. "It keeps my handlers happy."
"Handlers?" she looked puzzled, then brightened and chittered out loud. "Ah, they do seem to keep you on a tight rein. They were most reluctant to let you come here unaccompanied."
"I'm amazed they agreed to only two guards," I said. "They seem to think I go out of my way to cause trouble."
"A?" the Lady ducked her chin and regarded me. "Well, from everything I've heard, interesting things seem to happen to you," she replied.
"So everyone keeps telling me," I sighed.
"You don't sound so impressed with it."
"Let's just say that interesting can get very unappealing."
"Ah, a shame. Then of course you wouldn't want to see what I thought you might find interesting."
I ran that through in my head, then said, "I walked right into that one, didn't I."
The Rris Queen laughed aloud. "Then I take it you do want to see our little collection."
"Well, if you insist."
She did. And I didn't protest too loudly.
As I found, it wasn't something to regret. The Rei's family private collection was certainly impressive. It had its own gallery: a long room with inlaid wooden floor, bas-relief castings on the white plaster walls and columns. Paintings were hung on display along those walls. Plinths around the room contained sculptures, small pieces of ornamentation and jewelry. A glass-fronted cabinet held chinaware: dishes and bowls heavier than porcelain but decorated in spectacular glaze.
Old, some of the pieces were. Very old. There were paintings with the varnish crackled and split, sketches on yellowed paper and vellum, carvings and sculptures. All different, but all artfully executed, intriguing. I couldn't call all of the works beautiful: They were created by aliens, created for alien senses and sensibilities so there were proportions and colors I found odd. But they were works of art. I don't know of one museum or gallery back home that wouldn't gnaw their own leg off to be able to display a collection like that.
There was a series of paintings. Looked at individually they would have been a series of five landscapes done in portrait format, as so many Rris paintings are. Masterful renditions of forest and a glade with light spilling through the canopy, gold against green. Each painting was like a window onto the scene and the center one was a portrait. In that picture a Rris of indeterminable sex was standing in the foreground, rich red and gold clothing standing out brilliantly and showing it was of not inconsiderable status.
"My grandfather on my sire's side," my host told me as we walked the gallery. We were alone in there, with no guards or interruptions. That solitude said a lot. About what, I wasn't quite sure. But she seemed quite unconcerned and amiable as she showed herself to be quite an expert on the collection, relating the history of each piece and ever willing to answer questions.
A good percentage of the portraits were of her kin. Of distant kin going back generations. Rris don't have a tightly-knit family structure, not like I knew it. They don't consider pair bonding, or marriage, normal behavior. They don't, they can't, form those kinds of mental attachments. There'd been a couple of times when conversations had touched on the subject and I hadn't been able to understand attitudes that seemed so... uncaring to me. Conversely they couldn't understand my attachments to individuals.
Exposure would help things become clearer to me. I don't think many Rris were as enlightened.
Several of the pictures in that collection were considered masterpieces. They'd been... acquired over the last couple of centuries in the same way that artworks back home drifted around: through trade, seized in wars or skirmishes, or even as payment for debts. Of course there were the portraits, but there were also scenes from battles - victories and defeats, occasions of note such as the completion of a bridge, celebrations and memorials full of Rris in bright costumes and dyes. There was also an extensive array of everyday scenes. Just paintings and pictures of Rris cooking, washing, cooking and baking, working the land and cutting wood, nursing and mating. I blinked at those scenes of Rris scruff biting, as they'd put it. The only place you'd usually see something like that back home would be on a cable channel, not hanging in a national gallery. But all those everyday scenes carried a gritty depth, a solidity and attention to life that denied all romanticism that a lot of human works carried.
Paintings, pictures, artworks... they carried the same name as their human counterparts. They were charcoal and paper and pigment and canvas, and like human art there were as many different techniques and inspirations as there'd been artists. But there wasn't a one that I could look at and mistake for a human work.
It's... it's a combination of all sorts of little things. The proportions, those always seem odd. Perspective. Then there's the use of color. Rris eyes might be great at detecting movement, but they can't see as wide a range of colors as mine can. I'd done some simple experiments on that, and to them some of the deeper shades of red and blue were black, so some of the pigment blends weren't as subtle as I was accustomed to. They also were somewhat short-sighted when it came to details: I could pick out things at a distance that were invisible to Rris. Well, they made up for it in other ways.
None of that detracted from the work. Rather, it gave it all a noticeable flavor.
I'd taken out my laptop before I remembered my manners and asked my host if she minded if I took pictures. She looked startled and I had to rephrase that, then demonstrate. She took it surprisingly well and gave me leave to record what I wished.
Time literally flew. I never noticed midday come and go, or the several hours that passed after that. Through the whole time she didn't look the least impatient or anxious. She just let things go along at their own pace, not watching the clock at all. I appreciated that.
"Thank you," I said to her later as we walked along corridors brilliant with hot sunlight flooding in through the windows.
"You enjoyed that?"
"Very much," I said.
"A? Good to hear," she smiled up at me.
"I suppose I should keep up my end of the deal now, a?"
"You feel up to that?"
I almost grinned, "I believe I feel quite... inspired."
I'd never drawn a queen before.
A warm breeze insinuated itself through the open doors and windows, setting the gauze curtains to swaying and carrying the sounds of a chorus of summer insects. Sunlight spilled in, washing across the floor, the cushions and the figure reclining on them. Light diffused through her fur, haloing her in white and gold as she sprawled there, as languidly as any big cat.
She'd been panting slightly before shucking the tunic, dressing down to that small kilt. There's no way you can call a Rris naked. Unclothed, yes, but not naked. I could make out the compact musculature under her hide, the places where bones lay close to the surface, the twin columns of three dark nipples dotting her torso. But it wasn't like a human nude, not like a stark photo or painting that whispered 'this form; this intricately pure shape that your innermost animal knows; this food for the hunger inside; THIS is primal art'. What it was was a beautiful form: lithe and lean, silky and soft and yet full of the potential... the promise of danger.
"You know," that form said, "there are things I've been wanting to ask you."
"A?" I responded, more focused on my hands than my mouth.
I'd drawn Rris before. I'd done sketches of Rraerch; Chihirae had deigned to sit for me a few times, and there'd been that time with Mai what seemed like an age ago. I enjoyed it. It was a time when I could forget about the rest of the world and concentrate on something that'd always come naturally to me. I could just sink into the scene, absorbing the proportions and the relationship of light and dark.
"About those stories."
That got through. I saw my hand hesitate on the paper. "Stories?"
"A. I've been wondering if they've been exaggerated."
I had a horrible feeling I knew where this was leading. "I think stories tend to do that."
"Doubtless," she murmured and blinked lazily at me. "It's true though? You're from a land populated with... individuals like yourself?"
I blinked. "That story?"
She cocked her head slightly and was wearing that look again. "You were expecting something else?"
"Uh... I know there're lot of stories about me floating around out there," I said.
"A, indeed," she said. "Each more incredible than the last. And that one is true?"
"Oh, yes. It's true."
Her ears twitched up. "A whole land? Across the seas?"
"I...umm. I don't think the concept translates very well. It's difficult to explain."
I paused and glanced up again. She was watching me, that stare again. "Alright, Ma'am," I took a breath and made some more strokes as I gathered my thoughts.
Warmups. Quick sketches without looking at my hand on the paper, drawing her form in under forty seconds. That was a way of forcing my senses to really see her proportions and not work to subconscious fancies. They also let my try and find those distinctive features.
"I don't know for certain myself. I can only guess. Perhaps it's as if every time a decision is made a... world. A... everything is created. Perhaps for every possible outcome; perhaps only for important ones. In one world, this one, Rris are the dominant people. In my world it's my kind. When I agreed to draw you, perhaps a world... an entire universe was created where I refused, or you never asked. Splitting off like branches on a tree. Any possibility. All possibilities."
Her ears wilted back. "This... is quite a remarkable concept."
"I don't know for certain," I said. "It's just a theory," I said and pulled the stretched paper down, putting another frame up.
"What was that like? Your home?"
I looked from the empty paper, that blank potential, to her. And those amber eyes watched me levelly. Home. Another world. Remembering that was getting to be like reviewing someone else's life.
Still, I told her. As I sketched I told her about my home and my work and the things I remembered and missed: my family and friends, the convenience, the cars and electronics, the foods and sights. And the people. I don't know how much she understood, but she sat quietly and listened and watched me.
There were more detailed drawings of her face, trying for the muscle, the bone structure, all buried under that complex fur that made it so difficult. Rris could recognize one another by subtle indicators in facial features and stature. I was only just beginning to learn how to do that and generally had to rely on cruder things, like their distinctive markings. It was something I was aware of, and was also quite aware I was more than capable of making a real fool of myself. If an inexperienced Rris artist were to draw a human woman he might give her a masculine square jaw, or an over-prominent adam's apple. I could quite easily make the same sort of mistake with my Rris portraits.
And those liquid amber eyes kept watching me.
The thing was, it wasn't a look I could categorize. It was interested, amused, alert... like the look a well fed cat might give an interesting small creature scurrying around: worth watching but not quite worth moving for. Part of me interpreted it as curiosity, another part as threat, a danger. And yet another part as sexual interest. I really tried to ignore that part.
The charcoal was dusty and dirty stuff. I had to keep wiping my hands to prevent errant fingerprints, but it had its uses. I could smear and scumble it, using it for shading and texturing. The soft stuff produced wonderfully dark lines and the harder sticks were almost H pencil quality. The chalk came into its own for highlights. I did my studies, covering several sheets of paper in sketches from various perspectives before starting on the final draft. Hard charcoal scratched against the paper in broad sweeps as I sketched in now-familiar lines.
It was taking shape. I stood back a few steps to consider it. The proportions felt right.
She yawned, flashing pink tongue and white teeth, licked her lips. "You have something?"
"I think so." I said. "Thank you, you can get up now. The form is there and I'm just working on detail."
"Ah," The Lady waved a graceful acknowledgment and flowed to her feet. Muscles stood out under her fur as she stretched, arching her back and tail, then one leg at a time before padding around behind me.
I sketched in the suggestion of the markings on her fur, trying to hint at the grain. There was a rustling as she picked up a paper from the table, one of the studies.
Finally: "These... I've never seen anything like this."
That could be diplospeak for 'utter crap'. "They are to your satisfaction?"
"A." She held it out at arms length, then drew it in close. "A, very much so. These are extremely good."
"This is how you see us?"
"As best as I can show on paper," I said, not entirely sure what to make of that. Did she like them for their artistic merit? Or their freakish quality?
More rustling as the paper was replaced and the others were inspected, from the simple speed sketches to the more detailed studies. "You really see these shapes? This sort of detail?"
"Yes. Not all in a glance. That's why those are called studies. They're all parts of the whole."
"But still, just comparing the difference between these and other portraits I've seen... My face looks wider."
"I think there are differences in our eyes."
"Really? Just the eyes."
"Also the way we... understand what we see," I said, concentrating more on what was on the easel in front of me. "You're very good at seeing movement, but..."
And something touched my hair.
Her hand lightly stroked my shoulder-length mane, then gently hooked it and pulled it back to bare my neck. There was a presence of sun-warm fur at my shoulder, a sound of breathing as that leathery fingertip stroked across my cheek and beard, tracing down my neck. I heard her sniff, as if scenting me.
I'd frozen solid, motionless.
There was a touch on my ear; stroking around the outline, a finger tracing it curiously, then moving down to the bared skin of my neck. Gentle, just touching, but I couldn't help but picture claws scant millimeters away from my jugular. For a few seconds she touched, stroked with a feather-light touch. Perhaps then she noticed the slight trembling in my frozen hand.
"Ah," she said and paused. Then I felt and heard her draw back. "You're uncomfortable. I apologize."
I started breathing again. "Why... did you do that?"
"Curious," she explained simply. "I didn't realize it would upset you. Again, I apologize."
I closed my fist hard around the charcoal. It stopped the trembling, but there were now small smudges on the paper where my hand had twitched. I was quite aware of the Rris standing just behind me, watching me. "Ma'am, why did you ask me here?"
"Why?" She stalked around into my field of vision, to where she could watch my face. She was so much smaller than I was, her head barely up to my clavicle, her tufted ears just over my shoulders. She looked a little puzzled. "You were interested in the collection. And I did think it would be an opportunity to learn more about you."
"Uh... A?" I had a sinking feeling that I knew where this was heading.
"I did want to learn a little more about the veracity of those stories. About where you come from. Your home. There've been so many variants that all seem so hard to believe. I wanted to hear it from the source itself. I must confess, I found the idea of a world full of... individuals like yourself difficult to manage."
"Just those stories?"
"A," she scratched delicately at the side of her muzzle with a single claw. "That surprises you? I'd have thought a lot of people would ask you about that."
"Ah," I nodded slowly, forgetting my Rris etiquette.
"That wasn't the reason you were expecting?" those amber eyes were watching mine.
I met her stare. "I had wondered if you were trying to sexually proposition me."
There was a slight hiss of breath, then a pause, then she chittered... laughed out loud, her jaw spasming and then she stopped. Watching me and cocking her head. "That's not a joke, is it? May I ask why you wondered that?"
I set the charcoal down. "The way you were looking at me... Among my kind that sort of watching has... different sexual meanings. Especially between male and female. I don't know what it means for Rris."
"You might have asked."
"I did," I sighed. "I think someone might have had a little fun at my expense."
"Really?" she said, thoughtfully. "So, what would your answer be?"
"If I were to sexually proposition you?" she said, looking absolutely serious.
I hesitated. I had a feeling that I'd been manipulated, but I wasn't exactly sure how. "I think I would be flattered, but I would have to decline."
"You don't find me attractive?"
I almost laughed. "Ma'am, I'm not going to play that game. I rather think I should ask you if you find me attractive. I know I'm not exactly the picture of the ideal male. If you hadn't noticed, I'm not even Rris."
Her Ladyship's face pursed in amusement. "You have other worthy attributes," she said, studying the portrait on the easel. "I think others have seen something in you. I know the teacher does."
The sketch mirrored the features of the Rris queen in black and white, with that calm smile I just didn't understand. I replaced the charcoal in its tray and took up a cloth, wiping the carbon dust off my fingertips. She watched the action and looked up again when I asked, "Ma'am, does it reflect badly on her? Our relationship?"
"Badly? In what way?"
The way she was taking this... just so calm and matter-of-fact. Christ, if this had happened back home, if our positions had been reversed, there wouldn't be a tabloid or legitimate paper not milking the scandal for all it was worth. "She's living with me. A... something non-Rris. It's not usual. It's not normal. There must be scandal, rumors, those who think it's wrong."
"Doubtless," she conceded. "I heard there were some circumstances involving her arrival. You're holding her forcibly? Against her will?"
I stared, then shook my head again. "No. No... at least I don't think so. There was a situation. She didn't come to Shattered Water entirely of her own will. That was resolved. She's quite free to do whatever she wishes." I'd made that clear to Chihirae as well as my erstwhile hosts.
The Rris queen's tail twitched and she waved a hand, tipping it in a Rris shrug. "Then I'd leave her to decide her own path. If she is choosing to stay, then there is something worth staying for. As for others' opinions... do you really want to live your life dictated by the likes and dislikes of individuals you don't know?"
"That's an interesting perspective coming from a political figure," I smiled and gave my own shrug. "But what about her? Is it going to hurt her? I mean... for instance, what do you think about us?"
"Hai," she flicked her ears and very deliberately looked me up and down. "Myself? Personally, I find it quite amusing."
I wasn't sure I'd heard right. "Amusing?"
"Oh yes, quite," she chittered. "Mikah, that's how most people will feel. The speculation is entertaining. Males won't have any interest beyond academic or amusement. Females... well, she's staying of her own will, so there's something she likes. Are those plays really indicative of why?"
