Lies in Red Leaves

A Chapter in the Life of Riley

 

Greg Howell

2016-04-16

 

Original from http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~howellg/stories/stories.html. HTML version by Louis Thomas, http://www.latenighthacking.com/archives/stories/, 2016-04-28.

Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Shattered Water
Smither Works
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
The Palace
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Chapter 51
Chapter 52
Chapter 53
Chapter 54
Chapter 55
Chapter 56
Chapter 57
Chapter 58
Chapter 59
Chapter 60
Chapter 61
Chapter 62
Chapter 63
Chapter 64
Chapter 65
Chapter 66
Chapter 67
Chapter 68
Chapter 69
Chapter 70
Chapter 71
Chapter 72
Chapter 73
Chapter 74
Chapter 75
Chapter 76
Chapter 77
Chapter 78
Chapter 79
Chapter 80
Chapter 81
Chapter 82
Chapter 83
Chapter 84
Chapter 85
Chapter 86
Chapter 87
Chapter 88
Chapter 89
Chapter 90
Chapter 91
Chapter 92
Chapter 93
Chapter 94
Chapter 95
Chapter 96
Chapter 97
Chapter 98
Chapter 99
Chapter 100
Chapter 1

Summer came to visit.

It drifted down the river and strolled up the road.

It fell from the sky and seeped through the woods.

It’ll stay for a while,

And one day,

It’ll leave a note on a million falling leaves,

to say,

Winter is on its way.

 

— Found carved on a student desk in the Shattered Water University.

Blades of frost-brittle grass crunched beneath my moccasins as I ran. Early morning air as cold and sharp as chilled knives froze my sinuses and my breath. Each exhalation streamed back over my shoulders in a pale wreath, tangling with the pale mist blanketing the lake meadow. The only sounds in that frigid gray world were those of my breathing and the crackling of ice underfoot.

Ice. Ice rimed everything that morning. Delicate white laced every blade of grass; icicles budded on skeletal branches; frost spiked from every needles of the evergreens. And down along the lake’s edge thin scabs of congealing ice rang and splintered against the stone shore.

The skies had yawned wide last night. High, milky overcast had dissipated, revealing a bottomless well of stars that birthed the first really hard frost. So that morning the world was gray and white under a pale sky: colors of chill and cold. Mist clung to the earth, settling into hollows, threading between trees and reducing the normally bright lake vista to a panorama of waves and plates of ice rolling in from an obscuring murk. Filtered through that haze the first light of day was a pumpkin-orange glow on the eastern horizon.

At that time of year, amidst the final tatters of autumn, the meadow was a less welcoming place. The greens and golds of summer; the brilliant colors of wildflowers; the aimless dances 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 was a good way to wake you up in the morning and give 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 and run themselves into the ground trying to follow. When they eventually gave up on that they reluctantly contented themselves with settling themselves somewhere 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 on the sidelines 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 that would have to be the same meaning 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 tool-using beings, every bit as intelligent as me. More so in quite a few instances. 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 had to. 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 that in another world might have become a lynx or bobcat. They had the same sort of general appearance as the animals back where I’d come from: 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 with strange articulation: 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. And if it wasn’t human, it had to be animal.

No. That wasn’t something I thought anymore. I couldn’t. I’ve been dunked into, submerged and utterly 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 even the old cities and castles of Europe. This was the Rris home, their hearth, the birthplace of their species. Their Africa. Their Olduvai. 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 deal with Rris without an atavistic shiver scratching up my spine.

But it wasn’t reciprocated. To them I’d always be an outsider: something that wasn’t normal. And I had to remember that. With each new Rris I met 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 frigid air I could already feel ice crystallizing 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. “No problem.”

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

“For a short time it’s okay,” I said. “That was just short enough. 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 shadow 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 levied.

Their civilization was at a stage that was roughly equivalent to late eighteenth century Europe. Give or take in certain areas. They were entering the industrial age; steam power was making inroads at replacing 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 and JIT 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. And the problems started there.

The Rris were divided into nations, their inhabited civilized world covering the northern and north-eastern parts of what I’d known as North America. I was dealing with one of these states. As word spread, other countries weren’t so happy to hear about this windfall that’d befallen the country of Land-of-Water. As things had developed jealousies were aroused, old enmities stirred 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 squabble for power, control over new technology, and control over the different 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 blackmailed me into cooperating with their little games. They’d used me and they’d used someone I . . . cared very deeply about.

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. You couldn’t take back an idea. I felt my jaw muscles clench just thinking about it 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 and generously. I had money, a lot of it, 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 concrete value here: artworks, sculpture, books, 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 a Queen Anne style in shingles and fretwork and then modified by someone with an inhuman eye and aesthetic. 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: 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 revolutionary wool insulation in the walls, ceiling and under the floor; and the big expanses of clear, 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, however, were old beveled glass, made the laborious traditional way: blown and spun and flattened and polished by hand. Each one expensive and very beautiful. Now they were laced with fronds of white frost curling from the edges of every pane. As I stepped up onto the verandah the doors swung open, a dark Rris standing tall and proud 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 ticking over. 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 certainly — 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 from their language to English. 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. I let it lay as I headed through to the ensuite and set the shower running.

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, a rag of cloth and a lot of goosebumps. Hot, running water was incredibly rare.

How had I come here? I don’t know. To make a long, confusing 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’d been is long in the past now, relegated to dusty memory and some scabbed emotions that I don’t like to prod. What we’d been was all consigned to history after that day walking in the countryside and I remember there was a bright flash of what might have been lightning from a clear sky and when I woke up I was . . . elsewhere. My maps were wrong, there was no phone or GPS coverage, no roads or power lines or distant contrails, 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. Actually, a lot of the stuff I took for granted was — out of season fruit was either grown in local conservatories and greenhouses or shipped frozen in ice. Both options wincingly expensive. 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. Not a typical Rris breakfast; they do 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. They want me at the Palace. 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, burning away the early mist. 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, brown, 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 iron rimmed with wooden spokes and the builders hadn’t scrimped on the decorative rococo trim, but now there were working 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 backwoods town called Westwater in an area I’d known as Vermont. It’d been winter. It’d been freezing cold. 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 echoing 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 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. While grounds shrank, buildings also changed. Expensive cut stone and elaborate designs turned to brick and whitewashed plaster. Residences and other places of occupancy became more introverted. Where there’d been outward-looking windows in the large estates there were blank walls or much smaller slits. The façades turned inwards, towards the atriums I knew were in the center of the buildings, along with the courtyards and the gardens and fountains 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 districts and commercial districts and stockyards and plazas and squares used for more small outdoor markets. Others areas were already nucleating the growing centers of industrialization: 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. Ancillary industries nestled around them, transferring goods around like the cells in a blood stream as they fed the new demands. 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 organically there, responding to the needs and desires of its citizens. There were attempts at civic engineering, with open plazas and squares dotted throughout the city and wide avenues and main streets that radiated out from those. Smaller radial roads joined those thoroughfares, but in between those was still a bewildering maze of alleyways and side streets built with no single end in mind. 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 multiple fractures in a stone-cracked windshield: thousands of intersecting lines radiating from a dozen plaza-points, shattering the glass into countless wedge-shaped shards bounded by the interstices between them.

Over the centuries walls had been erected around the heart of the city. Not just one, but several — each further out and encompassing more territory. The outermost fortifications were the newest, built since the advent of gunpowder weapons in this world but still over a hundred years old. Those were more a line of squat, fortified berms and moats with gatehouses at tactical locations rather than a traditional curtain wall of stones and mortar. The older fortifications — what was left of them — that’d been supplanted by the new line of defense were of the more traditional sort. Dotted through the city like crumbling old teeth were remains of gatehouses and barbicans and towers and tumbled stretches of wall and masonry, 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. I’d seem some of the older corners of the inner city where alleyways 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 open an upper window and 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. The city grew faster than walls could be built. Buildings had long overflowed those limiting confines and spread across the surrounding countryside and along the river and lakeshore. The river snaked eastwards through the landscapes of the southern districts; through the ridges and peaks of rooftops and chimney pots; spiked with wharves and jetties; spanned by several bridges; bowing inside the city walls, in and then out again.

Past the last bridge, just before the river mouth and the breakwaters there, both banks were crowded with larger 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 hollow 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 tacos and 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’d been politics that’d influenced my purchase — that’d restricted just what property had been available for my purchase — but I hadn’t known the details at the time. I’d been advised by people I’d learned 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 wild grasses and flowers; 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. To mine it whispered things that sent frissons of unease up and down my spine.

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 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 over 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 for alien aesthetics and tastes and senses. Some of the works 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 under 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’d 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 a foppish butterball, 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 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,” he butchered my name. “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 really don’t 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 lights in their mullions catching rainbows in the glazing. Over in one corner of the white, chill room was a patch of burgundy carpet and on that was a desk. Not a giant 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 individual 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.”

Oh, yeah. I remembered. 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 aesh Smither as official and commercial proxies, along with 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 en-route 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 and river through the Rippled Lands and then across the First Step Backwards through Esheir’s Wait, Long Way, Thieves Always Return, and Summer Breaks. You’ll meet Bluebetter escorts at Summer Breaks and they’ll take you down to Yeitas’Mas. If the river is forgiving there’ll be water transport, otherwise it’s roads downstream to Red Leaves. “

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. Of course the upper Ashansi 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.

Shattered Water

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 vintages, 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 entirely,” 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 Rraerch 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.”

Smither Works

The factory halls were noisy places, even for me. Under the high ceilings supported by wrought-iron girders thousand kilo trip hammers pounded away, each impacting with a noise that was almost palpable. Rolling mills growled, spitting out tongues of orange-red steel. Sparks fountained in the gloom as one of the converters blasted compressed air through a mass of liquid metal. The atmosphere was searing hot and stank of burnt metal, of chemicals and soot. 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. You could recognize them out of uniform by those shaved patches and the singed fur.

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, what was possible and could be achieved. I was educated and my profession had exposed me to 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 perhaps scrape up some images and information on high-temperature resistant ceramics in my ‘pedia, 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. Notes were taken. 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 was about the size of a large fridge and 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; through more great, echoing halls and through locked and guarded airlock-type doors into corridors that were much cleaner, quieter and secure. Gas lamps glimmered along hallways of arched, red brick vaults overhead and walled in white and grey. 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,” Chaeitch told Jenes’ahn as he led us to one door. There was an engraved Rris character on a brass plate, something I translated as ‘Grade Three Finishing’. Beneath that was tacked a bit of paper with something I couldn’t read scrawled on it. 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. Horrible things, those drive shafts. Spinning maim-machines, but until we got electric motors sorted out, they had to do Thick canvas belts hung down from those 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 manufactories 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 Rraerch’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 fine strands 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 certainly hadn’t seen all of these places. Possibly none of the other places.

The new concepts had required old buildings be reoccupied and refurbished and new ones constructed. 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 with a new watertunnel 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, all labeled and dated. Another contained 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. Some noise 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 squeaked to keep a straight face, trying not to start grinning. “Definitely 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 smirked and she gaped her jaw in a furious hiss that leaked white clouds of condensing breath like a steam engine.

“Mikah, you have a rotted contract!”

“A. But we weren’t in public then, were we?”

She hissed in disgust, eyes black. Her fur crackled in the cold, dry air as she tried to brush it flat again.

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. In the same way a puddle is to an ocean: same thing but much smaller.”

“So it could be a weapon?”

I snorted and flipped my hand in a negative. “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 provide 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, and they will need to do so more often; the towns can also adapt; the engines can be made faster, cleaner. It’s a big, bold undertaking that obviously has many huge benefits and liabilities; many great problems will be caused; people will never accept it. All that’s obvious, a?”

She waved cautious consent.

“Now, I’ve noticed that the servants at the house work very hard. A great deal of time is spent cleaning floors and rugs. They have to 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 small device that you just rub over the rugs and floor and it picks up the dirt for you? 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 cheap 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 dependents? 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.

“A simple thing,” I said, “but it could pose more unforeseen issues than a far more spectacular undertaking.”

She chewed that for a while. “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 ideas 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, frustrated. “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 center of the octagonal space. All washed in the soft 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. Another of these diplomatic trips.”

“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 Rottweiler’s growl wasn’t that tall for a Rris, but he was solidly built. His winter pelt was shaggy grey, 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 be 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 felt 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 items that Rris tailors and leatherworkers didn’t normally 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.

“You are joking?”

“No. No joke.”

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. They know you get cold when someone leaves a window open?”

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 far 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 related 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 dubiously. “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 . . .” I trailed off, unsure of how to word it tactfully.

“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, all that. 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 fourth, 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. And they are quite influential?”

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 of, 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’d taken 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. Given what I knew of human history the thought of an organization holding that sort of power just seemed wrong. I’d seen what could happen, 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 ever 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 two-tined 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 morsel 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 finally popped the meat into her mouth and champed noisily, 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, flowery rhetoric and Hollywood sense, but rather in the real, sluice-of-hormone induced perceptual blinkers nature built into humanity to reinforce various relationships. All the affection and protection I felt 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. And 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,” 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 student is the measure of a teacher, you must be terrible.”

Chihirae screwed her nose up and sniffed, the very picture of an affronted feline. “Sah! Give me shit to sculpt and whatever I sculpt, it will still be shit.”

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 made up out 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 past a backdrop 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 Botticelli’s Birth 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. That’s why their pictures are there. For a lot of them it’s their job: being pretty in a picture.”

“Pretty? They look bald and gangly,” 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 . . .” And family, and friends, and countless other things that were lost forever. “Never mind.”

“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, feeling the hard bone beneath the fell and skin. “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, stroking, sliding in. Her muscles were alive, an alien body fever-hot around my fingers, clenching. Her hands grabbed fistfuls of the duvet as I moved my own hand, slowly, teasingly. 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 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. “Dispatches were sent to the tailors and other crafters you requested. There was an arrival: a missive from the palace, sir. Official documents with the royal seal 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, sir.”

“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 encountered difficulties in keeping up with the laundry.”

“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, “on what her ladyship cries out next . . .”

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

She paused, cocked her head, perhaps realizing that perhaps that news had a bit more impact on me than it would’ve on a Rris. “They are discreet,” she added. “There won’t be any gossip beyond these walls.”

“Oh,” I squeaked. “Good.”

She hesitated again, 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 finger.”

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 interested in any way beyond academic or amusement. 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 and therefore a source of entertainment. 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 aluminum sheeting; 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 actually experienced it. 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 did things . . . differently. I didn’t have the recuperative powers of their males, but I could last longer. Long enough for their women to get something out of it.

I’d asked Chihirae why she didn’t use a substitute: a vibrator or something. She’d 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 kissing, 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, other stuff incomprehensibly bizarre.

Different? Certainly. Weird? Perhaps. Wrong? That wasn’t so clear cut. There would be Rris and Humans who would condemn what we did; each for reasons the other would probably find outlandish 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 reached out and I’d accepted. It’d been terrifying and exhilarating and confusing and painful and reason had never entered into it. I’d clutched at a warm body in the dark 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.

I dropped from the bars, breathing hard and rolling my shoulders, feeling for a twinge from a knot of scar tissue. 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, constable,” I said to the cold air, really trying to stay calm, “Never, ever say that around her. Not even in jest. Not where she can hear you. Understand? It’s not something she wants or needs to be reminded of. Is that clear?”

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 with ears askew. “Rot you, Mikah, it’s indecent to be so active so early.”

“Hey, you worked with farm kids so you should be used to it.” I stopped on my way across the room to scratch behind a tufted ear that was still half inside-out.

“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.

Chihirae 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 or move too fast. 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 genuine maple syrup they were as good as they smelled 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, looking out the window, but she 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?” I asked.

“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 potentially 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’ahn was saying. Those local bigshots might not’ve known what she was to me, but the Guild certainly did. And they used her as a way to ensure 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 that 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 white halo of glowing fur. I turned away and stared out my own window. I didn’t like to admit it, but the Mediators disturbed me. A lot. So highly focused on their duties that everything else was secondary. I had to wonder what sort a childhood produced something like that.

The carriage rattled along.

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 one such plaza. The side streets weren’t nearly as broad as the tree-lined avenues, but in that neighborhood they were clean and cobbled, and also 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 l’oeil 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 moldings, 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. There were no factories here, but things were made; it was a place of craftsmen and artisans.

First stop was my tailor. Word had gone ahead so they were open and expecting us. Parking wasn’t a problem and I stepped down from the chilly carriage into chilly morning air right outside the shop. As stores went the premises weren’t anything spectacular: an old three-story building of stone and plaster. The ground floor fronted by 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.

To me the interior was poorly lit. Most of that light came in through the old, warped, greenish-tinted lites in the front window. It didn’t travel far, casting a bright rectangle of discolored 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, at bolts of cloth laid out on counters and tables; at sheets hanging from polished brass rods; at cords and strips of fabric samples spread out for inspection. Suspicious figures lurking in the corners 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 blue jeans and T-shirts hanging behind a counter were a glaringly incongruous fad, and also horribly expensive.

“Sir, welcome again.” 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. Turned out that if the price was right he’d have made a tutu for a llama. Still, despite reassurances he’d been so nervous around me he couldn’t hold his measures straight and had only relaxed a little when he found I didn’t bite and paid very well for good service.

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, but what I did require was more clothing, and of heavier and more unusual designs 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. Exactly, sir.”

“Fast and well-made then,” I said. “A reasonable charge for a good job is fair. Bill what you will.”

He considered that, adding money and available hours and coming up with what was doubtless a very large number. “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 promise, 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 tailored 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 at functions and 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 sail making 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 elaborately 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 warehouse district: 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 iron-bound wheels on 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 eye-watering ammonic pall hanging around the street, it was quite close to slaughter yards and tanneries.

That sinus-opening ammonia reek 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 in a stone wall that was otherwise bare except for a few slits for windows. Inside was quite different from the clean affluence of the tailors. It was more like a warehouse, with rows of goods stacked perilously high. Those windows were little more than arrow-slits in width, filled with columns of dusty bulls eye panes casting wavery, watery light that would’ve been reminiscent to 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 frame hung behind a workbench were stretched a trio of pelts that were . . . well, it was obvious what they’d come from — you could still 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 llama skin inside would be excellent. For general good-looking cold-weather boots, polished leather with more conventional soles would suffice. Gloves would be heavy llama skin 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 when it comes to arctic survival.

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?”

“A few reasons: I need the stuff fast and I need it well made. I’m willing to pay for that.”

“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, the things you use. People are paying attention. 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 even larger sums to duplicate that work? Any crafter you commission will be able to [something] off that. That pair will doubtless have a great deal of custom from those following after fashionable trends.”

I shrugged. “If they think boots or gloves designed for me 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, elderly. 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 bits of paper 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 all rolled up into compact bundles designed to strap easily to my pack. The kitchen set, with titanium pot and pan, cup and utensils; my portable gas cooker along with a couple of remaining fire starters 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 hand-crafted 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 hide a couple of times.

I didn’t hold any expectation that the Rris would be able to duplicate the devices. A few 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 graphene 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 incredibly specialized 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 up 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 an 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, but quite dangerous. 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 tried to figure that out, then had to confess, “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 creased 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.

By the time we got back home the day was mostly done. The evening was biting cold, nipping at exposed skin. Overcast, heavy with bruised nimbus, covered the sky all the way to the horizon where the last of the sunlight was a golden line beneath the dark lid. It just made the leaden 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. Or would that be an insult? Did I need assistants just for that job?

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. Rris faces 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 make out 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 betrayed. 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’ve been out there in the night. It looked like it should have filled the world with some sort of noise, but it was utterly silent. It was winter.

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’m quite capable of finding trouble on my own.”

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 smothered 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. Icicles glittered from eaves and branches.

“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 blade 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 snarl 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. Sparks drifted down. 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 and 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. It didn’t do anything. 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 go 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 stopped, hesitated, then turned and hurried back into the house.

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

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

“This doesn’t concern her,” I snapped, drawing his attention back to me. He didn’t seem convinced. “Commander. There’s no danger to me, 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, but he carried 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 and cunning 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. 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.”

Her response was 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 ragged he was: muddy, tattered and torn, 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 huddled 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 needed help 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. There was no work. She got ill.”

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, as he’d said, from unknown criminals, but from a Mediator faction. One of the conditions 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 could have been disastrous for the Mediators. And it could have been lethal for those who learned of 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. I didn’t have any way of paying, so she’d 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 gotten depressed. Restless. Her heart not in her job. There’d been trouble in town and money wasn’t coming in. And it turned out that 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 trying to ask the same questions to many people many time they got an answer at the Land-of-Water embassy who 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 . . . none of them wanted to hear from a pair of scraggly beggars and just 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’s coughing and breathing wrong and she won’t eat and 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 alien child who’d tried to stab me. It’s not something that happens every day. About 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 stuff that went down the drain ends up; the place for individuals who fell through the gaps. A place where street patrols were nonexistent, where there weren’t street cleaners or proper sewers; where entire blocks shared the same well or pump; where city planning fractured and the streets and alleys and buildings grew to fill, well, the cracks. It was a place the authorities looked away from and really didn’t want to know about. In the grip of winter 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. And it was cold, freezing cold.

We turned into a street that might’ve been paved once, but the cobbles were mostly gone and it’d become an icy slurry of snow and mud. The remaining stones were just jolting lumps in the quagmire. 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 reek of sewage. In the summer it’d have been horrendous.

There was a little alcove ahead, something that might’ve been a yard once before additional buildings had encroached and turned it into little more than a dent in the alley. That niche was now occupied by a nest of shanty huts no larger than refrigerator cartons, all cobbled together from scraps of wood, tiles, anything that could have been scrounged. Threadbare curtains hung over dark openings. A trio of Rris were gathered around one, the rear end and lashing tail of a forth 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. One of them bared teeth and snarled, “Leave now!” at the cub before seeing me. The snarl evaporated. It got quiet enough that I could hear the muffled cursing and bumping from inside the shack.

The anger roared in before I was fully aware it was there. I shoved through 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 hulking 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.

He yowled in shock 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 that carries through as though the target wasn’t there. He felt it though. His jaws clopped shut with a sound like two pieces of wood knocking together and he lifted up 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, barely warmer than the outside, 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 get 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, Ea’rest’s sword balanced across 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.

The Palace

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, you might be interested to hear it had been 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 twin crucibles 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 was none too 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 covers 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?”

“A. At least. 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 flicker. “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. “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,” she said, and then added, “If it works. It doesn’t seem 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 to look after, and you’re leaving 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 pies.”

He stared. “Pie?”

“A. Pie. You know: pastry 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 flicked back. “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.”

“Famous last words, but 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 somewhat more to it than that,” he said. “They will have someone by the time you leave.”

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

“And 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 carriages will collect you at dawn so be ready and pack the night before. Mikah, we assume you will wish to travel along with your teacher. There’ll also be transport for ah Ties, your Mediator escorts, 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 Yeitas’Mas 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 Yeitas’Mas 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 shrug. “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?”

“You are referring to your patient?”

“A.”

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

“Should I?”

She stared for a second, 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 quietly 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 are 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. Little glass bottles stood on the nightstand, alongside a porcelain basin with a folded cloth hanging over the side. White sheets glowed in the lamplight, 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. “Rot. Who care about that? No, 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 with sharp teeth. 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 burden 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 the actual point of a conversation 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; that I’d get 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 and yet I still did it.

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

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

I flinched, nearly slopping 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 and other bones 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? You are . . . Mikah. I thought I . . . 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. She flinched when 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?”

“It’s 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 rapid 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 or a thick soup 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 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 found we couldn’t sell in the market. There was . . .” 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 curled up on my bed and sighed, then packed the laptop down and hid it away from any curious fingers and headed down the hall.

Chihirae cracked her door half a minute after my cautious knock. Her thickening 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.”

“Really?” her muzzle wrinkled. “How disappointing. 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. Books on the shelves, papers and extinguished candle on her desk alongside a tiny, intricately wrought statuette of a tree. It was colder in there, 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 an early winter sun peeked through gaps between roofs and building, casting gold 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 caused 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 it is effective against the bacteria that cause lung infections like pneumonia, which seemed similar to what she had — something contracted in 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 emaciated and hungry and the stuff’d probably do a number on the useful 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, munched 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 grimaced. “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 big, impressive machinery and things that made loud noises than in 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 it is more a case of them being 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: 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; past a courtyard crisscrossed with washing lines festooned with red sheets; around a plaza decorated with gory statues of old battles. Everywhere 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 in evidence, but not the heavy coats and wardrobe a human populace would don.

The Meditor Guild hall in Shattered Water was similar to the ones in Lying Scales and Open Fields in that it was 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 . . .” At least the gouges looked old and worn, so whatever that history had been, it hadn’t involved me.

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 signs: 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 with an aqueous tint so the room was lit by a patchwork of winter-bright and bottle-bluegreen sunlight dapples. Over in a corner a black iron potbellied stove sat on a stone slab 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 placed 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 with overlapping rings left by carelessly placed drinking vessels. Around the room, 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 in any corporation back home: just enough trinkets and gewgaws to fill the blank space and try and look presentable and tasteful, 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. He carried 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 distorted momentarily, drawing lips back from sharp white teeth. “Ah, and he lives up to his reputation, despite that contract he initiated with us. 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. Guildmaster, Mikah. 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 what I knew. 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 Guildmaster 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. It was never my plan 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 or even countries. 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’s a very ambitious outlook.”

“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. If there are some broken threads, there are still others holding it together. It takes a lot to break it completely, 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 he 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 and lighting; we put a priority on grain products over meat. 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 a lot of ancillary knowledge and expertise that goes into making such a rail system and Land-of-Water advisors will be providing that. For the most part it’s 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 . . . making 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. There are valid incentives: 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 to follow their lead, 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 iron and 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. The incline can’t be steep or have sharp bends, so 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 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 knowledge and drop the new measuring systems?”

“Then they’ll find that nobody else will be able to repair their machines and equipment. Foreign parts won’t fit their machines and their own parts won’t fit with their neighbors. Even if the parts they required existed, they most likely wouldn’t fit. Everything would have to be built again, and that would cost a lot.”

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 and say you trust them.”

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

The secretary’s eyes went wide. Jenes’ahn snarled and Kehetic raised a hand in a calming gesture. “If that’s the case,” he said to me, “we could always provide 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 in annoyance. “Of general 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.

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” she said tiredly, 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. By now, no doubt 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 talk. Discuss this with her, constable,” the Guildmaster said and then tipped his head quizzically. “And have you determined 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 before 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 spotless-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 in the maddening Mediator fashion. 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 upon 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-crackling cold against my face as I stepped out of the carriage. I hunkered 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 below stairs. And there were surprises awaiting.

“They were delivered today,” Tich told me, indicating the trio of wooden trunks in the hall. Each was 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, squinting closely at 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 underpants. 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 in 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, leveling a finger at the Mediator. She blinked slowly, unconcernedly, and returned to her task.

Another room. That was a good excuse to get out of there before I blew a valve. 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. Across at the bookshelf a wide-eyed adolescent Rris had settled himself cross-legged on the rug and was staring at me over the top of a book. 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, not one I’d had a chance to read properly. 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 someone that young. “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 or out or something. 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 travelers’ tales and bits of scrap. “A, I think he might like to meet with Chaeitch,” 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 . . .”

“A 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 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.”

Chapter 17

Meals don’t hold the same sort of meaning to Rris as they do to humans.

They aren’t a gregarious species who cluster for eating, turning the activity into an impromptu social bonding reinforcing ceremony. No, they’re descended from solitary predators who hunted alone and defended their kill and territory from interlopers, and that’s carried over into their society. Meals aren’t so much social occasions as almost . . . excuses to gather — constructed from necessity as focuses around which multiple individuals could gather to conduct necessary business. Sharing your food with strangers carries all sorts of connotations — for all parties — and they aren’t always the sort of associations humans might make.

I knew this intellectually, but the social ape lurking in the depths of my hind brain interpreted things differently. Sitting around the table, the warm air filled with the smells of cooking food and fresh bread, part of me felt . . . at home. As if I were part of something. I couldn’t be sure exactly how the other occupants of the room felt, but I suspected that whatever it was, it wasn’t that. They were spread out around the periphery of the big table, Chihirae closest to me but still at a distance that humans might consider rude, our house guests across the table from us. On shift, Rohinia sat sentinel at one end of the table, watching, listening to the rest of us as we ate.

Rris are predominantly carnivores. They preferred meat. The vegetables and fruit they cultivated were for flavor, or sometimes simply due to necessity. They certainly enjoyed the variation, but they preferred their meat. Mealtimes with them are something that take some getting used to. Jaws champed and bolted strips of near-raw meat; rock-crusted bread dipped into the dripping juices pooling on their plates. White whiskers and chops were stained red and eyeshine flashed as heads turned to and fro.

The conversation around the table was easy and relevant — questions about myself, about my past and about what was going to happen. Rohinia sat quietly, watching and listening in case the subjects drifted into forbidden territories, but for the most part talk stayed in safe waters.

Ea’rest seemed earnest about the restaurant idea. I didn’t peg her as a wide-eyed idealist. She’d been a guard; she’d doubtless had a past that’d had more than a single brush with bloody reality. I couldn’t have been sure about that, but I’d known guys who’d come home from the eastern wars who’d had the same sort of mindset: they’d wanted peace, quiet, boredom. They’d wanted some land away from it all where they could do some farming in peace. They usually didn’t stick it out. Ea’rest hadn’t told me exactly what her story was, but I imagined it was something like that.

And running a tavern wouldn’t exactly be a piece of cake. It’d certainly be more complex . . . more interesting than running a farm, but it’d be just as easy to run the business into the ground. I figured she probably had some concept of what would be involved in such an enterprise, and I could give her some backing and perhaps even some tips to give her an edge. What I wasn’t so sure about, was whether or not she was someone who could stay the course. She’d given up on the farming game; would she do the same here? I didn’t know her well enough to make that judgment. Well, I’d help her on this, as I’d promised. I’d bankroll and support her, but in the long run it’d be up to her and her efforts as to whether the endeavor sank or swam.

I made sure that Tich was filled in on the details. She’d be looking after the house, and also hosting Ea’rest and Rothi while I was gone. She’d also be the one to find people who could help Ea’rest; perhaps officials who could grease wheels or work around some of the bureaucracy that was bound to be encountered in such an endeavor. If some bribery or undocumented taxations were required, that wouldn’t be a problem. Hell, for me, money wasn’t a problem. Tich accepted it all as if it were the most natural request in the world and assured me it would be done.

Jenes’ahn couldn’t have found any infernal devices in my new clothes. Staff had packed them away into the trunks, ready for the next morning. I still had a few final items to prepare: some last personal clothes and items to go into my pack. I spent a half hour getting those stowed away, last of all closing the lid on the wooden art case and sliding it into its protective sleeve. I hoped I’d have time to use it.

The folio the Mediator Lord had given me sat on the desk, the seal unbroken. I stared at the packet sitting on the lacquered desk, the orange wax lump with its embossed mark glaring back at me. It was the last thing I wanted to deal with.

“You look worried. I think.” Chihirae paused at the threshold, watching me, then stepped inside. “A problem?”

“Ah, no,” I shook my head. “No.”

She strolled over. Slowly, not in any hurry. She eyed the desk. “No? What is that?”

“It’s from the Mediators. Apparently, it’s a list of things I’m not supposed to discuss with . . . well, with Rris.”

“And we all know how good you are with lists, a?”

“Oh, that was almost like a joke only not funny.”

Chihirae snorted. “You haven’t even looked at it, a?”

“I’ve been trying to work up the courage,” I said. “I suppose it’ll give me something to read, though.”

A slight chitter. “Optimistic, aren’t you,” she said in a lightly mocking tone, which was belied when her ears twisted back and she stared at the manual again. After a couple of heartbeats she asked: “Mikah, are you concerned about this? It’s not going to be like . . . some of those other times?”

I sighed. “I don’t know. There’s . . . something going on. They say they wouldn’t be sending me if it was dangerous, but there’s something going on.” I lifted a hand, gestured uselessly. “It could be that it’s risky going, but it’d be more dangerous for me to stay here.”

Chihirae didn’t say anything, just stood there. After a while I offered, “You don’t have to go. You can stay.”

“No.” She shook herself, like when I blew in her ear. “No. As I said, so I’ll do. I won’t go against that. And . . . I think you’re going to need me, a?”

I tried to think of an answer for that; something that wouldn’t be a lie. After several long seconds all I could come up with was, “Thank you.”

Her feline features pursed in a smile at that. “Hai, it won’t be so bad. It might be fun. Seeing another country. And there will be soldiers and Mediators.”

“Aww, I thought you said fun.”

A chitter and she reached up, a stubby-fingered hand running leather-smooth pads down the skin of my cheek. “Don’t be like that. It will be . . . interesting.”

“Really?” I asked, touching her cheek in return, gently swirling my finger through the longer tuft of fur that grew down from her cheekbone. Still more hair than my beard. “Not too interesting, I hope.”

She nipped at my fingers and flashed mocking teeth at me. “Huhn, that might depend on you, a?

“Hmmm?”

“Well, we will be travelling in carriages. There will be people all around.”

“Yes. So?”

“So, will we be able to do this?” she asked and grinned broad and white and sharp as she insinuated hands under my clothes.

I had to admit, it was a very good question.

Chapter 18

Next morning was an early start. It was still night outside when Tich roused me at some godawful hour. I spent a few minutes poking the furry lump in the bed next to me to get her stirring before giving up and going about my business. There wasn’t really time for my customary constitutional — there was nothing but blackness outside — so I headed straight for the shower. A short time later a hairy body pushed into the shower stall, demanding her space under the hot water.

And I thought she didn’t like the shower. It certainly made my morning — a sodden Rris looks . . . hilarious.

Breakfast was more than I expected. The cook laid out a full spread: strips of smoked salmon and bison steak, fried eggs and potatoes, bread, butter, small berry tarts and tomatoes and grapefruit juice. I wasn’t sure how hungry I was, but managed to stow away a respectable amount. Chihirae and the Mediators packed away more than you’d expect folks of their size to be able to handle, but their higher metabolism burns it off fast.

There was time to wash afterwards, doing teeth and rinsing with salt water. And on my way back down Tich materialized at my shoulder to tell me Chaeitch and party had arrived and was requesting to see me.

Chaeitch was waiting in the living room along with two others. I recognized Rraerch, but the other Rris . . . female, I thought. Young, looking around with wide eyes which meant she hadn’t been there before. She seemed familiar.

“Morning and waking,” Chaeitch greeted me. He was dressed to the nines, in a gold-embroidered tunic under a mauve roadcoat trimmed with green and silver. A bundle lay at his feet.

“This isn’t morning,” I grumbled. “This is almost yesterday. Greetings, Rraerch. Good to see you.”

“You also, Mikah,” she replied.

“Sir,” the other Rris greeted me.

“Who’s this?” I asked.

Chaeitch snorted. “Mikah, you’re . . . you’ve met before. Makepeace aesh Tehi, from the University.”

I thought for a second. That was a name I remembered. It was a literal translation of her name and I hadn’t met many Rris with whom I could do that. “The researcher. You were seeing if there’d been any records of someone like me before.”

She ducked her head. “Yes, sir.”

That surprised me. “The University’s sending you?”

“Huhrr . . . Yes, sir.”

“There’s a problem?” Rraerch ventured, looking from me to Makepeace.

“Uhh, no. No problem,” I said. She was junior. Very junior. I wondered why they’d chosen her over one of the senior researchers. “No problem. Welcome aboard, Makepeace.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said.

Chaeitch grinned at me. “You’re ready?”

“Oh, yes. Only a few dozen trunks, as far as I can tell. So we’re travelling light.”

“Got a long way to go,” he said. “And you’ll be glad of those things. And perhaps this.” He scooped up the bundle at his feet and tossed it to me. I caught it awkwardly: It was bulky and unwieldy and damned heavy. When I peeled a corner away, pale leather was revealed beneath.

“Finally done?”

“A,” he said. “Took a bit of work, but we got it finished.”

I hefted the bundle, then unrolled it and held the results up. It was a coat: a long duster of made of heavy leather of a grey so pale it was almost white. There was a heavy mantle around the shoulders; the tails hung down to my calves. The inside lining was a deep felt, black as coal and soft as sin. The whole assembly weighed several kilos. It clinked when I hefted it.

Rraerch and Makepeace looked confused.

“A coat?” Rraerch asked dubiously. “That’s all? After how you were going on about it I was expecting more.”

“It’s a very good coat,” Chaeitch said, then asked me, “That’s to your satisfaction?”

“It all worked out?”

“Huhn, a, it did. Not easy.”

“What wasn’t easy?” Jenes’ahn asked as she stalked, like a cloud of bad attitude in her charcoal Mediator’s garb, already weathered and stained by mud and sun and rain.

“Getting this done in time,” I said, holding it up. “They only just finished it.”

“You need more clothes?”

“Winter clothes, a. I didn’t come here with any. I need them.”

She snorted and eyed me, obviously trying to read something in my expression. Let her try. She might even get it right someday.

When we stepped out onto the front porch dawn was still a suggestion off in the east. A blush of salmon and ochre lay along the distant horizon where a haze of clouds glowed as the first light caught it. Overhead, the sky was clear, the blues and purples so deep they were almost black. A few final faint stars still glimmered, fading in the rising light. I stopped at the top of the steps and the Rris behind me also halted as I shivered and shrugged down into my new heavy coat, then took a pair of gloves from my pocket and pulled them on. They were years old, made from rough leather with crude stitching. I flexed my fingers, hearing the leather creak and still smiling at the memory of getting them. Then I looked around at the activity in front of the house.

Whiteness softened the world, blanketing every surface. Snow covered the ground, banking up against bushes. Icicles hung from the eaves of the house. Frost rimed branches. A thin mist curled across the ground and the air was bitingly cold, turning my breath into clouds that hung in the stillness in front of me.

A string of three waiting coaches and their attendant teams looped around the driveway. They weren’t the carriages we usually used. These were bigger and bulkier, the Land Rovers of carriages, designed for a long haul over long distances over rough roads. Double cabs were slung on rudimentary suspension over a bogey of four large, spoked wheels. Teams of four elk shifted restlessly in their harnesses, wisps of steam rising from their backs. The cabs were freshly lacquered in what Rris probably considered black, but to my eyes was a dark, glossy burgundy that glowed in the rising dawn light. Trim was all polished brass, the luster dampened by a patina of frost. Luggage was on the back, the trunks stacked and lashed down under an oiled leather canopy drawn down over them. And while the crests on the doors were those of a transport company, the small standards on the corners of the driver’s bench hanging limply from their stanchions were royal patterns.

Behind the coaches were more prosaic wagons; heavy four-wheeled wagons with arched canvass covers over the cargo beds for goods and passengers. Troopers mounted on their cervine steeds watched and waited off on the sidelines, reduced to unearthly shapes in the morning mist.

More Rris were bustling around the carriages and animals, loading the stragglers of a procession of boxes and trunks into the wagons. In the morning gloom they were shaggy silhouettes with twitching tufted ears. Their voices growled and hissed, breath wreathed their muzzles as they stalked through the chill.

Ahead of me Jenes’ahn stopped and looked back. “Anything wrong?” she rumbled.

“No,” I said.

“Then we should get going. You and her ladyship, you’re in the second coach.”

I nodded and stepped down onto the gravel drive. Heads turned towards me. The guards and the escorts might have been briefed about me, but a fair few had obviously never seen me before. In the dawn light they stared as Chihirae and I crossed the drive to the waiting coach. It was the second in line and I wondered why there was smoke coming from the roof.

Because it was heated, I discovered. When I clambered in after Chihirae I found warmth on my face. A black, iron box under the seat in the front corner of the cab was shedding warmth. Not a great deal, but better than outside. The heater was stoked from a small hatch in the exterior and didn’t vent anywhere in the cab, which was a sensible precaution. Carbon monoxide poisoning isn’t a lot of fun.

The rest of the interior was . . . comfortable. Ridiculously so. It was larger than other cabs I’d used, the ceiling high that I had plenty of headroom. Everything was padded with plush velvet in tan, cream, golds and greens. There were drapes on the windows and frosted screens that could be drawn. There was seating for four: a bench at the front facing another at the rear, again cushioned and upholstered in velvet. There were gilt touches, small lamps and even cup holders. It felt like climbing into a damn Faberge egg. The cab rocked slightly on its rudimentary suspension as I sat opposite Chihirae who settled back in her own seat, adjusting her posterior to work her tail into the slot at the back.

At least we wouldn’t spend the entire trip crammed into a single coach. There were enough coaches that there’d only be a couple of people per coach, and the seating arrangements were up to us. With three weeks travel ahead of us, I figured we’d be changing around a fair bit.

“This is better than I’d expected,” Chihirae said, looking around the cab. There were small cupboards concealed in the upholstery. She poked around, opening a few. There were bottles nestled inside one of them. “Ah, much better.”

She’d spent one uncomfortable journey across the country already. They really hadn’t treated her decently then. The Land-of-Water government had sent for her because someone had told them she meant something to me. They’d seen her as a solution to a problem, so they’d yanked her away from her life and dropped her into mine without much concern for her needs and wants.

“You like?” I asked.

She was inspecting one of the bottles. “Oh, I’ve only read about some of these vintages. A. I like.”

I grinned. “Enjoy it. It’s the least they can do.”

Departure came without any fanfare. There was a slight lurch, then the wheels scrunched on gravel and snow as the coach swung out and the procession set off down the drive. Outside the window, fir trees passed by, their branches bowed with snow. Then the gates and gatehouse. The old trees on the avenue were deciduous, their bare branches spreading over the street. There were more vehicles out there: more cargo wagons and more mounted troops. Voices shouted. Teamsters switched their animals and tugged reigns and moved their vehicles to join our convoy. We slowed momentarily and I flinched as the door opened, a blast of chill air preceding Rohinia as he neatly scrambled up into the cab. He pulled the door closed before sitting himself down beside Chihirae, where he could see me.

“You’re settled?” he asked.

“A,” I said. “You’re riding with us?”

“For now. Jenes’ahn and I will be sharing the duty. I’ve got this shift.” He looked from Chihirae to me. “Everything is satisfactory?”

“It was close for a while, but then her ladyship has found the wine, so everything’s fine now.”

Rohinia looked confused and Chihirae had to stifle a laugh. “Sir, that was intended to be humorous.”

“Was it?” Rohinia’s muzzle wrinkled as he regarded me. “Better luck next time.”

Chapter 19

Our convoy trundled along on its way. We headed away from the lake, southeast along icy lanes, past buildings frosted white, past fences hung with sparkling lines of icicles until we left the city proper through the remains of an old gate. Morning came. The sun climbed higher. The light coming in the window helped warm the cab a bit more, but the day outside was still cold. On the outskirts were the workshops, the warehouses and factories and storehouses and granaries. Then there was farmland.

From the edge of the city, spreading out outwards for kilometer after kilometer, lay the checkerboard fields and hedgerows of the farmland surrounding Shattered Water and stretching away to the wilderness beyond. The green of summer was gone, buried under snow that blanketed the fields, banked up against hedges. Copses of denuded trees were patches of brown scraping their branches across the winter sky. The world was stark and cold in the growing light.

Most of the land was pasture for stock. Animals dotted the white fields, the shaggy mountains that were bison dusted with ice and rime. I saw elk clustering around hay being distributed from wagons. Fields lay fallow and bare. Orchards were rows of bare trees standing in ranks amidst unbroken snow. Every so often we passed a hamlet or farmhold: a cluster of buildings so much like the one I’d first stumbled into. Often Rris would come out to watch the procession pass, the cubs running along until the guards shoo’d them off.

And it was so slow. I watched for several minutes as we passed by one field.

“Those animals interesting?” Rohinia asked.

I blinked out of my reverie and shook my head. “No. Not the animals. It’s just . . . I could just about walk faster than this.”

“Not many other options,” he said. “Not until your metal roads at least.”

“It still seems strange. I don’t know if it’s the same for Rris, but for my kind it’s difficult having to do something slowly after having had a faster method.”

“An example.”

“Well, like this: you might have been quite happy using a wagon and it suited your need well. Then you get a vehicle which travels a dozen times faster. After using that for a time, you find it’s difficult to go back to a wagon. It’s inconvenient.”

“I do prefer riding,” he said. “It is faster.”

“And given the choice you would prefer not to use a wagon, a?”

His ears twitched. “Given the choice, a. In your home, how long would this journey take?”

I shrugged. “Under a day. Perhaps under an hour if you flew.”

A pause. “That would indeed be convenient.”

“A. It is. The problem was it became too convenient. Everyone expected that they would have a vehicle. And when they got them, they moved to live in places that were far from where they worked. They spent the same amount of time travelling that they would have if they lived closer and used more sensible transport. They jammed the roads. Then they claimed they couldn’t do without their vehicles and needed more roads, which they also jammed. There were a lot of problems.”

“Your authorities didn’t control this?”

“There was a lot of money involved,” I said. “And the finest politicians you could buy.”

“Ah,” he mused. “Politics. And you don’t have Guild intermediaries.”

“No. We don’t have such an . . . an organization. Even the federal government has limitations on what they can dictate. There are civil liberties to consider.”

His muzzle creased. “A. We know that. And so many of those liberties become considered self-indulgences when they impose upon the lives of others.”

“You think people shouldn’t have rights?”

“I think that given a chance people’ll bite off as much as they possibly can, whether they can swallow it or not,” he replied. “You said yourself that a remarkable convenience was turned into a problem by sheer greed. But you would still prefer that to this, wouldn’t you?” he waved a hand, gesturing at the coach.

“Absolutely.”

Chihirae smirked. Rohinia’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure if that was intended to be humorous. But I think that most people would make the same decision, to put their own convenience over practicality.”

“Sometimes the convenience can be practical,” I countered. “We’re wasting weeks travelling to and from Bluebetter. There’re probably a lot of people in Shattered Water who’d rather use that time to do something constructive.”

“Doubtless there are,” he said. “And you’re right: this time should be spent constructively.” And he reached into a pocket somewhere in the recesses of his coat and produced a familiar sealed folder, which he then tossed over onto my lap. “You almost left that sitting on your desk. Teacher, perhaps you could assist your student here with his studies.”

Chihirae gave me an exasperated look. I shrugged. “Ooops.”

Chapter 20

That first day passed by as slowly as the convoy moved. The road was paved and well maintained; the bridges we crossed over a few small rivers or streams were solidly built from stone, but it was still a rattling ride. Despite the suspension and cushions you could feel the jarring of iron wheels on the stones. And there were disturbing occasions when they hit ice or packed snow and you could feel the coach slewing sideways. But the elk were surefooted and the drivers knew what they were doing, so we stayed on the road and we made steady progress.

The scenery changed slowly throughout the day. Farms became less frequent, the buildings smaller and more spartan. There were more and more trees: stands and woods of scrubby little elm and ash and cedar and maple with scraggly undergrowth, all scratchy bare branches under the winter sun.

It was almost as dull as the documents the Mediator Guild had prepared for me. Chihirae assisted me with them. She sat beside me and helped as I struggled through page after page of hand-printed Rris legalese. They didn’t want me doing any dealing with anything involving weapons or military technology, and that included guns and blades and chemical areas. I wasn’t to discuss anything to do with industrial or manufacturing technologies and techniques, agricultural and manufacturing concerns without Mediator representation present. Anything that might infringe upon Guilds’ specialties was out of bounds. I couldn’t disclose any information that Guilds may have regarded as their own industrial secrets to agencies outside those Guilds. That information would have to pass through Mediator approval. And any new innovations I introduced that didn’t fall under any specific Guild jurisdiction would have to be vetted to determine just how it was implemented and who could have control.

There were lists of Guilds, and they were a nightmare of interconnecting and interfering jurisdictions. Metal working Guilds, Foundry Guilds, Transportation Guilds, Merchants guilds, Farmers Guilds, Meatworkers Guilds, Shipwrights, Herders, Innkeepers, Clothiers, Leatherworkers . . . and on and on to lawyers and bricklayers and sewer workers. They were like unions in that they were fiercely protective of their business interests. Then again they weren’t like unions in that they had official licenses from their governments that gave them exclusive rights to their fields and meant that legally others couldn’t compete with them. Or even deal with anything involving their specific field. Which pretty much sealed the lid on competition and innovation.

The Guilds weren’t international institutions. Each nation had its own Guilds and those operated with their own rules and regulations; in some instances individual districts or even towns had their own Guilds that operated with their own laws. And those Guilds fractured into subsets of specializations. For example: the Metalworkers Guild and the Merchants Guild each encompassed scores of lesser guilds, all forming their own smaller organizations within the overarching umbrella of their parent Guilds. And all of them had their own trade secrets that they protected with a secrecy and paranoia that made the Cold War look like a hippy share-fest.

I wasn’t to do anything that might leak those trade secrets. Due to their contracts with the governments, the Guilds effectively had a stranglehold on their trades. If I were to divulge those secrets, even if they were things I considered common knowledge, the Guilds would have grounds for appeal or legal action with their governments.

“Is this serious?” I asked. Chihirae looked from me to the Mediator.

“It’s quite serious,” Rohinia said. “The Guilds have been wanting to get what they can from you. When they see that might not be possible, they claim that you are carrying knowledge that by rights, and by law, should be theirs.”

“That sounds . . . Ridiculous.”

He tipped his hand in a shrug. “It’s technicality. Some institutions are feeling threatened. They don’t want to confront the Guild straight on at this point, so they’re using maneuvers like this.”

“But is it law? Can they say that?”

“By decree the Guilds are the ones entitled to handle secret knowledge related to their professions. You aren’t in the Guilds so you shouldn’t have access to this knowledge. It’s a small but valid point of law. It’s petty and never what was intended, but then neither are you.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot,” I said.

“But the Mediator Guild can stop this, can’t you?” Chihirae asked.

Another tip of his hand. “In time, A. But it is within the letter of the law as it is written, so initially the claim has to be heard.”

The timing for all this seemed remarkably pat. And there were things they hadn’t told me. “This wouldn’t have something to do with this trip?”

His expression didn’t flicker. “They’re not unconnected.”

“It’s wise to move away from Shattered Water where you have the government on my side?”

“Whatever makes you assume they’re supporting you?”

That took me aback.

He snorted. “A, they are. For now. Until your usefulness is outweighed by your liabilities.”

“What does that mean?”

He eyed me silently for a few seconds, then said, “It means that there is a point at which the knowledge and usefulness you can provide would be outweighed by the protests and actions of other nations. They will support you while they see a gain in it, but if everything you can offer is [vetoed] by governments or Guild, then what good are you? Can you be certain Hirht would continue to support you if other nations declared war?”

I swallowed. Chihirae looked horrified. “It’s not going to come to that, is it?” she asked.

“The Guild is striving to prevent it,” Rohinia said.

“And how does this,” I tapped the manual with a finger, “help?”

“That,” he said levelly, “will help stop more randomly thrown stones from muddying the waters. It’ll be a gesture that at least we are heeding Government and Guild concerns by controlling just what sort of information is released; it’ll help stop them from drowning us in trivial legalities.”

That carried the fragrant scent of bullshit. How much of that was true, how much of it more of the lines that the Mediator Guild spun? They lied, I knew that. They’d go to ruthless lengths to hide any sign of unrest within the Guild from outside eyes. Fracturing or outright dissent within the Guild and their decisions could nullify the charter that gave them authority over even governments, and I’d seen what they’d do to keep such internal unrest hidden from outsiders.

Was that a reason they’d brought Chihirae along? As a reminder? A leash? A hostage?

“What?” she asked.

I’d been staring at her. I bit my lip and shook my head. “Just trying to see how that’s all going to work,” I said and flipped the pages again, scowling at the serried ranks of Rris characters there, like scratches a prisoner might carve into the walls of his cell to mark away the days. “You’ve covered just about everything here. Is there anything I am free to discuss?”

One of his ears twitched. “Huhn, we think information that’s not of a technical nature should be acceptable.”

“What does that mean?” Chihirae asked.

“Ideas,” he said.” Concepts that can’t be hoarded. Sciences. Medicines and health, astronomy, mathematics and such.”

I thought about that. Certainly that sort of information was different. You couldn’t directly use it and it wouldn’t have the same sort of instant impact as simply handing over the plans for rotary combine or steam turbine would, but in the long run it would still have an effect. I guessed they were thinking along the ‘teach a man to fish’ school of thought.

“You think that’s safer?” I asked.

Rohinia leaned back, looking out the window at nothing in particular. “Academia is . . . different from the Guilds. There’s squabbling, but it usually leads to [something], not wars.”

“I don’t know that word.”

“Books,” Chihirae offered. “Papers that scholars write about their subjects. They become research and reference material for others. Do you understand?”

Dissertations? “A. I think I understand.”

“They can bicker about those with one another,” Rohinia said, “But they tend to keep their disputes at the level of angry correspondence which the Universities can deal with. The Guild feels that as long as you aren’t providing devices or materials that could be interpreted as providing a direct material or military advantage, then it’s acceptable. And we are quite aware that any kind of information you provide could be bent to such uses, but if it’s abstract enough, then people are going to have to apply themselves before they can use it.”

It felt a little half-baked to me. As if rules were being made just for the sake of the rules. Perhaps they were. The Mediator Guild was fumbling its way through unfamiliar territory but couldn’t be seen to be weak. Perhaps they were just making these decisions so they’d been seen actually doing something.

“You have an opinion on this?” Rohinia asked.

“An opinion?” Did it matter if I did? I looked at Chihirae, then at the Mediator and shrugged. “It’ll be something to put on the table,” I hedged.

He regarded me dubiously. “That means?”

“I mean that when some high-born who’s accustomed to getting his way demands that I talk with him, there’ll be something I can say without offending him or pissing the Guild off.”

“I suppose there’s a first time for everything,” Chihirae chittered.

Chapter 21

We followed the road east, away from the lake and the city of Shattered Water. The low overcast continued; the sun just a bright smear in the grey clouds. The landscape was broad, rolling hills and dales. None of the hills were particularly high, none of the valleys particularly deep. They were just vast undulations in the land, rising and falling like gentle swells on a sea. Farms were smaller, further apart. Farmholds and fields and logging enterprises scratching away at the edges of the wilderness.

Traffic was sparse, but it was there. Perhaps twice a messenger or courier on fast elks overtook us. More often we passed by traffic going the other way. Where the road was too narrow to pass safely, the guards made the other traffic pull aside while we proceeded.

Around about midday we rattled to a stop and I was told we had a chance to stretch and get some food. It was the middle of nowhere: a stretch of road along the crest of a rolling hill surrounded by nothing but forests and snow under a drab grey sky.

Rris milled around the wagons, stalking around to stretch out the kinks of the ride and eating salted meat and bread. I munched on my own sandwich, a mug of hot wine in the other hand as I watched. There were a lot in the party, more than I’d seen that morning. There were over twenty guards riding on elk, more in the wagons and riding shotgun on the carriage. Speaking of which, I couldn’t help but notice the weapons they were carrying weren’t flintlocks. They were slimmer, not nearly as long or bulky and lacking the clumsy flint mechanisms. They looked suspiciously like cavalry carbines.

Snow squeaked under a Rris footpads. Chaeitch stepped up beside me, worrying at a lump of salted meat with pointed teeth. He saw where I was looking and cocked a quizzical ear.

“The Guild can’t have been happy about that,” I murmured.

He swallowed a mouthful of meat and grinned. He needed to floss. “They were already metal before the Guild became involved,” he said. “Even the Guild can’t unmake an idea.”

“Why do I think they’d like to be able to?”

A white cloud huffed around his muzzle as he snorted and took another bite, swallowed hard. “And how’s the coat?”

“Good. It hangs well.”

“I was worried. The weight seemed . . . excessive.”

“I don’t think I’ll be doing any swimming in it, but it’s easier to wear than I’d thought it would be.”

“Huhn. The smiths usually make such for elks, so it was an interesting challenge for them. The potters thought it odd.”

“Tricky questions?”

Another snort. “Rot, no. There’s been so much new stuff being requested by various departments . . . Neither the smiths nor the potters made any mention.”

He stayed by me as I strolled down the length of our convoy. Guards stared at me and then tried to act as if they hadn’t been. One stared until a nearby officer noticed and cuffed him around the ears. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Chaeitch’s tail lashing.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “They’ll get their eyes full.”

He chewed and considered that. “That doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”

I’d realized it’d lost something in the translation as well. “Ummm, no. When you say it like that, it doesn’t,” I conceded and shrugged. “I meant they’ll be seeing enough of me.”

“Ah,” Chaeitch acknowledged. He polished off the last of his lunch with a noisy gulp, licked his chops and then produced his pipe and the little accessories packet. As we walked he went through the little ritual of producing some leaf, tamping it down, using the little striking wheel to drop sparks into the bowl and puffing it to life. The smoke was light and sweet and was most certainly not tobacco; that particular plant was still in Africa somewhere, along with cotton and a whole greenhouse worth of other flora. For the Rris hemp was the main source of a whole range of practical and recreational products.

Chaeitch held the old pipe in one hand and drew deeply, holding it for a bit before blowing smoke out through his nostrils. I made sure I was upwind. The stuff was potent but didn’t affect him in the same way it would a human and I didn’t need a contact high.

“Sir?” a guard stepped forward. Behind him a knuckle of other guards watched and I thought I saw some amusement there. Chaeitch moved to intercept, then stopped.

“Huhn,” he snorted. “Mikah, it’s your swimming friend.”

I took another look at the guard: usual white and tawny muzzle with grey patches and black speckling; the armor of a royal guard, all polished steel and quilted padding with sword and pistol slung at waist. But the pattern of speckles on the muzzle was familiar. I did know him.

“Blunt?” I ventured.

“A, sir,” he said, looking from me to Chaeitch uncertainly.

“Hai, don’t worry,” Chaeitch assured him. “Congratulations that he recognized you; Mikah thinks we all look the same.”

“Oh, thanks a lot.” I rolled my eyes and he smirked and blew smoke into the air. “What’re you doing here anyway? I didn’t think your squad was with us.”

“They wanted more arms on this trip,” he said. “They requested me. Apparently because I’d worked with you before.”

Chaeitch made an amused sound.

Some time ago Blunt had been one of the guards escorting me through Shattered Water. Someone had attacked the convoy, killed a lot of the guards and almost killed us. We’d ended up with our backs to the river and the only way out was to swim for it. Rris don’t swim very well at all, so I’d had to haul him across. Almost drowned the pair of us doing it.

“Well, welcome on board,” I said. “I hope you’ve either learned to swim or lost some weight.”

He looked confused.

“I think that’s his idea of a joke,” Chaeitch provided. “For some reason only he understands, they don’t actually have to be amusing.”

“Huhhr, yes, sir,” Blunt said, still looking uncertain. “Sir, there’s a question . . .” he ventured.

“A?”

“There were questions about this journey,” Blunt said quickly. “That it’s risky; that the Bluebetters used coercion to persuade you and will try and take you by force.”

I looked at Chaeitch, raised an eyebrow. “Hey! You could have told me.”

He snorted. “Amazing how they’re so much better informed than we are.”

“I don’t recall any coercion,” I said to Blunt. “I don’t recall any mention of threats or that Bluebetter intended anything of the kind, which would certainly cause them more trouble than any benefits would be worth. However . . .”

“Mikah . . .” Chaeitch cautioned.

“However, my last trip was supposed to be easy. It got . . . interesting very suddenly. You might want to keep your eyes open, a?”

“A, sir,” he said. “Thank you, sir.”

Chaeitch and I watched him hurry back to his squad. I turned and ambled away from the convoy, into the scraggly line of trees along the road.

“Tell them there’s nothing to worry about and they’ll think you’re hiding something from them, a?” Chaeitch puffed reflectively.

“A,” I agreed.

“But don’t you think that was a little . . . ah, excessive? You might alarm them.”

“I think I’d prefer them alarmed. I still get the feeling I wasn’t told everything about this trip.”

The line of trees thinned, the hillside falling away. We stood there a while. He puffed on his pipe and I sipped warmed wine and looked out across frozen hills rolling away to the haze on the horizon. And trees: uncountable numbers of brown and grey winter-bare branches and snow as far as I could see. Some early American explorer looking at the virgin forests of the new world had once said a squirrel could climb a tree at the Atlantic shore and make its way across the country by leaping from branch to branch, never touching the ground.

