Lies in Red Leaves

A Chapter in the Life of Riley

 

Greg Howell

2009-12-23

 

Original from http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~howellg/stories/stories.html. HTML version by Louis Thomas, http://www.latenighthacking.com/, 2011-07-07.

Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 1

Blades of frost-brittle grass crunched like glass under my feet as I ran. In morning air as cold and crisp as chilled knives my breath streamed back over my shoulders, merging with 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 scattered clouds dissipating and leaving a bottomless starry sky to birth 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. 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’d already lost their leaves and from the needles of the evergreens. Down at the water’s edge thin sheets of early ice tinkled and crackled against the stone shore.

At that time of year, amongst 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 physical slap against bare skin. Invigorating. 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. The air was near freezing, but by the time I was done running and headed to the horizontal bar over at the old oak, I wasn’t feeling it.

The Mediator watched quietly through slit-pupil amber eyes as I knocked ice off the wooden bar and commenced my lifts.

She wasn’t human. None of them were human. Rris, that was what they called themselves. 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 furry 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 astoundingly fast in a sprint. 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 old cities and castles 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 scratching 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, frightening and unpredictable 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 as I ignored the still-weird sensations in what remained of the small finger of my left hand, 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 loose 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 and there were sharp claws at finger and toe-tips.

“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 late eighteen — early nineteenth century Europe. They were entering the industrial age; steam power was starting to replace muscle power; machines replacing ancient animal-powered carts; hissing gas lamps replacing dim torches. I’d come into this age from a world well into the information age, where entire factories were starting to be replaced with self-contained manufacturing units and tailored, on-demand production replacing scattershot mass distribution. 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, to take what I offered and more if they could. 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, control over new technology, and control over the Rris governments, 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 things that had some value here: artworks, sculpture, and of course 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. It’d started out as something that would have been, I think, close to Victorian: Perhaps Queen Anne style in shingles and then modified by someone with an inhuman eye and taste. Construction was predominantly wood 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 to at whim as time had passed; as if it’d grown into its surrounds. It had been somewhat dilapidated when I’d acquired it and required a lot of work, 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: windows and lintels had been raised to heights that meant I’d stop concussing myself when walking through a doorway, central heating and water heating had been installed, there was wool insulation in the walls, ceiling and under the floor and the big expanses of gleaming sheet 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. That was an accurate translation. 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 still 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 and a lot of goosebumps.

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 painfully scabbed emotions, 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. 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 table in the living room 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 leaning over to sniff 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 and sagging of muscles 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.

“Sir.”

“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, off 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 had been 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 much in the first place, but then she had to look after me and feed me and stand up for me and teach me. It meant altercations with her clients and 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 loyalty 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 through the light and dark fractures 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 became smaller, more condensed. Expansive grounds became smaller grounds, turned to gardens and compounds. Buildings changed, turning their backs to 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 and districts, like moving through the rings in a tree. There were residential areas and commercial districts and stockyards and plazas and areas used for more small outdoor markets. Others areas were already forming the nucleuses of 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 noisily and uncomfortably over lines of rickety rail tracks angled off toward the river.

Shattered Water had grown along the north-eastern shores of a body of water I’d known as Lake Eerie, at a river mouth a little south of where the city of Buffalo, New York had stood. From a civic-design view the city was a hodgepodge mixture of planning and spontaneous growth, with almost none of the practical grid layout I was familiar with. Like old European cities it’d grown there, responding to the needs and desires of its citizens. There were attempts at civic engineers, with open plazas and squares dotted throughout the city. Wide avenues and main streets radiated out from those; smaller radial roads joining those ways, but in between those was still a bewildering maze of alleyways and side streets built to no single purpose. 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 fractures in a stone-cracked windshield: countless radial lines shattering the glass into roughly triangular shards.

Over the centuries walls had grown up to encircle the city. Not just one, but several, each one further out and encompassing more territory. The outermost fortifications were the newest, built since the advent of gunpowder weapons in this world but still about a hundred years old. It was more a line of squat, fortified berms and moats with gatehouses at tactical locations than a traditional wall of stones and mortar. The older fortifications that’d been supplanted by that line of defence were of the more traditional sort — what was left of them. Dotted through the city like old teeth were old remains of gatehouses and barbicans and towers and crumbling stretches of wall and masonry, all ransacked and cannibalized for raw building material or for the room they occupied. The walls marked a pretty definite border and within those borders real estate space was valuable. As in old European cities, 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 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. Sometimes they went all the way and connected the upper floors, covering the street below.

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 tenor of the ride. Clattering 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 condensation frosting on the glass at a bare forest of masts along the riverside wharves. 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 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 barely 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 riding on elkback. Rris walking and talking. Rris 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 were some politics that’d influenced my purchase — what property had been available for my purchase — but I didn’t know the details at the time. I’d been advised by people I’d found it a good idea to listen to that it be better if I’d settled where I had.

The local residents association hadn’t wanted 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 entire palace complex covered a huge swathe of land: from the lakeside to a distance of over fifteen kilometers inland 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 grey and motionless, 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 expensive 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 in mind of an overstuffed furry cushion that had then been dressed by a mad, color-blind 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 quietly 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 earlier 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 double 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 drawing 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 burgundy 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 lead 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 mildly. “They will be taken at their word.”

Jenes’ahn’s head twitched back. “I see,” she said. Then again: “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 and are well-marked. 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 industrial complex, 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. “How’s that portrait going?”

He’d commissioned me to do a picture of him. It was a little . . . embarrassing. He claimed he’d wanted to get in before the rush. I’d gotten as far as some charcoal sketches.”

“Still on the sketches,” I shrugged. “We need another sitting, but things have been a little busy of late.”

“Huhn, and 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, useful or not: 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 completeness; 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 join or figure out how 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?”

“Among other places.”

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, which will probably have some justification. 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 with water against radiant heat and ballistic 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 or air-transfer furnace 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 those drive shafts, connecting to further reduction gears and drive trains which in turn led to 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 provided along with other offerings, they may be far more appealing.” 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 don’t rust easily. 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, speed of light, 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 table — they were exorbitantly expensive, rare, or both.

“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 ties 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?”

“A.”

“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 or even just rounding too generously, 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 rods 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 the like. 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 programs. 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 refurbishing and occupying 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. On bad days you could smell the building where the Chemist’s Guild operated under contract. Modern infrastructure requires that many disciplines work in cooperation, and that was something that the individualistic Guilds were learning, and were concerned about.

This corridor 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 aquarium-like containers with the plates of metal suspended in dirty liquids. It wasn’t being used at the time, the workbenches covered with dustcloths.

“What’s this?” Jenes’ahn asked, poking a gizmo that was mostly a ceramic pole with a copper ball on top.

“Scholars who’ve toyed with it over the years call it quick-sparks,” Chaeitch told her. “Mikah’s kind calls it eserisity. Something like that. We’re trying to learn how to harness it as they do.”

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

“It’s not something you can normally see. These devices manufacture and manipulate various forms of it. Perhaps a demonstration?” Chaeitch asked.

“Absolutely.”

“Huhnn,” he looked around as if thinking, then told her, “Stand on that.” He pointed to a block of wood on the floor. She blinked and did so, cautiously. He flicked back a dust cover and picked up another box from the workbench , this one a crudely-joined jury-rig 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 placed hands on the copper ball. He started to crank the handle.

Chapter 4

“You thought that was amusing,” Jenes’ahn snarled accusingly as I pulled the carriage door closed and sat back in the creaking, overstuffed leather of the bench. 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 furious chiapet. “You’re laughing.”

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

“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 leaked 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, which you really need to before you can utilize it properly. 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. No. There’ve been a lot of . . . imaginative ideas, 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 fire or wood or steel can be part of a weapon. My machine uses it as . . . like water flowing through a mill race, but it 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; 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. It’s a big, bold undertaking that obviously has many benefits and liabilities, 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 roll rugs, carry the things outside and beat them clean, then return them. By the time they finish cleaning the house, the place they did first needs cleaning again and they have to do it all over again. Hard, dull 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 was 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, impressive, foreboding things fit in perfectly well while the most innocuous little conveniences 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? By whose standards?”

Chapter 5

Dusk was crisp and cold, an autumn evening under a spreading ink 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, cold air aching in my sinuses, 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 the shadow of a cloud in moonlight. 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, pure 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?”

Everything was immaculate, as usual. Brilliant and spotlessly white new plaster on the walls rising up to the mezzanine, polished wooden floor with the beautiful blue and green circular rug with the silver inlays 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 I knew they’d all be gone within minutes.

“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. Something will have to be arranged 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, annoying-cop game, I didn’t know. I didn’t really care. I tolerated them like I would an irritating 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.

Ouch.

“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.”

Chapter 6

My shower was unusual. Unusual in that — as far as I knew — it was the only one in the city; perhaps in the world. Rris don’t seem to like them very much. Chihirae had tried it. Said the water got in her ears and the whole experience just made her feel soggy. But I appreciated it, especially after those . . . interesting days.

I took my time and enjoyed the plentiful hot water. In a few days I’d been on the road again. I’d done that in winter before and I knew that here it meant long, uncomfortable, cold and boring days with very few chances for washing, let alone a hot bath. Weeks there and then weeks back again.

Oh, joy, that really was something to look forward to. I spent a good fifteen minutes just standing under a near-scalding stream of water and appreciating it. After that it was out into air that seemed comparatively chilly to dry off.

I had an hour or so to work through a quick list of what I was going to need Tich to sort out for me. Which, as it turned out, wasn’t enough. I sorted out the list quickly enough, and did some sketches to illustrate some things that Rris tailors and leatherworkers didn’t normal produce, but the stumbling block came when I tried to actually write it out.

The lamp flickered in a draught as I painstakingly scribed out the list, carefully wielding the locally-made fountain pen. Over to one side were my previous efforts, paper covered with errant blotches of ink and crossed-out efforts. It’d taken longer than I’d thought, but I’d gone through my notes and my lessons and figured out the words I needed for the list. I was pretty sure they were the right words; I was pretty sure they were spelt correctly; I just needed to write it out neatly.

“Do you need help?” ventured a voice behind me.

I flinched. The pen skittered and a dollop of ink seeped across the page.

“Oh,” said the voice. Chihirae leaned past my shoulder, regarding my work. “Sorry. I can do that for you, you know.”

I sighed and laid the treacherous pen down. “I can do it.”

She leaned closer to examine my effort. “You need . . . green rocks and an elk with a coat on its feet?”

“What?”

“That’s . . . here,” she pointed, tapping the paper with a claw and chittered.

I sagged. “Oh, shit. I thought I had it right.”

“A good effort,” she chittered again and said and rubbed her velvet cheek against the side of my head. “Perhaps you should come back to school, a?”

“You have some lessons in mind, a?”

A low growl rumbled softly beside me, then she my ear. “I’m sure there are a few exercises we can go over,” a low voice breathed against my skin.

“Hmmm?”

“Your modifiers, for example,” she said brightly. “They most certainly need more study. And when you’re using subjects in a list, the predicate . . .”

I cut her short with a bump of my head against hers. “Not quite the lessons I had in mind.”

Amusement. “Not? I thought you wanted to learn. And looking at this,” she leaned over the desk, the soft glow from the lamp profiling her in a golden nimbus diffusing through her fur, “you need it. Anyway, what is this for?”

I leaned back and rolled my shoulders. “Ah, now that is a story.”

“Hurr? Does it involve what you were doing today?”

“Oh, now you want information,” I grinned, leaning back.

She grinned right back at me, white teeth glittering in the half-light. “You don’t want to tell me? Huhn, well then, it does look like a list of things for you: warm clothing and things you might need on a journey. So I’m assuming you’re going to be going somewhere. They’re sending you away again?”

“You’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself,” I warned.

Chihirae chittered back and then cocked her head, staring intently at my face, “That is it, though, isn’t it? They want you to travel, in winter.”

I nodded; a human gesture that she knew as well as any of her own, “Ah. It’s complicated. There are things to tell you and something to ask. I think . . . over food. Evening meal should be ready by now.”

It was. And it was welcome. A busy day and the cold weather had taken their toll and I was ready for a good meal. Cook had come to grips with my requirements and learned to cook meat properly and go easy on the mystery meats. Rris are predominantly carnivore: they’ll quite happily eat any part of an animal that can’t actually run away. My squeamishness was just another peculiarity to them, but I was learning to appreciate a good cut of tongue or the blood sausages they made.

That night’s offering was a thick stew of bison, potatoes, the local barley equivalent along with thick chunks of fresh-baked bread made from said same. Given a choice the homemade stuff was preferable to mill-bought bread: it was less likely to contain little surprise extras like broken shards of millstone or bits of rodent. We sat in what I perceived as cozy dimness of the living room to eat, the heavy crock pot on the low table between us so we could dunk bread in the remains of the stew. The food was simple and filling, even if the cutlery was silver, the crockery something like bone china and more formal and expensive than anything I’d have used for a casual meal back home. In the gloom it was warm and informal, so Chihirae sat in winter-weight fur and a lightweight green kilt and I told her what had happened that day, what his highness had told me and what they expected me to do. She listened as she masticated her way through half a pot of the stew.

“Down to Bluebetter,” she summed up. “In winter. You.”

“That’s about it,” I said.

“You know you don’t like the cold,” she pointed out. “They know this.”

“A,” I twisted the stem of my wine glass between thumb and forefinger, watching the liquid swirling. “I think it says something about the urgency of the matter.”

“Or their ambivalence toward your wellbeing,” she said

“I’m not sure,” I said. “There was something they said that indicates they have thought about it.”

“What was that?”

“They asked if I’d like to take you along.”

Chihirae froze. Absolutely motionless for a few seconds before she raised her muzzle. Her eyes caught light and glimmered titanium. “What was your answer?”

“My answer was that I would ask you.”

Her ears twitched back and she picked up her wine, dipping her muzzle to lap at it. In the silence I had to ask: “What was your meeting this evening about?”

“What?” she cocked her head. “You think that was related?”

I shrugged, apologetically. “I’m not sure. They leapt out at me with that news and on the same day you are called to a late meeting, which isn’t usual. I thought . . .”

“What?”

“I thought they might have told you how to answer my question.”

She blinked, then snorted and took another sip: a flash of a pink tongue into the wine. “No. Huhn, no. No, it wasn’t anything to do with that.”

“Oh. Just a parent teacher night, a?”

She stared down into the glass. I’d touched something there. “It wasn’t just that, was it,” I said.

“Not exactly.”

“Then what? Trouble? Did someone threaten you?”

“No. Not like that.” She sighed and set the wine down. “It was a parent of a cub at the crèche. Influential. He offered me a lot . . . money, land, riches and comfort. I just had to ask you things.”

“Things?”

“Things that you know,” she waved a hand in a gesture that encompassed generality. “Ideas and devices. Things to give them advantages.”

“Them?”

“He’s not the first to try this. The forth, actually.”

“Oh. Oh . . . rot,” I took a deep breath. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I thought you had quite enough to deal with,” she said.

“But didn’t the Guild . . .”

“I didn’t tell them the details,” she said, just as quietly. “I chose not to.”

“But why . . .” I started to ask before my brain caught up with my mouth. “Oh,” I dunked a chunk of bread in cooling sauce and nibbled as I considered. “These . . . individuals, they’re related to the children you’re teaching.”

She gave a small smile and a gesture of affirmation. “A.”

So they could ruin her career if they chose. They could simply remove their students, choose other tutors, shut her out of her own livelihood. “They haven’t threatened anything if you don’t cooperate?”

No, she waved. “They have made offers in exchange for my [complicity? Cooperation?], that is all. I don’t believe it is illegal.”

“Nothing more? No threats?”

I was favored with a curious look, as if she had to explain that ice was cold. “With the Guild involved? That would lose them more than they could ever gain.”

Another twist of their mindset and system. The Guild was a force unto themselves, outside their countries’ political power structures. No matter how powerful some of these people were, no matter what sort of friends they had in government or merchant industry, they didn’t have any influence over the Mediator Guild. It was an organization that was a paramilitary force, a police force and a judicial system all existing in coexistence with, yet independent to, the Rris governments. A charter existed that gave them jurisdiction over Governments; an agreement that said that under certain conditions the Guild had authority to demand anything they required, to requisition supplies, equipment, transport or personnel, even to enforce the charter through physical means.

My arrival had precipitated those conditions quite nicely.

In a world where communications moved at the speed of a fast messenger it took the Guild some time to realize what was happening; even longer to figure out what sort of repercussions the changes that were going on around me might have. When it did catch up, the resultant convulsions just about tore it in half and very nearly killed me. It got me caught up in a nasty little internal power struggle, blackmailed me into silence and cooperation and saddled me with those two minders. The thought of an organization holding that sort of power just seemed wrong. I’d seen what could go wrong and how some overly-dedicated fanatics could shake the foundations of a society.

But a government was just another sort of organization, wasn’t it?

I shuddered. “Just let them know that if they try anything, I will pull their skin off and play tunes on their ribs.”

She snorted, unimpressed, “Oh, very subtle.”

“Chihirae, if they try anything . . . let me know. We’ll see how much they like to play games.”

“Games,” she shuddered. Her glass was set down and she took up her two-tined fork again, skewering a mouthful of meat.

“Look, I know it’s your life and you want to fend for yourself, but some of these people won’t play fair. They won’t hesitate to call in friends or favors to further their own ends. You should you know you’ve got someone on your side if you need it. Speak softly but carry a bigger stick. With a nail in it.”

She smiled distractedly at that. Her next chunk of meat remained impaled on the end of her fork. “You want me to go with you?”

“It’s entirely up to you. Nothing anyone else says should change that.”

“It would be recompense to you?”

“Ah, what?” I didn’t understand that. “Recompense? For . . . what?”

“This,” the bit of meat waved around, taking in the food, the room . . .”All you’ve done for me. You would expect me to come with you?”

I know my jaw dropped and I gaped like an idiot, absolutely lost for words.

“Oh,” her ears twitched back as she noticed my reaction. “From your expression, I take it that’s not what you meant?” she ventured.

“I . . . no,” I finally croaked.

“Oh,” she bit her meat again, looking a little relieved. “I thought you expected it of me. That was why you asked about my meeting?”

“No,” I said again, shocked and hurt and more than a little off balance at how the question had been interpreted. “No, no it’s not . . . Chihirae, I would never ask you for . . . for anything. I would never ask you to do anything against your will.”

And she knew me well enough that something got through there. She stopped chewing, stared at me closely again. After a few seconds she said, “That offended you, didn’t it.”

“It . . . really surprised me.”

“Huhn, very diplomatic,” she growled, regarded her food and sighed. “It’s one of those moments again, isn’t it.”

“I think so,” I said quietly.

One of those moments. One of those moments between Human and Rris where everything just went off in wildly different directions. We could speak the same language, but that wasn’t to say that what went on behind the scenes worked in the same way; that the words we used meant the same things. Because we’re different species — different animals with different senses, different perceptions and different ways of thinking — there were emotions and reactions that were natural in one of us that were completely foreign to the other.

Love was one of the worst.

Not in the romantic, love-will-conquer-all poetic, Hollywood sense; Rather in the real, sluice-of-hormone induced perceptual blinkers nature built in to reinforce various relationships. All the affection and protection I felt love toward Chihirae was that — love. What she felt in return was . . . it was something else.

I could use a comparison with a dog and its human owner here, but I won’t. That would be demeaning to someone: either me or Rris, I’m not sure. They aren’t human so what they feel isn’t what I feel. It can’t be. They can’t love. There was friendship or affection or protectiveness or something akin to that; something that stopped her just leaving, but it wasn’t love. They have relationships, they have offspring and there are close threads between them, but they’re not the same familial bonds that I felt in my marrow. For Rris staying with a fixed partner wasn’t usual. It wasn’t done. It wasn’t . . . normal.

And I was the odd one out here. I took a slug of wine and winced, swirling the dregs. “Chihirae, I would like you to come. But it . . . I can’t say that it will be safe. I can’t say that it will be easy. The final say is yours.”

“Huhn,” she growled again, looking down into her bowl. “I think I’ll sleep on that, if there’s time?”

I nodded. “We have a few days. If you’re worried about leaving your work, I’m sure a temporary substitute can be arranged. And the job’ll still be there when we get back.”

She tore a bit of bread and sponged up gravy, still looking uncertain.

“And you won’t owe me anything,” I added. “You’ll never owe me.”

