Lies in Red Leaves

A Chapter in the Life of Riley


Greg Howell



Original from HTML version by Louis Thomas,, 2011-07-07.

Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 1

Blades of frozen grass crunched like glass under my feet as I ran. In the still morning air –cold and crisp as chilled knives — my breath streamed back over my shoulders to blend into the thin mist blanketing the lake meadow. The only sounds in that frigid world were that of my breathing and the crackling of ice underfoot.

The skies had opened wide last night, the few clouds dissipating and leaving a bottomless starry sky to bring down the first really hard hoar frost. This morning, under a cutting blue sky, the world was grey and white, colors of chill and cold. Mist huddled close to the earth, and filtered through that haze the first light of the autumn sun was a feeble orange glow on the eastern horizon. Ice rimed everything. Every blade of grass was laced in frost. Budding icicles sparkled on skeletal branches that had already lost their leaves and from the needles of the evergreens. Down at the water’s edge thin sheets of early ice tinkled against the stone shore.

At that time of year, the last gasps of autumn, the meadow was a less welcoming place. The greens and golds of summer; the color of wildflowers and movement of insects; the birdsong . . . all those were gone. Only the old evergreen firs along the lakeshore remained unchanged. The air was cold and dry, almost like a slap to the face. A few laps of that field in that was a good way to wake you up in the morning. It also gave the wetback time to get the shower water heated. And it was also a way to get away from my bodyguards: those lurking Mediators who’d nailed themselves to my shadow. For a half hour or so I could run around the periphery of a property I could call my own and they couldn’t keep up.

At first it’d been amusing to watch them try as they ran themselves into the ground. When they gave up on that they reluctantly contended themselves with settling themselves where they could keep an eye on me. So every morning while I ran my laps of the meadow one of those guards sat under the old oak and watched.

I ran my laps, leaving a trail of footprints in the frost. Half an hour and thirty circuits of the meadow was good for a warm up. Literally. The air was near freezing, but by the time I was done running and headed to the horizontal bar over at the oak, I wasn’t feeling it.

The Mediator watched quietly through slit-pupil amber eyes as I did my chin-ups.

She wasn’t human. None of them were human. Rris, that was what they were called. What did it mean? Well, if it meant anything it would have to be the same as human, and that is ‘people’, because that’s what they are. They don’t look like me, they don’t talk or walk like me, or even perceive the world through the same senses and psychological and sociological filters that I do, but they’re intelligent, tool-using beings. I’d been in this world for . . . damn, it was going on three years now. Three years of immersion among a culture that was utterly inhuman, and I’d come to accept that. I’d come to accept them, to make friends. I’d come to think of them as normal.

Cats, putting it bluntly. Well, that’s what they’d evolved from. Something like a lynx, with the same sort of general appearance; the same grey and tan dappled fur; the same tufts on the mobile, pointed ears and cheeks. They did have tails, though. That was different. And they walked on two legs, although they were strangely articulated: they walked on their toes with a springing, fluid gait that could be remarkably fast. And there was something about the eyes, some glint or spark that showed an awareness that went beyond animal.

Not human. Animal.

No. That wasn’t something I thought anymore. I couldn’t. I’ve been dunked into, submerged and immersed in a culture that was older than the Anglo Americano one I’d been raised in. There were places here far, far older than the ancient places of Europe. This was their home, their hearth, the birthplace of their species. Their Africa. Since I’d come to this place I’d seen things that were beyond any dreams or nightmares I’d ever had. I’d seen life and death and beauty and art and passion and horror spread across a world that’d never known a human civilization. I’d started to grow accustomed to it all and most of the time was able to talk to Rris without an atavistic shiver crawling up my spine.

But it wasn’t reciprocated. I’d always be an outsider: something that wasn’t normal. And I had to remember that. I had to remember that a toothy smile could draw quick anger or offence; that direct eye contact was a challenge; that personal space and privacy meant very different things and that relationships . . . well, I still didn’t understand about relationships. Not really understand. That would come later. It all meant that to every new Rris I met, I was the exotic, strange and actually frightening beast that talked.

I felt that then, as I chinned the bar again and again. She was watching me. I could see her out of the corner of my eye, staring at me with her head cocked to one side. Not a casual observation, but staring as you might watch an exotic animal in a zoo. As she’d done every morning. And like every morning I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore her, concentrating on the task at hand until my muscles felt they’d had enough. I dropped down from the bar, rolling my shoulders. I’d done enough for that morning, and in the cold, dry air I could already feel ice forming in my beard and hair. As I set off back to the house there was a blur of movement as Jenes’ahn fell into place just behind my right shoulder. My moccasins crunched on the frost: her footsteps were silent.

“Is that normal?” she asked after a few seconds.

“Huhn? What?” I stopped and looked around at her. Standing, the top of her head came up to my shoulders, which made her a little taller than the average Rris. Her tufted ears, however, added another six odd centimeters to her height. In the icy morning her breath wreathed her muzzle in coils as white as her pointed teeth. Her eyes were the honey amber of aged oak, the pupils distinctly elongated. She was wearing the dark padded jerkin and breeches that suited the Mediators as an informal uniform and that was all. With her winter fur growing in thick and shaggy it was all she needed. And she was armed beyond her teeth: a couple of wheel lock pistols were tucked into a bandolier and a blade like an oversized Bowie blade was sheathed at her belt.

“You,” she told me, gesturing. “There’s smoke coming off you.”

What? I looked down and she was right — sort of. In the chill air a fine mist was boiling off the bare skin of my arms and from under my ratty t-shirt. “It’s just cold out,” I said.

She frowned. “I thought you didn’t like cold.”

“For a short time it’s okay,” I said. “Now I need a hot wash.”

Jenes’ahn. One of the pair of Mediators assigned to watch me. She, along with her partner Rohinia, had been ordered by the Mediator Guild to watch me. Not exactly as bodyguards either: They were as much to keep me away from the world as they were to protect me. Which was causing a lot of friction all around as affected parties chafed under the restrictions the Guild had lowered.

Their civilization was at about a developmental stage that was roughly equivalent to early nineteenth century Europe. They were entering the industrial age; steam power was starting to replace muscle power and fire with machines; the cities mixtures of ancient animal-powered carts and hissing gas lamps. I’d come into this age from a world charging into the information age, where entire factories were starting to be replaced with self-contained manufacturing units. In my ignorance and human chauvinism I’d thought that I’d be able to do wonderful things for them; to help them with new technology and ideas. My hosts were only too happy to take advantage of this. Other countries weren’t so happy to hear about this. As things had developed there were jealousies aroused and demands made and I started to see how short-term solutions seemed to breed swarms of new longer-term problems. Some small, some not so.

None of that escaped the notice of the Mediator Guild. In fact it infected them as well, causing a schism to tear through the almost-untouchable Guild. Two factions fell into a nasty internal squabbled for power and control over the technology I could offer, all the while trying to keep the incident quiet from the outside. There were attempts on my life, abductions and actual infighting amongst Guild factions. Things became quite unpleasant before the situation was . . . resolved. And one of the points the Guild solution had pivoted upon was to ensure none of the Rris countries had unfettered access to me. So that pair they assigned to me, that Jenes’ahn and Rohinia, they were as much censors as bodyguards.

It had all been accomplished in a very convoluted manner that kept everything in-house and drove home yet again just how . . . inhuman their thought process and moral structure could be. They’d lied to me. They’d tricked me and manipulated me and finally trapped me in their little games.

I had no love for the Mediator Guild.

I sighed a white cloud as I jogged back across the white-frosted meadow with my armed shadow close behind. Since that time in Open Fields there was one of them there all the time. Every time I spoke to another Rris they were there, making sure I didn’t give away anything I shouldn’t. And it was becoming increasingly obvious just how ridiculous that was. I just shook my head at the absurdity of it all as I headed home.

Home. Even here, in this weird world, that was what I’d come to think of it as. In the past few years I’d paid a lot in blood, sweat and tears, but I’d been able to take a part of this place and make it into something that I could at least consider mine. A big, lakefront property would have been far beyond my means back home. Here, that wasn’t a problem. It was almost the reverse. My hosts had reimbursed me for my work. It was valuable to them, so they paid appropriately. I had a lot of money, but it wasn’t that much use to me. I couldn’t spend it on techtoys like cars or entertainment systems or even go out on the town and spend it there. So instead, I spent it on the house.

The place was impressive and expansive. Originally it’d been built by a wealthy individual who used the handy lake access to supplement his legitimate trading ventures with some smuggling. Or so I’d been told. It’d had several other owners since then and had grown with their various tastes and desires. I’m not sure if the architectural style could be slotted into any sort of category. The style it’d started out as would have been, I think, something close to Victorian: Perhaps Queen Anne style in shingles and then modified by someone with an inhuman eye. The house was predominantly wooden around a forest of stone chimneys. There were gables and turrets and windows in odd places, giving the impression that the whole building had been added on to as time had passed, as if it’d grown into its surrounds. The whole place had been somewhat dilapidated when I’d acquired it, but money hadn’t been a problem.

Weatherboard walls that had been grey and warped were now as white as the frost in the trees around them. Dark slate shingled roofs and porches glittered with ice while trim painted in brighter greens and oranges stood out like butterflies on clean linen. And I’d had plenty of changes made beyond simple cosmetic renovations: doors and lintels had been raised, central heating and water heating had been installed, there was wool insulation in the walls and under the floor and the gleaming plate glass in some of the new windows was the first of its kind in Shattered Water. A gift from the Guild of Glassmakers in Open Fields.