Well, that was hyperbole perhaps, but while the Rris hadn’t made the impact on the local flora that mankind had, there was still a lot of timber there. Thousands of square kilometers of wilderness forests into which villages and farms had only just started to encroach. And the road scribed a thin white line through it all.

We followed it. Paving stones still rumbled under the iron wheels as we proceeded at little more than walking pace. We passed stone markers marking the beaten trail poking up through drifts and bracken and undergrowth, capped with white ice that partially covered the Rris numerals carved into them. We plodded over hills; through cuttings; through light-striped tunnels of arching branches; over stone bridges across ice-encrusted streams. The cab was chilly, even with the heater. Periodically there’d be a rattle from the metal box as someone outside loaded in some more fuel.

Those damned Guild papers kept Chihirae and I busy for the day. Rohinia leaned back, watching, studying, his winter coat almost blending into the overly-soft upholstery. He answered the odd question or clarified a point when required, but otherwise just watched us or stared out the window.

In the late afternoon the weather cleared a little; a few patches of blue became visible as the sun westered and gradually sank into the grey haze of the horizon. For a time it was a molten disk glowering red and orange through the low cloud over distant hills, throwing a stripes of ruddy light through the dark cross-hatching of the trees.

Then the sun was gone. The last of the light dimmed, slinking back into inky shadows that spilled and flowed together. In the dim cab a small kerosene lamp up behind the seat cast a wavering light, which was put to shame by the glow from my laptop. I slouched back in the deep upholstery and clattered away at the keyboard, transcribing the Mediator documentation. I was writing it in English, simply because there was no way to actually key Rris characters into the machine. The process of translating and rewriting the Mediator edicts meant I was actually thinking about the content. Just like cramming for finals; filling your head with marching ranks of disjointed facts.

Chihirae was a warm weight leaning against my side, her head against my arm as she watched my fingers and the — to her — alien characters marching across the screen. She helped me with tricky sections I still didn’t quite have a grasp on and in turn she learned a bit.

Chihirae had a few words in English. When I’d first departed Westwater I’d left her with a crib sheet of English and Rris terms. Not a lot; I was a neophyte myself, so it was just few first words I’d learned. She’d absorbed those and since then she’d picked up some more. We’d watched movies on the laptop and she’d asked questions; she’d read through notes I’d made; she’d asked questions. As she did then while she leaned against me and watched my hands and the text on the screen, matching it with the Rris text in the Mediator’s terms.

She wasn’t stupid. None of the Rris around me were. Far from it. There were things I knew that they didn’t, but that was mostly through education and exposure to more sources of information. I didn’t have any illusions about being more intelligent than the locals. Most of those who’d been placed around me were probably considerably sharper than I was. Including the Mediators. Perhaps, especially the Mediators.

Rohinia leaned back in his seat, chin on hand and watched us. Not necessarily watching the novelty of the laptop, but rather studying me — us. I could see him on the edge of my vision watching the Rris woman at my side as she was unselfconsciously familiar with me. How did he feel about that? I didn’t know. He kept any reaction well hidden.

And how did he feel about me teaching her English? I wasn’t about to ask. But if anything happened to me, well, then Chihirae wouldn’t be as indispensable as they’d been saying, would she?

Out the coach window there was nothing but night and forest for hour after hour. A low crescent moon ducked in and out of the clouds. When it was out the fresh snow gleamed and the shadows under the trees were black as ink. And then there were other lights out there: faint glimmers of warmth. Buildings. Farmhouses.

The town of Warmer Weather lay almost exactly a single day’s journey outside Shattered Water on the Southern Road. Which was the entire reason for its existence; it was a common stopping point on the road; a place where people congregated; where local farmers and traders mingled.

It was an older town; well established, but nothing like the capital. There were no walls, no fortifications or bailey or keep. It was simply a convenient where some roads met and locals sold and bought from the passing caravans. There were a few large streets, a few more smaller ones and the usual criss-crossing alleyways. Buildings were wooden clapboard and split shingles, fewer of brick or stone. Lights flickered dimly in windows. Smoke from chimneys lifted straight up into the still air, pale columns rising high over the town before diffusing into a mist.

The inn we stopped at was on the outskirts of the town. It was a cluster of buildings around a stableyard. Some of the yard buildings were old whitewashed plaster-covered wattle and wooden frames; the single larger one a newer, two-story construction of brick and stone. Lights shone in all the windows and the sign over the door depicted a stylized bear gnawing away at what looked like a Rris arm. Troopers were already there, standing at the door and stalking around the shadows.

They’d ridden ahead and bought the place out for the night, in the name of the king. All other guests had been turned away so we had the place to ourselves. I could see an individual who may have been the proprietor hanging around the front door, pacing back and forth over his footprints in the trampled snow. He was a short, plump Rris in a stained apron, looking anxious and flexing his fingers in a nervous way. When the coach stopped outside the door he drew himself up, getting ready to grease up to the visitors. A couple of the guards moved to block him, but they weren’t required; when I emerged he jerked like someone had wired his tail to a wall socket, his ears went flat and he just stared as I stepped down and Chihirae landed lightly beside me. The door was open and something inside smelled good. I took her arm and led her past the transfixed Rris. “Evening,” I said as we passed by.

Chihirae elbowed me even as the voices behind us raised in argument.

Chapter 22

Rris buildings tended to give me the feeling that they weren’t actually real; that they were props in some peculiar movie. Some still do.

Back home places like this would be marked by the use of centuries. Wood would be darkened and polished smooth and hard. There’d be pits in the flagstones where feet had worn the rock away. Metal would dented or pitted. There’d be strata of soot in fireplaces and chimneys. There’d be a smell of age and time and people would move through and stare but not actually live there.

The difference with Rris buildings was almost the opposite. They were old, but they were new. There were buildings still being constructed that would be considered places of historical interest back home. Rris lived and worked in places that’d have looked almost normal in an old European city, but they just didn’t have that air of centuries of use about them. They weren’t historical places, they were just buildings: homes, businesses, factories, whatever. In that inn the bricks were still sharp; the plaster white and clean; there was still sap leaking from some of the wooden beams. Lamps burned and there were fires in the kitchen and the air thick with the smells of soot and oil and wood and leather and food and Rris. Sometimes I felt like I was living in a museum.

The innkeeper was upset. It took a while to calm him down. A combination of the facts that he was being well compensated and that a pair of mediators had had words with him made him more amenable, but not much more than that.

There was a meal of hot stew and bread at the tables spread around the hearth in the big room downstairs. Guards were eating at tables toward the back; the others were at another closer toward the warmth. They waved me over and made a space between Chihirae and Rraerch. I stepped in, bumping against the hairy bodies as I settled and a bowl was shoved my way. With the combination of a fireplace full of glowing coals and the number of bodies the room was warm and reeked powerfully of mingled food and wet fur. Mediators were over the other side of the table, their backs to the wall as they ate and watched. Makepeace was off down the other end, looking away when I glanced her way. Chaeitch pushed in beside her, his own bowl in hand. He looked amused.

“Ah, he’s calmed down,” he said. “You know, Mikah, staying around you is worth it just for the entertainment value.”

“Nobody told him?” I asked.

“More trouble than it’s worth,” Rraerch offered around a mouthful of stew. “At first they don’t believe. Then rumors start crawling around, curiosity seekers come, perhaps worse. A mess. Annoying.” She swallowed, licked her chops with a pink tongue, and asked, “Your ride was satisfactory?”

“A,” I said, examining my own meal: undercooked meat and bread with gravel in it. “Comfortable. But another couple of weeks of that is going to get . . . tedious.”

“At least we’ll get to know one another better,” Chaeitch said.

Laughter.

“Speaking of which,” I said, “Makepeace! Hey!”

She looked up from her bread, looking startled, then her ears went back. “Ah . . . sir?”

“I meant to ask: why are you with us? Why’d the University send you? I thought a lot of the more . . . the senior studiers there wanted to come.”

Chaeitch looked like he’d eaten a canary. Makepeace looked around imploringly, as if she wanted someone else to deal with this. “Hai, no,” Rraerch flashed a teasing grin. “You tell him.”

The skinny younger female fidgeted, scratched at her neck. “Ah, sir. A, they did. A lot of them did. They all wanted to. So there was . . . we voted.”

“And they all vetoed one another!” Chaeitch interrupted, chittering with unbridled glee. “They all blocked one another!”

“Then how did she . . .”

“Some of her friends thought it would be amusing to enter her name in the applicants. She’s so junior no-one was concerned about her. In the end she was the only one who hadn’t been vetoed or otherwise blocked by opponents.”

Laugher chittered around the table, drawing glances from elsewhere in the room. Except for Makepeace — she looked embarrassed.

“They accepted it?” I asked.

“They’d already called for Guild adjudication of the draw!” Chaeitch provided, brandishing his spoon gleefully and sending a dollop of gravy off to some far corner of the room. “The Guild recorded it so they had to live with the results. They spat and screamed, but it was sealed and done.”

“Ridiculous coincidence really,” Rraerch ruminated.

“Seems to happen a lot when Mikah’s involved, a?” Chaeitch said.

“It’s not that bad,” Chihirae said.

“A?” He aimed the spoon at her and lowered one ear. “Then your life has been absolutely normal since you met him?”

She chewed, considering. Then she waved a hand in a conceding shrug. Laughter.

Makepeace was still studying her food, looking uncertain.

“Hai,” I said to her. “You can relax. Nobody’s laughing at you for anything.”

“A, sir,” she said in a perfunctory sort of way. She didn’t sound reassured. I had an idea why, but there’d be time for that later.

We talked for a while about inconsequential things. The stew wasn’t bad — cooked well enough if a little oversalted.

But it certainly wasn’t the Hilton; not even a Holiday Inn. The rooms upstairs weren’t much to write about; they were clean and there was some basic furniture, but the one I was given wasn’t big enough to swing a cat in. It was probably the best of the lot, with a rug on the floor, a small bed piled with blankets, a small table and cushion and a window that was just a couple of panes of cheap glass laced with doilies of frost. Several splinters of wood smoldered in a tiny grate, giving off enough heat to stop the chamberpot freezing. And that was all the plumbing there was; nowhere to wash or bathe that night. A few days of that and I’d be getting pretty ripe.

Staff had brought my luggage up, so I had my sleeping bag which was going to be welcome in that chill. I popped my flashlight and stood it on the table in lamp mode. Easier than lighting a local lamp, and it was brighter, even if it was the same cool tint as the feeble moonlight that made it through the window. It was enough light for me as I unbuttoned the heavy coat and shrugged out of it one sleeve at a time and was interrupted by a quick scratch at the door.

“It’s me,” a Rris voice said, then offered, “Chihirae.”

I threw the coat over my arm. When I cracked the door she pushed in, carrying small roll of leather. “I need some help,” she said as she brushed by. “My pelt’s in knots and I need some clever hands. Can I borrow yours?”

“They’re not doing anything at the moment,”

“Good to hear,” she said and smirked at me. “You get so embarrassed about that.”

“Oh, go cough up a hairball,” I retorted as I hung the coat on a hook by the door. The cheap wood creaked, but it held.

Chihirae’s ears twitched. She cocked her head as she stared past me at the coat. “Ah Ties made that for you?” she asked and looked puzzled “Why? You have a tailor for that. And you have a good coat.”

“I needed a better one,” I said, shrugged. “Warmer. My other one’s not made for warmth. He offered.”

“Huhn,” she said, glancing from me to the coat and back again. Cold enough that my breath hung in the air and she was only wearing breeches. I hoped she wasn’t going to take it any further.

Another quick huff and she seemed to dismiss the thought, turned to the bed and tossed the little leather kit to me. “It’s better?” she asked.

“He did a good job,” I said as I unfastened the buckles on the bundle. By that time it was a familiar little package; the age-softened and worn leather that unrolled into an array of specialized tools nestled in their individual loops: a couple of brushes, combs, clippers and tweezers. They were silver and old. Heirlooms, or something of the sort. Chihirae’d said they’d belonged to her mother’s mother, but not much more. Just about every Rris owned a little kit like that. They needed them — all that fur was high maintenance.

And it wasn’t something one could do properly by oneself. Chihirae sprawled on the bed, luxuriating while I raked combs of varying sizes through her matted winter coat. It took quite a while to brush all that out; quite a lot of work to look after. Human women worried enough about errant bits of body hair; that sort of all-over rug would give them conniptions. But on the other hand, in the depth of a winter snow storm she was quite comfortable while I froze my bare hide off, so I couldn’t really say it was more trouble than it was worth.

“You know that Makepeace,” she said casually, laying with her head on crossed arms while I ran one of the coarser brushes through the matted fur on her back.

“Oh, yeah. I met her a while back. At the University.”

“How?”

Was that why she was there? Was this little grooming session an excuse to satisfy her curiosity? That question was loaded, I was pretty sure of that. There were . . . connotations there; not necessarily the human ones. If it were a human woman asking that sort of question I’d automatically be wary, assuming certain motives. With Chihirae . . . I knew her. I knew her well, but still associations were made in that feline skull that didn’t connect the way I would expect. I hesitated, eyeing the question from various angles.

“It’s not a hard question, is it?” she asked, cracking an eye.

“Not hard,” I said, putting the coarse brush aside and picking one of the finer ones out of the kit. “I was just wondering why you were asking.”

“Just curious. She’s awfully young to be from the University.”

“She’s not senior there,” I said. “Not much more than a student, I think. We only met a couple of times. When I first got here they wanted to look back through the university and library archives. To see if anyone . . . anything like myself had been reported before. She was one of the people they had sorting through all the old records.”

“Huhn. No success, I take it.”

“A lot of odd old stories from drunkards and lunatics. Nothing you could build a house on.”

“You’re sure they’re all stories?” she rumbled. “To hear what’s happened to me coming from some other mouth, now I’d have called that a lunatic’s tale.”

I shrugged again. “Nothing like me in any of them. They could almost all be traced to fires or lightning or just pranks, drunkenness or — as you said — madness.”

A hesitation. “I don’t think you should stop hoping.”

“A,” I said, pausing to clean loose fur out of the brush before resuming combing out her tawny-speckled coat. “But I’m not holding my breath for it.”

She made an acknowledging sound. “She seemed a bit concerned about something. And downstairs you seemed to want to say a bit more than you did. A problem?”

“Ah, you know me too well.” I grinned and shrugged. “No, no problem. Not for us. I just thought that after that . . . fiasco that got Makepeace assigned to us, her superiors probably weren’t happy. She probably had all the senior personnel in the University very sternly telling her what to ask me about. Under those circumstances they might not have been very polite about it.”

“Uhrrr,” she grumbled dozily. “Would explain why she’s so worried.”

“A. A couple of dozen irritated scholars all with lists of questions they want her to ask me. She’s wondering how to ask all those questions and who she’ll anger if she does or doesn’t.”

A snort of air. “You’re going to tease her?”

“What? Nah, I don’t think so. I think she’s got enough trouble,” I said and then thought that through and frowned. There’d be a whole university of very self-absorbed and important scholars who’d been made to look like a bunch of muppets by someone who was essentially a mere undergrad.

“Damn,” I shook my head. “If she didn’t have enemies before, she certainly does now.”

“You think she’s in trouble?”

“I don’t know for sure. It’s just . . . guessing.”

“It makes sense,” she said, flicking her ears as I brushed them. “Perhaps you should have a talk with her about it.”

“Might be better if you do it,” I said.

“Hurh?”

“I’ve got a case of the Mediators. There’s always going to be one around me and that might make her a bit nervous.”

“You think she’d talk to me?”

“Just work it into the conversation. Like you did trying to find out a bit more about her, a?”

She chittered. “Ah, I thought I was being subtle.”

“Have to get up pretty early in the morning to get the better of me,” I said, combing her flanks.

“A,” she said. “Obviously.”

“Very cunning, I am,” I said.

“Oh, of course,” she said. “Doubtless. So there is no way someone could, for example, convince you to keep grooming their fur even though it doesn’t really need it?”

“Absolutely none.”

“That’s good to hear,” she said. “Higher. Ah, there.”

Chapter 23

We stepped out of the inn and right into icy mist.

It was some ungodly early hour; still more night than day. First sunlight was trying to filter through an amorphous grey mist and overcast, reducing the early dawn to an anemic salmon glow in the distant east. It was still gloomy enough that the waiting coaches had their running lights burning, the feeble lamps just diffuse glows in the freezing mist. In the few steps from the inn’s front door to the coach the mist condensed in my hair and beard, sending icy tendrils down into my collar. I didn’t envy the drivers up on their boxes.

I clambered into the coach to find Jenes’ahn already sitting there, waiting in the dim glow of the cab’s lamps. I sat myself down, thankful that someone had already stoked the heater up. In fact, there hadn’t been that much for me to do. I’d risen to a freezing room and our staff had brought hot water so I could at least perform a perfunctory wash. During my breakfast they’d packed my clothes and loaded the cases onto the wagons. All I’d had to do was collect my other gear and head out to the waiting rides.

Voices outside made me glance out, but between the frost on the windows and the mist, it was a whiteout. All I could hear were Rris voices talking about something. A resolution was apparently reached because they cut off and then Rohinia appeared from the murk, clambering up into the coach.

“You’re riding with us today,” he said. “We have things to discuss.”

Voices calling outside. A rattling of metal and equipment, and then the coach lurched into motion. The dark shape that was the inn receded into the lightening fog. I looked from one Mediator to the other. “Where’s Chihirae?”

“We suggested she might like to ride elsewhere today,” Rohinia said.

“Suggested,” I said. “Right.”

Didn’t want them to think I was too approving of the idea. If Chihirae’d played her cards right she’d be able to sit down with Makepeace for a while away from the Mediators. And that was one item sorted out a lot easier than I’d expected.

I glanced out the window as we made our plodding way out into the fog. I could make out indistinct buildings out there in the murk, but between the fog outside and the frost on the glass there wasn’t much more to see.

“We were concerned about how you’re dealing with what happened last night,” Rohinia said.

“Huh?” I responded brightly. “With what? What happened?”

“The innkeeper. The staff.”

“What about them?”

“You know what they were saying?”

I hesitated. “I know he wasn’t happy about having me there. Was there more to it?”

I think the Mediators exchanged a look. “You didn’t notice?”

“That they were scared of me? That they didn’t want to come anywhere near me? That our people had to tend to my room because they refused?” I asked and then shrugged. “Yes, I noticed. Hard not to.”

“It doesn’t concern you?” Jenes’ahn asked. She seemed dubious.

“Yes,” I said, looking back at the window. The fog out there was lighter as the sun rose higher, but there still wasn’t anything to see, just the shadows of trees in the mist. “But what can I do about it? Get angry? Threaten them?”

“You aren’t . . . upset?”

I laughed, without a great deal of humor. That sort of thing was hard enough to ignore with the sheer number of times it happened. “I’ve had some years to get used to it.”

“And are you? Used to it?”

“No. But then I’m still not entirely used to you either.”

Both pairs of ears twitched, not quite laying back. I felt my own facial muscles tighten in what wasn’t quite a grin.

“Are you being serious?” Jenes’ahn asked uncertainly.

“A,” I said in irritation. “What were you expecting me to do? Attack them? I’m not used to it. It does disturb me. Of course it does. But there’s nothing I can do about it except live with it. Now, is that all this is about? Is that all you wanted to talk to me about?”

Jenes’ahn tilted her head. “In regards to that? If you think that you can control yourself, then, yes, we’re done there. But there were a couple of other things: How much do you know about Bluebetter?”

“As much as I’ve been told. Some basic history; their important people; trade and industry and so forth.”

“Your teacher should give you a few more lessons,” she said. “A bit of their history beyond the basics would be advisable. There’s also the fact that you’ll be a royal guest. You’ll need more information about the Thes’ita, all of them. And there’s also recommended [decorum] you should follow, which we recommend you use. We can teach you this, if you’re willing.”

She knew my last encounter with the king of Bluebetter hadn’t gone so well. Was she rubbing my nose in it?

“If I’m willing?” I asked dubiously. “I get a choice?”

“We’re not going to waste our time if you’re not willing,” Jenes’ahn said bluntly.

I crossed my arms, leaning back and meeting her amber stare. Her muzzle twitched, but Rohinia was motionless. Inscrutable. “At least you asked,” I said. “If it’s going to stop guards jumping on me, then it’s probably a good idea.”

“You agree?”

“A.”

“Very good. We will arrange something for you. The final item was the young lady from the University. You know her?”

I blinked. “You don’t? I thought you knew about everyone involved.”

A dismissive wave of the hand. “She was a last minute complication. The University was . . . confused. She was handed to us at the final moment. You know her?”

“You heard last night,” I said. “I only met her a couple of times. The Palace had her sorting through old University records.”

“What for exactly?”

I’d have thought they’d have known. “For some sign of others like me; some mention in old reports and dispatches from towns that might’ve been ignored at the time. Anything strange. Maybe something that would have helped me get home.” I shrugged. “You know how that worked out.”

“A,” she said. “And she was just a student?”

Sometimes their paranoia even surprised me. “Well,” I recalled, rubbing my beard, “Let me think: she didn’t have any money; she was used as cheap labor by her teachers; she hung around with other students and attended lectures . . .”

“Don’t be flippant,” Jenes’ahn growled.

“Come on! You think she could be a spy?”

“It’s not beyond possibility.”

“That’s ridiculous. She’s a student who got into something she’s probably regretting. She’s doubtless got people who could vouch for her. There’ll be family, friends, associates, teachers . . .”

“Just like your doctor, a?”

That hit like a punch in the guts. I stuttered to a halt, feeling the blood in my face burning.

“She was put in place years before you showed up,” Jenes’ahn continued calmly. “She was an . . . opportunist; just waiting and dribbling information back to her handlers, waiting for a time when she could be used. One arrived and took advantage of it. It was done before, it can be done again.”

“The chances of that . . .”

“Are small, but not non-existent.”

“She’s not a goddamn spy!” I snapped.

“You’re sure of that?”

I started to reply, then bit it back and glowered and said, “Not one hundred percent, no.” She cocked her head the other way and I leaned forward. “In fact, she’s probably been told by most of the faculty in the University to try and get as much information from me as she can. But she’s not . . . she’s not like . . . Mai.”

It was a name I hadn’t said for a while.

“She’s a student. She’s here because of chance; because of a joke and a bunch of back-stabbing scholars whose little schemes turned around and bit them. And if she manipulated all that just to get into this position, then we might as just give her what she wants because she’s a damn sight better than we are!”

I dropped back into the seat, feeling my jaw twitching. My throat ached.

The Mediators stared at me, and then Rohinia tipped a hand. “It’s a valid point,” he said.

Jenes’ahn hissed like a kettle. Her nostrils flared. “Must you encourage him?”

He flicked an ear and took a second to stroke down an errant tuft of fur on the back of a hand, “Mikah, we are trying to protect you. To blindly trust everyone who gets near to you is a mistake.”

“And to blindly distrust everyone is just . . . insane. If I treat everyone as an enemy, then eventually they will be,” I retorted angrily and exhaled a frustrated white cloud. “I have enough trouble with peoples’ trust, as you were so kind to point out.”

“You gave that trust carelessly once,” Jenes’ahn said. “Look what happened.”

Perhaps she just liked to see me flinch when she brought that up.

“Once bitten, twice shy,” I retorted. “Makepeace . . . it’s nothing like Mai. I hardly know her. I just don’t think she’s a risk. And why her? Why not one of the other fifty people with us?”

“Because none of them joined us under such unusual circumstances,” Rohinia answered placidly. “Things that are unusual deserve closer attention.” He cocked his head and blinked slowly at me. “The more unusual, the more attention, as we have learned.”

“And what’re you going to do about it? Torture her until she confesses?”

“Hardly necessary,” he sniffed. “We left word with the hall to investigate the proceedings at the University. They’ll send word of their findings. If there’s anything in her story that doesn’t fit the fragments, we’ll know.”

I just shook my head in disbelief. The coach rocked when I stood up.

“What?” Jenes’ahn looked alarmed. “Where’re you going?”

“I’m going to walk for a while,” I said, and then shoved the door open and dropped out of the coach before they could reply. I made sure I slammed it behind me.

Getting out while moving wasn’t a big deal. The whole procession was moving at no more than a brisk walking pace. I just dropped down onto snow already trampled by wheels and animals hooves, ignored the looks from guards and drivers , hunkered down into my coat and set off along the icy verge.

Within a minute an elk padded up alongside with a snort of unsettled breath and rattle of equipment. I looked up at the guard commander astride it. “Is everything all right, sir?” he asked.

“A,” I said. “I just had my fill of stupid for the day and needed to stretch my legs.”

The officer looked confused, his ears going back. He twisted in the saddle to look back behind us, then said. “Huhn, yes, sir.”

I glanced over my shoulder: Jenes’ahn’s coat briefly flapped open as she stepped from the running board, revealing a flash of bandolier and twin pistols for a moment before she landed and the long coat swung closed and she started stalking along behind me. I looked back up at the guard commander. “Like I said, I just need some fresh air.”

“Yes sir,” he said in neutral tones and then reigned his steed around and trotted off back down the column.

The fog lifted, the morning haze burning off to open a frozen sky and air that nipped at exposed skin. We’d left the outskirts of the town behind us while ahead the road was an icy white path between snow-smothered hedgerows and the bare sketches of trees. Early sun seeped through laced branches and icicles, the beams angling as the sun climbed. I paced the convoy, walking through frosted grass on the verge with ice crunching beneath my boots and in turn the Mediator paced me several meters back.

I had a warm coat and the new boots were doing what they were supposed to and on top of that I was made for walking long distances. Rris aren’t. So I ignored her and just walked and tried to calm down.

Mediators. Judge, jury and executioners. Given the right circumstances they had authority over kings and countries, and I was such a circumstance. They were supposed to keep the peace, but how could you entrust such power to any institution? History was littered with the remains of organizations that’d obtained and abused such power. How could any such system remain viable? Let alone gain the acquiescence and compliance of governments, which by their very nature were violently arrogant constructs?

And the Rris . . . respected the Mediators. From the mayors of small towns to merchants to farmers to the kings of their nations, they turned to the Guild. The Guild appeared in various forms throughout Rris history, from the oldest stories through to recent events. The Rris seemed to value the Guild — perhaps respect it — even as they feared it. I knew my Rris friends tolerated my jokes about the Guild, but they always did so nervously. Especially if there were Mediators around.

It wasn’t religion. It couldn’t be. Rris didn’t seem to work that way. But perhaps there was something else in their hardwiring. They were realists; pragmatists. They didn’t subscribe to notions just because they liked the thought of it or because they were told they should, they took things with a grain of salt. They weren’t gregarious, with social, hierarchical, alpha-dominated social groups; rather they evolved from something that’d probably been a solitary hunter. The cult of personality didn’t seem to work on them.

But then they followed Mediators. And they followed their royalty.

When you thought about it, why did the Rris follow them? Both their royalty and the Guild were competent; they did their jobs, but surely there’d been corruption or insanity or sociopathic nutbars in there somewhere who’d put a spanner in the works. They can’t have had a perfect record. Incidents I’d had with the Guild showed that they certainly weren’t perfect; they had internal disputes and did make mistakes, and they’d go to extreme lengths to hide those mistakes.

A lot of Guild power came through contracts and charters. If they didn’t perform to these, they lost face and influence. That was why they tried to hide failure. But how did that apply to government? To their kings and queens? They didn’t have such charters.

Did they?

King and Queens. They were English labels I’d applied because they were the closest fit to the only template I knew. I was starting to suspect it wasn’t quite the right fit. Their true template was shaped by minds and lives that weren’t human.

I had time to think on those things as I walked. Rris left me alone. Civilization fell away behind us, the last of the outlaying farms gone over a hill and the road and the winter woodlands stretching away ahead. The sun climbed, warming where it touched my skin even as it glared off snow and ice. There was time to think, time to cool down. Jenes’ahn dogged me for a while, looking increasingly tired, then angry, then determined and then frustrated before she finally gave up and switched with Rohinia.

It was a small, petty victory, but I relished it.

Chapter 24

Chihirae closed the rickety door behind her and leaned against the warped planks, blinking into the lamp light. Elsewhere, beyond the thin walls, I could still the bustle and clatter of pots and pans downstairs, the susurrus of Rris conversation.

“They’re still angry?” I asked as I poured some more hot water from the kettle into the chipped porcelain basin.

She sighed, her breath quite visible in the gloom. “I’m not sure angry is the right word.”

“Oh?” I picked my wash cloth up again and soaked it. The water was already colder. “What then?”

“I’m not sure. I think they’re concerned? Confused?” She waved a shrug and her muzzle twitched, flashing an incisor. “People don’t act like that. Not to Mediators.”

I grinned. “It’ll be a learning experience for them,” I said and splashed water over my face and chest, wiping with the wash cloth.

Tailor’s Trial was another small town, very much like the last. Like that one the main industry seemed to be as a local hub for trade. There were several inns catering to traffic travelling the road to and from Bluebetter. The one we lodged at was the largest, but that still meant it was less than a quarter the size of a small Holiday Inn.

The inn wasn’t fancy. It was cold in that dark, pokey little room, the only light coming from my lamp. There wasn’t a fireplace this time, just a bed and rickety table and shuttered window and a musty smell of many Rris imbued into the woodwork. There’d been a dinner in the main room downstairs, a big meal after a long day with only some salted meat. After the meal the others had talked, but I’d requested a kettle of water heated over the kitchen fire and then brought up to my room. It was freezing in there, but I’d stripped off and took the opportunity to wash the exertions of the day away.

Chihirae watched as I wiped my neck and chest. “You walked all day?”

“Most of it,” I said, wringing the cloth out.

“Oh, rot,” she chittered. “No wonder you smell like that. And no wonder they’re irritated. I don’t think that’s something most people would do. Do you need some assistance there?”

“I can manage.”

“Not your back you can’t,” she snorted. “Here . . .”

She took the cloth from me. She knew how, wiping so she didn’t rub against the crosshatching weals of old scar tissue across my shoulders and down my flanks. The skin was numb, but I felt the sensation of pressure and movement. Warm water turned to icy trickles down my legs. I shuddered.

“Cold,” came the voice from behind me. “You shouldn’t be doing this in winter . . .”

“It’s not . . .” I began and didn’t want to finish the sentence; didn’t want her so close to my weakness. “Let me do that. I can do that.” I turned to take the cloth back.

Chihirae didn’t let go, and for a second we stood there, each holding and end of the soggy cloth. She stared up at my face, hunting for something. I don’t know what she found, but she ducked her head and surrendered it before retreating to the narrow bed, sitting on the extra blankets and eiderdowns there and hugging her legs to her chest, wrapping her tail around and watching me over her knees. I finished what I’d started; dipping the cloth, wringing it out, scrubbing my arms and legs and points in between, dripping on the floor while the last of the heat seeped out of the water. Noises came through the thin walls: noises from downstairs, footsteps on the stairs outside, Rris voices in the rooms around us.

“You’re angry about something?” Chihirae asked eventually.

“What? No. No, it’s not that.”

“What then?”

I bit my lip, squeezing the cloth out again. Water trickled into the basin.

“Mikah?”

“Why do you treat them like that?” I asked.

“Who?” She cocked her head. “What do you mean?”

“The Guild. The Mediators. The way you, the way you all act . . .” I waved my hand aimlessly, groping for words. “They’re a Guild. They’re a . . . a business, not a nation, but they seem to do anything they wish. They order kings around and everyone just accepts it.”

She blinked, then scratched at her muzzle as she considered. “Huhnn, that’s just what you do. I’m not an expert on Guild affairs. Mediators have always been around, your lessons should have told you that. They can claim authority in extreme or unusual circumstances. That’s why they were brought in when you first arrived — because nobody could figure out what else to do with you, but otherwise they stay out of the affairs of usual people.”

“But governments, Chihirae?”

“How else are you going to ensure they respect their positions? Without some sort of [something], they would simply be another organization without restraints.”

“But if they wanted to, can’t the governments simply overrule the Guild? Disband them? Declare them outlaw?”

She looked surprised and reseated herself, folding her legs tailor-style and sitting up straighter. “What are you talking about? They can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Mikah,” she said slowly, explaining the obvious to a child, “the Guild makes the monarchies. Without the Guild, they wouldn’t exist.”

I stopped. “What?”

She snorted, “Where do you think kings and queens come from?”

“Their parents? They . . . inherit, is that the word? They inherit the titles?”

A chitter. “Rot, Mikah. No, no. To rule because your parents did? What sort of way is that to run a country? No, there are candidates and the Guild decide who is to rule.”

The water was growing cold. “The . . . Guild? But . . . how can you decide they’re capable of saying who’s best? What gives them the authority?”

A sigh. “And your way, to have a thousand farmers say who is best to run the country when their entire experience revolves around stock, fields and soil is better? The Guild . . . making decisions like that is what they do. They have centuries of experience doing that.”

“But it’s a job. How can you say a certain person is better at something just because it’s their job. They might still be very bad at it.”

Her eyes flashed as the blinked. “Mikah, they’re Mediators. They . . . it’s not just a job. It’s what they are. What do you think the word means? They are called that for a reason.”

I squeezed the washcloth out. The last of the warmth was gone from the water and I was shivering in the frigid air. “I don’t understand. The words . . . they don’t make sense to me.”

There was a low hiss in the dimness. “One of those moments, a?”

“A.”

“Perhaps . . . you could ask them about it, a?”

I winced. “Chihirae . . .”

She clapped her hands together, interrupting me. “Please, hear me out. They could tell you more. Ask them about their lives; Ask Jenes’ahn about her upbringing in the Guild. It might give you some understanding. It might help.” A flash of teeth in a grin that was a manic copy of one of my smiles. “I’m asking you to ask. Be understanding. Can you do that?”

I rubbed the cold cloth up and down my leg a few times before I sighed and nodded. “Okay, okay,”

“That’s a ‘yes’, isn’t it.”

“A. It’s a yes.”

“Thank you,” she said and watched as I finished my ablutions. “You’re sure you are all right? You are looking cold.”

“Some heating would have been nice.”

“You could have washed by the fire downstairs.”

“The last thing I wanted was an audience.”

A chitter. “No? But I’m sure they’d all find it most entertaining.”

“Dinner and a show, a?”

“You could have charged admission, a?”

I dropped the washcloth back into the bowl. The water was stone cold. By the morning it’d probably have a film of ice over it. A threadbare rag worked as a basic towel and I briskly rubbed myself down, drying off and trying to restore some circulation. It didn’t get me entirely dry and by the time I was done I was standing on wet floorboards, damp and shivering. When I turned to the bed, Chihirae was stretched out on the blankets, blinking lazily up at me.

“I didn’t know this place offered bed-warming services,” I said.

“Oh, that’s extra,” she chittered and rolled aside, lifting the edge of the sheets. “Come on, get in,” she urged. “You’re going to freeze standing there.”

I hesitated for a chilly second. “A strange lady in a place like this? How do I know you don’t have fleas?”

She hissed and rumpled her muzzle; bared teeth, “You can check for yourself.”

I slipped under the covers and then winced as she slid in beside me. Her body thrummed with a pulse that was faster than mine and beneath her fur her body almost burned with an inhuman heat. I caught my breath.

“Rot,” she also hissed as my feet touched her. “You’re freezing. And soggy. Here.” She pulled me closer. Her hands rubbed at me.

“Hey, that tickles.”

“You’re like an icicle. At least you smell better. I hope you’re not going to make that a daily occurrence.”

“It’d depend on the company, I think,” I said, ruffling her fur, scratching her back in a certain way.

“Huhnn,” she growled and her hands moved as well, rubbing across my chest and belly. “It wasn’t dull?”

“Gave me some time to think.”

“A? Did you learn something today?”

“Oh, yes,” I said.

“Tell me.”

“Well, your nipples get hard in the same order every time,” I observed, tweaking the leathery nubs buried in the fur down her front, “First this one, then this one, then this one and this . . .”

“Rot you,” she chittered, rubbing some more. We squirmed under the sheets; wriggled and rolled, trying to make accommodations on the narrow bed without exposing too much bare flesh to the nip of the cold. Those nips came from elsewhere and I flinched back from a playful one, yelped as I was bitten by slivers of frigid air and flinched back again. She laughed and pulled me closer, the bed creaking as we shifted, tangling legs as we embraced. The little lamp cast electric shadows in the tiny room as we moved under the sheets, a pair of voices in the darkness:

“Your belt is . . . ah, there.”

“You want to get on top?”

“You’re sure? Ow! Claws.”

“Oh, rot. Get your leg over here . . . huhn, you’re heavy. Careful.”

“Damn, careful with the sheets. It’s cold.”

A chitter. “I think this bed is a little small.”

“Then . . . like this?”

“That’s . . .” Chitter. “I don’t think this is working.”

“How about . . .”

“Huhn! Careful . . . Oh. A. Yes.”

“That’s better?”

“Huhn, a. That’s nice. That’s very nice. That’s all right for you?”

“Yes. Uhn. A. Very.”

“Oh, then I might let you do some more.”

“Really? You’re too kind.”

“I know. Rot, further . . . Hai, a bit further in . . . no back, no . . . a, there. Right there . . . Huhn! Rot, that’s good. More . . . there! Faster.”

When I realized something had changed; was wrong; was missing, I froze. Chihirae kept the motions going for a few seconds, then noticed my inactivity and made a quizzical little noise. “You stopped?”

That was the only sound.

“Uh, Chihirae,” I asked the silence. “Um, can they hear us?”

And from the other side of the thin lath and plaster walls around us a number of voices chorused, “Yes!”

Chapter 25

“I will get you for that,” I growled as I trudged through the snow, following the rows of tracks in the fresh snow behind the coach.

Chaeitch had perched himself on the few centimeters of tailgate available on the coach in front of me, legs dangling and leaning back against the oilskins covering the luggage. It was an icy morning again, but he was just wearing a green kilt and grey quilted vest around the edges of which his winter pelt fluffed out. He used his fingers to force the corners of his mouth up, baring teeth in a mock smile. “I did apologize, but again; you were the ones telling the story. We were just the audience. You can’t blame us for just hearing.”

“Just you wait,” I promised. “You think you’re safe, but when you least expect it, then I’ll pounce.”

He grinned again. “Ah, but I think your rage pales into insignificance beside the teacher’s.”

I gritted my teeth and exhaled a steaming cloud through my nose.

“What were you trying to do anyway? We were placing bets.”

“Hope you lost.”

He grinned again. “Huhn, I’ll put it this way — I can certainly afford to buy you a drink, a?”

“It’d better be a damn good one,” I grumbled.

“Long Way’s a decent-sized town and it does have some good taverns. We can probably find something to your taste.” He cocked his head and gestured at me. “Still a couple of days off, though. You’re planning on walking all the way there?”

“I just wanted some exercise.” Truth was, I was still pissed about the previous night. It’d been embarrassing for me. Extremely so. Chihirae had been first amused and then disappointed when she realized just what effect that had.

“I guess that answers my question,” she’d said in a resigned voice as we’d laid close together, sharing warmth and listening to the partially-muffled sounds of distant laughter and conversation. “We’ll have to find somewhere quiet, a?”

Somewhere quiet while staff, a few dozen soldiers and a couple of overly-possessive Mediators were all trying to keep tabs on me. Yeah, right.

Chaeitch was sitting relaxed on the narrow tailgate, legs and tail dangling, rocking with the swaying motion of the coach and watching me as I trudged along behind. He might’ve been able to read something in my body language, enough to know something wasn’t quite right, but not exactly what. He got it wrong. “It’s not so bad,” he said. “It’s only a couple of days.”

I sighed and shook my head. To him the fact that Chihirae and I were having sex wasn’t really a problem. It was interesting, but to him my reaction to their awareness of what was going on was far more amusing. By their lights I was over-reacting, but I didn’t see the world by their lights. The best thing to do was ignore their teasing, but that could be easier said.

“Something I’d been thinking about,” he said, cocking his head. “Your rail road, why do the cars need the rails? Why not steam carriages on wheels on usual roads?”

Because . . . I started to say something, then frowned and closed my mouth.

“I was thinking that with the earlier engines the rails would have been necessary,” he continued. “They barely had the power to move themselves, let alone cargo, but some of the new designs we’re working on . . . they could be efficient enough to drive a coach, like this. Put cargo on it and it’d be faster than this and without the need for thousands of kilometers of steel.”

Road trains? Steam lorries? I considered. “It’s an idea,” I said eventually. “Would it be practical? You’d still need a good road — better than this — and hundreds of kilometers of it. Easier than steel rails, a, granted. But each vehicle wouldn’t able to move nearly as much as a steam engine on rails. And for each smaller load you’d need an entirely different steam coach to move it. And each one of those engines would require a lot of fuel and water. Over a long distance, they would be less efficient. Also, our engines aren’t so small at the moment. I fact, they’re huge. Hit a soft spot and they would sink into the ground under their own weight.”

He stroked a claw through his cheek ruff a few times “But your kind use them? Road coaches?”

“We used to,” I said. “Goods were moved by rail a lot, then the roads and road vehicles and their fuel became cheap and easily available and they became the preferred method. Now we are shifting back to rail.”

“Why?”

“A lot of reasons. Efficiency for one. Also, another was it turned out the fuel being burned was . . . not good. Poison for the land and people. Especially when everyone decided they had to have such a vehicle.”

“No-one noticed?”

“No-one cared. It was easy and convenient and they were making too much money. It was only when the damage started costing more than the benefits that they started changing.”

“And you wonder why we don’t want this knowledge spread,” said the voice at my shoulder.

“Morning, sunshine,” I sighed, rolled my eyes and looked around at the Mediator who’d come up around the side of the team drawing the coach behind us. She cocked her head back at me, hands thrust down into the pockets of her long road coat. “Just as well you turned up,” I said. “I was about to tell him about a device that lets you see through solid walls.”

“If you’re referring to a window, we already have them,” Jenes’ahn returned coldly.

Chaeitch chittered.

“Ah!” I rolled my eyes. “You’re no fun.”

“What was that noise?”

Where’ve you been anyway?”

“Having a talk with her ladyship.”

“A? She’s also got information you’re trying to control?”

“Apparently,” she said levelly. “Very interesting. Do you really lick her genitals during sex?”

I stumbled, felt the heat flush my face and neck. “Only if she asks politely, a?” Chaeitch smirked.

“You’re not helping,” I aimed an accusing finger at him. “That’ll be two drinks. And you,” I swung to Jenes’ahn. “What business is it of yours anyway?”

She tipped her hand back and forth in a shrug. “There’re still enough questions about you to answer. She can help us with those.”

Had I been wrong in inviting her along? No. Wait a second. It hadn’t been my idea. They . . . Had I been manipulated into bringing her?

“She doesn’t have to answer your questions.”

“No, but she’s doing it.”

I grimaced. Chaeitch twitched up a little straighter in alarm and hopped off the coach. “Hai, now, Mikah,” he said in placating tones as he put himself between me and the Mediator.

“I’m annoyed,” I told him. “Not that angry.”

“Huh,” he coughed, brushed at his tunic and looked from me to Jenes’ahn. “Better this mistake, I think.”

“You think he would attack me?” Jenes’ahn asked him.

“I think he’s very protective of her ladyship,” Chaeitch said, which didn’t entirely answer her question.

Jenes’ahn seemed to weigh that, then said, “Mikah, you should know that she approached us. She had some things she wanted to discuss.”

A pause. She was probably waiting for me to ask her what, but that was Chihirae’s business. I just nodded, “A.”

“And she said you wanted to talk with us.”

She wanted . . . oh. “A,” I sighed.

“You want to talk here?” Jenes’ahn asked, twitching an ear. I looked at her, around at the team of elk drawing the following coach. Mad cervine eyes rolled back at me. Beyond the animals, the Rris up on the driver’s bench were doing their best to appear uninterested; other mounted guards plodded alongside the column far enough away that I thought they’d be out of earshot. Well, mine anyway.

“Let’s take it inside,” I said.

“Mikah?” Chaeitch ventured. “You’re going to be . . . sensible?”

“Yeah,” I nodded to him and said, “Thanks. I got this.”

He looked relieved, but still a little uncertain.

After the cold morning air the heated cab of the coach was almost oppressively warm. The driver hadn’t slowed down at all as we boarded; I just pulled the door open and stepped up on the running board, the coach rocking on its springs as I hopped up. It wasn’t moving fast but those big, narrow, iron-bound wheels would leave a lasting impression if they ran over you. I dropped into the overstuffed seat facing the current occupant, Rohinia, as Jenes’ahn ducked in behind me, letting the door swing shut behind her as she settled herself. Ice and snow from my boots and the Rris’ furry feet melted and dripped onto the carpet.

“He’s going to talk,” Jenes’ahn said. Rohinia just tipped his head, looking politely interested.

“Chihirae thought I should,” I said.

“She thinks you’re worried,” Rohinia said levelly and steepled his fingers, claws ticking together. “About anything specifically?”

“Is there something I’m not being told?”

“Such as?”

I bit back a smart-ass retort. Was he being deliberately obtuse? Was it simply returning what I’d given them? Or was he actually fishing to find out what I knew? “Something that might involve Chihirae or myself. Hirht was reluctant to let me out of his sight, then suddenly I’m bundled off to Bluebetter. And he sends her along, making it look like it was my idea.”

“Huhn,” he snorted. “Noticed that, did you?”

“And the way you’re having me ride in a different coach each day? To ride with different people? It’d also make it harder for people to know which coach I’m in, wouldn’t it?”

His expression didn’t change. Not an iota. He just watched me with level, interested amber eyes. “A. It would. But that wasn’t our intention.”

“Then I’m being concerned about nothing?”

He hesitated. Just long enough.

“Thought so,” I grunted. Just ‘cause you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

“No,” said Rohinia. “We aren’t entirely sure ourselves. You were told other kingdoms were making demands to see you. We know Hirht is balancing these demands on other countries standing with Land of Water.”

“Friends first,” I observed.

“Not necessarily.”

“Bluebetter is an ally, a?”

“At the present time, yes. But, there have been disagreements between the countries in the past and there are still issues that cause some bearing of teeth. Hirht probably feels that his allies are stable so it’s better to try and prop up the area that might falter, and sending you to them first should go a great way toward smoothing relations between the countries.”

“But you think there’s risk?”

“Probably not from Bluebetter. There are other countries who have worse relations with Land of Water. If they get angry, they might decide that if they can’t get what they want, then nobody will have it.”

I grimaced. “That would . . . make a lot of other countries quite angry, I should imagine.”

“A. And if the culprit was uncertain, there’d also be a question of who they would be angry with. Chances are they would blame Land of Water for the loss.”

And that would . . . oh, shit.

“Are there . . . does anyone have any real problems with Land of Water?”

Rohinia flashed a grin, and there wasn’t anything pleasant about it. “There are many kinds of ‘problems’, Mikah. There are those who have ‘problems’ with Land of Water policies. There are various entities who see their interests threatened; and there are others who simply see a way to profit from the situation.”

“Are you just . . . talking ideas? Or do you know something?”

Jenes’ahn glanced at her partner. “There’s nothing you can bite,” he said. “But there are . . . activities that aren’t usual. Movement in some guilds; money changing hands; talk in certain circles. Just scents in the air, but the Guild is experienced in this sort of thing.”

“And what are you doing about it?”

He waved at the carriage. “All we can. At this point nothing has actually happened, so there is nothing for the Guild to act on.”

“I thought you had control over the monarchies.”

He cocked his head. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“They seem to do whatever you tell them.”

A snort. “Within limits of the charter. And they certainly know what those limits are. If they aren’t violating the conventions, then we can’t act.”

I’d heard that before. “She said you make the monarchies. I don’t know what that means. If you make them, shouldn’t you have control?”

“Then we’d be the governments,” he said, tapping the pads at the tips of his fingers together. Then he cocked his head. “This is really new to you?”

I shrugged. “People still say things that are very odd to me and act like they’re the most normal things in the world. I think this is one of them.”

“But you know of the selection?”

I hesitated. “I’ve heard the term. I thought it was like . . . like our way.”

“Ah, yes,” Rohinia said neutrally. I knew what their opinion of democracy was — they viewed it as something of a ‘vote yourself rich’ scheme. How could you trust the ignorant masses to make sound political choices? If you wanted ironmongery you’d go to a blacksmith; if you want impartial judgment you’d use the Guild. Simple as that.

Not entirely accurate, I felt: They weren’t accounting for the fact that the US democratic system had — on average — citizens who were better educated than most Rris. Well, perhaps except for Fox News adherents. But then I’d always assumed that Rris royalty were like, well, traditional royalty; with bloodlines and inherited titles. I hadn’t considered a constitutional monarchy.

But that wasn’t quite right either.

“I was present at Hirht’s choosing,” Rohinia said. “You know that?”

“It never came up in casual conversation.”

He gave me a hard look, then continued. “It’s not complicated: various patrons put forth candidates: highborns, merchants, and the existing monarchy, of course. The Guild spends considerable time watching and evaluating those candidates, and in time they are tested. From that the Guild chooses a successor.”

“You just ask them some questions to choose a new king?” I asked, dubiously.

He scratched at his tufted chin. “A little more than just questions. The criteria of the tests are quite . . . convoluted. We don’t just want ability: there’ve been many who showed plenty of that who’d be disastrous in any position of power.”

I didn’t know exactly how to take that. “Your Guild chooses the people who end up running the countries? Isn’t that a bit of a conflict of interests? How can you choose impartially?”

“We don’t,” he said. “We’re looking for those who are best able to rule.”

“The ones you can control the best,” I observed.

Wrinkles creased the bridge of his muzzle. “Those aren’t necessarily the best choices.”

I shook my head, trying to grasp the logic of it. “So, a guild or wealthy individual can just rock up to you and present you with an employee or lackey and say ‘Hey, I think it’d be great if this individual ran the country’. And you just give them a test?”

“Mikah, the testing lasts for ten years. Candidates cannot be older than eight.”

I added that up. “You mean children?”

“A. Candidates who show the most promise are chosen. Their patrons train and tutor them in the skills they will need. The Guild watches and evaluates, not just their knowledge, but their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses; their hates and fears. Eventually, they choose. What is in the Guild’s best interest is to choose well. The good rulers cause fewer problems than the poor.”

“But I’ve seen lineage. Hirht and the Lady, they have pictures of predecessors . . .”

“Good rulers tend to produce good offspring. They have the ability, the experience and the resources to teach them well. It’s not uncommon for dynasties to rule for generations.”

“It sound . . . disruptive.”

“As opposed to changing governments every few years simply because it’s mandated?” he snorted. “No sooner has one policy started to take effect than the replacement government disbands it simply because it belonged to their opposition and must therefore be wrong. That sounds absurd to me.”

“I don’t see how an organization can make a . . . a balanced choice,” I said.

He regarded me, as if trying to decide how to reply to that. It was Jenes’ahn who said, “Mikah, how do you think we came to the Guild?”

“Position vacant advertisement in the Guild paper?” I ventured.

Jenes’ahn hissed, exasperation or disgust. Rohinia just seemed to weigh the statement from various angles and then tipped his hand over. “No,” he said and paused for a second. Gathering thoughts or just wondering what to say?

He surprised me. “Most of us were left on the doorstep,” he said. “We were found, given, lost or discarded. The Guild raised us. We were taught and watched and tested and apprenticed. Then, eventually, some of us were taken into the Guild. We became Mediators. It’s all we do; it’s all we are.

“You query our motives? Our motives are to do the best for the Guild. It is our home, our hearth. What we do — what you consider meddling — is the best we can do. We try to keep peace; to keep balance; to keep vigilant. Our successes are the Guild’s, as are our failures.

“We try not to fail,” he said. Then leaned back in his seat, crossed his hands across his belly and snorted. “It diminishes us and just makes more work. We do everything we can to ensure what we do is the right choice.”

I chewed on that for a bit. “You?” I asked Jenes’ahn. “How did you join?”

“A [something],” she said, and elaborated. “Found by the Guild. Taken in.”

“You’re thinking we could be bought,” Rohinia said. “You’re thinking Mediators would make decisions against the Guild.”

“It’s happened before,” I said. “You might remember.”

“No,” he retorted. “It hasn’t. What happened . . . All the decisions made then . . . all the actions taken were for the good of the Guild. Whatever the ending of the play, the Guild would have continued.”

I grimaced and felt an atavistic shiver crawl up my spine. They’d set the playing field and placed me in the middle of it to be either killed by the good guys or used by the bad, and the kicker was that both sides were on the same team. The only other option I’d had was . . . it was what I’d done. As Shyia had known I would.

“And what could anyone offer a Mediator that the Guild can’t?” he asked. “Power? Wealth?”

“A Mediator craves not these things?” I offered sarcastically.

It meant nothing to him. “Precisely,” he said. “If a Mediator damaged Guild reputation, he’d simply be damaging the very thing that gives him authority. Why would he do that?”

“To remove the Guild?” I suggested offhand.

It got more of a reaction than I’d thought. Both the Mediators twitched, actually visibly flinched, then stared at me with eyes that had gone black. “Why would you say that?” Rohinia asked.

I shrugged, but truth be told, I wasn’t sure. It’d been a reflexive answer and I had to stop and wonder where it’d come from. “It seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? If someone had some problems with the Guild, or wanted to get rid of it, then the best way would be to undermine the charter, wouldn’t it?”

The Mediators both stared at me. Jenes’ahn laid her head to the side, looking at me like a cat might regard a particularly bold rodent. “That’s not exactly a new thought,” Rohinia said slowly, as if confessing something. “It has been tried before, more than a few times.”

I had to ask: “What happened?”

“The Guild has always expressed its displeasure with those responsible.”

I’ll bet. Examples and all that. “Who tried it?”

“Last time, I believe, it was a [something] of lords from the central countries. Believed they could open the river trades if the Guild wasn’t involved. They are no longer an issue.”

The sound of the coach wheels changed. Rivulets of frozen water on the window made the view ripple and distort, but I could see the coach was passing over a small bridge. The stream below was a trickle through slushy snow and frost. I nodded. “What happened to them?”

“The conspirators were executed. Their assets were dissolved and integrated into the government’s holdings.”

“The Guild didn’t take anything?”

“The Guild has what it needs. If it requires more, it [something] it.”

“Oh,” I said. There were a few words in that exchange that I hadn’t understood. I thought I understood enough to fill in the blanks. “What if the people of a country don’t approve of the ruler you have chosen? What if they choose to follow another?”

“If that other had a sound enough reason he could bring his case before the Guild. But if that did happen, it’d mean there was a chance the Guild failed in its duty in selection in the first place. This has never happened.”

But what if . . . I started, then stopped. The Rris didn’t succumb to cult of personality. They weren’t pack or herd creatures that latched onto an alpha figure to follow. They didn’t follow someone just because they had an expensive suit, great smile or commanding speaking voice. Rather, they followed results. A Custer or Patton, a Hitler or Joan of Arc — someone who relied on overbearing presence of personality rather than actual ability — would have had a very difficult time here.

“So, it’s a . . . a balance?” I ventured. “Your Guild has influence over governments, but only in certain situations. And the governments can’t go against the Guild because the Guild . . . well, the Guild makes them.”

“In very simple terms, yes.” Rohinia watched me thinking that over and said, “You don’t approve.”

I shook my head and looked out the window again, through frosting condensation at the winter world. “I don’t understand how it can work. There just seems to be too much scope for . . . things to go wrong.”

“You’re referring to corruption,” Jenes’ahn provided.

“How do you prevent that? You can’t seriously say you police yourselves?”

“We don’t have to,” Rohinia said. “There’re more than enough eyes watching us, and so many of them would like to see us fall. We follow the laws.”

Yeah. They did. They knew every scrap of those laws; every little loop and hole in those laws. And I thought they’d have to: any human organization such as a government or corporation would have been spending ludicrous amounts of effort finding ways to protect themselves from an institution like the Mediators Guild, and any way of discrediting them would be a major weapon. I wondered if any of those observers did more than just watch.

“If — for argument’s sake — the Guild was found to be breaching the treaty, what would the repercussions be? How could they punish you?”

His pupils dilated and Jenes’ahn shifted slightly.

“I’m not dragging up the past,” I clarified. “I’m just asking.”

Rohinia gestured acknowledgement. “Depending on the severity, there could be anything from fines or loss of authority in areas to much more drastic actions. If enough nations had a strong enough reason, they could choose to dissolve the charter in part or in entirety.”

“What would you do?”

“Again, that would depend upon circumstances. There would certainly be appeal; calls for arbitration and investigation.”

“And if you found it unjust or you disagreed with the ruling, you would fight?”

He snorted. “The Guild strength is in its unity. We’re scattered throughout the world with halls in every country. Not many in each place, but overall quite a few. When it’s necessary, the Guild can muster, and when it does so it is a powerful force. Any country would think seriously before crossing us.”

“The Swampy River wars,” I said, recalling a lesson I’d been given.

“A. That was the first time a nation openly challenged Guild authority and the Guild demonstrated its capabilities,” he said and scratched at his chin with a clawtip.

“Mediators have been around for a long time, Mikah. Many hundreds of years. Probably thousands. Certainly since before records began. Before the Guilds were formally recognized or even the current countries existed. They used to be [something] travelling between settlements. They weren’t associated with anyone and counted on their impartiality and fairness for business. They . . . solved problems. Of various sorts.

“An organization did form. Slowly. Over hundreds of years. Not recognized fully until Swampy River. We garnered considerable influence from that and some other instances. Eventually the Reichis Charter was ratified .”

Some hundreds of years later, I recalled. The Guild had History, with the capital H. Something else I remembered, something a Queen had told me, that night when I’d been hiding in her chambers, the Guild gained more power during times of unrest.

“And that Charter gives you authority in exchange for maintaining the peace,” I said.

“For maintaining the agreement,” Rohinia corrected, a twist of semantics. “But that is the meat of it, a.”

The greater the unrest, the more authority.

I just nodded. “And how are things now?”

“With countries squabbling about you like cubs over the last of the liver? Things could be better. You have our protection, so nobody is doing anything foolish, but it only takes a single greedy fool to steal stones from the wall.”

It sounded better in Rris, but I got the gist of it.

“That’s why you’re here,” he said. “There’s nothing to concern you. We can keep the fools from trying acts like that by offering them access and show them that if they’re cooperative and behave themselves, then there’s a chance they’ll get preferential treatment.”

“A chance,” I noted.

“A,” he said noncommittally.

“And chances like that happen often?”

“They can,” he said and his muzzle creased slightly. “And the hope of that chance can dam up a lot of troublesome river.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “But if and when that dam breaks, you’re got real trouble.”

Chapter 26

The brass latch was freezing against the skin of my fingertips as I pulled the coach door open. Chihirae and Makepeace both turned to watch me, looking like they’d been cut off in the middle of conversation. “Sorry to disturb you,” I said as I clambered in. “Don’t mind me. Just act like I’m not here.”

Chihirae leaned back, give me a lazy, slit-eyed look and chittered. “You’ll just blend in, a?”

“Just like I always do,” I said as I settled myself into the overstuffed seat beside her. The cab was warm and after a couple of days already smelled of damp Rris in close confines. After a few weeks it was going to develop real personality.

Makepeace was sitting opposite, openly staring at me. I smiled. “How are you doing?”

Her ears went back, then up and then back again: their version of a nervous swallow. “Fine, sir.”

“An interesting talk,” Chihirae said and Makepeace’s ears went flat.

I leaned forward and I think she stopped breathing. “A talk about the questions you’re supposed to ask me?” I asked gently.

“Yes, sir,” she said. Chihirae tipped her head quizzically as she watched me, probably wondering what I was going to do.

The door opened again, admitting a blast of chill air and a Mediator. Jenes’ahn hopped up into the cab, pulled the door closed and opened her coat, spreading it out as she settled herself in the remaining seat beside Makepeace.

“And you had your talk with them?” Chihirae asked me.

“A,” I said and looked at the Mediator who returned my gaze with a frank stare. I grimaced. “It’s . . . I guess it works for you, but it’s . . . not the way I would think.”

“But you understand now?”