Her muzzle twitched, rows of v shapes furrowing the bridge of her broad nose, “Rot, I’m sorry,” she said as her ears flicked back. “I thought . . . No. No, I didn’t. It was thoughtless. How about this though: I can help you with that list. Would you accept that?” she sucked her head and looked up at me.

As attempts to change the subject went, it was pretty transparent. And welcome. “You think I need it?”

“Mikah, an ‘elk with a coat on its feet’?” she prodded.

“Come on,” I shrugged and tipped my glass to her. “You know you want one too.”

She chittered. “I think you can do better than that. Am I that bad a teacher?”

“If the results are the measure of a teacher, you must be terrible.”

Chihirae screwed her nose up and sniffed, the very picture of an affronted feline. “Sah! But I have such terrible material to work with.”

I laughed out loud, and in the quiet of the house the noise was quite abrupt, quite odd. Outside, wind gusted, bringing the first rattling as sleet batted against the windows.

And later, I sat at my desk, scowling at the paper on the desk and absently chewing the end of my pen. It’d seemed like such a simple thing to do in a moment of bravado. Just a list of words I knew. But I couldn’t write them. There were rules that seemed intuitive to Chihirae that I just didn’t get. Was I was functionally dyslexic in Rris? Some time ago, before Chihirae arrived in Shattered Water, I’d been assigned another tutor by the Palace. It’d been an unmitigated disaster. We hadn’t gotten along. She’d feared and hated what she thought I was, and for me that attitude was like an abrasive hot sandstorm continually snarling in my face. Esseri, that’d been her name. She was an elderly Rris with an old anger, but the difficulties I’d had learning writing under her tutelage hadn’t gone away with a change in teachers. Subject, then predicate and then modifiers to the former, depending upon usage and tense, but those rules seemed so arbitrary. You could write a page and then go back and scratch a few extra marks and completely change the meaning of the content. I took my best shot at it.

“That’s better,” the voice at my shoulder said. A warm body leaned over and a stubby finger with an extruded claw touched the line I’d just scratched out. “You see, it’s a possessive; it’s future tense, so you have to modify the possessive tense like so. That’s right. That’s good.”

“I think I understand,” I ventured. That line was correct, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was I’d done that was right.

“Try with the rest,” Chihirae urged. “Just like that.”

I scratched away and she stayed by my side, watching and patiently giving me tips and correcting my mistakes. In the end she’d ended up correcting and rewriting a good part of my best efforts. When it was done, I’d taken the final list to Tich and given it to her along with instructions. She’d received it impassively, glanced over it, and then bowed her head. “Very good, sir,” was all she’d said. I remembered crude crayon childhood pictures I’d been so proud of stuck up on the refrigerator and sighed. Was she patronizing me?

Beyond the drapes and glass the wind blew. Rain or sleet ticked against the windows. Inside was dim and warm. Chihirae was stretched out on my bed, chin propped on one hand as she carefully tapped away at the notebook, the pulsing glow of the screen in the dim room indicating she was flicking through static images. She found it a fascinating toy. Considering it was probably the most valuable item on the face of the planet, there’d have been plenty of Rris who’d have had kittens if they knew she loved just looking through the pictures from another world. They’d have gnawed their own legs off for a chance to just play around with it as she did. She looked up as I came in, her face lit from below by electronic light. “You’re done?”

I sat down beside her, the bed rocking as I settled and laid a hand on her back, absently scratching back and forth. “A, done,” I said quietly.

She arched back, pressing back against my rubbing. “Huhrn, you’re still upset?”

“What? Oh, no . . . It’s not that. It’s just fucking humiliating. I mean, it’s just a list. I thought it would be easy. I know the words, I just can’t put them together on paper. Am I that hopeless?”

“Not hopeless,” she growled and shifted. “My ears. Get behind my ears . . . There . . . . uhhnn, you see? You’re very good at something.”

Despite myself, I smiled. She got inordinate pleasure out of such a simple thing as a good scratch behind the ears. “Somehow, I don’t think any of their lordships would be impressed by this.”

An amused sound. “They don’t know what they’re missing,” she rumbled, flexing her shoulders. Under the fur muscles rippled with a flexibility that was literally inhuman.

“What’re you looking at, anyway?”

“Huhn?” she looked around at me, then angled the notebook so I could see. Pictures. A human woman in a black evening gown walking through a crown of photographers. I blinked. That was one of the dozens of stock image directories. Chihirae tapped the screen and images flicked to a brunette in casual wear, to a painting of Venus, a render of a redhead on a racing bike, to a blonde in a swimsuit, to another blonde not in a swimsuit. Stock cheesecake collection. Chihirae tipped her head. “They’re all females, aren’t they?”

“Well, yes,” I said. “But they’re not all real. There are paintings and artificial images there.”

“Oh,” she said, cocked her head at the screen. I ruffled the fur on her back, idly scratching fingers up and down her spine.

“They are attractive?”

“A lot of them, very.”

She sniffed, then pushed the laptop aside and rolled over. Amber eyes blinked up at me from a tawny-grey furry face. “You still miss them?”

“Them? No. I never knew them,” I ruffled the longer tufts on her chest, drawing swirls through the speckled greyish fur. Her winter coat was growing in and her pelt was noticeably thicker than it’d been a month ago. She blinked slowly, lazily.

“Your mate then?”

“A,” I nodded, scratching her like a shaggy dog. “I still think of her.” And family, and friends, and countless other things that were lost forever.

“Huhn,” she growled softly, laying back and relaxing under the scratching. “Mikah, about what I said downstairs, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

“No,” I said. “You did.”

“Mikah . . .”

“That’s what you’d usually say under the circumstances, a? To other Rris? It would be the right thing to do?”

Her eyes closed. Her ribs tensed, then dropped in a sigh and eventually she confessed with a squeak, “A.”

My finger traced a line down her breastbone. “So you did what would normally be right. I can’t fault you for that.”

She cracked an eyelid, showing a line of glittering amber. “I should have known better.”

I grinned. “I know that feeling. But what you are always beats what you try to be. Trying to act the way you think I want you to . . . I understand why you do it. I also understand how impossible it can be.”

“This is how you feel when you say those strange things?”

“This is how you feel when I say those strange things?” I retorted and scratched her belly.

She chittered.

“Chihirae, it’s not you who’s walking against the wind here. I’m out of place, not you. It’s always going to be weird for me when Rris say things like that. I can’t properly understand it or the thoughts behind it. But, I guess I can learn to accept it.”

She caught after my hand. Her stubby, hairy fingers caught mine; leathery palms creased against my skin while her claws were sharp points in her fingertips as she squeezed. “I wouldn’t ask any more,” she said in a voice that rumbled like a growl. “But, you stopped scratching me.”

I laughed, quietly in the still warmth, leaned over and raked her pelt. Chihirae went bonelessly limp, head lolling with the pink tip of her tongue protruding as I rubbed and scratched here and there through inch-thick fur and fell, across the six buttons of her nipples. A completely otherworldly body sprawled, luxuriating, arching slightly when I scratched somewhere right. Just scratching and laughing and enjoying ourselves for a pleasant time.

Her kilt buckle was a momentary hindrance, a few seconds to lay the fabric open. Her crotch fur was thick, tufted. Her half-closed eyes glittered, glimmering threads visible below her eyelids. Her tongue flicked around her chops. Her hips shifted as her legs spread. Her chest heaved with an intake of breath as I stroked there, seeking, pressing. Her muscles were alive, an alien body fever-hot around my fingers. Her hands clenched fistfuls of the duvet as I moved my hand, slowly at first, faster. Her muscles tightened, tendons creaking. Her claws popped through the fabric as my fingertips found that spot deep in her heat, as my other hand scratched along her ribs, her belly. Her hips pushed back. Her head tossed, made noises, teeth flashed in the light. Her body tensed, spasmed, squeezed like an organic vice. Her exultant yowl cutting through the whine of the wind outside.

For a while she lay sprawled there among the white folds of the eiderdown, panting, a stupidly satisfied expression on her face. I sat by her and stroked her ruffled fur smooth and she grinned up at me. “Clever fingers,” she growled. I grinned back and she chittered and wriggled against my touch, “Why’d you stop?”

It was sometime later that we thought to close the door.

Chapter 7

Early morning. I dragged myself out from under hot covers into a chilly bedroom. Pipes rattled as the radiators warmed up, but they still had some work to do. Behind me, the lump in the bed snuffled, complained incoherently and buried itself deeper. Opening the curtains revealed swirling grey and anemic dawn light outside.

Fog. And cold. Great. I winced and started to dress: shorts and moccasins.

As always, Tich met me at the foot of the stairs. “Good morning, Sir.”

“Morning, Tich.”

“Grilled grouse, eggs, grain cakes, bread, cheese and tomato juice are acceptable for your breakfast, Sir?”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Has the messenger been yet?”

“A short time ago,” she said. “Messages were dispatched to the tailors and other crafters you requested. There was an arrival: a missive from the palace, Sir. Documents granting you Palace authority for this equipping, allowing you to requisition any supplies or services you may require. On Palace expenses.”

“Unlimited?”

“Within reason, I believe, but otherwise essentially yes.”

“They’re serious.”

“Not uncommon, Sir.”

“I’ll try and read them over breakfast. Oh, and her ladyship seems to be trapped in bed. She might need a wake-up call.”

“Very good, Sir. And I’ll ensure that the sheets are changed again. As a matter of note, Sir, it might be an idea to acquire some more linen. Washing doesn’t dry as fast in this weather and the staff have found difficulty in providing clean linen.”

“Ah,” I felt a hot flush creep up my neck at the wording there. “Okay, do that. It’s not . . . disturbing them?”

“Not to my knowledge, Sir,” she said. “I believe they find it’s entertaining.”

“They . . . what?” I shouldn’t have asked.

“Entertaining, Sir.”

“Entertaining,” I echoed. “How?”

I believe betting is involved.”

I stared. “Betting?”

“Oh, on how long you’ll go on for,” she ticked off on a finger, “how long before the next outcry; what her ladyship cries out next . . .”

The hot flush reached the top floor and I didn’t have any words.

“They are discreet,” she said. “There won’t be any gossip beyond these walls.”

“Oh,” I squeaked. “Good.”

She paused, giving me a curious look, as if waiting for me to say something else. “If that’s all, Sir?” she enquired.

“A,” I choked, my whole face feeling hot and tight. She ducked her head and silently padded off toward the staff areas.

Crap. It was too early in the morning; my brain wasn’t ready for dealing with Rris weirdness like that, not at that time. And the Rris didn’t have coffee or anything with a decent caffeinated kick to it. A run in freezing mist would have to do.

There was movement in the corner of my eye as I walked through the living room: a flash of tawny fur and dark clothes. “You heard?” I asked the Mediator as she fell in behind me.

“A,” Jenes’ahn said mildly. She was wearing one of those Mediator coats that morning; a long and heavy, travelled-stained dark grey leather thing. If she was wearing that, the weather must’ve been getting cooler.

“Is it true? She wasn’t joking?” I realized how stupid that sounded even as I said it.

“Three times last night,” she said. “I’m up almost a full silver.”

I grimaced. “Gambling on duty . . . isn’t there some sort of rule about that?”

“No.”

Figures.

I hammered my frustrations into submission with exercise. Freezing fog and morning temperatures were like a splash of frigid water across my entire body and had much the same effect as a jug of espresso as I turned the annoyance and embarrassment into a couple of dozen laps of the field. It was embarrassing. Rather, it was embarrassing for me. For the Rris . . . I’d thought they might be offended or scandalized by what we did, but Tich had called it entertainment. They’re open about most bodily functions, and to them sex isn’t anything to get overly excited about. Rris females are fertile once a year. Around about springtime they come into season and until that time the males aren’t sexual active or even very interested. Something to do with scents or pheromones as best I can understand; the males just can’t get it up without the scent of a woman, so to say. Until that stimulus is provided — or until some sort of chemical substitute is used — the males have all the sexual drive of a bollard. I was capable of performing all year round and they found that unusual. Chaeitch ribbed me about it; made jokes. The staff didn’t seem to be much different.

Punish them? Dock pay? Fire them? At first I was tempted, really tempted. But I ran and thought and cooled off. By their lights any action like that would be over-reacting. It wasn’t their fault that they had good hearing; and, granted, in the heat of passion Chihirae did sometimes make noises that weren’t entirely unlike a chainsaw hacking through zinc ducting; and what was going on was certainly something out of the ordinary so of course they would take an interest in it. Not just the fact that we . . . that we weren’t the same, there was more than that, more than just the unusual time of year. Their women are capable of climax, but very few of them ever had. Their sessions with their males were energetic and numerous and over very fast. Too fast for them to get off on. It was a physical thing. I’d asked Chihirae why she didn’t use a substitute, a vibrator or something and she had been seriously perplexed about the idea of having sex with, as she put it, ‘furniture’. She just found the entire concept strange, as she did masturbation, haircuts, and hoola hoops. Masturbation didn’t seem to appeal to them either. I didn’t really understand why. Perhaps it was something along the same lines as the reason you can’t tickle yourself.

I grimaced as I sweated my way through a series of chin-ups on the icy bars, remembering some really awkward and convoluted conversations I’d had with Chihirae about a lot of those things. She’d thought a lot of it hilarious.

Different? Certainly. Weird? Perhaps. Wrong? That wasn’t so clear cut. There would be Rris and Humans who would condone what we did; each for reasons the other would probably find bizarre or absurd. And there’d certainly been a time when I’d thought along those lines; when Rris had been alien and inhuman beyond all measure. And then, one wet and rainy night in a strange city a friend had approached me and I’d reciprocated. It’d been terrifying and confusing and reason had never entered into it. I’d clutched at a warm body in the night as if she were a lifeline and she’d responded and suddenly all those reasons had seemed far away and insignificant. Funny how a few years and desperate immersion in a society can change your perspective.

Breathing hard I dropped from the bars, rolling my shoulders. Blood sang, my muscles ached and the sweat chilled on my body, steaming away into the morning mist under the old trees along the edge of the meadow. Early sunlight diffused through the grey, turning the world a dull pearl. Somewhere out there, ice clattered on the lakeshore.

Perhaps the problem wasn’t with the staff. Perhaps it was just another perspective I had to learn to adjust to. That might be possible to do. Learned behavior could be un-learned or changed. It was the hard-wired stuff that was harder to deal with. But sometimes it was difficult to tell which was which.

When I turned back to the house, Jenes’ahn moved from where she’d crouched under the tree, moving from a quietly-hunkered figure to a loping predator falling in behind me. Her long coat tails swished about her peculiar ankles in time with the swaying of her own tail. Halfway there the nagging uncertainties were too much. I stopped walking. She also stopped, cocking her head.

“What should I do?” I asked, hating myself.

“About?” she said.

“The staff,” I said. “Should I be concerned about this?”

Her head canted to one side, studying me. “For what reason?”

“Because I don’t know if what they did is considered wrong or improper or impolite. Because I don’t know what would be considered an . . . an appropriate response.”

“Huhn,” she huffed a cloud of breath that glittered as white as her sharp little teeth. “You mock me, then you ask me for advice in something like this.”

“Yes.”

The Mediator’s eyes narrowed to amber slots and she canted her head, to one side and then the other. “This is nothing to do with my duties. Why should I help?”

I looked toward the house, a dark bulk in the mist. “Because I might end up doing something that punishes some hard-working people for what is, by their lights, no real reason.”

Jenes’ahn chewed on that. Then she said, “Kings and countries call for your advice and yet in something like this, you really don’t know?”

“If I did I wouldn’t have to resort to this.”

“What don’t you understand?”

It was cold. It was freezing, and so was I. “I’m their employer so I can do what I want. That’s easy. Doing what’s considered right isn’t. My kind would regard such indiscretions as you would . . . as you would consider intruding uninvited on another’s private home.”

“Huhn,” amongst Rris that was extremely impolite. “Punishment would be normal?”

“Of some sort. It would be intended to . . . establish authority in the household. It is, I think, another thing that’s different between us.” Alpha male and group hierarchies, something else Rris society did differently. It echoed throughout their social structure. “I don’t know if those actions would be considered appropriate here.”

Another growl, a flash of a wrinkled muzzle before she turned to glare toward the house. “They wouldn’t be. It’s a minor incident. Tichirik saw no issue; that’s why she mentioned it. Anything more and she would control it. It’s her duty.”

“Umm,” I nodded. Frost crackled in my beard and in my hair where sweat had frozen. “You’re right.”

“What will you do?”

“Now? Get warm; Get breakfast. About that other problem? I think I’ll have to make sure the door’s closed.”

“Perhaps a muzzle for her ladyship,” the Mediator suggested drily from behind me.

My heart slammed and I stopped walking. “Some advice, Jenes’ahn,” I said to the cold air, really trying to stay calm, “never, ever say anything like that around her. It’s not something she wants or needs to be reminded of. Understand?”

A pause. The early sun climbed in the east, like a watery poached egg through the grey dawn. Winter treetops cast crepuscular rays across the meadow, light and dark stretching through the mist like insubstantial fingers. Away in the distance someone was hammering metal and the sound carried in the stillness.

“I apologize,” Jenes’ahn said. I’m sure she was staring, but I didn’t turn. I just started walking again.

There was still a snoring lump in the bed when I went in for a shower. It took a while under a stream of hot water to get the feeling back in my ears and toes. When I emerged, Chihirae was slouched on the edge of the bed, fur tousled and matted, scratching herself and blinking blearily.

“Good morning,” I said and then smirked. “You’re looking bright and ready.”

She yawned, dropping her jaw and curling a pink tongue, then smacked her jaw a few times and focused on me. “Rot you, Mikah, it’s indecent to be so active so early.”

I stopped on my way across the room to scratch behind a tufted ear.

“Ah,” she rumbled leaning into it for a second before drawing away and batting at my hand. “Hai, no. Not now.”

I grinned and headed for the wardrobe. Clothing wasn’t something I had a lot of. When I’d arrived here it’d been late summer and my wardrobe of human-made clothes reflected that. The heavy stuff I had was Rris-made and for the coming trip it wasn’t going to be heavy enough.

She stood and stretched, arms one at a time and then legs, one at a time. She rolled her shoulders in a disturbingly fluid manner and then looked down at herself and snorted. “Ah, rot, I need a bath. A proper bath. And grooming. And food.” She grimaced and rubbed her crotch, “And I think I’m still sore from last night.”

“Too much of a good thing?” I grinned.

She grinned back, mockingly, “Too much of a some-thing.”

“I don’t remember hearing you complaining,” and neither did anyone else, apparently.

“Huhr, the hairless beast thinks highly of himself.”

“Credit where credit’s due,” I retorted as I pulled out trousers, tunic and undershirts. Rris made, which meant buttons and laces. Nothing wrong with Rris tailors, despite clothing not being such a fundamental necessity for Rris. They just didn’t have access to things like elastic, silk, synthetics and microfibres. So they had to do things other ways.

“Yet he can’t even write a simple list,” she chittered.

“Oh, cold. That’s just cold.”

A hand touched me, stroking down from the nape of my neck and gently, gently down over the numb stripes of scar tissue lacing my back. I twitched; I hadn’t heard her approach. “What’s your business this early? That list?”

“A,” I said, starting to dress. “That and some other things I’ve got to take care of. We’ve only got a few days, so I’ve got to get them done quickly. There’s the tailor and leatherworkers . . . they’ll need as much time as I can give them.”

“You be careful,” she said. “Remember there’re those who aren’t used to you. Mind your teeth. Don’t lock eyes or stand close. Don’t make those storekeepers too nervous.”

“I think they’re making too much money off me for that,” I laughed. “They’re pretty accustomed to me by now.”

“Huhn. Money and guards might buy politeness to your face but it won’t change thoughts.”

I looked at her, sobering. “You know something I don’t?”

She swept her hand in a negative, but an ear twitched back: she looked uncomfortable. “No, but . . . there’re those questions they asked me. Mikah, people — powerful people — are aware of you and they’re thinking about what you can do.”

My hands stilled. “And some of them might not like the possibilities, a?”

She waved a little gesture of agreement.

It wasn’t a new concern. I’d worried about it; the local government and my protectors had worried about it. But for Chihirae to be nibbling at it . . . I’d tried to keep that sort of thing from her. She knew I had enemies, that fact was perfectly obvious, but I’d tried to keep some of the grubbier sides of the politiking from her: the under-table appeals and outright bribe attempts from merchants and nobles, the remoras and hanger-ons jockeying for tidbits of information, the insistent petitioners with some pretty bizarre ideas. If those sorts of undercurrents were reaching her, that meant things were bubbling pretty close to the surface.