So, she'd seen them. She was teasing me, I knew that. "They're... imaginative. Overly so."
"Ah, pity," she studied me again. "You would really say no to me?"
"With respect, Ma'am."
"Ah, that's all right then," she stepped back to look at the portrait again, cocking her head from one side to the other with those quick, precise, almost birdlike movements. "Gentle, polite, loyal, quite amusing and with unexpected talents. I believe that explains a lot about her choice of mates."
I stared. 'That female' had been dragged away from her home and her life with no say in the matter, taken halfway across the known world, then kidnapped and tortured. She'd been dragged into something she'd never asked for nor deserved. I didn't know why she'd decided to stay.
"You think so?" I asked.
"You can think of another reason?" she said and then her ears pricked up and she glanced at me, a calculating look. "You think perhaps your hosts may have influenced her decision?"
That was unexpected. She'd picked up on that already? "I've always thought that was... more likely."
"Huhn," the sound was a breathy exhalation. The Lady's eyes were back on the sketch. "Ah Chihiski denies it."
"You've actually asked him?"
"He seemed genuinely confused by it all as well. I took that to mean he was sincere. Is this completed?" she gestured at the portrait.
"No, I've still got some detail to finish," I said, surprised at my own calmness. Was she telling me the truth? Why would she lie? She'd have more to gain by telling me he had orchestrated something. "So she's choosing to stay with me?"
"It would look that way." Her gaze traveled past the easel, up to the windows and the pale gauze curtains wafting in the late afternoon breeze, the lowering sun an unbearable brilliance on the westward horizon. That light haloed her, highlighting her fur in an outline of white gold as she twitched her ears and said, "It's a cunning little game you're playing."
I tried to relate that statement to our conversation and failed. "What?"
"So many unknowns about you; so many rumors and stories." She said, almost purred, and an amber eye flashed in the afternoon light. "Stories about bedding with you, about some mysterious differences. Tantalizing glimpses of what you can offer, yet you tie yourself to one woman." There was a glimpse of teeth, just a wink of white. "You know what an exotic hunt that makes you, don't you."
I stared. "You... you think that's deliberate?!"
Lady H'risnth aesh Rei's stared back at me, utterly solemn, then that composure fractured into a chitter of amusement. "Mikah, what I think is that you're right: You really can't hear the unspoken very well."
I didn't understand.
"You really were concerned Hirht had something to do with the teacher's affection for you. That is quite endearing, in a naive sort of way," she smiled in an amused sort of way.
She'd been screwing with me. And I hadn't been able to read that, hadn't been able to tell at all. Two years was not enough time to learn all the subtle communications nuances of an alien species.
She recoiled backwards, her amber eyes going wide and all that composed amusement vanishing. "You're angry?"
"Amused," I corrected, being very careful not to make any more moves she might consider threatening. "It works both ways, a?"
She exhaled, slowly, and reached up to smooth the fur on cheeks and neck that'd stood itself on end. For a few seconds she watched me. "That's a dangerous way of making your point."
"Apologies," I said. "It made it though, didn't it."
"A, that it did," she replied, then looked down at her hand and quickly lowered it, clenching it. "You go through this kind of thing a lot, don't you."
I waved the Rris gesture that was similar to a nod: almost automatic to me by then. "It makes life interesting."
"I imagine it would," she hissed softly, her ears twitching back for a second. "That's caused you some trouble before."
"I'm getting better at it," I said. "I don't make that smiling mistake anymore. And - despite appearances - I'm getting better at reading Rris. They tend to misunderstand me, though." I shrugged and looked back at the paper on the easel, then at the windows. Outside, the sun was getting lower. Still late afternoon, but the shadows were definitely getting long. "Perhaps I should finish this now, while there's still light."
"I thought it was looking very impressive."
"There're still a couple of bits I'd like to..."
"Sah!," she hissed dismissively and raked a hand toward the picture. "Just like any normal artist: never satisfied with perfection. Now," she fixed me with glittering eyes and licked her chops, "I would love to see more of those marvelous moving images you have."
Who am I to argue with a queen?
We spent the remainder of that afternoon out on the terrace. The view was spectacular. Late sun bathed the world: the palace grounds, the hillside, the lands beyond stretching away to distance-hazed hills in gold and shadows. Beside me, the queen sat on one of a pair of white leather cushions as we watched movies on the laptop placed on the marble tabletop. Ancient black and white comedies with a little tramp amused her, more modern productions with glamour and pace and complex action and love scenes bemused her.
I spent time trying to explain things to her, offering her a somewhat distorted view of my world through that little sixteen inch window. While the Lady H'risnth was quite animated during those lighter films, she seemed quite subdued during the more recent ones.
"It's something to hear your people are more... knowledgeable," she murmured. "It's something else again to witness it."
Onscreen, Keanu Reeves said, "Whoa."
The sun set. Servants lit lamps along the terrace's balustrade. Oil lamps - the residence didn't have a coal gas supply yet. Gradually, the salmon tint on the horizon faded to reds, to blues and then to velvet. I wondered if the Rris could see the colors in those final moments of light. However, her Ladyship was oblivious to that side of the world. Her attention, along with that of more than a few buzzing and flitting insects, was focused on the small rectangle of flickering artificial light.
Time slipped by unnoticed. It was the batteries, or lack of, that curtailed her viewing pleasure. Lithium polymers were an improvement over older technology, and solid-state storage really dropped power requirements, but they still had their limits. Try explaining that to a regal alien feline who had no concept of batteries or even electricity.
"I'll have to see the rest of that some other time," she sighed and stretched. "For the better, perhaps. That seems to steal time, does it not? I was entirely forgetting evening meal. Of course you'll join me?"
It wasn't really a question.
I didn't see myself making it back to town that evening. The sun was gone and travelling country roads in the dark wasn't altogether safe. So her highness offered me accommodation for the night. Again, the suite was... extravagant. There was an enormous bedroom, an ensuite washroom glittering with pale tile and polished metal fixtures, a dressing room, reception area and drawing room. The subjects of some of the portraits on the walls looked vaguely familiar, but with only an hour until dinner, there wasn't time for another prolonged art appreciation session. There was time for a quick wash though, getting the worst of the day cleaned off, and when I emerged into the dressing room it was to find a change of clothes had been laid out for me: A pair of loose fitting subdued dark gray trousers and green tunic. They were comfortable, cool and they fit.
Thri'mir, the steward, appeared to escort me down for dinner. The dining room was an imposing space, with an equally oversized table as the centerpiece. That table looked to be carved from a single huge piece of wood, polished to accentuate the grain, and big enough that halfway lines wouldn't have been out of place. The whole room was intended to be impressive and overpowering. Thankfully, we didn't eat in there.
Her Ladyship had her own dining room. It was a far less formal, far more personal affair. Just a more conventionally sized table that didn't have its own time zones, some comfortable cushions and lights. Bay windows were open to the warm night, gauze curtains keeping insects at bay. Servants quietly brought dishes, efficiently laying out dishes and removing old ones as we talked we ate. Someone had really done their homework on what I found palatable: rich venison and black bean stew with a strong undertone of wine, side dishes of salmon, smoked turkey, chunks of sweet potatoes, buffalo steaks actually well done, tomatoes and corn. Heavy on the meat while the vegetables had the feeling of a garnish, but that was only to be expected in a Rris meal.
Afterwards she sat back and lit a pipe, contentedly puffing it to life in a cloud of sweet smoke. I declined her offer to partake. To Rris, cannabis is a recreational drug on the same order of tobacco to humans and I didn't need to get high there and then. The last time it'd happened... It was some time ago but apparently I'd said some very impolitic things. As it was, the smoke from her pipe seemed quite thick enough.
Conversation was the same old same old. At least for me it was. The times I'd met with the Lady in the past had been either at formal affairs or in situations otherwise surrounded by other Rris distracting and vying for my attention. That night she had me to herself along with the opportunity to ask me all the questions she wanted to. So she did. Even if they tended to be a lot like the ones I'd answered dozens of times before, the whole atmosphere was laid back enough that it wasn't exactly unpleasant. Or perhaps it was the hash in the air.
That might have been the reason that when I returned to my room, hours later, I was feeling exhausted. Actually woozy. It had been a long day, long enough that I just remember laying back on cool cotton sheets and was distantly aware of the frescoed ceiling, sound of distant wind, Rris voices and...
Odd dreams. More voices. Shadowy Rris looming over me, touching, murmuring. I remember thinking I should wake up, but my eyes closed again.
Neither Chaeitch nor Rraerch were too pleased with my unscheduled overnight visit. Apparently, my itinerary had allowed for me to spend the day at the residence and be back that evening, ready for an early start the next morning. My delayed departure had thrown a spanner into that schedule, setting it back by half a day.
I'd woken that morning with something that felt like a mild hangover. That'd faded over an early breakfast. After that, while the sun was still low, her Ladyship and I returned to Open Fields. I wasn't part of the meetings she had with my escorts from Shattered Water, but whatever transpired seemed to mollify them. Hell, she was the client, and if the client wanted to change the schedule at her own expense, then so be it.
So it was after midday before we got out to our first appointment. Originally, there'd been three tours of selected institutions about town scheduled for that day, but one would have to be postponed. In fact, in order to make the others on time, my briefing was given in the carriage on the way to our first meeting. Chaeitch sat opposite, telling me names and produce and volumes. A food storage warehouse. Fascinating.
The town was bustling. Our carriages took us along the outskirts of a square where a market had sprung to life. Caravans and stalls and tents and awnings and marquees of all descriptions filled the place. Clouds of cooking smoke rose from inside the maze of tents where furry bodies bustled about their business. An overwhelming medley of smells and noises assaulted the senses through the wooden fretwork grill of the window. A dealer with a makeshift coral of llamas shouted at his neighbour; cubs chased one another among the legs of their elders; hawkers carried samples of food and trinkets; a quad of black-clad mediators on elk back lurked in the background, looking our way as we passed; a gaudy green and gold striped wagon with a troupe of actors performing some skit for a raucous audience...
"Huh?" I looked over at Chaeitch sitting opposite. He was staring back at me over pages of notes in his hands, his ears down.
"You weren't, were you," he hissed, exasperated, and let the sheaves of paper notes fall to his lap. "Rot, this is important."
"Sorry," I said.
He sighed and leafed quickly through the pages. "Hai, I suppose this is biting on rock. Expecting you to absorb this at this stage..." he laid the pages aside. "Ah, well. Did you enjoy yourself last night?"
"A," I smiled out at the sunny day. "I did. Nice place she's got there."
"You saw the Rei collection?"
"And added to it, I hear."
I almost laughed. "I wouldn't put myself in that league."
"You sell yourself short," he chittered back. "Just the uniqueness factor alone will place anything by you in collections like that."
I wasn't sure how to feel about that.
"And the sex was good?" his jaw dropped, his pink tongue lolling.
I shook my head. "Nothing happened."
"With your reputation..."
"Nothing happened," I repeated. "She... ventured, I think. I declined, I think."
"You?" His ears flicked. "Anytime, anywhere ape? Declined sex?"
"It's spring, isn't it?" I mused. "Shouldn't you be running around rutting with anything that moves?"
"And deny you the opportunity?" Chaeitch chittered. "Ah, well. You didn't like her?"
"Don't you start," I sighed.
I'd been through that before, that was what I meant. "Very nice female," I explained, "but I think it'd cause more problems than I need at the moment."
His muzzle wrinkled a bit in a pattern I recognized as puzzlement. "It would be trouble?"
I leaned back on the upholstered seat, sliding slightly as the carriage rounded a corner. "I'm still trying to sort out my current Rris relationships," I said. "More at this time... I don't need that."
Of course he asked, "Why does sex have to have anything to do with relationships?"
We'd been through that before as well. I couldn't explain it. "A human thing."
And he'd heard that. He knew I didn't necessarily mean it was better. "It works?"
Outside, brick walls scrolled past the window. I caught a glimpse of a bronze plaque. "It can," I said as we drew up to our destination. "It does help if it's reciprocal."
Then it was time to go to work.
Warehouses. We had a guided tour of a row of dockside warehouses. After the splendor of the Rei collection I got to look at floor-to-ceiling stacks of boxes and barrels. It wasn't the same. From there it was out to the outskirts of town to the unbelievable heat and noise of yet another foundry, then on to an ironworks located a ridiculous distance away. I retired that night with a headache echoing with the ringing of iron on iron and wondering how the Rris workers handled it.
Next day was an exploration of Open Field's renowned glassworking industry. That entailed tours of everything from the barges bringing in the barrels of white quartz sand, potash, limestone and other kinds of flux to the glasshouses themselves. Those workshops were hot, reeking places. Poor ventilation meant there was more than a trace of chemical tang in the air. If I could smell it, then what was it like for the Rris workers?
The sand and flux were melted in crucibles. Rris chemists adjusted the ratios and combinations of silica and flux to produce different types of glass. The molten liquid was actually spun into its final shape by hand. A Rris craftsman with a hollow tube would actually load a dollop of molten glass onto the end of the tube, then spin the tube and blow through it. The glass would stretch out, taking on a final form like a frozen soap bubble. For window panes - the small, distorted type that seemed most prevalent - the globule would be spun fast, centrifugal force producing a disk which would then have to be trimmed to shape. The more expensive panes were made from molten glass formed in moulds. The problem with that technique was that the surface that resulted was rough and dirty and required a lot of hand grinding and polishing before a usable product was available. Glassware produced for every requirement, from elegant delicacies to windows to chemical retorts. None of it was mass-produced. There were no production lines, just artisans turning out their products as needed. Skilled work, techniques that required years of training and practice to perfect. But so slow. It explained why glazed windows were for the rich.
Nevertheless, the quality of the work was better than anything I'd seen back in Shattered Water. A combination of skill, experience and the quality of the quartz sand produced exceptional results.
"It could be very useful," I said as the carriage rattled out the Chartz glass works gates. An escort guard on llamaback watched as we passed and then fell in behind.
A low sun painted the rooftops and chimney stacks of Open Fields a warm orange while cool shadows crept through the streets. After the heat of the glassworks the cool of the evening was a welcome change, especially for my hairy companion. Opposite me, Chaeitch was panting noisily, ruffling his fingers through his chest fur to circulate some air. His ears flicked. "You think so?"
"You're interested in electric lights?" He could understand the word electric, even if he couldn't say it. "That'll need glass, very clear and precision manufactured."
Chaeitch's head tipped to one side, then to the other. "That's not possible in Shattered Water? We have glassblowers too."
"I know," I waved a shrug. "But the quality of the Chartz work and materials is extremely good."
"A," he acknowledged, albeit reluctantly.
"Why spend money on equipment and training to produce second rate material?" I asked. "Partnerships can be advantageous."
"A," he acknowledged again. He knew that, of course, it was just pride speaking. He twitched his ears. "You know something about glass making they don't?"
I smiled. "You think they'd like to know how to make glass that's more malleable? Or how about plate glass? Big sheets of glass, perfectly flat and clear that don't require polishing?"
He mused for a few theatrical seconds. "That could be... marketable."
"I'm sure something could be worked out," I grinned. It's a habit that's incredibly hard to break.
Outside, the receding light was just stroking the tops of chimneypots and motionless weathervanes. Higher overhead, a few tails of cloud burned gold against the dark sky. Rris were still going about their business. What they considered dim was near pitch blackness to me, so it'd still be some time before lights started to come on.
"A lot of Mediators around," I said.
Chaeitch made an interested noise and leaned forward. "There as well?"