I shrugged. “Some of it. The how it works, but not necessarily the why. They gave me some history and other things I didn’t know. It answered some questions; opened others,” I said quietly, looked down at my hands as I rubbed them to get some warmth back into them and shrugged again. “Anyway . . . Makepeace, I apologize if I am interpreting this incorrectly, but you haven’t seemed to be very happy. You have a problem?”

Her eyes flicked to Chihirae, who sighed and said, “Don’t worry. He’s not angry. You can tell him.”

Makepeace didn’t look convinced. “Yes, ma’am,” she said uncertainly and took a breath, her ears twitching again. “I said the truth about what happened. It was a joke, that was all. We never thought one of us would be voted, but once it happened . . . it was terrible: all the masters, they all came to me and they all wanted private meetings . . . they all said what a good job I was doing and that I would be representing the University and if I didn’t ask you these questions and get your response they would see that I would be turned out of the University without accreditation or recommendation!”

With the run-on sentence done, she subsided, hunching down in her seat and looking miserable and uncertain.

“Huhn,” Chihirae nudged me. “Problems, a?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said, nodding. It was almost funny. “Problems.” I leaned forward. “Makepeace, don’t worry about it.”

“Sir?” she didn’t look convinced.

“I can answer some of the questions you have. Probably not all of them, but certainly some of them. If your seniors have a problem with it . . . Hell, I’ll let them know that I’ll get annoyed with anyone who has a problem with that.”

“Mikah,” Jenes’ahn spoke up, “Why? It’s not your concern.”

“She helped me out often enough in the archives. And I don’t like see big organizations picking on people,” I said. The Rris blinked at me and I smiled sweetly. “It’s a character flaw.”

The Mediator snorted. The teacher made an amused noise. The student was looking a little confused.

“Is this okay with you?” I asked her.

“I . . . Sir . . . can you do that?” she said uncertainly.

“I believe so,” I said. “Why yes. Yes I can.”

“It’s his sense of humor,” Chihirae explained. “It’s an acquired taste.”

“Oh,” Makepeace said, and then chittered uncertainly, as if she were testing the waters.

“Rot,” Jenes’ahn sighed. “Don’t encourage him. And you’re aware that any questions you ask will have to be screened my either myself or Rohinia? We’ll decide whether or not he’ll give you an answer.”

“Understood, Ma’am,” Makepeace said meekly.

“You understand why?”

A hesitation and her gaze flicked across me as if she could find the answer there. “I was told you would be watching, but I wasn’t told precisely why,” she said.

“Huhn!” Jenes’ahn grunted and scratched her chin. “How much do you know about him? Do you know where he came from? What he’s like? What he knows?”

“We were asked to search the archives for information about things like him,” Makepeace said. “And the questions I’m to ask him . . . they are very . . . peculiar. About many different things. Things scholars have been debating for years; some things I’ve never heard of before; some things I thought were jokes, but the masters were all most serious.”

I whistled through my teeth and Rris ears twitched. “You’ve been dropped right in it, haven’t you,” I offered and looked to the Rris sitting next to me. “Well, perhaps we can teach her a thing or two, a?”

Chihirae looked amused. “You could show her some of your plays. They say more than we could. And they always get a good response.”

The laptop was in its case. Makepeace watched as Chihirae unzipped it and pulled the tablet out. “They said you had a book of your knowledge. Is that it?”

Chihirae chittered as she opened the lid. “A. I thought the same at first. Not a book: a library. See?”

Makepeace leaned forward, looking puzzled as the desktop flashed up and Chihirae carefully used a fingerpad to touch there and there, then took a card from the case and slotted it into place and sorted through folders. “Hai!” Makepeace breathed. “It’s full of pictures . . . They’re . . . what are they?”

“It’s where he came from,” Chihirae told her as she flicked through images in the directory: Scenery and animals and plantlife. And portraits and still life and landscapes and cityscapes. New York, looking down Park Ave; Sydney with the Opera House gleaming in the sun; Honk Kong at dusk, a massive cargo airship looming over city towers glowing with giant screens and patterns of lights; Athens beneath its smog, the ancient acropolis basking in the sun on the hills above the city; Prague and the rows of bridges over the Vltava.

Makepeace was staring, her mouth hanging open. “They were saying he had a book that held all sorts of knowledge. This is . . . this isn’t what I’d expected. How does it light up like that? Is it some sort of lantern show? Are all those pictures inside it . . .”

“Enough,” Chihirae cut off the flood of questions and chittered. “I can’t answer all that, and there’s plenty more to see. Where was it . . . Ah, there.”

Video. Audio. Makepeace jerked back at the opening fanfare. “I like this one,” Chihirae said as Attenborough’s Planet Earth started, but I doubt Makepeace heard. Her eyes were riveted on the screen as the HD video filled the screen with color and the cabin with sound. Her head cocked back and forth, like a cat staring into a fishtank. I clamped my mouth shut and tried not to laugh.

Jenes’ahn looked from me to Chihirae, her features expressionless, ears motionless.

Later that day the weather turned foul. The persistent overcast grew heavier and lower. Gradually the winter countryside was whitewashed behind a cold, gray pall. Snow fell. A dusting of tiny ice particles coalescing from the mists at first, but gradually growing to become flecks the size of dimes swirling in on biting winds. Intricate ferns of frost crawled across the insides of the windows. The little stove struggled to keep the cab warm and didn’t quite make it. I found a blanket and buried myself under it. Chihirae insinuated herself under it as well, leaning against me, and that helped.

Makepeace was utterly absorbed by the notebook, by the pictures and movies and sound. She stared with eyes like saucers, her jaw hanging as she watched The Blues Brothers, Sanguine, Lord of the Rings. Dammit, I think she was drooling a little. When Jenes’ahn decided to interdict and cut her off I thought it’d come to blows. She backed down, but she wasn’t happy. From then on she was an unstoppable torrent of questions.

Due to the weather we didn’t make the intended stop that day and had to spend that night in a fleapit of a road stop to rest the animals. The place wasn’t one a proper inn, just one of the countless cheaper way-places along the road. There wasn’t much beyond the stables and a communal room, which was just a hall with a central fireplace and small box beds around the walls. Not nearly enough to go around. I let Chihirae take mine and settled my sleeping bag on the main floor with the others. It was closer to the fire, and besides, the niche with the bed wasn’t nearly long enough for me anyway.

Next day dawned stark white and cold blue. We set off across a snowbound countryside. The forests were deep and bare. Where Rris settled the trees gave way to fields dotted with bison: huge, shaggy mounds of hair crusted with ice and snow, huffing steam while farmers dumped feed from wagons. Houses huddled under roofs laden with white while smoke from chimneys sketched near-vertical lines into the heavens. Fences were hung with icicles. Occasional streams and culverts were thin trickles through frozen slush.

The caravan plodded onwards. I rode for a while with Chaeitch, Rraerch and Rohinia. We talked shop and they started my lessons on what I should expect in Bluebetter. That was exciting. When the excitement got to be too much, I stretched my legs and walked for a while.

We passed through land that’d been civilized for a long time. The wild forests were gone, cut back to copses and small woods. Snow-covered farmland spread out across the rolling countryside like white sheets covering a sleeping figure whose form was just hinted at by the occasional, low hills. Sometimes we passed farm buildings; occasionally just the remnants of farm buildings: tumbledown skeletons overgrown by the winter and wilderness. At least once a day we passed through small hamlets, villages. They tended to follow the same layout: a mainstreet or crossroad with the public buildings set along that. Wood and stone construction; a mixture of glazed and shuttered windows; steep roofs blanketed with snow. Occupants turned out on porches and along the streets to watch the procession. Probably for lack of anything better to do. Cubs ran alongside, trying to foist trinkets: little hand-carved wooden figurines; simple toys; small knives or utensils that must’ve come from the local smithy or bits of jewelry crafted by someone who had some time. They tended to keep their distance from me and just stared. Once, on a high piece of land — a hill or a drumlin or something — I saw a fortified tower. It looked empty, abandoned, and stood on the skyline like a broken tooth for the hour it took to pass out of sight.

We made decent time that day. By nightfall we’d made Three Full Moons. It wasn’t a city, just a very small town, but it was growing, it was spreading beyond its somewhat decrepit walls. There were new buildings, new warehouses and stores which looked prosperous. Certainly the coaching inn we lodged at that night was a damn sight better than the previous night’s accommodation.

The evening meal was cooked in a proper kitchen and eaten at a real table. I was put in what was probably the best room in the place. It was quiet, private, tucked away up its own separate staircase on the top floor. The room had a battered wooden floor, polished to a ruddy glow by age, use and beeswax. There was a real bed, panes of watery glass in the windows, a black, cast-iron stove and one monster of a bear-skin rug.

“They must’ve built the place around it,” I said to Chihirae as we sat on the huge rug. The lumpy black-iron stove was throwing out heat against the encroaching chill of the room, the air above the almost-glowing metal wavering. Furiously blazing coals threw a fitful red glow across the hearth.

Chihirae chittered and then flinched as my fingernails pinched. “Ach! Careful!”

“Sorry,” I said. “That one . . . ah, got it.”

“Another?” she grumbled then the fur up between her shoulders twitched spastically and she yowled, “Rot! Ah! Up! Up! Get it.”

The previous night’s accommodation had been a fleapit. Literally. The bed I’d so graciously given her had already been occupied and she’d come away with her own flea circus. I’d spent the past hour working over her pelt with the fine-toothed brush from her grooming kit — like a nit comb, only intended for all-over use. I’d caught dozens of the hungry little bastards.

“I think you’re going to need a proper bath,” I observed.

“Why aren’t you bothered?” she growled.

I shrugged. “I guess they don’t like my taste.”

She snorted and scratched vigorously at an armpit. “Rot. You’re serious?”

“They might just prefer the taste of Rris. Or your fur. Where I come from there are . . . I don’t know your word . . . Small flying, biting insects. Long legs. They make a whining noise.”

“Mosquitoes,” she offered.

“A? Mosquitoes. They’re attracted to the look of human skin.”

A snickering sort of noise. “I’m sure you’re relieved something is.”

“Hey!” I poked her. “I don’t see you complaining.”

A laugh. “Complain? Why should I complain? I’m not the one who’s freezing his bare hide off.”

“A? Who nearly set her fur alight sitting too close to the fire? Look! You’re singed.”

“Huh!” Her body jolted as she huffed at that accusation. “It’s warm here, cold there. One would have to be a fool not to.”

“Speaking of fools,” I said offhand and crushed another scurrying speck between my nails, “what did you get up to with our daring protector and accidental diplomat today?”

“Mikah,” she hissed and craned around to glance momentarily at me over her shoulder then settled back and chittered. “Sometimes I despair.”

“That’s good.”

“What? Why?”

“It’s only sometimes. I must be improving,” I grinned. “Look, they didn’t give you any problems did they? Makepeace seems good enough, but I’ve met some of those scholars before. They forget there’s a person answering those questions. They can get a bit carried away.”

“Huh. No. No, she was no problem.”

“She wasn’t?” There was something in the way she said that. “And what about the Mediator?”

Chihirae growled. Her tail twitched. “Mikah, they’re trying to understand you,” she said. “I know you don’t like them around, but they’re trying to learn why you . . . why you do what you do. It’s the only way they can understand so she was asking me . . .”

“What’d she ask you?”

She coughed, then twitched an ear. “About the other night. She asked why you were so annoyed. She asked why you didn’t continue.”

My hands stopped and I sat up straighter. Chihirae’s ears twitched and she cast another little look back over her shoulder. “What? What business of theirs is that?” I asked.

“I told you: they’re trying to understand you, Mikah. You aren’t something they can just make go away, so they want to know what you are; what you do; why you do it.”

Of course they wanted to know me. To me the Rris thought processes were distinctly weird, alien. They did things in ways and for reasons humans simply wouldn’t. And that worked both ways: to them I was risky because by their lights I was unpredictable. They couldn’t anticipate my actions. They were looking for the chinks and fissures in the armor of my essence that they could get their claws into. Some more leverage.

I regarded the fluffy furry back of the woman in front of me, tawny and grey, speckled with black. The pointed ears with their high tufted tips, the whiskers and cheek ruff faintly limned red against the glow of coals. She was a . . . a huge vulnerable spot. The Mediators had found that weakness. They’d used it without hesitation. What else where they looking for? Anything they could get, probably.

“She asked if she could watch,” Chihirae said quickly, as if she were just yanking the band-aid off quickly.

“What?” I blinked. “Watch what . . . oh.”

“She asked that,” Chihirae continued in a quiet voice “And then of course Makepeace asked questions. The Mediator wanted me to ask you. To see if you . . .” she trailed off.

“Just tell her ‘no’,” I said.

“You’re not angry?”

“With you? No. With her . . . Perhaps I should save some of these fleas for her, a?”

“Mikah . . .”

“No, I was wondering why she’d have you ask that question. She could have done it herself easily enough.”

“Perhaps she thought you’d agree if I asked?”

“To something like that?” I snorted and stroked my fingers across her back. “Then Makepeace would want to watch, then local villages and it’d just go from there. Next thing we’d be selling tickets. Not my idea of a good time.”

“Mikah,” her ears flicked back and she turned her head, her profile highlighted by the sodium glow of hot coals. “It really bothers you?”

“You’re not actually . . . You’re not agreeing with her?!”

“They keep asking questions, Mikah. They don’t understand . . . they still suspect you might have influenced me somehow.”

I sighed heavily. “I thought they’d given up on that fucking stupid idea.”

“I think the other night just brought it up again. And the fact you’re not willing to discuss it with them . . . They don’t . . . They suspect you’re hiding something.”

It wasn’t the sex that was the issue for the Mediators. They knew about it. Hell, it seemed half the country knew about it, or had heard the rumors and little stories that crawled off into the oddest corners. What they wanted to know was . . . why she did it. Why a Rris woman would do that. With me. And they thought that I had some sort of influence over her; that I was able to control her in some way; that I might’ve used that influence in some indefinable way with some Rris nobility. I’d ridiculed those thoughts. Damn it, there’d been times with . . . with another woman when I know Rris had spied on our lovemaking. Chihirae and I had been caught in flagrante delicto by the Mediators themselves and they’d seen there’d been no coercion. But still they’d asked proof: they wanted to see for themselves. I’d refused. And the more I’d denied it the more they’d pressed. They’d annoyed me, but I didn’t know what they’d been saying to Chihirae. Now, I was concerned it might’ve been too much.

“You’re not actually saying that you’d do it?”

“If I had to.” She tipped her hand in a shrug. “Mikah, it really doesn’t worry me so much.”

I had to close my mouth. That simply wasn’t what I’d expected. “You can’t agree with them. What they’re wanting is . . . it’s just foolish!” I said, my voice raising.

She looked back at me and I heard the sigh. “I don’t have to agree with them. But I would show them they are mistaken. The more you try to pull away from them, the more they will sink their claws in. So, I would say it’s a small thing, but to you, I don’t think that would be right. Not after the other night.”

I started to answer, to throw back a quick retort. But . . . But, she was my teacher. She was the Rris, the one who should know. It was her own kind she was talking about. I couldn’t say she was right, but then I couldn’t just say she wasn’t because I simply didn’t know.

I ruffled my fingers through her winter coat. “You think . . . they’ll press the matter?”

“I think the more you evade, the more they’ll chase.”

That sort of behavior sounded familiar. I shook my head and stroked my hand down her shoulder. “What do you think I should do?”

“My advice would be: get it done with,” she said quietly. “But that is from me to another person.” A pause and her ears wilted slightly. “Sorry.”

Even she slipped like that sometimes. It was okay — I understood what she meant. “I . . . Not with them watching. I don’t think I could.”

“It’s such a problem?” she asked. “Those plays on your library . . . Mikah, almost of them show courting behavior or mating of some sort. They do that for audiences, don’t they?”

“It’s acting,” I said. “Not real. In life there are those who could do it — with humans you’ll find there are those who will do anything. But I can’t.”

“Then it’s a learned behavior? It is possible, you just have . . . personal issues.”

My fingers stroked her as I considered that. I remembered examinations by Rris physicians. It’d been incredibly stressful. “Perhaps,” I conceded. “I probably have a lot of issues, but . . . I still . . . I don’t think I’d be able to do that. Not in front of them.”

She chittered and flicked her ears, then turned herself around, shifting under my hand to turn and crouch right in front of me, nose to nose, a breath apart. Her eyes glowed in the dimness and I could feel the heat of her exhalation. “I wouldn’t ask that,” she said. “But . . . what about without them?” she murmured.

That wasn’t so difficult.

Chapter 27

Another day on the road. Outside was snow, ice, firs, and more snow. Just for variety. Inside was Rris and extended lessons on Bluebetter and Land-of-Water historical relations. They seemed to revolve around old cycles of paranoia and bickering over some rivers and border markings which then escalated to skirmishes and then on to a couple of outright border wars where towns were lost — or taken depending on your side — before things deflated again to a period of détente. That seemed to be where we were at the moment, with both leaders actually taking steps to reconcile things between the countries. Most of that involved playing nicely with each other and not mentioning the war, but they were trying to strengthen trade relations. Land-of-Water had things Bluebetter wanted and they had things Land-of-Water needed.

Chihirae and Rraerch and Jenes’ahn rode with me. Between them they were able to start me on a history of the unsteady relationship between the countries that went back over a thousand years. The ancient records of ancient wars over border lines that’d ebbed and flowed back and forth over the Rippled Lands. There’d been kings and queens who fanned the flames, others who worked to reconcile, but there always seemed to be friction between the nations.

It seemed that the area was a disputed territory, especially the passes through the areas they called the Rippled Lands. These were the areas around what’d been the White Mountains and Smokey mountains in my world; the mountainous region where the land folded into waves of ridges running most of the length of the Eastern Seaboard. The rows of ridged and steep valleys were rough going for travelers and the few places where quick and easy passage could be made were valuable pieces of land.

Rraerch told me about the passes that existed and how all of them at some time or another had been fought over. There’d been local lords and barons who’d wanted control over these routes. Strongpoints and castles had been built and held and taken and burned and built again. Townships had risen and prospered and sometimes died off. Lands had been brought and sold and ceded and by this time the border wasn’t so much a line as a jagged, fractal, moving thing that jumped back and forth between the nations.

Chihirae knew the history of a lot of those wars. They’d been numerous. Sometimes just minor skirmishes, other times affairs that’d dragged on for a decade and exhausted the countries. Rraerch had stories: there were times one side would use bandits as a pretext to reinforce the local garrisons and, of course, the other side would respond in kind; there was the clichéd tale of the small band that’d held out against vastly superior forces until help arrived. Only thing about that story was that it’d been so long ago that no-one was entirely sure exactly where it happened or what side had been attacking and who’d been defending. Rraerch thought it might’ve happened more than once and the similar stories had just melted together over time; there was the Gone River pass, named after a major slip had diverted the flow of a river and left a new pass through a ridgeline open and there’d been brutal squabbling over who controlled it; the story of Fort Estari, which had changed hands a dozen times; the tale of the incident at the Land-of-Water outpost of Broken Side, where the fort had been found empty after winter, abandoned, with ample supplies and no sign of what’d happened to the occupants; the battle at Sara Fields where both sides slaughtered each other to a standstill in a morasses of blood and mud.

There hadn’t been a war that nasty for over a hundred years. There were still harsh looks and bared teeth between countries, but things stayed at a low simmer. Rraerch said that the reasons for that varied: The fighting disrupted trade and profit; both nations had other, more serious concerns on other borders; and the Mediator Guild had grown in strength and influence.

I wasn’t sure about that. Jenes’ahn certainly lauded the Guild’s stabilizing effect upon Rris affairs, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. Humanity had shifted away from waging war at the drop of a helmet as well, but that tended to be because the wars had become so expensive in both human terms and — more importantly to those responsible — in monetary costs. You might win a war, but you’d find that all you’d won was a nation of smoldering rubble, an exhausted populace, and a massive debt. As for occupation: forget it. A

The day passed as they talked. Afternoon grew into evening. The shadows lengthened, the sun sank. We crossed the crest of a hill and Long Way was before us.

The town lay nestled on the flank of a hillside on the northern shore of a small lake. In the last of the winter light the lake was a great splinter of white ice with handfuls of small boats were drawn up on the shore. Terraces sprawled up the hillside, white walls and snow-covered roofs glowed gold in the last dregs of sunlight. Trickles of smoke climbed from chimneys, dissipating into the pink sky. Up on the crest of the hill stood the remains of another old tower, overgrown and tumbled. The manor houses built further along the ridge looked a lot newer. The town wasn’t a huge metropolis, but was still larger than any place we’d been to in the past few.

Rris were out and about on the streets. Taverns and stalls were open, the smell of cooking food sneaking through icy streets that narrowed and twisted around in serpentine switchbacks. Most buildings were two and three story affairs — the usual Rris construction with blank walls facing the streets and the windows facing the interior cloister. Upper floors hung over the streets, the last of the light just hitting the high places where icicles hung from eaves. Our inn was a busy building whose main gate faced onto a public square containing a frozen fountain and the tail-end of a small market of brightly colored stalls amidst a field of trampled grey snow. Dozens of furry faces stared as our convoy clattered past, the soldiers dismounted from their wagons stalking alongside and making sure no one got too close before we passed under the main arch, through the freezing entry tunnel and into the inn’s court.

The staff got straight to work, tending to the animals and coaches. Us VIPs got hustled into the warm fug of the inn itself. I noticed the atmosphere as soon as I stepped through the door — mixed odors of damp fur and food and burnt wood. The place wasn’t that busy, but it smelled like it had been, and quite recently. Our advance party had probably kicked other guests out to make room for us. Inn staff froze where they stood and stared when I entered the room. A shaggy, grey-furred male in a stained apron shook himself and hissed orders. The staff looked at him and hurried about their business, trying very hard not to stare at me. I wondered what they’d been told. I wondered if they’d been reimbursed for their other loss of business.

The evening meal was a roasted bison. Or most of one, judging by the amount of meat coming off the grill over the fire. Yeah, they’re omnivorous, but sometime I think that given the choice they’d prefer all-meat diets. After that we retired to our rooms. A few minutes after that I answered a furtive scratch at the door to find one of our guards lurking outside.

“Sir,” he said, almost whispered. “Ah Ties sent me for you.”

I recognized him. “Blunt?”

He blinked. It was a dumb question, but in that light I’d have trouble recognizing even Chihirae. “A, sir,” he said, looking down the hall. “Ah Ties asked me to get you. He wishes to get you the drink he owes you. Quickly, before the officers notice.”

I glanced back over my shoulder. Chihirae was watching with her head cocked.

We hastened us down the hall to another door, then into a small maze of twisty back corridors, then finally through a tiny side door into a narrow alley. Nestled in between two buildings, it was a canyon of blackness with a feeble moonglow visible between rooftops overhead. I balked as the situation made a bad connection with a nightmare in my past. In the gloom a shadow moved and hissed, “You took your time.”

“Who’s that?” I asked, tensing and trying to see some sort of detail in the night.

“It’s Ah Ties, you blind fool,” Chihirae said, prodding me.

I heard a snort from the figure in the darkness and he shifted. “Come along. Before your other friends show up,” he said.

They had to help me along the alley, stumbling over unseen clutter and debris. I swore as I stubbed my toe on something wooden and Chaeitch hissed at me to try to be quiet. Once we were out of the confines of the alley there was a bit more light: A moondog ran its ring around the splinter of a quarter moon hanging in an icy clear sky; occasional lanterns hanging outside buildings or the glow from windows threw warm pools on the snowy streets. Enough light that I could see enough to make my own way. I hunkered down and turned the collar of my coat up as I followed the others up the hill, trudging through streets slippery with trampled, dirty snow, ice and frozen animal droppings.

“Sir,” Blunt was muttering to Chaeitch as he hurried along, “this really isn’t a good idea, sir.”

“Calm down, soldier,” Chaeitch said, stalking along in his long mauve roadcoat. “You’re with us, so we have a guard, a?”

“The Mediators won’t think of it like that.”

“You think Mikah is going to sell secrets? We’re just going to get a drink. I owe him that. So do you.”

“Sir . . .” Blunt looked worried.

Chihirae’s ears had perked up. “What do you owe him?” she asked Blunt.

He glanced at me. “My life, ma’am.”

“Long story,” I hastened to add. “And I still think we’re even. If you hadn’t been there, Blunt, those people could’ve gotten nasty.”

A Rris passing the other way on the street stared at us, at me, and kept walking and staring, turning and gawping open-mouthed. Until his feet found a patch of ice under the snow and rocketed out from under him, sending him sprawling on his tail in the trampled snow.

Chihirae looked from the pratfall to me. Her ears went back.

“Ah, I’ve still got it,” I grinned at her and buffed my nails on my coat. She snorted exasperation.

We headed uphill for a while, Chaeitch leading us back and forth on switchback roads and steep little sidestreets and alleys. “Where’re we going?” I asked him after about five minutes. “You said something about a drink, but we’re running out of up.”

“There’s a place I know,” he said. “I came through here many moons ago. The guard commander showed me. It was around here somewhere . . . . Ah, there.”

‘There’ was an unobtrusive stone building. Down a small side lane was a door, the cheap green paint peeling to show old wood. Alongside it there was a plaque: a slab of stone set into the wall with a picture of what looked like a ship with billowing sails plowing through a mountain range. Or perhaps they were badly drawn waves. In the light of a single, flickering oil lamp it was difficult to tell and I didn’t have time to look to closely. Chaeitch pushed the door open and we entered into smoky gloom.

It was warm in there. A cramped little staircase in a narrow brick barrel vault descended a few steps down into a cellar room. I had to stoop to get down that staircase, straightening in the room at the bottom. It wasn’t a small space. The floor was flagstones, wooden columns of polished wood stood like tree trunks in a half-light of gloom and smoke. In between the columns a circular wooden counter ringed a huge open firepit. A battered metal hood and flue hung down over the fire where a mountain of coals spilled dull reddish light. Staff worked behind the counter, pouring drinks and tending to cooking food. The pool of firelight didn’t reach the corners of the room, but did lap over the tables around it, casting shadows into the murk beyond. All around the room, at tables and in booths on the peripheries, pairs of molten sparks flashed as heads turned our way and Rris stared.

“This is a good idea?” Blunt murmured.

Chaeitch kept on regardless, leading the way between occupied places to an empty table off to the side. Eyes gleamed and hissing whispers scuttled around the shadows as the locals watched us. Staff behind the counter stopped what they were doing and also just stared. Some chittering laughter rose and tapered off. A lanky, scruffy-looking older Rris in a stained apron hurried through the tables toward us. I could hear his claws on the flagstones as he hurried to intercept Chaeitch who simply met him with a pleasant expression.

“Ah, aesh Hesai. It’s been a while, a?”

The Rris in the apron looked taken aback. He squinted at Chaeitch, turning his head this way and that, putting me in mind of a scraggly weasel. “Sir? Do I know you. We really can’t have animals in . . .”

“It was a couple of years ago. Ah Tiherosi introduced us. I purchased the case of Shahie Hills from you.”

The other paused momentarily, his eyes narrowing, then his ears went up. “Huhn,” he grunted and scratched at his chin with a thumb claw. “A. I recall. That was my entire stock. Ah Ties, wasn’t it? My rule still stands: no animals in here. That,” he leveled a finger at me, “get it out.”

“You want to tell him or shall I?” I asked and didn’t wait for the usual histrionics. “Yeah, it talks. I talk,” I shrugged. “Now that that’s out of the way, can we do business?”

“What?” he looked from me to Chaeitch, to Chihirae and Blunt. “What is this?”

“This is Mikah,” Chihirae volunteered.

“And it talks,” he said flatly, staring at me now.

“Yes, he does talk,” Chaeitch said. “He understands what you’re saying. He’s also a friend of mine, guest to the King and my patron, and under Guild protection.”

“Huhn. And you wander in here with it? What’s your prey?”

“A table, some food and drinks,” Chaeitch said. “We’ve been on the road from Shattered Water. Bad food and infested beds. We wanted a change; something good. I had been under the impression you provided such, but you seem somewhat reluctant to accept paying guests.”

The innkeeper looked me up and down. “Paying I’ve no objection to. Scaring my customers or shitting on the floor, that I do object to.”

Chaeitch’s amiable expression didn’t flicker. “He won’t cause problems. If he does, you will be reimbursed. We’re quite willing to pay for a meal. And I’m after some more of your products, if they’re available.”

From the wrinkles that creased his nose as his muzzle twitched, the other was weighing up avarice against distaste. His gaze shifted from Chaeitch to me to Chihirae to Blunt and back to me. Finally he smoothed his ruffled fur as the potential for business won out. “Your coin was good last time.”

Chaeitch’s ears relaxed a little. “If your wares are of the same standard, it still is.”

Decision made, the proprietor huffed reluctant acquiescence and we were directed to a table, not too near other customers. The seats were low wooden stools, not cushions, and the table was of unpretentious pine — thick planks of ancient walnut scored and grooved by uncounted years of claws and other sharp implements. Even sitting I was a good head taller than the others at the table. I stood out, and I felt it. As the evening went on the crowd of Rris in the shadows around our table grew and shifted. It got quite busy in there. I wasn’t sure if it was just the normal dinner rush or whether word of the spectacle was getting around.

The crowd kept the kitchen busy. Staff busied around the central fire, inhuman silhouettes profiled by the light from heaped coals bustling around in a scene straight from Dante’s imagination. Metal clattered as pots were lifted on and off racks, oven doors were slammed. Voices mingled into a background susurrus. And the food was good; certainly better than the dried, smoked and salted road fare. I recall there was something like rolls made of something like pita bread filled with some sort of stuffing that tasted of venison and cranberry and wine: dishes made from layers of different meat and spices rolled into meat loafs: chunks of smoked meat with dipping sauces. I went easy on those. Some of the ‘herbs’ Rris used for flavoring were quite toxic for me.

The alcohol however, that was safe. I partook. Then had some more. Drinking was easy and distracted me from the watching eyes. There was wine, which was considerable better than some of the vintages I’d been given. There were also other variations of fermented plant matter, some of it like ale or mead; some of it like brandy. There was something like vodka, a vicious drink that burned blue. Chaeitch explained that the town was a link to the Finger Lakes district, where a lot of the best Land-of-Water breweries were located. A lot of traders stopped at Long Way to sell and products such as those.

We drank and talked and drank some more, and despite the unfamiliar surroundings I started to relax. I remember my laugh sounded loud and out of place in amidst the Rris voices. I remember there was a lot of alcohol and I remember some of it had quite a kick.

Next thing was freezing cold night air on my face. Away in the dark distance, beyond a frozen lake, beyond snowbound hillsides turned to abstract shapes of light and shadow in the faint starlight, away beyond the night sky, a nebulous river of light climbed through a black dusted with diamond points of light. In the motionless icy winter night they scarcely glittered, just glowed steady like pinpoints of burning ice.

I don’t recall leaving the warm fug of that establishment. I’d had enough drinks with a total alcohol content that had to be enough to pickle a pachyderm so the evening got a bit burry. Obviously at some point we’d left. The cold night air had gone some way to restoring sobriety and I’d found myself in the upper reaches on the town, on a quiet flagstone terrace overlooking descending rows of snow-muffled rooftops, seated on a icy stone bench with my feet up on the low parapet before me. The furry figure on the bench beside me was just wearing a tunic, but her fur was fluffed out, dusted with twinkles of ice. I huddled down into the velvet liner of my coat and contemplated the view before us.

“Just imagine that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving,

Revolving at nine hundred miles an hour . . .”

“Hur?” Chihirae started with an exhalation that glowed like the starlight. When she looked at me her eyes were just black pools. “What was that?”

“Oh, just thinking.”

“Huhn,” she rumbled and leaned back, looking out at the town below and the stars above. There were a few distant shouts down in the town. Otherwise, silence for a time.

“Mikah?”

“A?”

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they.”

“Oh, yeah.”

A chitter. “Why is it a line across the sky like that?”

“Uhn,” it took a second for me to collect my thoughts. “We’re in a group of stars. Billions upon billions of them. In the shape of a wheel with curved spokes, like this. We’re in one of the spokes looking at the rest of the wheel, so it seems like a line to us.”

“A wheel? It turns?”

“Yes.”

“Billions is a lot of stars.”

“And there are b . . . bb . . . billions of groups of stars like that,” I slurred my Rris badly as I gazed up at the night sky. More stars than I’d ever seen back home. “More than billions. More than grains of sand on all the beaches you can think of.”

“A. That is a lot,” she chittered. “What is at the middle of this wheel? What does everything turn around?”

“Not sure. Perhaps a place where space and time dies. Where everything is so crushed up that nothing can escape.” I waved my hand in the general direction of the band of the Milky Way. “Objects distort space. They draw other objects toward themselves. If you drop a stone, it’s drawn to the earth. It falls. But the earth is also drawn to the stone. By very, very, almost immeasurably little, but it is drawn. The . . . more solid an object, the more it draws things. A bigger world would draw the stone faster and harder. A world that isn’t bigger but is more solid would also draw the stone to itself faster and harder.

“In the middle of these wheels many, many worlds and suns have been drawn together. They crushed together and their attraction squashed them. They became like rock, then like iron, then more solid than that. They keep . . . pulling things in: planets, moons, stars, everything. Now they’re so solid they even pull in light. Light can’t escape, so you can’t see them. They bend . . . space and time. Great devourers. Great Attractors. Black holes. We don’t know what’s going on in them. Perhaps they go back to the beginning of the universe, or perhaps they’re where other universes start.”

Her arm bumped against me as she shifted to peer at me. “You’re drunk,” she pronounced after a time.

I grinned. “You know what? You’re right.”

She cuffed my arm, her claws pulled then tipped her head back to stare at the sky again. “Other universes, huh? Like yours?”

“Or yours.”

“Huhn,” she huffed again. “Stars like grains of sand; universes branching like trees . . . Where did they all start? Huhn? Where did time begin? What does your kind say about that?”

I laughed. “Oh, rot, so many things.”

“Such as?”

“Some say there was nothing, which then exploded and started the universe.”

“How can nothing explode?” she asked.

“Given enough time anything can happen. Given infinity, everything does.”

Chihirae laughed, an exhalation of white cloud, then pondered for a second. “And what do the others say?”

“Oh, that the world was made by god in seven days. Or it fell off god; or it’s a dream; or it was spun from clay; or a god gave birth to it; or it was fished from the sea; or that it rides around on the back of animals . . . the usual.”

“Oh, rot,” she laughed again. “You really are drunk, aren’t you.”

I leaned back, grinning at the stars. “You asked.”

“You . . .” Another squint at my face. “Are you actually serious?”

Perhaps I should’ve thought through things a bit more clearly, but I wasn’t in any state to do any real thinking. Hell, I didn’t even remember how we got there. So, I just charged on ahead, propelled by the warm glow of borderline alcohol poisoning. “Serious? Wars have been fought over the details of exactly which bit fell off or who fucked whom and gave birth to the sky.”

She tipped her head back, looking up at the sky again and scratching her chin in a perplexed manner. “That word you used . . . you’ve never really explained that. It’s something to do with this? Why? Why would anybody say something like that, let alone fight about it?”

“Not really sure,” I said. “Maybe it’s easier to just say ‘who did that’ than try and find out why it happened.”

“What does that mean?”

I waved a hand. “We used to . . . Humans used to . . . I guess we still do . . . If something happened it had to be done by somebody. I think it’s built in. If the wind blows; someone did it. There’s a storm; someone did it. A funny-shaped rock; someone did it.”

Still tipped up to the sky, her muzzle creased and she gave a quick little shake of her head. “That’s . . . peculiar. Why?”

I shrugged. “Because it’s what we are? Because it’s easy? You don’t have to think too much, just go with what feels right. Perhaps it’s a control system. The human who wants to lead you tells you there’s a big, angry invisible person only he can talk to who makes rain and wants you to do certain things. If you don’t then the angry one will wash your crops away.”

“Who would believe that?”

“A surprising number. Perhaps they don’t at first, but there’s some lingering doubt. Then, perhaps, there’s a storm up in the hills and because someone positioned a village in just the right place there’s a flood and the crops wash away.”

“It was a rain storm. With rain comes water.”

“Ah,” I raised a finger. “But he said the crops would wash away, and he was right. And people would be wondering, ‘What else can he do? Perhaps there’s something to this’.”

A snort. “Preposterous.”

“A. Or just different,” I shrugged again. The stars in an incomprehensible infinity glittered down. “Perhaps it’s just a way to break all that down into something a mind can hold. Make the strange person-shaped. Make it something you can understand. Or perhaps it’s just that when it comes down to it; when it comes right down to the very marrow, people find they prefer to believe that rather than accepting that the universe is quite capable of existing without you. At least someone is paying attention to you.”

Chihirae gave a thoughtful-sounding growl. “And what do you think?”

“With everything that’s happened to me?” I waved a hand to try and encompass infinity. “If someone is responsible for all this, I’m seriously thinking of lodging a complaint.”

She chittered and then gaped a yawn, her pink tongue curling. Away in the town there was more shouting, the yowls rising up above the quiet rooftops.

“Wonder what’s going on down there,” I asked absently. “Someone having a celebration?”

“Or perhaps looking for you?” Jenes’ahn suggested icily.

“Nah,” I shook my head. “If they were there’d be . . .”

Shit.

She was standing behind us in her long coat dusted with falling snow and ice. Arms crossed. Ears flat. Glowering with a creased muzzle and eyes that were black pits.

“Oh, crap,” I sighed.

Chapter 28

“And you were thinking what, exactly? Were you thinking? Did that enter into it?”

I winced. The angry tirade and brilliant morning sunlight met somewhere inside my head and did horrible things behind my eyes. The jolting of the carriage didn’t help any.

Jenes’ahn leaned forward from the opposite seat, elbows on knees, squinting at me as she sniffed. “You are sober this morning, a?” she snarled. “You can hear me.”

Oh, I could hear her alright. That wasn’t the problem. Hangovers: Rris don’t seem to get them. Maybe it’s something to do with a faster metabolism so they burn it off in the night, I don’t know. I did get them, and I had one. Yeah, drinking a couple of liters of water the night before is a good idea in principal, but not when you can’t just get clean water out of a tap. For the Rris, as it was back home a hundred years ago, the drink of choice is something with enough alcohol in it to kill the bugs. Good for what might ail ya.

The previous night was a blur. Jenes’ahn hadn’t laid hands on me, but she’d been plenty pissed. There’d been shouting and guards had hurried us through streets and back to the inn. There were raised voices and accusations. Chaeitch looked sheepish. Chihirae looked frightened. I didn’t see Blunt anywhere before I was bundled off to my room like a naughty kid. At that point I didn’t really care; all that was on my mind were two things. The first was a long and overdue piss in the chamber pot, the second was bed. I think I got them in the right order. Sometime thereafter a furry weight landed on top of me and I groaned as she tunneled down into the sheets. Something was said about someone something angry, but I was past caring.

Until the morning came and with it a throbbing hangover. I groaned as the drapes were thrown open, but there was no mercy, just bustling Rris and a hasty breakfast. I wanted coffee, an O.J., but there was none of that, just some bread and salted meat before we were hustled out to the coaches.

Then came the dressing down from a furious Jenes’ahn. I thought she might’ve had time to chill overnight. But no. Rather, she seemed to have used time to get a run up. She made sure Chaeitch and I were in the coach, sat herself opposite us, her fur brushed glossy smooth, her leather coat freshly oiled and her expression absolutely frozen. Beside her sat Rohinia, leaning back and as imperturbable as ever.

“We weren’t trying to travel anonymously,” she said. “But neither were we trying to make a scene. Then, last night, we get word that there was such a scene at a tavern across town. A talking animal. People were going to see it getting drunk. That was quite a surprise since the only talking animal we knew of was in its room in our inn. Only, when we looked, it wasn’t. Nor was it at the inn.

“We had to search the town. The town guard became involved. Then the town lord became involved. We had to explain to her; we had to explain to the local Guild. There was altogether too much explaining to do. So, now, I think, you should do some.”

I looked at Chaeitch. He looked back. “We went for a drink,” I said.

“Why?” she said, slowly and clearly.

“Why not?” I asked. “Umm, you never actually told us we couldn’t.”

She froze, then her head slowly tipped to the side. I could see she was trembling visibly, twitching as if one muscle were fighting another. “No,” she conceded, and her voice was a rasping growl. “You are right. We didn’t. We didn’t specifically tell you not to get drunk and pick loud arguments in public. We didn’t specifically tell you not to go wandering off into dark and dangerous parts of town. We also didn’t tell you not to eat hot coals! Perhaps we had foolishly assumed nobody would be so childish and reckless to do things like that.”

“This isn’t supposed to be dangerous,” I sighed. “An easy journey, you said. And we’ve been journeying for the last five days. We just wanted to go for a walk and get a drink without all the commotion Mediators and soldiers would cause.”

“And you didn’t think you would cause disruption?”

I shrugged. “A drink in a tavern. I was a paying customer. They respected that.”

“And we had a guard with us,” Chaeitch added.

“Ah, him,” she rumbled. “He will be . . .”

“Leave him,” I said. “I put him in a difficult position. He didn’t have a choice. Leave him.”

“Now you ask favors?”

I met her stare. “It wasn’t a request.”

Her ears went flat, her eyes turned fury-black, and tendons snapped hawser-taut, raising tight ropes under her fur. And Rohinia put his hand on her arm, “Constable,” he said quietly. “You need to walk for a bit.”

Jenes’ahn actually had whites showing around the rims of her eyes as she looked at him, then gave a wild shake of her head, shoved the door open and was gone.

I watched Rohinia calmly lean over and pull the slamming door shut. “Angry, angry young woman,” I mused, winced as the carriage bumped.

“I don’t blame her,” Rohinia said. “You do have a way of rubbing people the wrong way, you know.”

I looked at Chaeitch and raised an eyebrow. “Do I?”

He winced and waggled his hand. “Apparently.”

“Huhnn,” the Mediator growled. “We did have an agreement, did we not?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Really, I didn’t think that was a breach of it. We went out for a drink. It’s a small town, away from Shattered Water. They are farmers and merchants. No-one would be interested in me.” I thought about that for a second, then asked, “Would they?”

He scratched his chin, then asked Chaeitch, “Aesh Hesai delivered everything you requested, did he?”

Chaeitch twitched. “You know about that?”

“I was told of his reputation. There was a reason you went to him, a? He provides goods, a? Things that might otherwise be difficult to come by?”

“Yes,” Chaeitch said, wrinkled his muzzle slightly. “A case of wine. And the sausages there are pretty good. I wasn’t aware it was a serious issue.”

“It’s not. But that’s not the only items he deals in. He also brokers information: business dealings, interesting little items of note, unusual happenings and the like,” Rohinia said, ticking off the points with a stubby clawed finger. “What we did find interesting was that he’d been asked to keep an ears cocked for any unusual official traffic passing this way. Anything out of the ordinary.”

“I wonder what that could be,” I said. “And who asked?”

A shrug. “It didn’t specifically mention you. And traffic like that could be of interest to any number of people, legitimate and otherwise. It’s the timing that’s curious. As for who asked — it’s the usual dealings: anonymous notes and middlemen and cutouts.”

“You don’t know.”

“Not an idea,” he said straightforwardly. “That’s why we don’t want you running off by yourself. Aside from the fact that some nervous farmer may try and pitchfork you — again — having someone following you closely enough to have a person like that keep an eye on you is . . . disturbing.”

“You realize that every known country on the planet is probably interested in where I am and what I’m doing? That’s not counting all the Guilds who’re fighting for advantages.”

“We’re quite aware. They have procedures. They have their own agents. This didn’t feel like that.”

“But you don’t know for sure.”

He gave me a level look. “Not for certain, but sometimes it’s better not to tease the bear,” he said, then sighed at my expression. “All we know for certain is that someone is taking an interest in you. This is quite understandable, but we really don’t know who they are or what their intentions are. Until we do, it’s only prudent for you not to take unnecessary risks. Do you understand this?”

I looked at Chaeitch. “A. We understand.” Why did I feel like a school kid who’d just been reprimanded?

“Good,” the Mediator said. “Now, Jenes’ahn feels that your word on this is worthless and she would prefer a more reliable form of restraint, such as manacles or hamstringing. Myself, on the other side, I think that this was a misunderstanding. You wouldn’t have knowingly taken your teacher into a dangerous situation. I think we can put it down to ignorant misadventure and give you another chance. You will co-operate, a?”

I didn’t like the way he’d dropped Chihirae’s name in there, but I nodded. “A.”

“Very good,” he said.

“I have to ask,” I said. “Is that bad-mediator good-mediator routine standard for the Guild? Because it’s rather old.”

He looked surprised. “You think she was being bad?”

“Wasn’t she?”

“Oh, no,” he said mildly, and then quietly, without fuss, his muzzle wrinkled back from his teeth and he bared fangs. “I’ve had many years more experience and can assure you I can be a great deal worse than her. You really don’t want to find out how much worse, do you.”

Chapter 29

For the rest of the day we rattled our way eastwards. My mood didn’t get any better, and neither did the weather. Great cliffs and ramparts of dark arcus clouds had been building on the western horizon and by late morning it was apparent they were storming our way. The Rris also spotted them and there were muttered comments. By midday the clouds were looming over us, massive and amorphous bruise-bellied sky-beasts rumbling and butting heads high above. For a brief, surreal moment the world glowed with gold and orange, for only moments before the clouds rolled overhead and the sun was blotted out. Colors went to grey and static and the temperature plummeted and the wind that came was a shrieking icy thing clawing through the trees and whipping barrages of ice and snow before it.

Visibility was gone, everything beyond twenty meters lost behind driving blasts of airborne ice. Snow piled up, buried the road under swirling drifts. Trail markers turned to indistinct lumps in the gloom. The animals lowered their heads as they plodded on and drivers up on their benches huddled down in their coats and hunched their shoulders against hail coming in like shotgun pellets. The air was freezing: white rime crusted on exposed Rris fur, on whiskers and muzzles.

We didn’t make our scheduled stop at an inn that evening. The entire convoy had to pull up on the highway, while the drivers could still see where it was. We hunkered down in the wagons and carriages while gusts rocked them to and fro and ice crystallized on both sides of the window panes. The little heater struggled against the chill and periodically I heard a rattle from it as someone opened the outside hatch to add fuel. For the rest of the day the storm howled and raged. There was nothing but a freezing, swirling chaos of driving snow. The sun was somewhere up there, but it was smothered and the day was reduced to a dragging grey twilight. As hours passed that gloom just got deeper until at some point it tipped over into night.

The seats in the carriages folded down across the foot well, converting the interior into a surprisingly comfortable bed. You could have squeezed four Rris in there, if they were feeling sociable. The Mediators had decided Chihirae was going to stay with me; possibly because she was the only one they felt wouldn’t try to get classified info out of me; possibly because she already knew so much; and possibly because she was the only one who was really willing to. Neither of them seemed to be feeling social enough to squeeze in with us, so either they trusted us together or they were really pissed off with me.

So we had the carriage to ourselves and I certainly wasn’t complaining. We lay under heavy covers with our feet to the heater and watched movies on the laptop. Beneath her winter pelt she was wonderfully warm, almost feverishly so. I felt that heat and a pulse that beat with an inhuman rhythm. It kept me warmer than the heater could. Light from the screen flickered in the cab as we watched videos: old movies. Black and white silent comedies full of pratfalls and silent humor that she could understand; nature documentaries full of color and dramatic places and exotic wildlife; some old random episodes of Grand Designs. She liked those. She could understand them.

Outside, the storm wailed and thumped the coach with gusts of cold. Inside, we watched brightly colored South American birds flitting through jungle and I translated as best I could for her. Finally the battery warning came on. It was going to need a sunny day to charge again, or I’d have to cross-charge from my light or phone battery. No matter: it was late anyway. The lights went out and we lay back in the dark and I felt her finger touching my arm, stroking the skin gently.

“They were angry, a,” she said.

“The Mediators? Oh, yes,” I grinned ruefully.

“You shouldn’t tease them so. What we did, it wasn’t right.”

“Why?” I asked. “Don’t we have the right to go where we choose?”

“Not if it means we might be getting people into danger,” she said. “You know that.”

I lay quietly. Was she . . . was she hinting at what had happened to her? That I’d drawn her into some serious trouble and it was mostly by luck that I’d been able to save her. “I just don’t like the thought of being a prisoner again,” I eventually said. “I’d like to be able to go out and see some of this world without them around.”

Was that sounding too whiney? I shook my head. “Last night was . . . it might not have been right, but it was fun, a?”

She snorted and gave me a poke with that finger, claw only partially expressed. “Fun, a. Smart, not so much.”

“Awwww.”

“Mikah?” she said, then paused, stroking my skin again. From the position of her body against me I could sense she was watching her hand. In the dimness I couldn’t see anything. “Mikah, what you talked about last night . . . How much of that was real and how much was the drink?”

“I . . .” at first I wasn’t sure what she meant. Then I remembered. “Ah . . .”

“It was true?” I felt her shift around so she could see my face. That was a one-way sort of exchange. “You were serious, weren’t you. I wasn’t sure. Some things you mentioned sounded insane. Or drunk.”

“Little of both, perhaps,” I offered.

A chitter. “A. But some of those ideas were far beyond anything I’ve ever heard. Something that eats light and suns. I’ve never heard of anyone ever talking about such. But then I’ve never heard of anyone saying the world was spun from clay. Is that true?”

I sighed. “It’s true they say that. Whether or not it’s actually a fact . . . that’s pretty doubtful. I think it’s one of those things that’s different between us. Rris do things that seem normal to you but seem . . . peculiar to me. I think this is something my kind do.”

“Like what?” she said. “What do we do that’s strange?”

“Besides having so much hair and tails and ears and claws and teeth?” I blinked in the darkness, my mind choosing that moment to draw a blank. I took a breath, thinking through all the things I’d had to change to try and fit into the Rris world. “It’s everything that’s up there,” I eventually said and tapped her head. “You don’t look at the world like we do. It’s in your writing, in your art and your food and clothes and architecture. It’s in your actions and mannerisms and your society. I think you . . . you try more to see things as they really are: you don’t believe in the impossible or ridiculous just because it’s easier; you don’t follow an individual just because they act as if they’re in control. But you do you follow authority that doesn’t promise you anything. You accept leaders for reasons I can’t understand.”

I moved my hand, stroked soft winter fur in the darkness. It was bristly and chilled on the outside, with silky warm inner nap. In the darkness I couldn’t see her face — her expression, but in my mind’s eye I saw her lips quirk up and a flash of teeth as she smiled, corner of the eyes crinkled as she laughed. Of course she did nothing of the sort, but that was what my mind persisted in turning her into. Did she do the same to me? “And you stay with me even though I can’t be what you want . . . what you need.”

A huff of breath. “Is that why you’re such a bother to the Mediators?”

“You seem to respect them simply for what they are. I can’t do that.”

“Mikah, they are powerful.”

“So people keep saying. And that makes it seem all the more wrong.”

“Why?”

“Our history is full of groups that gained control through power and intimidation. It usually didn’t end well.”

“And in our history there’ve only been the Mediators,” she replied. “They weren’t always called that: they weren’t always organized under the Guild, but what they did didn’t change. And what they did helped a lot of people. It worked. That was what was respected.”

I thought of organizations that’d started off as individuals. They might have been good people with the best of intentions, but the organizations had outgrown the individuals and somewhere along the way the organization ate them, used their ideals and turned into something hollow. The ideals were still espoused, still echoed in the promises and rhetoric and floral speeches, but they’d turned from their original purpose to being used to support the edifice itself. And some of the deeds done in the name of those organizations were horrors that most people couldn’t even imagine.

I could explain that to her. I could draw comparisons between Mediators and fascists or Inquisitors or Bolsheviks or Nazis or Stazi. But, would that be accurate? Or would it be applying my standards to people who worked differently.

“You know them better than I do,” I said. “But . . . they take themselves so seriously. I can’t take someone who takes themselves so seriously, seriously.” She snorted and poked me again. “No, I’m sure Jenes’ahn had her sense of humor surgically removed. What do you think she does for fun? Practices glaring in a mirror? Long-distance growling? Perhaps collects spores, molds, and fungi?”

Her laughter chittered, bright and warm in the darkness. A hand slapped against my arm. “You’re making jokes. You’re trying to deflect me, a? Is that really the reason?”

She lay against me under the blankets. I could feel her fur prickling. I could feel her hand still on my arm, on my wrist. She could feel my pulse, could probably hear my heartbeat, could perhaps smell my uncertainty. Outside, the wind whined and the carriage creaked as it rocked.

“I don’t know,” I said, stretching out and pushing my feet a little closer to the heater. “They just rub me the wrong way. They are always there. They act as if everything is their right. And she wanted to watch us having sex. That’s just wrong.”

“Still worried about that?”

What I was worried about was that they’d thought that going through Chihirae might get a different answer. What were they thinking? Were they fishing for something? Trying to see just how much I’d bend to accommodate her wishes?

“Everything they do worries me,” I said and scratched at her ribs. Her breath washed across my chest where she rested her head. “Hey, Do you feel like doing what she asked, only without her?”

“Hmmm?” she nuzzled against me. “It might not be the best idea.”

“Why?” I asked. Was someone likely to check in on us?

“You might not notice it, but for the next few days we’d be riding in a closed box that smells of our sex.” she said. “‘I’m sure the others would find it interesting.”

“Ah.” I bit my lip and stared into the darkness. That was a point I hadn’t considered and it dumped a pitcher of cold water on my ardor. “Perhaps not, then.”

A low chuff of air. “No?” In the dark she might have been amused. She certainly didn’t sound that concerned. “There’ll be later. Sleep well, Mikah.”

Chapter 30

Fresh snow squeaked beneath my feet. High overhead wispy streamers of clouds glowed with a golden sunrise.

The storm had blown by sometime in the small hours of the morning and splinters of pale blue sky appeared as the clouds fractured and dissipated. More snow covered the world, covering the road in a smooth, white blanket with just the tops of stone markers along the roadside visible. The sun had yet to touch the ground and the air was still freezing, a chill mist hanging just above the ground in the woods on either side of the road. Boughs bent under the weight of more ice. Occasionally a distant crack like the retort of a handgun rang out as a piece of wood somewhere snapped under the load.

Chaeitch had borrowed an elk from one of our escorts. It was a big beast, with a haughty, vacant sort of expression and silver cups on the stubs of its antlers. He rode it easily alongside me as I trudged through the snow, leaving footprints that didn’t match anyone else’s. We weren’t moving very fast: the snow covered the road in a deceptively smooth layer that could’ve hidden anything beneath it and we didn’t need a broken wheel on top of everything else. A good number of soldiers were riding out front of the rest of the convoy, just beating a clear path through the drifts so the carriages and wagons could follow in their tracks.

“I hope someone allowed for this,” I said. “If this happens too often we’re going to be half a year there and back.”

He’d been staring at something off in the trees, his ears pricked. At my comment he flicked his ears, shifted in the saddle and took the reins in one hand as he waved a shrug with the other. “It’s not unexpected. The road to Bluebetter’s pretty good and the snow should ease once we’re passed the Rippled Lands.”

I kicked at the snow at my feet. It was almost up to my knees. The new boots worked, really well. They were warm and dry, but they didn’t have hard soles. If I trod on a sharp rock I felt it. “You know,” I said idly, “bikes would be faster than this.”

“What are those?”

I hadn’t mentioned them before? I looked up at him. That was different, looking up at a Rris. Although, even on elk back they were still only about half a body higher that I. “You must’ve seen them in those videos. The two-wheeled vehicles.”

“You said the motors would be complex.”

“These ones are powered by the rider. With pedals.”

“Ah, those,” he said thoughtfully, reaching for the little pouch on his belt containing his smoking paraphernalia. “Give me an elk, I think. Those contraptions look like they would just fall over. I believe someone tried to make something like it. He based it on a spinning wheel with a treadle to turn the wheel. It didn’t work very well.”

I grinned. “A crank and chain is probably better. They’re the most efficient land transport you can have. Twenty kilometers an hour easily, and you can do it all day. No fuel needed. You could do this trip in maybe just over a week. Maybe a bit longer with this snow.”

“You think?” he looked amused. “I think our experiences with the steam engines might prove otherwise?”

“What do you mean?”

Chaeitch had his pipe tamped and his little silver striker out, trying to hold the reigns, the pipe and the lighter at the same time. He hesitated, then held up the lighter. “Like this,” he said. “This is a copy of yours, a? But still the striker wears out and the fuel in it can leak. It’s better than the older ones, but still not quite as good as your one.”

He held it over the bowl of his pipe and flicked it repeatedly. Finally the weed in the pipe caught and he puffed it to life, then champed the stem into the corner of his jaw and flicked the lighter to me. I caught it, turning it over in my hands. It was a new one, with a gleamingly austere milled cylindrical steel body and a striker that looked like it’d been adapted from a flintlock

“It’s the same with the engines we can construct. With the materials we can work with, a casing light enough to move isn’t strong enough to withstand the forces inside. I think your vehicles might be the same — they would be heavier than perhaps you expect. And you’d make the wheels out of what? That plant extract that your other vehicles use? We still haven’t located any plant samples that produce sap with those characteristics.”

“Did all right with the guns,” I said.

Chaeitch’s ears momentarily laid back and I saw him looked over at nearby troopers with their carbines. “There was a bit more urgency with those,” he said. “A few more people pushing to make them. I don’t think that your two-wheel [contraption] would light their tails quite as much.”

I thought about some armies that’d moved deceptively quickly on those things that moved quietly and didn’t require feeding, but kept those thoughts to myself.

“They’re still compromises,” he was saying. “So much effort to make a few that still don’t really compare with what you know. The time and cost . . . just the people to make the machines to make tiny parts . . .” he took a drag on his pipe and blew clouds into the cold air. “There are things we couldn’t do: the self-loading mechanisms; the igniters; the clean-burning powder. Rot, just the cartridges are still difficult to make — the chemicals are expensive and dangerous. And when you look at the number of skilled people involved in just that . . . if you consider similar numbers on other projects, I think we will have personnel shortages. Some planning and prioritization’s going to have to be done.”

Their population wasn’t very large. Even Shattered Water, the largest city in Land-of-Water, barely numbered a million souls. Whereas humans could reproduce all year round, the Rris were restricted by biology to a single breeding season a year. It put a choke on their numbers. Perhaps that was a reason they hadn’t spread out over more of the world. It also meant that whereas the human industrial revolution had a veritable ocean of human labor available, the Rris had a much more limited pool to draw on. I’ve always hated that simplistic term ‘work smarter, not harder’ espoused by idiots who read books about cheese, but that was what the Rris would have to do.

“Or you’re going to have to cooperate,” I said. “Bluebetter’s in no better position than you. They can’t do everything by themselves either.”

“Huh,” he grunted and puffed thoughtfully. “But if you try to even the load, who’s going to want to carry the weapon production and who will want the handy two-wheeled crank-and-chain machine?”

I nodded. “That’s going to get interesting.”

“Your definition of interesting?” he asked.

“What’s interesting?” a voice interrupted. Jenes’ahn was stalking up behind us. On the snow she made no sound whatsoever.

“How you keep turning up just at the right moment,” I said. “I thought it was a bit quiet. Where’ve you been?”

“Pissing,” she said, still obviously suspicious as to what we’d been talking about.

“Mediators do that?” I asked.

She snorted, not rising to the bait. “What were you two plotting?”

“Not plotting. Just talking,” Chaeitch said.

“I would very much like to believe that,” she said.

Chaeitch sighed, a cloud of smoke hanging briefly. “Constable, I have to apologize about the last night. I was the one responsible. I shouldn’t have asked Mikah along with me.”

She chuffed. “Huhn, at least you have the courage to admit it. So, why did you?”

He waved a shrug, “Because . . . Huhn, I thought he’d enjoy it. He’s our guest and he still doesn’t get out that often. I didn’t think it’d be a risk: we were there to vouch for him; and in a town like that, who would have any idea what he actually was?”

“I’m sure the Lord would’ve had an excellent idea,” she retorted drily. “If he’d hooked claws into Mikah, if the Guard had collected him, he likely wouldn’t have been harmed, but I’m sure he’d have tried anything to talk to Mikah alone for a time.”

“You have a very suspicious mind,” I said.