I just gave her a smile and did up the buttons on the heavy shirt. The smile was forced, but there was probably little chance of even her picking that up. “I know,” I said. “I will be careful. And, hell , I’ve got a Mediator following me around everywhere. They must be good for something.”

She flicked an ear and stepped in closer, her furry hands with their short, single-jointed fingers mixing with mine to help me with the buttons. “Just, be careful.”

“Hey,” I smiled down at her muzzled face, “Aren’t I always?”

She bit me.

Breakfast was hot and filling. The grain cakes were a Rris dish like oatmeal hotcakes, with bits of meat in them. Along with melted butter and syrup they were quite good and got me in a mood to deal with the day.

Chapter 8

The carriage swayed as it rattled off down the drive. I exhaled a breath that hung in the frigid air and regarded Jenes’ahn through it. She was sitting in the front seat, diagonally opposite me and looking out the window but very quickly noticed me staring. The gaze she leveled back was amber and inscrutable. She cocked her head.

“Did you know about those people asking Chihirae questions?”

“A,” she said.

“Is there anything to it? Are they dangerous? Should I be concerned?”

She tipped her head the other way. The carriage swung around onto the street, sunlight washing in across her and she looked out the window again. “They are potential dangerous. You should be aware that they are taking increasing interest.”

“Will they harm her?”

“They don’t seem to realize that she has emotional value to you. They don’t think that’s why you keep her around. Paying off obligation, teaching you, even as entertainment, they think those are the reasons she’s there, but not that there is actual emotional weight.”

‘Emotional weight’. . . was that how they saw it? “You know what they’re asking.”

“For information about you, about your knowledge,” she said, looking bored.

They knew. Chihirae hadn’t told them, but they knew.

“You’re alright with that?”

“If by that you mean do we condone it then, yes. They can ask. She can refuse. We are . . . alright with that.”

“And if they try to hurt her?”

“They won’t. She has the Guild’s attention,” she said and yawned. I got a profile view of her jaw dropping and tongue curling, then snapping shut.

My own jaw clenched. She was valuable, that was what Jenes’an was saying. She was a way for the Guild to make sure I toed their line. They’d never actually threatened her. They didn’t have to: if anything happened to me, she’d be superfluous to requirements — out on the street — so they just had to make sure I knew that without Guild protection I could be in trouble. But they also knew that if anything happened to her, then the Guild wouldn’t have leverage on me, wouldn’t be able to make sure I agreed to do as they directed. A nasty web of confusing interpretations of alien intentions on all side.

Morning sunlight washed across the Mediator’s face, highlighting the feline profile in a glowing white halo of backlit fur. I turned away and stared out my own window. I didn’t like to admit it, but the Mediators disturbed me. A lot. I had to wonder what sort a childhood she’d been through to produce something like that.

The carriage rattled onwards.

This time the first visit was to more commercial parts of town — a district situated further away from the river and closer to one of the radial plazas that Shattered Water sprawled around: a neighborhood in the wedge between two avenues radiating from a plaza. The streets weren’t nearly as broad as the tree-lined avenues, but they were clean and cobbled and damned slippery in the icy weather. New gas lamps on fluted black iron posts stood along the streets, snuffed for the day but providing a glimmer of light at night. To either side the two and three story buildings were old sandstone; wood and plaster; or sometimes newer brick with peaked roofs of proper tile, all well built and prosperous. Colors contrasted markedly with the grey skies — drab plaster and stonework were painted in brightly garish hues that often clashed with my sense of color harmony. Murals of all shapes and sizes and quality abounded, from a silhouette of a cub with a hoop to a three story strip of geometric orange and green shapes to tromp lois of doors or windows. Some were painted, others formed from mosaics of iridescent glazed tiles or even bits of colored glass. Facades were decorated with embellishments: columns and ornamental mouldings, frescoes and cornices, arches and architraves. Windows were glazed with panes of varying quality and stores were announced by painted signs and engraved plaques at doors. Things were made here, but there were no factories; it was a place of craftsmen and artisans.

First stop was the tailors. Word had gone ahead so they were open and expecting us. I stepped out of the chilly carriage into chilly morning air right outside the shop. It wasn’t anything spectacular: a wide mullioned window of old glass panes offering a watery view of a dark interior and alongside that a wooden door painted in peeling green. A pair of the guards assigned to me were waiting there, stepping aside as I entered. I ducked under the low lintel and then stood for a second to let my eyes adjust.

Like most Rris establishments it was quite dim inside. Most of the light came in through the expensive, warped, greenish-tinted lites in the front window. It didn’t travel far, casting a bright rectangle of morning sunlight and caustic patterns on a polished wooden floor that glared and left the back of the shop in what my eyes perceived as gloom. I stood in the light and blinked, looking around at shadowy bolts of cloth laying on counters and table; at sheets hanging from polished brass rods; at cords and strips of fabric samples spread out for inspection. Figures lurking in the gloom resolved into the sectioned torsos of Rris dressmakers dummies, crudely formed things dressed in examples of what was fashionable: waistcoats and kilts and slitted tunics. The imitation bluejeans and T-shirts hanging behind a counter were glaringly incongruous, and also expensive.

“Sir, welcome back.” The Rris who greeted me was a big Rris with grey fur and nervous hands and ears. I’d dealt with him before: all my Rris-made clothing came from that place. Chaeitch used his services and had enquired whether he would be willing to do work for an exotic client. If the price was right he’d have made a tutu for a llama. He’d been so nervous around me he couldn’t hold his measures and had only relaxed a little when he found I didn’t bite and paid well.

Still, Chihirae had been right: I didn’t really know what they were thinking. They might act friendly, but what was going on inside their heads wasn’t something I could read. That was a lesson that’d been beaten into me.

The guards outside kept the general public away and Jenes’ahn lurked in the background while we did business. I didn’t need dance apparel for a draft animal, what I did require was more and heavier clothing than most Rris used. And I needed them quickly. Warm shirts and pants; quilted and otherwise as well as underclothes and some more formal attire that I could use in those meetings in sub-zero locations that the Rris were quite comfortable in. The designs weren’t a problem, but the turnaround time was. He was very good at his job and had several apprentices, but their strength was quality, not speed.

He listened to the requirements and then to when I needed them. If he’d been human, he’d have blanched.”Sir,” he choked and looked from me to the Mediator. “Sir, I . . . that is . . .”

“Problem, a?” I asked.

He looked miserable.

“You can’t do it in the time, right?” I sighed.

Obviously he hadn’t wanted to broach the subject. “Sir, the items required . . . we can certainly make them for you, but they are not usual. To produce all of them by the end of the week . . . Sir, I have but two hands. It would be possible, but I believe the . . . ah, the cost . . . would . . .”

He trailed off. I’d already guessed what he was getting at: I’d been in a similar business.

“I can have it fast, cheap, or well-made. Any two of those, a?”

I could see him mentally parsing that, then his ears wilted. “A. Yes, Sir.”

“Fast and well-made then,” I said. “A reasonable amount for a good job is fair.”

“Very good, Sir,” he said. “They will be ready, then.”

He’d subcontract, that was damn obvious. If it was to a competitor, that could be trouble, but he seemed sure the wares would be ready. He’d be held to that, and he knew it.

Oh, back home there were places where you could wander in in the morning and come back in the evening to collect a suit complete with spare pair of trousers. Things worked a bit differently here. Slower. There wasn’t as much demand for full sets of suits, or any sort of clothing for that matter. Most of the shop’s work involved what might be considered designer wear for the affluent, the sort of extravagant shows of wealth that were popular amongst the upper crust and at royal balls. If they needed extra material, it took a long time to find a supplier, order it, and get it delivered. The tailor and his apprentices relied on their skills to do their jobs, but they had to do those jobs by hand. There were sewing machines, but they were pretty rudimentary and brutal things more suited to sailmaking than the finer points of tailoring for the upper classes. That could be changed, but not there and then.

I paid him half the required amount up front, counting out the stamped sticks of silver Rris coinage so appropriately coined fingers. The tailor and his apprentices did the necessary measuring quickly and efficiently, concentrating very hard on their jobs and quite obviously trying to ignore Jenes’ahn standing nearby. Fifteen minutes of poking and cutting and measuring and they were done and we were on our way.

Our next stop wasn’t in such a good neighborhood. We had to head up river, to an outlaying area that was mostly storage yards: coal and stone and brick and timber yards, as well as stock yards and slaughterhouses. The streets there were cobbled, but the stones had cracked and been displaced by the passage of heavy wagons and carts they’d never been intended to support. Jolting over them was enough to rattle my teeth. The place we wanted was behind a wrought-iron gate in a narrow street containing a mixture of several residential enclaves, small businesses and stores. And by the ammonic pall hanging around the street, it was quite close to slaughter yards and tanneries.

That ammonia smell was more pronounced as we stepped through the open gates into a small courtyard. It’d probably been a stable yard once, but now as we passed through we were in a flagstone courtyard bustling with busy Rris and cluttered by frames and racks of all descriptions. They filled the yard, protruding from the walls and standing in rows on the flagstones. Strips of leather or whole animal pelts hung from most of them, either stretched out or just hung from hooks. Different sizes and shapes and colors of hides ready for working. Staggered rows of sunken, tile-lined vats were set to one side of the court, tubs stained with technicolor patinas of dried dyes layers deep. To the rear of the court — set against the building there — was a workshop area: a low, sloping roof of clay tiles covering benches and scraping areas and racks of iron and wood tools, the purpose of most of them being a complete mystery to me.

Rris there saw us — saw me — as we walked in and work ground to a halt, workers stopping where they were and leaning on paddles and workbenches to stare. One of them hastily ducked away through a set of low doors to return within seconds with the owner and master. She hurried out to greet us, wiping her hands on a scrap of cloth grubby enough that the act of rubbing it was probably making the fabric marginally cleaner. An older woman in a stained leather apron, stocky and with some interesting scars lacing through the fur of her lower left arm.

“Respects,” she greeted as she hustled up, with the tip of her tail flicking and ducking her head in a way that was more nervous than deferential. “Ma’am. Sir. So good you choose to patronize my establishment again.”

I nodded in return, carefully not smiling. “You did good work last time.”

Her ears twitched. “Thank you, sir. I’m glad our efforts meet with your approval.”

“And no good work goes unpunished: we have some more for you.”

Her eyes flicked to the Mediator and back to me again and her ear twitch was a little less certain. “Ah, thank you, sir?”

“I need more foot coverings. Different from the ones you made before. Also, gloves and headgear. And I need them fast. By the end of the week.”

She flinched again, but this time it was startlement. “That is short notice, Sir.”

“You can do it?” I asked.

“I believe so, Sir . . . but, I need to know a bit more. I can’t make blind promises about this. Please, come into the shop and we can see what’s required.”

The shop itself was through a battered little door with a few slits for windows in the wall alongside. Inside was quite different from the clean affluence of the tailors. It was more like a warehouse, with rows of goods. Those windows were little more than arrow-slits in width, stacked with columns of dusty bullseye panes that cast watery light, something like looking up from the bottom of a pond. Smells of leather and ammonia and chemicals and dust and sawdust mingled and contrasted with each other, making me want to sneeze. We followed her over creaking floorboards, past dimly lit isles of towering stacks of boxes and crates and shelves of dusty produce. Hides and pelts from every kind of beast you could imagine: bison and deer and elk and bear and beaver and muskrat and skunk and . . . others.

Workbenches had been arranged in a spot where overhead windows cast better light. Tools there were finer than in the shops outside; designed for finer finishing and polishing work. Shavings and scraps of leather littered the worktops along with works in progress: items of clothing, saddles, harnesses and belts. Up on a rack behind a workbench were stretched a trio of pelts that were . . . well, it was obvious what they’d come from, you could count the fingers. On my last trip she’d seen me staring. Oblivious to my shock, she’d asked if I’d prefer garments made out of that. Very expensive, she’d said. Finest quality, she’d said. I’d declined.

By Rris lights there was nothing illegal about it; nothing wrong. It was a practical and sensible utilization of a resource the owner had no further use for. It wasn’t one I needed or desired.

I showed the craftsman some sketches as well as giving her another look at my current boots. She was fascinated by the composite soles, an almost-indestructible laminate that wasn’t going to be possible to replicate in the time available. And I didn’t need it: for a set of good snow-boots some thick felt on the sole and woolly llamaskin inside would be excellent. For general good-looking cold-weather boots, polished leather with more conventional soles would suffice. Gloves would be heavy llamaskin and the hat based along the lines of a classic Russian ushanka. Hell, if you want any good kind of cold-weather gear, go with Russian experience — they really know their shit. She must’ve noted the way I huddled into my jacket and asked if I was also interested in a heavier coat as well. Had to admire her entrepreneurial spirit, even if it was an attempt to bite off more than she could chew — there was no way they’d be able to also deliver that in time. Besides, I already had something arranged.

She took more measurements of my feet and hands and head. She made some sketches of her own, as well as tracing outlines onto suitable scraps. Then she had some hurried words with associates or apprentices. Then she said they would be done by the end of the week and named an outrageous price.

Sure she had to delay other customers, and probably put in over-time, and everything was on the Palace’s tab, but it was supposed to be within reason. The last time I’d seen numbers like that I’d been dealing with the hammer-and-saw armed bandits who pass for carpenters here, not buying shoes. I named something marginally less outrageous. By the promptness with which she accepted that price it was probably still quite a bit more than the going rate.

“For that sort of money I’ll be expecting excellent work,” I told her.

She stiffened, her tail lashing. “Sir, if you hadn’t wanted excellent, then you wouldn’t have come here. Nothing less would leave these doors.”

I nodded, trying not to grin. “I’ll hold you to that.”

She huffed and ducked her head. “They will be ready, Sir.”

Chapter 9

“You could have haggled for less,” Jenes’ahn observed as the carriage jolted into motion.

“Probably,” I agreed.

“Why didn’t you?”

“I need the stuff fast and I need it well made. I’m willing to pay for it.”

“You’re not paying,” she pointed out.

“Ah, that’s the other reason. I knew there was one.”

She sighed. “She will also use your patronage to her advantage. You know that?”

I blinked. “How does that work?”

The look she gave me was another of those calculating looks, as if she was trying to decide whether I was serious or not. “You are . . . popular,” she eventually said. “Fashionable. The things you do and say, the way you dress. People are listening and watching all that. They copy your clothing, the things you do, your home.”

“Are you serious?”

Jenes’ahn just snorted. Dumb question. “You are aware the craftsmen who worked on that are being paid large amounts to duplicate that work? Any crafter you commission will be able to [something] off that. Both of them will doubtless have a great deal of custom from those following after fashionable trends.”

I shrugged. “If they think boots or gloves like that are fashionable or even useful for Rris, then they’ve more money than sense.”

She gave an exhalation that was somewhere between a hiss and a sigh. “Sometimes, that description is quite apt.”

“If she can get those things put together by the end of the week and do a good job of it, then I consider it money well spent,” I said. “If not, then she’ll lose my custom. I’m sure she knows people would hear about that as well, so it’s in her interest to do the best she can, a?”

Jenes’ahn looked annoyed: an ear flicked. I took that as point conceded.

We rattled on through the city. Through quiet side streets where housing compounds turned blank, slit-windowed faces to the world and bare walls were painted in brilliant-hued murals of everyday scenes and abstract patterns; through streets bustling with traffic; along avenues with winter-bare trees; through squares where statues of long-dead Rris heroes lay with bones bared; through daily markets where the air was ripe with smells of burning wood and coal and food and animals and the sounds of Rris voices and discordant music. Past a troupe of entertainers on a makeshift stage, performing something with bells and bright costumes while a crowd of local grubby cubs chittered and yowled at their antics. For over an hour we passed through that city, passed by sights that still twisted something behind my eyes for the sheer juxtaposition of mundanity and inhumanity.

Smither Industries bustled with activity. In the administration block curious eyes peeked from offices and my footsteps echoed from the tile floors as we passed. This time there was a new addition: the convenient secretary installed in the outer office. She was slight, a grey-furred Rris whose pelt was shot through with silver, eldery. Startling amber eyes in an aluminum-grey furry face framed by white cheek ruffs and tall, tufted ears looked up from a low desk as we stepped into the room, “You would be Ah Mikah,” she said briskly, looking from me to the Mediator. “And associate. Please wait. I’ll announce you.”

In the corner of my vision I saw Jenes’ahn bristling; she wasn’t accustomed to being put on hold.

“Associate,” I muttered. “Heh.”

“Shut it, you.”

Shortly afterwards we were ushered through. The elderly Rris ducked her head and closed the door behind us as we passed though into the cluttered office. Sunlight poured in through the tall windows and gleamed off copper and metal. Dust motes wafted in the streams. I smelled food. And something burnt. “Hi, Chaeitch,” I greeted. “Got yourself some help?” I jabbed a thumb toward the doors.

He looked a little sheepish: a wilting of the ears. “Aesh Smither decided my paperwork needed help. She’s supposed to be very good.”

“Certainly efficient,” I noted.

“Efficient,” he sighed with a glance toward the door. “A, that she is. I never knew I had so many appointments and things to sign.”

I grinned openly. Around him I could get away with it. “If she didn’t keep you busy she wouldn’t have a job, a?”

“Interesting perspective,” he snorted. “Still, she keeps the [riff-raff] at bay. I heard there was some rock-chewer proposing a steam-powered water heater.”

“Steam? As in, using fire to make steam to heat water?”

“The same.”

“As ideas go that’s right up there with powdered instant water — just add water.”

He chittered. “And speaking of riff-raff, you’re hungry?”

“Always. Even my own personal Mediator there is starting to look tempting. Stringy, though.”

Jenes’ahn glared.

Food had been prepared for a midday meal: strips of smoked pigeon meat, pies of thick-crust rye bread wrapped round more meat and bowls of a hot broth warmed by a little alcohol burner. I sat on a cushion at the knee-high table and sipped at the steaming rich broth while the Rris cautiously lapped. Chaeitch had also had time to gather most of the stuff I’d asked for and the table had an assortment of items laid out on it, not things of Rris manufacture.

“You want all this?” Chaeitch asked. “They weren’t happy to give them up.”

“They’ve had plenty of time to study them.”

“A. And I think they’ve come to think of them as . . . well, as their domain.”

I’d come into this world with nothing but some camping gear. I’d really only expected to be out for a few summer days so I’d been travelling light, with a single hiking pack. In the months before I’d been forced to come face-to-face with the locals my gear had more use than it’d really been intended for, but it’d survived. Since I’d arrived in Shattered Water parts of the kit had gradually been scattered around various institutions, bits going to Smither Industries, to the university as well as to the local chemists guild while Rris scholars and engineers poked and prodded at them with the understanding they wouldn’t break them. Chaeitch had done well to get as many items back so quickly.

My tent, ground sheet and sleeping bag were all rolled up into neat bundles designed to strap neatly to my pack. The kitchen set, with titanium pot and pan, cup and utensils; my portable gas cooker along with a couple of remaining firestarters and cheap lighter; the spartan lines of my flashlight, machined from a block of aluminum; a small trowel that could also be used as a hatchet if required; my wallet held some cash and cards and was almost entirely useless here. As was my phone. I could charge it with the same solar pack I used for the laptop, but since it wasn’t a GnuChip model, it wasn’t even any use as a basic normal radio. The camera in it was a basic single chip with an oil lens — basic consumer level optics that were marginally better than the laptop camera but not what I’d have called quality. My leatherman toolkit had already been copied and one firm was turning out very expensive clones that were being brought up as fast as they were manufactured, mostly as fashion accessories. The little Leica monocular wasn’t as powerful as a Rris spyglass, but the optics were considerably clearer, as were those on the sunglasses. My jacket was an expensive one, made from synthetic spidersilk that meant it was lightweight, warm, breathable, waterproof and extremely tough. Bulletproof tough, to a certain extent. It’d already saved my life a couple of times.

I didn’t hold any expectation that the Rris would be able to duplicate the devices. A couple of decades ago a simple flashlight would’ve been some lead-acid batteries and a filament bulb in a tin tube. Now, my little aluminum block flashlight had a rechargeable nanofibre battery and ultra bright LED elements that could pump out a few hundred lumens on full power, all made from elements and processes that were a far cry from basic blown glass and chemistry. Even items like the tent were made from exotic synthetic composites which required entire industries to produce.