The panes of the living room door were old beveled glass, made the old way: blown and spun and flattened and polished by hand. Each one hideously expensive and very beautiful. Now they were laced with fronds of white frost curling from the corners of every pane. As I stepped up onto the verandah the doors swung open, a dark Rris standing tall and proud and waiting inside.

“Sir,” Tich greeted me as usual. “Your running was enjoyable?”

“Very refreshing,” I replied.

She ducked her head as I passed by. “Very good, sir. Breakfast will be ready when you’ve finished your rain.”

“Thank you, Tich,” I said as she waited for the Mediator to enter and then closed the door behind her.

Tich. Actually Tichirik, but I found the contraction less of a mouthful and she kept her objections to herself. She was a middle-age, russet furred Rris who carried herself with an upright, almost haughty carriage and probably wouldn’t have looked out of place in an old English manor house. She was also the major domo, a sort of glorified butler, who kept everything in the household running. From the maids to the cook and gardeners, she made sure the staff did their jobs smoothly, efficiently and unobtrusively. She was very good at her job. She was probably a spy.

I would have been more surprised if she weren’t. I didn’t doubt that the government of Land-of-Water wanted to keep an eye on me and everyone who worked under this roof was doubtless — if not already on Palace payrolls –carefully vetted by them. Tich had been responsible for hiring most of them; she saw everything that went on in the house and dealt with me every day. For her not to be reporting to someone in the government was almost inconceivable. But she was good at her job and for some reason her dignity didn’t come across as the holier-than-thou bearing of the Mediators, especially when it came dealing with my . . . idiosyncrasies.

Rain. Huh. They didn’t have a word for shower. They weren’t very popular amongst Rris. Baths yes; falling water, no. But hot falling water was what I needed to wash frozen sweat away. As I passed through my bedroom the lump under the sheets stirred, making a semi-conscious snrking sound, but didn’t sound entirely alive. The water had had time to heat up so I could enjoy a hot wash. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was a luxury I’d learned not to take for granted. When I’d first come here and many times since then I’d had to make do with a few inches of lukewarm water in a basin.

How had I come here? I don’t know. To make a long story short and confusing, I was home and then I was here. That was all I know. I’d been on vacation, getting away from the warm glow of my cubicle to go hiking in Vermont. I’d been going to meet Jackie. She was . . . we were . . . Hell, what we were is long in the past now, relegated to memory and some painful feelings, but all I remember is a bright flash of what might have been lightning from a clear sky and when I woke up my maps were wrong, there was no phone or GPS coverage, just a lot of wilderness. I was . . . nowhere. I was lost. I was here. Events progressed from there. And whenever I’ve had the chance I’ve been looking for an answer, some sort of precedent or stories in Rris archives and histories about something like myself. To date there’s been nothing but mistakes and errors. No myths though — Rris don’t work like that.

That was done, that was gone. At that moment I had a roof and warm water. There was time to wash, dress and be back downstairs for breakfast in the parlor. Hmmm, breakfast: Coffee and bacon and eggs and waffles with maple syrup. Well, they would have been nice, but . . . no bacon here. No pigs. No coffee either. No chickens either. Maple syrup, now they did have that, although it was an expensive import from the north. So I sat on a cushion at the huge table breakfasting on smoked bison strips, tomatoes and oranges and oatmeal cakes with syrup. By local standards it was a rather unusual meal seeing as it had a relatively low proportion of animal flesh. Rris like some flavor and variety in their meals so they use spices and flora, but they do tend toward the carnivore side of the omnivore spectrum.

“Did they happen to mention what it’s about?” a voice asked.

The figure in the living-room doorway blinked at me, yawned and stretched and then scratched at her belly. Her fur was still a tangled mass of spikes, matted where she’d been sleeping on it and tufted out elsewhere; a full-body bed-head that she wore utterly unselfconsciously. Really, they couldn’t be naked just by being unclothed. It was a concept they found absurd and something I had to get accustomed to.

“Not a word,” I said.

“Huhnnn!” she rumbled, an exhalation that was not quite a cough and not quite a growl. Thoughtful. Or hungry. That seemed more likely as she seated herself on one of the artfully tooled leather cushions at the low table, lifting the cover on the other platter and sniffing at the strips of meat there. There was a proper dining room, complete with a huge, polished airfield of a table, but I only ever used that on formal occasions; when hosting guests, and that was a once a blue moon affair.

“It’s just a meeting,” I shrugged. “It’s early, but that doesn’t have to mean anything.”

She leveled both amber eyes at me in an unmistakable are-you-serious sort of expression before pointedly chomping down on a string of half-raw flesh.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “I know, I know: It’s not the usual time and they haven’t asked me to bring my notebook. I guess that means it’s an unusual meeting.”

Her tall, tufted ears twitched. “Guild?”

I grimaced. “Don’t think so. This is at the Palace, and if it was a Guild matter they wouldn’t do anything there. Actually, I don’t think they’d even wait until morning.”

She chittered amusement and bolted another mouthful. “Well, whatever it is, you’re going to find out soon enough. The carriage is waiting out front.”

I hissed exasperation and clambered to my feet, stretched. “Then I suppose I’d better not keep them waiting, since they went to the trouble of getting me up early and everything.”

Chihirae snorted. “You take care,” she told me.

As I passed behind her I stopped, then crouched, embraced her; laid my chin on her shoulder as I hugged her. For a split moment she flinched, tensing for a heartbeat before relaxing again with a sigh that I could feel and rubbing her furry cheek against mine. For several seconds I held her and neither of us said anything, not a word out loud. Sometimes it was the only way we could really say what we needed to. Talking just confused things.

When I stepped out the front door the first direct sun was stroking across the frosted grass of the lake meadow, raising pale wisps of mist into the light. Jenes’ahn was waiting on the porch, standing in the chill air with her greatcoat hanging around her as she watched me with steady amber eyes. I shrugged into my own coat — a big, heavy-duty leather duster that I’d had custom-made locally — and clomped down the front steps to the gravel of the drive, aware of the Mediator falling in behind me. The coach waiting on the loop of the driveway was one of the new ones, built since I’d arrived. It still had elk in the traceries and the wheels were wooden and the builders hadn’t scrimped on the decorative rococo trim, but now there were shock absorbers and better brakes and the seats were actually comfortable. The half-dozen Rris guards flanking it were all on elk-back, the soldiers’ armor gleaming under the clear sky

“Morning, Ha’rish,” I called to the Rris driver up on his bench.


“The palace this morning?”

“Yes, sir,” he rumbled. Not a man of many words, was Ha’rish. I nodded to the guard holding the door and clambered up into the coach. The whole thing rocked on its springs, then again as Jenes’ahn hopped up behind. She settled herself opposite me and the door closed, guards called out, the coach lurched and then started off with a grinding of iron-bound wheels on gravel. I leaned back and watched the frosty gardens passing by.

Chihirae. She was the first Rris I’d actually met; actually talked to. It’d been some distance from the city of Shattered Water, to the east in a sleepy little town called Westwater in an area I’d known as Vermont. It’d been winter, it’d been freezing cold and I’d been hungry, seriously injured, desperate, and hunted by the locals. She’d helped me. Even though she’d been the one who’d shot me and was under pressure from other townspeople to hand me over to the authorities, she was the one who took me in; the one who defended me, who taught me a little bit about her world. And that was a lot for her. It was a hell of a lot. It wasn’t as if she had a lot in the first place, but now she had to look after me and stand up for me and teach me. It meant altercations with her employers, it meant disruptions to her life. And, inevitably, it meant she was dragged down into the trouble that brewed up around me.

She was the first Rris I’d come to think of as a person, then a friend. Then, later, as something much more. We were lovers. Or rather, I was her’s. She couldn’t. I mean: they can’t. Rris can’t feel love; not that surge of chemicals that a human would interpret as love. Oh, they have affections and compassion and fondness and adoration, but I’ve found the hard way that trying to assign precise human analogs to their moods is simply asking for trouble. And that hurt as much as any of the outward scars I carried.

Because I loved her. Because I understood that she couldn’t reciprocate. Because I knew that staying with me would be a dead-end for her and that the best thing she could do was to get on with her life. Because, I knew all that and yet I still wanted her to stay. Wanted it more than anything. How long was it going to last?

It was something I didn’t want to think about and every time the worry crept forward I suppressed it again, dealing with matters of the moment rather than that uncomfortable reality. At that time the pressing issue was the meeting that morning. It wasn’t like the usual interview with a Guild representative or merchant, but it wasn’t dissimilar from other meetings I had had in the past. The haste of the thing carried the air of some kind of time constraint, along with perhaps a whiff of politics. That wasn’t surprising, in fact it was similar to something that’d happened before. If that were the case, then I had an idea of what it could be. The next question would be where and when.

Bare branches arched overhead as we passed along the drive, clattering along amidst the spiderwebs of shadows cast by the interlacing fingers of denuded oaks before passing through the short tunnel beneath the gatehouse. Guards watched us leave. They were well-trained and unobtrusive, but they were there. They were mainly to keep unwanted visitors out. Well, that was the story that seemed to be making the rounds. I wasn’t a prisoner. Not exactly. After all: where would I go?