“You came to Westwater,” she replied. “A small town, a? These small places attract less attention from authorities, so sometimes they attract more attention from others who desire to avoid authorities. You learned this.” She jerked her muzzle towards Chaeitch, “and you know this. That’s why your associate brings his wares through places like this. Cheaper than paying government tariffs, a?”

Chaeitch had the decency to look abashed.

She turned to me, wrinkles marching up the short fur across the bridge of her muzzle. “And the world hasn’t forgotten you. You can be certain that agents of every land under the sun watched you leave Shattered Water. Courier bags will be jammed with embassies requesting instructions from their handlers. Rot, most of the traffic on the road with us are probably agents for various parties. You doubt me? Ask at any stop; they will tell you the traffic is surprisingly heavy for this time of year. Many fast-moving individuals needing fresh animals and lodgings. I can’t say what orders they’ll have. If they are sane and prudent they will simply be watching you. If they’re feeling ambitious they might try something more drastic.”

I frowned. “Are you expecting something like that?”

She scratched at her side, now scanning the wilderness of trees off toward the rising sun. “No. We’re not. We just don’t want you putting yourself in a position where someone might be tempted to do something. Not even necessarily anyone involved in this business: just some drunken fool who took fright at you could be bad enough.”

That stung. “I could just buy them another drink,” I said and Chaeitch laughed and Jenes’ahn’s ears went back. “That was a joke,” I hurriedly added. “I’m sorry about what happened the other night. I shouldn’t have gone along. It’s just . . . It’s good to get out away from all . . . all this,” I gestured at the squads of armed soldiers riding along ahead of us. “I just sometimes forget that I don’t really fit in with the rest of the crowd.”

Jenes’ahn started to say something, then bit the response off subsided. Her tail was still twitching back and forth in the snow. “It would be more appreciated if we could be sure you won’t do it again,” she grumbled.

Chaeitch chittered and his elk decided to take the opportunity to toss its head, rolling an eye toward me as it sidestepping, almost bumping me with its shoulder. Still smoking his pipe he gave a twitch of the reigns and got the beast straightened out. “Huhn,” he growled. “It likes you.”

“Mikah,” Jenes’ahn said thoughtfully. “I’ve never seen you riding. Can you?”

“Of course.,” I said. “Motor bike, mountain bike . . . you name it.”

“Mountain ‘ike? What sort of beast is that?”

“A machine,” Chaeitch sighed. “We were discussing them before. No, Mikah can’t actually ride.”

“Perhaps it’s about time you learned.”

“Do you think it’s necessary?”

“I think it could prove very useful if we have to move fast.”

I looked dubiously at the elk Chaeitch was riding. It wasn’t as big as a horse and looked a lot more spindly. “How fast and how far do you think one of those could go carrying me?”

“I think we would have to find a larger animal,” she said. “You don’t approve of the idea?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never tried riding before.” I shrugged, “I don’t suppose it can hurt.”

“The commander should have an animal you can use.”

“What? Now?”

“Why not?” Chaeitch asked with a flick of an ear. “You doing anything else at the moment? And after all: what can it hurt?”

Chapter 31

‘What could it hurt?’

Certainly not the Rris. My first riding lessons were wonderful entertainment for them. Our escort commander found a suitably large animal from among his troops: a big, dark beast with beady eyes and steel caps on its antlers and an attitude I wasn’t entirely happy with. The saddle was a thin leather affair, shaped for a Rris’ posterior rather than my own, but I wasn’t going to be using it for too long. Chaeitch showed me how to mount up while Jenes’ahn and more troopers than I was comfortable with watched as I got one foot in a stirrup and tried to swing the other over and the animal shied away from me, setting me hopping through the snow before I was able to swing up. It bellowed, reared and the next I knew I was laying in a me-shaped depression in the snow staring up at drifting flakes. Rris faces leaned over.

“This isn’t going to be easy, is it,” I said.

The animals didn’t like me. They didn’t know what was trying to hop on, but they knew that it wasn’t a Rris and they weren’t happy about it. At least the spectators got some entertainment from the spectacle of me clinging to the animal’s neck while it tried to find some way to shake the unfamiliar passenger off. And the snow broke the worst of the falls.

I stuck with it for the rest of that morning. By afternoon the elk was either too exhausted to put up a fight, or it’d started to become accustomed to me. Even though the animal was still twitchy and skittish, I was able to stay seated for long enough to start to learn how to actually ride. The prognosis was that it was going to take a while. Chaeitch cheerfully told me he’d had saddlebags with more grace and ability than me. I told him to go piss up a pole.

It seemed that the weather had exhausted itself after the storm. It stayed fine, clear, bitingly cold. We made our next stop on time and the next few days followed similar routine: up early, on the road all day and halting at whatever road stop was most convenient. At best those places were mediocre; at worst they were dives apparently designed to encourage patrons to make an early start: dark, smoky, smelling of Rris and animals and with beds nobody would want to spend any more time in than was absolutely necessary.

Day by day the scenery was changing. The open, rolling countryside gradually became steeper, more hilly, more of the horizon lost behind hills bristling with scrubby forests climbing their flanks. The journey from Shattered Water had been through landscape scraped smooth by ancient glaciers bulldozing their way down from the north. What we were entering was the outlaying foothills of a land sculpted by geological activity: hills and ridges uplifted where continental plates had clashed and deformed into vast wrinkles. Back home they’d been the Appalachian Mountains — that range of weather-smoothed ridges and peaks stretching up the eastern seaboard. Here, the Rris called them the Rippled Lands.

As the hills grew higher and steeper the road was a white ribbon winding along the path of least resistance, along the ways cut by creeks and rivers flowing back to the west. They weren’t narrow gorges cutting sharp and sheer channels through igneous rock, but rather weathered and time-worn valleys where the waterways had meandered for millennia, melting their way through softer earth here and there so the hills were sometimes kilometers apart. Many of those hills overlooking the road had watchtowers on them; some just broken stubs and ruins, others in good repair with lights visible in the windows at dusk. Settlements sprawled across those valley floors, farmland and villages laid along the road. At valuable locations — passes and forks and junctions places where a couple of valleys intersected — larger towns had taken root and thrived or perhaps merely survived.

The mindsets that’d lived in and grown these towns were different from the ones that’d built towns back where I’d grown up. Back home, in North America at least, the towns were recent, manufactured things: carefully planned, built on routes of trade or traffic, and open, free to spread out. The ones we were passing through here were like old European towns in that they were built on promontories, hills, or other high ground. Defensible positions. With fortifications of walls and towers and gates. Some of the revetments weren’t in great repair, with damage mostly from weather or scavengers. They’d started as small settlements and then the curtain walls had gone up and the towns organically grew into their constraints like snails into their shells.

The days had started to become routine. I’d ride with different Rris and the Mediators would ensure we spent the time as productively as possible. Chihirae tried to continue my language and writing lessons, sometimes sidetracking into lessons in English for her. She couldn’t speak it very well, but she was learning to understand it. When riding with Chaeitch or the Mediators I’d have to go over the lists of proscribed subjects they’d worked out. And those were numerous and complicated. With Makepeace . . . those times got interesting. She had her own lists of questions from her superiors and she worked through it, methodically and thoroughly.

She . . . wasn’t stupid. She knew what she was asking and she understood a lot of my answers. Well enough that she could drill down into subjects that I wasn’t familiar with. Even down into things I’d never really considered.

One of those morning we’d just left the town where we’d spent the last night. We departed through what they called the river gate onto the eastward road. The river itself wasn’t much: a shallow, ice-choked creek meandering along the bottom of the valley. The town had been built where it joined to a larger stream flowing off to the west, but we were following the tributary to the east, squinting into the rising sun.

Makepeace, Rohinia and Rraerch were riding with me that morning. Makepeace had the floor and she had her bundles of notes out and was flipping through them, trying to find questions the Mediators hadn’t censored. As we trundled on out of the city she was asking about crop volumes, ways for increasing yield. I was looking out the window, up at the huge old gates and the city walls. There was a fort of some kind on a crag overlooking the town, the river and road: a crenellated circular tower with peak-roofed buildings at its base. As we passed below I squinted up. I could see chipped craters from what could only have been canon fire pocking its faces.

“Sir?”

“Hmmm?” I twitched. Makepeace was holding her notebook tight with both hands, staring at me. Rohinia was just watching.

“You didn’t hear, sir?” she said and her ears drooped. She looked down at her notes.

“Sorry, no. I was . . .” I gestured at the window. “Was there fighting here?”

“Possibly, sir,” she said bent her head to see what I was referring to.

“There were frictions in this area,” Rraerch provided. “Some time ago. Landholders getting overzealous taxing the traffic and objected when the monarchy told them to stop.”

“Ah,” I said, craning to look up at the walls. The stone blocks were big, and they climbed for over ten meters. It was a considerable bit of engineering.

“You don’t have the like where you’re from?” Makepeace asked.

“Not walled towns,” I said. “Well, not on this continent. My kind settled here after guns were built, so walls were becoming . . . not very practical. Over on the European continent, there are a lot of walled towns. Were a lot . . . you know what I mean.”

Rraerch chittered and Makepeace looked thoughtful. “Your world is like ours, only with your kind, not Rris?”

“A.”

“Are the cities and buildings in the same places?”

I shrugged. “A good natural harbor or a lake or river or pass are good places for anyone to build, and those are . . . mostly in the same places. So there are cities in the same places, but they don’t look anything alike. Places like this . . . I’m not sure.”

“Then natural things — hills, rivers and rocks are the same?”

“Not identical. Your maps show the continents are roughly the same, but when I first came here I found hills and rivers didn’t match my maps. Big things, like the lakes and the great falls, the bay Red Leaves is in, they’re in similar places, although not exactly the same. But there are others I don’t know about.”

She cocked her head slightly. “So the biggest difference between our worlds is us: your kind and Rris. Why is that?”

“Perhaps because of the time difference between land and living things. The continents are moving all the time; mountains rise and fall; rivers cut new passages. From their perspective our lives are less than the blink of an eye. If the age of the world could be compared to a single day, then the time our peoples’ have been around would only be a few seconds. Not enough time for the worlds to differ significantly.”

“You think there was a point where our worlds were the same and then . . . split? One with Rris and one with your kind?”

I had to wave a shrug. “I can’t say it’s right. It’s just an idea. It was thought that there might be an infinite number of worlds . . . of universes. Imagine time . . . like a tree, or a river: every time a decision is made then there’s another fork made. Another branch. More universes where every possibility is possible.”

“Ah,” was all she said and I watched her as she looked at her notes, amber eyes blinking. Dust motes jangled in the light slanting in through the windows as we rattled along.

“Those are what you’re supposed to ask, are they?” I asked.

Her ears flicked back. “Huhn . . . Sir . . . they’re my questions, sir. I was . . . I wanted to know more about how you came here.”

I grinned. “That makes two of us. But no-one’s telling me anything.”

Her gaze jumped between the other two Rris, then back to me. “Why here, sir? Why now? If there’s an infinite number of possibilities, then why this world?”

“You’re asking the wrong person,” I said. “All I have are ideas. None of them are certain. It’s possible that while there are an infinite number of possibilities, not all of them are realized. Perhaps some of the junctions only happen at important moments, such a moment that defines whether or not a species will start to think. Or when life forms. Or when a star goes out.

“There was a thought experiment put forward — it wasn’t actually done, it’s just an example. An animal in a box with a vial of poison and a mechanism that has a random chance of opening the vial. The box is closed. From the outside you can’t tell if the vial is broken or not; whether the animal is alive or dead. It exists in a state of possibility. Until that box is opened again and observed, that’s all it is — a state of possibility.”

A snort from Rohinia. “It sound preposterous.”

“As I said, it’s not a real experiment. It’s just an example.”

“You think this idea of worlds is like this?” Makepeace said. “That they have to be observed to be created?”

“Perhaps the other way around,” I said. It was an interesting thought. “Worlds split off when events are observed? Perhaps it’s not just when different possibilities are available, but rather when decisions are made. It would limit possibilities. Perhaps explain why I ended here.”

“Where else could you go?”

I laughed. “If a new universe grew at every possibility, the possibilities could be almost literally endless: a world where life had never developed; or the air was poison; or there was nothing but water; or where one molecule went one way rather than another; or there was no planet at all . . . Instances like that I think would be more common. When you consider that, it’s remarkable that I ended somewhere that’s almost identical to home; except for one thing.”

“People.”

“A,” I propped elbow on windowsill, hand on chin to watch the scenery. “It just makes me think there might be a reason.”

She seemed to think that over for a bit, then said, “From what you say, the worlds are overlaid. There was no real distance involved. You travelled . . . through, not to.”

I looked over at her, a little startled by that. Rraerch twitched an ear. “I . . . uh . . . I think I’m understanding that correctly,” I said. “A, I suppose that would be right.”

“So worlds exists in the same place as this? Less than a step and it’s that easy to go from one to another?”

She wasn’t looking at me, but rather at some place only she could see. There were gears turning in there. “I don’t know about easy,” I said. “I’ve never heard of it happening.”

“How can they overlap? How can many things exist in the same place”

I considered, gave another shrug. “Perhaps they exist in different bits of time, just slightly offset. Each universe having an instance between the clicks of a clock, so we don’t notice. Perhaps they’re in the space we don’t use . . .”

“What does that mean?” Rohinia asked. “‘Between the clicks’?”

“Um,” I wasn’t sure how to explain that. “If there’s a smallest time unit in the universe — the shortest point of time it’s possible to have — they would run consecutively, one after another to give an impression of . . . smooth time. Like my picture box: the moving images are actually sequences of stills, each slightly different. When viewed rapidly they give the illusion of movement. What we view as time could be a series of these very small slices. Different universes could be . . . slipped in between one another. Like many books having their pages interleaved, joined into a single volume . . . all first pages, then all second pages . . . Seen from outside it would seem bulky and unwieldy, but from the view of the individual stories, they are still there; they are still being told. They wouldn’t perceive anything different. As we don’t notice if there is no time. Because if there is no time, there is no change nor time to perceive change.”

“How could you not notice that?” Rraerch asked.

“It’s a matter of perspective,” I said and received questioning looks. I tapped the wooden window frame. “This is solid, a?”

The Rris looked suspicious. “So I have been led to believe,” Rohinia said.

“From our perspective it is,” I said. “But out there, what’s that?”

“A tree?”

“From here you call it a tree. Get up close and it’s bark and branches and leaves and moss and twigs. Get closer still and it becomes wood and plant material. Closer and it becomes cells. Then the material that makes cells. Then it becomes what we consider the . . . bricks of solid things that join to make just about anything from wood to water to the gasses you breath. When you get even closer, even smaller, things start to get strange. Everything becomes . . . pressures . . . effects. Pushing and pulling. Like magnetism, to use a bad example. But at those levels there is nothing actually solid.”

I tapped the wood again. “So what you think as solid is really mostly nothing. It just seems so from our limited view?. . . ah . . . perspective. It isn’t always entirely accurate.”

A snort from Rohinia. “If that isn’t solid, then why can’t I walk through it?”

“Water isn’t solid. Can water go through water?”

“I . . .” he started to retort with the obvious answer, then snapped his jaws shut and frowned. Rraerch was looking amused. Makepeace was scribbling furiously in her notebook, the tip of her tongue poking from her mouth. “This is true?” he asked, sounding suspicious. “It’s not another of your jokes?”

“Not a joke,” I said.

“Then there is a point to it?”

“Just that what you see certainly does depend upon where you are observing from.”

Feline faces watched me: one impassive, one curious, one looking to see how the others would react. I took a breath: “Sometimes what might seem obvious can be quite wrong. We’ve learned that often enough. My kind has . . . had some ideas that might explain how our worlds exist, but nobody knew for certain that they’re right. They’re just ideas: nobody’s ever been able to test them.”

“Until now,” Makepeace said, still scribbling cross hatches in her notebook.

I hesitated, then smiled. “I’m not sure I count. It’s not like I can tell them.”

“No, but you can tell us,” she said and looked at me, her eyes bright. “And perhaps someday someone can use that.” Then she looked at the other two Rris and seemed to cringe back in on herself. “Perhaps . . . someday,” she sighed and went back to her prepared list. “Huhn, but for now, perhaps just these questions, a?”

Chapter 32

I sat myself on the icy stone, looking down across the clearing to the valley. Under the light of a waxing moon and a universe of stars the world was a contrast of coldly-pale snow and inky shadows sketched by barren trees and bushes. Footprints tracked a line of disturbed powder and underlying bracken across the otherwise smooth field back the way I’d come, back down the hill to the road and the river, to where campfires glimmered away through the trees. Behind me, the other stones loomed; fractured angles buried beneath undergrowth and snow.

It was quiet up there on the hillside. It’d been a long day. Another long day trawling through countryside that changed so slowly that you weren’t sure you were actually making headway. Then, in the afternoon , a coach had crabbed sideways on ice and ended up in a ditch. No injuries, but a comprehensively borked wheel needed to be replaced. The decision was made to camp there while that work was done rather than push ahead to the next town. After a day in a small cab that was starting to smell quite distinctly of unwashed Rris and human the peace and clear air were welcome. Cold though. Dry. I felt it in my sinuses. My breath frosted. Bare skin tingled. I snugged my collar a little closer and for an hour or so watched the stars wheeling over the mountains.

A flitter of movement flittered at the edge of the clearing caught my eye. A ghost drifting through the trees. For a second she paused at the edge of dark and shadow, eyes flashing as she looked my way, and then pressed on, following my footprints. I watched her. Stalking across the clearing. The calf-deep snow sticking to the fur of her feet; ice flecking her winter pelt. Her breath curled about her shoulders. It was a still night with no wind to add to the chill, but the light kilt and jerkin she was wearing seemed too light to offer much warmth.

“I thought it’d be one of the Mediators,” I said. I’d told them I’d be gone on a toilet break. I’d taken a bit longer than I’d intended; I’d walked a bit further. There’d been the clearing and . . . the ruins. They weren’t much anymore: just scattered lines of huge old stones and toppled walls, but they’d been enough to make me curious.

Chihirae stopped a few paces away and waved a shrug. “They wanted to,” she said. “They were getting a bit agitated. I told them I thought you just wanted some time alone.”

“Thanks,” I said, quite sincerely.

“They thought you’d had long enough. They thought someone should check on you,” she said, brushing snow from her muzzle and then looked awkward. “I thought I would . . . they let me come.”

She trailed off, regarding me with those eyes that I’d known for years. The eyes I’d woken to when I’d been injured in her care. “I’m not disturbing you?” she ventured.

“Nah,” I smiled. “It’s not as if I was very busy.” I patted the cold stone beside me. “Come on; join me.”

She cocked her head, then flashed teeth at me and scrambled up onto the rock with a burst of movement and ticking of claws on stone. I caught her hand and hauled her in. She gave a little ‘herp!’ as she came up and dropped into my arms, sitting across my lap. For someone who’s only about five foot tall, her weight still startled me. There’s muscle under that fur.

She looked up at me. “Hai.” Or perhaps it was, “Hi.”

“Hi yourself,” I said down to the lady in my lap. “They’re not too angry, are they?”

“You’d be overly concerned if they were?” she chittered. “No. No, they weren’t angry.”

“No?” I raised an eyebrow. “After what happened at Long Way I thought they’d be spitting nails.”

She shifted. “Ah . . . they didn’t think you were in trouble.”

“They followed me, didn’t they?” I sighed, “Christ, I was just taking a toilet break.”

“Sorry.” A shrug. “I confess: She came back. She said you were sitting here. She wasn’t sure why.”

“And they sent you to find out?” Alone? I didn’t ask that.

She leaned back against me. I closed my arms around her and heard her rumble, “You get tired with all the talking and the questions. This is . . . quiet; some time alone. I understand.”

The winter air was still and clear and icy. Stars glittered over the valley. Down the hill the campfires gleamed and smoke sketched ghostly columns in the moonlight. She looked past me, at the mounds in the snow behind me, at the softened outlines of old stones stacked atop one another. “What is this place?”

“I have no idea. You can’t tell me?”

“It’s on the road, so just an old border tower?”

I’d looked around. It was a circle of stones. Perhaps it could have been a tower, once. “It seems . . . older.”

She looked around again, then at me. “Do you want me here?”

“Why’d you come? You could have told them back there.”

“You don’t.”

“Hey,” I leaned forward, looking down at her; the tip of one of her ears tickled my cheek. I got a hand under the light hemp of her vest and scratched at her fur. “I never said that.”

“No,” she said and shifted on my lap. “I thought you might want some company while you were alone.”

I blinked. “Ah, I’m not sure I heard that correctly.”

A low rumble vibrated through her body. “I meant that we can be alone together. For a while. Do you understand that?”

“A. I think my teacher can’t have been very good,” I said.

She twisted in my arms, nipping at my neck, sharp little teeth clicking at the air. “Not good, a?” she growled, eyes glittering black and amber.

“Or maybe it was just me,” I hastily added.

An ear twitched. “Oh, yes. Far more likely,” she said and settled back as I opened my coat wide for her, welcoming her into my embrace, folding it around the two of us. I could feel her, the heat from her body under the fur like a little furnace.

“Not that cold,” she rumbled again, her head resting against my chest as she leaned back. “But thank you.”

“You think I was doing this for you?”

A laugh. I felt her breathing matching mine, or perhaps it was the other way around. When I inhaled I could smell her scent: it always reminded me of summer hay and sun-warmed dust.

“How are you doing?” I asked her. “I mean, on this journey. You’re comfortable? They’re being polite to you?”

“Huh, they’re all being most kind,” she said. “But you’re being kept busy.”

“Oh, yeah. And I thought it was going to be a relaxing trip. That Makepeace has enough questions for twenty.”

“Can you blame her?” Chihirae asked. “Something like you . . . she must have all the questions I had. When you couldn’t talk to me, I got frustrated. I wanted to shake the answers out of you. But all you had were those few words.”

“You taught me those,” I said, remembering. Some good things; some not so good. “Perhaps you are a good teacher after all.”

A chitter and she relaxed back against me. “Going to a university was a dream of mine.”

“You didn’t?”

“Oh, rot. Who could afford it,” she sighed. “If you’re not sponsored or high class, then university will never be for you.”

“You got an education.”

“I apprenticed under my own master for a full five years before I went out on my own. Lying Scales hired me for a few seasons,” she remembered. “It was good work. Better than some alternatives, but it was never going to be much more than that. Winter teachers aren’t held in the highest of regards by the universities. To them we’re just . . . thinking tinkers. Jokes.”

“Tinkers are important to a lot of people,” I said. “And you were important to those children. You helped them grow a bit; gave them something that they’ll never lose. A, I think you could be a good teacher.”

She bumped her head back against me. Not entirely gently.

“Ooof,” I said and reached up to scratch behind her ears. “They’re not giving you trouble over that? Some class crap?”

“Hnnn, no. The Mediators don’t care; aesh Smither is a lot more approachable than I’d expected from someone of her status; ah Ties is being very . . . polite around me.”

“I think perhaps he’s overcompensating after . . . you know, after that night.”

She gave a considering humm. “What did you say to him after that?”

I shrugged. “What I hope was the right thing.”

“You weren’t angry with him?”

I had been angry. And jealous and confused and frightened. “I tried to do what I think a Rris would do. I’m not sure if he understood.”

She laughed. “Now I’m not sure if I’m understanding you.”

“I think . . .” I started to say, then understood where that sort of conversation could lead. “He’s a good man,” I said eventually. “I don’t know if you think he’s attractive, but he’s wealthy, influential. I’m pretty sure he’s smarter than I am. He’s not full of himself and actually knows how to have fun. And he’s willing to look past things like . . . where certain people come from.”

“Or what they look like,” she said, then bumped her head back against me again and added, “Provided they’ll drink with him.”

“A. That too,” I conceded.

“I thought you were angry with us.”

“I was. That doesn’t mean I was right.” I said and her ears twitched with my breath. “I can’t control how I feel. I can control how I act. It doesn’t mean I have to be selfish about it, and to do what I want would be just that. Chihirae, you know I’d never do anything to hurt you. For you to stay with me, I think that would hurt you.”

She was quiet a time. “He was better at biting,” she reflected after a time.

“What?”

“You can’t quite bite my scruff right,” she said. “And then you get a mouth full of fur. Very undignified. He was good at biting.”

“What? You think I . . . You’re teasing me, aren’t you.”

A chitter and she tipped her head back, nipping up at me. “A. But you do have your good points.”

“Oh? How about this?” I asked as I scratched behind her ears.

“A,” she rumbled and leaned into the caress. “I think that’s one of them. And there’s something else I can think of that we can do. We’re not in a carriage or a crowded inn tonight, a?”

I snorted a laugh. “No, we’re not. And that might be a problem. It’s below freezing and we’re alone in the middle of some old ruins in a snowy forest.”

“So? You can think of a better place?”

So indeed. I looked around. Under the moon and reeling stars the snow was a pale icing across the world. Half-buried stonework sketched unnaturally geometric mounds in the landscape, like stacks of books under white blankets. Ancient walls and skeletal trees threw velvet purple shadows that eventually blended with the darkness under the woods, black and opaque, that marched away across the hillsides. Campfires were distant fireflies downhill. There was no wind, no birdsong, no insects or voices. The world was absolutely silent and, for a short time at least, we were alone.

“Several, actually,” I said.

“Hah, we’ve had fun outside before. There was that time by the lake.”

“That was the middle of summer,” I reminded her. “And when you take your clothes off you are still wearing a fur coat.”

“You don’t need to strip. I only need a small part of you,” she growled and squirmed a little. “You might like it. Your scent says you’re interested.”

“A?” I nuzzled down to her tufted ear and she twitched her head. “But I can’t bite properly, remember?” I murmured.

“Hum? Well, perhaps some lessons, a?”

“More lessons?” I stroked my hands through the thick layered fur of her chest, feeling her breathing, her heartbeat. “We really need those?”

“A, you think you’re that good?”

“I think you do,” I grinned and she growled and then shuddered as I stroked her lower.

Perhaps they were watching us. It wouldn’t have surprised me. But if there were Mediators in the trees, there was no sign of them. And presently they were out of mind. No disturbance; no interruption as we spent our time in the snow. I held her, scratched her in those places that got a reaction; she craned around and nipped at me. I flinched away and we overbalanced and toppled backwards off the old wall into a drift of snow-buried bracken, struggling and sputtering and laughing and cursing.

We ended against a huge old stone; a toppled monolith from some ancient wall piled with drifted snow. It was cold. She wasn’t concerned, but I certainly felt it, so we couldn’t take our time. Chihirae leaned back into me as I pressed up against her, tipping her head as I nuzzled her neck. An ear flicked as I breathed on it, scratching my fingers down her ribs. She made a sound: a low noise that might have been a growl, or perhaps something else. Then she leaned over the stone, elbows scuffing through the heaped snow. Eyes flashed as she cast a look back over her shoulder. Tongue flickered in and out as she licked her lips and growled, her tail flicking aside, inviting in her kinds’ way. And I struggled with the button fly with cold and clumsy fingers.

Thick winter pelt tickled where it brushed against sensitive bare skin. I leaned over her, stroking the soft fur on the side of her head. I noticed details: breath huffing from her partly-opened mouth; her eyes lidded, black; her hands clenching and unclenching against the slab; the snow under her hands had been scuffed from the stone; carvings were visible in the half-light: something Rris and unfathomable and incidental. Freezing air became organic heat. She made a high noise, breathed, “Ahhh! Careful. Slow, please . . .”

I was. Slow. Careful. Joining two subtly mismatched components together. She growled again, different this time: sounding small noises and gasps of breath as I stroked at the thick fur on the back of her neck and shoulders, running my fingers through the slightly coarse layers of her winter coat, feeling muscles under silken flesh flexing, a pulse running hot.

For a while that was everything. Night and starry sky spinning overhead: clouds of ancient galactic light spilled across bottomless ink. Below the glow of the heavens lay the white of snow, the grey of trees, touches of ice cold and body warmth. Surrounded by a grasping heat, both of us breathing faster. Frigid breath gusting into my lungs. She vented little sounds, little still-born growls as she snarled at the air. If anyone had been watching, at that point I didn’t care. Hell, I wouldn’t have cared if the forest had caught fire and the moon fell from the sky. There was the moment, the movement, and that was everything. I leaned closer, inhaling the dusky scent of her neck, nuzzling.

“I’m not very good at this,” I breathed with my movements, teased her. “I don’t know if I should . . .”

She arched her back, pushing up at me, “Rot you . . . Please . . .”

I bit the nape of her neck. She tensed then, almost vibrating beneath me, then as if the bite had been the pull of a trigger whatever was winding so tight inside her snapped with a convulsion I felt as muscles flexed, over and over. She made a noise, a vocalization like metal tearing and bit at her own wrist to stifle it. My own groan was muffled by my mouthful of scruff and hair.

We subsided, tangled together in the disturbed snow on that tumbled slab and panting like a pair of steam engines. I buttoned up and tried to discreetly spit fur out of my mouth. Chihirae cleaned herself. She really was very flexible.

I worked a last, irritating piece of hair off my tongue and heaved a shuddering sigh. “That was . . . intense.”

“A. Most invigorating,” she said as she settled her kilt, rubbed the nape of her neck and then lazily blinked at me. “Perhaps we should be starting back?”

“Probably,” I said, sitting myself up. The carvings on surface of the stone were rough under my hands. I brushed a bit more snow and ice aside. The block was about the size of a car, with Rris script carved centimeter-deep into the granite. “What does this say?”

She regarded it. Brushed some more snow aside and cocked her head. “I don’t know. It’s some old dialect. I don’t know it.”

I hadn’t considered different scripts. “Wonder if it was important.”

Chihirae waved a shrug. “Possibly ‘No copulating here’?” she suggested.

I laughed. “Well, I won’t tell the Mediators if you don’t.”

Bound back downhill, slogging across the clearing with its deceptively smooth covering of frozen crusted snow and ice over bracken and undergrowth. I paid some attention to the surroundings, noticed how the only tracks across the powder were our own. In the trees we brushed through bare branches, yelping as showers of dislodged snow went down our necks. Down near the road sentries ducked their heads in acknowledgement and quietly watched as we passed.

We entered the camp looking disgracefully disheveled and flushed. Faces gathered around the campfire all turned our way as we approached across the trampled snow. Both the Mediators were both there, poker-faced and unperturbed. Rraerch and Chaeitch weren’t so successful, with Chaeitch breaking into a tongue-lolling smirk before Rraerch elbowed him. Makepeace did a double take at the other faces around the campfire. She looked puzzled, and then something must’ve clicked because her ears suddenly pricked right up. She joined the others in staring at us.

“Hai,” Chaeitch broke the spell by brandishing a kebabs. “You’re just in time for food,” he called, waving the meat-heavy skewer, then smirked and chittered, “Or have you already had a bite?”

Rraerch shoved a handful of snow into his ear.

Chapter 33

I used to know people who claimed they loved the cold. When I remember them I have to wonder if they would be so enthusiastic in the Rris world; when they couldn’t just hop back into their heated chalets or cars when it got a bit much; when the days of cold and snow turned into weeks of cold and snow.

As it did for us.

The routine continued: Wake in the morning in the coach or a freezing room in an inn or coach house, and then be gone while the sun was still a brightening smudge on the horizon. Days would pass, rattling by across the countryside at little more than walking pace. I’d study, talk, joke and argue with the Rris. The Mediators remained stoic dullards; Chaeitch and Rraerch were good company I could actually converse with; Chihirae kept me sane; Makepeace . . . well Makepeace was a bottomless well of questions.

It all helped pass time. Hours and then days passed by like the countryside outside: slowly, steadily. Monotonously.

Until the inn at Three Birds Fall, that is. That night certainly broke the monotony.

Chapter 34

The Rippled Lands were what the Rris called the mountain chain I’d known as the Appalachian Mountains. They weren’t the highest in the world: they weren’t majestic, snow-topped saw-toothed granite peaks. Instead they were ridges of somewhat mundane-looking hills, rounded with time and weather and ancient ice, heavily forested and receding into the hazy distance. They were the remnants of a geological fender-bender — two continental plates colliding and crumpling under the impact, a vast collision that played out over a time scale of millennia. Those plates crumpled like corrugated iron, only these deformations were measured in hundreds of meters high, countless square miles of them in a broad, serried swathe running right down the eastern seaboard, north to south. The grain of the land — the alignment of the ridges — tended to follow the coastline, wending and curving down the seaboard in a roughly south-west curve. Travelling with the grain would be difficult; cutting across it, across a hundred kilometers of steep, wooded wilderness, would be nigh on impossible.

The pass named the Open Wound was a gateway through the Rippled lands and really the only practical way for animal-drawn vehicles to cross. The Ashansi river we’d been following was what might have been the Susquehanna back home. Like a lot of the more recent geological aspects of this world the river was in a similar place, but it didn’t quite match up with any maps I had. This river had carved the Open Wound through the mountains, wearing a path across the grain of the land. While the ridges and hills tended to align in a roughly west south-westerly direction, the river had worn sequential notches through the ridges from north to south, cutting a twisting and wending river valley through low spots below the forested peaks. The Ashansi Trail followed that river into the ranges, and the road followed the trail.

Why not take a boat? The river was broad and quite shallow and often enough there were rapids. Not the raging white water sort, but enough to make the upper reaches of the river unnavigable by large vessels.

Sometimes the valley floor was a broad, gentle bowl, wide enough for farmsteads and small villages. Other times it narrowed enough so there was only room for the river: the road clinging to ledges and cuttings hewn through hills and cliff faces alongside. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling to look out the carriage window on an icy road down a sheer drop to where floes of ice bumped and jostled their way downstream. Above the road were hillsides dense with trees: firs and pines and spruce and birch; bare and frosted in the snow and mist. Low cloud hid the sky, bumped against the higher hilltops, damped the sun and turned the world to bleak monotones that didn’t really do anything for anyone’s mood.

So when we rattled to an unexpected halt one morning and voices rose from the front of the column it was actually something of interest.

“What’s that?” I asked, leaning toward the window to try and see what was going on. There was a wooden fence outside. Beyond that a small field occupied by some gently steaming bison watching us. A rickety barn painted a rather bright blue and something that might have been a shed.

Rohinia looked out. “Wait here,” he said, and hopped out, inconspicuously adjusting one of his pistols in its bandoleer.

I looked at Chaeitch and Chihirae, my company for the day. Their ears were pricked and they also looked out the window, but they didn’t seem concerned. “Some sort of delay,” Chaeitch said.

Rohinia was back five minutes later. He looked . . . not worried but rather thoughtful. He knocked snow off his legs as he told us, “We have to detour. Villagers say there’s been a slip ahead. Entire hillside came down and the river road is blocked. Bad enough that it’ll take days to clear and repair the road enough to get the coaches through. The outriders concur. So we’re taking the old saddle road. It’s longer, slower and steeper, but faster than waiting for the road to open.”

“It’s a problem?” Chaeitch asked him. “Trouble?”

“Not so much. There’s been heavy snow and cold weather. One fallen tree can bring the lot down. Not uncommon according to the villagers. The detour will add a day, but they say there’s an inn halfway, at Three Birds Fall, that we can make before nightfall. It does fair business in winter due to things like this.”

He leaned back, scratching his chin with a clawtip and then looking at Chaeitch. “You’ve been this way before. You know it?”

“A, been this way before. Twice. And there were problems: We had a ferry delayed for repairs and a road over in Bluebetter washed out by a storm. But this this part of the road was fine. I don’t know this inn, but it doesn’t seem like such a suspicious inconvenience.”

Rohinia considered. “Three Birds Fall it is then.”

The detour took us away from the river, up a smaller spur valley. We spent most of the day following winding valley roads through winter forests, under white hills and grey clouds which didn’t change much as the day went on. As far as distractions went, the diversion wasn’t that diverting. The carriages rattled on. It snowed for a while, then the grey overcast lifted and gradually tore apart into tatters of clouds. It was close to evening, as the shadows crept across the snow, when we arrived.

The inn at Three Birds Fall was there. The road left the forest and crested a hill and the inn was there. It was really all that was there. A few snow-covered fields with a sprinkling of icy bison around a sprawling wooden building. It was bigger than I’d expected; three stories; one of those rambling places that’d obviously grown over time. Some of it was stone, especially the older-central parts. Where it was wood the cladding was mostly a tar-black jigsaw of different tones and textures where it’d been added onto and repaired through the years. There was a main, building with three floors and spreading wings containing outlaying rooms, a stables and a smithy. The roofs stepping down from the main building were steep and dark, covered with split wooden tiles and loaded with strata of snow. Amongst the cold white landscape and lengthening purple shadows of a setting sun, it looked like a raven crouched spread-winged in a snowdrift.

We drew up out front, where scouts were waiting and where the snow had already been trampled by feet coming and going. Guards spread out, some heading to the stables where a few elk were visible. The rest of the caravan headed to a field to set up their own camp. I stepped down from the carriage and looked up at the front of the inn, at a wide sign depicting three birds on a branch painted across the front of the inn.

The front door was old. Really old. The thick wooden planks were greyish and warped and worn down to a glossy polished finish where hands had rubbed them. Rohinia opened it and led the way inside. I followed , ducking under a dangerously low lintel into a big, dim, smoky room. It was a rough place, made for careless traffic and hard use. Wooden beams crisscrossed the ceiling, hung with knickknacks: small painted bits of wood, various stuffed small animals and birds, several sets of antlers, dried herbs and plants, small black-iron tools and implements, loops of rope, dusty bottles of many colors, all dangling where I could bang my head if I wasn’t careful. Fresh straw rustled under my feet, covering worn old flagstones. There were trestle tables and benches, built from thick wood as worn and as old and as hard as the door had been. Down at the far end was an area that served as a kitchen, with cupboards and shelves and a stone bench and a fireplace the size of a bus stop. Strung from the ceiling in front of the fireplace was a skinned deer carcass. A Rris busy with a knife looked around as we entered.

They all did. There were half a dozen of them in there: sitting at the tables, eating, drinking, smoking and they all paused in whatever they were doing and turned to see who’d come in. When they saw me they froze, motionless. A Rris, skinny and much-scarred, wearing a stained canvas apron hurried over toward us and stopped just short of the guards.

“Constable?” the Rris said to Rohinia, but the eyes were locked on me. “We were told to expect important guests, so we welcome you, but what is . . . this?”

“Your important guest,” Rohinia growled. “You are the proprietor?”

“Aesh Che’esa, constable,” the Rris said, still staring at me. Then she ducked her head, “Apologies, sir. There are rooms. We’ve just slaughtered some game so there’s food,” she gestured to the stripped carcass hanging by the fire. Raw flesh glistened in the light. “If you are hungry . . .?”

“A. Thank you,” I said. The Rris ducked her head and hurried off back to the kitchen. I stared after her, a little puzzled.

Someone nudged me. I looked down at Chihirae’s amused face. “You’ve met worse,” she said.

“A,” I said. “Just not what I was expecting.”

Chapter 35

They gave Chihirae and myself the best room in the place. It was up on the third floor, huddled up under the roof. It was a decent room. It was clean, with whitewashed plaster walls. No carpet, but the floor was covered in a mosaic of brightly colored rugs. There was glass in the window, a simple low table with an oil lamp with new wick and a couple of leather cushions, worn shiny with use. The bed wasn’t big, but it was enough for us. It was against the far wall, up against a chimney flue passing through the room on its way up to the roof. The heat rising up through that from fires below warmed the stones a bit, enough to provide a bit of warmth on a night that was cold enough to freeze chamber pots solid.

It was warmer in the main room downstairs. A crowd of Rris bodies and the cooking fires warmed the place, although the fug produced by mingled scents of industrial-scale cuisine and wet fur could’ve been cut and packaged. A minstrel had drifted in with the night: a ragged-looking individual dressed in worn leathers and threadbare road cloak with a tatty little pack and a more expensive-looking instrument case. The proprietor hadn’t been happy about it, but under protests from our party had eventually relented and let the minstrel ply his trade by the fire in exchange for a meal and place to sleep. His instrument was something like a lute but played with a little bow that drew notes like fingers stroking around the rims crystal glasses. He was pretty good with it, but the accompanying Rris singing still sounded like rusty nails being pulled to my ears. He kept stealing glances in my direction. I noticed the Mediators kept their eyes on him.

I sat with the others at a table, listening to the music. They were . . . ballads? Something about an old battle where everyone died, a plague, a broken merchant. Cheerful stuff. Over in the kitchen the cook rummaged through cupboards, looking for something. We listened, we talked. Chihirae tried to translate the musician’s lyrics for me. Chaeitch and Rraerch discussed how much time we’d lost, how the delay might affect things further along the track. The Mediators had their own private discussion going. Makepeace shoveled food away as if someone was going to take it away at any second. Huh, student.

The fare was basic, but there was plenty of it. As usual the meat was underdone and there weren’t enough vegetables. Our own cook intervened and there were heated words exchanged with the inn staff before they backed down and I got a bowl of overcooked stew and potatoes and a small loaf of rock-like bread. Or a bread-like rock, it was difficult to tell. We ate.

A small crowd of our guards and carters were gathered around the minstrel while he played songs and told stories and news. We sat nearby, listening and drinking wine. With the fire and number of bodies in there the room had grown hot, smoky. That atmosphere and the tension that close Rris crowds tends to give me were conspiring to give me the beginnings of a headache and some growing queasiness, so I begged off the drinking for the evening to retire early.

Of course the bed was freezing. I buried myself under layers of quilts and tried to get some sleep. I dozed, kept dipping into confused, disjointed half-dreams that kept me teetering on the edge, but never quite dropping off. At some point I was aware of a furry body bundling into bed, clambering over me and collapsing in a heavy lump across my legs. It got too hot, and then when I kicked the coverings off it was too cold.

And the shivering and sweating and queasiness got worse, to the point of sudden cramps that finally got too much. I barely made it to the chamber pot. Mercifully, it was empty, or that might’ve made things worse. As it was, I almost filled it, kneeling and puking until I was just dry heaving. I spat into the bowl, then knelt on the rugs by the chipped porcelain bowl, eyes closed and head down on crossed arms and feeling like I’d just been wrung out. My mouth tasted foul. Freezing sweat prickled against my skin as I heaved panting breaths, each one a brief cloud visible in the trapezoid of moonlight peeking in through the window.

The purge helped. The cramps had eased, as had the shivers. I still knelt there, breathing hard, not wanting to move lest it bring on another bout. But the nausea had settled. After a while I pushed myself upright and was surprised to find I was feeling considerably better. I sat, leaning back against the cracked plaster wall beneath the window.

“Uh, that was unpleasant,” I muttered.

Silence. Pure, crystalline silence.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I’d just been noisily sick. And there’d been . . . no reaction. Chihirae hadn’t stirred. Nobody was knocking on the door; no questioning voices outside. It was quiet. Utterly silent. Frost scrawled across the small window panes, glowing in the moonlight. There should have been Mediators or guards barging in to see what the commotion was. Instead . . . nothing. And the bed was a motionless pile of bedclothes. A furry hand limply dangled from the sheets.

“Chihirae?”

I scrambled to my feet, clutched the windowsill to steady myself, and then lurched over to the bed. She was warm. She was breathing. I caught her jaw and turned her head toward me: her tongue lolled from her mouth, a thread of reflected light glimmered beneath an eyelid, but otherwise she didn’t respond. I stroked the side of her face. “Chihirae! Hey!”

An eyelid flickered. She made a small noise. I stroked her cheek.

Was she sick as well? Was it something we ate? Something given . . . to . . . us.

There was that prickling feeling at the back of my neck again and suddenly something . . . a whole bunch of little somethings added up to a big wrongness. And I felt as if the bottom had dropped out of the world. I stared at the flimsy wooden door as my heart started thumping, sweat prickled. Poison. We’d been poisoned. Which meant . . .

I looked at Chihirae laying helpless, then grabbed my boots, hurriedly pulling them on. My coat was bundled on the table. I shrugged into it, buttoning the overlapping lapels up the front. Then I hooked my fingers through the straps in the inside cuffs of the sleeves. They weren’t usual in an article of clothing, but then neither were some of the other extras Chaeitch had added to that coat.

I slipped my hands through the straps: they’d stop the sleeves riding up and incidentally held the padded steel plates in place over my knuckles. Then I unbuckled the concealed breast pockets, reaching into the left one, feeling the cold clamminess of oiled leather around my hand and then the smooth rounded curl of a wooden grip.

It wasn’t one of the clumsy pieces of gray-black ironmongery I’d had back in Open Fields. Chaeitch had worked some refinements. The revolver gleamed white in the moonlight. It wasn’t a big gun, more like a .32 with a snub barrel, handy for tucking away out of sight. Not something people would look for in a place where effective handguns were almost half the size of a baseball bat. The ammunition was brass rim-fired shells: reliable, self-contained, compact, and light years from the clunky shot and powder the Rris predominately dealt with. I sat on the edge of the bed as I carefully swung the cylinder open and fed the shells into their chambers, one at a time. It closed again with a smooth, metallic click. I dropped another couple of reloads into my pocket.

The door was still closed. There wasn’t a sound from beyond it. On the bed beside me Chihirae groaned and shifted, an eyelid flickered up for a moment to show a white-membrane half covering her eye, then she sagged back, drooling. I stroked her cheek again. “I have to check on the others,” I said. “I’ll be back. Promise.”

She slurred something.

“Promise.”

I scooped up my flashlight on my way past the table; I’d already had experience with how dark the narrow stairs were and didn’t need to break my neck. In front of the door I stopped, adjusted my sweaty grip on the pistol. Then I looked back at the bed and swallowed. I didn’t want to leave her. I didn’t want to go out there, but something was wrong, very wrong. Chaeitch and Rraerch were in a room next door, Makepeace in another. They were just across the landing. It was only a few steps to find out just what was going on.

The iron latch clicked quietly. A bit of moonlight from the window slipped past me onto the landing as the door swung open. It just lit a wedge with a will-o-the wisp glow, enough to turn the rest of the landing into blackness. There wasn’t much out there, just a narrow attic corridor with three doors opening off it and the steep, doglegged stairs diagonally opposite. I took a couple of steps into the darkness, then flicked the flashlight on, played it around the landing. White plaster flared back at me in the brilliant blue-white circle of light, black floorboards polished smooth by the passage of countless feet glistened, the other doors were all closed. I took a step toward the nearest and there was a noise, a clink of metal, from the stairs. I swung the torch around.

And froze in shock.

Rris on the stairs also froze, snarling, throwing up their hands up to block the sudden light. More than a few of them filling the stairs down to the next landing, pairs of eyes glowing like burnished coins in reflected light. Some of them . . . I thought I recognized the innkeeper, the cook. They were in what was unmistakably armor of some kind, with dark breastplates and arm guards under dark grey and green cloaks. I also recognized the weapons: guns, gleaming blades in their hands.

I screamed something. I’m not sure it was intelligible in any language, I just screamed and jumped back. Rris yowled. “It’s awake!” another yelled. A Rris raised a gun at me. I saw the barrel, I saw the flint spark and then the weapon vanished behind a blast of flame and a terrific noise that felt like someone slamming my head in a door. Something belted me in across chest and I staggered back into the wall. The landing filled with swirling gunsmoke that just reflected the madly waving light of my flashlight back at me. Fireflies of burning wadding swirled through the confusion.

“Get her!” a voice yowled through the smoke and the ringing in my ears. I raised my own gun, remembered to cock the hammer and fired back at the stairs. Fired again and again with thunderflashes of light and noise that physically slapped my ears. There were howls, sounds of pain.

“Repeater!” came a scream from the stairs, muffled through the ringing in my ears.

“Get it! Get in there.”

I scrambled back to the door. Something moved over by the stairs and I fired at it. A snarling groan and a gunshot came back. I involuntarily ducked, dropping the flashlight. Shadows spun crazily as it skittered across the floor to glare back from a corner. Plaster showered from a new hole in the wall. There were voices through the dust and smoke, ordered commands being snapped. I fired another shot and then ducked behind the door jamb while and screamed, “Wake up! Goddamit! Wake up. Attack! We’re under attack!”

Chihirae was stirring weakly, kicking at the sheets.

I heard a voice on the stairs snarling, “Go!”

I fired the last shot from the pistol, adding to the swirling banks of opaque smoke, then ducked back behind the door jamb and hurriedly pulled a loader pack from my pockets. From somewhere behind my reflexes I was surprised to note my hands were steady as I swung the cylinder open, shook the expended shells out, rammed the loader pack in and snapped it closed again.

Rris voices yowled. A couple of shots pocked through the wall over my head, high up. I stuck my gun around the door again and Rris burst from the smoke, blades and teeth horribly gleaming in the harsh torchlight. I fired. A small mark, a seemingly insignificant dot, appeared on a Rris’ muzzle and it tumbled, clattering in an uncontrolled heap. Cocked and fired again and another one staggered. Again and again as fast as I could and another went down. Another crashed into the wall and sprawled and another was behind that one. I fired and the hammer just clicked. The Rris yowled, ears flat and eyes pure black, hurdling its fallen associates in a headlong charge and I cocked the gun again and fired and the gun barked and the last round took the Rris in the open mouth. The body tumbled like a puppet with its strings cut, limply sprawling across the floor.

I remember the smoke. It was fascinating: grey banks of the stuff filling the narrow hallway. The harsh light of the flashlight penetrated a short way, but mostly reflected from the swirling pall in a white glare. Tendrils drifting and curling in disturbed air cast shadows back on other banks, striping the air itself in writhing shadows.

It seemed to explode from within as more Rris charged forward.

A Rris trailing streamers of murk burst from the opaque smog, toe claws digging into fallen bodies as it came at me with a long knife in one hand. It swung and I wildly blocked it with my left arm. The blade skidded away with a rasp of steel on steel and the Rris looked startled. I didn’t give it time to recover, stepped forward, meeting it and not allowing room to dodge as I punched it in the head with my other hand and it staggered to its knees. Another rushed in, swinging a spiked bar and that hit my other arm hard enough to make me feel it. I dropped the gun and swung, too slowly. The Rris dodged and tried to bring the mace back for another swing but hit the wall. I bulled in and grabbed that arm, my fist closing around the alien wrist and holding. The Rris snarled, then yowled as I twisted viciously, wrenching its arm around. It dropped the mace and had to turn with it or dislocate the arm. It snarled, ears flat and tried to twist away. The first was staggering to his feet and I kicked out hard, sending the feline flying back into the smoke in the general direction of the stairs. The one in my grasp snapped furiously and tried to squirm around. That snarl turned to an outright yowl when I bodily hoisted the Rris and threw it after the other. There were shrieks and clattering of metal like a sack of frying pans and cats falling down the stairs.

I scrambled after the pistol, trying to find it in the murk. It’d skittered over by the wall. It was wet when I picked it up, greasy and slimy. I fumbled with it before I was able to break it open, shaking the spent and dud rounds out and letting them chime against the floor. Acrid smoke burned my throat as I took deep breaths, trying to steady my hands as I reloaded most of the last of my ammo. It snapped shut with a metallic finality and I stood there on the landing, gun held in both hands and aimed at the stairs, waiting for movement, my ears ringing.

Gunshots boomed from down the staircase, flashing through the smoke like lighting in distant clouds. I ducked frantically and fragments and plaster spalled down from the roof. Rris yowled and screamed incoherent noises in the confusing banks of swirling gray smoke that reflected the glaring torchlight, stung my eyes and set me coughing. Sounds of fighting spilled up from downstairs, metal clashing on metal, Rris shrieking.

I crouched amongst the sprawled bodies with my heart hammering and the gun trained on the stairs. Sounds of fighting continued. There was someone putting up a fight down there. And they’d probably need help. I glanced back at the door to the room Chihirae was in. I didn’t want to leave her and — dammit — I was just plain scared, but I couldn’t just wait for our assailants to finish off the resistance and come for us next.

I swore quietly and forced myself to stand. I didn’t want to go down there; I really didn’t. But there was fighting which meant my friends could be in trouble. Were in trouble. I didn’t have a choice.

Underfoot the floorboards were horribly wet and sticky. Something was dripping down the steps. There were bodies down there, sprawled down the stairwell and across the next landing, limbs tangled and contorted. There was a low groan, trailing off into a wet whispering sound. I stared, breathing hard, blood pounding, not quite believing what was going on.

Sounds continued from the floor below. Clashing metal, Rris cries and snarls: a catfight amplified through a stadium sound system. Further away, from outside, I could hear more gunshots. Crackling fusillades of them. Were those our guards firing? It sounded like a small war was going on. I picked my way down the dark stairwell only a little wider than my shoulders, trying to get past tumbled bodies that’d finished in positions that I bizarrely remember thinking looked uncomfortable. It was dark and I momentarily considered going back for the flashlight that I’d left on the floor upstairs, but there was flickering light visible from the next floor down. I stepped down on something metallic and sharp, cursed and stopped at the corner.

The corridor was a confusion of motion and noise. Swirling knots of smoke writhed around in the dim light of a couple of wall lamps, turning the vicious fight into a surreal knot of blurring blades and ringing metal. From what I could make out in the chaotic gloom it was two against . . . many.

The backlit silhouettes of two Rris with long knives standing side by side against at least six in scraggly clothes over armor like intruders upstairs had been wearing. The pair had their backs to me, fighting in nothing but their fur as they tried to hold their assailants at bay. The width of the hall was a bottleneck to their advantage, but the others were pressing them hard, swords gleaming and flashing and they were steadily falling back. Blood seeping from cuts and gashes glistened in their fur, but the hallway beyond was strewn with blood and bodies showing the path of their retreat: each step back they’d taken had been sold dearly.

In the long second that ground by as I stood there one of the defenders grunted and staggered back another step, arm dripping blood. Jenes’ahn. Snarling defiance, muzzle twisted and drawn back to bare teeth. Beyond her an attacker’s mouth was open in a triumphant snarl, whites visible around the rims of the eyes as the sword came around again and sparks flared as Rohinia’s blade was there, deflecting the thrust in a blur of movement and then frantically spinning to meet another attacker. Jenes’ahn staggered and went to her knees. I could see her eyes were glazed, those white membranes half drawn across them. And further back in their assailant’s ranks I saw the movement as a Rris there tried to level a bulky musket at the beleaguered Mediators.

My heart thumped. Chest tightening. Ringing in my ears drowning the clash of battle. It felt like someone else was in the driver’s seat, moving my limbs as I shoved forward through the cloying smoke. The Mediators’ assailants saw me as I moved forward, I could see their faces, the almost-comically horrified expressions melting through the aggressive snarls. And the front row recoiled even as I barged Rohinia aside, raising my own pistol as the muzzle of the musket veered toward me. I shot that Rris first, the musket suddenly wavering and discharging with its own ear-stabbing retort and billow of smoke to add to the murk in the hall. It didn’t matter; the corridor was narrow and I hardly needed to aim as I emptied my own pistol into the crowd of armored Rris.

It wasn’t a high-powered weapon by modern handgun standards, but it fired a pretty hefty slug with more of a punch than a smoothbore flintlock. I aimed, fired, cocked, aimed, fired . . . Again and again, each shot a flash of fire and smoke and a concussion that spiked my ears. Four, five of them went down, some rounds penetrating to hit those in the back ranks as well. Another pistol went off back there with a retort I felt, spewing smoke and sparks, the heavy slug thudding into the ceiling and adding splintered wood to the air. Rris fell or recoiled frantically and the assault turned from a skirmish line into a mob and Rohinia lunged forward again in a blink of movement and his hands moved like that and the knife flashed and crippled bodies fell. I felt more than heard the pistol click on empty and one of the survivors burst through the roiling gunsmoke haze with white-rimmed eyes above a gaping snarl, a long, curved blade raised. Someone yelled my name; a warning.

A razor tip struck my torso, just over my right ribs, sliced through the leather of my coat. And skidded off.

The lunge had overbalanced the Rris. He tried to recover, but there was an opening, just for an instant. I lost the pistol and grabbed the closest sword hand, yanked. He tried to gouge at me with claws. The coat took that and I caught his throat with the other hand, swung him around and rammed him into the wall hard enough to break through the plaster and lathe and knock the breath out of him. Then I just grabbed under his armor and lifted, bounced his head off the ceiling. The rafters didn’t give way, but something else did. He stopped kicking. Another dodged around the snarling melee that Rohinia was embroiled in and came at me with jaws gaping and knife ready. I threw the dead weight of the motionless Rris I was holding. The tangle of limbs and tails staggered back and that was long enough for me to get in close and throw a punch. That missed as the attacker dodged and a knife slashed back in return and I managed to block that with a wild swing of my arm, batting it aside. Something shoved me hard in the back, pushing me forward and in turn I shoved the Rris in front of me back into the wall and my next punch was a solid jab across the muzzle, driving it back with a crack and my next one got it in the side of the head. The body bounced off the wall once more before it hit the floor hard. I turned to see the last Rris was just behind me, trying to grab at the knife imbedded in its neck. There was . . . blood spraying. Horribly, everywhere. Across my face and the wall for what seemed like an age until that one finally fell. Jenes’ahn stood beyond, swaying and staring at me with eyes half-occluded by those white membranes.

“Thanks,” I panted, my voice sounding fuzzy through the ringing in my ears.

Jenes’ahn just collapsed, folding down into the blood smeared across the floorboards. Rohinia was at her side before I could move. “Stay back,” he snapped at me when I went to help. His eyes were wide, also dull behind that translucent covering. He looked gory and groggy and mad. I stopped in my tracks, then stepped back, feeling like a whipped dog as I watched him tearing strips off a cloak.

There were still shouts from outside. An occasional gunshot. The pistol was where I’d dropped it. While Rohinia tore bandages I scooped it up, tried to wipe it off. Rohinia looked around when I scattered the brass on the floor and reloaded with my last two rounds. As I closed the gun I caught a glimpse of movement down the hall.

A Rris had crept from one of the doors. Someone I didn’t know standing frozen, clutching a tattered knapsack to his chest and staring at me and the gun I had leveled and cocked with flat ears and eyes gone to pure black.

“No! Mikah!” Rohinia snapped again through the whining in my ears. “Don’t.”

“What? Who is he?”

“The musician,” Rohinia snarled.

I remembered that Rris from earlier, playing that instrument down in the hall. He’d come in late. “He’s not with them?”

“No.”

“Oh,” I said; lowered the pistol. “Oh.”

The wide-eyed, scruffy little Rris shifted a bit, then frantically scrambled back into the room he’d emerged from. I stared after him numbly for a few seconds and then turned back to the Mediators. Rohinia was ignoring me, focusing on tending to Jenes’ahn amongst the bodies littering the corridor. Furry bodies and blood strewn left and right, empty eyes staring beyond anything I could see. More concentrated death than I’d ever seen before. I took a deep breath to try and calm a bit and choked on gunsmoke, on oil fumes and blood and shit and ammonia stink.

My legs suddenly just gave out. I leaned hard against the wall, slid down to sit on the bloody floor. Just as a squad of our guards clattered into the hall with weapons drawn and drew up short at the sight. I was too busy shaking, trying to breathe through the growing ache across my chest and not throw up to pay them much notice.

Chapter 36

The atmosphere in the hall was tense, jittery.

A fire was blazing in the fireplace, sending sparks dancing up the chimney. Oil lamps set unsteady shadows wavering. The reek of gunpowder, of fear and metal and blood was everywhere. Rris bustled around, guards and staff tending to their injured. They were quiet and disciplined, but even I could tell they were on edge.

I sat with the others down by the fire, away from the main door. Makepeace was out of it, laying semi-conscious on a mat by the fire. Chaeitch and Rraerch weren’t as bad, but they were still quiet, woozy, sitting and swaying slightly from the lingering aftereffects of whatever it was we’d been dosed with. They sat swapping a jug of water back and forth, ears laid flat. I’d come out of it . . . in one piece. The coat had done what it was designed to do and stopped the bullet, but it’d been like having a pool queue broken over my chest. And the bruise that was coming up reminded me of that. No ribs broken, thankfully, but it was going to be stiff and painful for a few days. And my ears were still ringing after the indoor gunfire. That was something they never mentioned in the movies: all those action heroes would be stone-deaf.

Chihirae was beside me, huddling close in the heat from the hearth. She was more than a little shaken by the events of that night and when someone down the other end of the room dropped a pot with a resounding clatter she trembled.