No, they couldn’t reproduce them, but they could get some ideas: some new twists on old designs, some new techniques, some new theories and compounds and principals. Zippers and velcro and layered fabric and modular designs were all concepts that could be adapted and used elsewhere. And now Rris engineers and chemists knew that there were new materials to be found and had set themselves to finding out just what they were and how to make them. I’d heard there’d already been several quite impressive explosions at chemistry facilities around town.

My laptop, though, that I kept secure. It wasn’t just a means to pay my way, it was a little piece of home.

“Everything you need will be provided, you know,” Chaeitch said.

I nodded. “A, but I’ve made this sort of trip before and these things do come in useful.”

He lapped a mouthful of broth and flicked an ear. “There were other misgivings about returning this property.”

“Why? They’re afraid I was planning on running off?”

He cocked his head, just eyeing me.

“They were?” I started.

“Well, look,” he said and gestured at the table. “Opportunity to leave town and take your possessions and your teacher with you. Can you blame them?”

“And what do you think?”

“I think you’d come up with less transparent excuse,” he grinned again.

“And where would I go?”

“There are a few who think you’d just go back to whomever sent you.”

I stared. “That spying rubbish again? I thought that was dead and buried.”

Chaeitch snorted. “It seems there’s an endless supply of geniuses who regularly step forward claiming they’ve figured out that’s why you’re here.”

“Oh,” I sighed. “Wonderful. Does anyone listen to them?”

“If they’re influential enough, someone has to. I believe office has been created at the Palace that’s assigned to things like that. They’re quite busy. Lot of paperwork.”

I rolled my eyes and took another mouthful of soup. Chaeitch’s offices were heated, but to a Rris standard of ‘heated’. The chill made the hot food even better.

“And I believe that most messages to that office seem to get mislaid,” Chaeitch chittered and gestured to the food. “If you want more, the guest is welcome.”

“Thanks. Any news from the university on my medicine kit?”

“They’re still working on it. You know some of your medication is toxic?”

“To Rris?”

“A. Slow poison apparently. And they’re having difficulty finding the kind of mould you mentioned. Apparently there are many different types.”

“I said it probably wouldn’t be easy.”

“You did,” he conceded, “but ears may not have heard that over the deafening sound of the prey.”

That took me a second to work through. Rris and their idioms — translate them to English and they can sound weird, bloodthirsty. Distillations of a language filtered down through generations of hunting carnivores with all the baggage that entails. “They’re not making unreasonable demands?”

“Just getting . . . impatient.”

“I had thought scholars above that kind of thing.”

“They have backers.”

“Oh,” I mulled that over. Money again. Long live capitalism. “Like that, is it?”

“A.”

“They’re going to be trouble?”

“Huhnn,” he waved a shrug. “Remains to be seen.”

“We’ve got the Palace behind us, haven’t we?”

“A. And in turn the Palace has them behind it. They offer support to Hirht, so you see the problem.”

“That is . . . awkward.”

He chittered and bit into another piece of meat, champing enthusiastically. “An understatement. The delay of this journey won’t make them any happier.”

Again I chewed over what he’d said. My knowledge of Rris political structure was patchy at best. After three years I’d learned their language and some other essentials, but there were huge gaps in my education. And when dealing with people who thought as well as humans, but not like humans, it was better not to take things for granted. “He’s the king, isn’t he? I thought that meant he’s able to dictate what happens.”

“A. For the most. But he still needs the support of highborn and the merchants and Guilds. They judged him so there is some obligation.”

“I don’t understand that.”

“No?” he blinked. “Perhaps we can use this trip to further your political education.”

I grimaced. “You make it sound like such fun.”

A chitter. “Not so enthusiastic, a?”

“I need to know all that?”

He waved a shrug. “It could come up. How much do you know about succession? About [something] and [crèche] and the dynasties?”

“I . . . there’d been some lessons,” I said awkwardly. “They were, ah, interrupted.”

“Huhn, that again,” he huffed. “We’re going to have to do something about that on this trip.”

“And the politics is relevant?” I asked.

He hissed quietly, his ears flicking as he threw an amused look over at Jenes’ahn who was toying with my monocular. “He gives us such marvelous ideas and then he says things like that. Mikah, everything going on around you is politics: these gifts you receive; the relationships between countries and personages; trade and diplomacy; dealing with accusations . . . judging and obligations . . . You need to know it like a fish needs to know how to swim. Understand?”

There wasn’t a sign of amusement or jocularity about him anywhere. He was serious. “I understand,” I sighed into my lunch. “It’s just your politics I don’t. Things you think are normal are . . . not, for me.”

“Huhn, that problem again, a?” he said, wrinkling his muzzle before waving a shrug. “Never thought it’d be easy. Rot, at least it will pass the time.”

Jenes’ahn held the little black monocular up to one amber eye, peering at me through it. “A, there’ll be plenty of that.”

Yeah. About six hundred kilometers to traverse at maybe thirty klicks a day. On a good day. I tore off a piece of bread and chewed thoughtfully. “How long?” I asked. “Hirht said three months . . . really that long?”

“A,” Chaeitch got that far-off look he got while thinking. “Sounds about right,” he said.

“Those backers are going to be happy waiting that long?”

He twitched an ear. “Huhn, no. No they’re not.”

Hirht knew that, but he sends me off anyway. I looked at Jenes’ahn again. “Is there some other reason I’m being shipped off? Is there something going on here I should know about?”

She waved a shrug with one hand, toying with the monocular with the other. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Chaeitch snorted. “Nobility squabbling over you; assorted insane individuals clamoring to talk with you; industry petitioning everyone they can with impossible requests and claims. As she said: nothing out of the ordinary.”

“So, it’s just a last-hour journey. To another country. Six hundred kilometers. Through winter. Against the wishes of some powerful individuals. For reasons that are best described as political,” I said.

“A,” Chaeitch said. “That’s about it. It’s not going to be any trouble.”

Right. I’d heard that before. “Reassuring. Gives me a warm feeling,” I said. “Ah, and that reminds me: that coat you were fixing up for me — I think I’m going to be needing it.”

“I thought you’d want it,” he smirked, looking smug. “It’s just being finished up. Any other requests?”

“Colors. Black and white.”

He sat back, lapping at his soup for a moment as he stared back. “Huhn,” he said eventually. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Oh, and any news on the University representative yet?”

“Huhn, I think they’re still squabbling over who will get to be stuck with you for a few weeks.”

I winced. “Not popular?”

He blinked. “Huhn, no. No, that’s not the problem. The problem is they all want to go.”

Chapter 10

There’d been a few hours of more talking. Mostly logistics and planning. They’d asked how many staff I’d be taking along and I hadn’t a clue. They were amused. I didn’t see the need for someone to do something I was quite capable of doing myself. They pointed out that a lot of the time I’d be too busy to do some of the simple things. In a world like that it’s not like you can just nuke a TV dinner or run a load through a washing machine. Servants weren’t just an affection of the upper class: they were essential.

Later, as the carriage rattled and swayed its way out of the Smither Industries yard: “He was serious about that political thing,” I said, leaning on my hand as I stared out the window.

“Quite,” Jenes’ahn said.

“Is it really necessary?”

Silence. I turned my attention to the Mediator. She was regarding me with one eye narrowed. “Tell me,” she eventually said, “does anything about this journey strike you as unusual?”

I frowned. “It’s a bit abrupt?”

She sighed, white condensation momentarily fogging in front of her. “This particular time, Mikah. ‘When winter sets’. It’s a part of the game as old as it’s been played. It’s [something].”

“I don’t know that word.”

“Putting some uncertainty into things. Allowing some flexibility. [Ambiguity], you know that?”

Ambiguity? “A. I think so.”

“‘When winter sets’,” she said again and snorted. “Poetic dramatics. It allows some deniable choice in arrivals or departures; it means nobody knows exactly when you’ll move.”

I stared at her. “Don’t you think you’re . . . examining this too much?”

Copper-colored eyes leveled back at me. “You should be wondering if I wasn’t examining it enough.”

I shook my head. “How do you sleep at night?”

“With a loaded pistol.”

I started to laugh before I realized, “Oh for Christsake . . . You’re serious.”

“Of course.”

I leaned back into the overstuffed leather seat. “You’re only not paranoid if they really are out to get you, you know?”

“What? What does that mean?”

“A life living like that? Working for the Guild gives you uncertainty and a gun in your bed? And how often has it even been necessary?”

“Three times,” she said promptly.

That threw me. “What?”

“Three times,” she said quietly, without blinking. “It’s been used three times.”

I didn’t say anything. Her muzzle twitched, as if a flea had bitten and she turned her attention back to the window. “First time was up north,” she continued in a voice that wasn’t much more than a growl. “Just a journey between two towns. We were camped one night and some bandits tried to take what we had.

“Next was in a small town. There’d been accusations of embezzlement by a military garrison commander. It hadn’t seemed serious, but she got nervous enough to hire some half-drunken scavengers to get rid of me. They came to the inn at night.

“Third was . . .” she gave a quick shake of her head and her muzzle wrinkled to bare white teeth at me. “It was in Open Fields.”

I sighed. “It was another Mediator, a?”

She hissed and leaned back, crossing her arms in a gesture that meant a few things in human body language and a few other things in Rris. I decided it might be an idea not to press the issue.

When we got back home the day was mostly done. The evening was biting cold, nipping at exposed skin. The sky was overcast, heavy with bruised nimbus all the way to the horizon where the last of the sunlight was a golden line beneath the lid of the sky. It just made the dark clouds seem even darker. I spent a few minutes on the edge of the meadow, watching the light fade. When I turned away Jenes’ahn was standing a few steps behind. She sniffed the air. “Snow,” she proclaimed.

Yeah, right. Judge, jury and now the met service all in one.

Chihirae was home and greeted me at the door. Jenes’ahn retired for the night, her partner taking over his shift. Dinner that night was a Rris version of pot pie: a shell of something like a heavy pita pastry filled with a thick barley and wine stew and at least three kinds of meat that I could discern. The cook had made concessions with the addition of vegetables and the wine was a very expensive vintage from the Muddy River area. Chihirae ate enthusiastically, champing noisily as she told me about her day. More adults were trying to get their children into her class because some of what she was teaching was quite different from other teachers. I guess some of them were hoping for a better education for their kids, but I’m sure quite a few were hoping that their kids might get taught something they could use commercially. So far they hadn’t found anyone who’d admitted a cub who wasn’t actually their offspring, but that day probably wasn’t too far off. She asked about my day, but really, her’s sounded a lot more enjoyable.

Afterwards there was time for some peace and quiet. If there’s one advantage to living in a society without electronic communications, that’s being able to get out of touch and stay out of touch. No phone calls, no emails or IMs or texts coming in from the office at stupid hours; no late-night calls asking for assistance with problems a retarded chimpanzee could solve. Chihirae and I had a couple of hours to sit and watch some videos: a couple of episodes of Planet Earth documentaries, then the movie Sacrosanct. In the gloom of the study we lounged on floor cushions and snacked on popcorn and oddly flavored wines and watched stories from another world. Multicolored light flickered and threw shadows across the bookcases lining the walls. She leaned against me, a warm weight against my side. I translated and answered her questions.

Before bed I had time to do a bit more work on Chaeitch’s portrait, refining the charcoal sketch a little more from other sketches and some digital pictures I’d taken of him. As I shaded patches of detail in dark charcoal I wondered about painting, but that would entail getting to learn the Rris oil paints. Not just using them, but making them from scratch — no art-supply shops here. Perhaps I could sub-contract. I did know of a Rris artist who worked in the media. Perhaps I could hire him to mix the paints.

Tich stopped by to politely remind me of the time. It’d gotten later than I’d realized. I’d wiped my hands clean, tidied the charcoals away into the beautiful case given to me by the Queen of a neighboring country, extinguished the lamp and retired for the night.

Outside was heavy, cold, silent. Save for small safety lamps glowing in the halls the house was dark. Cooling pipes clanked somewhere in the quiet. My room was empty, Chihirae off in her own bed that night. That wasn’t uncommon. It’d surprised me at first — she’d never assumed she’d sleep with me every night. But then, it’s not like we’re . . . What I wish we could be and can’t. She’s not mine; I’m not her’s. Can never be. I have to keep telling myself that.

The warming pan wasn’t the same at all. Better than nothing I told myself again as I blew out the candle and drew the heavy eiderdowns up.

Dreams came: unwelcome, murky and disturbing.

Lights and life in some place impossibly far off; Rris faces on city streets where cars whisked by, in shops and restaurants. Indistinct labyrinths of peeling plaster and dirt where vague forms chased me through gloom and fog; my fists pummeling and shaking a snarling, toothed disembodied inhuman head that snapped and growled things and wouldn’t be still; spoke things I didn’t want to hear; spoke my name . . .

I was awake. It took a few seconds before I understood that. Awake and still breathing hard, staring into blackness. In the darkness someone spoke my name again. There was a weight on the side of the bed, someone sitting there and carefully touching my shoulder. “Mikah?”

“Who?” It was just a shadow in the darkness.

“Me. Chihirae,” the figure said.

“Oh,” I sagged. “Was I . . . again?”

She understood. “You were talking. Just bits and pieces. I don’t think you woke anyone. I thought you might want to see something.”

“What? What time is it.”

A chitter. “Early. Come here. See,” the weight on the bed shifted. I could see her figure standing and leaning again to catch hold of my arm. Warm coverings fell aside as she pulled until I was sitting upright. I felt old scars twinge as the cold air touched them.

“What? Where?”

“Just . . . come along,” she said again, tugging my arm until I swung out of bed and stood naked on the thick rug. “Come.”

It wasn’t a good flashback. To that time outside the alley when a trusted hand had pulled me along and she’d said, “Come. It’s alright,” and I’d been led to betrayal. I shuddered.

Chihirae felt. “Mikah? You’re cold?”

That was then, this was now “A,” I said, taking the excuse. “It’s freezing out here.”

“I know, but look.”

She pulled the drapes aside. It was night out there, heavily overcast, but it wasn’t quite as dark as the room. A pale illumination almost too dim to be called light spilled in through the condensation-speckled windows, beyond which was static. In the black outside countless white flakes drifted down, in and out of view, filling the sky with an animated frozen waterfall. A continuously shifting cloud that blotted out anything that might be out there in the night. It looked like it should have filled the world with some sort of noise, but it was utterly silent.

I stood at her side, the fur of her shoulder brushing my arm as I watched for a while. “So, soon then,” I said,

“A,” she replied. “And I’ve got an answer to that question — Yes. I’ll go.”

Seen sidelong in the feeble glow from an occluded moon, her face was a solemn cat’s profile gazing out at the snow. She hadn’t bothered dressing and just stood quite relaxed in her natural coat.”You’re sure?”

“A. Quite.”

I almost asked if someone had pressured her into that answer, but bit back the remark. I didn’t want to know; I didn’t want to talk her out of it because, hell, I’d wanted her to say yes. Really wanted it. Selfish. I knew it was, but I didn’t ask. “Thank you,” I said instead.

Ears twitched. “Rot you, you’re always finding trouble. You need me there, a?”

“Hey, I don’t need any help finding trouble.”

A chitter and wisp of breath in the half-light. “Not what I meant.”

“I know,” I said and took the step closer to embrace her. She was also warm and solid and in the dark, facing an uncertain future, that was very welcome. “Thank you,” I said again. “It means . . . a great deal to me.”

She fussed with the hairs on my chest, stroking them, tweaking them. “It’s no trouble. There’s no problem with my work. And I’ve wanted to see other countries. Never thought I’d have a chance.”

“Anything you’d like to do there?”

“I’ve heard ah Thes’ita keeps an extensive [something]. That would be worth seeing.”

“I don’t know that word.”

“It’s a . . . a collection of exotic animals. A [menagerie]. You understand that?”

“A. I thought you’d be tired of strange animals by now.”

She chittered again and nipped at me. Her whiskers tickled and her hot breath washed against my neck. “How is that possible? There’s always something new to learn about them.”

I grinned, laying my chin on her head as I looked at the window again: snow in the night for as far as I could see. “You know, what disturbs me most about this?” I said to the smaller woman in my arms.

“Huhn? What?”

“That damn Mediator was right about the snow.”

Chapter 11

Winter had arrived with a vengeance, doing its best to bury the world. Or this part of it anyway. Drifts of white muffled every surface, rounding edges and smoothing corners. Trees and bushes were muffled beneath the fall of new snow; walls and rooftops wore caps of fresh white; details of the land were lost under drifts of powder. Anemic early morning sun burned through a thin icy fog, painting the white with tints of saffron and rose.

“You’re not running in that?” Jenes’ahn had asked.

“It’s only snow,” I’d retorted.

A good half-dozen centimeters had fallen during the night. It’d melt a bit and compact, but that morning it was powder and fresh. I knew that field by heart and figured that after a couple of laps the track would be well packed down. The air was icy, stinging my face and biting at my sinuses as I stood on the back porch.

“I think it could be risky,” Jenes’ahn said from right behind me. “You don’t like the cold — you shiver in the slightest chill. And you’re not dressed for it.”

“It’s only for a short time,” I said. “Besides, it wakes me up.”

My moccasins scrunched into fresh snow as I stepped off the porch. My breath curled around my shoulders as I set off at a easy pace. Behind me I heard the Mediator’s snort of exasperation. If it pissed her off, it was all the more reason to do it. Juvenile, perhaps, but I didn’t have any other way to hit back at them. After they’d . . . . they’d used me, they’d used my friends, risking lives just so their Guild could maintain its charter. And if I told anyone, I’d condemning myself, and by extension, Chihirae. So I kept quiet, but I didn’t make things easy for them. Perhaps I half-thought they’d get tired and give up.

Juvenile. Ignorant. Angry.

So she headed off to her usual place under the old oak to wait. The snowfall had a settled on top of the deep meadow grass, so she had to slog through a knee-high strata of sodden, icy grass and snow, leaving a trail gouged across the pristine white. I had it a little easier — the track I’d flattened through the meadow over the previous months was quite visible as a depression around the edge of the field.

I took it easy to start with. Pink-tinged morning sunlight threw the uneven surface into relief, emphasizing the lumps and dips where it lay over the deep meadow grass. It wasn’t that deep for a new fall, but did hide little pits or hollows that could turn an ankle or knee. So I was rounding the far corner, concentrating on my pace and footing when I heard Jenes’ahn’s yell sound across the field. She was on her feet, kicking ice flying as she bounded through the snow toward me and she was drawing a pistol on the run. Which meant . . .

My abrupt turn meant the wildly swung knife missed me. I recoiled, staggering back even as my assailant came at me, swinging again and snarling, “You lied! You lied!”

What threw me was the fact the attacker was only as high as my waist. A damn child!

“You lied,” the cub snarled and came at me again. Over the wrinkled muzzle the eyes were completely black, “You said you’d help!”

The knife slashed past again. I caught that hand as it slowed for a backstroke, held hard and twisted. There was a yowl and the cub bent with my grip, loosing his grip on the knife and tumbling into the snow, giving before a bone in his wrist did. I stepped on the weapon before the cub scrambled for it and he went for my hand with bared teeth. I twisted again and he yowled again, going to his knees. “Okay,” I said to the hairball I held in one hand. “Who the hell are you and what . . . No! Stop!”

The last I yelled at Jenes’ahn, who’d arrived and was stepping around me and leveling her gun. I let go and lunged at her, swatting at the gun, knocking it up and out of the way. The pistol discharged into the air, the boom reverberating through the winter stillness. Distant shouts rose. The Mediator snarled at me through the powder smoke and the cub scrambled backwards in the snow wide-eyed and abruptly silent. “It’s a cub,” I snapped at Jenes’ahn. “You’d shoot a child?”

“He had a knife,” she hissed back.

“Which he doesn’t now,” I said and looked down. The knife had been trampled into the snow. I picked it up, turned it over, then showed her. “And you call this a knife?”

It was a stick: a piece of wood with a piece of broken glass tied to it with ratty twine. It’d have caused superficial cuts, but not much more. I stood over the cub, looking down on him. Barely an adolescent. Damn it, that was the second time. “What the hell were you trying to do? Who are you?”

The cub snarled again, a gesture somewhat undermined by the sheer fear in his eyes and flattened ears. “You don’t even remember,” he spat. “You lied, and you don’t even remember.”

I hesitated. There was a nagging feeling of recognition, but Rris were so damn hard to tell apart, especially after brief meetings. “Do I know you?”