There was another pair out his window: a pair of solemn looking Rris standing at an alleyway. Their leather kilts and vests matched the outfits of the other. Their weapons were just as visible. "I suppose you are something of interest," Chaeitch chittered.
Dim the light might have been, but I could certainly see where their gaze was going. "Then why do they seem more interested in each other?" I asked.
"Huhn?" he chirruped a curious interrogative and leaned forward to see, but the Mediators were behind us. "That many in one town's not usual."
"A convention?" I asked. I had a nagging uneasy feeling. "Is something going on?"
He blinked. His eyes were reflecting light from somewhere. In the gloom it was like a pair of small lights flashing. "Why'd you ask?"
"Just..." I hesitated, trying to put it into words, then shrugged it off. "I'm used to things getting unpleasant when they get unusual. I think I'm just twitchy."
"Forgivable," Chaeitch chittered and leaned back, glancing at the window. "I'll make some inquiries. There might be a guild assembly."
Oh, a union thing.
We rattled on through the darkening streets. Along avenues where trees spread their leaves against the evening sky, where flocks of birds trilled and fluttered in the branches as they settled in for the night. Here and there warm orange glows of lamps were springing to life in windows: patches of domesticity in the dark facades silhouetted against the skyline. Chaeitch and I were chatting, talking about the day and then off into tangents encompassing my family, his family, what was on TV when I left.
The carriage rattled to a halt. There were raised voices outside.
"What..." Chaeitch started to say and the right hand carriage door was pulled open from the outside. Three Rris were staring back up at us, one with his hand holding the door open. By their dress, all of them were Mediators. I peeked out through the ornate window grill on my side: there were more Mediators there. Armed. All heavily armed with firearms and blades.
"Out," the Rris at the door said to Chaeitch.
Chaeitch looked at me, "Wait," he said.
That bad feeling was back. "Chaeitch..." I started to say.
"Just, wait," he said, and stooped out the door. The carriage rocked as he stepped down. The Mediators stepped aside, then two of them climbed in and sat down. One opposite and one beside me. There were the usual nervous twitches, but both of them were big for Rris, and both of them armed. Their pistols were still in their bandoliers, but their hands were hovering near the grips. Chaeitch was exchanging low, urgent words with another Mediator outside.
"What's going on?" I asked.
Chaeitch turned back to me. His ears were down. "Mikah, go with them."
"What? What's happening?"
He wasn't meeting my eyes. I was having horrible flashbacks to another time in a dark alley when a friend had deserted me. "They want you to go with them. To the hall. They want to talk to you."
"Does her ladyship..."
"Mikah," he said. "They're Mediators." As if that explained anything. "Please, just behave?"
The other Mediator clambered in, sitting down in the opposite corner. I saw Chaeitch take a step and hesitate. He looked confused, distressed, annoyed and then the door was closed. A second later we jolted into motion.
The Mediators watched me. The last one in was leaning back, watching me through slitted eyes. He... I was pretty sure it was a he, appeared a lot more relaxed than the others. For a second I thought back to the insurance hidden back on the Ironheart and wished I'd had it with me. No, these were cops. I didn't need that sort of trouble.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on?"
A pause, then that calm one said, "Your friend told you."
"No, he told me what you told him. Did he mean the guild hall? Why? Why this way? Why not just ask? What's going on?"
He tipped his head slightly and those eyes watched me. I knew that stare. I'd seen it before, somewhere. That cool appraisal.
"You don't remember me?"
Did that mean I knew him? I blinked, then felt my jaw drop along with the penny. "Shyia?"
Two years ago I'd stumbled into this world and the Rris village of Westwater. Shortly thereafter I'd been accused of murder. The parochial locals had found themselves in over their heads and sent away to a nearby town for assistance. The law has sent Shyia. A mediator. A cop. Well, that was what I'd assumed.
Assumptions can be dangerous.
He'd stayed. He'd deemed me innocent and of considerable value. From there I'd been escorted away from Westwater and out into the Rris world at large, to eventually arrive at Shattered Water. He'd stayed for a while, as was his duty, but I'd never even known when he'd left to head back to his home.
So 'friend' might not be the best label. Though applying the human concept of friendship is always risky - as what happened with Chaeitch reminded me - Shyia had never been the open, friendly, caring and sharing type. He was a hardass, whatever the species.
But why was he there?
"Your presence is demanded by his Lordship. He felt I was the best to bring you."
"I mean, why are you in Open Fields? Long way from Lying Scales."
His cool stare never flinched. "Apparently I'm considered a guild expert on you," he said and I got the distinct impression that he wasn't amused by that. "His Lordship summoned me."
Second time he'd mentioned that. "His Lordship?"
"His Lordship Ah Richtkah. Guildmaster."
"Mediator Guild?" I asked, then answered my own question. "Of course."
He hissed softly and glanced out the window. His associates hadn't spoke. They also watched me, but they also watched the passing surrounds.
Shyia propped his chin on his hand, still gazing out the window. "I'm just to bring you before his Lordship. Then it is up to you."
I frowned. "Is this something I should be worried about?"
A snort. "I answered that back in Westwater."
What the hell did he mean by that? That was years ago. I'd been learning a lot back then, but he had told me a few things that'd stuck with me. Not necessarily the most optimistic things. That worried me.
So the gunshots took me completely by surprise.
Light strobed through the dark street. The tight volley reverberated between the walls on either side, the deep booms of muzzle loaders blurring into a sound that hit like solid blows. I grabbed for a handhold as the carriage lurched to the side and halted. Outside there were yowls and screeches and another volley of gunfire, much more ragged, which degenerated into individually distinct booms and cracks. Splinters flew as something punched its way through the wood of the ceiling. A fat slug of flattened lead rattled to the floor.
"On move, split!" Shyia snapped to the other two. "Distract. Move!"
In one move the two quiet ones had both doors open and blurred out into the darkness. I saw the indistinct form of one of them pause, raise a handgun and then my night vison was gone when the weapon discharged in a gout of sparks and light. I didn't see the target or if it was hit because Shyia had grabbed my arm and yanked me toward the other door. I yelped and had to move, fast: his claws were out and digging in. "Move," he snarled and I did, jumping out and almost stumbling on uneven cobbles that struck painfully against my mocassined feet.
Anemic starlight filtered down into the narrow street from a rectangle of sky visible past dark rooftops, but otherwise it was pitch black. I could hear alien shouts and screams, the clash of metal weapons and the sounds of close combat. There were weapons discharges, filling the night with flashbulb bursts of light and an acrid blue-grey smoke that filled the narrow street with fog that reeked of rotten eggs. Figures milled around us but it was impossible for me to see who was who, which side was which.
The alien grip on my arm wasn't that tight, but the claws hurt as he pulled, leading me at a dead run through the bedlam and into pitch blackness. It was an entryway, an arched tunnel into the atrium of a Rris residence. Shyia snarled something I didn't catch and he turned, led me around a corner and I tripped on something - a step in the darkness - and yelled at the flash of pain as his claws tore.
"Come on!" he hissed and his grip closed again, feeling wet on my arm now as he helped me to my feet. We were on wooden flooring now, moving through spaces I more felt than saw. I stumbled against something else - furniture I think - and heard a rattle and door open and then Shyia yowled, "Look out!"
There was more movement all around. I heard claws on wooden floor and loud breathing and then snarls and vicious tearing sounds.
"Shyia!" I yelled.
"Mikah, Rot you, Run!"
He couldn't be serious. I couldn't see a thing. Whatever he said next was cut off with a grunt, then a yowl and there were more nasty sounds in the dark. Then I was too busy to care.
Something... someone grabbed at me. I swung, blind, and connected with furry flesh. There was a cough of air and something else caught at me from behind. I lashed out with elbows, kicked with feet and knees as clawed hands snatched at me. Sometimes I connected, more often not. A body landed on my back and an arm looped around my neck, cutting off my air. I staggered into something that felt like a table, pushed off to reel backwards until I hit a wall as hard as I could. The attacker on my back took the full force and I felt and smelled the breath knocked out past my ear and the arm around my neck loosened enough that I could gasp a breath of my own and jab an elbow backwards. My assailant fell away with a gagging noise.
There was another to take his place. I was blind, I was outnumbered, but I was also terrified and desperate. I fought with everything I had, struggling and kicking and headbutting in the blackness. The only sounds were my blood and breath pounding in my ears and the coarse rasping of my assailants' breathing, hands trying to grab me slipped off skin made slick through sweat or blood. Fur rasped against my skin, choking me as they tried to pin me or hooked me in a stranglehold. A cloth wrapped around my face, pulling tight over my mouth and nose. I tried to claw at it and my assailants grabbed my arms, holding me down while the cloth tightened. It was wet and stung, burned against my skin. I involuntarily gasped a lungful of dizzying fumes and tried to shake my head free but the cloth was wrapped tight around my head and it only took a few lungfuls of the fumes and it was over.
I remember I wasn't out cold. Not completely unconscious. Rather it was as if the world were receding, like I was falling backwards slowly down an infinite tunnel. I think I tried to fight but I've no idea if I was even moving. But there was something going on that I was vaguely aware of: movement and dark and light and dark again...
My next coherent awareness was that movement was knocking my head against something hard. Opening my eyes made no difference, it was dark, but the nausea when I moved was unbearable. I puked my guts out until nothing else came and I just couldn't move. There were voices, but they went away along with everything else. It didn't matter. I couldn't care.
There was light.
There was movement. Sharp, bumping and acutely uncomfortable movement.
Without opening my eyes I was aware of a light flashing across my face, bright even through my eyelids. Also of stuffy warmth; like the inside of an old canvass tent on a hot day. And there were noises: loudest were squeaking and rattling of metal and wood, then there were the distant sounds of wind in trees, the sounds and smells of animals.
Something was wrong. I'd been asleep, I realized that. But why was I laying on hard wood and not my bed? It took a second or so before other fragments of facts gravitated together and clicked into place. I remembered what'd happened.
When I opened my eyes it was to a blotched and weather stained arched canvass roof stretched over a wooden frame, lit from outside by bright sunlight. There was a small hole in it, way up near the apex. The sun was glinting through that hole, projecting a dime of gold that jittered across the floor, across my face, right into my eyes. It flashed in time with the familiar jarring and shaking of the hard wood I was laying on. A wagon on a rough road.
I lay still, just taking stock. I was thirsty. I was hungry. I ached and hurt. There was also the horrible taste of old puke in my mouth, a stinging sensation like nettle-burn on my face and down my throat with every breath. And when I raised my hands to rub my face I found I was also manacled.
All in all, I'd felt better.
I was in the back of a covered wagon all right. It was constructed from rough planks, bleached almost white by weather and age. It smelled of wool and pine resin and wet Rris and rocked and rattled with the characteristic teeth-jarring movement of crude engineering meeting a rough track of some kind. There were black iron manacles locked tight around my wrists. There was a weight around my neck that could only be a collar. A heavy chain ran from that to a padlock fastened to an iron U bolt set in one of the boards comprising the side of the wagon. I'd been stripped of my clothes, of everything. Even my moccasins were gone. Down the other end of the wagon, by the tailgate, a Rris was sitting on a bedroll and watching me closely. A female. Not that it made any difference.
She stared at me. I sagged back and rasped, "Not again." My voice was a croak.
My watcher cocked her head. "There's water there," she said, nodding her chin.
I looked where she indicated. There was a green glass bottle within reach, stoppered with a wooden bung. The chain from the collar was joined to a big iron U bolt secured through one of the rough planks comprising the side of the wagon. It was heavy and just long enough to let me work myself into a sitting position against the other side. Splinters were a worry and the heavy iron manacles were tight, but at least they had enough flex to let me pick the bottle up and work the cork loose.
And my hesitation to drink didn't go unnoticed. "Just water," the guard said.
Well, they could probably get drugs into me other ways if they wanted to, and I was incredibly thirsty. I gulped, coughed, drank again. As she'd said: just water. She'd twitched the rear flap aside, gesturing to someone outside, then looked at me again.
"Would shouting for help do any good?" I asked, my voice still rasping.
"Very little," she said. I nodded, weighing her up. She looked stocky, tough, dressed in a well-worn padded leather vest and kilt accessorized by a pistol and something that looked too long to be a dagger but too short for a sword. Still looked sharp though.
Then the fact it was a uniform registered. "You're a Mediator."
"Yes," she said and glanced at my hand reaching for my collar. "You won't touch that."
I let my hand drop. Mediator... Shyia was a Mediator. We'd been attacked, I remembered that. Had I been rescued while I was out? Or were these imposters? Or was Shyia an imposter? I struggled to sit up, wincing at the aches. I was bruised, all over. The worst were a huge blue-green contusion on my right arm that I had no recollection of getting and some bright and angry clotted gouges on my left, where Shyia's claws had dug in. Elsewhere there were a few minor nicks. Otherwise... just the same collection of scars.
Which puzzled me.
I'd fought with Rris before and knew from experience what sort of damage their teeth and claws did. I also remembered the struggle in the darkness, the number of times they'd laid hands on me but hadn't used claws. If they'd been seriously trying to hold me they'd have been using claws and I'd have been as lacerated as if I'd taken a running dive into a briar patch. So they'd been almost fastidiously careful not to damage me even as I was bouncing them off the walls.
New sounds from outside drew my attention. There were voices. I couldn't make out what was being said, but the wagon slowed for a moment. Just long enough for another Rris to vault into the back with a move as smooth as oil on water. All I saw in the glimpse through the tail flap were trees. The newcomer squatted under the low overhead, hands dangling between legs. Male, I guessed, it was hard to tell. He was dressed as the female was, in leather armor, covered with dust, as were his furry calves. "It's awake then," he observed.
I didn't miss the 'it's'.
"Yes, Sir," my guard said. "Seems lucid enough."
I shifted, aching, feeling my heart picking up, my lips drying out. "What's going on?" I asked, my voice almost catching. "Who are you?"
I'd been in a bad situation like that before. Back then, they really hadn't liked me asking questions.
The newcomer's head cocked slightly and amber eyes regarded me, almost lazily. "Us? Mediator Guild, of course. And we just saved your hide."
I felt my mouth move as the right words didn't come. That made as much sense as everything else that'd happened. "Saved my hide?" I repeated. "From what?"
"You were to be executed."
That almost didn't register. "Executed?" I echoed again, knowing it made me sound like a clueless moron, but that was what I was feeling like.
"A," he said.
Confused, afraid, angry... "You... what are you talking about?! Where's Shyia? What'd you do with him?"
"Shyia ah Ehrasai?" Small creases marched up his muzzle, an expression I wasn't entirely sure about. "He slipped away. I'm surprised you're asking about him, after what he was going to do to you."
"He wouldn't harm me."
"No?" the Rris looked amused. "You think not? He was certainly delivering you for execution."
They were fucking with me, they had to be. "You expect me to believe they were going to kill me?"
A snort. "I don't care what you believe. My orders are to return you. Unharmed, preferably, but to return you. That's all I'm concerned about. Now, you be quiet and cooperate and we will be gracious hosts. Otherwise, we don't have to be so hospitable. One trail the same as the other to me, understand?"
The female was dangling a bunch of leather straps that looked like a device designed to wrap around a Rris muzzle from a finger, a calculating look on her face.
I almost said something smart, something that I'd probably have regretted. Far simpler to just play along. "I understand," I said.
Amber eyes studied me, the slit pupils like slivers of darkness in fire. After a few heartbeats his left ear twitched. "Huhn, intelligent enough," he growled, then waved the flap aside and was gone again. I was left staring at the guard. She stared back, still swinging the straps of the muzzle from her fingers.
I decided it was best not to say anything. She seemed satisfied with that.
They didn't go out of their way to be cruel. At least, they weren't in the same league as other Rris I'd encountered.