“It’s okay. It’s nothing,” I said, putting an arm around her shoulder. Her muscles were twitching like an electric current was running through them.

“Oh, rot,” she mumbled.

“How’re you feeling?”

“Like I’m going to vomit,” she said.

I knew the feeling. “Water?” I offered. “It’ll help.” She waved an affirmative and I helped her sip from my water bottle.

“Mikah? How did this happen?”

“Wish I knew,” I said, looking over at the Mediators who were laid out in their own corner. Neither of them looked so good, especially Jenes’ahn. She was still sleeping. Her bandages were pink in places, but that was nothing to the gore that was smeared and matted through her fur. Guards were down the far end of the room, their commander giving orders

“I’m going to ask questions,” I said. “See if they know a bit more. You’ll be alright?”

She twitched again. Clawed fingers tensed on my leg, pinpricks starting to dig in, then the pressure lessened and she removed her hand. “A,” she said. “A.”

I stood, wincing as bruises made themselves felt, giving her shoulder a final stroke. She looked up at me, then lowered her head again and rubbed at her face. I went to ask some questions.

The Guard commander was talking with a pair of his subordinates, his helmet tucked under one arm. His fur was spattered and matted with dark mess and there were lines scored across the leather of his cuirass. As I approached the Rris he was speaking with looked my way and reacted. He also turned, flinched a bit and then dismissed the two.

“Sir,” he addressed me. He looked tired. His tail was drooping. “You are all right?”

“I’m okay. I’m all right,” I assured him and gestured back at the others. “They’re still not so good.”

“They should be,” he said.

“It’s not poison?”

“They wanted you alive. They wouldn’t have used anything dangerous.”

Idiots. A lot of Rris medication and even spices didn’t have the same effect on me as it did on them. Whatever they’d used had made me ill, but it could just as easily have been something lethal. “Why did they do it?” I asked.

He snorted. “They were here for just that purpose.”

“What?”

“An ambush,” he said. “We found the real staff. Out the back. Under the eaves, under the snow. Knives, [something]. Clean. Professional work. They didn’t stand a chance.”

“Oh,” I said. After that night things weren’t quite sinking in. “They killed . . . everyone here. Just to . . .”

“To get you, a,” he finished bluntly.

That hit me in the guts. I sat down on a table, heavily, wincing as the bruise across my chest made itself felt. “Crap.”

“Sir?” the commander’s ears went back.

“Who the fuck were they?”

He cocked his head. “I can’t really say. The ones outside fled when they realized their friends had failed to grab you. All the ones inside are dead. Makes it difficult to ask questions.”

“They weren’t just bandits, were they?”

“Not. They were patient. They had good equipment and armor. This was a planned ambush. They blocked the road, made sure we came this way. They killed the locals and waited for us.” His breath gusted as he snorted and looked around the room, back at the semiconscious Rris. “Overly risky: too complicated and smells of something an amateur would conceive of, but they weren’t amateurs. They almost did it. If you hadn’t woken . . .” he trailed off with a grimace.

“How many . . .?” I ventured.

“They killed the inside guards,” he said levelly. “Four guards and three attendants slaughtered in their sleep. Guards on duty outside hadn’t eaten or drunk that food they prepared, so they were alert. They still lost three.”

“Ten?!” I couldn’t believe it. “Ten in one night?”

“A,” was all he said.

I shook my head at that. Ten of our people drugged and murdered in their sleep. “And how many of them were there?”

“Difficult to be sure, sir. Upstairs they lost a dozen. Five more outside. They had more in the woods, but they didn’t press, so I suspect we outnumber them. But we can’t keep taking loses like that.”

“Guards are out now, a?” I asked and looked up at him when his tail lashed.

“Yes, sir. Triple duty, sir,” he growled.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Right. I won’t tell you your job.”

“Thank you, sir,” he said gruffly.

“You don’t think they’ve given up?”

“I can’t say for certain,” he hissed and considered for a few seconds. “They proved they’re serious, perhaps foolhardy and there are still a good number of them, so if they are also very determined . . . I would urge caution and preparedness.”

“Suggestions then?”

“We stay here tonight,” he said. “You and the others stay inside, down here where we can watch you. At first light we leave and we ride hard for the next big town.”

“They’ll be all right for that?” I nodded toward the groggy Rris at the other end of the hall.

“I’d prefer to leave now,” he said. “But they need the time. They seem to be recovering, so I think they’ll live. We’ll move your luggage down. We’ll find some good food for you. You just have to be ready to move quickly come sun-up, a?”

“Fine,” I said.

His ears flicked and he took one step away, and then paused. I looked and just saw his armored back, but his tail lashed once. “And . . . Sir?” he said without turning.

“A?”

“The Mediators . . . they are arrogant. I agree with you there. But they are also very good at what they do. I would listen to their advice. It could be better for all.”

I felt my jaw clench at that thinly veiled poke, but I gritted my teeth and just said, “Thank you, commander.”

He started to turn away and I asked. “What about that one?” I jerked my thumb down to the end of the hall where the musician was huddled, trying to look small. A couple of guards were lurking nearby.

“Him?” He snorted and his tail lashed once more. “Harmless,” he said, then strode off to deal with his troops. I released a hissing breath, then returned to the fire.

Chihirae was slumped with Chaeitch beside her. He looked up as I crouched down beside them. “She’s going to be fine,” he said to me. “Just resting.”

“But she’s still sick?”

He waggled a hand. “Not as bad. Seemed to hit some harder than others.” He gestured at Makepeace, “She’s still deep down, so it might be dosage: the ones that ate more got a bigger hit. You’re fortunate whatever that was didn’t put you under.” He thought about that. “Rot, we all are.”

“Huhn,” Chihirae grunted and cracked an eye. “Lucky they didn’t kill him.”

“Hey, how’re you feeling?” I asked her.

“Thirsty. Biting headache,” she growled, rubbing at her muzzle then blinked at me. “Like Westwater for you, a?”

It took me a moment to get that and Chaeitch looked confused. “Medicine for Rris doesn’t always affect me in the same way,” I explained, passing her the water bottle again.

“Hah, like the infamous Palace reception,” he said and caught Chihirae’s equally questioning expression as she sipped. “The wrong dinner sauce almost caused a war. I’ll tell you someday.”

Chihirae grimaced. “If it were anyone else I’d never believe you. So, Mikah, did you learn anything? Do they know what happened?”

I shrugged. “About as much as we do. But we make it to the next town and we should be alright.”

Chihirae’s ears went back. “Who were they? Will they try again?”

I hesitated. “Don’t know who they were. We hurt them pretty bad tonight, but they also hurt us and they seem determined. They might try again.” Probably would, I thought.

“A,” Chaeitch agreed, then scratched at his cheek and added, “but, what to what end? Taking you? I can’t see how they hope to get anything out of that. Taking you through violence and then expecting you to help them, do they really think that’s going to happen?”

I shook my head, but I couldn’t help but recalling what my attackers had yelled in that frantic skirmish on the dark stairs. “Take her!” they’d been howling. ‘Her’. I remembered that most vividly. I deliberately didn’t look at Chihirae.

Chapter 37

Dawn opened on a bitterly cold winter morning; sky of arctic-blue jigsawed with clouds blushing almost-metallic shades of scarlet and gold. High snow on the hills glowed tangerine in the early light. I squinted into the dawn, feeling my skin pricking in the early chill as our guards hurried us around to the stableyard where the carriages were waiting. Chaeitch and I were bundled into one and a second later both the Mediators climbed in after us, Jenes’ahn carrying both her bandaged arm in a sling and a markedly foul temper. Armed guards were everywhere, looking as alert as any guard would after an incident like that.

We didn’t have time to clean up, not completely. The bodies had been moved out back somewhere. I didn’t ask for details. The cold weather would keep them until . . . until someone could be sent back. If other travelers stopped by the inn before then they would be in for a nasty surprise. And probably loot the place, but again that was something we didn’t have the time to concern ourselves with.

The doors shut and we lurched into motion. I noticed the slatted wooden shutters had been installed over the windows, making it harder to see out. And in.

“And hopefully they won’t know which carriage he’s in,” Chaeitch observed.

“Hopefully,” Rohinia said. “Now, perhaps we can have a little talk about last night.”

“Suits me,” I said and before they could start asked, “How did they know we were here?”

Jenes’ahn glared. “After what you did at Long Way you really have to ask that?”

“Long Way was four . . . five nights ago,” I said. “The ones who attacked us: there were a lot of them, they were well armed, armored, professional. They were waiting for us. You are saying that a message went out from Long Way, found this group, then they raced to intercept us, through snow and ice, in five days? Come on. They were waiting for us. They must’ve known we would be coming this way. They knew before we left Shattered Water.”

The Rris all stared at me.

“Am I wrong?” I demanded. “You can’t just . . . phone someone, can you. You have to send a messenger, wait for them to respond. It all takes a time. This group must’ve been preparing for . . . I don’t know . . . . Weeks? Months? They were told about us before we left.”

Both Mediators were motionless, utterly expressionless. Chaeitch looked from them to me and back again, his own ears twitching wildly. After a few seconds Rohinia abruptly relaxed, blinking lazily as he sat back and waved a shrug. “That would seem likely, wouldn’t it.”

I shook my head. “And is all this tied in to this trip? Is it something to do with the timing? The sudden urgency?” I looked at Chaeitch. “Is it just a straightforward business trip?”

“I thought it was,” he said. “Dealing with some odd issues, granted, but there was no talk of threats or the like.”

I settled back in the seat, watching the Mediators carefully. “Nothing to do with the Guild? No . . . unfinished business?”

Jenes’ahn stiffened a bit but Rohinia didn’t twitch a muscle. “No. They weren’t anything to do with the Guild. Mercenary most likely.”

“The Guild wouldn’t use them?”

His amber eyes didn’t flicker. “Why? Guild members are a good deal more effective. I see they managed to shoot you though.”

I looked down. The bullet hole in the breast of the coat was quite visible against the white leather. “Yeah. I got better.”

Creases appeared on his muzzle. “I thought that coat seemed a little heavy. Winter coat, a? Ah Ties, you might have had something to do with it? [Something] mail? No, it stopped a musket ball.”

Chaeitch brushed at the fur of one forearm and looked uncertain. “It’s . . . leaf plates,” he said.

“Just that? Or did Mikah have some suggestions?”

“Yeah,” I said, so he didn’t have to. “The guns, the armor . . . I asked him to make them.”

“Why?”

I hesitated, stopped by the sheer bluntness of the question. “Ummm, what happened last night . . . you were there, weren’t you?”

“You didn’t know . . .”

“I didn’t,” I interrupted testily. “Not that that would happen. But something would.” I help up my truncated little finger and tapped the scar on my cheek, “There’s always something. I wanted to be prepared. I pushed him and he eventually agreed. It’s nothing fancy; metal plates in leather. You already know it; you call it winter coat.”

“It doesn’t usually stop bullets,” Rohinia said.

“Hyneman plates,” I flinched a grin, stifled it. “The scales are tempered steel with a layer of ceramic on the outside. It can stop single balls from old flintlock pistols. The ceramic shatters, but slows the bullet enough that the metal stops it. Still damages the scale though, and it wouldn’t work against newer or more powerful guns.” It also left me with one helluva bruise across my chest.

Rohinia’s muzzle wrinkled. “And the gun. Show me.”

I hesitated. He held out his hand, flicked fingers. I shrugged took the pistol from the inside shoulder holster and placed it in his hand. He turned it over.

“How did you know?” he asked.

“What?”

“Last night. You got up. You dressed and armed yourself. How did you know things were like that?”

“Oh. I was vomiting and Chihirae was ill. Something wasn’t right.”

“That’s all?” he asked, turning the cylinder, examining the chamber.

I shrugged. “And there were things that were wrong downstairs: the cook didn’t know where things were. And the innkeeper’s reaction to me was . . . wrong.”

“Wrong? How?” Jenes’ahn interjected.

I almost snapped a retort back at the Mediator, but bit that back and instead took a breath before answering. “She wasn’t surprised. When I came in she wasn’t surprised to see me or to hear that I could speak. Not really. She already knew.”

Metal clicked as Rohinia hinged the pistol open, a stubby finger turning the empty chambers. “You say you have trouble understanding Rris expressions sometimes.”

I frowned. “That is one I know. I’ve seen it often enough.”

“Ah,” his eyes glinted amber momentarily as he glanced at me. “You noticed that, yet you still ate the food?”

“And you didn’t notice anything?” I retorted, almost automatically. Neither Mediator flinched, at all. I looked from one to another, smelling hypocrisy. “You did,” I said. “Didn’t you.”

“The straw,” Chaeitch spoke up, and we all looked at him. He waved a shrug. “I didn’t think it important at the time either. Why put down clean straw before slaughtering an animal? Wasteful. The whole scene was to cover the scents from . . . from what they’d done earlier.”

Both Mediators had been staring at him, as if trying to spot every little twitch he made. I’d seen them do that before. Not other Rris, just Mediators.

“A,” Rohinia said after he’d finished. “Our estimate also.”

Which wasn’t quite the same as admitting they’d also made a mistake. They wouldn’t do that, not Mediators, but the fact remained that between us we’d missed things that’d cost a lot of lives. The pistol cylinder clicked as Rohinia turned it chamber by chamber.

“Were you expecting something like this?” I asked. “All these precautions . . . was this anticipated?”

“No.” Rohinia tried holding the pistol: the grip was too big for his hand and short fingers. “No. The opposite. This was intended to prevent such an action. There had been . . . not threats. Governments don’t do those while the Guild reads their mail. But that there had been . . .[insinuations] might be an accurate description.”

“And the Guild doesn’t deal with those.”

A claw tapped against the pistol and lines creased his muzzle as he frowned. “Nothing raw was stated. No edict was broken. An open provocation; an open act of war; violating the agreements, those would be grounds for the Guild to act. Suggestions of what might happen . . . that is different. You, are an interesting case. Your presence could be considered a destabilizing influence, but then again removing you could have an even more dire effect.”

“Good to know,” I said dryly.

“For you, a,” he said, missing or ignoring the sarcasm. “It means governments taste things very carefully. At the moment they are talking. There’s a lot of noise and bluster, but they’re caught in the middle of fear of the Guild, fear of what you might be giving their enemies and fear of missing an opportunity themselves.”

I thought that over. “So, who was it?”

He waved a shrug. “I’m not sure. I wouldn’t have thought the governments would go as far as attempting to kill you. The outlaying lands perhaps might consider that they will be left on the peripheries of the feeding and try something, but this was . . .”

“They weren’t trying to kill me,” I said.

He hesitated. “You have a reason for saying that?”

I snorted. “They could’ve just poisoned us or burned the building, a? I think they were trying to take me. They wanted . . . control. They were going after Chihirae.”

Chaeitch flinched. The Mediators did exactly the opposite. “You’re sure?” Rohinia said.

I related what I’d heard and let them make what they would out of it. The Mediators both listened, then ruminated. The carriage rocked steadily. After some minutes Rohinia stopped fiddling with the pistol, carefully closed it and then held it out to me, butt first. Surprised, I hesitated.

“You’re returning it?”

“Normally, I wouldn’t. But events don’t seem to be quite normal and did seem to warrant you having it. In any case: the grip’s too large for normal hands.”

I took the pistol back, double-checking it.

“Keep it out of sight,” the Mediator told me. “It’s a tool of last resort.”

As far as tools went, guns weren’t much good for anything else. I grunted and slipped it back into its pocket, into its holster, its weight merging with the heft of the coat and restoring the balance. “Things are that serious?”

The Mediators exchanged glances. “Somebody knows you,” Jenes’ahn finally said. “Knows you very well.”

That’s what I’d been afraid of. I tried not to let that thought show. “What do we do now?”

“Now?” Rohinia said. “Now we move as fast as we can. Try and stay ahead of them. The next large town is Thieves Always Return. The next with a Guild presence is Summer Breaks. I’d like to make that, so we don’t have to try and involve local authorities.”

“We could turn back,” Chaeitch offered.

“Thieves Always Return is closer,” Rohinia said.

“Am I understanding that name correctly?” I asked Chaeitch, then had to explain what I thought it meant. He thought it over, then said, “A.”

“Oh,” I sat back in the seat as the coach bumped and swayed and rolled my eyes. “Thieves Always Return.” In native Rris it was less awkward than my English transliteration. “That sounds promising.”

Chapter 38

From then on we moved faster. What’d been a steady but somewhat sedate pace turned to a bone-jolting, crashing ride as the drivers pushed their teams harder. Iron wheels found rocks and ruts buried under the snow and the suspension could only do so much. It still wasn’t as fast the Mediators and military personnel wanted to travel, but the accompanying goods wagons weren’t built for speed — the animals had their limits and the risk of shattering one of the wooden-spoked wheels was just too high.

That first day after the inn we rode nonstop. All day. By the time we stopped at the next village the sun was westering and I was feeling physically battered. It was a small town located where the detour road swung back to meet the Ashansi river. A few larger buildings sat on the crossroads: a smithy, a store, a small inn and tavern. Other buildings were houses, spread out toward the frozen river. Wisps of smoke rose vertically from chimneys, catching the last of the sun.

We didn’t stop for long. The Mediators went to talk to someone in the inn, Jenes’ahn walking stiffly and trying not to move her bound arm too much. After ten minutes or so I heard shouting from inside. The Mediators came out and I got a glimpse of villagers grouping behind them, looking distraught, heads turning to gaze back the way we’d come. The Mediators climbed in and we set off again.

I craned my neck to try and look out the window, back at the town we were leaving. There were anxious-looking Rris in the street outside. I sat back and gave Rohinia a questioning look.

He met my stare and cocked his head slightly. “We told them what happened at the inn,” he said. “We asked if they’d seen anything out of place. Nothing that anyone could recall. Perhaps a bit more traffic than was usual, but nothing more than that.”

“And that got them that upset?”

“Some of them knew staff at the inn. They were upset, frightened. They wanted protection.”

“Oh,” I said. “Can we do anything about that?”

He scratched at his chin. “We aren’t in any position to offer assistance. In fact, our presence here would probably [something] matters.”

“They would do that here?” Chihirae quietly ventured from beside me. She looked back at us. I could see her ears twitching, also muscles under her pelt flinching. Nervous tics. “They would do what they did at the inn to a town?”

Rohinia gestured a shrug. “We can’t be certain. They’ve shown they have the willingness to be so ruthless, but whether they have the capability . . . the inn was isolated; a town or village would be a different proposition. We don’t know their strength.”

She’d looked away before he’d finished speaking, looking out the window again as small, snow-covered buildings passed on by outside. “Hey,” I touched her hand gently, laying mine over hers. “You okay?”

They were English words she could understand. I wasn’t sure about the Mediators. “A,” she said quietly. “Fine.”

So that day we kept moving for as long as we could. The road swung back to the river, a snow-covered, well-trodden trail following alongside the frozen waterway as it meandered through the path it’d carved through the Rippled Lands: a south-westering gouge slicing through the serried ranks of ranges marching down from the north. From our perspective they became walls to the north and south, Mountains beyond mountains forming the valley walls; processions of ridges blanketed with trees and snow, faces and cliffs of bare stone occasionally scarring the hillsides. Tributaries ran from offshoot valleys and gullies to the north and south, feeding the river which swung too and fro across the valley floor: wide and slow enough to navigate if it wasn’t for the ice floes creaking and grinding their way along. At last light we were trundling along a road following the river bank, looking out through bare trees and scrub as the sun sank behind us. Beyond the river, away down the valley ahead, I could see a procession of hilltops marching away into the distance, a last golden light touching the snow-dusted caps, each hill slowly vanishing as the shadow of its neighbor climbed the slopes.

That night we stopped in some unknown farmer’s fallow field. Just an empty piece of land with nothing but a good expanse of empty snow between the camp and the nearest cover. I lay on the converted seats in the freezing dark cab, listening to faint winter noises from outside and quite aware of the furry body curled up beside me. Some warmth in the night. Her back to me and as quiet as she’d been all day.

“You aren’t, are you,” I whispered. “Fine.”

A pause, then she shifted, rolled towards me. I saw a gust of breath in the grey moonlight filtering through the ice on the window. “Oh, Mikah.”

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” I said. “They said it’d be easy. If I’d known . . .” if they’d told me the truth . . .”I wouldn’t have asked you.”

“I know,” the small voice said.

“I’ll do what I can for you,” I said. “They won’t hurt you.”

I felt the shudder run through her entire body. She’d been kidnapped before. The Land-of-Water government had moved her from Lying Scales to Shattered Water, ostensibly for my benefit. En route she’d been grabbed by smugglers who intended to use her as leverage against me. They hadn’t treated her well. When I’d gotten to her she’d been blindfolded and muzzled, in a cage, terrified. That wasn’t going to happen again, no matter what I had to do.

“What do you want to do?” I asked her.

She just breathed for a while. I stroked her shoulder, gently scratching behind her ears. “I don’t know,” she said. “Could we go back?”

The bruise on my chest ached as I sighed. “I don’t know how much safer that would be. It’s still a long way back to Shattered Water. The garrison at Summer Breaks is the only one I think we can trust. And Shattered Water might . . . it might not be so safe either.”

“That we can trust?” she echoed.

I scratched her back, lightly raking my nails across her spine. “Someone knew we were leaving,” I said. “Someone was close enough to have those bastards ready to move. Two candidates come to mind: Bluebetter and . . .”

“Land-of-Water?” she finished.

“A.”

“Not Guild?”

I couldn’t see her in the dimness. Not her expression, just a general glimmer where her eyes caught the dimness. “Why do you say that?”

A snort jolting her ribcage. “You came back from Cover-my-Tail with your Guild escort and a very distinct attitude toward them. Chaeitch wouldn’t tell me what happened, but you’ve been . . . protective toward me around them. They did something you didn’t like.”

“Something,” I murmured. “A, ‘something’ is right. But this . . . they said those at the inn weren’t Guild. I believe them on that.”

“Then who were they?”

“Wish I knew. This trip was arranged a couple of weeks ago. And they were waiting for us. I don’t think they just phoned home. Someone knew about this; they knew when we were leaving what route we were taking and they had time to organize that lot.” I traced random curls through her fur with my fingers.

Chihirae squirmed slightly, pushing back against my touch. “Another country?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I scratched again. “Possibly. Last time something like this happened it turned out that Land-of-water had problems in their own house.”

She lay quietly for a while; a warmer-than-human bundle providing welcome heat on a night when the air seemed to steal the warmth from a body. “Treason?”

“Possibly. I don’t know.”

“But what do they hope to gain?”

“Me,” I said simply, then sighed. “People out there are worried. About what I know, or what they think I know or what they think I’ll tell their competitors. They think . . . I don’t know what they think. Some are worried they’ll lose power or work or influence or money. Some want power or work or influence or money. Some are just scared.”

“Enough that they would do something like that?”

I’d seen enough to know that some would do something like that without a second thought and with far less at stake. “Some would,” was all I told her.

“You can’t be sure . . .” she started, then subsided. “You had those weapons, that armor. You were sure.”

I felt my face twitch in a smile that pulled at the old scar tissue in my cheek. “Not entirely, but . . . this happens too often. It’s as if every time I step outside I have to worry about something happening. I wanted to be prepared this time.”

“How many times?”

I stared into the darkness and counted in my head, then coughed a laugh. “I’ve lost count.”

“That many,” she murmured.

“A,” I said and waited for her to say something more. When she didn’t speak I just lay quietly. Beside the alien woman breathing in the dark, feeling her moving, feeling her warmth, feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Beside the person who thought, but not like I did. What was going on in that head of hers? How did she perceive me? How did that mind interpret my responses? Sometimes I thought I knew, but then there’d be something that’d come from out of the blue and knock me back to square one.

I didn’t want her to go, for those practical reasons I’d given her, but also for more selfish ones. She was . . . she was my anchor here. She’d been my protector, my friend and my lover. I wanted her; needed her; didn’t want her to leave. She’d been dragged out of her home and into my troubles, and despite all that, she’d stayed. For reasons that were hers; that made sense to Rris, but that I had to struggle to unravel.

My emotions kept defaulting to human ones, on some sub-basement level of my psyche expecting her to feel the same way. Then she’d say things about obligation and duty and position and I just couldn’t work them into my worldview. Did she feel obliged to stay? Did she feel she owed me? Did she feel she owed her people? Or they’d told her she had to stay with me.

And slowly, with horrible aspects unfolding in my mind, another thought percolated — I’d killed Rris. That night I’d gunned down . . . how many? A half-dozen? More? I’d never kept track, but I’d killed them.

What did she think of that?

Chapter 39

It all came back that night.

The gloom and darkness was everywhere; the freezing dark hallways that seemed so much more convoluted and twisting than they’d really been. There was the feeling of wrongness, of creeping dread as I knew something was approaching. My light was a feeble, flickering glow in shadows that seeped like black tar around my feet as I tried to get . . . get somewhere. I staggered through black halls, my heart hammering, gasping for breath as I twisted and turned past countless branches and turnings.

And the shadows came to meet me. The terror surged through me as indistinct figures coalesced from the shadows and I was fighting for her life. I didn’t think, just fired, again and again, blinded by fire and smoke, pummeled by noise, choking on smoke and blood and they just kept coming through the fire and I yanked the trigger again and again and snarling jaws lunged at my face . . .

“Mikah!” the face inches away from mine yowled and I froze, confused, in pain. One of my hands was clamped onto an arm, the other around her jaw. I was panting and trembling; I could feel her trembling. Blankets were tangled around my legs, around us where she was half-astride me. It was freezing: the doors hung open and outside in the cutting clear moonlight Rris eyes glinted as shocked-looking guards holding weapons stared in.

“Oh,” I croaked through a raw throat and let my hands drop. She half-sat, leaning on my belly, panting almost as hard as I was.

The guard commander stepped up to the door and cocked his head. “Are you all right, sir?”

“It’s fine,” Chihirae said, each breath visible in the feeble light.

The officer ignored her and took a step closer to ask again, “Sir?”

“I’m okay,” I rasped. Shit. I ached. Where the bullet had hit me my entire chest was stiff and felt like it was creaking with every breath. How bad had it been?

The commander didn’t have a chance to say anything else. He hastily stepped aside as another figure shoved in front of him — Chaeitch, panting, still naked, with legs caked to the knees in powdered snow and an old flintlock pistol in hand. “What the rot was all that?” he gasped at us.

“Rough night,” I said, started to sit. “You don’t need . . .”

Chihirae pushed me back and sighed and said, “His dreams again.”

Chaeitch opened his mouth, then seemed to catch her meaning. “Oh,” he said. Then, “Rot.”

“A,” she said and then I saw her wave a small, impatient gesture at him: just a twitch of her hand that didn’t mean anything to me.

“I’m okay,” I said again. “Just . . . cold.” I was. Sweat was freezing in my beard, on my skin.

He blinked at me, at her, and then said to the captain, “She should stay.”

“There’s no problem?” the commander’s muzzle was contorted in confusion or annoyance, I couldn’t tell.

“Nothing we can solve,” Chaeitch said and turned away. “Best leave them be, Commander.” The officer hesitated as Chaeitch padded off through the snow and after a second I heard his voice carry back, “Now.”

The Rris officer’s ears went down and he looked at us. “Apologies, sir. Milady.”

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Just . . . close those doors.”

They did. Ice tinkled on the windows, glittering in the night glow filtering in. It was still freezing.

“That was . . . embarrassing,” I said to the darkness as I tried to pull coverings up and reorganize them.

“For who?” Chihirae said. Her weight on me was a familiar one: a heavy fur blanket, a welcome source of warmth. “You can’t blame them. You were screaming like a trapped rabbit.”

I gritted my teeth and laid back under the quilt and furs, staring up into nothing. “I thought those were finished. I’d hoped they were.”

She shifted, laying an arm across me, her head next to mine. Her breath was hot and harsh. “I’m . . . not sorry they aren’t.”

That wasn’t what I’d expected. “What?”

Her hand patted my shoulder and she butted her nose against my cheek, gently. “You’re still there . . . the one I knew in Westwater.”

I turned my head to try and see her; to see what she was talking about. “I don’t understand.”

An exhalation; something between a sigh and a hiss blew across my cheek. “Last night . . . you . . . after what you did, there was just nothing in you. You just went on as if it were nothing to you.”

Was that what the cold shoulder had all been about? I grimaced, still seeing gunfire in the darkness. “It’s not,” I said. “It’s never nothing.”

“I thought . . . You went through them as if they weren’t there and then you didn’t seem to think anything of it. You just went on as normal.”

My fingers touched bristly fur and stroked gently. “Normal? You know, before I came here I could count the fights I got into each year on the fingers of one foot. Now . . .” I ruffled her pelt, looking for words in her language, in her mindset. “Sometimes, if you stop and let yourself see what you’re doing, you’ll never get going again.”

“So you ignore it?”

“For a time. It comes back. Later. It always comes back.” I tried laughing a laugh I didn’t feel.

“You don’t know how often you’ve fought like this? How often you’ve killed?”

I felt my heart lurch. Oh, God. Why did she want to know? How could I answer that? What would it do to her? I spun my wheels for what felt like a long time before telling her the truth. “I don’t know.”

“So often?” she said quietly.

I suppose I could’ve said something such as, ‘Yes, but they were all bad’. I could’ve, but that wouldn’t have been right. Not at that moment. “A,” was all I said. “Too often. I try not to remember details. I thought they’d settled. Last night . . . stirred them up again.”

A soft cough in the darkness. “So, the armor. The weapons. You had a reason.”

“No. No reason. Just . . . well, none of those other times had reasons either. They just happened.”

“Oh,” a hand moved, a finger laying in the soft spot of my neck where my pulse could be felt. “I’m going to have to ask Chaeitch about what happened in Open Fields. Huh, that female you dragged in said you were on the run from bandits. Are they the same?”

“No,” I said, more forcefully than I’d intended and the fingertip on my throat could doubtless feel the lurch in my heartbeat. “No. No they’re not the same. And . . . Please. Don’t talk about it. Don’t do that. It’d only make things worse.”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

“Because it’s true,” I said miserably. “And I can’t tell you why.”

She was quiet for a while, her hand resting on my pulse as she intuited and guessed and made assumptions that I couldn’t rightly read.

“It upsets you,” I said quietly. “That I’ve killed Rris.”

“A, it does,” she said simply, her face close enough to mine that I could smell her breath. “Perhaps more the fact that I know you had to do it.” I heard and felt a low sigh that carried more than subtle undertones of a growl. “I do remember what happened. You came for me. You fought for me. I can’t fault you for that. And after last night . . . I can’t fault you for that either. You never had a choice.”

“There are always choices,” I said and couldn’t help but flash back to a ship full of Rris exploding, remains of a boiler plummeting from a clear sky to splash into a lake, the physical impact of gunfire in close rooms. I shuddered: a convulsive contraction of my body.

She didn’t miss that. Pressed against me, there was no way she could’ve. Her hand stroked across my skin, across the knot of scar tissue on my shoulder, stopping at the lurid bruising that’d blossomed across my chest. “You all right?”

“A,” I said.

A pause. “Those choices weren’t easy,” she said.

“No. They weren’t.”

Another pause while she just lay beside me, then she asked, “Would sex help?”

That was something I hadn’t anticipated. “What?” I blinked, then laughed at the unexpected absurdity of her timing. “Help? How?”

“I thought it might help with the dreams,” she said quietly. “You seem quieter . . . more relaxed after.” She shifted a little and a damp, wet tongue rasped over a patch of skin on my shoulder.

I flinched at the sensation, at once strange and also intimately inviting, then smiled in the dark and reached up, scratching gently at a handful of fur. “I thought you had concerns about that.”

“That was before. Now . . . it might keep the Mediators out. Besides,” she growled softly and licked again, each breath washing over my skin, “knowing you, do you really need a reason?”

That made me smile. I rolled toward her, laying an arm over her. She burrowed against me, nuzzling my neck. “You’re good enough,” I whispered.

I couldn’t see her expression; could only know her by touch, by feel, and there was no way that could be mistaken for human. We twisted and squirmed under the sheets, striving to make two different bodies mesh, trying to make tab a fit with slot q. She hissed an intake of breath and growled briefly, then there was a moment when everything was easier and she was a hot, hairy body pressed against me, arms around me, clutched to my chest hard enough I could feel her heart racing. We clung to each other, her head nuzzled into my neck. I could smell her musty scent, feel her breathing, feel her tension and trembling as she held on tight enough that I could feel her claws digging in. They hurt a bit when she clenched hard but I just didn’t care.

On that freezing black night in a freezing box in the middle of a snow-blown nowhere, we were alike enough in that we just wanted to hold tight and try to forget everything else for a while.

Chapter 40

Dawn had only just begun to touch the surrounding hilltops when we set off the next morning. Golden light streaked across the highest peaks, a dazzling bright scan line of warmth caught across the world against a clear blue sky. Below that slowly-descending terminator snow-covered slopes and trees were still shrouded in frigid blue shadows. I was still yawning uncontrollably, had a crick in my neck, a muzzy head, fur in my mouth and a completely inappropriate craving for a coffee. Rraerch poked her head in, wrinkled her nose and just asked if we’d had a better night before subtly retreating.

The Mediators weren’t easily put off. They simply bore it with stoic imperturbability and sat quietly while I went through my assigned lessons for the day. Chihirae leaned against me and encouraged me with the pages of dense text, helping when I became hopelessly mired in terms that were far beyond my ability in their language. That chapter was about horticultural and agricultural matters: various crops and stock in different countries, production levels, transport and distribution and trade and storage routes, a mind-bogglingly extensive range of information about everything I never wanted to know about Rris farming. Along with that drop in the flood of information the Mediators wanted me to absorb were the restrictions the Guild was imposing.

They didn’t want me to do anything that’d cause disruptions; give any one entity or individual a decisive advantage. I couldn’t introduce new devices or techniques that’d produce imbalances in the trade and market systems. Rris farmers were just starting to take advantage of the tools their new industries could produce: iron plows and moldboards and mechanical seed drills were becoming affordable. Local governments were funding new and better roads that could carry goods further, faster. Water trade was already extensive, mostly through coasters and other shallow draught sailing vessels — their steamboats weren’t efficient enough to be economical. Yet, but that was changing faster than the Mediators would’ve liked.

Nothing I provided to any petitioner was to offer an overwhelming advantage. The Guild wanted any new technologies to result in changes that were initially small, controlled and manageable. Until they could evaluate the effect and then roll them out elsewhere. Or at least control the distribution.

I could understand their sentiments, but what they were requesting was all but impossible. The most incongruous little thing could have ramifications that simply couldn’t be anticipated. An automated reaper or harvester, for example, would revolutionize their farming industry — single farmers could work far greater parcels of land with greater returns than the old ways. But at that moment farmers worked much smaller parcels of land, so there was a proportionally larger number of small farms and they couldn’t all suddenly upgrade and increase in size and output: There’d be surpluses, demand and prices for crops would plummet, there’ be turmoil in markets across the boards. Farmers would have to adapt or become redundant, which was a glossed-over term for starve.

The Guild specifically stated they wanted nothing that affected the status quo. No weapons, or technology with ancillary military applications, which excluded a helluva lot: something as basic as barbed wire would be questionable. Likewise compact steam engines, combine harvesters and other sorts of automation and factory machinery. They weren’t stupid; sensible practices like crop rotation, soil regeneration and animal breeding were already standard practice, but other concepts like selective breeding of plant strains could be considered a military advantage.

The only good thing I was getting out of it was the in-depth language lessons. The material in that dossier was written in Rris legalese by Mediators with no consideration for my abilities and was way beyond my reading level. Chihirae’s experience and patience with ignorant pupils was put to the test as we paused almost every couple of lines while I tried to struggle through the physical structure as well as grammar and vocabulary to puzzle out the meaning of a bit of text.

“This is crazy,” I said in frustration to Rohinia at one point later that morning as we stopped for a necessary break. I was able to get out to stretch my legs, the Mediators staying close by. “At this point all I’ll be able to tell them about are paper clips and those things on the end of boot laces.”

“Only once you clear it with us,” he said placidly, squinting into the morning light. Sunlight glared off snow and ice. The road followed the outside of a lazy bend in the river. It was broad there, five hundred meters across easy. The shorelines were frozen while out in the middle occasional lumps of ice spun past in an open channel. Reeds along the banks bent under a fuzzy encrustation of frost that was gradually misting and dripping away. A bit warmer that day.

I glared and stomped my feet, working some circulation back. Was he joking? Hell, that was my piece. “Really, a list of what I can tell them would be easier than this. You know, anything can be called a weapon. If they can produce more food with less farmers, that would be of use for warfare.”

“A,” he said. “Which is why we do not want such information getting out.”

“It’s not as if they can implement a change like that immediately,” I said. “It’s farming. It takes years for anything to happen. And it’s quite obvious.”

“Nevertheless,” he said

“Nevertheless,” I sighed and jammed my hands a little deeper in my pockets. “You know you’re not making this any easier.”

“A.”

I paused. “And you know we’re being followed and watched.”

He hesitated a little too long. “Where?”

“Across the river,” I said. “Just above the road there. Below the pine.”

He didn’t turn, but cocked his head. “You can’t possibly . . .”

“I can see small detail further than Rris,” I reminded him. “I can see.”

“And you just happened to notice this individual?” he sounded dubious.

“They’re wearing red. It stands out.”

“Why would someone trying to be inconspicuous wear red?”

“To them . . . to you it’s probably not. Red, I mean,” I said. “Different eyes. You see it as dark grey or black, I think. Anyway, you know this.”

“Ah Ties,” Rohinia grumbled without turning around. “What’s your opinion?”

I did look. Chaeitch was standing just behind me, looking out across the water. I hadn’t heard him arrive. He waved a shrug. “If Mikah says he saw something, then I’d take him at his word. His eyes are unusual when it comes to that sort of thing.”

“Huhn,” the Mediator grunted and then turned to look out across the ice and water. I almost started to say something, but even to my eyes details on the distant shore were indistinct: snow, trees, a line that was probably another road, hills. Whoever was over there might be able to see us with a spyglass, but they probably couldn’t make out details such as the Mediator looking right at them. “He’s using a spyglass?”

“Hey,” I said. “I can’t see that well.”

“Only one of them?”

“I think so. Can’t be sure. I can see some color where there shouldn’t be any, that’s about all.”

“You could always swim over and see,” Chaeitch suggested brightly. Funny guy.

“Perhaps I could use you as a flotation device,” I retorted. “Any other ideas what we’re going to do about it?”

Rohinia was quiet for a while, standing in his long coat at the river’s edge. Around us the guards and staff bustled around, feeding animals and themselves, checking cinches and doing whatever needed doing. More than a few glanced at us but otherwise left us alone. He snorted, steam spilling from his nostrils as he turned away.

“Got a plan?” I asked.

“A,” he said.

I waited, then asked, “Well? What is it? What do we do?”

“For now, nothing,” he said as he stalked past us, head back toward his partner.

I looked after his retreating back, then at Chaeitch and shrugged. “Nothing. I think I can do that.”

Chapter 41

We kept moving as fast as we could. There was nothing that could be immediately done about our shadows so we didn’t do anything and tried not to let on that we knew they were there. For the next couple of days we travelled as far as we could, as fast as we could, rested the animals and then did it again. The road kept following the river south-east, matching its curves and bends as it cut its way across the general lay of the land, which was convoluted to say the least.

For most of the way the valley was broad, the river winding its way through virgin forest occasionally dotted with fields, hamlets, small villages. Further on a ridge from the east cut into the valley, pinching the road and river together again. Our convoy pushed through another narrow cutting where the icy, rocky road skirted a sheer drop into freezing water and the single rope safety rail looked incredibly flimsy. That cautious passage had everyone on edge, half expecting something to happen. It didn’t.

It took us three days of hard travel and three restless nights before Thieves Always Return came into sight along the valley. The first I saw of it was the castle, sprawled across a high outcropping, sunning itself in the last of the daylight. It looked like an old stronghold, with steep stone outer walls surrounding an interior keep, the steep clay tile roofs burning in the sunset. Below the walls the town proper continued down gentler slopes, spilling over some old town walls and then scattering around the valley floor. But I couldn’t help but notice that the town wasn’t built on the river.

“It was, once,” Chaeitch told me, dragging on his pipe.

“Was?”

“The castle had a commanding overlook of the road and river bend and controlled all traffic coming through. The lord taxed heavily and was strong enough to hold onto what she had. Then the river shifted,” he said, using his pipe to point to the water on its current course. “Years back there was heavy flooding. The river cut across the bend and found another route over the other side of the valley. Turned this into an oxbow lake and stayed there. Suddenly the lord’s revenue wasn’t so strong and she found herself having to rely on Land-of-Water for support.”

“They didn’t change the channel back?”

He eyed me. “Might’ve been easy where you came from, but Thieves Always Return didn’t have the capability or the money. Land of Water didn’t offer support until the lord didn’t have any choice but to accept. Once the contracts were made, we didn’t see any reason to change things back.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Over a hundred years.”

“Ah,” I said. “I hope they’re not the sort to carry grudges.”

He just puffed on his pipe.

Some hours later we rode into Thieves Always Return. There were still the remains of an old stone quay down by the old river. Where the water had once been was a broad depression in the landscape: a horseshoe bend looping back to the river’s present course. It was well overgrown and planted and built upon, but obviously still there. A well-travelled road headed off to the south, in the direction of a low hill a couple of kilometers off that’d been on the inside of the loop before the river changed course. Buildings were dotted over it. A new town, or a remote suburb of this one? I wondered what would happen if the river decided to change its course again. Shenanigans and goings-on, probably.

The town had overflowed the city walls and was obviously growing out toward the new river. Outside the walls the streets were broad and paved under the trampled snow, the buildings spaced well apart and separated by hedges and trees. There were residences as well as streets with stores and shops. Lamps burned in windows, little pools of warmth in the twilight cold.

A gatehouse straddled the road into the center of town. It was old, but looked to be in good repair. Bored guards standing in the dark and overseeing farmers and merchants got interested when they saw us, then even more interested when Mediators started telling them what to do. Before we’d even got through the gatehouse runners were pelting off through the night toward the keep.

Inside the walls the buildings were packed in like chocolates in a box, excluding the little map of course. The town was laid out on a series of terraces staggered around the hill. The main thoroughfare wound its way up, switchbacking through neighborhoods of varying affluence, but always overshadowed by the walls of the fortress above. A few streetlight burned. Not gas lamps like back in the big city, but small oil lamps that offered fitful glimmer of light. Enough for Rris eyes but not really for mine. Occasionally steep little steps and alleyways branched off to either side, up or down into the surrounding maze of buildings, vanishing into darkness. The cobblestones were slick with ice and grimy snow, making the iron coach wheels skitter alarmingly sideways at inopportune moments and the steaming elk stagger and bleat protests as their heavy loads shifted.

“There shouldn’t be any problems,” Rohinia explained to me as we lurched uphill. “There are issues between the Hiesh and Chihiski names, but those are in the past. Hopefully.”

Chihiski . . . that was Hirht’s other name. That there’d been problems wasn’t good news. “Hopefully?” I looked from him to Jenes’ahn who was quietly flexing the fingers on her wounded arm. “You’re not sure?”

“He was a candidate.”

“I know,” I said. “That’s why he’s king now . . .”

“Not Hirht,” Rohinia interjected. “Ah Hiesh was a candidate.”

“He . . . I...” I got it then. “Oh. You mean the lord here . . .”

“A,” Rohinia grunted. “We know that about him: that he was deemed not to be a suitable candidate. ‘Eccentric’, was a word used I believe, but just that; not the fine details of that decision or anything else about him. There’s no Guild here, so any records would be suspect. Be careful; behave yourself.”

“Why does everyone say that?”

“Possibly because it so often seems to be necessary.”

Whatever message the gatehouse had sent it’d gotten the keep riled up. We rode in through another gatehouse, past another gate and into a cobbled courtyard with a waterless fountain in the center. The gatehouse was one side of the court while the keep loomed up overhead on the other. On the far side steps led up to a set of heavy doors that were hanging wide open. Rris were bustling around: servants lighting sconces from long tapers, harried-looking guards trying to form up on the steps. Looked like they needed a bit more practice at that maneuver.

Our convoy, the coaches and the wagons and riders drew into the courtyard, circling the still fountain. There was a statue of some kind on a pedestal atop the fountain — a depiction of a Rris standing amidst something. In the dim light of the fire-lit courtyard all I could see was a vague shape. We stopped. Rohinia and Rraerch and Chaeitch all hopped out and approached the steps. I was about to join him but my coat snagged. Jenes’ahn was holding onto my belt. “Not yet,” she told me. “Sit. Wait.”

I sighed and sat back.

The reception didn’t seem hostile. Rraerch, Chaeitch and the Mediator strode toward the steps with some of our guards close behind. At the top of the steps a small group of Rris emerged from the keep’s big doors, one hurrying down to meet our party while the others waited at the top. There was talking, gesticulation, then another of the Rris in the party waiting at the top of the steps pushed through and briskly hurried down. I winced, picturing the ice on those steps, but the Rris made it down without ending up sitting on his tail. There were more words and Chaeitch and Rraerch gave deferential inclines of their heads to the newcomer. Rohinia didn’t.

If there was a high sign between the Mediators I missed it, but Jenes’ahn tapped my arm and said, “All right. Go, now. And . . .”

“I know, be careful.”

Be careful; behave yourself.”

“Why does everyone say that?” I said as I stepped down from the carriage. Snow on flagstones creaked under my feet. Looking up one was surrounded by walls: the gatehouse on one side, the keep on the others. In the puddle of sky visible above stars glittered hard and cold in the frosty air. The oil lamps that’d been lit around the courtyard periphery didn’t provide that much light. All the small pools of fitful orange illumination managed to do was exaggerated the darkness, giving everything and everyone multiple trembling shadows. I looked at the Rris gathered around, at the local servants and guards and the entourage from our caravan and felt a bit nervous. Call me speciesist, but I’ve always found it hard to tell Rris apart — the cues and structures the human brain looks for in facial recognition just aren’t there. Facial features, bone structure, eyes, nose, ears, musculature, microexpressions . . . all radically different. Even with individual that Rris I knew well, clothes and situational cues were the best ways I had to identify them. In uncertain lighting there was a lot of scope for mistakes. In crowds there was even more. I didn’t like crowds.

Around the courtyard pairs of sparks glinted foxfire cold as eyes watched me crossing the flagstones towards the group at the stairs. Guards’ were watching me closely and I saw other Rris peeking from windows and doors, whispering. Jenes’ahn was shadowing me, just a step behind and matching each careful step I took, taking care not to slip on the icy stone and make a complete fool of myself.

Rohinia, Chaeitch and Rraerch the Mediator were still engaged with the locals at the foot of the steps. They were showing some deference towards one of the locals. I assumed it was an official, the welcoming committee. As I got closer they looked around at me and I mentally prepared myself for the usual, ‘it talks’ crap, running through some possible responses that wouldn’t be too offensive.

So I wasn’t entirely prepared when one of the unfamiliar locals pushed through the others and strode toward me and was close enough I could see quite clearly when he bared teeth at me.

A weight slammed into me, staggering me aside as Jenes’ahn blurred past and planted herself between us. One hand was held palm-and-claws-out in a halt gesture to the stranger. The other was concealed behind her back where I could see it, holding a knife.

The other Rris stopped short, immediately, and hastily hid the teeth. “Apologies, constable. I was given to understand that was how he showed amiability.”

Jenes’ahn hesitated a bit, possibly as surprised as I was. Then she straightened and cocked her head, still wary. “Yes, sir, he does do that. We don’t encourage it.”

“No?” the other blinked eyes that glowed like molten lead in the dim light. “From what I saw back in Shattered Water that is perhaps for the best. Mikah? It is Mikah, isn’t it? That is how it is pronounced?”

“It is,” Rohinia offered, coming up alongside the other. “And Mikah, this is his lordship, ah Hiesh. He is quite willing to offer us the hospitality of his . . .”

“Yes, yes,” the lord waved impatiently and leaned forward, hands clasped behind his back like a child trying to show that he wasn’t going to touch, quite unabashedly looking me up and down. He was a tall Rris, but quite slender. In the dimness I could make out some light blazes across his muzzle and on one ear. He was dressed in a long coat of fine blue cloth that glittered with embroidered silver.

“That’s incidental. Quite incidental. I must say this is a fortuitous meeting indeed. She said you may come this way, but I hadn’t expected this. So many questions. So many questions . . .”

“To be vetted by the Guild,” Jenes’ahn said quietly. Her ears were twitching back but I don’t think he noticed.

“A, quite. Absolutely,” he said in an offhand manner, still staring at me. Then he gave a quick shake of his head and said, “I understand he doesn’t like the cold. Is that correct? A? Perhaps you should come inside.”

“You do understand why we’re here?” Rohinia asked in a mild tone. Perhaps that was enough to hint to the Rris noble that something was amiss. He paused and looked at the mediators. “You said there was some difficulty on the road. Trouble with your coaches? Although they seem in fair enough shape.”

“Hiesh, you were a promising young man. We hadn’t considered you one to resort to stooping to something like this to cater to your own interests. We sincerely hope we weren’t mistaken.”

Now the noble stopped and stiffened. His stance changed, straightened, shifting from that of vibrantly intent interest to one of cold aloofness. “‘Something like this’?” he echoed, biting the words off with precise contempt. “You are implying something?”

“You seem to be pleased to have Mikah stopping by your town.”

“As would anyone who has an even glancing interest in current events,” Hiesh replied and looked at me again, over at Makepeace and Chihirae, at our escort and their weapons. “You are asking me if I was responsible. You were attacked two or three days ago. You rode hard to get here seeking assistance or shelter. And at the same time you accuse me?”

“We didn’t make any mention an attack,” Jenes’ahn quietly.

“Of course you didn’t,” he snapped instantly. “You just come in here unannounced and unexpected with important passengers, exhausted animals, and dirty coaches showing all the signs of having been driven hard. All your guards are armed and alert and worried. You smell like you haven’t washed in about two or three days. Especially your passenger, who also smells like gunpowder and, incidentally, appears to have a bullet hole in his new-looking coat. Nothing too serious I hope?” he abruptly asked me in a lighter tone.

I glanced down at the black pock of the bullet hole in the breast of my coat and waved a shrug. “I’ve had worse.”

“Most fortuitous,” he said and leveled another glare at Jenes’ahn. “You come in here in such a state requesting assistance and then you’re surprised when I suggest there may be something awry? Parochial we may be, Constable, but we are capable of putting bits of a puzzle together when they’re handed to us on a platter.”

Jenes’ahn had gone to her stone-faced setting. Rohinia just looked interested. I grinned. His lordship noticed. “I can see why that expression is discouraged,” he said, blinking at me. “I have heard a lot about Mikah here. There was a possibility he’d come this way and I certainly wanted to meet with him, but I hadn’t imagined it would come to pass so soon. Do you think I’d leave such obvious spoor and cause more problems than I really require? This is mere chance.”

“Happens a lot around him,” Chaeitch offered.

“Huhn,” Hiesh snorted, his breath steaming orange in the lamplight. “Ah Ties, if I recall.”

“Sir,” Chaeitch inclined his head.

“And Aesh Smither,” he said turning to Rraerch. “It’s been a while since I’ve had so many important visitors at one time. Now,” he waved a hand in an inviting gesture, “I would invite you to be my guests. Or, if you are determined to maintain your [something] and this foolishness, you are quite welcome to continue on your way.”

Jenes’ahn looked to Rohinia. He merely waved a shrug and said, “Apologies. What happened didn’t appear to be something that you would orchestrate, but we couldn’t be sure.”

“And now?”

“Still not entirely convinced,” he said. “But indications do tend away from you.”

“As I’d expect from the Guild,” Hiesh rumbled.

“But we would accept your offer of hosting for the night.”

Hiesh cocked his head, seemed to consider it for a moment, then abruptly said, “Very well,” and gestured toward the keep. “Host and guest and all that entails, you understand.”

“Quite,” Rohinia said with a slight incline of his head. “A gracious offer. Humbly accepted.”

Rris were protective about their homes. Strange, they weren’t as hung up on personal privacy as my culture tended to be, but they did feel strongly about their territory. It was considered incredibly bad form to intrude unannounced or uninvited. Even for Mediators. So was this display intended to prove something? Rris also didn’t go in for stylized or meaningless ceremonies and rituals, so this agreement had some sort of grounded meaning. I watched the Rris watching this exchange and tried to interpret how they were responding. There seemed to be a certain relaxing of postures on both sides.

“I think they’re done,” Chaeitch said, patting my arm. “Come along.”

“We can trust him?” Chihirae asked, sounding anxious. I didn’t blame her.

“I think so,” he said. “What happened . . . only a fool would do something like that in their own holdings. I don’t think this one is a fool. That being said . . . keep your ears up.”

We stepped forward, toward the Mediators and the local lord and his guards. Chaeitch might’ve felt it was okay, but out there in the snow and dark and cold I found it very difficult to read what was going on let alone gauge trustworthiness. I moved a closer to Chihirae. If something happened, I was at least a bit bulletproof.

Hiesh watched us approach. His eyes gleamed green-yellow as he tipped his head slightly. Rohinia stood alongside him, also watching me. “You know of Mikah,” he said as we stopped in the light from the lanterns.

“A,” Hiesh said. “And I would make the guess that one is the Teacher I’ve heard about?” his ears twitched and he looked around at me. I’d shifted, just a bit, but he’d heard it. Had perhaps been listening for it. “I think that would be an accurate guess,” he smiled and looked at Makepeace. “This, however . . . who would this be?”

“She’s a university representative,” Jenes’ahn said.

Hiesh took another look. “Really? They’re making them younger than I remember.”

“Again, it’s a bit of a political issue. She ended up coming.”

“Indeed?” he said and seemed to consider something before chittering a laugh. “The old fools are still trying to drag one another back by the tail, a?”

“That’s about the shape of it.”

“And water’s still wet,” he snorted. “Well, don’t stand around here like a mob of turkeys. Get inside. And I’m sure your charge here will welcome warmth, overcooked food, and perhaps a bath?”

“Subtle,” I said.

“True,” Chaeitch offered.

“Oh, go clog a drain,” I told him, then hastily ducked my head to Hiesh. “But thank you for your offer, sir. It’s most appreciated.”

He gave a chuffing cough and waved a hand to beckon us along. “Think nothing of it.”

“You seem to know a lot about me,” I said as our procession set off toward the keep doors after him. “You know who Chihirae is; that I don’t like cold; about the food . . .”

“I wasn’t sure how much was true myself,” he said as he led the way up the steps. “She said she knew a lot about you, but so much of it sounded . . . well, sometimes people come up with the most fascinating stories if they think you want to hear them.”

“She?” I caught that. He’d mentioned it before. “Who?”

“Some wandering vagrant. She was arrested for some petty theft, but she had some skill as a physician, so we employed her for a while. Said she knew about you, so traded some of that . . .” he realized that I’d stopped dead on the stairs behind him. He turned and looked down at me, silhouetted by the lamps at the keep door. “Is there a problem?”

“Mai?” I blurted. “Was her name Mai?”

“Oh, rot,” Jenes’ahn hissed.

“Mikah!” Rohinia jabbed my arm. “Not now.”

“But . . .” I protested and Jenes’ahn bared teeth at me in what was most emphatically not a smile.

And Hiesh’s features settled into a satisfied smile. “Ah, I see there are some things we have to discuss, a?”

Chapter 42

The stove was fully stoked, roaring as the flames flickered in the open door, the black iron bulk of the thing throwing off enough heat it was a wonder it wasn’t glowing. Chihirae sat in the soft pool of light in front of it, perched on a beautifully woven cushion with her legs drawn up, hugging her knees. Firelight danced across her fur as she watched me finish my bath and towel off. “You can’t be sure about this,” she said.

“I’m not,” I said, my skin goosepimpling. The stove threw off enough heat to warm that side of the body, but the rest of the suite was still like an icebox. “But I think . . . he knew too much.”

“He could’ve heard that from anyone,” she said quietly. “You know what people would do just to have a chance to talk with you.”

“A, I know,” I said as I picked up a clean shirt the staff had laid out. A little wrinkled, but still clean, and more importantly, warm. “Ow,” I winced as I tried to get my arm into the sleeve.

“It still hurts?” she asked, concerned.

“Stiff,” I said. “It’s getting better.”

“You need some help?”

“I’ve got it,” I grimaced.

Her ears tipped back a bit and she watched closely as I got the shirt on.

“He really convinced you?” she asked after a while.

“He said things that most people wouldn’t know.”

“Such as?”

“That she would be coming this way.”

“She told you that?”

I hesitated. “No, not as such. But, based on other things she’d said . . .” I trailed off, shrugged, awkwardly aware of her staring at me.

“Mikah,” she said after a bit of a pause, and her voice was low, a rumble in the firelight. “You think that after everything else that happened she told you the truth?”

I couldn’t answer that, just clenched my jaw.

Chihirae sighed and laid her chin on her knees, closing her eyes and laying her tufted ears back. “Oh, rot, Mikah. And you’re doing this anyway, a? And you know you’ve made the Mediators angry with this, a?”

“So what’s new?”

“Their protection is worth any number of guns or soldiers. You want them on your side. You will at least wear that coat?”

“I don’t think he’s dangerous,” I said as I started to pull the pants on. “If anything happened here, this close to Shattered Water, that would sort of defeat the purpose of his little game, a? He might lie or cheat or mislead, but I don’t think he’ll try violence against me.”

I tucked the shirt in, paused, and added, “But you should make sure you know where our guards are. If anything happens . . . one of them’s named Blunt. He owes me. If you have to, remind him of that.”

Her ears went back again.

“Just precautions,” I hastened to add and knelt down before her. “I don’t think it’s likely. I think we’re safe here. From harm, at least.”

She waved a hand in assent, then lowered her muzzle and studied me, her face caught between shadow and firelight. “But you are concerned about something. The price?”

I sighed and stood to tighten my belt. “There is that, a. But, more importantly,” I picked up the monstrous amalgamation of frogging and embroidery that was the frock coat-like garment from the bed and held it up at arm’s length, “how the hell do I wear this?”

Her eyes flared as she stared at me, then gave an exasperated chittered and stood to help me with the weird Rris buttons.

I had to sober up a bit when I stepped outside the door and paused to adjust the set of the laptop’s shoulder strap before turning and setting off down the hall. We’d been accommodated in the guest wing. Like my home back in Shattered Water, guests had a semi-autonomous wing mostly separated from the rest of the place. Entry was through a single door and hall which acted as a sort of DMZ and contained a lot of our guards, all looking very alert. Possibly due to what’d happened at the inn, possibly because there were two annoyed Mediators waiting there with them. But the reason for all the guards was that I wanted them there to watch over Chihirae. There’d already been that one attempt at grabbing her so Rris were figuring her for a weak point. Would this Rris lord take advantage of that?

That was the unspoken answer to her question of what I was concerned about. And I didn’t have any doubt she was smart enough and knew enough about me to figure it out.

“We’re doing this?” I said to the mediators as I passed. They looked at one another and fell in alongside.

“You know we can’t allow you to discuss . . .” Jenes’ahn started to say

“I know,” I interrupted. “I read that whole fucking paranoid portfolio. Remember?”

“Let’s just find out what he wants to know before baring the fangs,” Rohinia said firmly. “Besides, the Guild may have an interest in this as well.”

“Why would that be?” I asked.

“If he does have relevant information about that so-called doctor of yours, then the Guild would be interested to hear it.”

I grinned. “I thought you knew it all.”

“No, that would be you. We’re merely interested in finding out about this person who can vanish so effectively and who would appear to work for an organization of which we have no information.”

“What makes you think she works for anyone?”

“She was there for a reason,” Rohinia replied instantly. “She betrayed you for a reason. She recovered you for a reason. And she certainly had assistance doing that and in getting out of Shattered Water. You said as much yourself.”

I gritted my teeth. “And despite everyone bowing to the Guild you have no information about them?”

One of his ears flicked. “They weren’t openly acting against Guild interests, so there was no reason we needed to know about them.”

“And now, you do,” I said and grinned. “You actually want the same thing I do.”