“You said they’d help us,” he muttered, then hissed. “They didn’t. They turned us away. It was all we had to get here. We didn’t have anywhere to go. Now she’s sick and you lied! She helped and you lied!”

And then I knew who he was. And I felt a sinking sensation as I realized he was right. And if he opened his mouth again where Jenes’ahn could hear, he’d be in more trouble than he could imagine. “The kite,” I said quietly. “You had a flying toy.”

He blinked, suddenly looked uncertain. “A,” he said and flashed small but sharp teeth at me, then shrank back again. “Rothi,” he accused. “You don’t even remember!”

I remembered. Of course I remembered. I’d been on the run, pursued by hostile Mediators and they’d helped me. They hadn’t had much, just a tiny cabin and a few head of cattle, but they’d given me food and shelter for the night and helped me on my way — and if the Mediators heard about that, it’d all hit the fan. I’d also promised to pay back their generosity. Talk to Chaeitch or myself I’d told her, and you’ll be given whatever you need.

I’d never passed that message on to Chaeitch.

“Oh, shit,” I muttered and crouched there in the snow. It brought me closer to his level. “Rothi. I do remember. I didn’t think . . . a lot’s happened. Ea’rest . . .” I remembered. “Your mother . . .”

“You said you would help her,” he snarled at me. “You said to say your name. They didn’t listen. She’s ill. She won’t move . . .”

Oh christ. Oh crap. He was right. I’d never thought. I’d forgotten to pass the message on. And with all the randoms coming out of the woodwork wanting to meet with me, of course they were ignored. Lost in the noise. I stood up and he flinched backwards, away from me.

“Leave him alone,” I snapped at Jenes’ahn as she started forward, and perhaps she caught something in my tone because she stopped, glared at me.

“Where is she?” I asked the cub before the Mediator could start with her questions.

He hesitated, then said, “In the city. She’s ill. She won’t move. She won’t talk. Nobody will help . . .”

Shit. Okay. “We’ll get her,” I told him. “Come on. Stay close.”

Jenes’ahn only had time to open her mouth as I strode back past her and Rothi scurried after. Figures had appeared at the house, some already hastening towards us across the field. “Tich!” I bellowed. “Get the carriage ready. Now! And find a doctor.”

One of the figures hurried back into the house.

Guards were hurrying toward us while servants were lurking further back, looking uncertain. “Commander,” I said to the armed and armored guard who met us, “Can you bring some of your men along. We have to go into the city. Fast.”

“Sir,” he glanced past me at the Mediator.

“This doesn’t concern her,” I said, drawing his attention back to me. He looked startled. “Commander. There’s no danger, but this is urgent. Please: some of your men to accompany me into the city.”

The whiskers on the unscarred half of his face twitched back. “Very good, sir,” he said and turned to his troops. “Hai! Two hands to ride. Mount up.”

Rohinia was at the French doors, fur still ruffled from sleep. That’s all he was wearing, and carrying a pistol in one hand. “What is this?” he asked.

“No problem,” I said and he blocked the door, standing in my way.

“What happened?” he asked again.

“The cub tried to assault him,” Jenes’ahn spoke up. “Apparently Mikah knows him from somewhere. Now, since he failed to harm him, he’s trying to lure Mikah into the city.”

“It’s not like that,” I snapped. “His mother’s ill.”

“How do you know?”

“Otherwise she’d be here, not him. They were supposed to come and see me, but all these guards and rubbish wouldn’t let them through.”

“We’re here to protect you.”

I gave a snort of derision. “Of course. Only the most dangerous of individuals can sneak through your protection, a?” Muscles twitched under his fur. His fuse burned slower than Jenes’ahn’s, but he had his limits. I was probably pushing them. “It’s a personal matter,” I said. “An old friend needs some help. I’ll tell you about it later, but right now isn’t good. Guards are going with me, they can deal with any trouble.”

“Send them to collect her alone.”

“I owe her. I have to go.”

He squinted at me, as though trying to read some obscure type. “That doesn’t make any sense. The Guards can do this task perfectly well. You’ll just be putting yourself at risk.”

“From what? I gave my word I would help her. I’ll do that. You wouldn’t want me to go and break my word, would you?”

It was a little message he could read all right. Now his face froze, so did his tail. For a few heartbeats we faced each other, then he inclined his head a few degrees. “No. Your word is important,” he said and stepped aside. “Go on, then. Jenes’ahn, you can look after this fool.”

She made an exasperated sound.

The cub stayed close by, staring around wide-eyed as we passed through the living room. The clean surroundings just emphasized how worn he was. He was muddy, tattered, his fur unkempt and crusted with ice that dripped on the polished floor and carpets. How long had they been out there?

Chihirae was wearing as much as Rohinia had, just as ruffled from sleep. Standing at the foot of the stair she blinked sleepily at me, at the cub. “Mikah? What’s going on?”

“It’s okay,” I assured her as I grabbed my coat, shrugging it on over top of my ratty T shirt.

“There was gunfire.”

“A mistake,” I told her and then looked, really looked at her. Ears slanted back, pupils wide . . . upset. I took a second to go back to her and touch her muzzle, stroking gently. “It’s all right. Really. I’ll be back.”

“Just . . . mind yourself,” she said, still looking wary.

I grinned and jerked my head at the Mediator. “That’s her job.”

Tich had done as I’d asked. She was waiting out front, along with the carriage and its team and driver and ten troops on elks. The animals shifted restlessly, snorting as clouds of steam rose from their bodies.

“Do you have a destination, sir?” Tich asked.

I looked at Rothi, “Where’re we going?”

“In the low place,” he said. “The Cracks, they call it. There’s a place we found . . .”

Tich knew it. So did Ha’rish, the driver. Not a good place, they proclaimed it and from what I’d seen of the area I was willing to accept their judgment.

As the little convoy swung around the loop of the drive and rattled away toward the gates I looked at the cub who’d perched himself on the seat opposite, away from both Jenes’ahn and myself. He looked exhausted and anxious. For a second I wondered if Rohinia was right: was it a trap? A betrayal? It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibilities, but it didn’t seem likely. There were easier ways of doing it.

“How do you know Mikah?” Jenes’ahn asked him straight away. “Where’d you meet him?”

He looked at her, at me. Nervously. “At home. The farm we had. After a storm we found him sleeping in the barn. Mother let him stay a night. He did some work for us.”

“Huhn,” she mused, watching him intently. “Where is your farm?”

“It was in Cover-My-Tail.”

“Was?”

“Mother sold it. She said farming wasn’t for her.”

“And when was this?”

He looked at me. “The past summer.”

“You said Mikah broke a promise.”

His ears flattened back. “He said that if she wanted some help some time to see him or an ah Ties. They weren’t in Open Fields. We came here and nobody would listen to us. Our money didn’t last.”

Another thoughtful rumble. “You just took him in. Just like that.”

His ears tipped a bit. “Uhn, he did surprise us. Mother almost stabbed him with a pitchfork before we found he could talk.”

“And what did he tell you?”

“He was on the run from criminals who’d stolen him. He was trying to get to Open Fields. Ma said he knew things only someone who knew her highness would know.”

“Criminals, a?” Jenes’ahn eyed me.

“‘Dangerous smugglers’, he said,” Rothi elaborated. “Taking him to be sold.”

She didn’t believe him, that much was obvious. But if he stuck by that story, if Ea’rest was bright enough to use it, then perhaps they had a chance. Ironic, that Jenes’ahn had probably hoped to get her questions in before I could give any hints but her little interrogation had backfired.

I shrugged, smiled sweetly at her and said, “Criminals. Who else would do such a thing?”

She glared and hissed. Rothi scootched away from her, looking alarmed.

I leaned over toward him, elbows on knees , “Hey, don’t mind her,” I told him. “She’s always like that. She’s just annoyed that I make her get up too early. Ruins her beauty sleep.”

The cub looked uncertain.

“You’re not helping,” Jenes’ahn growled at me.

“And trying to intimidate a child is?” I retorted without glancing at her. “Leave him alone. Rothi, what happened? Why’d you come here?”

He looked from the Mediator to me. She didn’t say anything and he made a throat-clearing noise and hesitantly started to relate their story. A newly snow-muffled world passed by outside.

I did owe them, that wasn’t in question. That boy and his mother had sheltered me while I was on the run some months back. Not from unknown criminals, as he’d said, but from a Mediator faction. One of the items of the Mediator Guild’s charter that gave them their mandate of overarching authority was that the Guild be unified. For outsiders to discover that the Guild had actively factious fractions within it could have been disastrous for them. And it could have been lethal for anyone outside the Guild who found out about it.

Thank god Rothi had known to say I’d claimed bandits were after me. It wasn’t true, but somehow I doubted that the truth would have set them free. Had Ea’rest told him to say that? That wouldn’t have surprised me — there was more to that woman than simple farmer.

She’d let me stay in their barn for a night; given me much needed food and shelter in exchange for a little help about the farm. Ea’rest had known more than one would have expected about Cover-my-Tail’s monarch. She’d also arranged for a friend to help me back to Open Fields. I hoped neither of them would mention anything about that.

According to Rothi’s account, after I’d left Ea’rest had grown despondent. Restless. Her heart not in her job. Farming hadn’t been the kind of quiet she’d been wanting. Eventually she’d sold the few cattle they had and they’d left the farm, bound for Open Fields. I wasn’t there. After many times of asking the same questions the Land-of-Water embassy said our party had left for Shattered Water. They’d used the last of their money to book passage. The journey had been very bad: the season was stormy and they hadn’t been able to afford a cabin. It’d been cold and wet and miserable. On arrival in Shattered Water they’d found there was nothing here for them. No help, no place to go. Their money was gone. The Palace, the Guilds, Smither Industry, the guards around me . . . all just ignored them; sent them packing. They couldn’t get close to either myself or Chaeitch. They couldn’t get lodgings or find a place to stay. Guard kept moving them, threatening them. Nobody would listen.

“You got desperate,” I said.

“She’s ill!” he burst out. “She smells wrong. She’s stopped eating. She won’t move.”

I didn’t try to pat his hand or something like that. Rris perceptions of personal space are . . . different and honestly I had no idea how to comfort a distraught child who’d tried to stab me. It’s not something that happens every day. Twice a year, yes, but not every day. “I’ll try to help,” I told him. “I owe you at least that.”

The cracks weren’t a nice place. They were the city’s u-bend; the place where the drips ended up; the place for individuals who fell through the gaps. A place where there weren’t street patrols, where there weren’t street cleaners or proper sewers in places; where entire blocks shared the same well or pump; where city planning fell apart and the streets and alleys and buildings grew by more organic processes. It was a place the authorities looked away from and didn’t really want to know what happened there. Fresh snow covered a lot of the nastiness, even applying a cosmetic quaintness in places, but it was only skin deep. Already traffic was turning streets to a slush of trampled snow, mud, ordure and other filth.

Along a street that might’ve been paved once, but those cobbles were mostly gone and it’d become an icy slurry of snow and mud. Rothi told us to stop there, at the entrance to an alleyway. Guards followed Jenes’ahn who followed me as the cub led the way into the crooked passage that was barely wide enough for me in places. Substances I didn’t want to think about squelched under my moccasins and even in the winter air there was a stench of blocked drains. In the summer it’d have been horrendous.

There was a little alcove ahead, something that might’ve been a yard once before buildings had claimed it and left a dent in the alley that was now claimed by a nest of tiny lean-tos little larger than dog kennels made from scraps of wood, tiles, anything that could have been scrounged. Threadbare curtains hung over dark openings. A trio of Rris were gathered at one, the rear end and tail of another poking from under the drape where it was kneeling in the doorway. Rothi gave a mewling sound and started forward. “No!”

The trio turned, bristling at the interruption.

“Leave now,” one of them snarled, rounding on the adolescent with bared teeth and then seeing me. It got quiet enough that I could hear the muffled cursing and bumping from inside the shack.

The anger blossomed before I could stop it. Rothi fell behind me as I pushed past and advanced on the three thugs with a grin that wasn’t at all amusement. I was counting on intimidation there, something they’d probably never seen before, almost blocking the narrow alleyway and looming head and shoulders above them. And right behind me was a Mediator and a squad of guards. The three hesitated, then broke and pelted away, deeper down the alley. The one in the shack managed to back out, still oblivious to what was going on outside. He was clutching a sheathed sword in his hand. I recognized it.

I yowled and jerked as I grabbed his jerkin and hauled him to his feet and swung him around. As he turned he got a look at me and froze, long enough for my fist to catch him under his chin. It was a good hit, one of those ones you barely feel and that just keep going as though the target wasn’t there. He felt it though. His jaws slammed shut with a noise like two pieces of wood knocking together and he lifte dup and back and then just crumpled like someone had cut his strings.

I flexed my hand, bent, picked up the scabbard and handed it back to Jenes’ahn. “Look after that,” I said, stepping over the lump of shit on the ground and leaving it for the guards to clean up.

Rothi was already inside the hovel. So was Ea’rest. She was alive, but I don’t think she even noticed when I crawled in through the tatty curtain over the entrance. The place wasn’t any bigger than a refrigerator carton. It was black inside, freezing cold, without enough room to stretch out or stand up, and there was a permeating smell of unwashed Rris and urine and smoke and illness. She was a bundle of rags curled up on some dank straw. I could see her ribs jerking as she panted, see breath misting in the chill air, but she was just staring at something out of sight even while Rothi was saying, “I found him, Ma. Ma. It’s all right, Ma. It’s all right now.”

I ripped the front off that shack to lift her out. She was terribly easy to lift; she was underweight and her skin was far too hot to the touch. Her breath was weak and rasping and choked. Something nasty and respiratory. Pneumonia? Could they get that? Rothi stayed close by me as I maneuvered my awkward bundle through the narrow alleyway back to the carriage. I’d never known the rear seats could be folded down into a bed — not an impractical idea when journeys could take days — but Jenes’ahn did so and I got Ea’rest settled there. I don’t think she knew what was happening, she just lay there, shivering and burning hot. Jenes’ahn touched her nose, pinched her ears, looked at her eyes and listened to her breathing. “Fever,” she said. “Bad one. It’s serious.”

“Can a doctor help?” I asked. “Is there medicine?”

She sat back on the other bench with Ea’rest’s sword on her lap and waved a no. “Rest. Warmth and food. There’s not much else that can be done. People either recover or they don’t. Something like this though . . .” she didn’t finish the sentence. Rothi couldn’t help but hear.

“It’s a lung infection?” I asked.

Jenes’ahn looked confused. “I don’t know. What do you mean?”

A different world. She was one of the elite, but she still didn’t know about things I learned about in grade school. To most of their doctors they were fantastic new concepts they were still debating. Those debates wouldn’t help. Neither would their medicines. There was only one thing I knew of that might.

Chapter 12

Lamps were burning in the Palace that evening. Puddles of warm light, cross-hatched by architectural occlusions, spilled out across expanses of pristine snow. The only other light came from a few high wisps of cloud glowing gold under a few lingering rays from a sun sunk below the horizon. Around the drive and the Palace front steps that spotless white had been churned to a grey slush that resembled the lunar surface: cratered with feline footprints that tracked ice up the steps and into the hall. Freezing cold in there. And dark — the few lamps were just spots in the gloom as we trekked through the halls.

“Mikah,” Kh’hitch cocked his head as the guards ushered the Mediator and I into his office. A fire was roaring in the stove there, but that was the only concession to the chill. “Thank you for attending this meeting, however it was scheduled for this morning.”

“Better late than never,” I replied.

He considered that, then said, “I don’t believe so. No. On time would have been far more satisfactory. As it is quite a few people are greatly annoyed that a meeting they’d prepared intensively for was quite wasted.” He sniffed, resembling a gaily-colored barrage balloon putting on airs.

“Some things have priority over people who want to get rich quick,” I said.

“Perhaps his highness wishes to debate that,” he said and went to announce me.

Hirht’s office was dark and cold. A single lamp of brass and milky glass cast a puddle of light across his battered desk and the carpet, glowing on the fur of his arm as he scratched a fountain pen across a page. He blotted the page, wiped the pen down and when he raised his head his eyes flared like drops of molten metal. “Mikah. Constable. So good of you to feel you could attend.”

Ah. “Apologies for this morning, sir,” I said.

“Hurhn,” he coughed, rumbling like an old motorcycle engine kicking over. “Please, sit.” He gestured at the two cushions on the rug before his desk and waited until we were settled.

“You made things interesting for us, but I understand it was even more so for you.” He used a claw to drag a note across the desktop, setting it before him. “First an assault upon your person by a child. Then running off to the cracks where you apparently disposed of some undesirables and collected his invalid mother. And then a trip to the University where you appropriated some of your medication, which ah Ner wasn’t pleased about. A busy morning indeed.”

“A, sir,” I said and flexed my fingers again. My knuckles were feeling it now.

He cocked his head, waited a second, then said, “That’s it? Just, ‘yes, sir’? No explanation?”

I looked at Jenes’ahn who was looking as worn around the edges as I was feeling. “Ummm, I think that about mentions everything, sir.”

Wisps of breath streamed from his nostrils, wreathing his muzzle. “There is perhaps some explanation?”

“She helped me once,” I said. “She gave me a chance. I owe her.”

“Owe her that much?”

“Everything. If she hadn’t, things probably would have turned out . . . differently.”

“Huhn, that much.” Staccato clicking as he rapped clawtips against his desk. “This assistance was in Cover-my-Tail, was it?”

“A.”

He snorted again, glancing between the Mediator and myself. “There a moments I do get the feeling that I haven’t been informed of everything that went on there.”

“No,” Jenes’ahn said. “Guild business.”

He accepted that without a blink. “Could she be a threat to Mikah?”

“It’s not beyond possibility, but doubtful. The illness is certainly genuine enough — damp cough. Bad case. I’ve see people die from lesser cases.”

“Mikah, your medication will work?”

I shook my head before I remembered to tip my hand in a shrug. “I can’t say. It’s for my kind, but it’s designed to target the kind of . . . animal that causes illness like that. I think . . . It’ll either cure or kill her.”

“No treatment might have been better?”

I tipped my head toward the Mediator, “She said there didn’t look like much chance of that. Do nothing and she would die. Do this and she might.”

He blinked — a flicker of a pair of burning brass coins. “Expensive. You don’t have much of that medicine, do you.”

“Even less now,” I replied easily. “It won’t keep forever, anyway.”

“Huhhn,” he growled, tapping clawtips again. I wasn’t sure what that meant. Stress? Concern? No, I’d seen those before, and those tells were different. “It could be a concern. Constable?”

Her muzzle creased as she flashed teeth in a brief snarl. “A, I am aware. If it works,” she said. “It’s not likely.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Hirht said and I looked from one to another, puzzled. “That’s something for later, Mikah,” he said. “Now, you’ve got a foot in each boat, a?”

“In what way?”

“You’ve got this new burden, and you leave in three days.”

“Three days?” I looked past him at the tall windows. In all the multitude panes glimmered reflections of a small lamp, looking very small in the blackness. Outside, it was snowing again. “Huh, doesn’t time fly?”

“Quite,” he said. “So you’ve got that to attend to as well as your new guest.”

“A. I noticed. I think that someone on the staff will be able to look after Ea’rest. If I can’t be around, I can make sure there’ll be people to help her.”

“And what does she want? I assume she had a reason for coming to see you.”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure about that. I said I’d help her, but no specifics. If she needs money, I can give her what I can. If she wants to start a business, I’d back her. She makes good pie.”

He stared. “Pie?”

“A. You know: bread with meat inside?”

“Yes. Yes, I know,” he hissed softly and looked to Jenes’ahn, “Strangely enough, constable, when I took my oaths, I never expected there’d be days quite like this.”

“I can sympathize, sir,” the Mediator said blandly.

“You should try it from this side,” I offered.

One of Hirht’s ears twitched. “Aside from her [culinary] abilities, you think you can trust her? She’s not here to simply suckle at your teat?”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard that correctly. “Uhmm, excuse me, sir?”

“It’s an expression, Mikah. I mean, she’s not simply going to take advantage of you? To keep demanding money and support from you?”

“Honestly? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t think she’s the type.”

Hirht eyed me for the few heartbeats the opening was there; I was just waiting for him to say something about how I wasn’t the greatest judge of character. But it was Jenes’ahn who stepped in to say, “Sir, in this matter Mikah may be right. There’s a good chance she’s . . . trustworthy.”