I watched the now-familiar neighborhood scroll past, everything moving at a pace so much slower that it would have done back home. The coach could make maybe thirty kilometers an hour with the elk at full gallop, and we weren’t anywhere near that. At about seven kilometers an hour there was plenty of time to watch the world: Narrow lanes with stone walls and high hedges; frost steaming away from a thick mass of ivy climbing over an ancient stone wall with a little wooden gate in it; a boulevard flanked by huge old trees and big estates with buildings that looked like they’d just grown there, hidden away in carefully tended pockets of wilderness.

As we headed north those estates got smaller, grew closer together, more condensed. Expansive estates turned to smaller grounds, turned to gardens and compounds. Buildings changed, turning away from outside eyes. Expensive cut stone and elaborate designs turned to brick and whitewashed plaster. Residences and other places became more introverted. Where there’d been outward-looking windows in the large estates there were blank walls or much smaller slits. The façades were turned inwards, towards the atriums in the center of the buildings and the gardens and stables and whatever else may be in there.

We passed through changing strata of buildings, like rings in a tree. There were residential areas and some places used as stockyards or more small markets. Others places were already forming the springboard for industrialization. There were warehouses and factories made of brick here and there, more than a few spilling smoke from boilers for the big fixed steam plants that powered workshops. Once we clattered over lines of rail tracks angled off toward the river.

Shattered Water had grown on the eastern shores of a body of water I’d known as Lake Eerie, at a river mouth a little to the south of where the city of Buffalo, New York had stood. From a civic-design view the city was a mixture of planning and spontaneous growth, but there was none of the practical grid layout I was familiar with. There were open plazas and squares dotted throughout the city. Wide avenues and main streets radiated out from those; smaller radial roads joining those ways. All over the city those arrangements laid like a series of interlocking spider webs. I imagined that seen from the air it would all look like the cracks in a sun-dried streambed: countless radial fractures amongst shards of terracotta.

Over the centuries the walls had grown up to encircle the city. Not just one, but several, each one further out and encompassing more land. The outermost line was the newest and had been built since the advent of gunpowder weapons in this world. It was more a line of squat, fortified berms and moats with gatehouses at tactical locations than a wall of stacked stones. The older fortifications enclosed within that were more traditional. What was left of them. There were old gates and barbicans and towers and bits of wall and masonry here and there. Much of them had been cannibalized for raw building material or for the room they occupied: the walls did mark a pretty definite border and within those borders real estate space was valuable and buildings were squeezed in wherever they would fit. Some of the older corners of the inner city I’d seen had alleyways that were just tunnels under structures that’d been built wedged over alleyways between two existing buildings. There were houses whose upper stories had been extended out so far their rooflines butted against the residence across the street and you could shake hands with someone living opposite.

Still, the city walls didn’t encompass the whole of Shattered Water. They couldn’t. City buildings had long overflowed their confines and spread across the surrounding countryside along the river and lakeshore. The river trailed through the landscapes of the southern districts; through the ridges and peaks of rooftops and chimney pots; past wharves and jetties and the spans of the bridges; bowing inside the city walls, in and then out again. Past the last bridge, before the river mouth, both banks of the waterway were crowded with docks and wharves shipyards, rows of warehouses and the skeletal thickets of masts and spars of ships.

There was a change in the ride as the clattering of iron-bound wheels on cobbles turned to a smoother grating rumble as the carriage trundled over the bridge’s icy flagstones. I looked out through the condensation frosting on the glass at the bare forest of masts. A few late vessels were setting out, heading down the river toward the lake. Far more were moored or beached or hauled up on trusses ready for winter maintenance. It was prudent: the growing ice floes and unpredictable weather at this time of year made venturing out a risky prospect for the smaller boats. Those ones going out must’ve had a good reason.

It was just after dawn but the people here didn’t waste the light. Rris were off to work and the morning markets were in full swing so the streets we travelled along were already busy. The main thoroughfares were broad and open and what vehicular traffic there was travelled smoothly, but the smaller side streets were packed with enormous numbers of furry, multicolored bodies going about their business. Buildings fronting the main avenues were expensive and large, some even several stories in height. There were Guild halls constructed from finely cut stone and merchant offices in brick and terracotta tile and stores with panes of glass fronting them. And there was noise: the susurrus and snarl of Rris voices and metal wheels on stone and animals. There were smells: Rris bodies and beasts and burning wood and coal and tanning leather and cooking and manure and sewers and rotting things. Steam and smoke wreathed the air around brightly colored stalls where milling Rris of every description sought foodstuffs and breakfast. Workers from workshops and crafthouses and new factories and old Guildhalls bought the Rris versions of kebabs and pies and jerky; servants collected the morning’s bread and household food, carrying baskets and haggling loudly over the best cuts. It was a busy, cosmopolitan scene.

Straight from a surrealist’s fever-dreams.

Over at a stall a customer bared teeth at a merchant in a broad grin. A gaggle of gangly adolescents caromed through the crowd, chased by snarls from those they jostled. Smoke rose from a tray of glowing coals over which a dealer was roasting what looked like spits of small birds. Another vendor crying his ware, carrying his handmade pots and pans slung from straps hung over his shoulders. Stevedores carrying crates and barrels through the crowds. A busker playing something like the bastard son of a violin and balalyka and losing. Rris in bright colors on elkback. Rris walking and talking. Rris and running and shouting.

It was one of those scenes that twinged something inside me, something at the back of my mind that just didn’t want to accept what it was seeing. I took a deep breath and leaned back in the leather seat, away from the window. Three years of being exposed to it, of living it, and it still happened.

Across the cab from me, Jenes’ahn slouched back in her own seat and watched me without saying a word.

We headed north, following the thoroughfares slicing through the city. They cut through the dense intramuros section of the old city central, back out through the walls to where once again the city opened up. The Rocks, they called that more exclusive area where the estates and the money were old and dug in. The Rocks, or the Nipple, depending on how much silver cutlery you had in your mouth at birth. It was established money in this part of town. True, the house I’d bought was also in an exclusive sort of area, but it was in an area built up by much newer money; the sort of money that might come and go. I’d gathered there was some politics that’d influenced my purchase, but I didn’t know the details at the time. I’d been advised by people I trusted that it be better if I’d settled where I had.

The local residents association didn’t want their property values to take a hit, I guessed.

Beyond the Rocks lay the Palace and its grounds. There wasn’t much room for anything else. The grounds covered a huge swathe of land: from the lakeside to a distance inland of over fifteen kilometers was royal parklands. As we rattled down the boulevard toward the lake, I could see the black tines of the wrought-iron fence surrounding those grounds paralleling us. Beyond them the trees of the tended wilderness around the palace were barren and still, waiting for winter.

The guards at the gate gave the carriage a cursory look over before passing us through. I was a one-of-a-kind sight with an appointment and Jenes’ahn . . . well, Mediators tends to go where they please. Beyond the gate the drive meandered a long way into the grounds. As with all Rris landscaping works they were carefully tended, they just didn’t look it. Meadows and gardens were seas of knee-high grasses; woods were wildernesses of trees and undergrowth, appearing as deep and wild as any dark, heartland forest. Save for the places where you looked twice and realized the entire thing was sculpted; the places where branches intertwined and mimicked ceilings or figures or other things.

It all spoke to something in the Rris psyche. As did so many other things I found strange and inhuman.

For several minutes we travelled along a carpet of fallen leaves, through bare trees under an icy blue sky, and then the palace was in front of us.

My breath condensed into lingering clouds as I stepped down from the carriage and looked up at the edifice before me. Three stories of pale stone and glass gleaming in the early sun; an aged roof flashing copper and green amongst the last fading colors of autumn; hundreds of windows marching in neatly spaced rows away to the wings east and west; carvings of stylized greenery and stone Rris decorated fanciful cornices. And the open doors in front of me were huge oak things, the ornate irons bands curling across them as much for decoration as reinforcement.

Pairs of guards stood sentry at the doors and in the hall beyond. Their uniforms were brightly colored, but they weren’t wearing unnecessary frills: their metal cuirasses and weapons gleamed with care and polish. They were there for practical reasons, not decoration. I’d had experience with intruders in the Palace before and since then security had been stepped up a bit.

As soon as we walked into the cavernous antechamber a Rris in an expensive-looking tunic was hurrying across the tiled floor toward us. “Sir. Ma’am,” the glorified greeter bowed to me and Jenes’ahn. His ears didn’t go back, I noticed. Perhaps he’d encountered me before. “You are expected. Please, if you would be so good as to follow me.”

The Palace in Shattered Water wasn’t just a building or a residence for royalty, it was a symbol, a statement of prosperity and power and probably more than a few concepts that simply didn’t fit properly into my mind. Like Versailles in another world, it showed that here was the wealth and the ability and the skills to build something that was awe-inspiring and beautiful and really not entirely necessary. That entry hall was two stories tall, with an inlaid floor of cold marble, walls of spectacularly grained wooden panels hung with glittering tapestries and a high, vaulted ceiling painted in a spectacular fresco. The miniature figures standing around the place were actually visitors transiting the hall, reduced to the scale of dolls by the scale of their surroundings. And at that moment a lot of them were motionless because they’d stopped to stare at me. Damn tourists.

Our guide led the way through halls and corridors and rooms filled with color and splendor. Winter sunlight streamed in through windows of hand-polished glass and took some of the chill out of the air even as it gleamed on metal and precious stones. There were artworks everywhere: paintings and sculptures and carvings and stranger things created by alien artisans; created for alien aesthetics and tastes and senses. Some of the artworks were beautiful, while others were things I might not have ordinarily recognized as art — scents on weather-bleached bits of wood, broken stones from ancient walls, wind chimes that rang with sounds I couldn’t hear, tapestries of disquietingly familiar hides . . . all those and stranger things.