Not that anything about that journey was enjoyable. Not nearly. The wagon floor was hard and uncomfortable; the shackles weren't just locked, they were riveted on and were far too tight. But they didn't deliberately harm me. They gave me water. Later that day there were some strips of dried meat that were more like leather than food, but they made me realize how hungry I was. Each bite had to be chewed for minutes before I could swallow it.
My guard looked amused.
They were taking me north, I could figure that out for myself. And judging by the dust that'd been coating that Rris' legs and clothing, they were riding hard on open roads. How long had they been going? How fast? How far from Open Fields were we? Where were we headed? Was anyone chasing after us? I didn't have any answers and my guard wasn't offering to tell me. She sat at the other end of the wagon on a folded bedroll, leaning back against the sideboard with legs splayed and forearms resting on knees as she whittled away at a stick with a nasty little dirk, peeling away tiny curls of pale wood.
Thanks to my crash geography lessons I knew the names of a few towns up there, along the southern shores of what I'd known as Lake Huron; just a couple of the more important ones. But I'd no real idea exactly where we were heading. And I'd no idea of what was going on.
They were Mediators. Or they claimed to be Mediators. As did Shyia. Chaeitch had thought he was. Who was lying? Or were they both telling the truth?
"Why're you doing this?" I asked after hours of hearing nothing but the creaking of the wagon and the sounds of wilderness outside: birdsong, insect racket and the wind in trees.
My guard held up the trinket she was carving, the dirk flicking out of the way between her stubby fingers so she could use forefingers to manipulate the work. It looked like a rough figurine of a Rris. I couldn't tell for sure. She regarded me over the top of the piece with an amber stare and silence that if it was meant to be disconcerting, succeeded. But she didn't say anything.
I tried again. "This is right?"
Her head cocked slightly.
I continued. "You say you're mediators? You're supposed to be law. You're supposed to... to be right, to be truth. You're sure this is the right thing?"
Her eyes flicked, her face screwing up in an almost amused expression. "And you're sure it's not?" she rumbled.
"Until I know why, I can't say," I protested. "All I know is that you're kidnapping me for no reason. Why..."
"Because they're my orders," she interjected and flicked the knife back into her hands, resuming her slow carving.
"That's your excuse? Orders? You just follow them blindly?"
The knife paused again and the glance she favored me with then was less than amused. "Blindly?"
"If you don't know why you're doing this, then yes, blindly."
Her muzzle wrinkled back, flashing white teeth. "I think you should stop talking now."
"I said," she growled, "You should stop talking. You want to try the muzzle for size?"
The straps were made for a Rris face, they wouldn't fit me. But if I pointed that fact out, my captors might try to get inventive. I shut up.
She went back to carving her stick.
We stopped for a short time later that evening, while the sun was a dying red glow on the horizon. I was allowed a toilet break, allowed outside the wagon. They didn't take any chances though: the chain leashing me to the wagon was unlocked, but the shackles stayed on and four guards hovered close. They watched, amused or just interested in the differences in plumbing. Trying to ignore them while I took a leak against a tree wasn't the easiest thing to do, but I've been through worse than that before.
Seeing the world outside the wagon didn't tell me a lot. Dusk was spilling across the world and all that seemed to consist of was trees. A copse of birch or some such, not evergreens, the shadows beneath them spreading and melting together. Through the trunks I could see the brows of low hills, silhouetting more treetops against the sunset. A road led away through the trees and wilderness. It was just a rutted track, but probably constituted a main road. Otherwise there were no other signs of civilization: no signposts, buildings. Nothing but my captors' wagons and animals.
Mediators or not, there were a lot of them. I counted at least two-dozen Rris moving about in the evening gloom amongst four wagons and assorted draught animals. But they weren't lighting fires, so they weren't making camp. I weighed up my options. In order to make a break for it, I'd have to overcome four alert and armed guards while manacled and then outrun Rris through night and unknown terrain.
That didn't look like it was going to be an option. I'd have to wait for a chance.
It didn't look as if it was going to happen that night. The stop was brief, just fifteen minutes or so before the guards herded me back to the wagon. Inside, the gloom was almost pitch blackness. I couldn't see much at all, but my captors told me to sit, to keep my hands in sight. There were rattlings of metal, the click of a key in a lock, then furry hands grabbing my skin and bonds, just making sure they were secure. The wagon rocked slightly as the Rris moved and I saw the figures moving against the slightly lighter sky at the tailgate, muted voices growled and hissed, then the flap was closed.
Shortly there was a jolt as we started off again.
I waited. The hard floor rattled and bumped as we journeyed off into the night, further away from the world I knew. There wasn't a word from my guard who was just a darker shadow against the canvass. Presently, despite the cool air and hard floor, I slept. It was all I could do.
I remembered... something. There was something important.
Light shone through ill-fitting boards. Chinks of warmth shining out into the cold where I was. When I tried to see all I could make out were figures moving and the sound of laughter. I moved along the wall, looking.
There was a door. It opened. Inside was dark, empty. A space with a gritty floor and rows of seats in front of a piece of slate hanging on a wall.
I'd been here before.
"You're still chasing down trouble," Chihirae told me from her chair. Jackie was sitting beside her, watching me. She never said much anymore.
Writing curled on the slate. I couldn't read it, but I knew it was writing. When I touched it, the surface rippled, the distortions spreading away, lapping at the shore. I looked up from where I was kneeling by the dark water. The world had changed. Was deeper.
She was on the other side of the pool, watching me. "You knew," I said.
She shook her head. "No. Not I."
"They're the same."
Her eyes didn't meet mine. "I can't say."
The pool was dark again and now there were walls all around, of dark stone.
She wasn't there. Then there were Rris, one raising the whip and I screamed and struggled away...
Scrabbling on gritty wood, the echoes of rattling chains dying in my ears.
Cool darkness, jolting rocking motion. I heard my breathing, heard some muted Rris conversation back at the tailgate. An ever so faint glow filtered through the canvass roof, silhouetting a dark outline against slightly lighter darkness. There a furry shoulder limed against almost imperceptible moonglow; a sheen of armor; a feline profile. A tufted ear flickered slightly; otherwise it was perfectly still, but watching me.
I shuddered. The bottle was there when I groped after it, my hand closing around the cold glass in the night. The water was cool. I drank deeply, then slumped back. Sleep came again. Eventually.
Birdsong heralded the morning. First light struck the canvass roof of the wagon, turning it incandescent. The temperature started to climb, turning from cool night air to a stuffy warmth.
That wasn't what'd woken me. The cessation of rattling and shaking had. I lifted my head from where I'd pillowed it on my arms, blinked into the diffuse glow flooding the interior of the wagon and winced. The first thing that struck me was that I ached even worse than before; my bruises from the previous day and the wooden floor having ganged up on my muscles. The other thing I saw was my guard, peering out through the back flap. She had her back to me.
Tempting, but again it wasn't the right time.
Moving hurt. I groaned, my stiff muscles complaining and my neck clicking like a castanet as I levered myself up into a sitting position. The guard flinched back toward me, letting the flap fall back into place. She watched as I awkwardly sat back, rolling my shoulders and rubbing my neck as best I could with the manacles, just trying to work some limberness back into them. I caught her look. "What?"
"You're a noisy sleeper."
I felt muscles in my jaw twitch. "The beds in this hotel really suck," was all I told her.
Her muzzle furrowed briefly but I wasn't about to explain it. The bottle of water was half full. I blinked at it, trying to remember something from the night, then proceeded to drink it all. I regarded the empty green glass container: now empty, or full of air.
She let me outside to take a leak, along with a heavy guard of course. That gave me a chance to see why they'd stopped while I relieved myself. The road ended at a river: a broad stretch of dark water slowly flowing between heavily wooded banks. Down by the water's edge were a small hut and a jetty, the building not much more than a shack really. A thread of smoke curled from the chimney. The jetty looked more solidly built, as did the raft moored to it.
No bridge. We were going to ferry across on that.
I got a chance to study it as I stood at the roadside and emptied my bladder against a tree.
The ferry was a big raft of heavy planks, logs and caulking; big enough to take two wagons and their teams. A series of block and tackles the size of my head anchored it to a thick skein of rope that ran from a massive block onshore and dipped into river midstream before surfacing across the far side which must've been thirty or forty meters away. Not a huge river, but fast and deep enough that they couldn't ford it. Already a wagon and team were being loaded onto the ferry, a Rris who must've been the ferryman supervising the loading. The whole thing rocked as the animals boarded and balked. Ripples spread out across the water, setting reeds to rustling and slapping against the overgrown banks. I didn't have time for further sightseeing: as soon as I'd finished with my business my guards hustled me back to the wagon.
In the light I was able to see that after my collar had been locked, the guard in the wagon handed the key off to one of the others. So I couldn't jump her and take it. These bad guys weren't as dumb as the ones in the movies.
There was quite a wait before the wagon began to move. I felt the wheels rolling over packed earth, then over wood, then onto something that wasn't solid ground. We stopped but there was still a rocking sensation.
I just sat. My guard was whittling again.
There were voices outside, then a slight lurch and the rocking sensation increased, combined with a drifting movement. Outside there were load creaks, squeaks, water sounds.
"This is safe?" I asked my guard.
Her muzzle wrinkled again. "Nervous?" She looked a little amused. Fine by me.
"Ah... I have a thing about water. Far to go?"
She snorted and nudged the flap back with a finger to peek out. "Almost halfway."
Good enough. While she was distracted I looped the chain from my collar around my arm, braced my feet against the side boards below the U bolt and hauled with everything I had.
Perhaps my workouts helped. Perhaps if they hadn't drilled through the plank to secure the bolt, the wood might have held. I hauled on the chain, feeling iron links digging into my skin. Straightening my legs, hauling with shoulder muscles, feeling aches twinging and stretching as the wood creaked and bowed.
The guard said, "What..."
Or perhaps the weather-bleached wood was weakened. Whatever the cause, the plank bowed, splintered and abruptly gave way. The U bolt tore loose, whiplashing toward me. I slammed back into the other side of the wagon and the recoiling chain struck my arm. An inconsequential distraction. Ignoring it, I snatched up the water bottle by the neck, prayed, and knocked it hard against one of the side supports. Once and the bottle just bounced. Again, and this time it broke, just below the neck sending shards and spilled water flying and tinkling across the floor and leaving me with the neck and a small nub of glass: less than intimidating, but the sharp edge was all I needed.
The guard was drawing her own weapon, yowling an alarm. When I deliberately grinned she retreated back a step, her fur bottling. I raised the jagged shard of glass and slashed down, at the canvass covering. The glass knife ripped a hole, caught, then sliced a jagged tear through the weathered material, from above my head down to the sideboards. I grabbed the edges and yanked it wider, the heavy fabric parting along the tear with an angry ripping sound. Big enough. The guard was hesitating, obviously unsure as to what I was up to. She probably thought I didn't have any place to go.
Outside, other Rris were reacting. Weapons were out and they were skirting around the sides of the raft heading for the back of the wagon. I didn't bother climbing out the hole. I gathered the loose chain, took a deep breath and just dove through the tear, arching over the edge of the ferry and into liquid darkness.
Cool water that hadn't had time to be warmed by the morning sun washed over me. I dove deep, down into a chill current, wafting waterweeds and natural debris. Sunlight filtered down, through tannin-tinted waters as I kicked out, aligning myself, following the flow downstream. The shackles and chain almost undid me. Unable to breast stroke I had to resort to an awkwardly modified dog-paddle and if it hadn't been for the current, I probably wouldn't have made it at all. The chain dragged me down, the shackles encumbered every stroke, but I kept going, past the clutching fractal fingers of sunken logs and trees, the skittering flashes of darting fish. For as long as my breath held.
I surfaced, gasping, about thirty meters downstream. There were distant shouts, but I was only up long enough to gasp a new lungful of air, then dove again. I'd been expecting a volley of gunfire or arrows. None came, but I wasn't going to tempt fate.
After another thirty meters I came up again and paused just long enough to tread water while tying the chain around my waist, as out of the way as I could get it. I was shaking wildly, the adrenaline rush and a flood of everything from sheer terror to pure exultation making my muscles fight each other. My fingers fumbled the iron links as I tried to stay afloat.
The ferry was still upstream, nearly all the way across the river and starting to vanish from sight around a bend in the river. They'd been smart enough to send riders across first and hold some back on the starting side so if something had happened they'd have personnel on both sides of the river. By now they'd be chasing me. But the undergrowth along the banks was thick enough that they must've been struggling through it and by then the current had me. I kicked along with it and with every second the ferry receded further and further until it was lost around the curve in the river.
The river followed the soft land. Over the millennia it'd carved its way through the sedimentary savannah, through the soft loam of the rolling countryside, following the path of least resistance. Where it did meet it, it flowed around, describing a serpentine path across the landscape. There was a spur of land that was of some harder stuff: A deposit of some tougher geological outcropping the river had worked its way around.
I dragged myself through sodden marsh and water weed that sucked at my legs before I reached something like solid ground. It was a rock, a slab of granite the size of a car. I just collapsed onto it, utterly exhausted, and lay there in the hot sunlight, coughing. My muscles felt like overcooked pasta.
In any movie involving river travel, there's a waterfall. Doesn't matter if it's in the middle of Iowa, there's a waterfall. It's one of those Hollywood rules.
Real life wasn't that melodramatic. The worst I had to deal with were rapids. They weren't white water, but they'd been bad enough. The river had seemed like a good idea. I'd managed to snag a waterlogged piece of wood that'd made an acceptable float to hang onto while the current carried me along. That'd worked... for a while. I'd been able to watch the passing landscape - hills, water meadows and lush forests - and try and figure out where the hell I was. Heading east, that was as best as I could tell. If my captors had been taking me north, then by heading east I could hit anything from the shores of lake Huron on down. I'd passed a couple of smaller tributaries flowing into the river and that was good: it'd be something else to slow my pursuers down.
About eight kilometers downstream the riverbanks had gotten much closer and steeper, the river much faster and much deeper, all surprisingly quickly. Before I'd really known it, the still water turned turbulent enough to make things very difficult and my makeshift float wasn't helping very much. Normally, it wouldn't have been a problem, but with the shackles and chains it took everything I had just to stay afloat. When I finally drifted into that eddy at the bend in the river, I was more than ready to crawl out and collapse.
Sprawled on that sun-warmed rock I lost track of time. Exhausted, I just closed my eyes and let the world spin around me while I caught my breath and slowly warmed again. It was when I found myself starting to drift off that I woke with a start. I couldn't wait around. I didn't know how long I had, but they'd be after me, I didn't have any doubt about that.
I scrambled to the top of the riverbank and then struggled through tangled bush and scrub up the small rise to the crest of the hill on the river bend. It wasn't high, but offered a bit of a view. Facing south, with the river at my back, I could see hills rising all around. The river was in a small valley, stretching east to west, the sides green with forest and meadows. How far had I come? Perhaps ten kilometers? How far did I have to go? I didn't have the faintest idea. Perhaps from the valley edge I'd see some sign of civilization.
It was near noon on a clear and sunny day. A breeze rippled the grasses in hillside meadows. Choruses of hidden insects rasped, birds twittered and swooped. I was hungry, naked, chained and completely lost.
"...and it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses," I muttered to the world in general. Then sighed and set off: south, toward the hills.
And from up there on the lip of the valley I saw nothing but more nothing. More meadows dotted with bright spring flowers, more woods and swatches of forest: evergreen pines and oaks and beech and birch covering gentle hills. No houses, roads or even a thread of smoke. Down behind me, the dark river flowed along in its little valley.