The Rris king looked a little surprised. As was I. “There’s a reason for this?”

She waved a shrug. “I can’t say for certain until I have chance to talk with her. There are a few questions, but I think she isn’t a [carpetbagger].”

Hirht sat motionless for a few heartbeats, then clicked a claw briskly on his desk. “Hai, very well then. And Mikah, you don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”

“No, sir.”

“Very good,” he said and the claw tapped again. “Now, perhaps we have time to discuss some business. I must say a lack of any further surprises would be a pleasant interlude. At least until your departure. The journey shouldn’t be a particularly arduous one. The route is well travelled. There are towns where you can refresh. But it will take some weeks. You should use the time to prepare for Red Leaves, where I suspect you will be extremely busy.

“Now, your teacher has agreed to travel with you, a? That’s some good news. She’s going to assist you with some history of Bluebetter and Red Leaves.” He glanced down at the paper before him, “Ah, and also with your letters, which I understand still require some work.

“Ah Ties will take the opportunity to brief you on the industrial representatives we think you’ll most likely be meeting: their likes and the best way of dealing with them . . . all the usual. The university representative will do the same in regards to ah Thes’ita and his associates, politicians and local Guild leaders. That advice will be vital for you: there are people there who are not happy about you or any new and upsetting ideas. I would advise you to apply yourself while you have the chance. It will doubtless come in useful and could save some embarrassment for all parties.”

I recalled Chaeitch had mentioned the university was sending a representative. “Who’s the University sending?” I asked.

Hirht glanced at the papers. “That is still . . . huhr . . . uncertain.”

“They still don’t know? Can’t they just draw straws or something?”

“There’s a little more to it than that,” he said. “They will have someone by the time you leave.”

I shrugged. It was there problem and I was happy to keep it that way.

“I understand you have some equipment being made for you.”

“Warm clothing,” I elaborated, and then added, “Although, if they’re all done in time they’ll certainly be earning their fee.”

Hirht waved a hand, dismissing my concerns. “They’ll deliver. Those businesses have a reputation for fulfilling their contracts, so they’ll deliver.

“Expect to leave early. The carriage will collect you at dawn, be ready and pack the night before. Mikah, we assume you will wish to travel with your teacher. There’ll also be transport for ah Ties, your Mediator escorts and your staff and supplies. A full troop of mounted guards and their support will ride escort. Constable, they will take orders from you, but their standing orders are to protect Mikah.”

“A full troop?” Jenes’ahn spoke up.

“We’re favoring the cautious side.”

“Quite,” she murmured.

“The Bluebetters will be meeting you with a similar force at Teshiri on the border. They insisted on the size of the force. We matched it.”

“Are they expecting trouble?” I asked. “I had heard their government was having some problems. We’re not going to be walking into a civil war?”

“I’ve been assured no such thing will happen,” Hirht said calmly. “They’re being as cautious as we are. Neither side wishes a repeat of Open Fields.”

I glanced at Jenes’ahn but she wasn’t showing any sign of concern that I could see.

“Onwards from Teshiri our troops and the Bluebetter forces will escort you to Red Leaves. They will be hosting you and your [entourage] for the length of your stay and then escorting you back to the border. This is clear?”

“As glass,” I said.

“Quite,” Jenes’ahn rumbled.

Chapter 13

Snow and ice squeaked beneath the wheels. Starlight peeped through stark branches. Winter-bare boles emerged from the night and then vanished back into it behind us as the carriage rolled along the avenue of trees away from the palace. I stared out into the black and snow, at the hidden gardens lost in the palace grounds and remembered: A summer day, warm sun and dusty grass and a friend who’d shown me that were things of beauty and art out there in this alien world. Someone who given everything for me and then, in one move, had taken it back again. Memory ached like a broken tooth.

Jenes’ahn said something, startling me Some feeble light cut a wedge across the dark cab, liming a furry leg in moonglow, but her body was in shadow. “What was that?” I asked.

“I said: You’re required at the Guild hall tomorrow morning,” the Mediator repeated.

“Oh. Great.”

There was movement in the darkness and her eyes flashed. “You’re distracted. What’s in your head?”

“You’re concerned about the journey?” Question fended with a question. She knew that game, of course, but she played.

“What makes you think that?”

“Asking about the size of the escort. You think there’s a reason.”

“I was concerned about the size of the supply train,” she said. “That many troops will require food, which requires storage and transport which require more personnel . . . it’s an unwieldy amount.”

“But they think it’s necessary.”

“Huhnn,” the response was a growl in the darkness. My hackles crawled.

“He said it’s to match Bluebetter’s forces. Is there a reason Bluebetter thinks they should have so many troops going to meet us? Are they worried about something?”

The pair of shimmering discs in the shadows shifted color fractionally as the angle changed. “Your safety, perhaps? Trying to protect an investment.”

“Against?”

“Anything that might happen. Perhaps they’re being overly cautious. Or perhaps they’re trying to make a point. Or perhaps trying to impress you by showing how much they value you.”

I frowned. “I can’t help but remember there was some trouble in Bluebetter: civil disturbances, I heard. Also weapon smuggling, murder and such. I’m not so keen on getting caught in the middle of a civil war.”

“His highness assured us all such issues were under control. As far as the Guild knows, no ratified challenge to the appointment has been issued. All countries have their internal problems and the Guild doesn’t concern itself with all of them. Only the severe disruptions.”

No guesses what that pointed jab was aimed at.

Sounds of the wheels changed and the cab was plunged into a deeper blackness as we passed under the gatehouse. Her eyes still glimmered a phosphorescent green even then, only blinking when the carriage emerged from the short tunnel and swung around onto the road. Moonlight and shadows chased each other across the cab.

“Investment?” I asked. “Bluebetter is paying for me?”

“A.”

“I hope I’m not cheap,” I said.

“No. Far from it.”

“That’s something,” I grinned before a thought struck me. “So, we would probably have gone to Bluebetter anyway. Eventually. To discuss the business of the rail line for Land-of-Water. But because Bluebetter wants us to go, Hirht is asking recompense?”

“A,” she said again and I caught movement as she waved a shug. “Sometimes what’s offered freely is regarded suspiciously so it can be easier to just set a price. Ah Chihiski well understands this.”

“Not so different from my kind,” I said, amused. “And how did you know she can be trusted?”

“Your patient?”

“A.”

“You don’t recognize the sword, do you,” she said.

“Should I?”

She stared for a seond, head cocked, then snorted. “Perhaps not. It’s not common. A few have them; a select few. They’re house acknowledgements for exemplary service. That [tang] was marked from the Esrisa personal guard.”

It took a second for the penny to drop. “Lady H’risnth?”

“Aesh Esrisa, a. For service with distinction and loyalty. They’re not given out lightly. If she’s received one, then her ladyship thought quite highly of her.” In the shadows I thought I saw a flash of teeth. “You didn’t think I trusted your judgment, did you?”

Chapter 14

“How’s she doing?” I asked quietly as I opened the door into the guest wing. The hallway was carpeted, with walnut wainscoting and white plaster above. A single painting on the white — a town’s tile roofs beneath a rocky outcropping upon which sprawled an old fortress catching last sunlight -was a piece that’d been gifted to me by the ambassador from Overburdened. In the light of the single lamp it was difficult to make out details.

“She’s sleeping, sir,” Tich said from behind me, holding the lamp up to light our way. “They both are. Staff are tending them and watching over them. She seems calmer, but I fear it’s too early to tell.”

Rris seem to be quite territorial and take their living space seriously, not like us gregarious ape-descendants. To intrude on another’s home is considered the height of crass rudeness. In private homes the rooms guests are quartered in have their own small wings, closed off behind their own doors to give host and guests some separation. I’d gone with Rris advice and kept that in mind when renovating, although I’d never intended to have this many guests. Chihirae had her quarters; The Mediators had the only two bed guest room, with clanking radiator pipes included free of charge; and now these unexpected visitors. Thankfully the house was large enough to accommodate them all, although I was running out of rooms.

Down the hall the bedroom door — a weathered and worn thing from an old building that’d been planed and sanded down and reused — was ajar. It swung open silently when I nudged it a little and poked my head in: inside was warm and dark and smelled of soap and broth and pine and illness. The radiator ticked quietly and the small black stove crackled and added its warmth. Small bottles stood on the nightstand, alongside a porcelain basin with a folded cloth hanging over the side. White sheets glowed in the light of Tich’s lamp, half covering Ea’rest laying supine on the big bed. Rothi was a ball of fur curled up at her side, nestled against her. Neither stirred as we looked in and in the quiet Ea’rest’s breathing was audible, but I thought it seemed easier than it had while we were bringing her back. She did seem to be sleeping, not just insensible to what was around her.

The Rris doctor had done his stuff, which hadn’t been a great deal. He’d had a balm that’d smelled like some sort of mint that was supposed to help breathing — something like VapoRub — that he’d soaked into a cloth to go over her nose. Then he’d ground up some seeds into a powder that he said would ease the cough. She’d inhaled the powder and started gasping alarmingly. I don’t think anyone set much stock in those remedies. I’d just been able to give her one little pill and made sure the pair got some warmth and food. Rothi alone had devoured something like half his body weight.

I backed out, easing the door closed and then beckoning to Tich to come away. Down the corridor I whispered to her, “Just let them rest. Keep an eye on her. If she gets worse, let me know.”

“Yes, sir,” Tich said.

Chihirae was waiting, leaning in my doorway with ears canted at a concerned angle. “They’re all right?”

“Sleeping,” I said. “He’s exhausted. So’s she. They’re sleeping.”

She made a considering huffing sound, then cocked her head. “Mikah, who are they?”

Ah. What with all the goings-on and shenanigans, I’d never actually told her. Chihirae sat herself tailor-fashion on the blue, green and rust-colored paisley goose-down quilt on my bed as I filled her in. “Her name’s Ea’rest. The child is Rothi. When I was over in Cover-my-Tail they helped me. They didn’t have to, but they took me in and gave me shelter.”

“Like Westwater, huh?” she said.

“A,” I nodded. “Like that. I promised to repay them. I said that if she came to me in Open Fields or here, then I’d help her out in any way I could.” I sighed then and tried to encompass my failure in half-formed little gesture. “I forgot.”

“What sort of help?”

“Whatever she needs.”

“That’s a little open-ended, isn’t it?”

I shrugged. “So I’ve been told. But, she probably saved my life. She did . . . a great deal for me.”

She lowered her muzzle, eyeing me. “You don’t want to tell me exactly what happened over there.”

My heart lurched and I urgently said, “I didn’t have sex with her. I didn’t.”

She snorted dismissively. “Not that. Everything else.”

I settled back, trying to read her. No, she didn’t mean that. She wasn’t judging; she wasn’t jealous. That wasn’t the way they worked. On my trip to Open Fields I’d ended up sleeping with the Lady H’risnth, the Rris queen of that country. It wasn’t planned, and while both parties had technically been consenting, I’d been under some duress. If I hadn’t done as her Ladyship desired, things may have been even more difficult. It’d been an . . . exchange of sorts. She’d been exceedingly curious, I’d needed assistance. So we’d made an arrangement; I’d paid my way. The whole incident had occurred on her ground, in the privacy of her estate, hidden even from her own staff. More importantly, it was a secret from the Mediator Guild.

The Guild had done things they weren’t supposed to. If those violations of their charter were to become common knowledge, a great deal of their power base would be undermined. I knew about those transgressions, and the Guild knew that I knew, but they’d deemed me too valuable to simply dispose of. They had me on a short leash that consisted of my two watchdogs, as well as some promises that should I get out of hand or talk, then people around me, people I cared about would be the ones who would suffer. Other Rris who knew of the difficulties that’d gone on within the Guild, Rris who weren’t so valuable, wouldn’t be given such a chance. They’d just be killed. I’d seen how ruthless the Guild could be.

Ea’rest knew. So did Lady H’risnth.

The Guild suspected that I’d told others. Perhaps they even had suspicions just whom — I was pretty sure they were keeping a close eye on her Ladyship. They didn’t have any evidence that I’d approached her or that she’d assisted me. But if they learned I’d spent the night with her, that she’d given me money and shelter and some other vital assistance and not informed the Guild as to my whereabouts, then they’d start asking why she hadn’t informed the Guild I was there; asking her how much I’d told her. And I’d told her too much for her own safety.

After that they could simply follow the trail like a spark up a fuse, at the end of which was damnation for myself and people I knew.

I shouldn’t have told Chihirae as much as I had. Shouldn’t have, but I had. I’d told her what’d happened between her ladyship and myself. Out of guilt or desperation or some other selfish need. She’d accepted it calmly, rationally, as a matter of fact, as a secret I’d entrusted to her. The only time she’d mentioned it had been in the deep of the night, a hot breath whispering in my ear asking if I’d had fun and then a sharp nip. That was all. Of jealousy, I hadn’t detected even a smoldering ember.

Now she was just asking about the things I hadn’t said: the aspects of my ordeal that’d been swept under the rug. I slumped down at my desk, on my chair which wasn’t a usual piece of Rris furniture in a wealthy household. “If you ask me to tell you, I will,” I said.

“But you don’t want to.”

I shook my head. “No. I don’t. If they knew — if they thought you knew — I don’t know what they’d do.”

“I’m going to ask that question,” she rumbled, watching me with eyes of liquid amber.

My heart skipped a beat again. I just nodded dumbly.

“Someday,” she continued. “Not today, but someday.”

I sagged, leaning forward with elbows resting on knees. “You’re so cruel to me,” I accused her.

“Huhn, and you load my back with the question of whether to ask or not, a?” she returned and cocked her head, from one side to the other. “It really disturbs you, doesn’t it. Just me saying that and you . . . you suddenly reek of terror.”

“Chihirae, I . . . I honestly don’t know what they would do if they thought you knew. The thought of that scares me more than anything.”

A long pause filled with silence, the occasional sounds of an old house settling. And then she said quietly, “I know. That’s . . . not normal.”

I bit my lip.”You’re . . . angry?”

She stood, getting up off the bed in a smoothly liquid motion and stalked over to me, looking down. Clawed fingertips laid on my head, ran through my hair, scratching across my scalp and then brushing errant strands back away from my face. “I’m not angry,” she said down to me. “Not about that. It’s just that when you act like this, it’s . . . Mikah, sometimes it’s almost possible to forget you’re not Rris. Then there are times like this — when you seem to be using words in ways they aren’t meant to be: terms of endearment and ownership mixed together. It’s . . . not usual.”

Her hand stroked my beard and hair, curling stray wisps back behind my ear.

“You could leave, couldn’t you,” I said. The hand hesitated. “You could just leave now and go back to Westwater, to wherever you wanted to go. You’d be free. I’d just be a memory. You wouldn’t feel it.”

“But you would,” she replied. “If you were Rris . . . I could. And it would be normal and there’d be no complications. But you . . . Mikah, you’d end up like a wolf alone. You’d do something insane or foolish. I like you and I don’t want to do that to you. I’m already free to make my choices: I choose to stay with you; I choose to go with you to Bluebetter. “

And I thought: you say you’re free, but you’re still chained by my concerns, my needs. And I need you.

“You’re precious to me,” I said. “I can’t change that. I don’t know if I want to.”

I think she sighed then. Or perhaps she just hissed softly. Her hand stroked my cheek and she said, “Good night, Mikah, my strange one,” and then she silently walked out, pausing outside the doorway to glance back at me once before continuing on her way back to her room.

For a while I sat at my desk, staring blankly at the darkness outside the windows. It stared back at me, the silence deafening. Sometimes, this world is too quiet: no cars or planes or mechanical sounds to drown out your own thoughts. And moments like that I needed something to help stop me thinking myself to death. I flipped my notebook lid open, chose something low key. The Feelers suited my mood right then, Weapons of War rolling through the night. I snuffed the desk lamp and leaned back. Electronic visualizations twisted and curled on the screen, their colors washing across the desk. Beyond them, out through the window panes, occasional flakes drifted in and out of view.

She’d said she wasn’t mad at me? What then? Scared? Exasperated? Disappointed? Frustrated? Perhaps the last. That would fit. It also mirrored my feelings. Sometimes those talks were like trying to press the tips of a pair of needles together: an exercise in frustration. So many times one meaning would just glance off the other.

Frustration. I understood that. I wanted to stay with her, but, hell, how could that work? East is east and west is west and all that. I couldn’t expect her to stay. It’d be best for her if she found herself a good guy, a Rris guy, and got something with him. Chaeitch. Funny how I thought of him in moments like that. They got on well together. Very well — I’d blundered in on them in flagrante delicto and made a complete hash of that night. They thought I’d get too possessive of her, angry about his encroachment, either scaring him away from her or making my hosts get some peculiar idea and ordering him away. And a part of me, a jealous little part of me approved of that: her sleeping around was something my hindbrain had serious mixed feelings about. The rest of me knew that was ridiculous: I wasn’t her kind. He was. And he was a good guy and as far as I knew he was single, although I wasn’t sure quite what that meant in Rris society. He’d be a good match for her. Perhaps while we were on this trip would be a chance to . . .

And I was thinking in human patterns again. Matchmaking. It was idiotic and futile.

Electronic light flickered in the dimness. Grand Tour played Origami. I nursed a glass of peach brandy, swirling the pale liquid around. Staring at it more than drinking it. Dire Straits’ Private Investigations started.

“I thought I heard . . . music?” said a tired voice from behind me.

I flinched, spilling some of the brandy as I turned, expecting to see Tich or perhaps Rohinia. Instead it was Ea’rest standing in the doorway. Or partly standing. The doorframe seemed to be holding her up. She was slumped against it, holding on to it. Her fur was ruffled and tufted and her ribs were terribly prominent, her ears were drooping and she was blinking through crusted, bleary eyes at me and the room. “This . . . where is this?” she rasped.

“Oh, rot,” I set the glass aside and hurried to reach her before she collapsed. “Rot! What’re you doing? You should be resting.”

She shied momentarily and wavered unsteadily before I caught her arm. She blinked at me. “Mikah? There was music.”

“Aw, rot. Come on. Here. Sit. Before you fall on your face.” I took her weight and steadied her, helped her over to the bed, where she sat down heavily, panting. I carefully touched her nose, her ears. Her temperature was down and seemed normal. That was a relief.

“What is that?” she asked, looking at the laptop, still playing un-Rris music and then around at the rest of the room. “Where is this?”

“My home,” I told her. “Rothi found me and we brought you here. He told me what happened. I’m sorry.”

She rubbed her face, ruffling already tangled fur. “Huhn, we chased you from Open Fields. When we got here they wouldn’t listen to us.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I know. Sometimes they’re overly protective of me.” And add to that the fact that I’d entirely forgotten to tell my guardians that friends might try to contact me . . . I shook my head. “Rothi managed to get in and tell me. He took us to you. You were pretty ill. You still don’t look so good.”

“Uhnn,” she groaned and coughed. “Better than I was this morning.”

A staccato clicking grew louder out in the hall: the sound of expressed claws in a hurry. A second later Tich appeared in the door, breathing a little heavily. “Sir . . .” she started before she saw Ea’rest and cut off. “Ah,” she said, drawing herself up. “We found she’d left her room and were concerned.”

“It’s okay,” I told her. “We’re just talking. Ea’rest, this is Tichirik, head of the house staff. If you require anything, just ask her. She’ll provide whatever’s required.”

“Ma’am,” Tich inclined her head.

“Regards,” Ea’rest said, looking a little dazed and more than a little tired. She coughed again, a rasping noise.

I frowned, went to the iron-bound chest at the foot of the bed and pulled out a lightweight throw blanket. It’d been a gift from some guild I couldn’t remember and was quite beautiful and obviously expensive. Ea’rest protested when I put it around her shoulders. “Already warm,” she said weakly.

“Use it,” I told her. “You need it. And you need food. Tich, can you please arrange something. Broth would be good, if possible.”

“Yes, sir,” she said and was gone.

Ea’rest pulled her blanket closer and looked around. “Servants and a household with plumbing and hot . . . pipe things and many rooms and fine clothes,” she rubbed the fabric of the blanket. “I thought you were exaggerating, but if anything you understated, a? And what is that?” she glanced toward the laptop again. Cold Chisel’s Khe Sahn.

“It’s a long story,” I said and went over to tap a key. The silence washed back in, and when I turned around Ea’rest was just watching me with exhausted eyes. “It’s not important right now, really. What is important is that you get some rest. You’ve been very ill.”