Some of the artworks, the paintings in particular, carried airs of something not quite right to me; something almost imperceptibly askew. Nothing obvious, just a feeling that was difficult to define. Colors, maybe: the palettes appeared limited to my eyes. Proportions, perhaps: they did prefer portrait format over landscapes. I think of that and I think of their slit-pupiled eyes and I wonder if there’s a connection.

So we walked through the majestic halls decorated with artworks any museum would give their eye teeth for; along corridors beneath the eyes of cracked and faded portraits of ancient Rris; crossed elaborate parquet floors of inlaid wood or stone beneath baroque ceilings flourished with bas reliefs and gilt; passed through doorways with lintels decorated with carved vines of such delicacy that light diffused through them as it might real leaves.

Palace guards and servants going about their daily business had something to stare at as we passed by. That was one of the reasons that, even though I knew the way through the Palace, I wasn’t allowed anywhere without an escort: there was always the chance we’d encounter someone who wasn’t familiar with me and might get a little excited. One of the reasons anyway.

Our destination was an antechamber in the west wing. There were another set of doors with guards. There was a typical Rris work desk, set low, about knee-high. There were stacks of paperwork spread out across the blue-leather blotter on the desk. There were polished wooden shelves and pigeonholes laden with books and scrolls around the walls. There was a Kh’hitch ah Ki.

Kh’hitch was personal secretary to the King of Land-of-Water and he was one of the largest Rris I’d met, mostly around the waistline. Upon meeting him I was put me in mind of an overstuffed furry cushion that had then been dressed by a mad tailor. His penchant for blousy frills on his cloths didn’t do anything to lessen the impact, nor did the fact he dyed patches of his fur in fanciful red and green decorative swirls. I wondered if it was a show, some sort of misdirection. On first impressions he came across as foppish, but after you’d dealt with him a few times you learned there was something more substantial under that exterior. There was good reason he was the King’s personal aide.

When we entered the room he was busy with the paperwork. For a few ticks we stood while his fountain pen scritchscratched over the paper, the nib dancing from one position to another on the page as he modified tense or emphasis here, a pronoun or verb there; smoothly applying all those seemingly-arbitrary rules that were making anything approaching fluency in their written language so difficult for me. Jenes’ahn put up with that reception for all of three seconds before stepping up to the desk and looming over the aide.

“A patient moment please, constable,” Kh’hitch said before she could open her mouth. He scratched a few more characters, set his pen aside and carefully blotted the sheet. The whole little ceremony was probably an act, telling her that he was going to deal with her on his own terms in his own time. She was probably quite aware of that as well because she went stock still, adopting that expressionless mask as he looked up at her. “Constable,” he nodded. “And ah Rye’e. Good of you to come.”

“Well, since you went to all the trouble of inviting us,” I shrugged. “How could we refuse?”

If he’d been human he might have arched an eyebrow. “Quite,” he said.

“What is this about?” Jenes’ahn asked. “There wasn’t a meeting scheduled for today.”

Kh’hitch sat back, steepling his fingers on the desk before him. “It’s regarding a matter his Highness wishes to discuss with you personally. It wasn’t scheduled because, simply, the matter has been simmering and only just bubbled to the surface.”

“Sounds tasty,” I offered. “This is important, I gather, or are we exchanging recipes?”

That look again. “It is a serious matter, Mikah. His Highness called you here to discuss what we know and what will likely be expected of you. The particulars are still to be confirmed.”

I glanced sidelong at Jenes’ahn. “You know what’s going on here?”

She snorted and a corner of her mouth fleered back. “It’s involving you so it could be any of a forest of possibilities. I would hear this from the King himself.”

“A,” Kh’hitch agreed and levered himself to his feet. “Stay a moment. I will announce you.”

The doors across the room were tall, narrow, made of some dark wood with brass latches. Kh’hitch scratched at the plate, then opened one half of the pair and stepped in. I could hear the indistinct echoes of voices. The guards posted at the door watched us; watched me, rather. They were enough to make sure visitors didn’t go poking around the Secretary’s office; reading his mail and painting mustaches on the paintings, things like that. We had a few minutes wait before the door opened again and the Secretary returned. “He will see you now.”

The King of Land-of-Water had an office I’d always considered . . . odd. It was a huge, white room. Everything was marble: cold, white marble, from the floor to the columns climbing and arching out to the ceiling decorated with white bass reliefs. Sunlight gleamed in through floor-to-ceiling latticed windows, the nets of small square panes in their mullions catching rainbows in the light. Over in one corner of the white, chill room was a patch of red carpet and on that was a desk. Not a big extravagance of some polished wood, but a modest-sized item of seasoned, well-used furniture where Hirht ah Chihiski did whatever paperwork was important enough to filter through the ranks of secretaries and clerks to meet his eyes.

I gathered that those days quite a bit of that sort of material involved me.

At the edge of that little island of carpet we stopped. The Rris King was reading a document of some kind and as we arrived he raised a single finger to stall us until he finished the page. Then he hissed a low sigh and set the page down on the desk. There was a decanter of the boiled water that I preferred there, I noticed, along with three glasses.

“Mikah. Constable,” Hirht greeted us. “Good of you to come. You are doing well this morning? Still running, I hear.”

“Yes, Sir,” I said. I wondered just how many little birds brought him these snippets of information.

“It’s not too cold for you these mornings?”

“Running does tend to warm one up. It’s quite . . . refreshing”

He blinked and apparently decided not to pursue incomprehensible alien interests any further. “You’ll be wondering what this is about.”

“A trip to Bluebetter this time?” I asked. “A little late in the year, isn’t it?”

This time there was a twitch of his muzzle. “You told him something, Constable?”

“Not I, Sir,” Jenes’ahn said, also looking askance at me.

I shrugged. “The situation is just like last time. And this time Bluebetter would be a good guess.” Also, my grasp of their written grammar was terrible, but I could read some words well enough. And from further away than Rris suspected.

One of his ears twitched. “Hurhn, a good guess then,” he rumbled thoughtfully. “Yes. Bluebetter. They have been getting more vocal since your visit to Open Fields. Your last meeting with ah Thes’ita was interrupted.”

Yeah. It was. I felt my jaw twitch.

“At the time I believe he considered it an annoyance, but since then you and your changes have become more of a political item. He isn’t pleased that he missed out on an opportunity like that and their requests for another meeting have become considerably louder. Since your Open Fields excursion they’ve been yowling for recompense. In fact they’ve become quite insistent.”

“More so than all the others?” I asked.

Hirht considered that for a moment. Just a moment. “Louder, perhaps. And they are a country with which we have old, well-established treaties and agreements. We feel that in the interests of these relationships we should accommodate their requests.”

“The Guild has been notified about this?” Jenes’ahn asked.

“You have been now,” Hirht replied. “This is official notification. Documents have been dispatched to the hall.”

Jenes’ahn’s muzzle rumpled a fraction. “You make this known just now?”

“Yes,” Hirht retorted. “We have only just finalized the details. Gaining the approval of other parties, including — I might add — your own Guild, has not been the easiest of trails. To broker an agreement that everyone favored would have taken the rest of our lives. Perhaps with amazing devices that Mikah’s people know of that can let people in different provinces talk without pause we could do something in a reasonable time. As it stands, we don’t have a solution that pleases everyone, merely one that angers the fewest.” He hissed softly and tipped his head slightly as he regarded the Mediator and me.

“We have chased what presented itself,” he said simply.

“Huhn,” the Mediator coughed and looked at me again. “What are your intentions?”

“They are within guides laid by the Guild: Mikah will travel to Red Leaves, along with a Land-of-Water escort and whomever the Guild sees fit to send. Ah Ties will be accompanying you, as will a representative from the University. This is intended to be mostly a goodwill visit, but you will be expected to visit various institutions and industries. There will certainly be requests for information and recommendations for various industries. The Guild will be present to ensure that their [something] on his knowledge is not exploited.”

His breath was frosting into white clouds in the chill. I glanced at the windows, at the grey branches out there. “When is this supposed to happen?”

“As soon as possible,” Hirht replied. “For the time being, the weather makes travel by unpaved road impractical and winter proper will block shipping routes. We wait for the first snows: when the roads freeze they’ll be passable again.”

I thought back to my lessons, to my geography of this world and where Red Leaves was. It’d be about where Philadelphia was back home; down at the tip of a bay I’d known as Delaware Bay. That was . . . what, seven hundred kilometers? As the crow flies. And we wouldn’t be flying. We’d be slogging along at maybe forty kilometers a day, if we were lucky, through some pretty mountainous countryside.

“Sir,” I ventured. “That far . . . in winter? It will take weeks to get there.”

Hirht’s ears flicked. “Mikah, we’re aware you don’t like the cold. Precautions will be taken.”

It wasn’t a question of not liking it, it was a question of freezing to death in it. I had done it before, however. My journey from Lying Scales to Shattered Water had been through a frozen winter and I’d survived it. And, actually, a sleigh over snow is a good deal more comfortable than a wagon jolting through ruts on cart tracks. And this was all political and messy so it wasn’t going to be fun, but it was going to happen. I sighed and nodded.

“Could I get some of my possessions back from whomever is poking at them? My tent and some other things?”

“They are necessary?”

“They would make the going easier.”

“I’ll see to it,” he said. “What about a personal staff. Are there any you wish to take with you? What about the teacher? Would things be easier with her along?”