The land wasn't flat, coastline plains; nor was it geography twisted and knurled like paper crumpled up by geology. It was scrub and meadows and forest clinging to rolling hills of loam and shale. Geography that'd been scoured and ground millennia ago by unimaginably huge sheets of ice that'd strolled south and incidentally rearranged the face of the planet.
I stood there in my shackles and bare skin and felt utterly vulnerable and more than a little concerned as I looked around from horizon to horizon. There were options. I could head back upstream where I'd be certain to meet my captors and that would at least ensure I wouldn't starve or freeze out in the wilderness. Or I could head south and hope to hit civilization... of some kind. Somewhere. Or I could go east, following the river, which was probably a tributary into the waterway between the lakes of Highchi's Grief and Season's Door. There'd be settlements there, lake traffic heading southwards. After weighing things, I deemed it a safer bet than simply aiming south.
So, east it was.
I started half jogging a few hundred meters, then walking. It was a pace I should have been able to keep up for hours. It was the way I'd started jogging at home. But that had been without a few kilos of iron weighing me down. With the shackles on I couldn't swing my arms in time properly; the collar moved at opposites to my motion and started chafing - uncomfortably at first, then painfully. I spent an hour or so trying to get the manacles off by hammering at the end of the hinge pin with a rock to try and shear it. After an hour all I ended up with was a pile of broken rocks and a bruised thumb. Whoever had designed them hadn't been an idiot. I'd need a key or proper tools.
Giving up on that, at least until I had a better idea, I kept going. I filled time by humming, simple little cadences while I jogged. The Proclaimers kept me amused for a while, then the Great Escape theme, then a host of other little ditties remembered from a world ago. The day was warm, which was a blessing. Lack of clothing was... annoying. Not so much in a moral sense anymore: Rris don't have so much of a hangup about it and that attitude has had some time to rub off on me. The biggest drawback with nudity around Rris is the fact they tend to find anatomical differences amusing. But out there in the middle of nowhere, without shoes or shirt, it's not a matter of modesty or embarrassment, but of vulnerability. You tend to feel more than a little exposed to the elements. I especially missed shoes - stones and sticks and nettles hurt - and a pair of shorts wouldn't have been missed.
There were animals around, though I didn't have close encounters with anything more threatening than a pair of squirrels that chattered furiously at me from a tree trunk as I passed. Deer grazed the meadows. The beginnings of a beaver dam were starting to block one of the streams leading down to the river, making it spill its banks and turn the ground to marsh. I took that opportunity to drink before swimming across and pushing on.
If I'd been uncomfortable during the day, that night I really missed clothes.
When the sun sank behind the hills to the west, the temperature sank with it. Stars came out. Multitudes upon multitudes of them smeared across the heavens in a great pale wash. The crescent of the moon climbed above the horizon: a sliver of light that could hide behind the fingernail of my pinky. And it was dark. A pale glow came from the sky, from the stars and moon, but otherwise there was nothing. No lamps or fires visible, just dark and darkness. Meadows and open spaces were vague stretches of faint luminescence under the sky, trees and woods were swatches of impenetrable blackness. I was reduced to fumbling my way across ground I couldn't see, stumbling over stones and roots and fallen branches. And it was getting colder.
Shivering and mostly blind I hunted for shelter. Crawling under a low tree, I broke and tore leafy branches and laid them out in a makeshift mattress. The branches poked me, leaves scratched, but it was insulation against the cold ground. Not much, but a bit.
I huddled and shivered and felt bugs biting and yearned for a warm bed, tasting a banquet of hot meals in my mind. Some time later on the howl of a wolf rose in the distance. The howl that answered it was a lot closer.
I really didn't get a lot of sleep.
I don't think I've ever been so glad to see a dawn before.
Birdsong greeted the brightening of the sky. A mackerel sky glowed pink across the heavens as the world spun to bring high clouds into the light, lower formations still grey shadow. I moved to rub my face and groaned: I was stiff and sore and covered in dew and freezing. There was nothing for me there, so as soon as I could see I started off again, limping and hobbling at first as I forced protesting muscles to just perform the simple act of walking.
When the sun rose high enough for me to get some direct sun, that was pure bliss. In that moment I could see why so many human cultures had worshipped the sun. The warmth, the light, the sheer feeling of relief after the chill and fear of the night, that was something you have to experience to understand. That was also a moment that helped solidify my belief that back-to-nature fanatics are a bunch of blithering cretins who should try experiencing real nature for a while.
I was getting quite enough of it.
For another day I walked. Through bush and scrub, pushing through the tangles of trees and undergrowth that clustered into woods and forests, across broad hillside meadows alive with grass and spectacular wildflowers and darting insects. I saw moose down at the river's edge, cropping placidly at water plants.
And my stomach reminded me it could do with some food.
I found berries of several kinds. Most of them were so bitter when I carefully tested them on my tongue that I had to spit them out. I did find some blueberries that were palatable, but only a small handful. They weren't very filling. Finding more would mean spending time and energy hunting them down. I could spend hours covering just a small area looking. I decided to press on, hoping I'd find more edibles enroute.
As the day went on I moved further downstream. If there'd been a road or a track it'd have been easy going. Pushing through the undergrowth both slowed me down and scratched the hell out of my hide. The only consolation was that if it was that tough for me, it'd be just as hard for my pursuers. Mounted, they couldn't get through that sort of undergrowth and on foot they couldn't keep up the pace I could.
But they probably had food.
I kept going, following that river.
Midday came and went. The sun wasn't as harsh as it'd been the previous day. In fact, I realized the clouds were building up. The wind was blowing in from the east, the patches of blue in the sky growing fewer and fewer as clouds scudded by overhead. Every so often the sun was lost behind cloud, the world suddenly becoming cooler. That wasn't such a concern: I was getting enough exercise to keep me quite warm.
As the hours went by the wind died and when it picked up again it'd changed direction, turning into a brisk and cool westerly. The cloud cover got heavier, turning the day gloomy. It looked like rain might be lurking around, but it was only when I crested a hill that gave me a view that I cursed out loud.
To the west and south the horizons were black with climbing thunderheads.
I tried to make better time, but didn't hold much hope. I didn't know where I was going, so hurrying just meant I was going nowhere faster. I just tried to pick up the pace. More hours and scenery passed while I watched the world change with a sort of resigned fascination. As the clouds built up, churning across the landscape like dark ink in water, the air changed, the wind bringing that scent of rain. Late afternoon light washed over meadows and met the banks of clouds to produce glorious and unnatural colors. Purple haze shrouded the horizon; patches of sun-gold grasses turned incandescent as spears of light reached through gaps in the bruise-colored thunderheads that banked and built, roiling in incredibly slow motion. Not really slow, just on a monumental scale. Slanting columns of darkness connected the clouds to the land, following them along. In those columns and clouds along the horizon were flickers of light. Not regular, but like staccato flashbulbs under the bulk of the growing storm.
It was going to be a bad one.
Sunlight was waxing and waning as clouds built. Gloom was interrupted by sparse moments of golden light as the building storm shifted restlessly, the sun finding fewer and fewer chinks in the overcast. I realized it was going to get dark prematurely that evening as I crossed a meadow, aiming for a dense-looking forest where I might have been able to find some sort of shelter. Then, in the middle of a field, I paused. I thought I'd seen something, to the south against the black of the storm. There was something there: a small orange dot diving and swooping against the oncoming wall of rain and thunder. It looked like... it couldn't be.
I swore it was. That was why I went south.
I could hear it. I could smell it.
Thunder rolled across the world like God's own cannonfire. There was the back-of-the-throat tang of ozone underlying everything: the promise of rain.
That little speck or artificial color kept climbing and diving against the clouds. Soaring above the treetops, then spinning wildly and plummeting toward the ground again. There'd be a pause, and it'd do it all over again.
Years ago, when I was about eight years old, I'd built a kite. It'd been a simple red triangle with a stubby little tail, a shape copied from a picture I'd seen in a children's book. Hopelessly stereotypical and badly proportioned and designed, but I'd built it myself and against all probability it'd flown. Well, it'd flown just like that. Up, then plummet down to the ground again until the one time it'd gotten high enough that the downward plummet had snapped its back. But that was so long ago in another world.
I started running across the open grass, then through a grove of birch trees, dodging between white and black trunks. Overhead, the small leaves were alpha'd against a black sky, rattling in the growing wind. Through them I strained to catch a glimpse of the foreign object bobbing and weaving against the stormclouds. I scratched myself up pretty bad pushing through a thicket out into the open again, at the top of a gently sloping meadow.
The kite was rising again, spinning wildly in the gusting wind. Probably because it didn't have a tail, I noted absently. There was a small figure at the other end of the meadow, holding the cable, running back and forth as the orange triangle rose higher against the oncoming blackness, diving and weaving with the gusts of wind.
Lightning marched across the skyline, actual jagged lines of light that left images on my retinas.
"Hai!" I yelled, waving my arms. It was too far, several hundred meters. The kite dove, spiraling against its cord before hitting the ground. The cub ran to collect it and tried again.
"Hey! Hai!" I shouted again, starting to run downhill. "Hey!"
The cub saw me. For a second there was hesitation, then it bolted. Released and forgotten, the kite swooped, then nosedived into the ground where the wind caught it again and sent it pinwheeling erratically toward me. The cub was hightailing it away toward the trees on the far side of the meadow, tail tucked.
"Wait!" I called after him, my voice stolen by the wind. "Please!"
Gone, fled into the trees.
I staggered to a stop. Of course the cub had run. Seeing a hulking, hairless thing charging out of the forest, I'd run too.
The kite skidded past me, gusts of wind tugging it across the grass. The reel bounced past, the unraveling string curling and brushing past my arm. Automatically, I snagged it, catching the spool. It was just a stick, the string wound around it. And the whole string was made of fragments, bits of all sorts of materials tied together: Twine, leather cords of various kinds, unraveled rope and cloth. I reeled it in, the kite weaving and bobbing in ever tighter circles at the end of its leash until I was able to grab it, discovering it was an equally patchwork affair. A simple diamond made from scraps of orange cloth all carefully glued together. It looked like someone had spent a lot of time on it.
Thunderheads were spilling overhead, backlit by the setting sun. In the deepening gloom lighting strobed amongst the hills, then thunder grumbled. The haze below the clouds marched toward me, but the outriders of the storm were already there. Fat raindrops pattered against dusty ground, against grass and leaves.
I sighed, then set off in the direction the cub had gone.
As the sun set on my second day of freedom, the storm broke.
The clouds closed in like a lid dropped over the world. I couldn't see a damn thing.
Rain hammered down out of the darkness in sheet after sheet. It poured off leaves and branches. It gathered in rivulets that merged and turned into small streams crisscrossing the ground. Gusts of wind drove the rain almost horizontally at times, nearly solid walls of water hailing in from the gloom. The indistinct shapes of trees bowed to and fro, shaking with the wind. Every so often a lightning strike would fill the world with a flare of light that left afterimages floating in my vision for minutes afterwards. Thunder rumbled with an intensity I could feel.
I groped on through the darkness, slipping on mud and grass that seemed as slick as oil. Water ran in streams through my hair, down my face. That downpour was nothing like some warm spring shower, rather it was a deluge that felt ice cold. I held the kite up before me, not in an futile attempt to stay dry, but just to block the barrage of condensing atmosphere droplets the size of peas that came in like kamikazes out of the dark, bursting across my face and into my eyes. Ground that'd been dusty dry that morning turned to cold viscous ooze that squeezed through my toes. In that storm, in the wind and rain and darkness I could have stumbled past an entire village and missed it completely. Shivering and shaking, I just kept moving in the same direction, the way the cub had ran.
When I ran into the log blocking my path I first thought it was a fallen tree. When I tried to go around I found it was attached to a post and there was another, then another. They were just rows of crudely cut rails stacked atop one another, but there wasn't much doubt it was a fence. Beyond... I squinted into the teeth of the storm and could make out the shapes of bison materialized from the sleeting rain. A clanking of cattle bells was audible over the noise of wind and rustling trees as the animals shied away from me. A farm. It was a farm. That meant food, warmth, shelter.
With a renewed sense of purpose I followed the fence.
It wasn't too far. I found a corner of the fence and a crude gate. The ground there was churned by milling animal hooves, the rain pooling and turning it to sludge. Through sheets of rain a faint light shone.
There was a farmhouse. A small single-story building and through the cracks in a shuttered window a light glowed: just a small lamp or candle.
Out in the storm I stared at it and dripped and shivered and yearned.
Yes, there'd be food, there'd be shelter, but there'd also be Rris. I turned the sodden fabric of the kite over in my hands. Lightning flashed, rippling across the sky. Suppose the mediators had been here? Suppose they thought they could turn me in? Or, more likely, they'd shoot first and asked questions later.
So I stared longingly at the light in the window, weighing my choices. No, I'd come too far to risk it.
There was a barn, of sorts. It wasn't much more than a simple shelter with three walls of crooked half-rounds caulked with wattle and daub and a roof of more split logs. Inside, it was divided into four stalls. Rain drummed on the roof and dribbled through cracks and holes to patter on the dirt floor. A pair of elk in the right hand stalls grunted and shifted uneasily when I entered, milling and moving away from me. The lefthand-most stall was filled with hay: animal feed or roofing material or something.
A few hours. Just a few hours out of rain and wind, and then I'd move on. That's what I told myself as I laid the kite aside and collapsed onto the rick. The straw itched, it jabbed and scratched at my skin, but after what I'd been through I hardly noticed. It was soft, and after I'd half-burrowed into it, it kept the wind off and actually started to feel warm. A flash of lightning lit the sky outside, stripes of light glaring through the cracks between the ill-fitting planks in the walls.
Hiding from the natives. Sleeping in a barn. Huh, I'd been there before. I thought back to those times and while I huddled there the kite was lit in another flash, just for a split second, and that was the last I remember of that night.
I'm not sure what woke me. I was vaguely aware of voices and birdsong and bright light but was too tired and sore to really care. There was something important nagging at my consciousness. I was...
My heart lurched and I started awake, opening eyes to sunlight and the open side of the barn and a small figure staring at me, fur standing on end. I stared, opened my mouth to say something and another Rris figure stepped in behind the cub. The newcomer was much larger. I saw grey and black stippled fur, a worn leather kilt and rows of dark nipples above that, and a broad face distorting in a snarl as she thrust the cub behind her.
"Get my sword!" she hissed to the cub and in the next split second grabbed for a two-tined pitchfork hanging on the wall of the shed, seizing it in a two-handed grip and lunging at me in a smooth, almost-balletic motion.
I only had time to open my mouth before I realized she was deadly serious. The twin tines were wood, but they were still sharp enough to skewer me and I only just managed to grab at them, my chains clattering as I was able to deflect the prongs into the wooden wall behind me and grab the shaft. "Hey!" I said, shocked at the vehemence of the attack.
She was trying to pull the implement back, hissing furiously.
"Will you..." I was speaking English. "No, please," I changed to Rris. "Please, don't."
She froze, then let go of the pitchfork like it'd become red hot and backpedaled into the morning sunlight. "What?" her eyes were wide and black. "What the suppuration is this?!"
"Apologies," I said, stiffly working myself out of the pile of hay. I ached, from my feet upwards. Especially my feet. "I didn't mean to frighten you."
Her mouth moved, as if she were trying different words for size. Nothing seemed to fit.
"I... I, uh," I glanced at the pitchfork, then carefully propped it up against the wall with an assortment of other basic tools and awkwardly dusted my hands. "I was just trying to get out of the storm. I'm not looking for trouble. Oh, and yes: I can talk."
Her fur bristled anew, "What are you?!"
"Just passing through," I said. "I'm... Ah, where is this?"
"My farm," she snarled. "Why did you attack him?"
That got me. "What? Whom? I haven't attacked..."