Rohinia snorted. We passed through the reception vestibule, the plain little white room with the brass-bound door to the guest wing. The only decoration in there was a bizarrely wrought walnut table with a small sculpture on it: a brass clockwork orrery that looked very expensive. I had a chance for another look at it as the guards there opened the door onto the rest of the keep. On the other side were some of our guards as well as a reception committee of a steward and a few of the local soldiers, all positioned a diplomatic distance down the green tiled hallway. They very obviously didn’t stare at me but I still caught the sidelong peeks from the corner of my eye.

I ignored them and asked the mediators, “So, what’re you going to do if he asks for some of your forbidden knowledge in exchange for that information?”

“You think he’s likely to?”

“I think with the amount of stuff you’ve set off-limits, there’s less of chance he’ll ask for something you will allow.”

They didn’t find that amusing.

His lordship was waiting for us in an informal dining room in another small suite of private rooms. Evidence of old wealth was everywhere: fine rugs on the floor, tapestries on the paneled walls and heavy drapes over the windows. Doors with little diamond-shaped panes of leaded glass fronted multiple bookshelves laden with old volumes. A few paintings hung in the chambers, but more prevalent were maps and what looked like astronomical charts, all framed and hung in places of pride. Another massive black-iron stove loomed in a corner — so much more efficient than an open fireplace and throwing out heat that filled the room with warmth that was strikingly noticeable after the chill of the halls. With their winter pelts the Rris may have found it marginally uncomfortable, but I appreciated it. It was also a reminder that the local lord knew things about me while I was still muddling around trying to figure out how much he was saying was true.

Hiesh met us at the door. “I offer you welcome, hearth, and food, good guests,” Hiesh greeted us, or rather me. He scarcely spared the mediators a glance. “You have been made comfortable?”

“Very,” I said. “It’s a pleasant change after the road. Thank you.”

He blinked lazily. “Your teacher isn’t joining us?”

“We felt it best if she stayed out of this,” Rohinia said.

“A?” the Rris lord cocked his head and brightly asked, “and how did you feel about this decision, ah Rihey?”

I met his amber stare. “It was her decision as well. We’d both prefer if she were kept out of politics.”

“Politics a?” he said, seemed to consider this a second and then flicked a hand in assent. “If that’s what you desire, then very good. But I can assure you I intend no harm to any of you. Whatever happened to you I had no part in.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said. It seemed safest.

“Huhn,” he huffed. “You do seem to have been around politicians, a?”

“It does tend to rub off, sir.”

“Then I would think the best advice I could offer would be to clean it off promptly, a?” he said, then swept hand in an inviting gesture. “But please, come. Sit.”

We did, on the cushions provided. The table was the usual item of knee-high Rris furniture: round and lacquered with a black so deep it might have been a pool of oil. Red mats floated on the blackness, ranks of steaming silverware platters and bowls placed on those. The smells of hot cooked food made my stomach clench as we sat.

“I was told you don’t eat so much meat,” his lordship leaned over to say to me and then indicated the dishes on the table. “There are breads, soups, stew, pastries, dumplings. And the meat has been very well cooked. Not quite charred. Sauces are in the separate pots there, to let you choose what is safe and suitable. I hope that’s correct.”

“A, quite,” I said quietly, looking at the spread. Indeed, the food looked as good as any I’d eaten anywhere, and not many Rris understood about the risks some of their unusual condiments could pose to me. She had. “She told you about that?”

He cocked his head. “A,” he said levelly.

There was one way to be sure. I snapped open the carry case and brought the laptop out, swinging the keyboard away to put it in tablet mode to show the picture from an age ago: a bright room in the palace and she was sitting in the sun streaming in through a window, caught in the middle of saying something. I turned it so the Rris lord could see it. “Is this her?”

He stared. “Is that . . .”

“Is that her?” I repeated.

For a second he paused, perhaps weighing the moment and seeing just how far he could push things. Just for a moment, then he relented and said, “A. That’s her. Not as road-stained, but that’s her.”

I heaved a breath and put the laptop down. He stared at it.

“What happened?” I asked.

He cocked his head, then just gestured at the table. “Please, eat.”

The Mediators both stared at me. I looked from them to his lordship’s placid features and then gritted my teeth and picked up my spoon. It was broad like a shallow ladle, too big to put in the mouth, designed to let Rris lap from it, but I could use it to sip well enough. The soup was thick potato soup and was actually very good and for a while the only sound was the tinkle of cutlery on bowls.

“It was an autumn night about a year ago,” his lordship said after a while, in between delicate laps of his own soup. I looked up. “There had been some thefts in a hamlet. The guard picked her up as an itinerant in the area. She claimed to be a travelling physician, and seemed to be knowledgeable in the field, but the arresting officer did note a discrepancy and, being a suspicious old [something], had her sent here.”

“This was before you received word from Shattered Water about her,” Rohinia said.

“A,” Hiesh replied and lapped at his spoon before continuing. “She said she had information about the strange guest in Shattered Water. She claimed to have intimate knowledge of him. She would exchange it for passage.”

“And you accepted,” Rohinia said.

The Rris lord lapped at the last of his soup. “At the time it was a sensible trade. She wasn’t accused of the thefts, so there was no real reason to detain her.”

“And when word arrived from Shattered Water, she was gone.”

“A. Quite.”

“And what was discussed?” the Mediator asked.

The Rris lord set his spoon down and touched fingertips together. “Ah, perhaps that’s a question that might be worth something.”

Rohinia didn’t blink. “You are aware it’s relevant to a Guild enquiry?”

“Is it?” Hiesh asked, lifting the silver lid on a platter of meat. “If you don’t know what was said, how can you be sure? And anyway, nothing we discussed was or is, to the best of my knowledge, proscribed by the Guild.”

“But you are aware that there are things Mikah is forbidden to discuss with you.”

“I thought that might be the case,” he said. “Nevertheless, I do have some questions for him.”

“And you think you can just ask them?”

“I think I have information the both you and he want,” Hiesh replied. “In return I ask my own questions. I’m aware of the Charter and the restrictions. I don’t believe the information I’m after will trigger any of those.”

“What is it?” I asked, then looked at the Mediators. “At least listen to the questions. They might be about something like stargazing.”

Now his lordship froze and stared at me, then snorted. “You noticed the décor, a?”

I shrugged. “A. Different from what most nobles have.”

He coked his head and actually chittered a bit. “She was quite right. Initially you come across as something of a [buffoon], but there’s a bit more to you than that, isn’t there.”

“Not a great deal,” Jenes’ahn said.

Hiesh looked from her to me and gave me a deliberate grin, a copy of one of my smiles. “A, quite a bit more,” he said and smoothed his muzzle out, settling back to spear a piece of meat with a fork. “You’re correct about the stargazing — it’s an interest of mine. I do patronize few of the sciences and dabble in them when I can. Not usual, I know. But the sky watching is quite fascinating, and I was wondering what sort of information Mikah might have there. There are so many questions.”

I smirked at the mediators. “You know, I don’t believe I saw anything about that in your rules.”

Jenes’ahn looked irritated. “Not every contingency was written out, you know that.”

“So,” Rohinia said, “What do you want to know?”

“What can Mikah tell us?”

I had to take a breath and sip at my wine. “Ahh, tricky question. I have information about what things were like where I’m from, but things might be a little different here. There certainly are different craters on the moon. Other planets might have different numbers of moons or rings or be in slightly different orbits.”

“What about tools? The telescopes I have had made all seem to run into the same limits. If they are made larger, then the images in them seem to suffer more.”

“Glass lenses?”

“What else?”

“Mikah,” Rohinia growled in warning tones.

I thought about it for a second. “It should be alright. The alternative way is almost useless for anything except stargazing — too delicate and bulky to move around much.” I turned to Hiesh. “Your problem is distorted images with colors around the edges?”

“A.”

“Very difficult to make a precise lens with blown glass: coloration and bubbles in the glass and you get chromatic aberrations where the glass acts like a prism. No, try using mirrors,” I suggested. “A parabolic reflector . . . . Crap . . . A bowl-shaped reflector designed to focus light at one point. I have seen math books on the subject. Use smaller mirrors and lenses to direct that to an eyepiece. Since you’re not using large pieces of thick glass, there’s far fewer distortions. Lighter and more robust too: you can have a reflector that would be the equivalent of a glass lens larger than that plate in something you can carry. I can draw you some rough guidelines. You should be able to work out the details.”

“And this has no real other applications?” Rohinia asked. “I would think military commanders would find such a device useful.”

“You might think so, a?” I sighed and tried to figure out how to word it. “Look: they’re still fragile. And good for looking really long distances, like at other planets and stars. Not so good for looking at closer things through thick air.”

“Huhn,” Hiesh looked thoughtful. “Then air is thinner between worlds?”

“There is none,” I said. “It gets thinner the higher you go. After about eighty kilometers, nothing.”

“That’s been considered,” he said, “but there was always debate between no air and very thin air as of course the sun would need it to burn.”

I smiled tightly and didn’t take that bait. Instead I only asked, “What did she say?”

He inclined his head slightly, smiled and neatly stabbed another nugget of meat. “She told us she was on her way south after time in Shattered Water. She claimed to have been intimately involved with the handling of the strange guest they had. Of course I was a little skeptical that this ragged little doctor could have such information, but she knew details that weren’t known to the general public.”

“How can you be sure?” Rohinia asked.

Hiesh flicked an ear and pointed his fork at me. “You were sexual partners, weren’t you?”

Both the Mediators hesitated; just the briefest hitch in the motion of their cutlery to their mouths that you might have missed if you weren’t looking for it.

“A,” I said after a very noticeable pause and swallowed. “We were.”

“She mentioned you were always nervous and reluctant to discuss such things with others. She did offer some details however. They were details I hadn’t heard from any of my court contacts before. Would you be able to verify their accuracy?”

“We might,” Rohinia said.

“Hey . . .” I started to say.

He told us. Details that I’d only shared with one other. Then he sat there and eyed me expectantly. I sat, feeling the heat crawling up the back of my neck; feeling stunned; feeling betrayed again. What he’d just said proved . . . it proved many things. Jenes’ahn merely said, “That sounds about right.”

“You can do that?” he asked me.

“A,” Jenes’ahn said. “He can. He does.”

“You enjoy it?” Hiesh asked her.

I nearly choked. Jenes’ahn went rigid, then her muzzle creased and pulled back as she snarled and bristled. “You presume a great deal! That’s his business, not Guild!”

“Huhn,” he blinked at her, then at me. “Then if she was telling the truth about that, perhaps the rest was also accurate?”

“‘The rest’?” Rohinia asked on queue.

“Oh, other interesting things,” Hiesh said with a dismissive flick of a finger and looked to me again. “But, about the sun . . . you say it doesn’t need air to burn?”

And right back onto topic again. The sexual rumors and storytelling were pretty convincing for me. There were details there that weren’t public knowledge. They were embarrassing, for sure, but only for me. For the Rris it was just information. Just something to be traded. And so we did, through into the small hours of the morning we talked, him and me exchanging snippets of information. I talked basic astronomy. I could show him some of the images on my laptop, shots of planets and nebulae and distant stars in more detail than he’d ever seen. But they were the stars of my world. They were similar to the Rris heavens, but not identical. You just had to compare a picture of the moon back home to the one here to see that there were differences in the patterns of craters and ejecta. There was an excellent chance there’d also be comparable differences in planetary markings and rings. But for Hiesh, just being able to confirm or deny his theories and observations got him quite animated.

For the most part the Mediators sat and watched and listened. I don’t know if they understood what was being discussed, but they sat and watched without interfering. What we were talking about weren’t commercial or military. Granted, it may have had some profound, far-reaching consequence, but it was a reach beyond their authority.

In return his lordship related what’d happened there in Thieves Always Return. Weighing the balance of useful information from the Rris point of view, Hiesh probably got the better end of the deal. The information I gave him was of commercial value, whereas what he gave us was mostly of interest to me. Sure, the Mediators said they had interest in the matter, but for me it was a bit more than that.

She’d been brought to the town and kept in local cells on suspicion of being associated with some robberies simply because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’d made it known she had some information from Shattered Water that the local lord might be interested in, and then provided just enough to show that she did indeed know something. She’d been brought to the keep, to secure rooms. Hiesh had been intrigued enough to meet with her in person and had then been interested to find out that she seemed to be telling the truth. He’d made the deal and for the twenty-four hours she’d told him what he wanted to know and then . . . he’d let her go on her way.

Why not detain her longer? Well, as he so rightly pointed out, she was innocent of the original charges. Perhaps even more importantly than that, she’d obviously had favor with the King and government. It might not be a good idea to get on their bad side. Ironically enough, that decision was shown to be a bit erroneous when a couple of days later the government messengers had come through with the notice for her arrest. By then she’d vanished completely.

Where was she headed? She’d told him west, through to Hunting Well via Bluebetter. Why go this roundabout route when she could’ve gone through Cover My Tail? She said she’d had a misunderstanding with the guard there, so this was more prudent. She’d said she’d been hired by Land of Water government to tend their guest. She’d spent a lot of time with him and knew . . . everything about him. He’d asked about appearance, diet, habits, personality, what she might have learned from him . . .

Not a great deal, as it turned out. She’d said she’d learned more about her profession, new medical ideas and treatments. She’d learned about my home, my old life. She’d been able to tell him a bit about the world, a bit about the sky and the stars, but only just enough to whet his appetite.

Just like the dribble of information he was able to give us.

The lamps had guttered and servants had refilled them. The room was warm. The food was better than anything we’d had over the past few days that wasn’t poisoned. The final dishes were small pastries glazed in honey and nuts accompanied with wine that wasn’t too bad. Hiesh took out a pipe and reached for a lighter, then paused. “This can have an adverse effect on you, a?”

“Probably not a good idea in a closed room,” I said.

He waved a shrug and laid the pipe down, carefully aligning it with the side of the table. “What’re you going to do if you find her,” he asked.

“That . . .” I hesitated. “I . . . don’t know.”

“Huhn?” he flicked an ear, looked at the mediators and back to me. “I would have thought that after everything she did that decision would be easy.”

“It’s not,” I said.

“Is this something to do with your affection for her? You still hold it?”

“It’s . . . something,” I said. “I don’t think I can explain it.”

He rumbled something again and regarded his pipe for a while. “If I may ask, what was your original reason for a trip to Bluebetter at this time of year? Or is that confidential information as well?”

A welcome change of subject. “that is business,” I said with a shrug. “Discussion of a rail line is one thing on the table.”

“Mikah,” Rohinia warned.

“Nothing confidential about it,” I returned.

“A rail line?” Hiesh asked. “You mean running a rail from Shattered Water to Bluebetter?”

“A.”

“That is . . . ambitious. How do the shipping and transport Guilds feel about that?”

“Oh, they’ll be invited to participate, of course,” I said.

“Of course,” he said with a slightly wilted tilt to an ear. “I think . . . I can only wish you the best of fortune with that.”

Chapter 43

Our guards greeted us with polite ducks of their heads when we returned to the guest wing. Nothing to report, they said. Food for our staff had been provided by our hosts and cooked by our own cooks and it was safe. Our hosts had been courteous, observing all the obligations and niceties, but our guards were still on duty, still armed and armored. The pair stationed outside my room told me everything was quiet and that her ladyship was asleep.

Inside, it was quiet. The stove was ticking away, still radiating heat. The wedge of light from the door narrowed and vanished as I closed it behind me and the silence washed in and surrounded me. I stood still, listening, a stab of unease running through my guts. I took a step forward into the gloom. On the bed I could just see hairy limbs tangled with bedclothes, a lean body sprawled and contorted in a limp sprawl. Not moving. A tableau I’d seen a few nights ago before . . . And in a second she *snrrk* ed in her sleep, smacked her jaws, rolled and twisted around her own spine a little more and started snoring again.

I also started breathing again. For a moment I kept staring at her, then shuddered violently.

The balcony doors were of wood painted white trimmed with little green carved leaves, and locked with a basic tin latch. When I swung one of them open it stuck momentarily. I shoved harder and it scraped across ice, sweeping an arc through snow banked up outside. It crunched and squeaked underfoot as I crossed to the balustrade, leaning on the icy stone and taking deep breaths of freezing fresh air. There were no guards out there: the balcony was three stories up with a sheer drop down to steep tiled roofs and darkness.

The sky was dark, the moon a pale glow through cloud. Occasional flakes drifted down out of the overcast. It was still and cold and quiet. Freezing mist stung against bare skin. Somewhere down there was the town of Thieves Always Return. Now, there was a name that boded at an Olympic level. I shuddered again.

It’d been a flashback that’d hit me inside when I’d seen Chihirae, a momentary recollection that’d carried with it all the emotions that’d washed over and around me that other night. For a split second I’d felt that it was all happening again. It hadn’t been a pleasant sensation.

“You’re all right?” a small voice ventured behind me. Chihirae was standing just outside the door, naked in the winter night. Her fur was spiked and tussled from sleep. Her breath steamed. Her eyes were two points of foxfire.

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t mean to wake you. I thought I was quiet.”

“You were. I smelled the different air. Why . . . is everything all right? You were gone a long time.”

“It’s okay,” I smiled. “Everything’s fine. Just a long meeting. I wanted some air.”

She shifted from one foot to another, cocked her head slightly. “You found what you were looking for?”

I shrugged. “Some answers. More questions.”

“Oh,” she said, absently smoothed down the tousled fur on a forearm with her other hand. “It was her?”

“A,” I sighed, then stopped and looked at her. Really looked at her. She was tired, but also . . . sad? It was difficult to tell in the darkness. I leaned back against the railing. “How do you feel about this?” I asked gently. “About me chasing after her?”

She kept brushing at her arm. “If you feel revenge is so necessary, then that is your decision.”

I winced. Oh, god, her as well. Was that how they all saw it? Was that their default assumption? She looked nervous as I stepped closer, carefully touched her chest, the long tufts of her cheek. “It’s not revenge,” I said quietly. “It’s not. It’s . . . something else, but not that.”

Those glowing eyes flicked as she blinked and bumped her cheek against my hand. “It’s that other emotion? You still feel that bond? Even after what she did to you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Part of me . . . it’s angry at her. The other . . . it doesn’t want to believe that she is what they say. There must’ve been a reason she did what she did . . .” I trailed off, knowing how ridiculous that sounded to her.

“Strange one,” she said in that low, almost inaudible tone. “Just because you want to believe it doesn’t make something true.”

“I know. I know,” I sighed and grimaced. “I know what she did, what she probably is, but a part of me just doesn’t want to accept that.”

She stared at me for some time, doing the same as I was doing to her: trying to make sense of the real meaning of what was being said. In her eyes her pupils were shimmering coins of abalone blue-green light. Her breath wisped in the air. Fat snowflakes settled on her muzzle, sticking in her fur. And I loved her. And I wanted to understand what she was thinking. Sometimes that gulf between us was just a bottomless pit that swallowed nuance and gave nothing back.

“I understand what you’re saying,” she said quietly. “But I don’t understand why you would say that.”

I sighed again and leaned forward, laying my forehead on her muzzle for a bit. She reached up and patted my cheek. “I wanted to know if you are . . . upset about this,” I murmured. “About me asking about her?”

“No?” she sounded uncertain. “Should I be? Is it dangerous?”

Dangerous. It wasn’t that I’d meant. For a human woman jealousy might be a factor. With her it could be something different but just as bad. “I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I don’t know what she’s doing or who she’s associated with. I think something is going on.”

“Something like Open Fields?”

“It feels a bit like that.”

“You won’t do anything foolish?” she said, muzzle creasing slightly.

“You know me.”

“Oh, yes. I most certainly do. That’s why I asked.”

I felt myself smile, an involuntary twitch. “Do you want to stay here?”

A pause. “Why . . . do you ask that?”

“Because it might be safer.”

She thought about that. “You trust him?”

I shook my head. “I can’t say I do. Not entirely. I just I don’t think he’s . . . playing any games.”

“What does that mean?”

“Apparently he was a candidate. In line for king, you know that?” I asked.

“A.”

“I think the reason he wasn’t chosen was that he never really had much interest in it.”

“That wouldn’t be seen as favorable,” she chittered and bumped her head against me again. “Huhn, you mean he’s not interested in the political hunts.”

“He doesn’t seem to be,” I said. “He can talk your ears off about stars and planets though.”

“A sky gazer, a?”

“A little bit of everything,” I said, straightening to look up at the ceiling of clouds, the feeble glow of the moon barely making it through. “But not enough of what they wanted. So he’s here where he can do what he is interested in.”

“And because of that it’s safer?”

“Those ones who attacked us at the inn, I think they’re still following us. They might try again. I think they probably will. I don’t think he is dangerous. I know those others are.”

“It’s a guess, then?”

“Yes. Pretty much. But perhaps they could get you back to Shattered Water. A few days . . . the Palace would be safe.”

“I think,” she began tentatively. “I think I would go on,” she said finally. “At least I know who to trust. I don’t have to worry about the guards selling me out one night.”

Her voice choked off then as she stumbled too close to uncomfortable memories. I felt her tense, her claws pricking in through my shirt where her hands were laid on me. “Hey,” I whispered, just making some sound to take her mind off it. “That’s not going to happen, a? I promise.”

Chihirae raised her head, her nose just centimeters from mine and she started to say something, then bit down on the words. A small chitter escaped her.

“What?” I asked, a bit off balance. I hadn’t meant it to be funny.

“You . . .” she started to say, then vented a soft hiss and gently bumped her head against me again. “Thank you, Mikah. That is . . . Thank you.”

I blinked. “I said something wrong?”

“No. No, you didn’t,” she said.

“Then what . . .?”

“It’s nothing,” she told me and reached up to pat my cheek. My beard crackled where her hand touched. “You’re getting frosty, you know. You want to come back inside now?”

I hesitated, puzzled. There was something there I’d missed. Again. Chihirae took my hand in both hers and tugged gently, urging me inside. And only two steps in, I got it and stopped dead. That brought her up short and she turned, still holding my hand, looking up at me, half in shadow, half in moonlight.

“It’s my fault, isn’t it,” I said. “I’m saying I’ll protect you, but I’m the reason this is all happening. I’m the reason you’re here.

Her ears wilted a bit and she glanced down at our hands. “Mikah, it’s not like that.”

“No?” What I could read in her expression was enough. “They’re right about me and trouble. It’s like a magnet trying to protect you from iron,” I leaned my head back and laughed, exasperated at myself. “I am a fool.”

A furry hand patted mine. “Which makes it all the more [interesting],” she said, an inflection on ‘interesting’ that I wasn’t familiar with. I blinked, still trying to understand. “You know this,” she said and her ears flickered up again. She chittered. “You know it, and you promise to do the impossible. Like so much about you, the impossible seems to happen.

“I trust you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. At that moment it felt that anything I did say would just break the illusion she was building, that I could keep that impossible promise I’d made. I felt myself shaking and knew she felt it too.

“Come on,” she said. “You’re cold; you smell exhausted; and it’ll be dawn soon. Some sleep while we can. A?”

I went with her, so grateful that she’d left me a way out.

Chapter 44

An hour of sleep wasn’t really enough, but that was all we got before staff were in the room urging us to get up. I yawned my way through my morning routine as annoyingly energetic Rris servants bustled around with hot bath water and freshly ironed clothing.

There was an invitation from his Lordship to meet for breakfast. The Mediators, Chaeitch and Rraerch were included. As was Chihirae. It’d have been quite impolitic to simply leave without acknowledging that, so we spent some time at his table enjoying smoked salmon and bison jerky while the frost on the windows started blushing the faintest rose as the first light of the sun touched it. He paid a lot of attention to Chihirae, flattering her shamelessly. And when we left he made her a gift of a deep blue woolen shawl woven through with fine silver, for ‘the chill of the road’. I felt jealous, then stupid for feeling jealous.

We walked out the front doors into a courtyard still in shadow. Makepeace joined us, yawning her head off at a time no student is naturally awake. Icicles hung where they could and rime frost whitened every surface. Grey stone walls towered overhead, blocking the early sun and casting a crenellated shadow across the façade of the keep. Above those walls vaulted an endless azure sky, perfectly clear in the biting dawn chill that nipped the nose and left pale trails of breath in our wake. The little heater in the coach was a welcome luxury and I rubbed my hands as I settled in with Chihirae, Rohinia and Rraerch.

Guards swung the iron-bound gates open and we departed.

If the road up had been interesting, the journey down was doubly so. The wheels skidded on frozen cobblestones accompanied to the sound of splintering ice and iron grating on stones and the feeling of the whole cab sliding sideways. When I asked if we should perhaps walk down instead, the Rohinia said that that might be risky. I held on tight and gave him a disbelieving look as the coach skittered sideways in the narrow street again and one of the side lamps scraped a gouge through the plaster on the front of a building.

We made it down the hill from the keep in one piece. In the town below early risers were already busy. Bakeries steamed and smoked, filling the street with the smell of early bread. Local cookeries were roasting varieties of meat on storefront grills, selling to Rris out for their breakfast. Various early deliveries of food, water, milk were being made. Shops doors were being opened, wooden shutters pivoted down to make display counters, proprietors setting goods out. Hawkers shouted out deals, promoting their goods as being the best, the finest, the cheapest.

Local mounted guards led us, a cavalcade of them clearing the way through the streets. Locals yowled insults and protests as they stepped aside and then closed back in behind us to go about their business with renewed clamor and vigor.

I watched the crowds through the frosty window and reflected that the Rris still knew how to live in cities. They used them for their original purpose, which was a place where people could gather for mutual security, support and to concentrate limited resources so they didn’t have to waste time traveling. With our addiction to the car we’d lost a lot of that, even bouncing back the other way: Cities not built to live in, but rather to drive through — live half a hundred miles away in suburban hells and commute. More resources devoted to moving needless machines than actual people. It was costing a helluva lot to fix that mistake, but at least once fixed it didn’t keep on costing. At least it had been the last I heard. It was a mistake the Rris didn’t need to make.

Of course, they already had their own problems. There was a respectable traffic jam at the town gates where farm wagons and carriages were jockeying to pass through the constriction. It took some time and a lot of shouting for the guards to get the road cleared enough so we could get out, a delay that Jenes’ahn didn’t appreciate. I saw her outside, stalking back and forth with tail lashing.

“Angry, angry young lady,” I observed.

Rohinia just flicked an ear.

I leaned back and crossed my arms. “What’s the story with you two anyway? Why were you two assigned to follow me? You don’t seem very alike. She’s . . . like that all the time while you are a great deal more restrained.”

He cocked his head and twitched a lip, just showing a flash of an incisor. “She’s impatient sometimes. A. That’s true. She’s also very good at what she does.”

“Shouting at people?”

“She’s worked bodyguard with highborn before. She single-handedly stopped a conspiracy against a guild master; she returned a kidnapped candidate; she’s fought pirates and bandits.”

“Stole her sense of humor, did they?”

Rraerch winced.

“Mikah,” Chihirae admonished.

“Sorry,” I said, shrugged.

Rohinia just sighed quietly and continued. “She’s young, but she’s done her time wandering and offering Guild services. She’s dealt with petty little village squabbles and guild machinations and national politics. She’d pushed hard to get to where she is.”

I nodded and looked back at the stalled view outside. I could still hear Rris shouting and arguing over who was where first. “Is there a reason for that?”

An ear flickered. “A.”

“You won’t tell me?”

“No. That’s not my right. She might, if you ask.”

“Might?”

“A. Like you might be willing to tell her about your sexual antics if she asks,” he said calmly.

“Ah,” I said. Chihirae and Rraerch looked amused. “That bad?”

He lowered his nose and gave me an amber stare that said it all. “Okay, That bad,” I guessed as the carriage started forward again. We rolled through the chill gloom of the tunnel under the gatehouse, the sounds of the wheels on stone, squeaking wood and iron, the rattling of loose fittings all reverberating from the walls. I squinted when we emerged into a flood of sunlight, rumbling past a scowling Jenes’ahn standing by the gate, hands on hips like a little conqueror as she watched us pass by.

Yeah, angry young lady. Whatever’d happened to her, it’d clawed deep and left nasty scars. I could understand being hurt. I could understand a single event that defined the rest of a life. What I couldn’t understand was something that burned away and cauterized everything save a core of steel determination. It wasn’t a good way to live a life. But was the Guild helping her with that? Or was it reinforcing those scars just to get what it saw was a better officer? Somehow, I got the impression that the Mediator Guild wasn’t very progressive when it came to its members’ mental wellbeing.

The local guards cleared the way enough for our convoy to proceed. Looking out the window in daylight I got the impression of a bustling town that couldn’t quite become a city and part of that reason might have been the docks. What was left of them.

The river had shifted, but the town hadn’t. Where the riverside wharfs had been was a steep embankment down to the old riverbed and now the road led down there. It was the same river we’d been following the past days. Not some little creek, but a body that’d been a kilometer across at this bend where it flowed below the overlooking walls of the keep high on its promontory. Then that water went away and there were kilometers of new real estate suddenly available. People had probably been wary about using it, fearing the river might return to its old route, but of course time passed; people forget; money overcame reluctance and so people had built there. Shanties at first, probably. Some of those survived, little shelters of scraps and ends, but they’d been shoved aside and overshadowed by warehouses, factories and workshops, goods and stockyards and markets. All that infrastructure situated several kilometers from where the river now flowed, where the riverside wharves now were.

That was worth remembering.

The world got a little warmer as the sun climbed higher. Crisp frost wilted and dribbled and refroze into a cold glaze on leaves and branches. Our local guard escort stayed with us for a few kilometers, out into the farmland on the outskirts of town. Then they bade us good fortune, reigned their animals around and set off back toward town. To tell the truth, we hadn’t really need them — our guards were better armed and trained than they were — but the extra numbers were always a disincentive to anyone wanting to try something.

We kept moving into the Rippled Lands, following the zigzagging southeast-tending valley the Ashansi river had cut through those giant petrified waves of earth. The river churned along, over a kilometer wide at that point, the current out in the center tearing occasional islands of ice from the frozen shores and sending them spinning and orbiting off downstream. No boats out there. Not at this time of year: no-one wanted to see who’d come off the best in a collision with a five hundred ton chunk of ice. So for a good quarter of the year the main shipping channel between these countries was closed.

According to the Rris the next large town that could help us was Summer Breaks. The Mediators said there was a Guild presence there. I wasn’t sure if that meant it was supposed to be safe — I didn’t entirely trust the Guild and certainly knew they were far from infallible, but they could at least offer some backup. And they might be able to shed some light on to just what was going on. At any rate, neither the Mediators nor the guard commander wanted to hang around.

So we hurried, making the best time we could on rutted, frozen roads. At our best that must’ve been about five or six kilometers an hour. Of course the mounted troops could go faster, as could the carriages. It was the slower wagons that held us back, and most of the guards rode in those. If we outdistanced them we’d also be leaving the best part of our security behind. The commander didn’t think that was worth the risk.

The morning went by and we crossed the floor of the valley. The hills on the far side rose a couple of hundred meters to a sharp ridge, but the road took the easy route, following the river gorge. In places there wasn’t a great deal of room and the road narrowed considerably, pinched down to a narrow ledge of land with the river on the right and steep hillside, rocks, snow and trees up to the left. Those weren’t nice places to be when you looked up at overhanging rocks and thought about ambush.

We were careful. Outriders went on ahead and more guarded our tail and flanks. Guards rode with their new carbines over their saddles, always watching the hills and the trees. It was enough firepower to deter anyone with only muskets. Perhaps that worked or perhaps there was no danger in the first place. Whatever it was, we made it through that pinchpoint in a few hours with nothing more than strained nerves. The next valley over was much like the last: a long swathe of land cupped by steep ridges blanketed in forest. Virgin forest still stood thick across the valley floor, but farmland and pasture was making inroads. Fields and fences, pasture and marched away up the valley and much further off the tree line was retreating before logging and burning. Another river was flowing down that valley, a tributary feeding into the Ashansi. It wasn’t nearly as big but was still an imposing flow of deep dark water with extensive expanses of frozen marshes on either bank. It was too big to ford, so they’d had to bridge it. Three stone and mortar arches carried a road wide enough for a single lane and just beyond was a small hamlet of half a dozen thatch-roofed little houses with trickles of smoke rising from the chimneys.

There was nothing immediately threatening so the mediators let us stretch our legs for a bit while scouts checked things ahead out. I flexed and tried to work the kinks out of my back, bending to and fro while the Rris watched me curiously. Okay, so not all of us’ve got spines like slinkies.

“Rraerch?” I asked. “Why isn’t there a bigger settlement? I’d have thought it’d be a good spot for it.”

“Flooding,” she said immediately. “Come spring this whole area valley turns to swamp. Not enough room to build much of a town in. Also, the promontory Thieves Always Return is built around was a prosperous quarry. Most of the good building stone in the area came from there. This bridge did. Everything else around here is [something]. Soft. Sandstone, limestone, marble, that sort of rubbish.”

“‘Was’?”

“The easy rock was quarried out long ago. To get any more might bring the keep down.”

“Might not be such a bad thing,” Chaeitch added, stepping into the conversation with smoking pipe in hand. He took a drag and exhaled. “Not doing much good where it is, a? And that stone could be useful.”

“His lordship might have a thing or two to say about that,” I noted.

“Perhaps,” Chaeitch waggled his pipe. “He does seem the pragmatic sort and a keep that isn’t guarding anything . . . huhn, if invested wisely all that rock could be worth more than it is now.”

“You’d probably end up regretting doing something like that,” I said.

He waved his pipe in a dismissive gesture. “A thought. That’s all . . . Hai, I think they’re ready. We’re continuing, constable?”

I looked around. Rohinia was stalking back down the line of wagons, his coat tails flapping against his legs. “A, sir. If you would care to re-embark . . .”

“I’d like to walk for a bit,” I said. His muzzle creased. “Just the bridge,” I added. “It’s not that far.”

Rohinia looked around, at the frozen countryside, the sluggishly swirling confluence where the waters met. The only signs of life were those building s away cross the bridge where local farmers were going about their business. Guards were watching them. Guards were watching everything. He hissed a stream of pale breath. “All right,” he said. “Just across the bridge.”

“Nowhere else to go,” I shrugged and just started strolling. The mediator fell in beside me. Along the column Rris called out: drivers snapped reigns, leather creaked and metal clanked as animals took up the slack and hauled their burdens into motion. I watched wheels turn, squeak and grind against the bridge. There were actually parallel grooves worn into the flagstones from the passage of wheels over time. How long would it take to do that? They were slippery as hell with sheeted ice, but I was taking my time and planting my feet carefully. The parapet was just as icy, but under that the stones were chiseled and carved into loops and knots of limestone rope. There were some upright posts with small lamps on them. Just little oil lamps. I supposed that some local came out to light them when it got dark. Beyond the parapet the marshes along the river bank were frosted swamps of reeds and bobbing ice-encrusted cattails glittering in the afternoon light. Against the winter glare the waters of the Ashansi were almost black, moving like roiling oil. Scabs of ice pirouetted downstream. The far bank was a distant white line.

I paused. “Our friend is back.”

“What?” Rohinia said.

“On the far side,” I pointed. “Our friend in red.”

“You’re sure?”

Light flashed from the other side. “You see that?”

“That I see,” Rohinia said straightening.

“Using a spyglass . . .”

The light flashed again and again, steadily. Rohinia stood bolt upright, his fur bristling, then spun in a blur of action. “Into the carriage. Now!”

“I . . .” I started to say.

He grabbed my hand with claws out and I yelped as he hauled and it was either yield or get more lacerations as he yanked me over to the nearest carriage and yanked the door open. “In,” he snapped. “Now!”

“What . . .” I gabbled and yelped as he dug in with claws and I scrambled up into the carriage, my heart starting to pound as I tumbled in between the facing seats and looked up to Makepeace’s startled face over the pages of a book.

“Alarm!” Rohinia was shouting as he slammed the door and I still heard him shouting: “Clear the bridge. Now! Commander . . .”

“Sir?” Makepeace was asking as I hauled myself up off the carpet. “What’s happening sir?”

“Might be some trouble . . .” I said as I started to look out the window and . . .

...it jumped toward me. There was a flash, a tremendous noise, concussion . . .

I was uncomfortable, sprawled on a sharp angle. There was a weight across my legs and my head was ringing like a bell. At first I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. The window was . . . up there. A empty frame surrounded by jagged shards. The seats were . . . that wasn’t right. I wasn’t right — on my back wedged into a corner and a heavy furry body was jammed across me, feebly struggling. There was distant noise, as if heard through miles of cotton wool: popping and retorts. Everything was tipped. Then everything tipped some more and I felt a floating lurch and the weight on me was gone; my weight was gone. Sunlight flashed through the window for a split second then stone then hills then water and then sky and then water and then the back of the cab came up . . .

... dark. Choking. Freezing liquid all around. Tumbling confusion . . .

Chapter 45

“Sir? Sir!”

... a tenuous awareness of freezing darkness. Icy water. Everywhere. Splashing up over my chin. A hot arm around my neck, breath panting furiously in my ear. Wood creaked all around. I couldn’t feel my legs. I could hardly feel my hands. Ruddy light glimmered from somewhere. Dead weight. That’s what I felt. Numb. Except my head hurt. And a voice was screaming in my ear.

“Red tie you rotted . . . sir!” Then something bit my ear. Hard.

“Gah!” I tried to kick.

“Sir? Sorry, sir. I can’t . . . hold for much longer.”

I tried to speak, shuddered from utter cold and exhaustion. My head was throbbing. “You’re awake, sir?”

I think I made a noise.

“Can you stand, sir? I can’t hold you.”

My feet kicked something, just a toehold. It shifted beneath me. Everything was shifting, bobbing and swirling. The carriage, upside-down and three quarters under water, just barely floating. Waterlogged cushions bobbed around us and a feeble orange glow seeped through from underwater, from where the windows were. My coat was now a dead weight threatening to pull me under.

“Oh, rot, sir. Good, sir. Thank you.”

“Who . . .” I stuttered ferociously, shaking uncontrollably. “Who . . . that.”

“Me, sir,” said the Rris voice in the darkness. “Makepeace, sir. Rot and plague, sir, you hit your head when we went into the river. I held you but . . . we’ve drifted, sir. I don’t know how far. We have to move. Can you understand? You can swim, a?”

Swim? Ice was crackling in my beard and hair. My head was throbbing. An eye was swollen shut. Every heartbeat ached. My sinuses and throat were burning and I guessed I’d inhaled water. I couldn’t feel my limbs, could hardly move let alone swim, and was shaking so hard my teeth rattled.

“Come on, sir,” she said, a hand rubbing against my arm under the water as if trying to force some warmth back into my limbs and I could hear desperation in her voice. “Please, sir!”

There was a thump against the wood above me, then a scraping. I heard Makepeace gasp, then everything tipped around us as the carriage rolled. Makepeace caught after me and struggled to keep her footing and our heard above water as the coach heeled over and the doors and the broken windows rotated overhead. The flooded cab filled with the blush of a winter sunset. I could see streaks of blood-red clouds high overhead. “What was that?” Makepeace whimpered. “What’s happening?”

Another jolt, this time from below and the sky spun slowly. We’d hit something. Our drifting had stopped, but there was still current washing past us.

“There’s someone . . .” Makepeace said and trailed off, panting. Listening.

I heard it too: voices outside, distant Rris shouting over the sound of the water. The carriage jerked, moved a bit, then jerked and shifted again with a jarring stop-start movement. I heard ice creaking and splintering. The water level dropped pouring out through the broken window below us and revealing the sodden, ruined cabin. Makepeace and I staggered and slumped down onto the other door even as the waterlogged carriage lurched again. I tried to stand but I couldn’t even feel my legs let alone move them. Through the jagged windowframe overhead I could see clouds glowing in the last of the light, but there was no way I could reach them.

“A carriage?” came from outside.

“Looks expensive. Still hitched to the animals. Someone’s going to be chewing rocks over losing that.”

“Sir?” Makepeace whispered. “What do we do, sir?”

I had my coat, my guns . . . But I couldn’t be sure they’d even work after that dunking. And my bruised chest was a wall of pain, even just breathing hurt. And I was frozen through and through — I simply couldn’t move. So there wasn’t anything we could do except watch that square of sky and wait for the inevitable.

“Sir?” Makepeace asked again, then her ice-encrusted wet hand touched and patted my face. I could hardly feel it. “Sah, no,” she hissed.

“Anything inside?”

“Hold on . . .” The carriage rocked and the sky was eclipsed as pointed-eared silhouette moved in front of the bleeding sunset clouds. “It’s . . . rot! There’s someone in there.”

“What? Dead?”

The head cocked, looking closer. “They’re . . . ROT!” the figure reared back, vanished. I heard a yowl then a splash and thrashing and urgent voices. “. . . something in there.”

“What?”

“Something. Not a person!”

“Have you been drinking?”

And Makepeace staggered to her feet and started shouting at the patch of sky, “Hai! Help. We need help . . .”

I wondered if that was such a good idea. After a while I wondered why there were so many strange faces staring down at me and grabbing me. Then I wondered why I was sprawled in frozen reeds and mud and ice and Makepeace was standing over me, railing and gesturing furiously at someone. Then I wondered why she was slapping my face and shouting something at me, then who those blurry Rris carrying me were.

Then why it was hurting so bad.

The worst case of all-over pins-and-needles I’d ever imagined started burning into me from neck to toes, yanking me from the dull torpor I’d sunk into. I shuddered violently, tried to thrash away. Water splashed and something pushed me back. “No, sir. Stay there, sir. Please . . .”

There was a roof, tinged red with flickering light. Fire? There was a fire. The sensations got worse, turning to something that wasn’t dissimilar to burning. I struggled and a figure outlined by firelight was there, pressing me back into the heat. “Please, sir! Don’t . . .”

I struggled as the pain plateaued, changed, as it turned to other sensations stabbing their way through a numbness that’d drowned everything else. I’d felt something like it before, after swimming across a frozen harbor years ago: the excruciating deluge of sensations returning to frozen limbs that had bone-wracking shudders tearing through me, clenching teeth and hands and anything else I could. That figure hung over me, holding me back, saying things that I didn’t grasp in quiet tones.

Eventually, it eased. My brain adjusted to the flood of returning feeling and accepted it as normal rather than a torrent of random noise. It eased, but it left me feeling like I’d run three consecutive marathons. I gradually settled but could feel my heart hammering wildly as I heaved painful breaths and slowly became aware of where I was.

Hot water sloshed around me, steaming in warm air that smelled of scorched metal and smoke and animals. I was scrunched into in a hammered tin tub two sizes too small for me. My coat was gone, but otherwise I was still fully dressed, looking up at a ceiling of dimly lit wooden slats supported by joists of heavy, old, gnarled timbers from which hung old tools and bits of iron and wire and wood and leather and cobwebs. The Rris kneeling beside me was Makepeace, looking concerned. She was naked, her fur still tangled and damp and steaming.

We were in a . . . a shed. A stone hearth beneath a black iron hood was banked high with coals glowing orange white, casting a vicious heat and ruddy twilight. It was enough to illuminated rough-cut plank walls and uneven posts and more debris: piles of metal scrap and ingots, oddly shaped wood, fragments of farm tools and implements, half a spoked wagon wheel, bits of bridle and straps and ropes, racks of iron tools: hammers and tongs and anvils and pincers and other things. There was a doorway curtained with strips of leather revealing glimpses of pure night outside. And there were a good dozen other Rris crowding around the peripheries of the light, stirring and shifting uneasily, their ranked eyes flaring like pinpricks through to sunlight. I also caught the glint of sharp metal.

I tensed, trying to sit up and sending water sloshing and blood pounding through my temples.

“Calm,” Makepeace said quietly. “They helped, but they aren’t . . . convinced. You understand?”

“Convinced?” I croaked. “What happened?”

There was a murmur from the audience, a rustle of moving bodies. I heard the usual, “it does talk,” being whispered. Makepeace glanced that way, then back to me. “It’s a small village, sir. They saw the carriage in the river. They dragged it out . . . Thought it was salvage. We were a . . . surprise. They aren’t convinced we are who we say.”

“Oh,” I said. It was difficult to think clearly. My mind kept shutting down to a blank blackness. “Who are we?”

“Sir?” Makepeace looked confused and distraught and afraid.

“It does talk,” another voice growled. “You weren’t lying about that at least. Can it understand?”

“He’s frozen,” Makepeace protested. “He’s half drowned and chilled through. Give him a minute!”

“You’ve had our time and our patience,” the other growled and another Rris stepped around her to stare down at me with amber eyes. Male or female, I couldn’t tell. The person was older, short but stocky. Long grizzled grey and wintery colored fur puffed out around a leather jerkin and kilt and made the Rris look bulkier than it probably were. One ear was tall and tufted, the other was lopped off about halfway up. Both laid back as the Rris regarded me. “It doesn’t last forever. Now, what the pestilence are you?”

“What am I?” I repeated and flicked a finger at the water. “I’m . . . I’m wondering why I’m in a bath.”

“You were about to freeze to death, sir,” Makepeace said. “We had to warm you. This was . . . the best way. The forge warms things well.”

“Ah,” I held my hand up and flexed my fingers. They ached, right to the bone. I fancied I could hear them creaking. I winced and tried to focus on what was going on. “Well, then, thank you. And you told them who we are?”

“She did,” the Rris interjected. “I wanted to see if you told the same story. Actually, I wanted to see if you could tell any story at all. What the rot are you?”

Hostility. Fear hiding behind a bluster of anger and control. I recognized that, along with the tense, focused stares of the crowd lurking behind. This . . . could get dangerous.

“I’m a guest of Land-of-Water government,” I said. “And a guest of Bluebetter. My name is Michael. We were heading toward Bluebetter from Shattered Water. I think we were attacked. We were crossing a bridge. There was an explosion, I think, and then we were in the water.”

“Guest of the government,” the local mused. “Do you have any proof of that?”

“Ma’am,” Makepeace protested. At least now I knew her gender. “You saw the coach. The crest . . .”

“Doesn’t mean much,” the other Rris growled. “You were in a carriage. Perhaps running, a? From whom? Who attacked you? Why were you going to Bluebetter? Lot of questions there.”

“Oh, for fucks sake!” I sighed. “Makepeace. Is my coat here?”

“Sir?” if her eyes had gone any wider they’d have rolled from their sockets. “Yes, sir.”

“Inside pocket. Left side. There’s a packet.”

She waved an affirmative and stood.

“Hold,” the local told her and then called, “Hai! Neeriah, watch her, will you?”

Another local loomed up behind Makepeace, a burly individual with a stout cudgel gripped in one hand. Makepeace looked nervous and the local stayed close by her as she went over to the forge where her clothes were slung over an anvil, steaming as they dried. My coat was nearby, hanging from a peg and also dripping wet. She fumbled around inside and produced a small sealed wax envelope. She waved it and I nodded. She brought it back to us. The older woman took it and eyed it suspiciously.

“That’s the royal seal,” Makepeace offered.

“Huhn,” the other snorted and pried it open with a claw. I really hoped water hadn’t gotten in.

She read the note once, eyes flickering over the script, up and down and left and right. Then again, just as fastidiously. Not an exercised reader, I guessed. Her ears went back and she looked at me. “You really need this?”

I shrugged. “You’d be surprised how often this sort of thing happens. The bath is new, though.”

“You actually are a guest of his lordship,” the woman said in wondering tones and handed the note off as the whispers from the audience started again. Makepeace took it and started to surreptitiously read it herself.

“A. And I didn’t catch your name.”

“Shohetorimai aesh Merthi,” she said.

“Sho . . . Shohetorimai,” I enunciated very carefully, trying to fix the sounds in my head , “Pleased to meet you.” I started to lever myself out of the water, managed to get my legs under me and then found someone had replaced my muscles with overcooked pasta. I staggered, water slopped onto the packed earth floor. Makepeace lunged and caught me before I fell on my face, getting a shoulder under my arm. My wet shirt squelched and dripped down into her fur. “Shit,” I croaked. “It’s more difficult than it looks.”

Makepeace grunted something and held me as I gathered my strength and tried again. The local Rris watched and there were a few chitters as she helped me stumble out of the tub and wobble over to a stump of wood near the forge. I slumped down, shuddering from a bone-deep weariness than sapped every ounce of strength I had. The heat from the forge was fierce and welcome and I just closed my eyes for a second.

Something dabbed at my head. Makepeace had a piece of rough cloth that had probably been a piece of sacking in a former life and was trying to towel me off with it. Without much success. The locals were off in a huddle at the smithy doors. There were raised voices. I’d dozed?

I shivered, nervous and exhausted. Steam was pouring off me in the heat from the forge. “Makepeace?”

“Sir?”

“Where are we? What happened to the others?”

“This is . . . it’s a village. Downstream somewhere. I don’t know exactly where. The others . . . I don’t know that either, sir.”

“Downstream?”

“A, sir. We floated for at least an hour.”

How far was that? How fast was the current? How . . .

“They pulled us out, sir,” Makepeace said as she rubbed at my hair. “But we’re on the other side of the river.”

That took a second to sink in. “Oh. Rot. Is there anywhere they can cross?”

“Aesh Merthi said the ferry in Summer Breaks is the only way to get wagons across. Otherwise there are only small boats.”

“They have any here?”

“A.” She hesitated. “You think we might need one?”

“It’d be the fastest way to Summer Breaks. Is there a road on this side of the river?”

“A. But, sir, you’re in no condition to walk or even ride.”

What I was concerned about was the fact that our unknown assailants already had people on this side of the river. Did they know I’d fallen in with the coach? If they didn’t, then there was a chance they’d stay focused on the caravan. If they’d noticed, then there was a good chance they’d sweep the riverbank and if we stayed put they’d find us.

Shohetorimai returned carrying a small bowl and a couple of mugs. “There’s some stock simmering. It might help you warm up.”

“Thank you,” I said as I took a mug, held it out while she filled it with something thick enough to be gravy. It was strong and hot and hit my tastebuds like a firestorm. “Uhn,” I choked.

“That’s alright?”

“That’s very good,” I said. “Thank you. For everything. But I’m afraid we can’t stay.”

“But they can help us . . .” Makepeace started to say.

“The Inn,” I reminded her bluntly. “What they did there, they could do here. We can’t stay.”

“‘The Inn’? Shohetorimai noted. “What inn? What happened?”

I looked around. There were cubs in audience, watching us, fascinated by the impromptu entertainment. “Ma’am, can we talk alone?”

“They’ll hear what I do,” she said firmly.

I sighed and sipped again. “Alright. Ma’am, I told you we were attacked. Those people might come looking for me. They are . . .” I searched for the word and didn’t have it.

Makepeace said a single word and the older woman’s ears went flat. I continued: “They have killed to try and get me, and they’ll easily do it again. I can’t stay and hope our people get here first, because they might not.”

Shohetorimai looked around at the other villagers who’d grown very quiet and lowered her nose, glowering. They got the message and most of them hastened out, ushering the children ahead of them. The couple who remained included that big Neeriah from earlier and some old grey furred male wearing a heavily-patched canvas coat. “This affects us,” Neeriah said. “We should hear.”

“They’re old enough to make their own decisions,” Shohetorimai said.

I waved a cautious assent.

She leveled a double-barreled glare at me. “So, what happened at this inn?”

“They got there ahead of us. Killed the staff, the guests, everyone. Took their places.”

“Why?”

“To get me, most likely.”

Her muzzle twitched, flashing teeth. The others looked uncomfortable. “Who are they?” she asked.

I shrugged. “We don’t know.”

“And they did that because of you? Why?”

Makepeace made a strangled sound and when people looked at her said, “Ma’am, there are people out there who would do just about anything to get their hands on him. There’s been talk of war because of him.”

“Again: why?”

“Because he knows things, Ma’am. Things they either want for themselves or to stop someone else getting them.”

Shohetorimai stared at me again. “That sounds very strange to me.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot,” I said. “It’s true though. And the thing is, these people might be coming. If they find us . . . If they know we were here, I don’t know what they will do.”

She tipped her head. “That sounds suspicious. And if we help you and you were running from the law?”

“You recognized the seal on that note?” Makepeace said.

“A,” Shohetorimai slowly acknowledged. “Seen that often enough on tax declarations.” She paced a few steps, the orange light from the forge rippling across her. “Very well,” she finally said. “How can we help?”

“Is there a boat that can get us to Summer Breaks?” I asked.

“A boat?” she snorted. “A, we have some small boats, but the river . . . you’ve seen it. I wouldn’t want to try it.”

“Shohetorimai,” the other older Rris in the patched coat had just been leaning back against a post and listening. Now he spoke up for the first time. “It can be done. I wouldn’t want to take a big boat out on that, but a small one . . . that’s been done before.”

“You’ve done it?” she asked.

He tipped his hand. “Kesti did it.”

“And he’s been dead, what, fifteen winters now?

“A, and he taught me well. A small boat can do this. Anything big would be battered like a cub’s ball, but a small boat . . . You stay out in the current and a small boat just travels with the ice. If you know the course, then a bit of care, a bit of luck . . .” he waved a shrug.

“So we could do this?” I asked.

“You?” He snorted. “Hardly. The currents, shallows, deadwood . . . take the wrong fork in the dark and this time there might not be anyone to fish your bodies out.”

I looked at Makepeace who just looked worried. “We can’t walk, sir,” she said to me. “Not in your state. And, to be honest, sir, you ride just marginally worse than someone who can’t ride.”

“Oh, thank you. Thank you very much,” I said and she laid ears back and radiated embarrassment.

“Shit,” I sighed and rubbed at my face. “The worst thing about that is you’re right. But we can’t stay. I don’t know what happened at the bridge, but I’ll bet there’s probably going to be a race downstream chasing after us. If the wrong side gets here first . . .” I didn’t finish that, not entirely sure how to. “I don’t think we can risk that. We’re probably going to have to take our chances with the river.”

“There is another option,” Shohetorimai said.

“Ma’am?” I asked.

“You could always ask Hesk here if he’d be willing to take you,” she said, nodding toward the oldster in the ragged coat.

Makepeace and I exchanged another look. She said, “that would be asking . . . a lot.”

“A,” she simply acknowledged and waited for us.

I hesitated and then turned to the old male and asked, “Sir? It is a lot to ask, but would you be willing? I don’t have . . . We can’t pay you, but I’m sure the government can reimburse.”

For a few seconds he didn’t say anything, then grunted, “Huhn! It’d go a little way to repaying what they’ve taken over the years.” He cocked his head, squinting at me. “I’m guessing you have an interesting story?”

“It’s . . . unique,” I said.

“Putting it mildly,” Makepeace added and ducked her head. “Sorry, sir.”

“All right,” he said. “You tell me your story, your people pay what I ask and I’ll take you. Agreed?”

I looked at Makepeace again, trying to see how she was reacting to this. She just looked uncertain. So I made the decision, I nodded and told the Rris, “Agreed.”

Chapter 46

The pale spill of the Milky Way threw an arch of ethereal beauty arch across the valley. Snow seemed to fluoresce with a ghostly-cold glow under the gossamer touch of starlight, but everything else was dark. Trees and hills were silhouettes, jagged black cutouts against the shimmering veil painted across the vault of heaven. Shadows were blacker than the soot caking the smithy chimney.

From what I could see in the darkness the little village was nothing more than that: a few buildings on the road by the river. The smithy, a town hall and store and a few other communal buildings were grouped down by the water. Houses were further spread out as Rris custom and sensibilities dictated, nestling privately between huge old hedgerows. A few lights glimmered: here a candle burned in a window, there some light seeped under a door. Otherwise there was nothing but feeble, cold starlight.

Our hosts led the way down to the river and we followed. My clothes were still damp and the brittle night chill pinched at the exposed skin on my face as I walked very carefully through the darkness. Makepeace stayed close enough that her shoulder bumped against me. Out on the limits of my vision I could see dimly defined figures shifting and the occasional flash of eyeshine from villagers lurking on the sidelines, watching the show from a distance.

A wooden jetty spiked out into the river, out across the ice crusted along the shoreline and into the deeper, darker slow churn of flowing water. Downstream, the humped shape of the overturned carriage lay on its side amongst crushed reeds and mud, on its side with the broken remains of its wheels in the air. It was battered and scarred, the painted woodwork pocked and splintered as if it’d been pelted with giant rocks. I remembered the stones of the bridge and realized it probably had. Locals were clambering over the remains. Some of the luggage chests had survived. Mine hadn’t been on that coach, but Makepeace’s had. She went to see what she could salvage.

“It’s pretty sodden,” Shohetorimai said to me. “There are some chests . . . I don’t know how much has been taken. Usually what’s found in the river is never claimed. Never been a problem before.”

“It shouldn’t be this time,” I said.

“You can say for sure?” she said. “They come here and find the carriage and no sign of you. We might have some explaining to do. How can we tell your friends from the others? And how can we persuade them you left of your own will?”

“Ah,” I could understand that. I thought for a second. “There should be one called ah Ties or a pair of Mediators: Jenes’ahn and Rohinia. She’s young and angry and he’s old and tough. They can accurately describe me. They should know about Makepeace also.”

“If they aren’t there?”

“I would suggest you be exceedingly careful,” I said glumly, shivered. “It might be for the best to say you found the carriage and nothing else. If they are my friends they might be annoyed, but you’ve done nothing wrong — I can easily sort things out when they catch up in Summer Breaks.

“If they’re the wrong ones, then . . .” I considered and sighed. “Then I’m not sure what they’ll do. They won’t care about the coach. They’re after me, and they’re dangerous. Very.”

“We should plead ignorance?” she asked.

“You could just tell them we took a boat and went downstream,” I said. “Close to the truth, a?”

“A,” she said.

Makepeace hurried back, a small bag in hand. “This was all there was,” she said holding it up. I could see it was dripping and coated in ice. “We should go now.”

“A,” I agreed.

The end of the rickety jetty projected out past the ice, out where the current was keeping the channel clear. That was where someone had snagged the coach with a grapple as it floated past and the current had swung it around into the shore. Hesk’s boat was tied up out there. It was remarkably similar to the one I’d ridden in over in Cover My Tail while I was running from the Guild: a little clinker-clad skiff with a mast and some room for cargo or passengers. It’d been stripped down for the winter and Hesk had been busy reloading and refitting. As we approached there was a clatter as he tossed a couple of oars down from the jetty and then dropped down after them. The boat hardly rocked as he landed nimbly on both feet and set about putting oarlocks in place.

“You ready, Hesk?” Shohetorimai asked.

“A,” he said, looking up at us, at me. “Whenever they are.”

We were. Makepeace just dropped down into the boat, as easily as Hesk had. I clambered down a bit more slowly. I’d been in the water once already that night, and that was enough for me. Makepeace and I settled ourselves in the bow, by the small locker there. A minute later and Hesk was at the oars sculling the small boat out into the dark water. The current caught us, swinging the bow around. There wasn’t much of a sense of movement, but I looked back to see the faint lights of the village receding into glimmers and then vanishing into the night.

“Thank you,” I said to the Rris at the oars. He was just dipping them occasionally, keeping the boat straight. “I know you didn’t have to do this.”

“Huhn,” he snorted. “It was this or hold you there and sell you to whoever was after you.”

I hesitated, not sure if he was joking or not. “I’m pleased to see you decided to go this way.”

“Yes, well, after what happened at Three Birds Fall we decided they probably wouldn’t honor any deal.” Starlight whitened a glistening grin. He probably wasn’t joking, but saw some sort of humor in the situation. “Best for all to get you out of there. If you honor your end of the deal, all the better. The money for this sort of work is always welcome.”

“I never mentioned the name of the place,” I said carefully.

He chittered. “You didn’t have to. We’d heard. Things flow downstream, you know. We wanted to see what you’d say about what happened there. If you’d be honest about it.”

I shook my head, “Not much point in lying about it.”

He leaned on the oars and waved a shrug. “You might think so, a? I think some might think what they’d found was too dangerous. Best throw it back. Never saw it in the first place. A?”

“I . . . hadn’t thought of that.”

Hesk snorted. “Not a very twisty creature you’ve got there, ma’am,” he said to Makepeace.

“No, sir,” she said quietly, sorting through her sodden things. Then she made a little mewling sound and lifted something out — a book. When she opened it the water-logged pages just disintegrated into a mush. Her ears wilted and she stared mournfully at the ruined pulp.

“Nothing sadder than a wet book,” I noted quietly. “It was important?”