Ea’rest closed her eyes and I saw her cup her hand in agreement. “Did I do the right thing?” she asked.

I hesitated, unsure as to what she was referring. “In what?”

“I haven’t been a good provider,” she said dully, opening her eyes to stare down at her hands . “I left to look after him. I tried working for others. I failed. I thought I could succeed as a farmer. I failed in that. Your offer was the last chance we had.”

Ouch. “You didn’t seem to be doing too badly.”

“We lost stock. Thefts. We couldn’t afford to buy more. We couldn’t sell in the market . . .” she trailed off her, head hanging. “Eat or sell, but not both. You said you would help us. Can you?”

“What sort of help do you need?”

“You spoke of an inn,” she said and now her words were slurred. She was exhausted. That was obvious, but she was still trying to talk to me. “You talked about inns and food and . . . and other ideas. I thought about it. I think I can do that.”

“I think I can assist with that,” I said and Tich reappeared at the door, a covered bowl in her hands.

“Broth, sir,” she said.

“That was quick.”

“Cook has a pot simmering, sir. He thought it might be required. Although, perhaps not at this moment?”

I looked. Ea’rest was out like a light. Curled up in the blanket. On my bed.

“Awww, crap.”

“I’ll arrange to get her back to her room, sir,” Tich said.

“No. Don’t bother,” I told her. “She needs the rest. I’ll make . . . other arrangements. Just keep an eye on her. If she wakes up help her back then.”

Tich hesitated, then said, “Very good,sir.”

I regarded the figure unconscious on my bed and sighed, then packed the laptop down and put it away from any curious fingers and headed down the hall.

Chihirae cracked her door half a minute after my cautious knock. Her winter pelt was ruffled and rumpled from bed and she blinked up at me.

“Good evening, milady,” I bowed theatrically. “Would you, by any chance, know of a place where one such as I might sleep tonight?”

For a second she looked confused, then her eyes narrowed and she laid her ears back. “A bed? For such as you? In my own quarters? Why, I would fear greatly for my own safety.”

“I can assure you I am quite tame.”

“And what of your own lair?”

“Ummm, there would appear to be a strange lady sleeping in it.”

“Your guest? Her room wasn’t good enough?”

I shrugged awkwardly. “She stopped by and we talked. Apparently I wasn’t very interesting. She’s out like a candle. Chihirae, should I be apologizing?”

She leaned her head against the edge of her door. “What? To whom?”

“To you.”

She straightened, looking surprised. “Why? Whatever for?”

“I’m . . . not sure. It’s just that after that talk we had, I feel as if I did or said something wrong.”

A low chitter of amusement. “Oh, rot. It’s . . . it’s not something to concern yourself with. It’s . . . it can be endearing sometimes. But if you need a bed, then mine is always yours. You know that,” she said, almost reproachfully and opened the door, taking me by the hand.

Chihirae’s room was dark. It was colder than mine, with the radiator off and a window cracked open, but her bed was warm, her body even warmer and her musty scent of summer grass and sun-warmed dust was already permeating the sheets. We lay together. She nestled against me. I felt her legs twitch occasionally, felt her breathing ease and her heart slow as she stalked after sleep. Eventually, I followed.

Chapter 15

The next morning was busy. Preparations for the journey continued apace and there were also my prepackaged appointments to deal with. I’d had time for a brief run and wash before Jenes’ahn hauled me off to the first meeting. Breakfast was sandwiches in the coach.

Compacted snow squeaked under the wheels. The poached-egg disk of a winter sun peeked through gaps between roofs and building, casting bright wedges on the facades on the other side of the street. Across the cab Jenes’ahn glared at me, her tail lashing. “You never mentioned anything about that! You know what you’ve done now?”

“I told you what it could do,” I said as I munched a turkey sandwich. “At the time you made understanding noises.”

“Huhn, but you never said it could cure an illness in a few hours. She would probably have died. And you just give her a little pill and she’s fine!”

“I told you it could help with some illnesses cause by infection.”

“Infection! She didn’t have an infection.”

But she had. Of a kind. Amosil had been part of my medical kit, for use in case of tick bites while hiking. As with all antibiotics, it’s not effective against viruses. But antibiotics are effective against the bacteria that cause lung infections like pneumonia, which seemed similar to what she had — something contracted from cold and damp unhealthy conditions. I’d taken a guess that it’d work. Hell, there wasn’t anything to lose.

Since the bugs here hadn’t even had a chance to get to know and become immune to standard penicillin, its synthetic big brother must’ve been the equivalent of cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer. Her fever was gone within hours. She was hungry and the stuff’d probably do a number on the flora in her G.I. tract as well as the malicious bugs, but she was going to live.

“It was an infection,” I said. “She might have caught it on the boat. Cold and wet wind and wood . . . that’ll do it.”

“And you know what you’ve done now?” she growled.

“Saved a life?” I took another bite and offered her the pick-a-nick basket.”You sure you don’t want one? Turkey and cranberry. Good.”

She hesitated, eyed the basket and then snatched a sandwich. I smirked. Looked like someone skipped breakfast. “So,” I said. “What’ve I done?”

She nibbled, scowled at me. “We’re going to have to move fast and secure the university, that medicine, those who worked on it.”

“You don’t think you . . .”

“Are overreacting?” she snapped. “Overnight, you cured someone who most probably would have died. There are many other people out there just as ill. Some of them are powerful and quite desperate.”

I frowned, nibbled my breakfast. “Name five.”

“What?”

“Name five of these desperate, powerful people,” I said and she glared at me. “Sometime I think you sell your own people short,” I continued. “That medicine is valuable, sure, but you don’t need to over-react.”

Her ears flattened. “Until the Guild decides what’s to be done with it, it’s safer this way.”

“Huh. So you’re going to bury that information as well?” I asked. “That medicine saved uncountable lives back home.”

“And you only now tell us of it?”

I frowned. “I’ve told you about it before. I made it quite clear to the palace what it could do. However, people were more interested in impressive machinery and things that make loud noises than little pills. Hirht was a bit concerned about it the other night, but didn’t seem to think it would work. Until something like this happens, then everyone sits up and takes notice.”

“As with a lot of your other claims, sometimes it’s a bit much to take in,” she said. “You talk about your world, and even with your box it can be a bit much to believe. Then you do something like that.”

I shook my head. “I haven’t lied about anything. If you chose not to believe me, then that’s your problem. Don’t try to make me carry the load.”

“Mikah, we full well know there are some times you don’t tell us the whole truth.”

I shrugged. “And your Guild is completely open with me? You’re already trying to control what sort of knowledge I can release.”

“You already know the reason for that. Indiscriminate distribution of what you know would cause unbelievable disruption. As it stands, the only reason things aren’t worse is that the Land-of-Water government was extremely guarded about what information they released. “

“The Guild here didn’t seem very concerned about it. Actually, this is the first time I’ve been to the hall here.”

“I’m aware of their lapse. It’s an oversight we mean to correct.”

“They can’t have thought I was important enough.”

“We think the case is more that they were told you weren’t important enough. They were aware of your arrival. The Palace told them it was of little consequence.”

“Shyia would have known.”

“A. He did.”

“But he didn’t say anything?”

She favored me with a cold look.

“He didn’t,” I grinned. “Hmmm, I wonder why?”

“That’s Guild business,” Jenes’ahn said. “You’ll keep your fingers out of it.”

“Of course. You never know where it’s been.”

For the better part of another two hours the carriage clattered on through snow-muffled neighborhoods, the light swinging around in the cab as we turned corners. I watched the town passing outside, catching glimpses of life there. The lumps of budding icicles sprouted from the undersides of eaves and branches. Smoke rose almost vertically from multitudes of chimneys, fading into the milky sky. The smell of roasting meat permeated an early market. Through an archway, past a fanciful ironwork gate of wrought curls and spikes, washing lines festooned with red sheets crisscrossed a courtyard. Rris went about their business as usual, even with their breath steaming in the crisp air and snow clumping in the fur of their feet. There were perhaps a few more cloaks and shawls and tunics, but not much more than usual.

The Meditor Guild hall in Shattered Water was a lot like the ones in Lying Scales and Open Fields — a walled campus with the Guild buildings inside. Whereas the halls in Open Fields had been of new brick construction, the ones here were wooden. Big, three-story structures of black weatherboards with orange tile roofs, windows trimmed in white and cornices painted in garish blues and yellows. The huge old trees between the buildings were deciduous, now just snow-dusted trunks and branches spreading over the courtyards where apprentices with brooms swept paths through ankle-high drifts.

They paused to stare as Jenes’ahn led me from the carriage. She glared back and they hurriedly turned back to their tasks. She snorted and led onwards along the freshly swept path up to the front entrance. As in the other Guild houses I’d visited the front doors were decorated. These ones were a pair of heavy wooden portals, the outsides of which were covered in deep bas relief carvings of Rris, possibly Mediators — I didn’t have time to study them. They were coated in glossy black lacquer that gave them a creepy oil-like sheen. They were also scored by deep hacks and gashes that cut right down into lighter wood beneath.

“What happened there?” I asked, hesitating at the heavy door.

“History,” Jenes’ahn grunted and kept going.

I exhaled hard. “You missed your true calling. Should’ve been a tour guide,” I muttered as I hurried after her.

“What was that?”

“Nothing . . .”

The Guild hall was obviously old. Much older than the relatively new brick and mortar compound in Open Fields had been. It’d all been meticulously cleaned and maintained, but there were unmistakable sighs. Beneath new paint wood had dried and weathered and almost vitrified with age. Windows were small things with tiny panes of warped and bubbled glass. Corridors were cramped and narrow, the stairs twisted and the doors were too low for comfort. I had to actually bend over to pass beneath a few lintels.

We finished up in a small room up on the first floor, an office or study. Flat sunlight filtered in through a window. The diamond-shaped panes in their lead lattice were a hodge-podge of newer glass and ancient stuff that gave the light an aqueous tint so a patchwork of bottle bluegreen dappled the room. Over in a corner a black metal potbellied stove sat on a stone hearth, throwing out heat. A few paintings hung on otherwise bare walls wooden walls. An intricately patterned green and russet rug covered most of the floor, and on that were a quartet of cushions around a small circular table.

I sat where directed. Jenes’ahn settled herself opposite and we waited for several minutes.

The table top was covered in dark leather, decorated with patterns punched into the surface and stained by rings left by carelessly placed drinking vessels. The pictures on the walls were nothing special, mediocre landscapes and a couple of painting depicting groups of soldiers — their versions of generic art prints hung up to fill a gap. Funnily enough, the room felt just like any small conference room at any corporation back home: just enough trinkets and gewgaws to try and look presentable but in reality nobody really gives a rat’s arse about it. Nobody here was trying to impress anyone.

Five minutes before the door opened again and another pair of Mediators entered. A couple of males, I thought, although I’d been wrong before. The one in the lead was tall for a Rris and whippet-thin, wiry. His fur was grey and white and almost lacking in tawny tones I’d seen in most Rris around me; a winter coloration that would blend into snow and rocks like camouflage. The other one was a smaller Rris, with a pelt colored in the more familiar earth and grey tones and a small stack of papers and books in his arms. Both were wearing the usual Mediator padded tunic and breeches. Both were also armed. They settled themselves on the remaining pair of cushions and openly stared at me with amber eyes.

I stared back until the tall one wrinkled his muzzle, twitching his lips back to flash teeth. “Huhn, I thought it would look more like a person,” he said, musingly. I tensed and out of the tail of my eye saw Jenes’ahn jerk her head around at me, looking alarmed, just for a moment. He inclined his head to her. “Constable, thank you for attending.”

“Sir,” she replied.

The other Rris was laying papers out on the low table; a small stack of loose-leaf and a couple of folders, a pair of leather-bound books with bright yellow Rris script slashed on the covers. I could see the loose pages were covered with tightly-spaced writing. He produced a fountain pen from a pocket and opened a notebook.

“Your reports,” the first Mediator was saying to Jenes’ahn. “Interesting reading. Endless Circle also seems to think so. You’ve done well, given what you have been. They’ve accepted your decisions and current directives from them stand without change. We’ve dispatched word of the embassy to Bluebetter but their updates will probably meet you at the Red Leaves Guild Hall.”

“You approve of this outing?” she asked.

He sniffed. “We’ve decided that it’s preferable to the alternatives. Refusal on Land of Water’s part could cause more upset than the Guild is prepared to accept. If other countries see that they won’t even have a chance to join the feeding, then you’ll be fending off assassins every night. Compared with that, the trip is an obvious solution. Easy journey. Both Land of Water and Bluebetter have vested interests in your success.

“Now, we’ve been over information you provided — Land of Water’s agenda for trade. The items they’ve listed are acceptable to the Guild. But is there anything we should know about?”

“Such as?”

“That’s something we want to ask your charge. He’s capable of answering, isn’t he?”

“He . . .”

“I’m right here,” I interrupted, leaning forward. “And I can speak for myself. You’ve got a question? Ask me.”

“Mikah . . .” Jenes’ahn growled.

The other Rris tipped his head as he stared at me. His muzzle wrinkled momentarily, drawing lips back from sharp white teeth. “Ah, and he lives up to his reputation. Do you know who I am?”

“No.”

A pause. “Really? Constable, you didn’t tell him?”

“Apologies, Sir. I didn’t know myself who would be receiving us. Previously it’s only been aesh Sakhi here. I was not informed of a change of plans. Mikah, this is ah Kehetic, Guildmaster in Shattered Water. You know what that is.”

“I know what that is,” I said flatly. “I met enough of them in Open Fields.”

Her ears went back.

I’d met Guildmasters before. They were the senior Guild representatives in the various countries. I’d met the master in Open Fields. And I’d also met the master of a faction trying to suborn the Guild. One had wanted me dead and the other just wanted to use me. They hadn’t endeared themselves.

“Mikah, you will show respect!” Jenes’ahn growled.

I glared back. “I’m sitting right here. I will answer questions asked of me, but I’m not an animal or a complete idiot to be spoken around.”

She growled something else and bowed her head to Kehetic. “Apologies, Sir.”

He flicked a hand and she subsided, still looking concerned. Off to the side the other Rris was watching with interest as the Guild master eyed at me. Creases marched up the bridge of the muzzle between his amber eyes as he glared, then shook his head and snorted. “Very well then, you speak for yourself. Tell us, what are your intentions in Bluebetter?”

I shrugged. “I wasn’t intending anything. I never planned to go. It’s Bluebetter that wants me down there, and the government here is trying to keep them happy. I’m not sure what Bluebetter is going to ask of me, so I can’t say what I’ll do. I’ll not have anything to do with obvious weapons, or anything on the list your Guild has drawn up. And of course your two constables will be along to make sure that anything else they might ask of me doesn’t contravene some obscure regulation you have. So I’ll listen to them and their questions, consult with your people and then decide what to do.”

His tail lashed, just once. “You intend to sell Smither Industry and Land-of-Water’s services to them?”

“Land-of-Water’s people will sell their own services,” I said.

“It’s knowledge they gained from you,” he said.

“A. It’s theirs. They paid enough for it. Anyway, Chaeitch has done more than I ever could with it.”

“Hurh,” Kehetic settled back a little, stroking his chin tuft. “And what of these plans that Smither has with Bluebetter? They intend to push for a road of rails between the countries, don’t they.”

Now, how much did Chaeitch want me to tell the Guild? I’d put money on the fact that Chaeitch knew the Guild would put some question to me, so all he’d told me was what he’d wanted the Guild to know. If I told them, it most probably wouldn’t be telling them anything I wasn’t supposed to say or that they didn’t already know. From what I’d gathered of the way the Guild worked — and of the way Rris tended to defer to mediators — if the Guild wanted the information they’d just ask Smither Industries and they’d get their answer. They’d probably already done that and were fishing for any other information they could get.

“That is a matter they want to discuss with Bluebetter, a.”

“And to promote this plan they’re willing to give away items and information?”

I shrugged again. “It’s more of a trade, I think.”

“Is a rail line that important?”

I inhaled deeply. “It’s going to take us about three weeks to get to Red Leaves. Would being able to do the same journey in a couple of days — with a hundred tonnes of cargo — be desirable?”

He mused on that. “That would make some serious impacts on current trade practices.”

“It would have a lot of impact on a lot of things.”

“He seems to think it’s necessary,” Jenes’ahn added.

“Huhnn. Why?”

“Because as your abilities and requirements grow, cities like Shattered Water are going to find there’s more than they can handle. Individual countries won’t be able to do everything themselves: designing, manufacturing the machines to make the machines, resources . . . They won’t have the materials or the population to do it themselves. They’ll need to . . . to spread the load among other factories or cities. Rail lines can let entire countries become as integrated as single cities.”

The Guildmaster lowered his muzzle slightly, his pupils dark chips in the orange glow of his eyes as he studied me. “Making cities and countries reliant upon one another, a?”

“They can’t do it by themselves.”

“You think we aren’t capable?” he growled.

“It’s not a question of ability,” I returned. “It’s a question of resources and people. You simply haven’t got enough people to do everything.”

“Your kind do?”

“There are a lot more of us, but there are still never enough skilled people to do everything. So we don’t try to do everything at once. Industry is spread out between cities and even countries in a very elaborate net.”

His expression didn’t change but there were wheels turning there. “That would have quite an effect on trade.”

“A.”

“You are aware some countries, even cities or towns, aren’t on the best terms. For many, the idea of relying upon neighbors for anything is a complete anathema.”

“Worried about their neighbors cutting them off?”

“That . . .” he started to say and then hesitated, as if puzzled by the wording, then he cocked his head and tipped his hand in agreement. “That would be an apt description,” he conceded and stopped again and his muzzle creasing as he thought things through. For a few heartbeats he stared at me like that and then leaned back, huffing air. “You said a ‘net’, did you?”

I nodded, then frowned. “That’s the right word? I thought it was the right word. Used in fishing? Many threads woven in a mesh? A net?”

“A. That’s correct. Why do you use this word?”

“It describes such a system well. Everything is joined together; connected to each other. Like the threads in a net. And like a net, if some threads break, others still hold. It takes a lot to break it, and even if you succeeded, you’d just as likely be hurting yourself.”

The stare he gave me this time went on for longer. Dust motes stirred in a sunbeam slanting across the table between us and he studied me. A scritching noise crept about the edges of the following silence as the other Rris, the Guildmaster’s secretary or whoever she was, scribbled notes into her book. I had to look at Jenes’ahn. “Did I say something wrong?”

Her ears went back and then up again when the Guildmaster spoke up. “No. Not wrong,” he said. “It is a . . . concept with angles to be studied. Angles we’d perhaps neglected, until our guest here so kindly explained them.”

Me and my big mouth.

“A problem, sir?” Jenes’ahn asked.

“Not as such,” Kehetic replied. “Beyond the obvious, the Guild hasn’t seen any difficulties with the agreement Smither is chasing. To date. But this is something beyond the commercial aspects we’d considered.” He read some scratches on a piece of paper before him, then pushed it aside with a single finger and looked at me.

“Mikah, what other changes could this rail road bring about?”

“I’m not sure I can say,” I said. “The mechanics of it I’m familiar with, but how it changes your lives . . . that I’m not sure about.”

“Why?”

I glanced at Jenes’ahn, wondering if she’d explained this to them. “Ah, you’re Rris. I’m not. The machines I know about, but what you choose to do with them — where your kind take them and what you use them for . . . I’m really not the best person to ask about that.”

“Your reason for that?”

“I don’t think we think the same way,” I said and then sighed at his expression of incomprehension. “We do things differently. Because we are different. It means that I tend to think in terms of the way my people would do things.”

“Explain that.”

“It’s difficult,” I said and tried examples I’d used before. “My kind put up with overcrowding that I don’t think Rris would tolerate. We need more warmth, light. We do things you would consider, ah, quite strange. It all means we do things differently. I’m not saying better, just different. Because of that you might go in directions that were closed to us. You might think of uses we never did. You might avoid mistakes, or make others. I don’t know. Knowing how Rris think is something you’re better suited to.”

“Constable, is this plausible?”

Jenes’ahn scratched at her cheek and ventured, “Sir, some of the things he does are rotted odd, to put it charitably. This has been mentioned in reports.”

The secretary’s pen scratched again. Kehetic frowned and ticked a clawtip against the table. “Constable,” he finally said, “the Guild won’t oppose Land-of-Water’s offering, although apparently the ramifications are still going to require further study. I understand Land-of-Water intends to offer other information as enticement to bring Bluebetter into the deal?”