"Rothi," she snarled a gape-toothed hiss. "My son! You chased him!"
The cub? Oh, damn. "Attacked? Ma'am, I was trying to stop him from becoming a scorch mark."
She bristled as if she were going to retort, then caught herself. Her muzzle tipped slightly.
"I saw him flying that... toy," I continued, gestured at the kite, "during a thunderstorm? You've seen what a lightning strike can do to a tall tree? His kite was the tallest tree around. I was trying to warn him. I think he misunderstood." I shrugged, my collar chain rattling. "It's happened before."
There was a brief flicker as her gaze went to the kite, then back to me. I couldn't read the exact expressions crossing her feline countenance, but I could see fear and suspicion and anger and uncertainty.
"I should go," I said and she backpedaled but otherwise didn't move to stop me as I limped past.
The world looked better that morning. It was still early, with birds still singing their morning chorus. Wisps of stormclouds - merest fragments of the continents that covered the world just a few hours ago - hung in the sky, glowing in the morning light. I looked around the farmyard. It was small, with just a little muddy yard drying in the morning sun and the tiny house and the barn and something that was probably an outhouse. Bison browsed the glistening fields out beyond the house. Thin mist rose from the grass, insubstantial and pale in the still light of morning.
Just a farm. Just a farmer trying to scratch a living.
Halfway across the farmyard my stomach knotted up in a violent cramp, that and my lightheadedness reminding me of something. Hesitantly, I stopped and turned. I could at least ask... "Ma'am, you wouldn't have any food you could spare? Please?"
Slowly, she cocked her head, studying me as I studied her. She wasn't a large Rris, but she was well built. Stocky. All she was wearing was that slight leather kilt with a functional-looking belt. Her grey fur was dark across her shoulders, lighter down her belly where it vanished behind her belt and was speckled with black. An ear - the left one - had a ragged look to it. It'd been chopped off, losing the tufted tip and about half its length, leaving a scalloped edge. On her thigh, down below the line of the kilt there was a bare patch where the fur didn't grow properly, revealing grayish flesh and the puckered scar of a wound I was quite familiar with. "Who're you running from?" she demanded, her amber eyes fixed on my wrists.
I looked down at the black iron of my shackles. "I'm not sure. They said they were Mediators."
"Mediators?" Her ears went back, flat, and her muzzle wrinkled. "Get out of here, now!"
She looked scared of me again. "Please," I tried to calm her. "I don't know if they were Mediators."
The farmer hissed. "If they looked like Mediators, they were. Go!"
"Then why did they kidnap me from other Mediators?" I asked. "I was with Mediators in Open Fields. We were attacked and I was abducted."
At that she gave me a peculiar look.
"What are you talking about?"
"I don't know that they were really Mediators."
She snorted. "Nobody sane would impersonate a Mediator."
"Then they were insane, or they were Mediators fighting Mediators," I gestured helplessly. "I don't know what's happening. I'm trying to get back to Open Fields so I can find out."
"You come from Open Fields?" the tone of that was more incredulous than anything.
"I was visiting. A guest of her highness."
There was a reaction to that. She stiffened visibly, muscles tensing and relaxing in a stance I'd seen before. "Ah, then you've seen the palace doors. What's the wood they're made from? What's carved on them?"
I smiled tiredly. "They're cast bronze, not carved. And the ceiling of the sky Chamber is tiny lights. And her Highness is twenty years of age, has a patch of light fur on her outer thigh, and is partial to honeyed quail pasties."
She blinked for a few seconds, then: "What exactly are you? Where'd you come from?"
I had to struggle not to grin, "I could tell you my story, perhaps in exchange for some bread?"
Her eyes narrowed. The cub came pelting back across the farmyard, both hands clasping a wooden scabbard fully three quarters his height. The farmer took it from him and he ducked around behind her. A tail flicked out one side and a fuzzy head peeped around the other to stare at me with huge eyes.
The farmer partially drew the sword, letting the few centimeters of steel that peeked from the sheath gleam in the morning light. I sighed and turned away again.
"A moment," her voice rumbled from behind me. "You're as strong as you look?"
I stopped. "For the most part, yes."
"Huhn," she growled and paused for a bit. Then: "I might have some work for you. That and your story for a meal."
My stomach growled. It wasn't a good deal, but it was the only one I was likely to get. If I kept trying random homesteads, then somewhere someone would take a shot at me. "Deal," I said.
The farmer had given me some bread. Not the meal she'd promised me, that would be payment for services rendered. I was to consider it a down-payment. It was a piece of a fresh-baked loaf that resembled a discus: small, with a thick, almost black crust, hard kernels and grit, still warm. I'd devoured it ravenously. When she'd asked how long it'd been since I'd last eaten, I had think for a while to recall when my last full meal had been. The berries and dried meat had barely been mouthfuls. It must've been about four days since I'd eaten properly.
Then all that morning I'd helped her with chores. It was a small farm, a small holding, just a few acres of fields up the hill beyond the house. She was running it alone with her son, and she was struggling. I could see that. It wasn't that there was a lack of land, it was just that by herself and with the cheap, wooden and labor-intensive tools at hand she could barely work what she had. And she couldn't afford to hire help.
So I worked for my food. She was wary, of course, but that was something I was accustomed to. She kept her distance and watched me carefully as she set me to carrying logs out to the back field. When I hefted a whole pine trunk onto my shoulders her expression looked decidedly uncertain, as I might if I were to be confronted with a 200lbs gorilla. Rris are strong for their size, but then they aren't really that big. With a bit of effort I was able to manhandle a log she'd have had to struggle to lift on her own. If I hadn't been wearing those shackles, I might have been able to handle two at a time.
Those irons were a problem. She didn't have any tools that were capable of cutting them, but she said she knew someone who might be able to help. He was supposed to be showing up sometime later that day.
Hell, for all I knew she wanted to turn me in for the reward and was just trying to keep me there until Mediators showed up. But it wasn't as if she could pick a phone and call them. And there were the facts that I'd given my word, and I also really needed some help. Help to get out of those chains, to get food, clothes and directions. In some respects I'd lucked out: the reception I'd received could've been a lot worse. If I kept going I'd almost certainly run into Rris whose reactions would be a lot less... restrained than hers had been.
So I carted cut and trimmed logs from where they were stacked off on one side of the courtyard out past the house, up the hill past the pasture where bison grazed to where a field of hay was being fenced off. Easier to let the animals roam and enclose the crops. For a couple of hours while the muddy ground steamed and dried and warmed I went back and forth, carrying the four meter long rounds up the hill and trudging back down for another load. The logs were hard pine, still leaking pine gum that adhered to my skin in a tacky film that smelled absurdly like cheap car air freshener and the coarse bark scraped my shoulder. Normally, it wouldn't have been such hard work, but it was made worse by my sore feet, the chains, and my stomach demanding more than the teaser it'd received.
Later in the morning I saw the cub coming back over the hill, headed back from the general direction of the river. He had a couple of dead rabbits and a few fish slung over his shoulder. His mother gave them a cursory inspection before sending him scurrying back down to the farmhouse. I couldn't help staring. Food. Was that going to be lunch?
She didn't miss my look.
When the last of the wood was delivered, I drove stakes. Back home, fences would have been kilometers of wire stapled to posts, but here wire wasn't cheap or available. The fence under construction was mostly interlocking rails stacked one atop another, held in place by pairs of stakes driven into the ground. She'd laid out logs along the path the fence was to take. I worked my way along those logs, hammering vertical stakes in at the junctions where the rails overlapped.
The farmer was busy splitting the wood I'd carried up. Wielding a hammer and awl, she was working her way along the fence line splitting the logs into rails. She'd drive wedges into the log in strategic spots and hammer then in until the wood split lengthwise. At least, she was trying to do that. Quite often she was spitting and snarling oaths at fractured and splintered wood. Once she was wringing her hand and contributing quite nicely to my vocabulary.
And as we worked, we talked. I told her my story. Well, most of it. There were some details I left out, quite a lot of details actually: the exact nature of where I'd come from, the murder accusations in Westwater, the suicide attempt, the exact nature of the work I'd done for Land of Water, my relationships with a couple of females, the times I'd fought and the times I'd had to kill. Even excluding those there was quite enough to tell. More than a few times she paused in her task to blink amber eyes at me in surprise or outright disbelief, but she didn't interrupt.
As the sun climbed the day got hotter and the maul seemed to get heavier. If I'd had clothes I'd have stripped down. As it was, I was streaming sweat and the Rris was panting like a dog. When Rothi, the cub, laboured up the hill with a wooden pitcher of water she took a break to lap water for a long time. She raised her head, water dripping from her chops and watched me for a while, then brought the water over.
"Water?" she offered the bucket to me.
"Thank you," I said, quite sincerely. She watched as I drank deeply, awkwardly, water dribbling down my chin.
"You're... leaking," she observed. She wasn't talking about my sloppy drinking.
"It's hot," I said, wiping sweat away. "I do that instead of panting."
"Huhn," she rumbled, eyeing me dubiously. I handed the water back.
"Thank you, Ma'am," I said.
"Ea'rest," she returned.
"Not 'ma'am', Ea'rest. My name."
"Ah," I waved acknowledgement. "Ea'rest. Thank you," I said again, then ventured: "May I ask, do you have any spare clothing?"
"Huhn, clothing" she rumbled thoughtfully and leaned on her axe, cocking her head. "So, you're so innocent yet they felt it necessary to shave you?"
"Shave me?" I echoed moronically and automatically touched my beard before I realized what she meant. "Ah, no. They didn't. I mean, I haven't been shaved," I looked down at myself and just made a helpless gesture. "This is normal for me."
She stared, her jaw hanging agape. Then she chittered out loud. For quite a while, her jaw twitching uncontrollably. Eventually she settled but still looked considerably amused as she shifted, slouching a little more on the axe. "Normal?"
"Uh, yes," I said, feeling more than a little embarrassed. "I suppose it's relative."
Her amber eyes blinked and she seemed a little taken aback. "Huhn, if nothing else, you talk educated. And that," she gestured. "Those are your genitals? Something is wrong with them?"
I sighed. "Yes, they are. And, no, nothing wrong. Just different."
"And those marks on your back?"
"No." That was something else I hadn't given specifics about. "Those aren't natural."
She waited for a few seconds, as if waiting for me to continue. Eventually she said, "They look newer than that wound on your shoulder. You said you got that when you... arrived here."
"Then, who flogged you? Why?"
I sighed. She'd picked up on that even though it was something I hadn't gone into details about. Those memories were... unpleasant. "I'd been abducted. I made... trouble. They didn't like that."
"A. And your finger?"
She'd noticed. It was healing, but the scar tissue was obviously not old. "Same people, later."
"You didn't mention that." I caught the undertones in that.
"Ma'am... Ea'rest," I wiped sweat away again and squinted at the sun. Shadows were short, the sun a white haze too bright to look at. The golden field of the hay meadow stretched down the hill to the little house, a faint shimmer of heat rising. Insects, pollen, drifting seeds... tiny specks wafted and danced on the warm breeze that for a moment seemed quite chill, smelling of coal dust. "I've seen quite a lot. Much of it... inconsequential. Some of it... there are things I would rather not remember."
Ea'rest ruffled her furry chest, panting steadily as she regarded me. A tufted ear flicked as a fly buzzed it. "Huhn, that's an echo," she said thoughtfully. "Hai, very well."
And then she untied her belt and tossed her kilt over to me. I awkwardly snatched it, my chains clanking.
"Too hot anyway," she yawned, scratched, then took up her axe and went back to work.
I stood there stupidly, the leather and rope article dangling from my hand. "Thank you," I said belatedly, then awkwardly wrapped it around my waist. No buckle, just a knot through a leather strip. And it was too small. And it's incredible how just a small piece of clothing can help you feel like a normal human being again.
Lunch was just after midday.
Ea'rest called the break and I laid my tools aside and followed her through the waves of grass down to the farm house. It was small, built and used by people who spent most of their time outside and just needed a roof to sleep and shelter under. The walls were half-round logs, the roof split squares from some ancient trunk. From the eaves hung odds and ends: broken wooden tools, stocks for bison, buckets and a broken wagon wheel. A couple of pieces of rusty iron clanked gently in the breeze. Out front, in the shade of a rickety porch roof, there was a trio of three-legged stools, none of which looked sturdy enough to take my weight. So I just sat on the ground and leaned back against the wall, enjoying the shade after the heat.
Sun beat down, burning away the last of the puddles out in the yard. The air smelled of fading water, of hot dust and hay, of animals and wilderness and weather-bleached wood. Overhead the sky was a bottomless blue, the hidden sun washing out the zenith with a white glare that spilled past the silhouette of the roof. Drifting seeds glowed in the light. Cicadas rasped in the wilderness. Birds sang. The fact that I was a fugitive was almost forgotten.
And lunch was a surprise. I'd been expecting rabbit or fish. Instead Ea'rest produced strings of sausage and a pie that she can't possible have just had sitting in the fridge.
"I made it this morning," she explained, looking a little taken aback. As if she were explaining the obvious to an idiot. "Rothi set it cooking earlier."
"You were expecting me?"
She laughed at that. "Expecting company, yes. You picked a good day to show."
And if I'd been expecting bland subsistence, I was surprised again. It was damned good. The sausage was fresh and spicy; the pie packed with meat that tasted like smoked venison, but marinated in something that did glorious things to my tastebuds, yams, mushrooms, apple and a crust that was as good as the bread had been tough.
The Rris were watching me with expressions that verged somewhere between startlement and amusement.
"Oh," I looked at the piece I was holding. My second. I was hardly aware of the first touching the sides. "I'm sorry."
Ea'rest motioned a shrug. "You said you were hungry. I didn't know it was that serious."
I smiled sheepishly. "It has been a while. And this is very good."
Rothi looked from her to me, his own jaws champing industriously. "She makes the best pies," he pronounced through a spray of crumbs.
I nodded, "He's right, you know."
She looked taken aback, then amused. "Huhn, thank you."
"She learned in the west," Rothi said brightly. "Why do you eat so strangely?"
Ah... "I'm slightly different. My mouth is a different shape. Hadn't you noticed?"
"Then that's why you sound strange?" He cocked his head, ears pricked.
"Rothi!" Ea'rest cautioned.
"I'm used to it," I smiled carefully. "It's something I get a lot of."
"Why?" Rothi asked, oblivious to his mother's warning.
"Because a lot of the people like you I meet say the same thing."
"And why don't you have fur?"
"You always ask this many questions?"
"Yah," he smirked.
"I've got one for you: why were you flying your toy in the storm?"
His ears flagged at that, and he scratched at the dust with toe claws. "It keeps falling out of the sky. I thought more wind would make it stay up."
I had to stifle a grin. "Good theory. But a suggestion: try putting a tail on it."
"A tail?" There was bemusement there. "Like this?" He flicked his furry tufted limb around.
"Ah, sort of," I conceded. "Your toy, it spins and hits the ground? A tail will help stop it spinning."
Now his ears were pricked up. "Show me!"
"Perhaps later. After I've finished helping your mother... if it's all right by her."
"Mother?" Rothi turned to her, looking imploringly.
And Ea'rest had been watching the exchange with her ears flagging a sort of bewildered amusement.
"A," she said, "Later, Rothi. After your chores there'll be time. Why don't you go fetch water now."
"Saaa," he hissed.
"Rothi..." she cautioned.
"Saaa," he hissed again and bobbed his head from side to side. "Alright, but later it can show me?"
"We'll wait till then."
"A," he piped cheerfully, as if she'd given him an emphatic 'yes', and then took off in a blur of motion.
"You know about that toy?" Ea'rest asked after a pause. I noticed there was something about that pause.