I flinched. That wasn’t a question I’d been expecting. “I . . . I think that would be entirely up to her,” I hedged. She had commitments, which I fully realized could suddenly vanish at the whims of my hosts if her wishes conflicted with their own. “I will have to ask her.”

Hirht didn’t blink. “Quite,” he said. “She has teaching obligations. Substitutes can be arranged if required.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Security?” Jenes’ahn asked.

“Several full attachments of troops,” Hirht replied. “With the . . . attentions that Mikah seems to draw to himself we feel that we should overstock our larders in that regard. A party of outriders will ride a day ahead and ensure that lodgings at towns enroute are available and secure. At the border a contingent of Bluebetter troops will join them to escort them for the rest of the journey.”

Jenes’ahn looked at me and combed a sharp little claw through a cheek tuft, as though thinking about something. “There has been some unrest in that country,” she said.

“I am aware of that,” Hirht said. “While we are on good terms with the government, their internal affairs are not a matter with which we wish to concern ourselves. They would also prefer we stay clear.”

Yeah. And a not-inconsiderable amount of Land-of-Water’s copper, hemp and coal came from Bluebetter, all of which were in increasing demand by the factories and mills. Land-of-Water was being quite polite. In their position, with antsy petitioners banging on their door, it was probably the best stance to take.

“And their internal affairs won’t boil over into ours? They have been involved before and Mikah is an obvious target.”

Hirht’s expression didn’t flicker. “We have been assured that their house is in order; that the [something] [upstarts?] have been removed; that their lands are peaceful and there will be no trouble whatsoever.”

“That’s quite a handful of assurances.”

“They have guaranteed Mikah’s safety against any unexpected incidents.”

“Great,” I muttered. “Do they actually know what ‘unexpected’ means?”

“Huhn,” Jenes’ahn glared at me then looked back at the Rris king. “Yet he has a point.”

“I do?”

“Stop that noise. Sir, it is an exceedingly broad generalization.”

“And yet they have made it,” Hirht said. “They will be taken at their word.”

Jenes’ahn’s head twitched back. “I see,” she said. Then: “I see. I will pass your intentions on to the Guild.”

There was an undercurrent there that I wasn’t getting. Was it a species thing? Or just politics?

“Kh’hitch has papers for you with specifics,” Hirht said. “You will depart as soon as the weather settles and the roads harden which should be within the next few days. You will be gone for the best bite of three months, so use the time to get your affairs in order. Your route has already been planned: It’ll be east over the Greenlands then Southeast through the Open Wound, following the Ashansi Trail through the Rippled Lands and then across the First Step Backwards through Esheir’s Wait, Long Time, Thieves Always Return, and Summer Breaks.”

Jenes’ahn snorted. “That route is easier in spring.”

“We don’t have the luxury of waiting. It is well travelled. Quite safe. There shouldn’t be any difficulties, even in winter. The river isn’t navigable, but the trails will be open. Now, if there’s anything you require, Mikah, ask.”

I nodded, bit my lip. No matter their assurances, the thought of travelling in winter made me nervous. For the Rris the cold wasn’t really an issue. I’d seen Chihirae quite happily wading through hip-deep drifts in nothing but breeches and her winter coat. For me, it was something to worry quite seriously about. “I will need warm clothes. More than I have now. Coats and the like. And food . . .”

“You shall have them. Use the time to prepare and order whatever you need. Now, ah Ties will be expecting you at his offices this morning. I believe you will have a great deal to discuss.”

We left the King’s office. Jenes’ahn received a packet from Kh’hitch, sealed with the king’s mark in blue wax. As we stepped out of the secretary’s office she weighed it thoughtfully and looked at me. “Do you have any idea what this means?”

“Yeah, it means weeks on the road with you,” I sighed.

“I was thinking the very same thing,” she growled.

Chapter 2

For a world on the cusp of industrial revolution the Smither Industries works were state-of-the-art. The complex of buildings and workshops down by the waterfront were mostly brick with slate-gray roofs. As with most Rris architecture the details were on the inside and the outer walls faced the wall with blank facades. Once you passed through the wrought-iron fences and through one of the arched tunnels beneath the buildings, the interior courtyards were busier little worlds unto themselves, with goods wagons coming and going and Rris bustling to and fro about their business. There was a foundry, with smoke streaming from the tall stacks and occasional flashes of red light as gouts of molten metal were poured in the dimly-lit spaces. There were halls where giant steam engines chuffed and rumbled. There were workshops where those engines drove massive trip hammers and powered saws and drills. Everything was saturated with the ingrained reek of hot metal and coal and fire, resin and cut wood.

Back home a single C&C or SFS mill could do in a day what this whole enterprise would take weeks to accomplish. Nevertheless, when you considered that a fair bit of that place hadn’t existed when I’d come to this world, it had its own kind of impressiveness about it.

Also, back home we could have made it from the palace to the docks in a few minutes, instead of an hour. That was something that kept getting me about this place: the amount of time it took to get anywhere or send a message. Just one meeting done and already it was midday.

We bypassed the worst of the bustle and stopped at the main offices with its rows of large plate windows set amongst clean red brick. A bronze plate beside the main doors was a new touch, the chicken-scratches of Rris script along with something like a logo: something that looked like an abstract geometry, perhaps a celtic knot of some kind. Guards and attendants didn’t even attempt to hinder us or ask for identification as we strolled in. They just watched as we crossed the foyer and climbed the broad stone waterfall of the main stairs.

Chaeitch ah Ties, head engineer of Smither Industries, technical prodigy of Land of Water, was in his office, sprawled on his desk reading a paper and smoking a pipe that filled the room with a fug that smelled of dope. Perfectly normal in other words.

“Busy day?” I asked as I walked in past the assistant who’d gone in to announce us.

“Huhn?” he looked up from the paper. “Hi, Mikah,” he sat himself up and grinned at me, deliberately baring sharp whiteness in a parody of one of my uncontrolled moments. “Ah, from the looks of things it’s going to be getting busier, a? Another visit to see the neighbors, a?”

In contrast with the ordered neatness of his patron’s office, his office was cluttered. Every surface, every shelf and ledge and cranny, was occupied by something: Books or notebooks, still expensive things in this world, left strewn around like cheap paperbacks; small models of ships and engines and windmills and industrial devices in all manner of completedness; screws and loose gears used as paperweights; a brass cam the length of my leg; a gently whirring kinetic sculpture shaped like vertically oriented, rotating music tines; assorted other trinkets in brass and copper and steel and iron. There was a cabinet behind the desk, a old thing of heavy, dark wood with a pair of doors set with windows made from frameworks of multitudes of tiny, colored-glass triangles. Above that hung a plain, wooden plaque from which hung a battered old compass, protractor and setsquare. Over below the window a black, cast-iron radiator clanged a couple of times. That was a new addition, based on the central heating system worked out at my place. It kept the chill off, enough to stop ink freezing in the inkwells.

“Obviously you’ve heard the news,” I said as I settled myself down on a cushion.

“Oh, yes,” he waved the paper. “Documents arrived this morning. Bluebetter this time.”

“Like Open Fields again?”

“Pestilence and rot, I hope not,” he sighed.

Chaeitch ah Ties was a rare sort of Rris. He was young, wealthy and an engineering wizard. If I could describe something to him, he had an idea how it could be implemented. Three-phase steam engines? I knew what they were in principal, but he had the ability to turn that into a metal and wood, steam-breathing monster. I could describe a differential joint or boat’s screw and he could figure out how to actually implement it. He could do the maths for shear on a metal joint or figure out much of a load a material could take without being crushed. He was also a friend. He was actually someone who didn’t seem at all distracted with my differences or scared by my size, he just accepted me. He talked with me, shared wine and jokes and other things. We got on well together, and that wasn’t something that often happened.

“Not what I meant. I meant: the same sort of itinerary? Inspecting things and advising?”

“Mostly. Within the restrictions imposed by the Guild, of course. But there are specifics we want to be focusing on,” he flicked the paper. “There is one I believe the Guild approves of: Standardization.”

It was a tongue-knotting word in Rris; a hybrid of several that had existed before to descibe something new that hadn’t. I nodded. “Any particular reason?”

He waved his pipe in the general direction of west. “We’ve been considering some of what you’ve said about countries and industries racing ahead and developing their own machines and industry and we have to agree with you. It’s been happening already. There’s been enough espionage and ideas spread that more than a few are just charging ahead with their own projects. Of course they’re all designed and measured and built differently. No part for one would work on another. It could become a real tangle for everyone, especially since there’s been some talk of a road of rails.”

I blinked. “Rails? To Bluebetter?”

“Amongst others.”

Jenes’ahn spoke up: “The Guild has been notified of this?”

“The basics are already quite known to us,” Chaeitch waved her query aside. “The Guild mandate was against new ideas. This is simply using old ideas on a much larger scale. The Guild placed no injunctions on such. “

That the idea was already known was quite true. Small-gauge rails already existed before I’d arrived here, but the earlier cars had been animal-drawn. There were much newer variants utilizing steam engines and I had mixed feelings about them. On one hand they were handy test platforms for future improvements and systems; on the other they gave people ideas. The Mediators weren’t happy at something that’d been developed before they’d had a chance to examine the ramifications; I wasn’t too keen on them for other reasons.

“Perhaps we should have placed restrictions on [something] ideas,” Jenes’ahn muttered.