“It was Tehirski’s dissertations on Mind and Perception,” she said in a small voice. “A first printing.”

Of course I didn’t know it at all. “Valuable?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Not at all. It was all I could afford.”

Oh. I could’ve said that I could easily buy her a new one, but I didn’t think that’d be right. “Are you being paid for this?”

“For this?” she gestured at the dead winter night in the middle of the river. “‘A great opportunity,’ they said. ‘You should be grateful,’ they said. It’ll be part of your [something]. Sir, I have to say I don’t really have enough to pay for my meals.”

“Really,” I said coolly. No-one had told me she was trying to pay her own way. I wondered just what was going on at the university. “I think something will have to be done about that.”

“Sir?”

“You’re here on behalf of the university, they shouldn’t expect you to use your own finances. I’ll see about getting you paid properly.”

“Sir . . .” she started and then caught herself and ducked her head. “Thank you.”

“Not a problem.”

The river was wide and lazy at that point. We weren’t moving much faster than the caravan had, but it was certainly smoother. Hesk occasionally had to dip an oar and steer the boat around obstacles in the water, just using minimum of effort to adjust course. More than half the time I couldn’t even see what it was we were dodging. Sometimes we bumped against floes of ice but never hard enough to raise more than a light thump against the hull. It was cold though. My damp clothes got clammy, then chill. I found a piece of sailcloth in the forward locker and wrapped that around myself and huddled and shivered. After a while Makepeace nudged me. “Open that,” she told me, plucking at the cloth.

“You’re cold?” I asked, opening the cloth for her. She scootched back in between my legs and leaned against me, then took my hands and pulled the coarse hemp canvas sail closed around the two of us.

“No,” she said. “You are.”

Against the contrast of the frigid night air her body felt like a fire was burning under her skin. I looped my arms around her, relishing the warmth and embarrassed at myself at the same time. “This doesn’t mean anything,” I said into the fur behind her ear, which promptly laid back.

“No, sir,” she said. “Of course not, sir.”

“So,” Hesk said to me, “Just what is your story.”

“Long,” I said. “Complicated.”

“We’ve got time,” he said.

That we did.

Water paddled around the hull. In places the black surface drank the starlight; elsewhere it was a warping mirror, reflecting a continuously shifting distortion of the pale arch of stars overhead. Hundreds of meters away the distant banks were white lines sketched against darkness, faintly luminescent in the starlight. Drifting trees waved broken branches and occasional lumps of ice lurking in the dark waters were only visible when they caught the light just right. It all drifted by as I unfolded my tale, heavily edited.

Hesk sat at the oars and listened attentively. It took a while. And with Makepeace snugged up against me under the impromptu cloak I actually warmed up. I was about halfway through when Makepeace started making a low sound. I realized she was snoring. Sagged against me, fast asleep.

“That’s the second time that’s happened to me,” I said to Hesk.

“She’s had a busy day,” he said. “She defended you, you know. Made us pull you out of that coach.”

“I thought as much,” I said, letting her head loll back on my shoulder. “It’s not something I’d ever intended. She’s only here due to some foolishness that should never had happened.”

“A? What’s that then?”

“Still getting to that,” I said. “Now, where was I?”

“A guest of the Lady of Open Fields.”

“Oh, yeah . . .”

The river kept flowing. The boat continued downstream. The stars continued wheeling overhead. The sky lightened. Color seeped back into the world. My story ended. A few odd trills of birdsong drifted over the water and ice.

Hesk leaned on the crossed oars and cocked his head. “How much of that is true?”

“It’s everything the Guild has allowed me to say.” Which wasn’t a lie. Not exactly.

He gave a low chitter. “As expected when dealing with the Guild, a?”

“A,” I sighed. “They have a hall in Summer Breaks?”

“A.”

“I was wondering if I should go there or to the local lord.”

“Afraid I can’t help you much there,” he said, waving a shrug. “Shohetorimai probably could have told you more. She deals with the tax [agents]. There’s a garrison, I know that, mainly to support the customs and excise officers. Had enough run ins with them over the years.”

He had small boat and he knew how to navigate the river at night. Of course he’d had run-ins with the guard. “Is that going to cause problems?”

“Most of them just want to do their jobs. You don’t cause them trouble, they don’t cause you trouble. Of course,” he scratched at his jaw, “I’ve got no idea what they’ll think about you.”

“They might be expecting me. They might’ve been told we would be coming through.”

“Would make things easier,” he said.

That all depended. “How far away are we?”

“I expect we’ll be there around midday,” he said, squinted at the morning horizon. “Over or under, as it falls.”

“A fair distance to go.”

“It’s slower the other way,” he said philosophically.

I waved agreement. Tacking upstream by sail would take a while, and the ice would make it even tougher.

So, there was time. He had more questions and I answered what I could. I also had time to worry: about what had happened. Were the others okay? What about Chihirae? Goddammit, I’d said I’d protect her, that nothing would happen to her. And then the very next day this happens. Did that make me a liar or an idiot? What had happened up there? At the inn they’d seemed to want to take prisoners, but that ambush at the bridge had been very nearly fatal. Different groups? Or had someone just screwed up?

And Makepeace, slumped against me, slept like the dead . . . if the dead snored and drooled.

As it fell, it took us until almost an hour over. The river flowed slowly, steadily. The winter sun was as high as it could get in a perfectly pale blue sky, raising glare from ice and water. We exited a channel between a small island and the mainland, rounded a bend into a new valley and suddenly there were buildings along the northern shoreline. I nudged the comatose Makepeace a few times until she stirred and groaned and tried to stretch.

“We’re almost there,” I told her.

“Wh . . . huhn,” she scrubbed at her face, tussling her disheveled fur even more. “Already?”

“A,” I smiled. “Already.”

There were just few outlying farms and estate houses at first, isolated places nestled in amongst their hedgerows and copses. Then there were more buildings, closer together. A tower marked the beginning of the town proper. The squat fortification sat at the river’s edge, anchoring one end of the town’s wall. I could see the black iron snouts of canon poking through the crenellations. Craters of lighter-colored stone pocked the walls and what windows there were were black slits. At the foot of the tower was a breakwater of broken chunks of stone protruding into the river. Downstream from the tower the waterfront was properly built up. Like the riverside in Shattered Water there was a stone quayside, built high, well above any flood waters. Piers jutted out from that; some stone, some wood.

Buildings pushed and jostled for frontage along the quay. Narrow and tall facades of brick, plaster and wood; storefronts with diamond-pane windows beneath living quarters which leaned out toward the river. Roofs were steep red tile, gleaming in the sunlight. Smoke rose from chimneys and stalls along the waterfront. Boats were out of the water, using wintertime for cleaning and repairs. Small skiffs hung out to dry from the pier like giant fish; larger boats were pulled up on slipways or up on the quayside. Rris bustled around up there, going about their business. There weren’t any other boats out on the water, so we drew a few looks, then more as we got closer.

By the time we got up to the wharf and Hesk had tied a line to a rusty iron loop set in the stone beside some steps there was quite an audience looking down at us. “Damn,” I said in Makepeace’s ear as we sorted ourselves out. “I’d hoped to not attract so much attention.”

“It’s a problem?” she murmured back.

“I hope not.” I unfolded myself from that narrow spot in the bow, creaking all the way, and the noise up on the wharfside got marginally louder. Makepeace hopped out and then hurried to steady the boat while I discovered just where the joints in my legs were and managed to persuade them to bend enough to get me onto the wharf without dumping me back in the river.

“You’re alright, sir?” Makepeace asked.

“Just stiff,” I said, stretching.

Maybe she realized she’d been the one all but sitting on me for most of the trip. She looked uncomfortable. Or perhaps it was just the growing audience. I sympathized: I didn’t like crowds.

“Thank you,” I said to Hesk. “Don’t know where we’d be without you.”

“Upstream, probably,” he said.

“You’re heading back now?”

He gave me a look. “Not until I’m paid.”

“Okay,” I said. “You know we’re going to have to get to the local lord first.”

“That wise?” he asked. “The guard here is . . . enthusiastic.”

“Not much choice,” I said.

“Very well,” he waved a shrug. “I’ll go with you.”

Above us some of the locals were calling down, asking the Rris questions.

“We’re just going to walk through town?” Makepeace asked dubiously.

“Not much choice,” I sighed. “I don’t think they’ll come to us.”

Chapter 47

Of course we drew a crowd — I was probably the most entertaining thing they’d seen since the village idiot finally caught his own tail. They followed us as we headed into the maze of narrow cobbled streets heading away from the river. Buildings materials seemed to vary depending on neighborhood: some were wood and plaster, others stone or brick. Older buildings were haphazard amalgams of everything, often with upper floors leaning out over the street. Sometimes so far that opposing facades almost touched and turned the streets below into dark tunnels. Hawkers were shouting. Shops were displaying their wares. Eateries were open, smoke rising from sizzling iron stands in the front windows. The smell of roasting food yanked something that set saliva flowing and my stomach growling.

Some money to buy food with would’ve been nice.

Our hangers-on stayed with us. Rris in doorways watched us pass and then joined the procession. Cubs scampered around, rushing past as closely as they dared. Older Rris with nothing better to just ambled along behind us. Makepeace stayed close by my side, her tail lashing furiously as Rris shouted questions:

“Where’d you find that?”

“Does it do tricks?”

“Circus coming, a?”

“Not the Beast of Three Birds, is it?”

I started at that and Makepeace nudged my arm. “Keep moving,” she hissed, her tail lashing.

And of course we drew enough attention that we caught the eye of the local guard. We’d only made a couple of blocks and had emerged from a narrow street. It opened into a small Y shaped courtyard dominated by a frozen fountain topped by an ice-rimed statue of a pair of Rris tearing each others’ throats out. Sheer walls overshadowed the courtyard, three story buildings relegating the street to cold shadow. And as we stepped into the courtyard the crowd melted away and we found ourselves facing some Rris who didn’t step aside.

There were half a dozen of them, all wearing a plain uniform of leather tunic and breastplates with a blue and beige sigil on them, so they were most likely genuine. For a moment I was relieved, but that feeling didn’t last long. Those uniforms were pretty battered and stained, and beneath them their wearers were a ratty, hungry-looking bunch.

One of them, a scowling officer, stalked forward and looked from Hesk to Makepeace. “This is yours?”

“Sir,” Makepeace started to say brightly. “We’re from . . .”

The officer’s scowl didn’t change. “What the rot is it?” he interrupted. I didn’t have a good feeling about this.

“Sir, a guest of his highness in Shattered . . . .”

“Rot you, don’t give me that [patter]. When I ask you a question, you give me an answer, do you hear me?”

Uh-oh, I thought.

Makepeace’s ears went down flat. “Yes, sir. But . . .”

“No, you tell me what that thing is; where you came from and what you’re doing here blocking the street with your little performance.”

“She told you,” I said.

The scowl vanished, eyes went wide and the ears back. He recoiled a step. “Blood and bone! Is this a joke?” He glared at me, then at Makepeace, “Are you responsible for this?”

“Other way around,” I said and his attention snapped back to me. “We’re from Shattered Water, bound for Bluebetter. We were attacked, separated from our caravan. We’re looking for assistance.”

The officer still stared, looking as if he were trying to work out if it was a joke or not. Then he twitched and abruptly leveled a finger at Hesk, “You. Are you with these?”

Hesk must’ve done some rapid calculation, but there wasn’t a second’s hesitation when he said, “Ah, no, sir.”

“Then get out of my sight.”

Hesk ducked his head and blurred back the way we’d come. The guard commander’s head swung back to us. I met his stare. “We are on Palace business,” I said quietly although my heart was starting to hammer. This could go very wrong in all sorts of ways. “We’re also under Guild observation . . .”

“Enough,” he snapped. “Move.”

“Sir,” Makepeace tried again. “We have to see . . .”

He stepped in close to her and grabbed at her tunic. “You’ll see . . .”

Then he cut off with a squeak when I caught the hand he’d seized her with, bending it back until he released her. “You don’t touch her,” I said quietly.

“Mikah,” Makepeace breathed. There were metallic clicks from around us, the sound of flintlocks being cocked. If they fired, they’d be shooting their own. I tightened my grip, squeezing stubby fingers with their claws. He hissed, trying to pull away and I squeezed a bit harder until his hand released Makepeace and she stumbled back, patting at her ruffled throat fur with one hand. Her ears were back and whites showing around her eyes. “Rot, sir, do you ever think about what you’re doing?” she panted.

“Only when it’s a good idea,” I growled, looked around at the surrounding guards. That didn’t look good. “Get out of here,” I hissed.

“Sir? I . . .”

“Go,” I told her again.

She still hesitated

The Rris officer bared teeth at me and moved in a way I knew from experience meant he was going to swing at me with his other hand. I tightened my grip and twisted a bit and he forgot about that, snarl turning to a yowl even as I twisted his arm around behind his back. And stepped in behind him, holding him in an armlock that threatened to break something and looking over his shoulder at the rest of his squad. They all had their weapons drawn — blades and a couple of pistols. I was armed, better than they were, but starting a shootout was nothing but a losing game. And from the looks of them, simply surrendering meekly could be just as dangerous.

“That’s an order!”

“You can’t . . .” she started to protest.

“Go!” I bellowed, shocking echoes from the walls. The Rris guards recoiled. Makepeace bolted, tearing back into an alley with a rattle of claws on cobblestone and was gone. I kept my grip on the officer, keeping him between me and the rest of the squad who were already circling round. This had escalated quickly.

“Shall we shoot it?” one of them asked, sighting along the barrel of his smoothbore pistol. The range wasn’t long, but the bullets in those things could be unpredictable.

“Don’t! You idiot!” the officer snapped at his troops, trying to twist in my grip. I wrenched his arm, staggering him back a few steps to prevent his trigger-happy goons flanking us.

“You know you’re dead!” he snarled.

I grinned, not entirely from humor. “Have you thought that through?” I growled as he tried wrenching away again. “I think I can guarantee that if your lord found you’d shot me, being skinned alive would be the least of your worries.”

“High opinion,” he hissed.

“You want to test it?” I hissed back.

“Let’s.”

“You seen anything like me before? Heard of me before? No? Quite rare, a? Rare, as in valuable? Valuable to his highness?”

“You know nothing of . . .”

“Hirht ah Chihiski,” I said. “Thin male. Very little sense of humor. I know him and he knows me.”

That sank through. He snarled but stopped struggling. “Hold,” he spat at his troops. “Stop pointing those things.”

“Sir?” one of them growled.

“Lower your rotted guns!”

They did so. Reluctantly. Looking disappointed and annoyed.

I reached around and found the butt of the officer’s pistol where it was tucked into his bandolier. I yanked it out. The weapon was a flintlock, heavy and as long as my forearm. The handgrip wasn’t quite the right size or shape for my hand and the smooth, dark wood looked like black walnut. The weapon was embellished with silver: inlays of vine-like traceries, raised curlicues and leaves wrapped up the barrel, baroquely ornate frizzen and hammer. Expensive piece for a guardsman. I held on to it and shoved the officer back toward his squad.

The officer whipped around, ears back and teeth bared. I looked down at the Rris pistol and thought this is probably a bad idea . . . Nevertheless, I popped the frizzen pan open and spilled the powder, then flipped the weapon over and held it out by the muzzle. His eyes were pure black as he glared, then reached out a visibly-trembling hand and took the pistol from me, weighing it in his hands.

“I have this,” I said, producing the little piece of official paper. He looked at it, then swiped viciously with one clawed hand. Torn shreds of paper fell. And while I was distracted by that he swung the pistol in a vicious blow that I only just blocked with the forearm armor. He recoiled, looking startled but that distraction had been enough.

I didn’t see which of the others jumped me. There was a terrific blow across the side of my head and I staggered back, the world sloshing to and fro around me. Snarling Rris faces were moving to encircle me, blocking me wherever I turned. A flash of movement made me turn and only just take another blow on my shoulder, the coat taking the worst of it. I retreated, my back against a wall.

“Sir! Sir!” a voice was yelling.

And then the officer was leveling another pistol, his ears flat and eyes as black as the muzzle I was staring down.

“Sir!” There was a blur of movement and almost simultaneously a thundering concussion and gout of sparks and smoke and I instinctively flinched as I was peppered with hot powder and a brick in the wall just over my head shattered and sprayed me with clay. One of the guards had knocked the officer’s gun aside and he didn’t look happy about it.

“What are you playing at, you rat-tailed . . .”

“Sir, it’s the royal seal!”

A glass-brittle hesitation. “What’re you prattling about?”

The younger trooper held up a torn piece of paper in hand. “This!” he snarled. “Sir, it’s the royal seal. And the Guild crest! If you shoot it . . . that might not be good.”

The officer snatched the scrap. Glared at it, then at me. “Where’d you get this?”

“It was given to me,” I said, gritting my teeth and trying to hold it together through fear and pain. My head was hurting — pounding again. Something was trickling down the side of my face. “By Hirht ah Chihiski. With Guild support.”

His eyes were black pits, his ears back flat against his head. But those words got through. “A forgery . . .” he muttered.

“It’d be a good one, sir,” the trooper said. “But who would forge a Guild seal? Sir, if it’s valuable, there could be a reward? A bounty?”

Some sort of conflict was going on in the officer, but eventually caution won out. Or perhaps greed. He spat a furious hiss and pointed at me with the gun. “Take it back to the station. Lock it. Secure.”

“Sir,” other guards acknowledged, fingering their weapons.

“And you,” the officer jabbed a claw at the younger trooper, teeth bared in a snarl. “You rat-tailed vermin eater, you disobey orders like that again, and I will skin you. Now, you get to report this . . . this thing to the keep. You tell me the verdict. You understand that?”

“A, sir,” the guard said.

“Get!”

The Rris got, scurrying away.

“And you,” the officer turned back to me, fingers clenching and unclenching on the grip of his pistol. “You do what I say, you understand that.”

“A,” I said quietly, not making any move that could set them off.

“Irons,” he snapped to one of his squad.

Their cuffs were bulky iron manacles linked with a short bar and were almost too small for my wrists. They managed to squeeze them in and then lock them behind my back. That seemed to calm them down a little, although they all still kept their distance and hands near weapons.

“Walk,” the commander told me, prodding me hard with the end of his musket. Pointless really: the weapon had been discharged and anyway, my coat absorbed that jab. Did he even realize that?

But I walked, in the direction they indicated. The crowds reformed, spilling into the street to watch the little procession. They kept their distance but I was still uncomfortably aware of all the eyes on me. It was . . . embarrassing. But still better than lying bleeding out in the gutter. I went quietly and hoped Makepeace had the sense to go to the right people. I was pretty sure she did, but I’d guessed Rris reactions wrong before.

They didn’t take me to the keep, but rather to the local watch house. The building looked like at some time it’d been part of an older round tower, perhaps part of an old wall the town had outgrown. The old fortification had been half –demolished and then the ruins half-rebuilt. Now it was a stump flanked by narrow buildings housing what looked like a bottle shop and a local tinker. The upper levels had glazed window and were covered by red tile roofs. Windows on the lower floor were narrow and barred.

I had to duck to get under the lintel, and inside had to stoop to prevent my head banging against rafters. Dim sunlight filtered through grimy panes slotted into the narrow windows. A pot boiled on a black stove in one corner, elsewhere were some cheap benches beside a table strewn with scraps of weapons and armor and food and other detritus. Cots sat in an adjoining chamber. The place smelled of food and smoke and chamberpots. They marched me through, then four of them took me down steep stone stairs barely wide enough for my shoulders. I had an inkling where this was heading, and my fears were confirmed when, in a dingy little vault that was only lit by what light trickled down from upstairs, one of them hauled a heavy wooden door open to reveal a black hole.

“That’s not . . .” I started to say.

“In!” a one of them snapped and jabbed with a sword tip. That got past the armor and stabbed my leg and I yelped and staggered as it dug into my thigh. “In,” he snarled again.

I grimaced at the growing burning ache in my leg and half-crouched to limp in through the tiny entrance, trying to see something inside. No point, there was nothing to see. And then the door slammed behind me, bolts scraped into place and the light was gone.

After some time I was aware that I was alone. I was aware I was cold. I ached. Cuts were making themselves felt, the brand new one on my leg throbbing furiously. Pain thumped through my head in time with my heartbeat. My mouth tasted of blood. Something was trickling down my face from that burning spot on my head where they’d hit me and my pants were also growing damp and sticky around the stab wound. The cell was bare stone and blackness. From where I sat I could touch two walls and the roof. The darkness reeked of ammonia and shit and dampness and I could only hope the floor was cold packed dirt. I’d been in a place like this before: a real dungeon; a box to stick people in — nothing like the medieval prisons Hollywood depicted. Here they didn’t waste money or space on things like bars or bedding. It was just a place to put people and make sure they stayed put. I worked myself into a corner and shivered, cold again. I was learning to really hate winter.

“That could’ve gone better,” I mumbled, mostly to try to stop myself screaming.

They hadn’t searched me. I found that odd, but then the local guards weren’t exactly a highly-trained police force. They dealt with local thugs and riff-raff and concealed firearms weren’t standard in a society where any useful firearm required easily-spillable powder. I’d seen a concealable firearm in action before, and they were expensive little hand-tooled assassination machines, not something a city guard would have a lot of experience with. Also, they still thought I was a clever animal. Why would you bother searching an animal?

So, I still had my guns. I could’ve shot my way out. I could still do so. Why hadn’t I?

Because walking into a town and opening fire on the local guard would’ve been suicide. They’d been a bunch of local cops in a violent society who were used to getting their own way. Probably kept order in their area by being bigger and meaner than the local lowlifes. They thought they were cock of the walk and weren’t about to listen to anything some suspicious-looking vagrant and her trained animal had to say. But gunning them down would’ve gotten very nasty very fast — my coat armor was a last resort that was nowhere close to infallible. And I wasn’t sure my drenched ammunition was entirely waterproof. And running wasn’t an option for me, not from Rris in their own town. I hoped Makepeace had gotten away. I was relying on her. Again.

And I hoped she’d gotten the message. I’d shouted at her to get her to leave me. I’d had to. If I’d winked or nodded of given some other high sign that any human from my culture would’ve understood, it would’ve meant nothing to her. Perhaps the Rris had some non-verbal cues involving a flicking ear or the lashing of a tail, but I wasn’t equipped to do that. All I’d been able to do was shout at her.

I hoped she hadn’t panicked. I hoped she’d understood.

I slumped back against the wall and sank down. My arms were still manacled behind me. And these things weren’t like handcuffs: they were heavy and tight and joined with a short bit of metal so the trick of working them under your butt wouldn’t work. Even if it did, then what? I didn’t have anything to pick the lock, and I’d still be locked away in a cell behind a heavy door.

I sighed, shuddered from cold, exhaustion and the come-down from an adrenaline rush. More bruises and lacerations were making themselves felt. My head hurt: a pain that thumped along with my pulse. What was happening? What’d happened to the others? Were they on their way here? Or had they turned back? Or had . . .

“Oh, god, Chihirae, you’d better be okay . . .”

I didn’t want to think about that; not about what the worst that could happen was. When I closed my eyes it was just as dark, but I got to watch the purple flashes in time with my heartbeat.

Chapter 48

There were noises. For a moment I was confused: when I opened my eyes I still couldn’t see anything. I wondered if I was still asleep.

The sounds got louder. Shouting, in alien tongues that got closer. A flickering line of red-orange light down near the floor over by the door grew brighter even as voices snarled and spat at one another. Metal rattled and grated and then light flooded in. I winced and squinted against the glare of a single little lamp that effectively blinded me.

“Oh, rot me,” I heard someone hiss and then louder: “Sir? Can you hear me? Sir?”

“I hear you,” I said in a croak that sounded like a strangled frog.

“You . . . Rot! His Lordship sent me. I’m here to get you out, sir. Can you . . . bone and plague, can you walk?”

I was sore and stiff and my hands were numb in the squeeze of manacles intended for smaller limbs. My leg sent stabbing messages of protest when I tried to get up. “Help him,” I heard a Rris voice snap. “Ware your claws!” Two Rris eclipsed the light as they ducked in through the tiny door and then there were hands helping me out into the vault now crowded with strange Rris wearing armor a sight cleaner and better maintained than the guards. The wound in my thigh sent pulses of pain shooting up and down and when I tried to straighten up I could almost hear my spine crackling.

“Sir?’’ one of the Rris, an officer, took my arm and promptly discovered the hardware. “Irons? Who’s got the keys to these? Find them!”

Rris hurried up the stairs. There was shouting.

“Sir,” the Rris officer said, “are you all right?”

“My pockets hurt,” I said.

“Sir?”

“I’ve been better,” I said and tried to focus. “Who are you? Did Makepeace send you?”

“Who?” he looked puzzled. Another Rris dropped down the stairs in a springing leap, brandishing a ring clanking with keys. The officer grabbed them. “His Lordship sent me,” he said as he got behind me with the keys, trying them in the manacles. “We got the report of what these offal-thieves had found. There was only one thing it could be.”

The lock clanked and the manacles dropped away. I gasped with relief, wringing my hands.

“You’re not alright,” the officer growled.

There were lurid bruises on each wrist. Something to match the marks on my chest and head. They were severely uncomfortable. The stab wound in my leg was worse: that was stiffening up. My pants were black with sticky blood that’d soaked into the material, matting it to my leg. I couldn’t put weight on it. The newcomers had to help me up the stairs.

“Carefully,” the officer said as I gritted my teeth, each step sending pain lancing up.

“I . . . can manage,” I gasped.

The guardroom in the watchhouse was crowded. The newcomers outnumbered the original watchmen who were bunched up in their sleeping quarters. They weren’t armed anymore and the guards standing at the door looked alert, if a bit confused. They stared when I emerged from the basement. The local watch officer stalked over, looking furious.

“I told you it attacked us!” he snarled. “It was defense!”

“Doesn’t mean llama spit, Asessi,” the officer from the keep snarled back. “His lordship almost choked on his fish when he heard mention of it. He’s not going to be pleased to see what you’ve done.”

“What would you have done?! It attacked . . .”

The officer flattened his ears. “Listen, you [something] [something]! For a start I wouldn’t have been trying to intimidate someone who looked like they were lost. That’s what it was, wasn’t it? Of course it was. I know this one wouldn’t attack you without a rotted good reason, and you gave him one. You’ve been getting away with this because you’ve usually chased the mangy stragglers and actually kept their numbers down. Nobody of any note had any complaints. Now, you’ve made a mistake. A rotted huge mistake. And his lordship has noticed! You’ll be lucky you don’t start as new career as a matched leather helm and bow string! Understand?!”

The guard faced into the force-five yowling tirade with eyes were wide, his ears back. For a second it looked like he was stupid enough to argue back. Just for a second, then he clamped his jaws shut and just looked furious and frustrated.

“So you can learn,” the officer hissed. “Keep your mouth shut and you might keep your mangy hide. Now, was there anything else you neglected to mention?”

“No,” the other choked. “Sir.”

The officer turned back to me. “Apologies, sir. Is there anything else? Did they take anything of yours?”

“No.”

“Then we should go. There won’t be any more interruptions, will there.”

The guard was trembling. Rage or fear, I didn’t know. Didn’t care.

“Sir, the report did mention a lady,” the officer said as he led the way outside. “Would you know her whereabouts?”

I hesitated. “I thought she went to the keep.”

His muzzle creased a bit. “No, sir,” he waved a negative. “The first we heard of this was the runner from here.”

“Oh,” I said. If she hadn’t gone there, then where . . .

“You are limping quite badly, sir. Would you prefer to ride?”

There were more guards outside, both mounted and on foot. I eyed the elk. “I don’t ride very well,” I said, being perhaps a bit generous in my abilities. So he simply commandeered a wagon from an annoyed merchant. I sat amongst sacks of grain in the back and shivered. My head was still throbbing and harsh winter sunlight didn’t help matters, tightening a vice behind my eyes. Guards on elk and foot escorted us, ranging ahead and behind. Other traffic on the streets was just told to get the hell out of the way.

The officer perched himself on the wagon rail, staring at me as we rattled through the winding streets.

“You said you don’t know where the other is,” he finally said.

“No, sir,” I said tiredly. “We just arrived here. We were trying to get to the keep. They . . . those guards stopped us and wouldn’t listen. She ran. I don’t know where.”

“Huhn,” he rumbled. “Why were you walking through the docks anyway? Why were you alone? We were told to expect visitors from the capitol, but nobody mentioned you. And certainly not by river at this time of year.”

“Sir, we were attacked. Before we came here. We were coming from Shattered Water. We were attacked and separated from the rest. Can you send someone. Soldiers. They need help.”

He cocked his head. “Tell his lordship. I was told to bring you, whatever the cost.”

I wondered if that was a good thing. “He knows I am considered . . . valuable?”

He chittered slightly. “He knows. We have met, you know.”

I looked again at him again: face covered with tawny and grey fur, amber eyes, tall tufted ears. “Have we? I’m afraid I don’t recall.”

“Perhaps I should say I have seen you, rather than we have met. About a year ago, in Shattered Water. A function at the palace that my lord attended. I was merely entourage, but we certainly saw you. A lot of people saw you.”

“So I’ve heard,” I said.

“By the noise he made he doesn’t want anything to happen to you,” he growled. “King’s business, a? His lordship thought so. That girl was your handler? Your teacher?”

I shivered, sighed. “No. Not like that. Just a child who got caught up in a political mess.”

“Huhn,” he cocked his head and looked at the street ahead as we rounded a corner. Sunlight caught the polished steel of his armor, setting it gleaming like a mirror, reflecting light and sky and funhouse versions of the surrounding buildings. “Why’d she leave you?”

“I told her to.”

“What? Why?”

“I thought she’d get help. Go to the keep.”

He waved a negative. “We just got a report that there’d been a disturbance and they’d caught . . . well . . . you.”

Then where’d she gone? Had she jumped into more trouble? And there was something else that was bugging me, but my head was really pounding and didn’t want to think properly. I closed my eyes but the swaying of the cart made things worse. The officer jumped back with a snarl as I convulsively puked the meager contents of my stomach across the sacks. It didn’t really help. “You’re ill,” he said.

“My head,” I grimaced through clenched teeth. “I think they hit me harder than I thought.”

His ears laid back. “Rot. Hai, Chask!” he yelled at one his troops. “Ride ahead and get a physician waiting for us. Go! And driver, you’ve got a whip, use it!”

The Rris merchant up on the driver’s bench lashed his tail in annoyance, but did as he was told. It really wasn’t much faster, but the jolting and swaying seemed disproportionately worse. I suffered it as best I could, not wanting to think about what might be waiting for me in the hands of unknown Rris ahead.

Chapter 49

Summer Break’s keep was built along the same general concept as other Rris fortresses I’d seen. It had the same towers, the same crenellated high stone walls, but there it only applied to half the structure. There were in fact two fortified buildings built at the downstream edge of town. One was set right at the water’s edge and was unmistakably a more modern fortress: a squat, heavy edifice with thick walls steeply sloped against artillery and set in a position where its guns commandeered the entire stretch of river. The other donjon was set further back. That structure was built in the style of older fortifications, developed before guns that would turn traditional walls to rubble. It had the gothic look of a traditional castle, with tall, whitewashed vertical walls around a donjon and tall towers that overtopped the river fort.

Both structures were enveloped by the same stone curtain walls. Seen from high above the form vaguely resembled a giant hourglass, with a keep in each endpiece. The pinch might have been a training ground at some point, now it was a garden in the Rris style: wild trees and long grass that looked deliberately untended, buried and white in winter.

They took me to the old keep: the imposing old fort with the tall walls and towers. Once it had been the primary fortress, now it showed the trappings of a residence. Walls that had been solid stone with slit windows were now dotted with ornate stonework and glazed panes. Colorful flags were stirring listlessly against a cloud-daubed sky: the colors of Land of Water and other standards that were those of the local lord or various guilds.

I wasn’t in any mood or condition for sightseeing. The wagon ground to a halt at the front doors and soldiers bustled around, forming a cordon around the back of the cart, staring. There were mutterings in the back ranks. I clambered down, moving slowly and carefully on my sore leg. The officer gave orders for a couple to help me. They didn’t move. He snarled them again and they snapped orders and a couple moved, uncertainly. If they had their claws out when they took my arms I couldn’t feel it through my coat.

Other guards stayed close. I’d thought that they were there to catch me if I fell; later realized they were probably there to catch me if I ran. Which would have been laughable if my head hadn’t been splitting from the glare of light off snow. I negotiated the front steps and the gloom of the front hall came as both a relief and a disorientation: I was faced with a sudden crowd. Rris converged on me and my escorts. In my battered condition I was faced with alien features, raised voices, questions and demands swirling around and I felt like I was going to throw up again on the gold-inlaid mosaic floor as Rris snarled at me and each other.

“Enough of this!” a voice yowled, drowning them out. Everyone got quiet and then the crowd dissipated, skittering away like water off a hot griddle. A newcomer stalked through the foyer, walking as if he owned the place. A big Rris, in finely cut grey and green. Bright enamel trim glittered blue and silver. Everyone else got out of his way as he approached, staring intently at me. My escort hurried over to him, ducked his head and had some quiet words. Once he touched the side of his head while gesturing at me. I touched my own temple. That really hurt. I stared at the red mess smeared on my fingertips.

“Injured?” I heard the newcomer say and look at me. “Take him through to the physician’s study. She’s getting her equipment ready.” He stalked off, expecting we’d follow.

The guards helped me limp along — through the foyer with its fine wood and stonework, along a hall painted in gilt murals. Through a door paneled with beaten copper disks and into warmth and carpeted floors. Sunlight spilled in through narrow windows, fractured into broken light by the little diamond-shaped bulls-eye panes. A fire blazed in a hearth, throwing out heat. There were pots hanging there, the lids jangling as something boiled. Shelves covered the stone walls behind the desk, filled with books and scrolls, stacks of tally sticks, more rows of copper pots and pans and serried ranks of many-colored glass bottles of all shapes and sizes. A floor to ceiling cabinet was fronted with little drawers, hundreds of them, ranging in size from about shoebox size right down to little matchbook sized slots. Behind the warped glass of another cabinet the glass eyes of squirrels, rabbits, marmosets, mice, and other small inoffensive creatures stared out at the room.

There was a low bench there, a makeshift examination table covered with padded green leather onto which I gratefully folded and the guards retreated to the door.

“Mikah?” The newcomer was asking me. “Mikah?”

“Ah, yes . . . sir.”

“How are you doing? You took a nasty knock to the head there.”

“I’ll live,” I said, grimaced. “Had worse.”

His muzzle ticked. “I apologize for the way you were treated. That was a mistake.”

I blinked at him, not sure what he wanted me to say to that.

“I’m Ghaesir ah Sitha,” he continued after the awkward pause. “Lord of Summer Breaks. I want to welcome you, I only wish it could be under more pleasant circumstances. We were told to be expecting visitors from Shattered Water, but I have to say weren’t expecting you in person. Nor were we expecting you to come alone by the river route. I was told there was trouble. What happened?”

I looked from his face to the officer, the troops in the background. “Sir,” I said. “We were on the road. We were attacked.”

He cocked his head. “Where? What happened?”

Where the hell was it? “Upstream somewhere. It was just out of Thieves Always Return. There was a stone bridge. I don’t know exactly what happened. There was an explosion and then I was in the river.”

A crease in his muzzle. “How long ago?”

I tried to think. “Was . . . yesterday afternoon?” Was that all? It felt like it’d been days ago.

Ah Sitha looked at the guard commander. “Take a troop. Find out what happened. Fast.”

“Sir,” the officer acknowledged and was gone, accreting guards as he went.

The lord turned back to me, hands behind his back and the tip of his tail flicking. “We’ll do what we can,” he said. “That head of yours needs attention. My personal physician can tend to you. She’s been studying some of the medical teachings you’ve introduced and might be able to help.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“And later, we shall talk.”

“Yes, sir,” I acknowledged as he stalked out.

I sagged. Yeah, I’ll look forward to that. How do you tell a Rris Lord you can’t tell him anything? Very carefully, that’s how. And I was starting to realize that he had me in his control and no-one else knew I was here.

Behind me, Rris were talking in quiet voices, then a hand touched my head. “A nasty-looking wound, that one. Head wounds are always like that — worse than it looks. Headache? Disorientation? Bright light is uncomfortable?”

“A,” I confirmed.

“Huhn,” the Rris mused. “If you’re like us, then perhaps a minor [concussion] there. Here, this is cold.”

It was. A freezing cold bundle was pressed against my head. I gasped.

“A. Hold it there. It will help the swelling. And I think I will have to sew that cut. By the way, I’m his lordship’s physician. My name is Maithris.”

Chapter 50

The odds of meeting another Rris with that name weren’t outlandish. It wasn’t an uncommon name. Another physician with the same name, in that area, at that time, that wasn’t nearly so likely. So I made a fool of myself by over-reacting: dropping the ice-pack as I twisted wildly to look up at a complete stranger. The grey-muzzled female tending trying to thread a needle flinched back, white rims showing around her eyes. “Sir?”

“Oh,” I croaked. “I thought . . . is that a common name?”

She looked taken aback. “It’s not uncommon.”

“Another physician with that name? Around here?”

“Ah, not that I know of, sir. Is there a problem?”

“I thought . . . no, no problem.”

“Yes, sir. If you could sit still, please . . .”

She worked quickly and efficiently. She checked the contents of the boiling pots while the ice numbed my temple, adding some implements to a pot, taking one off and setting another one to heating in its place. She washed her hands thoroughly before she started working, cleaning the wound, washing it with alcohol and dusting it with sulfur. She dipped the needle and thread in alcohol then leaned over and went to work on my head. I tried to hold still. It didn’t hurt. The pain was secondary to the feeling of the rough thread being drawn through. That was . . . uncomfortable.

“Finish,” she finally said. “Now . . . that leg. Will you please remove this coat, sir? It would simplify matters.”

The room was warm enough and the thing was heavy. I winced as I extricated myself from the heavy leather overcoat, ribs and bruises protesting. She handed it off to a servant who almost dropped it before getting a good grip. Then she had me lay back and proceeded to go over the other scratches and gouges I’d collected, especially the nasty lacerations on my leg.

“Huh,” she growled, poking at the cut, clotted and tangled with my pants.

I winced “Is that supposed to concern me?”

“You should be. Stab wound. Never good with clothes. Pushes fabric into the wounds. Gets dirty.” She straightened and eyed me. “From what I’ve heard, you know this.”

“A,” I said. “And you’re boiling tools. Cleaning things. That’s good.”

She frowned. “I’m sure you’ll let me know if I do something wrong.”

I’d been on the receiving end of that tone before. I knew it. “I’ll just scream quietly, a?”

“That would be appreciated, sir,” she said. “I’ll have to cut those pants and clean it. Hold still, please.”

I lay back while she worked, grimacing at the tugging and stinging as she washed the congealing gore away. It got worse after that, as she cleaned the wound itself. I clenched my teeth and my fists, tried visualizing a pure blue sphere, studying immaterial details in the room, anything to take my mind off what she was doing.

Light coming in the windows was changing, softening to twilight. Inside, a velvet gloom grew, shadows lengthened and blended. Polished floors and intricate rugs danced and moved as firelight ebbed and flowed, glinted on dead glass eyes; washed across burnished copper pans; woke sharp highlights from the curves and lines of bottles ranked on the shelves. A low desk sat over by the window, evening light setting the milky globe of an expensive-looking lamp to glowing rose. Sets of gold-nibbed pens ranked in a holder. Bottles of ink. Ornate bars across the window threw twisted shadows across the room.

“A few stiches,” she said. “This will be uncomfortable. Can you hold still?”

“A,” I nodded.

She gave me another uncertain look and then took up her needle and thread again. Hesitated.

“Sir,” she started. “May I ask you something?”

“You’re the one with the sharp bit of metal.”

She looked confused.

“I mean: go ahead.”

“Thank you, sir. There were some items in the Guild journals that came from Shattered Water. They were attributed to you. Is that true?”

“I don’t know what they have said, but some of it probably is.”

“It is interesting material. It seems to work. But there’re only fragments of information: cleaning and boiling tools; infection spread by touching, breathing, dirt; keeping waste away from drinking water . . . but very little about medicines or cures or surgery.”

I sighed. “I’m sorry, but my own knowledge and information there is limited. Also, medicines for my kind can be poison for Rris . . . and the other way around. And finally the Mediator Guild has restrictions on some information.”

“Mediators?”

“A. Until they know just what sort of effects the information will have.”

“I . . . see, sir,” she said politely.

“Don’t worry — I don’t either,” I sighed.

She flicked her ears. “Thank you, sir. Now, I’m afraid this will probably hurt.”

It did. A few stiches. Pushing a needle through bruised skin. I tried to keep my promise.

“There,” she finally said and I unclenched my fists, feeling sweat cooling on my forehead. “Keep it clean. Rinse with alcohol. Watch for infection. Otherwise, that . . . should heal. You’ll have a few more scars. Not much more I can do except recommend rest.”

“He is all right?” another voice asked. Both the doctor and I flinched. The local lord was standing over by the open door. How long had he been there?

“Now, I think so, sir,” the doctor said “He should rest. He’s had a [something] to the head. It’s left a cut and bruising, maybe a mild [concussion]. I don’t know how that will affect . . . something like him, but it could cause confusion, [something].”

“Thank you, doctor.”

She ducked her head and started collecting her bag. “Ah, and his leg has a nasty cut. Not too deep, but I’ve cleaned it and put a couple of stiches in.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Ghaesir ah Sitha repeated tersely. The doctor’s ears twitched back and she hurried out. A guard closed the door behind her and took station beside it. Armed with a blade, but it was peace-tied. Sitha seemed to consider, then waved his hand. “Wait outside.”

“Sir?”

“Leave us. Now.”

“Yes, sir,” the guard said and retreated.

“A drink?” Sitha asked me, gesturing to the sideboard. “Wine, I understand you enjoy. Or there is water. Boiled. You do insist on that, don’t you?”

“Water,” I croaked. “Thank you.”

He stalked over to the sideboard and the shelves. Glass clinked. “You might want to know the ones responsible have been disciplined.”

I really didn’t care about that.

He approached, held out a glass. I hesitated before taking it and hastily cupping it in two hands. I was shaking. He noticed.

“You sure you’re all right?”

I was exhausted, aching, wearing tattered, stained rags that were all that remained of my clothes. My pants were in shreds, my leg covered with sticky matted blood. “I don’t like being stuck with sharp things,” I said.

“A,” he flicked ears back, obviously not sure quite how to take that. “Your coat is . . . interesting,” he continued. “A winter coat. And we found you were armed,” he said and waited for me to answer. I didn’t. “You could have defended yourself,” he said.

“No,” I took a sip, then drank deeply. The water tasted clear and cool. “I would have just murdered them.”

“But what they did . . .”

“Isn’t unusual,” I interrupted tiredly. “I shoot. They shoot back. If others come by and they see Rris fighting me, who are they going to assist?”

“A,” Ah Sitha said thoughtfully and picked up his own glass, swirling the amber fluid — it was probably something a few proof stronger than water. He stood and sipped, his tongue flicking while he watched me.

“You know I have a lot of questions for you,” he said.

“That does not come as a surprise.”

He flicked an ear. “My biggest concern is — just what do I ask you first? There are so many questions they just crowd each other out of the mind. Commerce or crops? Machinery or business?”

“I don’t think I can be as helpful as you think.”

He chittered. “There are entire countries trying everything to get their claws into you, and you think you aren’t important?”

“I didn’t say not important,” I pointed out. “There are things I . . . can’t talk about.”

He wrinkled his muzzle into his glass. “The Guild?”

“A.”

“And if they don’t know?”

Was that a threat? His way of saying that no-one knew where I was? I studied him, trying to glean something in his posture, in his body language. Amber eyes regarded me in return, the pupils dilating in the growing twilight.

“Then they’ll probably find out,” I said. “I’m not exactly inconspicuous.”

“Ah,” he said. “Your friend. She went to the Guild, didn’t she.”

Had she? I hadn’t the foggiest idea. “Quite possibly,” I said. “They do have an interest.”

He sipped again, obviously thinking things over. “Do you know what you can tell me?”

“I gave your doctor a few suggestions,” I said. “If she follows those and her journals then you should see a reduction in illness and death from bad water, injuries, disease and such.”

“Hmmm?” he didn’t sound enthused. “You don’t know a way of perhaps turning lead into gold?”

I almost laughed. “Oh, that’s possible.”

“It is?”

“Yes. At a cost that would be equivalent of about . . . um . . . about the construction of four castles like this one per quarter-claw of gold.”

He stared. “That is expensive gold.”

“Never said it was cost-effective,” I said and took another sip of water. “What about a rail line?”

He cocked his head. “What about one?”

“Perhaps if someone sometime should propose a rail line being run through your territory, you could do worse than support it.”

“A rail line?” he blinked. “Why would anyone need one of those?”

“Because eventually it would carry more cargo cheaper than the river and more passengers far faster and safer than the road. From Shattered Water through to Bluebetter. The land is steep and flows the wrong way, so the logical route would be to follow the Trail, and that leads through Summer Breaks.”

He sipped, considering for a while. “Shattered Water to Bluebetter. A daunting undertaking. There would be a lot of construction required.”

“A. A lot of workers needed. A lot of food needed. Supplies and steel and stone and fuel required. If someone was prepared there could be opportunities.”

His muzzle twitched predatorily over his drink. “And I suppose that with goods there would be tariffs. And if land were to be leased rather than sold . . . There are some interesting possibilities indeed.”

I just inclined my head.

“And someone is likely to propose this?”

I waved a shrug. “Stranger things have happened.”

“Indeed,” he said again and then his ears pricked up a second before there was a scratch at the door and the latch clicked. The guard sidled in, looking awfully conflicted.

“What is it?” ah Sitha demanded.

The guard pulled his head back. “It’s the Mediator Guild, sir.”

“The Guild? What do they want?”

“They’re here, sir. The Commissioner is here and wanting to see you. They say it’s an important matter.”

His lordship’s tail lashed hard, just once. “I think this timing is an answer to the question of where your friend went. You can wait here?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” I said.

He stepped out, closing the door behind him. For a very short time it was quiet. I flexed my leg and grimaced back at the taxidermy victims on their shelves. My sympathies.

The quiet didn’t last. Within a minute there were raised voices out in the hall, angry Rris yowls raising hard echoes. The door didn’t slam open, not quite, but it was thrown back by a Rris in a hurry. Who promptly stopped dead at the first sight of me causing all the others behind to jam up in the threshold. I recognized the Mediator coats, if not the individuals who were staring.

“Rot, it is him,” I heard a voice blurt out.

And a smaller, ragged and tussled figure wriggled through the crowd. “Sir! Sir” Makepeace cried as she rushed over, staggering to a halt with a look of horror spreading across her face.

“Hey, Makepeace,” I forced a smile. She probably wouldn’t notice that aspect of it.

“Sir?” she sat down beside me, trying to examine the wound on the side of my head. “What happened to you? Are you . . . Rot, I shouldn’t have left you.”

“Don’t blame yourself . . . Ow! Don’t touch, please.” I couldn’t explain, not with the Mediators and the local lord gathering behind her. “Don’t worry. It feels worse than it looks and looks worse than it is.”

“It looks pretty bad,” she said.

“Yeah, that’s about right,” I grimaced. “I’ll live. What kept you?”

Her ears went back. “Trying to find the Hall. Then they wouldn’t let me in. Then they wouldn’t believe me.”

“Oh. The usual.”

“Ah Sitha,” the mediator was saying. “You were intending on informing the Guild of your guest?”

“Commissioner, I wasn’t sure he was real until my guard brought him here. My Physician has only just finished tending to him. You were going to be notified.”

“In the fullness of time, of course.”

“Of course.”

The Mediator turned to me. “You are all right? Are you badly hurt?”

I was getting tired of that question. “No,” I sighed, “they did a very good job of hurting me.”

He looked confused. “I didn’t mean that . . .”

“I know. As I said: I’ll live.” I flexed my leg, winced. Should keep it moving so it didn’t stiffen up. “She told you what happened?”

“She told us . . . quite a tale.”

“Probably true,” I said. “You know she’s the Shattered Water University representative on this journey? She’s got Guild sanction to be with me.”

“Sir!” Makepeace squeaked and laid her ears back under the Commissioner’s gaze.

“She neglected to mention that,” he said after a while. “We do, of course, extend all courtesy to the University. You are aware that there are circumstances where Guild necessities do take precedence over those agreements.”

“Is this one of those?” I asked.

“Sir, with respect,” Makepeace ventured to the Mediator. “The Guild can intervene where national interests are at stake. This time it was bandits. Does that require Guild involvement?”

The Commissioner gestured at me. “I’m afraid that where ever this one is involved, the Guild also has to be. So, yes it does involve us.”

“But how can you be certain this is about him?” Makepeace insisted.

Something that was almost amusement flickered momentarily across the Mediator’s face. “Sitha,” he asked the local lord. “You have done something about these reports?”

“I sent a detachment of House guard,” the Lord replied. He was standing stiffly, probably angry but not wanting to show it. “Not two hours ago. By his description it happened at the Hold Store Bridge.”

“About a day’s ride then. You haven’t heard anything further? Reports of other incidents?”

“Nothing, Commissioner. Certainly no reports of attacks or bandits.”

“Nor us. And I’d have thought that if there were such on the trail they’d choose easier prey than a caravan with armed soldiers. So,” he turned back to Makepeace, “It seems that this group appears from nowhere, well-armed, just in time to attack your people specifically. When you hold the facts up to the light it does seem as if they were after something specific. Your ward here would be the most obvious. So, we are quite certain this is about him.”

Makepeace’s ears twitched back and she looked away from his amber stare. The small study was crowded now with the Rris: the Mediators, the lord and his staff crowded around to stare down at me. With the light from outside gone they were just shadows, backlit by the dancing firelight, a gathering of shapes that brought back flashes of night terrors.

“Sir?” Makepeace asked.

“Sorry,” I said, shuddering back to the here and now. “Just tired.”

“A,” she said quietly and looked up at the locals. “My lords, we haven’t slept or eaten for a day. He’s injured and exhausted.”

“There are quarters prepared,” Sitha said.

“I’m sure there are,” the Commissioner said. “But we will be taking him back to the hall.”

The Rris lord tensed. Insulted or furious or both.

“How far is the hall?” I asked before someone exploded.

“Near the gates. Across town,” the Commissioner said.

“Then I hope you brought a carriage along,” I said and shifted my leg again, wincing as stitches moved and tugged. “I’m not going to be doing any walking or riding tonight.”

The Mediator regarded me, the tip of his tail flicking. I guessed they hadn’t considered that. “Sitha,” the Commissioner said abruptly, “those quarters are secure?”

“They are perfectly adequate,” the local lord said, not quite bristling. “Kings have used them without complaint.”

“Very well. There will be Mediator guards posted though.”

The local lord probably realized that was the best he was going to get and merely offered an inclination of his head. “As you will, Commissioner.”

The trip upstairs to the rooms was uncomfortable, but the rooms were as advertised. There was a private guest wing similar to the annex at home, with full individual suites for important guests and rooms for their staff, all self-contained from the rest of the keep. There was a bedroom with ensuite, closets and staff quarters. Even a kitchen. Lamps and stoves were lit and burning, light gleaming from pale inlaid marble floors and white lacquered panels on the walls. Tapestries of thread and spun metal hung in prominent view and drapes were closed over big windows. Those trimmings hid the original brutal stone architecture so successfully it felt as if you were in a high-class hotel, not a cold stone fort at all.

Knowledge of my dietary habits had apparently made the rounds. The meat they brought me was overcooked and served along with plenty of bread, vegetables and even out-of-season fruits and preserves. There were platters of fine white porcelain with silver utensils and bottles of a Rris wine I was quite partial to. Makepeace joined me. I don’t know if she’d been in such accommodation before, but she didn’t seem to notice much aside from the food. In fact, between us we demolished enough for a small platoon and all the while the Mediator Commissioner and his staff pressed us on details of the past day.

His name was Yosith and he was much like most other Mediators I’d met: stiff, formal, not committing to anything until the ramifications are thoroughly considered, debated, and then run through the appropriate committees. He asked questions of me and Makepeace while his secretary took notes. I told him what I could. Makepeace filled in other details. I hadn’t known she’d had to persuade the villagers not to dump us back into the river and just keep what they had.

When we were finally done we sat at the low table amidst the ruins of the meal. It was late. Or perhaps early. Quiet and efficient servants had been around replacing the lamps. I was full and sore and exhausted. Finally Yosith waved a curt gesture to his secretary who closed her notebook and started putting her inks and pens and nibs away. “That’s all for tonight,” he said. “I think you both need to rest. An honor to meet you both.”

“Thank you, sir,” both Makepeace and I inclined our heads politely as he stood.

“One thing,” he said at the door. “Makepeace, you did everyone a great service with your actions. You have the guild’s gratitude. Your superiors will receive a letter mentioning such.”

She looked startled. “Thank you, sir.”

They finally left us. “That’s a good thing, is it?” I asked.

“A,” she said, looked thoughtful and then smiled. “A. Very good.”

“Good to hear,” I said. “And now, I am going to bed before I pass out here.”

Easier said than done. Getting up from a cushion on the floor when your leg doesn’t want to play nice isn’t a painless experience. Makepeace was there before I could fall on my face, helping me up.

“Thanks,” I said. “Again.”

“It’s nothing, sir,” she said and stayed by me as I limped through to the bedroom.

“It is,” I said. “Look, sorry I had to scare you down in town, but if they’d taken us both then we might’ve ended up here without anyone knowing about it. I don’t know his lordship well enough . . . I don’t know if he’d take advantage of that, but . . .”

“Better take the safer road, a?” she said. “Yes, sir. I understand.”

The bedroom was as well appointed as the rest of the suite, but I was mostly interested in the bed. Still, I paused. Makepeace regarded me, expression earnest and perhaps a little worried. “Makepeace, you’ve saved my life. Maybe more than once. I . . . owe you.

Her ears fluttered. “Sir, that’s not necessary.”

“Maybe,” I shrugged and absently patted her shoulder. “But repaying that will make me feel better. If there’s anything I can do, you ask me. I’ll try to make it happen. A?”

Now her gaze flitted around, not quite meeting mine. “I . . . A, sir. Thank you, sir.” She hesitated a few heartbeats, still now quite looking at me, as if expecting something, then she just ducked her head. “Thank you, sir. Sleep well, sir.”

Then she hurried off. I heard her claws ticking on the marble and shook my head. Had I said something wrong? Had I insulted her? That thought still concerned me as I sat down on the bed and laid back into soft sheets and furs, staring up at a ceiling that was a canopy of tiny, white porcelain leaves. That was the last thought I had that night.

Chapter 51

I remember the dreams were bad, but I can’t remember exactly what they were. Something about bars of ice and a pure black sky and bone-white trees and scrambling through small dark places trying to get somewhere. It was the noise that half-woke me. I floundered into consciousness, not sure what was real and what were remnants of nightmares: doors were slamming, inhuman sounds yowling and shouting in the darkness. Out in the hall I could see lights glimmering, shadows moving across walls before they were eclipsed by a mass of pointy-eared silhouettes filling the doorway. My hands clenched, wanting to reach for a weapon but there was nothing . . .

“Mikah?” someone said, then: “Mikah!”

There was abrupt motion in the darkness, something rushing across the room towards me and I just had time to flinch before the bed bounced and there was someone close to me. “Are you all right? Rot, you! We were worried and you were here all the time . . .”

Lights came into the room, along with Rris I knew. Chaeitch was looking ragged, a bandaged ear and a lamp from the other room in hand. Rraerch was carrying another — Rohinia and Jenes’ahn both had their hands full with pistols and knives. There were guards behind them, both our own and local house guards. Pushed to the back behind them I saw Makepeace’s worried face, but foremost of all, Chihirae was leaning close with a frightened look.

“What happened? Where’ve you been?” she demanded as she touched the bandages on my leg, then almost touched the side of my head. “Pestilence and plague! You look like you’ve been beaten half to death! Are you all right? Are . . .”

She shut up with a squeak when I grabbed her and hugged her. Hard and close. For a split second she went rigid and then slowly relaxed, bumping her head against me.

“I was worried,” I whispered into a tufted ear before easing back on the hug. She twitched ruffled fur. “I’m fine,” I said. “What about you?”

“I’m . . . all right,” she said. In the room behind her expressions varied from startled to amused to exasperated. One of those exasperated expressions stalked up behind Chihirae with her partner alongside.

“Are you done?” was the first thing Jenes’ahn said.

“Good to see you too,” I said. “Is everyone okay? What happened?”

She huffed, tail lashing, but Rohinia stepped in and calmly said, “We lost a few more people. What about you? Are you badly hurt?”

“A few bruises,” I said.

“Your leg . . .”

“Just a cut . . . okay, a stab . . .”

“Stab?!” Chihirae yelped.

“Hey, It’s not too bad,” I assured her. “They just poked me. The doctor cleaned it up. See?” I stood. In my torn clothes I was as ragged as the tired and dirty and disheveled Rris clustered in the hallway. “Chaeitch, what happened to you?”

“Musket ball through the ear,” he said and his good ear twitched and he grimaced. “Like you, just sore.”

Thank god. “How many . . .”

“Eight,” Rohinia said quietly.

“What happened?”

“You don’t know?”

“I think there was an explosion, then a lot of water. Apart from that, no.”

He gave me a look that bled exhaustion. “Very well, we have some things to catch up on.”

“Now? Tonight?”

“A,” he said. “Tonight. Jenes’ahn, go and reassure his lordship that’s all is in hand. Commander, get your troops sorted. Guards on door, apartments above us and below windows. Short shifts. Try to get some of them rested first.”

“A, sir,” our guard commander acknowledged and went to make it happen.

“Now, Mikah,” Rohinia jerked his head toward the door. “Let’s go through to the lounge and you can tell us where the rot you’ve been.”

Chapter 52

At least I’d had a few hours of sleep, because it was a long night. In the living area the fire had died to a mountain of embers. Those exploded into sparks when wood was heaped on them. Rraerch, Chaeitch, the Mediators, the guard commander and Makepeace gathered around. Our own staff bustled about and somehow managed to produce food for them: hot wine, milk and blood and honey, sandwiches. Chihirae sat close by me while they ate, close enough I could feel her muscles twitching at every sudden voice or noise. I wanted to ask her, but wasn’t going to. Not there with the others present.

They all ate wearily, mechanically, lapping fluids and champing loudly while I told my tale. Chihirae didn’t look at me. I could see her tense as I spoke, flinch when I mentioned a detail. I toned it down from there.

Then Makepeace took her turn. There were more details there I didn’t know about: She’d almost been arrested herself in her efforts to make someone in the Guild hall listen. She hadn’t mentioned that earlier when the local Commissioner had been present. But now, with our Mediators, she was, even though they were part of the same organization.

When we’d done Rohinia had a few quiet words with his partner, then told us, “That’s all for now. Commander, we have to finish things at the hall. The rest of you, you should get some rest.”

No arguments. He and the commander stalked out. Makepeace drifted out on their heels, yawning hugely. I touched Chihirae’s arm, very carefully. “Chi? Do you want . . .”

“No, Mikah,” she said quietly. “If it’s all the same, I’d just like to be alone.”

“A,” I nodded and watched her slowly walk to the door where Jenes’ahn had paused, watching. A servant directed her to one of the spare rooms. I sat there, listened to the sound of a distant door closing. I bit my lip. It was going wrong and I didn’t know how this was going to play out.

“She’s frightened.” Chaeitch said quietly. He and Rraerch were still sitting, watching me.

“I understand that,” I said. “This . . . wasn’t supposed to happen. They said it wouldn’t.”

“Yet here we are,” he said philosophically.

“What happened?”

“At the bridge?” he asked.

“No, at the stupid question convention. Of course at the bridge!”

“A,” he sighed.

The explosion had been the first blow. It’d collapsed that last span of the bridge, taking the carriage, myself and Makepeace, the driver and two guards with it. The group was cut: the forward party and scouts were on one side, the rear guard and the rest of the carriages on the back. That was where they hit. From the rear, while our guards were bottlenecked on the bridge and their attention was focused on the chaos at the front.