"A," I waved a yes. "I played with the like when I was a child."
"Huhn," she rumbled and her amber eyes watched me. In a human I could have seen something in those eyes. Well, not in the eyes. The human face has dozens of muscles, a huge number of which are only good for changing the contours of the facial features into thousands of different configurations. And the human brain has a considerable percentage of its processing capacity dedicated to interpreting those contours. What we call expressions.
Rris have fewer facial muscles and therefore a more limited repertoire of facial expressions, but they combine what they have with movements of ears and body language, so there's no less of expression. The problem is that none of them expressions fit into the templates hard-wired into my brain. I can't instinctively read their expressions, especially not subtle ones. It becomes an intellectual process, not an emotional one, so it's very easy to miss subtle clues. And the fact that they're lacking so many of those muscles around their orbital sockets can mean that those eyes can seem disturbingly inscrutable.
Looking at that alien female then I could tell she was thinking something, but beyond that... the waters were murky.
"So, how long have you been here?" I asked.
"Been here?" she seemed a bit taken aback at that. "What makes you think I've been elsewhere?"
"Ah, your sword. That... I don't think is standard farm equipment. And you seem to know more about her highness and the palace than I'd expect of a farmer. And as for farming... I'm sorry, but I saw you trying to split those logs. You need a bit more practice. Oh, and Rothi said you'd learned to make these," I gestured with the remnants of my pie, "in the West."
Those eyes watched me again.
"Or..." I said quickly, "I'm probably completely wrong. Why should it be any of my business?"
Ea'rest snorted, then actually chittered, "You are a peculiarity, aren't you. No, you're right: This is a change for me."
"There was a reason?"
Again she regarded me, then cocked her head as if coming to a decision. "A. I was military, if you must know. Open Fields guard, attached to the palace. There were times while standing post in the pouring rain or freezing snow and mud or when you're trying to keep a sword from your gut that the life of a farmer looked very appealing."
"Nice and boring," I suggested.
"A," she smiled slightly, seeing something in her own head. "I was brought up around here. I thought it would be a good place to settle." She sighed again and scratched an ear, looking around the yard. "I think perhaps it had more appeal from the other side. From here, after a while, it seems so... small."
"You could try something else," I suggested.
She snorted. I couldn't tell if that was disgust or something else. "I've been a soldier all my life. I can fight, that's about it."
I waved my hand in a shrug and offered, "You can cook. Very well."
Another snort. "So perhaps I can become a cook for some high born milk cub."
"Ma'am, you can cook very well. Believe me: my sense of taste is better than a Rris'. You don't have to work for someone else. Run your own business. Sell food."
She blinked. "Sell food? Is being an innkeeper such a step up?"
I took another mouthful, my chains rattling as I moved my arm, and chewed thoughtfully. "Meet people, travelers. Doesn't have to be just an innkeeper."
"A?" her expression was dubious but also curious.
"Depends what you do," I elaborated. It felt a little like back home, walking a client through a proposed campaign. "Offer service others don't. Fast, clean good food. Friendly service. Make sure people know about it. The more who do so, the more will use it."
"Any way you can," I said, starting to think back to old skills I hadn't used for a long time. "Use imagination. Attract peoples' attention. Criers, bills and placards, posters. Give your business an identity, a feel or a look that people can recognize. As your business grows, you can expand to other areas, other towns. When people travel they'll see a familiar establishment where they can get familiar service, food. If the service is popular enough, you could charge individuals for the right to run a branch office. I think you..."
The farmer was staring at me, her jaw hanging open a bit and her expression most peculiar. I realized I'd been going off a little strong. "I think it could be quite successful," I finished a little lamely.
There was a little chuff of air from her, a nervous chitter. "You sound as if you've thought about it," she said eventually.
"I apologize," I said. "I didn't mean to be so... they are new ideas."
"A," she said, her ears still flagging uncertainty. "Surprisingly so. Where did you learn of them?"
"I had experience with people who worked with such," I said.
"Huhn," she gave a thoughtful rumble. "You never did say exactly where you came from."
"No." I couldn't deny that.
"You've lied to me?"
"No! Ma'am... Ea'rest, no. I haven't lied."
"Then why won't you say?"
I sighed. "There are things I haven't told you because... quite frankly they would just lead you to more questions."
"Like your scars? Or are they just things you don't think I should know?"
"I... I'm sorry, but someone is pursuing me and I have to say I honestly haven't got the faintest idea why. It might... it might be because of what I am or information I possess, I don't know. But the more I tell you, the more likely you could be implicated. I don't want that."
She looked uncertain.
"Please," I tried again, "I've involved people who didn't deserve what happened to them before. I don't want to do that again." I looked down at the iron manacles around my wrist, horribly aware of how flimsy my reassurances must seem. I'd come into her life as an obvious fugitive, admitting I was running from what might have been the law.
"I'm not lying to you," I said and then hesitated, looking out at the bright world. "But I can't prove it. I can't prove any of it. And I can't ask you to trust me, I know that. After all I'm... you're Rris and I'm... not."
"Huhn," her muzzle turned to also gaze out over the farm, at the little sun-dried hillside and the rutted track wending down to the trees. Then she snorted. "The most unbelievable thing about your story is that I believe it."
"I think if you were lying you could have come up with a story that was less... incredible," she smiled a little, still not looking at me. Meadowlarks swooped and dove over the fields, chasing the insects swirling in the afternoon heat. After a while she added, "And I don't think a desperate criminal would be so considerate as to ask for food when he's got the opportunity to just take it. Still, an odd story from such an odd guest is fitting."
I smiled carefully and she stared away down the hillside for a bit longer before saying, "You'll be bound for Open Fields now?"
I didn't know. Walking, I supposed.
"And you know the way?" she asked.
I had a vague idea.
She closed her eyes and I saw rather than heard her jaw spasm as she chattered quietly. "South," she echoed. "Just, 'south'. Bald one, on foot that's three days at best; if you know the way."
I waved affirmative. "I have... little choice."
She rumbled thoughtfully again. "Perhaps... Look, if you are willing to finish what you started today; to do a bit more work, I can offer you another meal and a roof for tonight and ...possibly another choice."
Throughout that hot afternoon I dug more holes and drove more stakes. It was a pretty mindless job that I just methodically worked my way through. Following the zig-zag of stones that Ea'rest had laid down the field, digging a hole and then driving a post, one after another. It gave me time to think, to try and figure out just where the hell I was going next. Open Fields. I knew that. I was also realizing that the individuals after me would know that, after all there weren't many other choices. So, I had to try and formulate some sort of plan. I almost felt disappointed when I drove a stake and found I'd reached the end of the line. But there was still wood to chop; quite a pile of it.
Ea'rest had looked a little uneasy as she unwrapped an axe from an oilcloth. It was obviously a valuable possession, but I couldn't help wondering if she was concerned for the safety of the tool or by the fact she was giving a sharp implement to me. Whatever, she handed it over. I looked it over: it was pretty old and worn, but well honed. And like the one I'd used a long time ago in Westwater it was built for Rris so it felt a little lightweight for me, but I assured her I knew how to use it. She showed me the wood and left me to it, although not without a few glances over her shoulder.
The wood wasn't in convenient rounds neatly trimmed by saw; it was just a pile of logs and branches that'd been picked up, dragged or cut by axe but weren't any size that could be put into a stove or fireplace. Some of them I was able to break into manageable lengths, others I had to axe. That was frustrating work; the chains of my shackles got in the way. What's more I knew a chainsaw or just a good ripsaw would be able to go through the firewood like butter, but of course there wasn't anything like that available so I had to do it the hard way.
So I chopped and cut and snapped wood while the day went on. The axe was sharp and effective at splitting the soft woods and the clean pine, but the knottier pieces and hardwoods were tough going. I kept at it, sweating furiously and knocking water back by the liter. Working away at the daunting pile of raw timber and carting armloads of cut firewood across to the house to stack under the eaves. The dusty ground covered with chips and splinters, the hot air filled with the smells of the wood: pine and oak and cedar.
About five o'clock, by my inexpert judging of the sun. I was carrying a double armload of wood back to the house and rounded the corner to find myself face to face with shaggy mountains of hair: a team of bison. Behind them... I looked past them to the wagon they were drawing and the shocked Rris sitting on the board there and I stopped on the spot.
They'd found me, that was the first thought that hit me like a bucket of cold water. But the Rris wasn't dressed like a Mediator, that was the next thing I noticed. At about the same moment the Rris snatched and brought up a crossbow and for the second time in my life I was staring at a wavering loaded crossbow with a frightened Rris face behind it.
I froze, absolutely motionless with the armload of wood stacked up to my chin. My body remembered the results of last time in a twitching through the knot in my shoulder. I licked my lips and as calmly as I could said, "Please, don't. I'm not dangerous."
It was the Rris's turn to freeze. "What?" He squeaked after a few seconds.
"I said, please don't shoot me. I'm not dangerous," I repeated. I could feel my heart hammering.
Those eyes widened, then narrowed and the head tipped but the bow didn't waver. "You... What the mange are you!? What are you doing?"
"My name is Michael. I'm getting firewood."
There was a flash of fangs and he shook his head quickly: a sign of annoyance. "Where's Ea'rest?! Rothi?! What've you done..."
"Uh, excuse me," I ventured and he cut off in mid tirade, glaring. It was better than shooting. "Ea'rest is in the back field," I said. "And Rothi... is there."
Rothi had rounded the other side of the farmhouse and stopped. I saw him take in the tableau and his ears go flat. "Heksi!" he yelped, scampering forward. "Don't!"
"Rothi?" The newcomer blinked and the end of the crossbow swayed aside a bit, then came back. I stayed motionless. "Are you all right? Ea'rest? Where is she?"
"She was up back," the cub said, jerking a thumb that way. "I saw you come and told her. She's coming. Why're you pointing that at Mikah?"
"Mikah?" There was confusion now. "You mean this..."
"Heksi!" A voice yowled from behind me and a second later Ea'rest belted up alongside, panting heavily. "Heksi, no! Shave you! Put that down! He's not dangerous."
"Not..." The tip of the crossbow and the quarrel nestled in the groove drooped along with the ears. "What is that thing?"
"This thing," Ea'rest actually laid a hand on my bare shoulder, "is Mikah. He was helping with some jobs around the place. I wish I could have given you some more warning, but he seems docile enough."
Heksi snorted something but lowered the bow, regarded me for a bit and then laid the bow aside. A male, I saw when he hopped down. The visitor Ea'rest had been expecting, was he a suitor? He looked young, or younger than her. Stocky, well built, like she was, with tan and grey fur, peppered with white and black. A basic satchel was slung over a shoulder and a simple front and back panel kilt was wrapped around his waist. He favored me with a calculating stare before going to lead the bison off to the water trough. Ea'rest's hand was still on my shoulder and she was also looking at me. "You're shaking."
I shrugged her off and went to finish what I'd started out to do. The wood fell onto the stack with a clatter and I rubbed my arms. I'd been holding the wood for long enough that the bark had left webs of red marks across my skin. It took a minute or so to pile the wood neatly.
Ea'rest was in conversation with Heksi. Rothi scurried up with his kite, excitedly jumping up and down and interrupting. Heksi crouched to ruffle his cheek tufts and then examined the toy with him, turning it over in his furry digits. Ea'rest was chittering amusement. It looked as if they were enjoying themselves. When I headed back across the yard Heksi glanced up and his ears went back, then laid flat. Without the stack of timber in my arms the black shackles were clearly visible and it was those his eyes were locked on. "Ea'rest," he said quietly. "It's in chains."
"I know," she said and her ears flicked back. "Actually, I was thinking you might be able to help with that. You've got tools... you can get them off?"
I blinked. I'd never expected that and apparently, neither had he. He looked at her as if she'd gone mad. "What? Rot you, Ea'rest. You aided it and now you're looking for an accomplice?! I mean, if it's in chains then it's probably dangerous. Who'd it escape from? A menagerie?"
"He said they looked like Mediators," Ea'rest said.
Heksi's jaws gaped like a goldfish and when he turned back to me his expression... it was horror. "Mediators?" It came out as a squeak and spun back to her, his hands spread. "You want to get Mediators nipping at our tails?!"
"Please," I ventured and they both looked at me, "Ea'rest, I don't mean to cause problems for you. I should just leave now."
"No," she said and her tail lashed. "Mikah, I said I would offer you recompense for your work. I may not have much, but I will honor my word."
I hesitated. I had a feeling that she was trying to stall me for some reason. Why? Had she called the authorities? How? If she had, why had this Heksi shown up instead of a contingent of armed Mediators? And she'd already had more than enough chances to harm me. So unless she was trying to lull me and turn me over utterly unharmed and unsuspecting... I'd cross that bridge when I came to it. For now there was a chance of some help.
I nodded. "There's still plenty to do," I said and went back to work.
The setting sun painted the sky in pastel. Along the sunward distant horizon a wall of clouds climbed against the blue sky, brilliant orange sunlight peeking through cracks. To the west the cumulus banked along the skyline glowed with an intensity that made them seem solid, like snowy peaks burning pink and gold. Beneath them, on the face of the world, shadows in the valleys and beneath the trees crawled and merged, spreading, grew. On the northern slopes of the hill where Ea'rest's little homestead was perched the fields colored amber, then red, faded to dull flat light as the last of the sun subsided over the horizon.
I lowered the axe head amongst the piles of wood chips and rested on the haft. I could feel trickles of perspiration, the sweat chill in the cooling evening air as it ran down my skin leaving pale marks. The wood pile was greatly diminished, but there was still more to go. It wasn't dark yet, just a grayish twilight, but that wasn't going to last long.
"Enough, I think," a Rris said.
I looked around at Ea'rest. She was standing behind me regarding the diminished wood pile. When she looked at me her ears flicked back, just momentarily. "That's... impressive work."
"Thank you," I said.
"I think you've earned that meal," Ea'rest said and was quiet for a few seconds. Her tail lashed, the tufted tip sweeping the ground.
"I've talked with Heksi," she eventually said. "He's calmed down. I think you were a bit of a shock to him."
"That tends to happen," I said.
I shrugged, humanly: an automatic gesture she wouldn't understand. "Your reaction and his are not... uncommon."
"Huhn," her ears tipped back and she wrapped arms around herself, hooking a hand over each shoulder.
"But your willingness to give me a chance, that is," I added. "The last time something like this happened, I got this," I touched the knot of scar tissue on my shoulder. "By comparison yours was quite a warm welcome."
She chittered, then caught at her jaw, stroking the tufted fur there. "You're serious?"
I smiled, keeping my mouth closed. "A."
"Gah," she coughed and snapped her jaws shut. "One of those details you neglected to mention?"
"A," I said again.
"Huhn. Well, perhaps you can regale us with a few of those details over dinner. Food will be ready soon. You must be hungry."
"You're starting to look good," I said and then at the expression on her face hastily added, "That was a joke. Not a very good one. Sorry. Ummm." I looked down, at pale streaks through the grime. "I should probably wash: I'm not very pleasant dinner company at the moment. Do you mind?"
"Wash?" Now she seemed taken aback at that.
"Yes, wash. I do that," I said gently. "The river, it's over there?"
She squinted at me, then waved an affirmative. "A, just over the hill. There's a trail by the oak. Over there."
"Thank you," I said and started off in that direction before I remembered, halted, turned back and handed the axe over to her. She took it and automatically ran a leathery black thumb-pad along the cutting edge, then glanced up at me, "How long will you be?"
"Just a few minutes," I replied and she just waved an acknowledgement and watched me head off.
It wasn't until later I realized she was probably wondering if I was coming back at all.