“The whole idea of rail between cities has been discussed many times before,” Chaeitch said, “but there have always been problems with the machines and the metals and the techniques. There was that debacle with the trail from here to Blizzard’s Coat for instance. Then there were the questions whether or not it would be worth it, or whether it would just end up a rotting carcass. Mikah’s been able to answer most of those concerns and now industry and governments are extremely interested. Land-of-Water, Bluebetter, Overburdened and Cover-my-Tail are all in support of a trail, but before anything can be done there we have to sort out standards. That may be tricky.”

“Really?” I asked. “All you have to do is get all those governments and Guilds and merchants to agree. Piece of cake.”

“What does that mean?” Jenes’ahn asked.

“He means it won’t be easy,” Chaeitch smirked.

“What?” She looked perplexed. “How can it mean that?”

“Well, he also says the cake is a lie.”

Jenes’ahn’s ears twisted as glared at him, at me and then back again. “Is this true?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

She stared at me, then snarled, “You’re being deliberately obtuse again.”

“Constable,” Chaeitch was amused, “he’s like that to everyone, beggar or diplomat. It’s something you get accustomed to.”

“I have neither the inclination nor time for such frivolous things,” she growled, literally.

“Make some,” I suggested. “You know, some of the best things in life are frivolous.”

She hissed exasperation.

“But he’s absolutely right about getting any sort of accord on this,” Chaeitch mused, taking a haul on his pipe, then blowing a cloud of smoke toward the window. “They will insist on doing things their own way for some superficial gain; practicalities will be set aside for monetary reasons; anything we suggest will be suspected of being a fabrication to create some advantage for us. All the usual political back-biting and skulking.”

“Guild Mediation is an option.”

“Aren’t you already doing that?” I asked.

“You have a better suggestion?”

“Perhaps Mikah can help,” Chaeitch said.

I shrugged. “If it’s dealing with Rris, then I’m not a good person to ask. I don’t seem to have a good history of understanding how you think.”

“No, but you aren’t Rris.”

“And you think that makes him impartial?” Jenes’ahn sounded dubious.

“Others might,” he replied. “He’s not Rris and that might influence them.”

“Perhaps not favorably,” Jenes’ahn said.

“Huh, perhaps. But I think that he will have influence no matter what. They did specifically request to have him present,” he pointed out.

Jenes’ahn chewed on that and Chaeitch swung to his feet and then stepped over to the cabinet behind the desk. The particolored glass doors opened smoothly onto rows of bottles, shelves of red and black and green and clear glass or ceramics in a wide range of shapes and sizes. “Meantime, midmeal should be here shortly and something to accompany it will, I think, be welcome,” he proclaimed as he looked through the bottled. “Ah. Mikah. Here. All the way from Hunting Well. It’s an older bottle so I think it may suit your taste.”

He poured, filling a couple of the wide-bodied glasses with pale liquid. Jenes’ahn declined — she was on duty. Her loss; our gain. And he was right about the taste: the wine had been aged more than was common for many Rris vinters, which did make it more palatable to me. It wasn’t nearly as tart as most of their wines. And lunch, when it arrived, had been prepared with me in mind. My dishes had chunks of shish-kebobed meat that had actually been cooked, more baked goods than suited Rris palates, and the spiced black sausages were pretty good.

“The schedule’s going to be busy,” Chaeitch said, in between carefully licking blood from his fingers. “Our main objective’s moving them toward agreeing on standards in construction and engineering. They’re going to want to fish and snatch whatever bites of knowledge from you that they can. We’re going to have to try and use their desires to coax them into following our game: a few simple rules that will make the rewards richer for all.

“There’s going to be tours and inspections of their existing facilities. They will want talks and interviews with you to find out what could be done. Meetings with landowners and merchant guilds. Meetings with their engineers. I’m afraid there will also be social functions where you can meet their various tree-climbers and gold-tufts.”

Show me off, in other words.

“And there’s . . .” he stopped. His ears wilted. “Oh.”

“Inspections by their physicians and scholars, right?”

He waved an affirmative, tipping his cupped palm up. “I’m sorry.”

I sighed. “What is it with that? Do they think I’m a Rris in a suit?”

“I think they’d like to be able to prove that,” he said. “That sort of deniability is preferable to what you really represent.”

“What’s that?”

“A reminder that there’re things out of their control; that the world is a good deal more complex than they’d like it to be.” He picked up a bloody cube of meat, scrutinized it — turning it this way and that — then popped it into his mouth.

“I can deal with it,” I said. “I’ve had worse.”

He winced, or grimaced.

“It can’t be so bad,” Jenes’ahn opined.

“Huh, do you enjoy strangers sticking their fingers into your vagina?” Chaeitch rumbled. It was my turn to wince. Tactful.

“You exaggerate,” she said.

“Not really,” I told her. “Your Guild had their turn. You could ask what they did.”

She made a low growling sound but didn’t offer anything further.

“Aside from that unpleasantness,” Chaeitch continued, “there shouldn’t be anything too onerous. The schedule is almost entirely meetings of various descriptions.”

“Any time to see the sights?”

“Monkey curiosity,” he said to Jenes’ahn.

“Hey, hairball . . .”

“I’m sure they’ll give you tours,” he interjected with a chitter. “Of course there’ll be several weeks of ‘seeing the sights’ on the way there, but they’ll want to try and impress you so you can be pretty sure that you’ll be shown around. And they know you have interests in arts and that sort of carry-on so I’m sure they’ll try to accommodate you in that respect. They’ll use those opportunities to casually ask your opinion or ideas. I think you’ll want to be careful then, especially if the Guild is with you.”

“And even if we’re not.”

“Thank you, Constable,” Chaeitch replied without missing a beat. He inspected his pipe, tapped it out into an ashtray and fished a packet from a drawer in his desk. “They’re doubtless thinking it will be a good chance to meet with you with your guard down, which means they are hoping for something, which gives us something to grab onto.”

“You’ve been talking with Rrarch about this, haven’t you,” I said.

He twitched his ears as he tamped his favorite brand of weed into his pipe. “She’s been doing some reading, a. We’re pretty sure they want things. That should mean we will have something to offer them in exchange for some cooperation in [ratifying ] some sort of usable standard.”

“Anything in mind?”

He took a small packet from his vest pocket, withdrew a single little stick and struck it against the packet. Jenes’ahn blinked as it flared to life and Chaeitch looked from me to the Mediator and smiled. “Perhaps we should take a walk.”

Chapter 3

The factory halls were noisy places, even for me. Under the high ceilings with their wrought-iron rafters, trip hammers rang with a noise that was almost palpable. Rolling mills growled, spitting out tongues of orange-red steel. Sparks bloomed in the gloom of the shed as one of the converters blasted air through a mass of liquid metal. The Rris workers in these places wore heavy leather aprons and gloves and either shaved exposed fur back or kept it drenched in water against radiant heat and flying beads of molten iron.

Any OSH inspector would have had conniptions at the sight of the place, but here all that industry was state-of-the-art. Cutting edge stuff that was still under development even as it was being used. I may have had knowledge and experience that the Rris didn’t have, but I was by no means an engineer or metallurgist. I knew fragments, bits and pieces about this and that. I was educated and my profession had dipped into multitudes of other fields, but I had no formal training in any of the details. I could tell them how a Bessemer converter worked and finds images and some information on high-temperature resistant ceramics in my ‘paedia, but it was up to the eager Rris to fill in the dots. And Rris like Chaeitch were oh so eager.

They smelted and rejected different alloys on a daily basis. They poured moulds and milled and trialed and then melted the results down to try again with a slightly different mix. Out in the workshops, different kinds of band saws, lathes, drills and hammers were lined up alongside one another in competition. Some were dismantled husks, in the process of recycling their outdated parts to the newer and more efficient or effective models. Steam engines hissed and snorted, spewing vapor and coating surfaces with condensing water. The smallest of those new models put out as much power as the house-sized monstrosities from two years ago. And they were far more reliable and economic to run.

Chaeitch led us past these sights, past more great, echoing halls and through locked and guarded doors into corridors halls that were much cleaner, quieter and secure. Gas lamps glimmered along hallways of arched, red brick vaults overhead and white and grey tiles along the walls. Heavy, black wooden doors recessed into alcoves on either side of the hall all had prominent bulky locks. There were guards making their rounds, and I even saw a couple of Mediators crossing a hall ahead of us.

“Your people are watching all this,” Cheaitch told Jenes’ahn as he led us to one door. A solid black iron key went into the equally solid lock and turned with a meaty clunk. “They’re insisting on the secrecy. The old smithy was too open for their tastes. “

Behind the door was a workshop. Deserted and chilly. A big multi-paned window at the far end looked out over the central court and let grey sunlight slant across benches and drafting tables. Tools were laid out on the benches, light glinting off sharp edges. Overhead several gleaming metal shafts ran across the room: in through a greased socket on one wall and out through another in the opposite. Thick canvas belts hung down from wheels on those to terminate at some small bench lathes and drill presses. Cabinets covered the walls, along with racks of wood and ingots of metal.

“We’ve got plenty of ideas that Bluebetter would love to have,” he said, “but I think the trick will be to make them want what we want them to have.”

Chaeitch crossed to one of the cabinets and used a much smaller key to unlock it. He withdrew a couple of wooden shoebox-sized boxes and carried them to a workbench. “These are some of the first castings,” he said. “They probably won’t work by themselves, but as garnishing with other offerings, they may do the trick.” He opened one of the cases.

“Aw, nuts,” I said.

They were. Several sizes of nuts and bolts in gleaming steel, unnecessarily nestled into blue velvet padding . The castings were good, with neatly beveled edges and clean grooves on the bolts.