“Yes, Sir. There’s quite a bit of ancillary knowledge and expertise that goes into making such a rail system and Land-of-Water will be providing that. For the most part it is existing information that has been either cleared by the Guild or has leaked widely already. But there’s a fair bite that I doubt industry spies have acquired that Bluebetter will be drooling for.”

“What of these standardized units?”

“Huhn,” Jenes’ahn tapped her fingers together. “That is a little tricky.”

“How so?”

“It’s not a foolish idea. There are plenty of benefits. In fact, it’s something that should’ve been done a long time ago, but hasn’t been. For obvious reasons. Now there are strong reasons for doing it: building this new machinery, I understand, requires this sort of precision; building parts in different places; repairs and such. They all need pieces to fit. They need the same measures. If an engine built here needed to be repaired in Bluebetter, the fastest way to do that is to build large numbers of spare parts, and all those parts would need to be the right size.

“Now Land-of-Water has an opportunity to stake this out and make sure people eat it. If they want to join the hunt, they have to follow the leader, a? It isn’t a foolish idea.”

“But?” Kehetic prodded.

“But people don’t always like being told what to eat, a? There will be waves.”

“More of them,” he said and turned to me again. “What’ve you got to say about that?”

“Again, I’m not the best person to ask about how Rris might react,” I said. “I imagine Land-of-Water know about that. If they can get some other countries on board, then the others will be more willing to follow suit. Even if they don’t want to deal with Land-of-Water, they might deal with the others.”

“You think this rail offering will be enough to do that?”

I shrugged. “It’s a bit more than just a few rails. Do you know what it would take to build a rail line six hundred kilometers between Shattered Water and Red Leaves?”

“A lot of work,” he said.

“A. And also things that haven’t been done before. The entire route has to be surveyed and mapped down to the meter to find the best path. That path will have to be smoothed and graded and reinforced. Gullies will have to be filled. Cuttings will have to be dug through some hills, other will have to be removed completely. Tunnels dug through mountains and bridges made of iron built to span ravines.

“The whole project is going to require new tools and techniques; new metals and materials and machinery. Everything from mining equipment and techniques for the metal that’s going to be required, to formulas for blasting powders; new engines and industrial machinery for working metal. Anyone cooperating on such a project will be getting a great deal extra on top of just the rail.”

“And if they just want the rail and drop the new systems?”

“Then they’ll find that nobody will be able to repair their machines and equipment. And their own parts won’t fit with their neighbors.”

His muzzle creased again, his ears tipping back. “For someone who claims not to know a lot about us, you have a lot of insights.”

“Machinery always does the same thing. That doesn’t change. And I can guess at sensible reactions Rris might make, such as wanting something that’s better than you currently have. But when emotions and other . . . not-logical things like that come into it, then . . . I wouldn’t place bets.”

He snorted, stroking a finger along his jawline. “You say you’re not a judge of people, yet you take strays into your home and hearth.”

“I’ve already got this pair hanging around taking up space,” I jerked a thumb toward Jenes’ahn. “What’s a few more?”

Jenes’ahn snarled and Kehetic raised a hand in a calming gesture. “If that’s the case,” he said to me, “we could always proved a few more officers.”

“Ahhh, that’s not necessary,” I hastily replied. “Too much of a good thing and all that.”

“Huh, I think you need them around as much as the Guild requires them to be there. These meetings you will be attending are going to be sensitive, in a lot of ways. A great deal’s going to pivot on subtleties and diplomacy. Hirht made a laudable decision in sending aesh Smither to deal with the majority of the politics, but you will also most certainly be exposed to it.

“The constables going along with you will be going as Guild representatives. They’ll do their duty. I’m aware you don’t like that; you don’t approve of it, but you will respect it. You will listen to what they tell you and you will not discuss the proscribed subjects with the Bluebetters or any other Rris. If anyone gives you any trouble over this, you’ll simply say they’re conditions set by the Mediator Guild and nothing more. Don’t cause trouble. The Constables will handle them.”

The other Rris pushed over a small stack of documents. I picked one up: a hefty manual bound in fine leather, closed with a black ribbon and sealed with a dollop of bright orange wax embossed with a geometric pattern.”What are these?” I asked.

“Lists of proscribed subjects,” he said.

I raised an eyebrow in what was certainly a pointless gesture. “You made lists of things you don’t want invented?”

He looked blank for a second, then his ears twitched back. “Of subjects,” he growled. “And guidelines of how to deal with them. If they ask about anything of an uncertain nature, you discuss it with the Guild first,” he growled, then hissed to Jenes’ahn, “Is this usual? Is he a fool?”

“I’m still trying to decide, Sir,” she replied. “He seems to delight in being willfully obstinate.”

“A fool then,” Kehetic growled, turning his ears back as he regarded me. “I dislike fools. They cause problems for those around them.”

She narrowed her eyes. “A. That does describe him quite aptly.”

“Then you probably shouldn’t be around me,” I said. “Then I can’t cause you problems, and you aren’t breathing over my shoulder. Everyone’s happy.”

Jenes’ahn winced and scratched the bridge of her nose with a single clawtip. “Mikah . . . Rot it all.”

“Your misgivings about this assignment are suddenly far more understandable, Constable” Kehetic remarked to Jenes’ahn.

“Thank you, Sir,” she said, then tapped a claw on the table. “There is something else, Sir.”

“And that is?”

“Those strays Mikah took in,” she said, looking uncomfortable. “Something happened.”

“What?”

She related the events of the previous twenty-four hours quietly and succinctly. He sat motionless and expressionless until she was done, and then for a little longer.

“You’re sure it was damp cough?” he eventually asked.

“Quite.”

“And who else is aware of this?”

“The University is aware he took the medication. And Mikah’s household is aware of the results. No doubt by now the Palace is also.”

“Sequester the medication. Bring it to the Guild strongroom. Leave a small sample for the University. No doubt they’ll be a great deal more protective the less there is of it.”

“But if they can duplicate it . . .” Jenes’ahn started.

“Can they?” Kehetic snapped at me.

I shook my head. “Doubtful.”

He didn’t ask for an explanation. “Ensure it’s done today,” he said and the other Rris scribbled a note with a graphite stick. “And this cured stray: she will be trouble?”

“I believe she was House Guard at some time,” Jenes’ahn said. “She sold all she owned to get here, but she retained her loyalty blade.”

“Indeed? Then she will follow Guild directives and she won’t discuss this with anyone. Discuss this with her, constable,” the Guildmaster said and then tipped his head quizzically. “And have you ascertained why she would give away a life to chase after this one?” He flicked an ear toward me.

“My sparkling personality?”

“Shut up, Mikah. No sir. Not entirely, sir.”

Kehetic regarded me again, the way you might study a particularly interesting bug crawling up a window. “Do so,” he said to Jenes’ahn without taking his eyes off me. “And you’ll use your journey to make sure that your charge reads those and makes himself quite familiar with the terms and restrictions. There won’t be any incidents this time, will there.”

“No, sir,” Jenes’ahn said.

“Good,” Kehetic said. “Now,” he gestured to his assistant, “Mikah, you will wait outside. We have things to discuss.”

I objected. Jenes’ahn snarled at me. I bridled.

“Mikah,” she interrupted with a low hiss. “Please.”

I’d already opened my mouth it sank in. There were nuances in her expression that I didn’t get, but the simple fact she’d said please spoke volumes. I closed my mouth, swallowed my reply along with my pride and nodded.

Kehetic hadn’t blinked. “Sakhi,” he said, “Show our visitor out. The constable and I will not be disturbed.”

Still annoyed, I followed the secretary out into a bare, chilly hallway with bare white plaster walls and bare floorboards. Several of those boards squeaked loudly underfoot as we walked over them, down to where a small window admitted grey light. For about half an hour we waited there, leaning against walls on opposite sides of the corridor. Although the Rris’ ears occasionally twitched toward the closed door at the end of the hall, I couldn’t hear anything useful.

“Do you know what that’s about?” I asked, jerking my thumb toward the door.

“No, sir,” he said.

“Huh, funny that. You being his secretary I’d have thought you’d have known what his plans were.”

“His lordship prefers to keep his intentions to himself,” the small Mediator said.

“How long’s he been here? In Shattered Water?”

Sakhi cocked his head, then said, “A few months. The last lord was relocated.”

I’ll bet. After the debacle at Open Fields they’d have figured he dropped the ball big time, or was working to some other schedule. Either way, the way the Guild arm did things in Shattered Water had changed enough that even I’d noticed it.

There wasn’t much else forthcoming from the secretary. He answered questions vaguely or with other questions. Kehetic hadn’t just sent him out with me for privacy, he was also there to keep an eye on me and make sure I didn’t wander off or do any eavesdropping. So, cold, bored and annoyed, I spent the last fifteen minutes just staring at the Rris until he started to fidget. When Jenes’ahn finally stalked out of her meeting his tail was lashing.

“What’d you do?” she growled as she led me back out of the Guild.

“Not a thing,” I said. “He’s just not very talkative. What were you doing anyway?”

“Not your concern,” she said.

“Oh? It was probably about me, wasn’t it? How is that not my concern?”

She didn’t bite. “Not your concern,” she repeated and I heard the plasticky ticking as her toe claws rattled against the floor in time with her steps.

It was certainly concerning her.

The ride back was quiet and much as the ride out there had been. The ambience of the city seeped in from outside. Jenes’ahn stewed in her own thoughts. I leafed through the documentation she’d brought and found pages of tightly-spaced Rris legalese. I was going to need a lot of help going through that.

Chapter 16

By late afternoon the day’s light was already almost gone. What had been a milky overcast for most of the day had darkened, curdled to a leaden grey underbelly hanging over the city. Fat flakes drifted down and the air was skin-cracklingly cold against my face as I stepped out of the carriage. I huddled down into my collar and hurried inside, into the warmth and a busy industry.

Houshold staff were already busy packing. Rris servants in the halls were carrying armloads of sheets and blankets and clothes, bearing them away somewhere belowstairs. And there were surprises awaiting.

“They were delivered today,” Tich told me, indicating the trio of wooden trunks in the hall. Both were made from carefully polished beech, buffed polished to an almost golden luster, the edges bound with dark leather and brass studs. On each lid was a little badge stamped with the clothier’s monogram.

“Already?” I said. “I wasn’t even sure they’d be able to do it in time, let alone ahead of schedule and . . . this.” I gestured to the cases. They were well made, expensive. They say presentation is everything, but that was taking the idea a bit far.

“Doubtless prepared beforehand, sir,” she said.

“They were expecting me?”

“That would appear to be the case, sir. Apparently they wished to make an impression.”

“Consider me impressed,” I said, moving toward the cases. Jenes’ahn stopped me with a hand on my arm.

“What?” I asked her.

“No,” she said. “We’ll take a look at them first.”

I looked down at her. “I think they might be a bit big for you.”

She didn’t look at me. “They could be dangerous,” she said.

“Dangerous,” I echoed flatly before I had to ask: “You think they’ll explode?”

“A poisoned needle would be simpler,” she said.

“A . . .” I blinked at the Rris constable as she stalked past me and crouched by the cases. “What’re you talking about?” I demanded, my voice echoing up the stairs, through the halls.

“You should be careful who you accept things from,” she said, inspecting a latch before clicking it open.

Where the hell did that come from? I stared at her as she started to poke through the clothes inside the trunk. What was she on about? Something had changed. “Is this something to do with that little meeting you kicked me out of?” I said. “They tell you something?”

Eyes flashed molten brass in the lamplight as she turned her head toward me. “Why would you mention that?”

“I’m concerned.” I said, getting annoyed. “Something in that meeting managed to shut you up for a while and now you suddenly you start going on about poison in clothes. What’s going on? Is it something to do with Open Fields? That investigation that never seems to go anywhere?”

Toward the end of my stay in Open fields there’d been a formal reception. There’d also been an intruder with a knife who’d managed to get close enough to me that I’d had to bend a candlestick around his head. But from what I’d gathered it’d been a planned setup and not just a random nut. Whenever I’d asked Mediators, they’d said they’d were following it up, but as best I could tell the investigation was just spinning its wheels. Which, considering the influence and scope of the Guild’s powers, was odd.

“Not your concern” she said.

I clenched my jaw, feeling the simmering indignation inside building to another sort of explosion.

“Sir?” A calm voice interjected. “If I may?”

I took a deep breath, swallowing the outburst before I said something that embarrassed me I front of the staff. “Yes, Tich?”

“Your guest requested to speak with you.”

I nodded. “Where is she?”

“At this moment she’s in the study with her ladyship.”

“Later,” I growled at the Mediator. She blinked slowly and returned to her task.

Another room. That was a good excuse to get out of there before I lost my rag. I left the mediator to sort through my underwear in her hunt for poisonous needles and exploding socks and headed for the study. Tich fell in behind.

“How is she?” I asked as we passed through the door into the dark living room, heading toward the glow shining under the study door.

“Remarkably well considering,” Tich said. “She has taken food; she is walking.”

“And talking,” I said. “She and Chihirae . . . they’ve been talking?”

“A, Sir.”

“Do you know . . . what about?”

“I wouldn’t presume to know, Sir,” she said.

Yeah, right. She probably knew exactly what had been said. If the Rris had had electronics, then doubtless every room would have been wired for sound and vision. They didn’t, but I was sure that the many pointed and sensitive ears of the staff reported to her exactly what was going on in the household.

Hell, I didn’t need her to have a damn good idea of what they’d been talking about.

The door was ajar. From beyond I heard quiet voices. Chittering laughter. I knocked.

“Come in, Mikah.”

A few lamps were lit, not quite enough for my eyes. Across the room my desk and chair stood in front of the drawn drapes: a proper desk and a proper chair that simply weren’t de riguer in this part of the Rris world. They weren’t being used. Instead the two women were watching me from over by the heater where they’d settled themselves on floor cushions. Over by the bookshelf a wide-eyed adolescent Rris was staring over the top of a book from where he’d settled himself cross-legged on the rug. A small stack of the extremely valuable tomes was stacked at his side. It looked like he was having better luck reading them than I’d had.

“It’s okay,” I paused to assure Rothi. “They’re books. They’re supposed to be read.”

His ears pricked up a bit and he gripped the volume a little more closely. It looked like a history book. Hell, I had enough trouble keeping up with the present, let alone Rris history. “Ah,” he started to say and his ears flicked back again, “I didn’t apologize for attacking you.”

I tipped my head and tried not to grin. “Way I recall it, someone was petitioning me for help. How could I refuse.”

“But I . . .” he caught on fast enough for a youth. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Good evening,” I greeted the ladies. “Good to see you up and walking again, Ea’rest. Feeling better?”

“A. Apart from some diarrhea, much, thank you,” Ea’rest said.

Frank to a fault. “Thank’s for sharing,” I said. “Good to hear. The better bit, that is.”

One ear did flag down. “I think I made a bit of a fool of myself last night. I have to apologize for that.”

“Going for a stroll in that condition wasn’t the brightest idea,” I offered.

That wasn’t what she’d meant, but her ears twitched and she smiled, glad of the misdirection. Passing out on someone else’s bed would be embarrassing, but I’d done worse. “A, it wasn’t,” she said. “But it seems I owe you something.”

“Nonsense. My fault. My responsibility.”

“Enough,” Chihirae interjected. “You can apportion blame some other time. Mikah,” she patted the cushion beside her. “Sit yourself.”

I did so, settling on the embroidered cushion that’d been a gift from the far off country of Broken Spine. They were out in the far Northwest, backed up across the Rockies, and as such were some distance removed from news of happenings in the east. When the news had gone from their embassies to home, and then had been corroborated a couple of times, they’d been desperate for meetings; desperate that they were being left behind. The cushions were some of the thinly disguised tokens of esteem I’d been sent and were quite spectacular in their baroque ornamentation. I leaned back against her. “Huhn. Better.”

“Long meeting, a?”

“Long day.”

“I thought they would allow you more time to pack. What delayed you?”

“Secret Squirrel and her boss decided to have a private conversation.”

“Do you know what it was about?”

“Probably me,” I sighed and she bumped her chin against my shoulder. “Anyway, what’ve you been doing?”

“Aesh Sitaena and I had some time to talk.”

That sounded dangerous. What had they talked about? There were things that Chihirae would be better off not knowing. “Should I be concerned?”

A pointed little elbow nudged me. “Quiet, you,” she chided. “Interesting talk, indeed. Bandits and storms and creatures in the straw. You do make a habit of meeting women in barns, a? And you don’t seem to be good at first impressions.”

“Hey, I thought I did pretty well.”

“As you did with me?” Chihirae asked.

Ea’rest coughed and looked at me. At us. “I’d wondered about that scar through your shoulder,” she said. “It seems that a winter teacher can be quite formidable. A wonder she didn’t kill you.”

“Or that you didn’t,” Chihirae said. “You were employed as a guard?”

Now our guest looked a bit uncomfortable. “Some time ago, a.”

“You see,” Chihirae nudged me again. “Can’t you just introduce yourself in a civilized fashion sometimes?”

I leaned back, feeling a low rumble as she pushed back into my weight. “If I recall,” I teased, “there wasn’t much chance for introductions. A? You were a bit trigger-happy. Ea’rest had a bit more self control.”

“Huhn,can you blame us? A sight like you would make a Mediator shed,” she retorted. “A, Ea’rest?”

Our guest’s ears twitched back and she looked uncomfortable. “I hate to say it, Sir, but you are quite . . . fearsome.”

“There,” Chihirae said triumphantly. “You see?”

I groaned melodramatically. “Ah! You’re so cruel to me.”

Chihirae chittered and bumped her head against me again. “Ah, but you do have your good points.”

In the gloom Ea’rest’s eyes glowed subtly as the angle of her head changed, tipping slightly as she watched us. There was calculation going on there; interpreting what she was seeing through filters that worked differently from human. God only knew what she was making of that horseplay.

“You’re okay?” I asked her. “You’re being looked after satisfactorily?”

She blinked. “A. Quite. Thank you.”

“You have everything you need? Rothi is happy?”

“A. Very.” She turned to watch the adolescent, who was obliviously buried in a volume. “He hasn’t had a chance to see this many books before. I hope it isn’t a problem.”

“He’s an intelligent boy,” Chihirae said. “Very much so.”

Yeah, he’d built his own kite from nothing but travellers’ tales and bits of scrap. “A, I think Chaeitch might like to meet him,” I agreed. “But, that’s going to have to wait. I have to go away for a while. Her Ladyship here has explained that?”

Chihirae elbowed me again.

“A,” Ea’rest said, scratched at her forearm, scattering a small cloud of shed fur. “It’s important, she explained that.”

“A,” I sighed and leaned back against my hairy cushion who idly stroked my hair. “Important. I’d like to be able to stay, but I don’t have much say in the matter so I go where I’m sent. It’s likely to be for the winter, returning in spring, which means I won’t be around. But I’ll do what I can to make sure you’re looked after. You said you were thinking about that suggestion I’d made. A tavern?”

Ea’rest’s ears twitched back and she looked uncertain, glancing from me to Chihirae. “I’d hoped . . . I gave that some thought and . . . I’m no farmer, that I’m certain of, but I can cook; I can deal with people. I can do this. If you’re offering a chance . . . I would like to take it.”

“Huhn,” Chihirae rumbled from behind me but otherwise held her counsel.

I nodded. “If you’re willing to work at it, I can give you the chance. I can leave orders to make sure you’re provided with capital and assistance. I know people who know people who should be able to assist with property or land or whatever else is required. As far as money goes, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”

“I did have some . . .” she started to say and then slumped and waved a shrug. Her ears were laid back. “I can sell my blade if that will help.”

I shook my head. “Not necessary.”

“It’s . . .”

“Mediator told me the meaning of that blade. I suspect it’s worth more to you than you’d ever get for it. Keep it.”

She shuddered visibly, closed her eyes for a second and said something I didn’t catch.

“She said, ‘thank you’,” Chihirae offered quietly in my ear.

“A,” Ea’rest she shuddered again, then inhaled hard, composing herself. “Thank you. From both of us, thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome.”

“But, why . . . all this? Why are you doing it?”

“Why?” I looked up at the ceiling, rubbed my chin as I thought that over. “Well, because you were kind to me when you certainly didn’t have to be; because I owe you at least this much; because I can; and because I think it’s the right thing to do. I think that covers it.”

A clawed hand scratched at my head, stroking through my hair. “You see,” Chihirae chittered, “I told you he has his good points.”