Sure enough there was a path by the old oak. It lead off past an eroded bank matted with twisting roots from the tree above, down a hillside of wild grass motionless in the still evening air. It jinked through a stand of poplars where midges buzzed at my face in the growing shadows beneath the trees before reaching the riverbank. There was a little cove down there, an eddy in the riverbend where the water lapped at a sandy shore.
In the twilight the river water was black. I left the kilt Ea'rest had loaned me on the shore and gingerly waded in. The shallows were still warm, the deeps out where the current flowed cool like the night air. I waded into the shallows to gingerly wash.
I was filthy, bruised, sunburned, scratched and nicked in countless places where branches had caught me, itching from insect bites. My feet ached. Walking barefoot over stones and sticks had been like taking a tenderizer to them and dropping a log onto them hadn't helped. Sitting in the still-warm shallows I twisted my right foot around to inspect it and winced. The soles were actually black and blue in places. Not bleeding, thank god. Infection would be a nightmare. Perhaps I could beg some cloth from somewhere to wrap them in. Not the same as a good pair of shoes, but that'd stop stones digging in. I shrugged and waded deeper.
At least the grime and sweat washed away.
For a while I let the river buoy me up and just floated in the warm night, listening to the chorus of night insects gathering as the sky darkened and the stars winked into existence. One instance there was nothing, then a barely perceptible glimmer became an uncountable spread of points of light. And the harder you looked, the more there were. Nebula after constellation after cluster leading into infinity.
If it was infinity, was home out there somewhere? By definition it'd have to be I mused tiredly and splashed water. Ripples spread out, distorting reflected stars. I stared at the water for a while before I realized what I was looking at: The stars were out. I could see the milky way spilled across the black sky. Down the valley a three quarter moon was reflected in the dark water.
There was enough light from the moon and stars to find the kilt on the beach. Finding the trail under the trees though, that wasn't as easy. I followed what I thought was the trail and after a few meters blundered into bracken and bushes and branches.
I jumped wildly, turning toward the sound and frantically trying to see something in the gloom. "Who? Who's that?"
"Mikah?" the voice said again, sounding puzzled. "What? It's me."
There was a shape there, a vaguely feline silhouette just visible against the lighter gaps in the trees. The voice didn't offer any clues: I have difficulties telling individual Rris apart when I can see them, their voices are more difficult still. But I could guess. "Ea'rest?" I ventured, knowing that if it wasn't I could be dropping her in it.
"A. You... can't tell?" There was a rustle of movement. "What's wrong?"
"I can't see," I said. "It's dark. I don't see very well."
Another pause. "I wondered why you were crashing around in the bushes."
I don't know if she could see the heat rising in my face. "I... uh... mislaid the trail."
There was a pause and I got an impression of movement, like something was passing near my face. I flinched slightly but nothing happened save that she said, "You really can't see, can you?"
I shrugged. "I meant to get back earlier. I left it a bit late."
There was a low sound, a hiss, then her voice growled, "All right. Come on, I'll show you. Before you stumble across a bear or somesuch."
Well, I'd been close. She led me a few bumbling meters through the blackness and the going got easier, then we were out onto a hillside lit by anemic light from the moon and stars. I could see Ea'rest now, her eyes glittering in the night. "Thank you," I said and fought down a wry smile, "again."
"Huhn," she snorted. "I'd wondered why you were traveling at day. It didn't seem the most sensible."
"Not much choice," I said, trying to be careful where I put my tender feet. "Why did you come after me?"
"Rothi was getting concerned," she said, then chattered. "He's worried that you might have run off without showing him how to fix his toy."
"Oh," I said, a bit taken aback. I hadn't thought of that. "Oh, yes. I did promise, didn't I."
"You hadn't forgotten such a monumental event, had you?" she chided me. "You know, he actually seems to like you."
"A real surprise," I said.
I the moonlight I saw the silhouette of her ears lay back. "I didn't mean... Actually, it is. He seems a good judge of character." She coughed and for a few seconds I could hear our feet brushing against grass and then she said, "I met a male, a while ago now. Before... Haii, from the start Rothi took a dislike to him. It seemed he had... unpleasant tastes."
I recognized thin ice when I saw it. "Oh."
She shook her head and I saw her eyes flash as she glanced at me. "Yet he likes you. I suppose, if a Rris can be a monster then..." She trailed off and her ears flicked back again.
"I'll take that in the spirit it was intended," I said as we passed by the shadow of the old oak, heading for the glimmer of light in the little farmhouse.
That evening I got a good insight as to why farmers have a reputation for enjoying their food. I was hungry enough to eat an elk. In fact, I probably was. The stew wasn't fancy, but it was thick, rich and filling.
Bugs batted against a small sputtering oil lantern hanging from a stud in the porch roof. I sat in the feeble pool of light it cast at one end of the rough planks and hungrily spooned stew from the wooden bowl. Further along the porch there was a lanky Rris cub engrossed with a patchwork kite, fastening a tail that was a ratty bit of string and scraps of cloth. Heksi sat beside him, offering the occasional snippet of advice. In the background Ea'rest was sitting lounging against one of the porch posts, idly picking glistening teeth with a bit of straw.
"Why?" Heksi was asking me. "That's... They'll be looking. And you don't exactly blend in."
"I don't really have anywhere else to go," I said. "That's where my friends were and it's the best chance I've got to find out what's going on."
"You're sure they'll be able to help?"
"They're emissaries from Land-of-Water. Surely that means something."
Both the adults blinked at me. "I doubt they'd be impressed," Ea'rest said.
Now I was a little confused. "But, they're guests of the government."
"A?" She cocked her head. "So?"
"But... but..." I tried again. "Mediators, they're like guards?"
She and Heksi exchanged glances again. "I suppose so," she conceded.
"Then they're answerable to the Palace," I said and got nothing but puzzled expressions. "Aren't they?"
Heksi waved a shrug. "I've seen a Mediator commandeer garrison troops and face down a lord."
"We always had to yield to Guild decisions," Ea'rest said, turning her muzzle up to the moon as she thoughtfully worried at an incisor. "There was an agreement. I think... it was a long time ago. Huhn, the... Reichis Charter. That was it. It gave the Mediator Guild rank over independent governments."
I heard myself say, "What?"
Still stargazing she mused, "I don't know the details. But they don't have to roll to government edicts or fear their proclamations."
That couldn't be right, I remember thinking over and over. It couldn't! It'd mean... Oh, god, I didn't want to think about that.
But it'd explain how Shyia was able to take me from a Royal escort. How they were able to get me out of town. Had anybody ever mentioned anything about Mediators' powers? I had a nagging feeling Chihirae had, a long time ago, but I couldn't recall any details.
And neither could Ea'rest. All she could do was wave a shrug. "All I know is we did what they told us. The details of the Charter, I think you'd need a savant to tell you that."
"This affects your plans?"
I nodded, turning the empty bowl around and around, the links of the shackles clanking slightly as they moved. "A. Doesn't change them though."
"You could stay here," Rothi chimed up.
The adults' ears twitched back and they both looked at me. I had to try and stifle a grin. "That might not be a good idea. Someone would hear about it, then Mediators would come. I would just get you in trouble, a?"
"Sah, Mother," he gave her an imploring look.
"He's right," she said, her ears coming up. "A pity. He would be useful around the farm, but he's a bit too noticeable."
"But we could..."
"Rothi, no," she said in final tones. I tried not to look too amused.
"Hai," He acknowledged, turning the kite over, his ears drooping.
"Indeed," she chittered and lazily stretched out a foot to affectionately ruffle the fur of his arm. "Don't look like that. He's doing what he wants to do. You should be pleased for him."
Rothi looked confused.
"Don't worry," she sighed and cuffed him lightly on the arm, reaching to smooth the fur after. "But he has to go. Heksi, you're willing?"
"You seem to think it's worth doing, so a," he said.
I looked from one furry face to the other. "I'm missing something here?" I asked.
"Taking you to Open Fields," the male said. "She asked," he hissed softly then and cast her a look. "I agreed."
"That's..." I hadn't been expecting that. "That's too generous. I can't ask you to do that."
She hissed and gave a chitter. He looked slightly abashed. "Ah... It's not that... It's market day, two days from now. I've got goods to sell there so I'm heading there as a matter of course. She seems to think I should take you along."
"He can get you there," Ea'rest said. "And he's got tools to get those things off."
I fingered the heavy shackle around my left wrist. It was where I used to wear my watch, before that became too much of a technological treasure to flaunt openly, but the iron bands and chains were tight, heavy and rubbing me raw. I was getting really tired of them. "You can do that?"
"I've got tools that should do it."
"Thank you," I said. "I'm afraid that's all I can do at the moment. If I could pay you... but I seem to have left my purse in my other pants."
They found that a bit amusing.
True to her word, I had a roof over my head that night. The barn roof.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Sleeping in the same building with an unknown such as myself might have stretched even her charity so they'd let me sleep out in the barn. I'd seen the door close, the feeble light in a window die without fuss. I'd have been willing to bet the door was securely locked. At least they'd given me a threadbare blanket and it was a warm, still night, so things weren't that bad.
I lay there on the straw, listening to the sounds of the elks shifting restlessly in their stalls. A few days ago I'd been sleeping in satin and fine cotton and now... On the other hand, two nights ago I'd been sleeping on the bare ground and now at least I had a blanket. The shelter was absolutely black, but through the door the stars in the night sky were a paler wash in the darkness. I watched stars twinkling, the faint wash of galaxies like ghosts in my vision, the serried ranks of trees, their crowns silhouetted against the sky glow. And I lay there and worried.
Why were they helping me? Were they planning on turning me over to the authorities? Was there a reward and they just wanted to be sure they collected on it? Or was she concerned that if she turned me away I'd seek revenge? When she'd found me in the darkness at the river, had she been watching me? Why? Or... or was it as she'd said and she was genuinely trying to help. And that just took me back to: why?
Straws rustled and scratched and poked at me as I rolled over and pulled the blanket up. Paranoia kept spinning the same thoughts around in my head for what seemed the longest time, but eventually I must've dropped off.
And woke from a nightmare at some ungodly hour.
Waking in the dark, twisting away from the shadows in my head with a half-heard cry still ringing in my ears, breathing hard. The animals were making weird barking noises that didn't sound like anything that should be coming from Bambi's cousin and bumping against the sides of their flimsy stalls, distressed.
"I know how you feel," I muttered. It'd been a... it'd been a bad one. The one I'd had the other night hadn't been a one-off. They were starting again, those nights of... of Rris; of horrors that'd happened and replayed over and over. Since things had quietened down, so had my nights. I no longer woke the house with my screaming and I'd been hoping I'd seen the last of them. Now, it looked like I hadn't.
Outside, in the quiet night, a cicada started rasping. The animals in the stalls quietened down again. I listened to the night sounds slowly starting up as my own pulse settled. No other sounds, no outcry from the house. At least I hadn't woken them.
"You had a noisy night," she said.
I turned, squinting into the bright morning sun rising above the hills to the east. Final beads of dew glittered on the hillside, burning away in a faint mist that gathered in hollows and valleys. The morning air was still cool, but there was the feeling that promised another hot day. Heksi was occupied, hitching his wagon up to the ruminating bison, checking cinches and straps. Beside me, a fur-clad Ea'rest scratched herself and yawned widely, showing sharp white teeth in a pink maw.
"Oh," I said. "I hope I didn't disturb you."
"I think you woke half the valley," she replied. "What was it?"
"A bad dream."
"Yes, I dream." It wasn't the first time I'd been asked that.
"Huhn, it sounded... unpleasant."
"One of those times you were reluctant to talk about?" She asked and watched me not answering, delicately scratching at her chin with a thumb claw. "Ah, I've known people who walked... risky paths. Some of them, they suffered from similar afflictions. But they were normal people... I mean, they were people... Rris." She coughed and flicked an ear. "I didn't mean it to sound..."
"It did," I said, "but don't worry about it."
She chittered briefly but looked uncertain. I had to wonder exactly what sort of business she'd been in that associates had had experiences that left marks like that. What did she think I'd done to have nightmares?
I sighed and raked hair back from my eyes. "Ma'am... Ear'rest, you've done so much for me and I'm more grateful than I can tell you, but some of my problems I think only I can deal with."
"A," she said and hesitated a second before gesturing assent. "I can only wish you the best."
"Thank you. I wish I could repay you," I said and just waved my hand helplessly. "You know, I was serious about your cooking. If you ever think about going into the food business, it could be worth it."
She chattered and I shrugged. "Hey, if you're ever in Shattered Water, you look me up."
"I mean, visit me," I amended. "I'm not too hard to find, just ask after me."
"People know you?"
"I sort of stand out," I smiled, carefully. Then reality caught up "Ma'am, if I'm not around... for whatever reason, find Chaeitch ah Ties. He works for Aesh Smither. Tell him... tell him he still owes me for the Swampy River bottle."
"That means something?"
"He'll understand," I said. "He can certainly help you."
"But I just have to jaunt off to Shattered Water?"
"Ummm, if I can, I'll do everything I can to make sure Open Fields knows about this. If I can."
"I understand," she said and looked over at where Heksi was standing, waiting uncertainly. "Best of luck."
"Uhn," I ventured, glanced down and patted the kilt. "You're going to want this back?"
She chittered. "Keep it for now. Heksi will be able to find something he can loan you."
And as the wagon rattled and jolted its way down the rutted track from the little farm I looked back up the hill at the shaggy figure watching us. For a second there was a flashback to a time when I'd watched a winterbound village receding into the whiteness behind another wagon. This time there was no snow, no cold, but nevertheless...
"Déjà vu," I sighed.
"Sa?" Heksi glanced around. "What was that?"
"Just thinking aloud."
"Ah," he sounded a little uncertain.
Silence for a while. The bison plodded stolidly along; the cart rattled; an ungreased axle squeaked like a live thing. I jounced around in the back of the wagon, trying to find some way to sit that didn't conduct every bump in the road directly to my butt. So I was able to see the red dot that lifted into the morning sky, tugging on an invisible line.
"It works," I laughed and when Heksi looked around I pointed. "The flying toy," I said. "It seems he got it working."
"Ah?" he twisted around the bench and squinted, tilting his head from side to side. "Where?"
"Right the..." I started to say. "Uh, oh. I guess you might have trouble seeing it. I seem to be able to see further than normal people."
"Really," he growled, his ears laying back.
"Really," I said. "I... never mind. Any way, it's flying. You helped him make that?"
"No," he said, unblinking amber eyes staring at me. Then he snorted and turned back to the road. "No, he did it by himself."
I blinked. "All of it? By himself?"
"He heard about a flying toy in Seas-of-Grass and wanted to build one. The storyteller wasn't able to provide many details."
"That's quite... remarkable," I said. And it was, when you consider that he didn't have a net or a handy library for reference.
"A," he said again and I heard him hiss softly before saying. "As is your story. How much of that is true?"
Ah. That was it. "I haven't lied to you," I said. "As I told Ea'rest, there are some details that I haven't told you: they're too inconsequential, unpleasant or they could cause problems for you. But I haven't lied."
His tail lashed. "I keep thinking that one of those details could cause problems."
"You're not happy about this," I said. "Why're you doing it?"
I saw his head half turn, profiling his muzzle against the morning sun. I couldn't see his expression. "Because she asked me to."
"You must respect her opinion."
"She said she... she believed you. She said you knew some thing that... weren't common knowledge about her highness." I saw his hand wave a shrug. "And you most likely saved Rothi's life. She thought that if you were out for trouble, you wouldn't go out of your way to do something like that."
"Ah," I nodded. "She was a soldier?"
"She was in a personal guard," he said. "She never mentioned exactly what her duties were."
I remembered what she'd said about knowing people who suffered from the same kind of waking terrors I did and had to wonder.