Jenes’ahn picked up a nut and bolt and neatly spun the former onto the later. “Just these?” she asked. I could hear the skepticism.

The other box contained spanners made from tough, low-carbon steel. “The metal workers got the mix right,” Chaeitch said. “They’re hard, but they don’t shatter if they’re dropped. They don’t look like much, but we’re going to start using them as part of our [standardization] system.”

He didn’t actually call it that. They didn’t have a single word for a concept like that. What he said was something that could be translated as same-everywhere system, but the gist of it was the same.

“They’re all identical?”

“As close as we can get.”

“What did you decide to use?” I asked. That was what had kept a lot of very intelligent Rris up at night: what to base your standards on? My laptop had contained suggestions — gold, platinum, iridium, water. The problem with some of the more exotic materials was that while the Rris knew of them — some of their scholars had developed their own periodic tble

“All the scholars agreed that the numbers made sense. Water. As pure as is possible, at specific temperatures and pressure: a point just above freezing and at sea level. A cubic mass of specific weight, each face of which is divided into hundredths. A base ten system for simplicity. There were those who argued for eight,” he snorted, “but that would doubtless cause issues. We have engraved the length standards on a gold measure, but a more precise dead metal would be preferable.”

Jenes’ahn was examining the tools. “They are all identical?”

“As near as is possible for us,” he said. “Mikah’s kind have measuring capabilities that go down to the bricks that make everything so they would doubtless find them grossly imprecise. We do what we can.”

“And how would these be of value?”

“They’re going to be the things that hold the world together,” he flashed a grin. “Those bolts will hold boilers and plate metal. They’ll secure the girders of bridges, the arms of cranes, the beams of buildings. And anything built with these can be repaired by anyone with the standard tools.”

She turned one of the larger nuts — a lump of metal about the size of her fist — over and over. “And you’re intending to sell these?”

“Not sell: give,” Chaeitch corrected. “Along with copies of the molds and the metal formula. On provision that they agree to start using standard measurements.”

“Huhn,” she coughed, obviously dubious. “For a government to do something another government told it to do . . . that isn’t a regular event.”

“Hopefully it will make sense. We’re starting to do it. Word has gone out to manufacturies and Guilds that the Palace will be requiring these changes. Any other goods we start to produce from now will be using these measurements. Anyone purchasing from us would end up working with them anyway.”

That wasn’t going to be a small undertaking. Retooling a country . . . It made sense to do it now though. The longer they left it the worse the change-over would become.

She wrinkled her muzzle, contemplating the boxes. “And these measurements include weights?”


“Then you may do better promoting the trade and tax benefits of such a system,” she said. “The amount lost in commerce due to disparities and mistakes in measurements and weight conversions between parties — tariffs and duties and so forth — is not inconsiderable.”

Chaeitch mulled that over.

“Does it happen a lot?” I asked.

She eyed me. “There are some stretches of the Muddy River where three different currencies and measuring systems exist in as many days travel. It’s common. Wars have started over such.”

“A,” Chaeitch added, “if someone makes a mistake on a shipment of coal, either converting weight or currency, then it can get expensive. That’s really Rrarsch’s business, not mine.”

“You might find politicians are more responsive toward gold than bridges,” Jenes’ahn said as she put the weighty hex of metal back in its case.

“For some reason,” Chaeitch grumbled. “Bridges make gold, but gold makes terrible bridges.”

“Money talks,” I said.

“In its own language, a,” he said. “You’re right: it’s another angle to come from. I think Rraerch should deal with that side.”

“Is there anything else that you might use for bargaining?” Jenes’ahn asked.

He tipped his head, then twitched his ears. “A, there’re things like the liquid stone and some of the new smelting techniques that we know they’ll be interested in. There’re other works in progress as well as a huge number of new ideas, but we’re limited in what we can build. There simply aren’t the people or facilities available to work on them all. We’ve developed machinery for pulling wire which lets us produce anything from small wires up to metal bars quite easily. That also lets us make a kind of steel rope which has applications in all sorts of machinery and construction, but as yet we don’t have the metal required to use them. The amounts required are . . . considerable. Still, nothing compared with what would be required for a road of rails through three countries.”

Jenes’ahn’s muzzle twitched back showing a flash of teeth as she surveyed the bench. “Those have been approved by the Guild?”

“A. Some of the lathes weren’t. Also some of the stamps that can make the cylinders for ammunition and the formula for explosive caps.”

“You were surprised?” she said.

He just snorted.

“The other rooms here, you’re doing similar work in there?”

“A. Nothing that’s in any state to work, though. Your people have inspected them.”

“I will see them,” she said. Not asking: stating.

Chaeitch just blinked at her and then just waved a shrug. “Very well.”

The samples were packed away and he made sure the door was locked. Then he led us to the next room. It was very much like the one we’d just left, save the benches were covered with black felt cloths and on those cloths were arrayed stacks of little brass gears. Hundreds, thousands of them. Arranged into stacks of size and shapes. There were a couple of Rris in there, seated on stools and using magnifying glasses as they used tiny files to smooth parts of the gears down. They glanced up as we entered, then froze, staring like rabbits in headlights.

“What is this?” Jenes’ahn frowned.

“Parts of a machine the University is trying to build,” Chaeitch said. “They just commissioned us to make these parts.”

“What sort of machine?”

“A modified Johis Gear,” he said.

“And what does that do?”

“Mathematical calculations and so forth. The University already have some that follow and predicts the movements of planets and stars — like orreries . The university has enlisted the Clockmakers Guild to help them with a larger version with more precise and flexible gearing.” He gestured at the rows of glittering stars and the workers who were still staring at us — at me.

“Other applications?”

“Accounting and book-keeping. Engineering calculations possibly. If it works. There are some remarkably complex problems to overcome. Do you know how much friction and resistance a chain of a hundred sprockets creates?”

She snorted, put off by the tech-talk. I bit my tongue, almost laughing at just how typically middle-management that was.

The government of Land-of-Water had seen some of the things the human race had done and decided there was something to be said for R&D. Smither Industries, the favored government shop, had received considerable funding to step up their own programmes. And they’d done so with gusto.

Scattered around the city, Smither Industries had groups working on all sorts of projects, all part of Smither Industries R&D. I’d been to most of them many times before with Chaeitch, and I was also quite aware that there were places I didn’t know about working on things I’d rather not think about. Jenes’ahn hadn’t seen all of these places. Possibly none of the other places.

The new concepts had required filling old buildings and the construction of new ones. There were the floors where Rris were working on more steam engines, trying to make them better, stronger, faster. Those workshops were littered with sketches and diagrams and tubing and scale models and bits of burst boilers. There was a department in the shipyards where boats were being designed, built and tested: another where heavy machine tools were planned out. Metalurgical research occupied a wing, as did the industrial machinery section with their work on looms and mills.

This hallway housed more modest endeavors. One of the rooms was filled with nothing but sections of pipe, wire and weird, twisted failings of some of the drawing machinery. Another with Rris working on refining gas lamps, trying different treatments for mantles. In another room they were making pencils, and in another working on what looked like a mimeograph. The last room had some of the interesting toys: the coils of copper wire, the woven fiber sheaths and weird glass baubles and glass aquarium-like containers with the plates of metal suspended in dirty liquid. It was deserted, the workbenches covered with dustcloths.

“What is this?” Jenes’ahn asked.

“Scholars who’ve toyed with it over the years call it quick-sparks. Mikah’s kind calls it eserisitah. We’re learning how to harness it as they do.”

I couldn’t read her expression as she looked around the room. “Where is it?”

“These devices manufacture various forms of it. Perhaps a demonstration?” Chaeitch asked.


“Stand on that,” he pointed to a block of wood on the floor. She did so. He flicked back a dust cover and picked up another box from the workbench , this one about thirty centimeters to a side, with a copper ball like doorknob on one side and a crank handle poking out the other. “Hold that ball. Don’t let it go or step off the block.”

She looked suspicious.

“It’s quite safe,” he assured her.

She grabbed hold of the copper ball. He started to crank the handle.

Chapter 4

“You thought that was amusing,” Jenes’ahn snarled accusingly as I closed the carriage door and seated myself. It was like a refrigerator in the cab. Cold enough to freeze the moisture out of the air. She was still brushing angrily at the fur on her arms. The fur crackled and popped up again.

I looked at her and bit my tongue. Hard. “No. No, really,” I said.

She banged on the carriage roof and yelled, “Go!” to the driver, then glared at me. “Your face is hot and you sound like you’re choking,” she growled through a face that still looked like a chiapet. “You’re laughing.”

“Not laughing,” I tried to keep a straight face, trying not to start grinning.

“Rot,” she scrubbed at her cheek tufts again, trying to smooth them back. “Shave you. I’m going to let those Bluebetter doctors bleed you dry. I’m going to tell them about your strange sexual antics in detail. In fact, I believe I’ll make some up.”

“Okay, okay, don’t get your hackles up,” I sniffed and she gaped her jaw in a hiss that laked white clouds of condensing breath.

The carriage rattled away from Smither Industries, out through the entry arch and turned hard right onto the street. Thin, grey-white overcast turned the late afternoon light grey and flat. A cold wind was blowing in from the lake and it would still take an hour or so to get home. The Mediator seethed and tried to smooth her fur out again. I watched my breath misting in the light that filtered in through the window; watched the alien city plodding past outside and thought about what was to come.

“What was that?” she snarled after a while.

“Huhn?” I looked up from my reverie.

“That box. All those . . . things,” she waved a hand, grasping for words she didn’t have. “You know what they were?”

“A,” I said and met her eyes. She stared back. One of her hands was still stroking down the fur on her arm. She’d been more upset by that than I’d realized. “Oh, okay,” I relented. “They were toys, most of them. Toys that use electricity. The force that powers my lamp and other things.”

“Your Johis Gear device,” she said, pointedly.

She’d caught that. Or known all along. “Uh, a distant relative of, a,” I shrugged. “They’re powered by that same force. Those devices back there’re all experiments in the way that force behaves. They help to understand it. Chaeitch wants to build some generators and communication devices using it, so they’ve been experimenting. If you don’t know what you’re doing, electricity can be very dangerous.”

“You’ve said before that it’s the same as lighting.”

“Similar. Similar to. A, only on a much smaller scale.”

“So it could be a weapon?”

I snorted and tipped my hand. “No. A lot of people tried, but nobody’s ever found a practical way. Bulky, awkward, unpredictable, dangerous to the user . . . It has uses in some regards, but as a direct weapon, no.”

“Indirectly, then”

“In the same way that wood or steel can be part of a weapon. My machine uses it as . . . like water flowing through a mill race, but isn’t the machine in itself. It is very useful and has many applications. Mostly for the better, I think.”

The Mediator sat back, staring at me whilst smoothing the fur on her wrists and hands down. “You think?”

I sighed a white cloud and stared out the window again. Alien laundry flapped against a cold sky. Brightly colored rugs were hanging from racks in front of a store. “Do you think the rail-road is a good idea?”

“You have an opinion of it?”

“It seems very risky, a? A huge undertaking that must have enormous risks and consequences. If it is built — if — it will require a great deal of effort and workers. New jobs will be created to build it and operate it. Goods and information and people will move faster than you can think possible. A journey that took a month will take a couple of days. Cargos that filled hundreds of wagons will fill one vehicle. Perishable goods will be able to be traded between countries. Food can be shifted to provided relief for stricken regions. People will be able to travel more easily and faster and further. They will take ideas with them, and what those will be, who can say?

“Oh, there will be problems. Carters will not like the loss of business; small towns off the route may suffer; the engines can be noisy, smelly things that start fires . . . but many carters will be able to adapt. They will be needed to move goods from the countryside to the rail stops; the towns can also adapt; the engines can be made cleaner. All fairly obvious, a?”

She waved cautious consent.

“Now, I’ve noticed that the servants at the house work very hard. A great deal of time is spent cleaning floors and rugs. They have to lift them, take them outside, then beat them clean, then return them. They just finish when they have to do this all over again. Hard work, a? What about a device that you just roll over the rugs and floor and it picks up the dirt? A good idea?”

“On the surface, a,” she said, obviously smelling a set-up.

“A. It means it only takes a single servant a fraction of the time to clean a room. That means the large staff becomes . . . ah . . . redundant? If many households realize they can save money by simply using these devices, they will dismiss servants. There will suddenly be a large number of people without work. What do they do? Are there enough other jobs for them to go to? Can they feed their dependants? If they can’t, what then? Will they leave? Will there be unrest?” I shrugged, my shoulders rubbing against the worn leather of the seat. My jaw and throat hurt after all that. My vocal apparatus wasn’t up to speaking the Rris language for extended periods.

“It was like that for your kind?” she asked.

“In a way. There wa unrest, yes. But that brought in other changes that improved a lot of peoples’ lives. There are differences in our societies that mean what happened to us won’t happen here. Not exactly the same way.”

“Then why . . .”

“Because you can’t predict just what these devices will do. Sometimes, those big, foreboding things fit in perfectly while the most innocuous things cause larger problems.”

“Huhnn,” she rumbled, tipping her head pointedly.

“You’re trying to guess what will be harmful, what will be disruptive.” I sighed. “Constable, we couldn’t do that. We still can’t. It was only when looking back that we could see the effects of what had happened.”

“You think we shouldn’t be controlling this knowledge.”

“No, I think that you shouldn’t think you can . . . anticipate all this knowledge. I doubt anyone can. There are some things that you don’t need or want, I accept that. I agree. But if you try to micromanage . . . to control every tiny detail, you will sink in over your head: floundering around trying to do everything and accomplishing nothing.”

For some time she didn’t say a word. Then: “With the exception of those metaphors you chewed and spat out again, that’s one of the most intelligent things I’ve heard you say.”

“I have my moments.”

“Apparently so,” she growled. “If there were more moments like that and fewer of those cub-play pranks, one might think you were sane.”

In that frigid cab with its plush trappings, with the sounds and smells of an inhuman city filtering in from outside, I grinned back. “Sane? Now, why would anyone think that?”

Chapter 5

The sinking sun took the last of the day’s warmth with it. The evening was crisp and cold, an autumn evening under a blooming night sky. I stepped down out of the cab, the gravel crunching under my feet and my breath streaming out on an icy breeze. In the distance I heard Rris calling — the guards at the gatehouse. Closer to hand the firs in the windbreak whispered and creaked. Smoke trickled from the chimneys and lamplight glimmered out the windows and through the colored glazing on the front door, spilling across the porch and creating a welcoming island of warmth in the twilight. Windchimes tinkled softly. I breathed deeply, smelling pine and water and winter and just stood there, trying to ease some of the tension the day had left.

Behind me there were low voices, then squeaks of metal and wood, grinding of iron on stone as the team of elk turned the loop at the end of the drive and head back towards the gate. A dark figure stalked past me, ghosting across the gravel with less sound than a shadow. At the porch steps she turned to watch me, leaning against one of the posts. Her eyes caught some errant light, gleaming like a pair of bright coins in a dark well.

I dithered, strolled to the edge of the drive to look out across the meadow toward the firs. Their tall silhouettes swayed slightly against the marginally lighter horizon, foliage shushing in the breeze. No voices, no engines or vehicles. I luxuriated in uninterrupted, unambiguous silence for a while longer before I turned back to the house.

Tich had the front door open when I stepped onto the porch. The warmth that spilled out was quite welcome after a long, cold day. “Good evening, sir,” she greeted me as I stepped into the foyer and hastened to take my coat as I shrugged out of it. “Everything went well?”

The foyer was immaculate, as usual. Achingly-white plaster on the two-story walls, polished wooden floor with the beautiful blue and green circular rug in the centre of the octagonal space, all soft in the light of the gas lamps. I tracked muddy bootprints across the floor and the Rris left pawprints, but they’d all be gone within minute, I knew.

“As well as can be expected,” I said as she hung the coat from the rack. “Looks like I’ll be going away again.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I think I’m going to be needing some warm clothes. Can you arrange something with the tailor? I think I will need new foot-wear also.”

“Yes, sir. Is there a departure date set?”

“When the weather’s clement,” I said. “Perhaps a week.”

“Very good, sir. If there is anything else you’ll require, a list would be convenient.”

“I’ll have something for you in the morning.”

“Very good, sir,” she ducked her head, then added, “Her Ladyship isn’t back yet. I understand she intended to attend to some late business. But she should back before evening meal, she said. It can be ready in two hours, if that’s all right?”

“That would be great. Thank you, Tich.”

The major domo inclined her head once more and then and stalked off, past an older, scarred male who’d been lurking quietly in the background.

“Where is it this time?” the older Mediator asked in a voice that rasped and growled even more than was usual for Rris.

“Bluebetter,” Jenes’ahn replied.

“Journey in winter?”

“A. It looks . . . complicated,” she said, twitching an ear my way.

“Huhn,” the older Mediator growled. Of the two of them I found him to be more . . . tolerable. Rohinia was more discreet; less pushy, less brash. Less full of himself. That all might have been deliberate. Perhaps they were playing a good-cop, bad-cop game, I didn’t know. I didn’t really care. I tolerated them like I would an annoying drizzle.

I didn’t have much choice.

The older Mediator with the voice like a rotweiler’s growl wasn’t that tall for a Rris, but he was solidly built. His winter pelt was shaggy salt and pepper, a ragged patch across his throat hinted at why his voice sounded the way it did. I had a very similar gouge through my left cheek so didn’t have to ask how he’d received it. Perhaps that was why I had more respect for him than his younger partner: he’d made some mistakes and knew there were consequences.

“Complicated, huhn?” he made an inquiring noise.

I didn’t miss the little gesture Jenes’ahn threw him. He glanced at me and scratched his chin tuft. “Hai, everything else here is settled, so I think you should get your report done while it’s still fresh in your recollection. I’ll take the watch now.”

“A,” she inclined her head, gathered her coat and stalked off across the foyer, climbing the stairs, every step she took utterly smooth and utterly silent.

When she’d gone from sight, but probably not from earshot, I asked Rohinia, “You want a report from me too?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary. Her’s will probably be more legible,” he said with a dismissive flick of his hand.


“And tomorrow,” he continued, “I’ll pay a visit to the Guild. I don’t doubt they’ll have more information to add to it.”

Yeah, the Guild probably had access to a lot of information I hadn’t been given. They seemed to have fingers in everyone’s pies, which was their business, when it came down to it.

“Have fun,” I shrugged and headed for the stairs.

I’d made the first landing before his voice came up from below: “What did you do to her?”

“Whatever do you mean?” I asked innocently.

He snorted. “She was . . . annoyed. That sound like your games again.”

Safely out of his sight I grinned. “Oh, I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it in her report.”