“They’d been concealed in the trees,” Chaeitch told me in a quiet voice, barely audible above the crackling of the logs in the fire. “We’d gone right past them. They hit hard. Volleyed and killed three in the first seconds.” He sighed and picked up a half-empty wineglass, swirling the dregs. “They had surprise, our backs and a quarter of our forces on the other side of the river. A musket ball did this,” he gestured at the bandage around his head. “The guard beside Chihirae wasn’t as fortunate . . . one caught her a bit lower. Chihirae got covered in . . . bits. It shook her quite badly.”

“Oh,” I said. Understanding a bit more. “But she is all right?”

“Not physically hurt,” Rraerch said quietly. “She’s shaken though. She’s confused and frightened. I don’t blame her.”

Chaeitch lapped at the wine and then licked his chops. “They should’ve cut us to pieces,” he said simply.

“Why didn’t they?”

“Because they made mistakes,” Rraerch said, ears drooping. “And they couldn’t get close enough. And our guns are better. And luck. Probably, more luck.”

“The bomb went off early,” said Chaeitch and frowned. “We think. If it’d been half a minute later half our forces would have been across. They could’ve picked us off in detail.”

I struggled to imagine that. An IED . . . here? “How did they plant that? Our scouts didn’t see it. If there was a fuse or someone lighting . . .”

“It was under the flagstones,” Chaeitch said and made gestures with his hands. “Lift the flagstones, remove some fill and there’s room. And there was no fuse. I’m guessing clockwork.”

“Clockwork?”

“A,” he gestured affirmative. “Clockwork timer with a flintlock mechanism — like a gun. It can be triggered by a timer or trip wire. They’re delicate and very expensive.”

Which said a bit more about our assailants.

“The bomb wasn’t big, but enough to take out the keystones. The arch just . . . crumbled and took you with it. The thing is, I don’t think they intended that. I think they’d want you alive.”

“Destroying a bridge I’m on doesn’t seem like the way to go about that.”

“Huhn,” he scratched his muzzle. “That’s why I think it was a mistake. Something went wrong. The past days you’d been riding further back. If you had been there — if the bomb had gone off a half-minute later things might have been different. Cut the bridge with at least half of our forces on the wrong side. They could grab you and be away before we could get across.”

“Lot of if’s,” I said. “It sounds . . . odd.”

“Odd?”

“It’s too complicated,” I said. “Too many things that could go wrong and did.”

Chaeitch glanced at Jenes’ahn, listening quietly. “A,” he said. “That’s actually what the mediators said.”

I also looked at the Mediator. She set her mask in place, although it seemed to falter a bit. Tired? “You did?” I asked. “Why?”

“Possibly the same reason you did,” Jenes’ahn said, waved her hand in a vague, non-committal manner. “Those attacks were too complicated. They were something an amateur would think up — they might sound impressive, but they were over-planned: too much chance for something to go wrong.”

“They seemed dangerous enough,” I said.

“No,” she said. “Those fighters were professional enough. But whoever was leading them . . . it’s too early to say.”

“Too late for over a dozen of our people,” I said. “If you know something, shouldn’t you tell us?”

“Mikah . . .” Rraerch sighed.

Jenes’ahn blinked at me, slowly. “We don’t have anything we can bite. Anything at this time would simply be . . . speculation. False rumors cause their own problems.”

I grimaced. “And no information leaves us stumbling in the dark. Dammit! She came along because I said it would be safe. You made a liar out of me and more importantly she’s been dragged into something she shouldn’t have any part in. You knew something was wrong! You knew there might be trouble! You didn’t tell me and because of that innocent people have been hurt.”

“You’re worried about the teacher?”

“Of course I’m worried about her!” I exploded. “I’m worried about her; I’m worried about us. And you’re not telling us anything! You do have an idea of who’s behind this, don’t you. Are they going to chase us all the way to Red Leaves? What about back again? We’re going to be running all the time?”

Jenes’ahn’s amber eyes flickered in the firelight. “I’ve told you all we know. Beyond that there’s nothing I can say.”

“You . . .”

“She’s going to be all right, Mikah,” Rraerch interjected, calm tones just speaking over me. The other Rris looked at her and she just leaned forward toward me. “She’s frightened,” she said. “She’s just thinking things over.”

I slumped back.

“Go and get some sleep,” Rraerch said. “It’ll help.”

I looked at Chaeitch. He waved a shrug. “It’s good advice. There’s nothing we can do at the moment. We’ll be here for a day so there’ll be time.”

The anger drained. The Rris regarded me as I looked at them, from one to another. Inhuman and — even after my time here — inscrutable. I couldn’t read exactly what they were thinking. Humans probably would have transmitted something in body language, micro-gestures, any of a thousand things that my subconscious was programmed to read. With these folk, those signals were the end of a different evolution. Like a VHF set trying to pick up a UHF signal: the signals were there but the receiver simply wasn’t designed to read them. And I was too tired and too sore to focus and try and brute-force my way through.

“Good advice?” I asked.

“A,” he said.

Those earnest feline faces watched with what might have been traces of concern as I clambered awkwardly to my feet and retreated to the gloom of the bedroom.

A single little lamp with a milky globular mantle that smelled like it was burning kerosene threw enough light to beat back the edges of the darkness, but not much more. So in half-darkness I stripped off the rags and then started to snuff the lamp, then hesitated. I left it burning as I fumbled my way into bed. The bed was cold, but the sheets were heavy and clean and didn’t smell of Rris or have a coating of shed fur or hungry parasites. I lay there, watching the yin-yang compliments of shadows and light dancing across the walls and ceiling. At that time, while I reviewed recent events and played out options, I didn’t feel like facing utter darkness.

Chapter 53

I woke with a start and the crawling feeling that something was wrong. The lamp had been burning. Now, it was dark. Almost pitch black and skin-prickling cold. A glimmering thread of light delineated the door but otherwise I couldn’t see a thing. Still, something had woken me. Movement. The weight of someone else shifting carefully on the bed. Every muscle in my body seemed to twitch at the same time in a uncoordinated spasm of fright.

“It’s Chihirae,” a voice murmured. “Sorry. It’s all right.”

“What . . .?” I slurred, sleep-drunk and still jangled by the adrenaline surge.

A lithe, warm, and furry body slipped under the sheets, nuzzling up against me. “I thought . . . you might want some company. You asked before and I . . . I wasn’t thinking.”

I lay there, drawing slow breaths, feeling my leg throbbing and getting my heartbeat settled down again. She could feel that, a hand laid flat on my chest probably feeling the hammering. The sensation of relief that she’d come back was almost palpable, but one treacherous immediate thought swam just below the surface.

“You do, don’t you?” she ventured, a low growling in the darkness.

“Should I be asking you that?” I said

“Mikah?”

“You were upset before. Did . . . they talk to you?”

A quiet pause before she answered: “She did. A. She said you were concerned. By what I did. I didn’t want you to be.”

Oh, God. That was . . . it twisted everything the wrong ways for the wrong reasons. If this, then do that. Alien cognition seeking for a solution to what they perceived as a binary problem. “Chihirae, that’s . . .”

“You don’t want me here?” Inflection in that question. It could’ve been uncertainty or hurt, context didn’t tell me much.

“I do. I really do. But not because they told you to; because they think it’s what I want. That’s not good for anyone.”

She shivered. I could feel that. Her feet were cold, as was her nose when it touched skin. The rest of her simmered with warmth under her fur, so it wasn’t cold that made her tremble. “Sometimes . . .” she choked. Just that one word.

It was something we’d both experienced, both tried to explain to the other and always hit the same walls. Ridiculous really: hitting the same barrier from each side. “I know,” I sighed. “It doesn’t make sense to you.”

“You can’t always want what’s best for another,” she said. “That’s . . . impossible.”

“A,” I agreed. “But only wanting what’s best for yourself, that’s worse.”

She snorted a gust of warm breath across my arm. “So concern about your well-being is so bad?”

“When it completely ignores you it is.”

“Mikah, in their eyes you’re more important than I am. Shave it all, you are more important. You’re the only one of you. I’m . . . I’m common. I’m just a winter teacher. They can find the like in any small town from here to the plains. They know this. They protect what’s rare and precious.”

“And you’re the only one who’s given me as much as you have,” I replied. “You are the rarest and most precious thing I know.”

I couldn’t see her expression. All I knew was that she didn’t reply.

“If you choose you can stay here,” I said. “I’m sure his lordship would welcome you as a guest. And we can make sure it’s in his best interest to protect you.”

After a few heartbeats she asked, “Do you trust him?”

I hesitated. “I don’t think I know enough about him . . .”

“Jenes’ahn said you were fortunate Makepeace went to the Guild.”

“A,” I said.

“She also said I should stay with you.”

Again, I paused. “Was she telling or suggesting?”

“It was . . . more of a recommendation, I think,” she said. “She said there were reasons it was better for me to go.”

I felt my guts clench. Jenes’ahn was pushing our agreement in ways it shouldn’t be tested. “You . . . trust that?”

“I don’t know,” she confessed. “I don’t know what to think; what to trust.”

“I can’t make promises,” I said. “I thought I could. But . . . I said this would be safe. I thought it would be. I can’t make promises like that again. Your life; your choice; your decision.”

Claws momentarily pricked my skin. “That’s not making things easier, you know.”

“I know. But when it comes to what Rris might do; decisions they might make . . . you know more of that than I ever could.”

A chitter in the dark. “And they want you for your incalculable knowledge.”

“You’re the teacher,” I pointed out. “I’m still learning.”

“So you still need me.”

I rolled my head around, nuzzling her ear. She smelled of sweat, of days on the road, of gunpowder and sunlight. And on top of that her fur tickled my nose. “I don’t know a day when I haven’t.”

Another amused noise accompanied with a subtle tensing. Then she asked, “Does that mean you want sex?”

That wasn’t what I’d . . . I sighed into fur. “I’m really sore and really tired. And you must be too. Rot, you’ve still got mud stuck to your fur. You really want sex?”

A hesitation.

“I told you,” I said, trying to put some firmness into it, “you can do what you want. Not what she told you.”

A slight chitter. “Sleep does sound good,” she confessed.

I agreed entirely.

As they say it was darkest at that hour before dawn. But at least that time there was some warmth with me there in that darkness. That helped.

Chapter 54

We didn’t leave the next day — we were all still licking our wounds.

There were people hurt who needed tending. There were wagons damaged and a carriage mysteriously missing. There were provisions to arrange and replacement personnel to find and vet.

Thankfully none of that required my input. I actually had some time to myself.

His lordship wasn’t an art enthusiast, but like most of the nobility had quite a collection of odds and ends. There were items he’d acquired himself as well as works that had been handed down in his . . . well, family isn’t quite the right word for it. Nevertheless there were some beautiful pieces in the keep and I was able to spend some time wandering around the halls viewing them. Local staff occasionally bumbled into the rooms, did almost-comical double takes and hastily backpedaled.

I limped through cold hallways, my breath frosting in the chill. Most were elegantly finished if modestly appointed, but there were some exceptions. In one room the redwood floor was inlaid with multitudes of fragments of polished bone, each piece meticulously carved so the whole effect was of a spiraling whirlwind of pale leaves. The whole room glowed when the sunlight struck it. Another hall was paved with flagstones, individual footprints worn into the solid stone.

There were tapestries collecting dust; small statues and busts of various materials; a collection of scent carvings in niches along a hall, the almost-abstract forms of crude wood or raw stone imbued with aromas I couldn’t detect at all; antique weapons — swords and daggers and spiked gauntlets and whips of razor chain-links — hung from walls. All fascinating, but it was the paintings I found most intriguing.

For the most part they seemed to be scattered haphazardly. Hung where someone thought they’d look good, or perhaps just filling in blank space on empty walls. The majority were portraits, peppered with the occasional dramatic scene or landscapes or still life. Ranks of long-dead Rris stared down at me from the walls or were shown wielding some of those archaic weapons against unfortunate foes. Some of those were exceedingly explicit.

A scene depicting Rris dressed in the tattered remains of finery, a gleaming sword in hand, stood surrounded by other armed figures. At the feet of the foreground figure the hacked bodies of fallen foes lay on rocks stained glistening red. It was disturbingly close to other scenes I’d seen recently. I shuddered and moved on.

Rris paintings bring across some of the ways their perceptions differ from mine. There are differences from human art. Some are subtle, some not so much: proportions and aspect ratios and colors that no human artist would find comfortable. In the portraits the figures were in focus while backgrounds tended to be blurred abstracts of colors. And the colors were often . . . muted to my eyes. Lacking saturation or vibrancy. Okay, some of that may have been due to the age of the works, but I do know there’re differences in the way Rris and I perceive colors. What I see as deep blue or dark red they perceive as black. I know this; we’d done some impromptu tests with an artist friend of a friend. So, the paintings sometimes have swatches of burgundy or deep blue where the artist had intended black.

It was probably the closest I could come to seeing the world through Rris eyes.

A landscape of green and golden fields with tiny figures bringing in the harvest that reminded me of a Turner; a portrait of an unclothed Rris female standing with fur haloed in silver light; a slumped figure holding its guts in while combat raged around . . . .

“Busy?”

Chaeitch padded silently along the narrow gallery. Sunlight washed in through the murky old lead-latticed windows on one side, splintering in the uneven glass so caustic flares and rainbow colors flecked the portraits hanging opposite and glinted off the polished black and white diamond floor tiles. He stopped beside me and looked at the piece.

“Tasri Peak, I believe.”

“Now you know art?”

“I do have an education, you know,” he snorted. “Besides, this artist is quite well-known. I’ve seen some other work by him at the palace. Didn’t expect to see such here. Do you like it?”

I cautiously waved a shrug. “I’m not sure. Technically, it is very good. The texture of the bloody cloth and the foreground light in contrast to the muddy background . . . it is powerful. The subject though . . . I’ve seen quite enough of that.”

“Huhn,” he humped again and stood beside me. Together we stared at the picture for a while. “And regarding that: the girl saved your life?”

“A,” I said. “Possibly a couple of times.”

“And you told her you were indebted to her?”

“A,” I said again, a little more cautiously.

“And of course you know she told the Mediators you said that.”

I stiffened. “That’s . . . going to be a problem?”

He kept studying the painting. The frightened eyes of the dying Rris stared back at us. “I would suppose that would depend what you consider a problem,” he eventually said.

“Come on. She wouldn’t do something just because . . .” I trailed off, remembering all those times I’d underestimated the Rris diffidence towards Mediators. “She might.”

“A,” he confirmed and chittered aloud. “She might.”

“Not funny,” I said and sighed. “Would that be considered . . . proper?”

“Why wouldn’t it?”

“Because I’m indebted to her. I might be able to help her, not them.”

“They might have the same needs.”

I chewed that over. “Chaeitch, can you please tell me what your definition of the word ‘indebted’ is?”

He glanced at me, cocked his head. “Owing or beholden to someone for something they did for you.”

I parsed that silently. In Rris and English. “Uh,” I shook my head.

“What?”

“I was wondering if I was using or understanding the wrong incorrectly. Chihirae has . . . mentioned it before. I thought maybe I was wrong.”

His tail lashed. Once. “A problem?”

“One of those times I think . . . we don’t assume the same things.”

“Ah,” he said.

Another pause, before I quietly asked, “How is she faring? I mean, really. Not what she’s telling me.”

He glanced around the small gallery, as if a Mediator might step out of a still-life. “She’s . . . upset.”

“I noticed. She came back to my room last night.”

“A?” he said.

“I’m pretty sure the Mediators told her to.”

“Huhn.”

“Do you know . . .” I bit my lip, wondering if that was what I really wanted to ask. “How much . . . how much have they told her to do?”

The look he gave me then was one I couldn’t decipher. Surprise? Calculation? Pity? I couldn’t be sure. “She’s doing what she wants,” he finally said. “She is very fond of you.”

Chaeitch was picking those words very carefully?

“What aren’t you telling me?” I said quietly.

He tried to flick his ears back and winced, touched the bandage and then glanced around again. “Rot and pestilence, Mikah, someone died violently right in front of her. She’s got some bad memories and now this happens. She’s scared. Very scared.”

That I understood. “What does she want to do? If she wants to go back, she should. I did tell her she could think about staying here. It’s a fort. There are guards. She should be safe.”

“I don’t know,” he hissed softly, tail lashing again. “There’s more to it: People know she’s important to you. Rot, she’s had access to your library. His lordship is friendly, but that’s not the same as trustworthy in these matters. Not by a tail.”

“He wouldn’t hurt her!” I said, a little desperately. “He knows what would happen.”

“A, he knows,” he replied quietly. “But, Mikah, when you consider what’s at stake . . . It’s tender prey, and the hungry will be tempted. Besides, if she returned or stayed here while we went on you’d spend your days fretting about her, a?”

“She . . .” I started to protest before my brain caught up with my mouth and made me think. No matter what I said, he was right. She would be a target. As long as she was associated with me she’d be a person of interest anywhere she went. “It’s not about what’s inconvenient for me: it’s about what’s right for her.” I took a few steps along the gallery, limping slightly. The leg was sore, pulling uncomfortably when skin moved. The next painting was one of a trio of Rris at a table, gesticulating over a piece of paper that looked like a map. The oils glowed with a luster that made them look as if they were still fresh. “You must know what she’s thinking better than me. You got any suggestions?”

Chaeitch stared up at the painting, scratching absently at the back of one hand. “A twisting little snake of a question that is. Even if you were to run off there’d be those who thought it some subterfuge by Land-of-water and still try to use her. Apart from openly driving her away with a stick, I don’t think there’s much you can do. The only thing that comes to mind, I don’t think you’d like it very much.”

“It’s to do with the Mediators, a?”

He waved a shrug. “I know you don’t like it, but for now their solution is really the only one.”

“We could cancel the whole thing. Turn around and head back to Shattered Water.”

A snort. “I don’t think that’s entirely practical. We’re more than halfway there.”

“No,” I sighed. “Perhaps not. Where is she, anyway? Where’s everyone this morning?”

“I just left Rohinia discussing . . . things with his Lordship. I believe her teachership is with Rraerch, Makepeace, and Jenes’ahn.”

“Uh,” I glanced at him. “All of them together. That’s trouble.”

A chitter. “You’ll be the one to find out.”

I winced. “Don’t remind me.”

“And that reminds me,” he said thoughtfully. “Did you discuss anything with his lordship before we arrived?”

Was that what he’d wanted from the start? “Not a word,” I said immediately.

“Huhhn,” he rumbled. “That’s interesting. You know, it could give someone a considerable advantage if they knew our future plans.”

“Oh?” I cocked my head. “You know, if someone was under the impression that a future plan we wanted their support on would benefit them then it would certainly give us a considerable advantage.”

He took a second to think that through and then flashed sharp teeth at me. “That is . . . not entirely honest.”

“A?” I shrugged. “Is he?”

He chittered again and again he winced, dabbed at the bandage over his ear with cautious fingertips. “Rot it all. Understand, Mikah, not saying you said anything but . . . something like that — if it did happen — could become apparent after the fact. That might make people unhappy. Then the Mediators would be unhappy.”

“Isn’t that like saying water would get wetter?” I asked.

He hissed a sigh. “Just a caution,” he said. “I’d have thought you’d be juggling quite enough already.”

“I’m just trying to deal with things as they come,” I said. “For now what interests me most is all of us getting through this whole nasty business in one piece. If that means I have to say . . . certain things, then so it will be.”

Chaeitch was quiet for a while. His tail lashed a couple of times and then he said. “I think I understand.”

I shrugged again. “For now it’s quiet. For now there are better things to look at and think about. His lordship said there were some older works over in the west wing and I’m going to stroll over and have a look.”

He blinked amber eyes and then made an amused sound. “Did he also happen to mention where he keeps the good wines?”

“Not as such, no.”

“You really want to look at pictures of dead people?”

I winced. “Actually, they remind me people can still make beautiful things.”

He looked up at the rich oils again, obviously thinking about that. “Want some company?”

“Would welcome it.”

Chapter 55

I spent most of the day wandering the keep, poking around and frightening the natives. There were paintings and other artworks and interesting knick-knacks scattered around in various nooks and crannies. His lordship might not have been keen on paintings, but one room had a rather extensive collection of pistols: everything from a singularly ancient-looking piece that was little more than a roughly-cast iron tube with a touchhole to pistols that were clockwork-precise assemblies of carved and polished woods and precious metals.

Speaking of which, my coat was returned to my rooms. Cleaned and oiled. Everything seemed to be present and intact, save for a single round of ammunition. I was pretty damn sure I hadn’t miscounted, but I kept that bit of information to myself. If I said anything then he might say something and that would lead to more difficult conversations with the Mediators.

Chihirae spent some time with the Mediators and then vanished somewhere by herself. I didn’t chase her. She needed some time to think things over. We all did.

Dinner that night was a more formal affair for which his lordship had pulled out the best silverware for his guests. The dining hall was a big, elegant and dim-lit room. Three of the walls were lined with wood; not neatly cut panels, but three meter wide floor-to-ceiling slabs cut from some huge old trees. They were old, worn and polished from age, but still with a rough grain to them. Light from oil lamps that touched them raised highlights that gleamed as if the wood was oiled. Tall, narrow tapestries of muted tones accented with silver threads hung down from the ceiling. The remaining wall was fitted with bay windows that looked a lot newer than the rest of the room.

The table continued the Huge Pieces of Lumber theme. It was a crescent of massive planks. They’d been roughly cut and then fitted, sanded and polished. The surface was a gleaming expanse of smooth grain while the edges still had the uneven contours from under the bark. It was so oversized that the silver plates and serving trays were lost on its expanse and our small party seemed quite undersized.

The Mediators were there, in their severely plain attire. I’d made an effort and used some of my new wardrobe. The boots were well polished, warm and comfortable. The pants and waistcoat and jacket fit well — for what I’d paid I wouldn’t have expected anything else. The cut might’ve been a bit severe, but I still wasn’t comfortable dressing like Christmas wrapping paper. Speaking of which, Rraerch and Chaeitch had also dressed up and their dinner wear glittered with silver and gold. Makepeace sat quietly, subdued and small looking. She’d brushed her fur out until it gleamed, but her finest was plain and threadbare compared with the others.

Chihirae wasn’t present. That absence worked at me like a missing tooth, but I tried not to let it show.

“I can’t persuade you to stay longer?” Ah Sitha asked, sipping delicately from a chalice. “You all look as if you could do with the rest.”

“Thank you, sir,” Rohinia replied. “A generous offer I’m afraid we must decline. We’re sorely pressed for time. If we’re to meet agendas that’ve already been set we have to leave in the morning. You understand this.”

“A,” the Rris lord flicked an ear. “Quite so. Then I hope our hospitality was to your liking. Ah Rihey, you found my collections interesting?”

“Very, sir,” I said. “You do in fact have some pieces by renowned artists. Early works compared with some at the Palace. Interesting to see how they progressed.”

“A?” He looked amused. “I’m afraid that’s news to me.”

“Not surprising,” Rraerch put in. “Mikah, those artists and their works have been traded up and down the valley for centuries. You’ll find their works tend to be scattered along the trail. Other routes tend to concentrate other artists.”

Interesting. I wondered if the older works spread further; if you could do an info graphic on that distribution.

“I’d have been interested to hear about art of your kind,” Ah Sitha said to me.

I just nodded. Really. I knew he had about as much interest in art as a horse did in fine sculpture.

“What about your teacher?” he continued with a significant glance at the empty place beside me. “I understand she’s upset about what happened.”

“She is,” Jenes’ahn said.

“I am willing to offer her accommodation and protection,” his lordship said. “If you choose she could stay. I can ensure she would be comfortable and safe.”

Jenes’ahn didn’t even glance at me. “Thank you, sir, but I’m afraid she must continue. Again, we’re fulfilling treaties with specific terms. She will be continuing with us.”

What did that mean? Was that actually true and Chihirae didn’t really have a choice? Or was it an excuse so she wouldn’t have to endure Ah Sitha’s blandishments. More likely the Mediators didn’t want him to have the opportunity to learn something they didn’t want him to, however small that might be.

“Ah Rihey,” Sitha said to me. “You want her to continue into danger?”

“It’s her choice,” I said and then added, “No-one else’s.”

In the lamplight Jenes’ahn’s eyes were a couple of molten pennies; the rest of her face expressionless as she stared at me.

“A,” Sitha acknowledged with a slight inclination of his head. “Of course. If she should choose to stay, my hearth is hers.”

The meal was started with sweetbread appetizers, then moved on to a veal pie accompanied with something that I think was a wine made from cranberry juice, and then pizza topped with venison and turkey and what was likely goat cheese. Not as weird as it sounds. Not as strange as the fact that Ah Sitha had gone to the trouble of getting the recipe in the first place.

The conversation was formal and innocuous enough. The Mediators steered talk away from any subject they felt was sensitive so it mostly revolved around my experiences in the Rris world. He still had plenty of questions about those and I had a few stories to tell. When the meal was done we retired to a small room, paneled in wood and dark velvet. There was a big fire there, and cushions and broad crystal snifters of brandy. The Rris lapped gently as discussion turned to the plans for the next day and what our requirements would be.

We had to cross the river and the town ferry was one of the few points where we could do that. From there the road continued downstream into Bluebetter and their border town of Yeitas’Mas. From there the river downstream was navigable by larger vessels, if the ice wasn’t too thick. River transport would be dependent on that point and I fervently hoped it would be possible: boats were a lot more comfortable than carriages. The Mediators had questions and Chaeitch and Rraerch requests for supplies and equipment to replace stuff we’d lost. The one question I had for him was if he’d seen or heard of a physician passing through with an identity very similar to his own physicians’. His answer to that was no.

By the time we finally returned to our quarters the stars were out, diamond-hard points fixed in the freezing sky. We walked back through halls lit for Rris eyes: dark and indistinct to mine, not helped by the brandy that’d proven to be pretty high-octane. In the twilight outside my rooms I paused, ignoring the guards there as I listened to the others closing their doors, then took a few more limps on down the dark hall. That door was closed as well. Closed and quiet, no light glimmering from under it.

“Is she in?” I asked the guard outside the door. He was one of ours and he still looked nervous.

“I . . . Yes, sir,” he said.

I started to reach for the handle. Stopped. Raised my hand to knock, then lowered it again and just stood and stared at the white-painted wooden barrier in front of me. She’d chosen this; wanted the time to herself. How would she take it if I went in there? Would it do more harm than good? If she was human I would go, just to be company, but she wasn’t. So . . . I wanted to bang my head against the barrier. But the guard was already giving me strange looks. I clenched my hand into a fist, turned on my heel and returned to my room.

The stove was fully stoked and roaring into its flue, but there was still a chill in the air. Frost crackled across windowpanes — big rooms surrounded by cold stone were a bitch to heat. There was plumbing in the bathroom though, complete with hot water. That had become a staple in most Rris lords’ manors and residences and I wasn’t complaining. The bath was a tub of smooth, polished marble set in the floor. It wasn’t huge, but it was big enough. The copper pipes bolted to the walls rattled and clanged, but the water they delivered steamed and was almost painfully hot. I welcomed that, relishing the first quiet soak I’d had in a real bath for several weeks.

Oil lamps burned low. I didn’t care, just lay there in steaming heat and twilight, soaked in the warmth and mild drunken buzz and watched the shadows flexing on the ceiling. After some time they suddenly skittered wildly. I blinked, momentarily puzzled before I thought to look at the door.

A figure was quietly closing it. A figure turned and in the dimness twin points of shimmering green-gold eyeshine flashed back at me.

“I thought you wanted to be alone,” I said.

“I did,” said Chihirae.

She didn’t hurry, slowly crossing the room to the bath. Her tunic and breeches fell in a pile and she stepped down into the tub. Hissed softly as the hot water climbed. Sank down with a sigh, sitting beside me. Where her leg pressed against mine underwater her fur felt like waterweed.

“Is this your choice?” I said into the stillness. “They didn’t . . .”

“They didn’t,” she interrupted in a tone that didn’t broke arguments. I didn’t press her. Another lamp guttered, flickered, went out. It got a little darker. Mist curled like ghosts just above the surface of the hot water.

“Mikah,” she said after a while. “I was thinking.”

I nodded and just let her have her say.

“This has all been horrible,” she continued quietly. “I thought it would be enjoyable; a chance to travel; to see other countries with you. Everyone said it would be safe and I thought . . . I never thought of anything like this. I was terrified. And day after day of it, of running. And so tired of being frightened.”

I understood that. I knew what she was going to say next, but then she didn’t say it.

“But so were you,” she said. “You and Chaeitch and Rraerch and Makepeace . . . you were all scared, I know you were, but you all choose to keep going.”

That surprised me. It wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all. “We don’t have much choice. Apparently agreements have been made. If we don’t adhere to them it could cause more trouble for a lot more people.”

She hissed softly. “That’s what I mean. Mikah: you’re the one they’re after; you have the most cause to want to run, but you’re more concerned about others. About me. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I don’t like it.”

“Hey, Don’t say that,” I protested. “You’ve every right. This shouldn’t be anything to do with you. You’re a teacher, by rot! The only reason you’re involved with this is because of me.”

“And you’re only involved because of something broken in the universe,” she retorted. “It’s not our fault, neither of us, but here we are. And how we deal with it depends on what we are.” She sighed, “I thought I was more than . . . more than I’m appearing to be. I’m going on with you.”

I listened. I translated that in my head and tried to study the resulting construct from different angles, hunting for meaning and nuance. “This is you, not the mediators or someone telling you? It isn’t . . . obligation of some sort?”

“It’s . . .” she seemed to hunt for something. “Is this one of those moments?” she asked carefully.

“I’m not sure. It seems close to it.”

“You want me to stay with you, don’t you?”

“I want you to be safe.”

“So do I,” she chittered momentarily. Water sloshed and she subsided. “But staying here, going back . . . no one can say if those are any better options. And I think I would be ashamed of myself. So, I will continue. If something happens . . . at least I’ve tried.”

I lay still and thought that over. Her hand brushed against me under water, fingers twining and tugging at mine. “This is your . . .”

“It’s my decision,” she said. “No one else.”

I leaned my head back on the edge of the tub. The last lamp was almost exhausted, the ruddy glow of the wick just adding texture to the darkness. “I want to see you safe,” I said. “I want to see you happy. I want you with me. One of those things precludes the others.”

“Well, you won’t be able to see me if I’m not with you, a?” she pointed out. “Mikah, please, I want to continue. You say that you want to make me happy, well perhaps you deserve some yourself, a?” She stroked my arm gently. “Don’t leave me here.”

That wasn’t fair, making it sound like a plea; like I would be helping her by making the choice that was patently wrong. But the thing was I didn’t want to let her go either. That little imp of selfishness inside wanted what she was offering. I thought it over for . . . for not long enough before saying, “Okay.”

“That means, yes?”

“A,” I said to the darkness. “It does.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“Are you sure? Are we going to regret this?”

“I’m sure,” she said, patting my hand under water. “As for the future . . . I guess we’ll find out, a? Now, this water is getting cold. Why don’t we get you out and into something warm?”

“What’s warm around this icebox?”

“How about me?”

That took a second to sink in. When I looked at her, her exaggerated grin glistened just as the last of the light died.

Chapter 56

We spent the extra day the stopover cost us constructively: Repairs were made; provision were restocked; animals rested; wounded treated. More importantly people were able to take a bit of time away from the routine of the road and away from each other. The Rris needed that even more than I did.

We departed again early the next morning. First light was painting hilltops when the carriages set off. Ah Sitha was there to see us off and the local lord looked a little annoyed. Possibly because he’d had a golden opportunity and somehow it’d just slipped away, or perhaps there was some other reason.

We had another carriage. It wasn’t as fancy as the one lost in the river, but it would suffice. Our numbers had been bolstered by a contingent of local guards. Two dozen fresh troops rode with us out of the city gates. They weren’t as polished as our own guards and they were armed with old muskets, crossbows and swords, but they were fresh and welcome reinforcement. Why didn’t we have Mediators from the Guild hall as well? I asked about that and as it turned out that the Land-of-Water agreement with Bluebetter had specified only two mediators. Of course the Guild couldn’t violate that agreement.

“Not when it took so long to get all parties to agree to the details of that contract,” Rohinia told me. “We can’t accept any more Mediators in this party.”

The river at that point was too wide for Rris bridge construction technology, especially with multi-ton ice floes carouselling their way downstream. Therefore the ferry was the only way across.

It wasn’t a small raft-on-rope affair like some of the others I’d seen. There was a proper ferry boathouse set below the guns of the river fort. The new brick building provided some shelter for those waiting and also contained a steam engine, one of the low-pressure ones that’d been state-of-the-art before I’d arrived. The old design was a huge affair of black iron and brass pies and tubing. A strapped and riveted iron boiler the size of a small locomotive drove a vertical piston shaft half a meter in diameter in and out of its housing. Water and condensing vapor spewed everywhere and the thing growled and snorted like a living thing as the piston rose and fell with a ponderous grace, driving a see-sawing crossbeam. A connecting rod linked that beam to a wheel taller than I was, grinding it around with a chugging motion I’d always associated with steam locomotives. That wheel was coupled in turn to a massive iron gearbox and that to a windlass hauling an endless loop of hemp hawser the thickness of my arm dotted with iron ballast every fifty meters or so. That cable hauled the ferry itself back and forth across the kilometer breadth of the river.

The ferry itself was businesslike. It was essentially just a flat bottomed barge large enough to take four wagons and their teams. Thick planks of wood were slung over the sides on chains, hanging down to the water line as protection against drifting ice. Those fenders were battered and dented almost as much as the heavy decking, scared and scratched by countless iron wheels and animal hooves. The trim, however, was clean and bright: railings and the small wheelhouse painted sky blue and canary yellow. Brass fittings gleamed in winter sunlight. An iron mechanism of wheels and clamps secured the cable on the upstream side, otherwise the thing didn’t have any sort of steering or propulsion system. No need to.

A squad of our troops went across first. The whole crossing took about twenty minutes. The ferry made slow, steady progress across the kilometer-and-a-half-wide expanse of the river. That squad reinforced local guard at the terminal on the other side. The terminal on our side of the river was likewise surrounded by militia troops as well as our people. Back behind cordons traffic was backing up and annoyed locals barred from the ferry complained and bickered with city guards.

Fifteen minutes later the ferry returned, crunching through thin icy rime as it slotted into its dock and the slackening cable sank beneath the water. Three carriages were loaded, the drovers leading the skittish teams up gangplanks and lashing the wheels into place on deck. Gears ground and engaged and the hawser emerged dripping from the river as it drew taut and pulled the ferry out again. The steam engine chuffed away steadily, drawing the cable along at a steady rate.

No problems. Smooth sailing.

Then someone said something in a querying tone. Heads turned to see what it. There was a moment of silence, then muttering that turned into alarmed shouts. I looked. There was a boat in the river: a small boat, a dingy with a little sail riding ahead of the wind. No, there were two of them — I could see another further off across the river. They weren’t supposed to be there — the river had been closed to other traffic. But there they were, and they were both heading downstream at a good clip.

Rris shouted. A rolling boom thundered out across the valley and I flinched, ducking uselessly. A waterspout splashed up a hundred meters or so from the closest dingy. Up on the fort’s wall a cloud of smoke was dissipating and as I watched another cloud of dirty grey gouted. The retort rolled over the water and the next waterspout was disturbingly close to the ferry. Rris shouted and the boats kept closing. The canon on the fort didn’t fire again but on the shore and the ferry muskets were leveled and fired off a ragged and useless volley. Our own peoples’ more modern breechloaders weren’t much better: they were lightweight carbines and while having a higher rate of fire and being more accurate than smoothbore muskets, still weren’t intended for shooting at moving targets over two hundred meters out.

The boats reached the hawser and figures went to work, frantically cutting and sawing. Guards were rushing to push some small rowboats out, but there was no way they could get even close before the attackers severed the hemp lines. The gearbox screeched and clattered as tension was lost and the severed end of the weighted hawser sank into the river. The small boats, their work done, put up every piece of sail and ran for it, heeled hard over as they fled downstream. The helpless ferry just drifted off after them, pirouetting gently.

I closed my mouth. Standing alongside me at the grimy window of the terminal office overlooking the scene the other Rris had expressions that ranged from horrified to dumbstruck. I turned away from the ridiculous scene to find the Mediators. “What the flying fuck was that?” I demanded.

The office was a grimy little room adjacent to the coal bunker. There were some ledgers on shelves and a beaten-up low desk over in front of the window. Beyond the back wall the steam engine thudded away, but it was still bitterly cold in the room. Nobody had considered killing two birds with one stone and using it to heat the place. Then again, for the naturally fiber-insulated Rris that probably wasn’t a priority. Rohinia had bundled us in there just before the carriages were loaded, telling us to stay out of sight. I hadn’t seen Jenes’ahn all morning.

“Not unexpected,” Rohinia said calmly. The others were looking around now.

“What?” I asked, not quite sure if I’d heard correctly.

“You anticipated this?” Rraerch asked.

Rohinia flicked an ear. “Not this precisely,” he said. “An attack on one of the terminals while you were crossing, perhaps. But this . . . seems excessively planned. Again.”

That was an understatement. I felt like the Roadrunner watching one of Wile E.’s ridiculously over-engineered schemes unfolding. “What the hell do they plan to do now? They can’t tow them with those things, can they?”

“I would guess that they have resources down river waiting to board the ferry,” he said.

“And us? What do we do? They’ve run off with our transport and luggage. And our people! Rot, how many people did we have on the ferry?”

“We wait,” he said.

“What?” I demanded, unable to comprehend his complacence. The door creaked and we both looked around as Jenes’ahn returned.

“It’s done?” Rohinia asked her.

“A,” she said. “They all cooperated. The paperwork was in order. I saw the messenger off. It’s up to them to agree if they choose.”

“I think odds are favorable,” Rohinia said.

“What’s going on?” Chaeitch said, looking from one mediator to the other. “What have you done?”

From downstream came sounds like distant thunder; several heavy thumps closely followed by the rolling booms of what had to be canons. Rris ears twitched and heads turned to the window.

“Huh,” Jenes’ahn grunted to her partner. “I think you might be right.”

Sounds of another salvo rumbled up the valley but we couldn’t see anything from our vantage point. After the third round Chaeitch and the others moved outside onto the dock to try and get a better view. I started to follow. Jenes’ahn put her hand on my chest.

“It might not be safe,” she said.

“Really?” I said. “How’d you know they won’t steal this building as well.” Then I just pushed past her. Rohinia said something to her and she didn’t pursue.

We stood around on the dock, peering downstream. Makepeace said she heard gunshots. I didn’t hear anything, but I’d trust her ears over mine any day. It was about half an hour later that something did become visible, and I don’t think it was quite what anyone had been expecting.

The column of smoke was visible first and someone wondered if something was burning. I was the first to see what it actually was when the source of the smoke rounded a bend far downstream.

“Well, will you look at that,” I said.

“What?” Rris around me chorused.

The smokestacks hove into view first, twin stacks streaming black smoke coming around the bend downstream. Then the armored superstructure and bulk of the slate-grey hull. Chunks of ice broke against the plated prow and were churned under by twin paddle wheels thrashing against the sluggish current as the riverboat steamed up the channel toward us, the ferry in tow behind it.

Chapter 57

Ten minutes later the riverboat was drawing up to the dock. As it turned out, berthing a large vessel with a matched pair of huge paddle-wheel enclosures protruding from the sides required some juggling. Rris ran about the docks, shouting and improvising fenders and pulling on ropes and trying to find gangplanks that would reach. The ship was larger and bulkier than the old Ironheart had been. Considerably so. And from its lines it’d been designed from the water up as a gunboat. The hull was wooden with a high waterboard, putting the deck well up over our heads. Grey-painted angled armor plating ran around the edge of the deck and wheelhouse and the snouts of canon lurked in slits. Smoothbore muzzleloaders and a wooden frame construction, but still the lines of the vessel were radically different from traditional Rris designs.

Our party stood on the dockside, amidst drying racks and a few boxes and barrels. Small hand-cranked cargo cranes stood idle along the waterfront, looking like oversized wading birds. I stood in the center of a cluster of Rris as we watched the proceedings and goings-on, the laptop case slung over my shoulder and Chihirae at my side. Chaeitch and Rraerch and Makepeace close by. The Mediators stood a short distance away, along with the commander of our guards. I couldn’t help but notice we had a fair number of our own guards, not quite forming a cordon, but still quite close to hand.

“That engine,” Chaeitch growled quietly. “That’s one of the newer designs. Modified though.”

“You can tell?” Rraerch replied.

“You can hear it,” he said. “Distinctive rhythm, quieter, faster stroke. Also, one of the old ones in a ship this size would be so big, require so much fuel that the ship would have too great a draft to get this far upstream. Especially with all that scrap metal nailed on.”

“And the paddle wheels? Why those and not the blades?”

“Better for shallow waterways,” he said. “And also I’d say the water blades are subtle and complex enough that the right designs aren’t easily copied. We had enough difficulties.”

“Looks like they’ve been busy with the stuff they have been able to copy,” I observed.

“Or traded,” Rraerch said. When we all looked at her she waved a shrug. “It has been done, you know. And why would they so blatantly show off something they gained through illicit means?”

“Then it would be interesting if they show us the engine,” Chaeitch said. “As far as I know information about that wasn’t traded to anyone. Anyway, if they’re using what I think they’re using, then that’s already old and rotting news.”

I looked around at the Mediators standing back a few paces and watching the ship and us. “You were expecting this?” I asked.

“I did say I had a plan,” Rohinia said mildly.

A plan? I tried to remember. “What? That was days ago. This is it?”

They both waited a few seconds, seemingly evaluating the question. Then Rohinia said, “We sent a message. This response was . . . uncertain but high [probability? Chance?]”

I shook my head and went back to watching it docking. They . . . the Guild knew that this had been waiting downstream. They sent a message. Did their people in Yeitas’Mas pressure Bluebetter to send it?

“Was this what you were talking about?” I said.

“You asked Bluebetter for help?” Rraerch interjected, sounding surprised.

“No,” Rohinia said without batting an ear. “We merely extended an offer of sanctioned open passage to Summer Breaks courtesy of local Land-of-Water government.”

“Fortuitous timing,” Rraerch said.

“Indeed,” the Mediator placidly agreed. I couldn’t tell if there was deliberately observed and ignored irony there or if that exchange was sincere.

The Bluebetter ship had a name painted on the paddle wheel covers. It translated as The Racing Pigeon. Really, it sounds better in Rris, but I had to admit that, after seeing it flailing its way upstream, the name fit. The vessel was big and bulky and the docks weren’t designed for something like that, but eventually the crew and dockhands managed to get it moored and a gangplank set in place. Further off down the dock other Rris were trying to get the ferry pulled in. God knew how they intended to get the carriages and nervous animals off.

The first off the Pigeon were armed guards. A squad of six rattled down the gangway in single file and formed up on the dock, impassive expressions and rifles held at the ready. Their uniforms were polished and well-worn leather with cuirasses and gorgets showing burnished steel painted with blue highlights. Very professional-looking, but I still saw them glancing at me. Not too surprising: I was head and shoulders taller than all others on the docks, so I did stand out. And what stood out about them were their weapons. The rifles. They were breech loaders. Not as compact as the Land of Water carbines, but like the ship they were still a lot more advanced than standard weaponry of the day.

Another group of Rris followed the guards, five of them in total. The one leading the way was a short Rris with a dark furred-face in which bright amber eyes almost glowed. Whoever it was wore a green and rust vest decorated in an intricate paisley-like design trimmed with silver embroidery, which looked a little odd with the trendy knock-off replica blue-jeans and small sheathed dagger at the waist. Following close behind were a pair in in uniforms, one of them was a heavy-set older Rris with grey-speckled fur and wearing armor similar to the guards, but a little more ornate. An officer then. The other uniformed Rris was slim and tall and dressed in similar colors, but only in fabric and leather. Different branch of their forces? The remaining two seemed to be another couple of civilians, although by the cut of their clothing and jewelry they weren’t common laborers.

The short one in the blue-jeans had seen our group, seen me, and promptly steered in our direction. Chaeitch nudge me. “That’s Hedia aesh Tekhi,” he said. “She’s ah Thes’ita’s personal aide. If she’s here . . .”

He cut off as she approached. “Ah Ties. Aesh Smither. Constables,” Hedia greeted my companions with a small bow before turning to me. “And of course Ah Riey. Our arrival seems to be well-timed.”

“We thank you for your timely assistance,” Rraerch said. “Aesh Tekhi and . . .?”

The Bluebetter Rris gestured to the others, to the pair in uniform and the other two civilians. “Apologies. This is ah Ejir, our troop commander.”

The solidly-built older Rris inclined his head.

“Aesh Rurusi, captain of The Racing Pigeon.”

The other uniformed Rris also acknowledged us, staring at me quite openly.

“And these are my aides, Kestirae and Vehesk. If I’m occupied and you have any requirements, I’m sure they will be able to assist you.”

“Gracious,” Rraerch said. “I have to say we weren’t expecting . . .” she gestured at the ship. “This.”

“Neither were we,” Hedia said. “However, a message turned up in the early hours exhorting us to proceed to Summer Breaks as there were difficulties with the road. Huhn,” she eyed the Mediators. “It didn’t seem to be the roads that had problems.”

Rraerch also glanced at them before recovering. “A, quite. Our people will be grateful for the recovery. We did hear gunfire. No casualties on your side I hope?”

A casual tip of her hand. “The commander’s people dealt with the trouble admirably.”

The older uniformed Rris twitched an ear at the accolades. “It wasn’t an issue. There were more boats setting out downstream. A few rounds and they changed their minds and ran. Your local garrison should be notified.”

“Really,” Hedia snorted. “I must say the bandits on the trail are getting [boisterous]. You should look into it. They were after Ah Riey?”

“That would seem to be the case.”

“You are all right?” she asked me.

“Perfectly fine, Ma’am,” I replied.

She blinked once, then said, “Fortunate he wasn’t on the ferry.

“Quite,” Rraerch said again.

The Bluebetter Rris looked around, at the docks, at us, at me. “Then perhaps this isn’t the best place to be discussing this. Captain, can we board them now?”

“A,” said the other uniformed Rris. “There’s cargo?”

“Some luggage,” Chaeitch said, casting an enquiring look to our guard commander.

“They’re loading it now, sir,” he said and gestured at the crews bustling around ferry.

“I see,” the captain said. “I suggest you hurry. We really don’t want to linger too long. I don’t want the boilers to cool — we’ve been fortunate with the river, but we shouldn’t try our luck.”

“Understood,” the commander said and murmured something to a lieutenant who hurried off, presumably to hurry the workers along.

“Would you care to board now?” Hedia said to us. “We can get you settled while your luggage is loaded. Is that satisfactory?”

“Quite,” I said and Rris looked at me. Hedia blinked.

“Very good,” she said, a little uncertainly then ducked her head in a formal little bow. “Then, please, come aboard.”

She gestured toward the gangplank and stood aside. Rraerch returned the nod and stalked past her. One by one we fell in behind and walked up the inclined ramp. I limped my way up carefully; the thing tended to bounce and didn’t feel that solid, especially when crossing the wide gap between the ship’s hull and the wharf. Water and ice swirled around down there and I really didn’t feel like going for another swim. I noticed that the Rris also tended to keep a firm hand on the rope rails as they boarded.

The ship was larger than the Ironheart had been. The stern deck where we embarked was polished wood, swept free of ice and snow. There were the usual nautical accoutrements such as hatches and lockers and coiled ropes, but also the squat shapes of matte black canon rolled back from their firing embrasures and tied down. Forward was the central superstructure: cabins and storage and the enclosures protecting the paddle. The armored wheelhouse perched atop that with a single large funnel emblazoned with the gold glyph denoting Bluebetter behind it. The rakish design was a great deal advanced from traditional Rris ships. Suspiciously so. I could see it, but would the other Rris?

“Guests to my hearth,” Hedia said to us.

“And to my host my gratitude,” Rraerch replied. The greeting sounded quite similar to the one Hiesh had given, albeit more formal. Rris as a whole aren’t big on meaningless ceremonies, so something like that probably had a reason.

“Now,” Hedia continued, “I’m afraid accommodation is tight, but there are cabins for your party. Ah Reiy?”

“Ma’am?”

“We have a cabin for you and your teacher. I’m afraid it’s not large as space is limited, but it should be adequately appointed. That is acceptable?”

I glanced at My Teacher to see how she took that. She just bowed her head. “Most acceptable. Thank you, Ma’am.”

The hatch into the deckhouse was built for Rris — I had to bend over to get through and then keep my head ducked to stop banging it on the ceiling which was . . . Inside . . . wasn’t what I’d been expecting. On the surface the Pigeon had looked like a warship, but inside it was polished wooden paneling, gleaming brass fittings and green and gold carpets. It smelled of wood and beeswax and varnish and polish, without that undertone that hinted that Rris had resided in it for a while. A narrow corridor ran down one side of the superstructure, portholes on one side, cabin doors to the other. A considerable contrast from the armor plate and guns outside.

The cabin Chihirae and I were shown to was situated toward the end of the hall, near amidships. When the narrow door was opened I got another surprise. Hedia had been right: the space was small, but it was so extravagantly appointed it was like looking into a jewel case. There was more polished wood and carpeting, along with purple crushed velvet cushioning and gleaming metal finish and shiny green leather. There were gas lamps with safety mantels and milky glass globes; there was a baroquely twisted radiator that looked like it was made out of solid copper; a porcelain washbasin with faucets; a desk with an actual chair set before it positioned under a porthole directly opposite the door. The bed was a box bed set in an alcove to the left and I couldn’t help but notice it was longer than the Rris standard. The room had been customized, and probably at some expense.

“It’s satisfactory?” Hedia asked from behind.

I nodded. “It’s . . . uh . . . quite satisfactory.”

“There’s a problem?” she looked quite concerned.

“No,” I hastened to say. “No problem. It’s just quite a change from where I’ve been the past few days.”

“For the better, I hope?”

For a split second I flashed back to a freezing dark hole in the ground. “Considerably,” I said.

There were probably several ways for her to interpret that and I wasn’t sure which one she’d gone with, but she looked mollified.

The others got their own quarters. The Mediators were bunked together, but Chaeitch and Rraerch and even Makepeace each had a small cabin. None of them were as opulent as the blatantly overdone Faberge egg they’d give me and Chihirae, but still luxurious by local standards. Our guards and staff were accommodated in a cargo hold, which was certainly steerage by comparison, but not as bad as it sounds: the space under the forward deck had been cleared out and ranks of bunks and even stoves installed. Better than the thin tents they’d been using on the road.

We were leaving nearly half our forces there in Summer Breaks and replacing them with Bluebetter troops. The plan had originally been to do that downriver at Yeitas’Mas, but necessity had changed that. I had to wonder how effective that would be — two different forces with different loyalties and training and possibly different objectives.

It took perhaps three quarters of an hour to get everyone settled and to get the cargo loaded and luggage shifted. Then sailors were bustling around and shouting orders and a barely perceptible throbbing beneath the deck increased and the paddle wheels began to churn, crackling against river ice. The bow swung out, further into the current and the ship began a ponderous turn to aim downstream. The pace of the engines kick up a bit, one wheel cranking a little faster and the ship pivoted faster. Neat trick. Something screws can’t do as effectively, unless you’re using azipods. I considered that for a bit as I stood on the deck, huddled down into my coat while watching the city of Summer Breaks sliding away and wondering how effective a battery-powered river vessel would be.

“His highness is greatly anticipating your visit,” Hedia was telling me. “He does regret that incident in Shattered Water. I can assure you there won’t be a repeat.”

“Incident?” Chihirae noted.

“There was a misunderstanding,” I said, trying to keep it inconsequential. “I smiled at someone I shouldn’t have.”

“Oh,” she said, her ears twitching back. “That sort of misunderstanding.”

“A,” Hedia said. “You should know that people have been informed about you and your mannerisms and there won’t be any such . . . misunderstandings. Anything you require, please just ask.”

“Would you have any Grey Poupon?”

She looked confused, then worried.

“I believe that’s a joke,” Chaeitch leaned forward to offer. “It’s his sense of humor. It’s . . . unique.”

“Everyone’s a critic,” I sighed and Chihirae elbowed me.

“A,” Hedia said, a little uncertainly. “Nevertheless, if there’s anything of a . . . non-humorous nature you require, please just ask.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” I said.

Her gaze flickered across my face, shifting uncertainly, as if trying to latch onto a familiar response; perhaps trying to determine if that was a joke. “Not a joke,” I said. “Thank you for the hospitality. And the ride.”

I think she relaxed a smidgen. “It’s our honor.”

“It’s impressive,” I said. “I didn’t know there were many large vessels like this around. I thought the Land of Water one was unique.”

“Ah,” she smiled. “It was. There’s been some discourse with Shattered Water; an exchange of ideas and information. We used some of our knowledge, some of the new techniques, mixed them together and as you can see, Racing Pigeon is the result.”

“Impressive,” Chaeitch acknowledged. “I trust you’ve got reliable release valves on the boilers?”

“A, that unfortunate incident with your vessel. I recall. That was a valve problem? Never fear. We have ample valves. We’re quite safe.”

I smiled slightly. More valves means more saferer. So, she wasn’t an engineering type then. “That is good to know,” I said.

“And ah Rihey, I can’t help but notice you are limping. Are you in need of a physician?”

“No. It’s just a small cut. Nothing serious.”

She looked dubious. “And what looks like a bullet hole in your coat there.”

“Oh, yes, I’ve been meaning to get that patched.”

That threw her a bit. She seemed to hunt for the joke for a few seconds, then twitched a bit and just said. “As you wish. There’re won’t be any more problems. We’ll be stopping in Yeitas’mas to take on fuel. That will take a couple of hours. Then we’re making straight for Red Leaves. The ice downstream is still thin, so we should make satisfactory time. Better than by road at least. Now, these assailants of yours, what do you know about them?”

Chapter 58

Yeitas’mas was a reflection of its upstream counterpart, Summer Breaks: a walled town situated on a river bend where a granite bluff overlooked the river. There were steep, high-peaked roofs, smoke rising from the chimneys and warehouses and a winter market in full swing along the docks, only these were at the upstream end of the town. There was also the fort, sprawled over the river-edge of the bluff like some great beast sunning itself. Black muzzles of iron cannon covered the water below. There was also an odd tower up there: a slender thing with a peaked roof that looked strangely like a church steeple.

I was surprised how close to Summer Breaks the town was. Usually the settlements along the trail were separated by a day’s foot travel, but it only took us a couple of hours to reach the Bluebetter border town. The border itself was an amorphous territory somewhere between the two towns. Not quite a DMZ, but an area each side had agreed not to disagree over.

Crowds gathered along the stone quaysides to gawk as the ship maneuvered into its berth. I could see soldiers in uniforms like the ones the troopers on the ship wore performing crowd-control duties, keeping the curious onlookers back as the ship docked. There wasn’t much else to see: my minders wanted me to keep a low profile so I just got a few glimpses through portholes.

Hedia had been right about it being a short stop. Coal was loaded into a bunker from a hopper hoisted over by one of the little hand-cranked dockside cranes. Sure, you can build a steam-ship, but building the infrastructure to support and fuel it was a bit trickier. Said infrastructure hadn’t reached this far upriver yet so the hardware they had to make do with was normally used for fueling the little toy steam tugs that puttered up and down the local riverside. They didn’t have anything like the fuel capacity the Pigeon did, so it took quite a few crane-loads to fill the bunkers. As that was done more supplies were being brought on board and stowed away in other holds, the noise of wooden crates and pots banging and clattering sounding through the ship — supplies they hadn’t had an opportunity to stow before their hasty departure before dawn that morning.

As soon as everything was stowed the Pigeon set off again.

Travelling by boat was a damn sight more comfortable than travelling by what passed for a road around here. There was none of the jolting and buffeting and unpredictable nerve-wracking occasional skids sideways on ice. There was more room. What’s more, on that particular boat there was heating and lighting and a proper bed and hot water. Someone was going all out to try and impress me, and quite frankly, they were succeeding it.

Somewhere below decks the engine chugged away with a deep throbbing pulse I could feel through my boots. The town vanished into the folds of the landscape behind us. Water and countryside scrolled past. Uncountable ranks of trees, bare and grey and dark, marched down to the water’s edge where a cold breeze slapped ripples and ice against the shore. In places drifting ice had built up along the shore, caking it in broken and jagged shards of dirty ice and snow that jutted long ways out into the stream. Away in the distance low grey cloud was rolling in, blurring the heights of distant hills and promising more snow.

And it turned out the food was bettermidday meal was ready it was served in what was usually a saloon. With the table set out it was a bit cramped, but the room was as sumptuously appointed as the rest of the accommodation, complete with a proper table with cushions and silverware that our party could just fit around. Our staff and Bluebetter stewards served a proper meal, my dish cooked to suit my tastes, rather than a quick lunch of jerky and bread.

“That food is prepared to your liking?” Hedia asked me carefully.

I paused, the spoonful of thick stew halfway to my mouth. “It’s very good,” I said.

“We’ve filled the list your cooks provided,” she said, nibbling at a dripping slice of liver speared on a fork. “And we have tried to anticipate, but exact details about your dietary preferences were difficult to come by.”

“Nevertheless, you seem to have done very well,” Rraerch said, munching on her own blood pudding.

“Thank you,” Hedia replied. “There are a few questions I’d like to ask though. They are important, but . . . delicate.”

“I’m right here,” I said.

“A,” she said. “It’s about foods you are sensitive to. We don’t want a repeat of the accidental poisoning you had in Shattered Water, so have avoided foods seasoned with [nightshade] or [poppy] seeds. Are there any other dishes or seasonings we should be aware of?”

“Be careful with mushrooms,” I said. “Also seasoning from tomato leaves and stems — use the fruit instead. And I think some types of potatoes if they’re not cooked properly. There is a taste that offers some warning, but I don’t think I can rely on that.”

“I understand,” she said. “Thank you. We’ll be most careful.”

The ship steamed on downstream. Once we stopped off at a small town to pick up what I learned was a local river-master — someone who knew this stretch of the water like the back of his hairy hand. The river was treacherous for vessels of this size simply because its depth varied so much. In places it was only a few feet deep, so the river-masters were necessary to guide the ship around submerged obstacles and through the deeper navigable channels. At times we seemed to slalom through what looked like perfectly clear stretches of water as they led us through shallows. Even then, the Pigeon only slipped through by virtue of its shallow draft and paddle wheels. An ocean-capable vessel with a deep keel and low-hanging screws and rudder would have found itself grounded and without propulsion well downstream.

By evening clouds had rolled in and the setting sun was a fading orange fire somewhere beyond the horizon. In the fog and twilight the surrounding forested hills were reduced to indistinct giants sprawled at the edges of the visible world. The river was a flat black expanse and all I could see were vague forms of islands and shores, detail gone when I tried to look closer. No lights save for a couple of little navigation lamps — the Rris in the pilothouse saw better without some feeble oil lamp to ruin their night vision.

I stood on the upper deck, on the narrow walkway just behind the wheelhouse and smoke stack where it was sheltered. I was still bundled against a wind cold enough to bring tears to your eyes, leaning on the railing and watching the passing twilight. A light flared nearby, a small flame momentarily illuminating Chaeitch’s features in a surreal chiaroscuro as he lit his pipe, then settling down to a ruddy glow in the bowl.

“How far have we come today?” I asked.

The glow of the pipe brightened momentarily as he puffed thoughtfully. “I’d estimate sixty kilometers. Maybe a tail over.”

“Better than we’d have done in three days,” I said.

“A. More comfortable as well.”

No arguments there. “So, what is this ship? It’s not a warship. Not exactly. But then again it’s not exactly a normal civilian ship.”

“Huhn,” he tapped his pipe and puffed again. “I think this is what is known as a statement.”

“You mean, ‘Look what we can do’?”

“Along those lines, a. And look at the finishing touches: completely unnecessary, yet they added them. They’re trying to impress someone. Are they succeeding?”

I held up thumb and forefinger a smidgen apart. “A little.”

He snorted. “You’ve seen bigger ships than this before. You’ve got pictures of ships that could eat this one whole. And you’re impressed?”

“Perhaps it’s just in contrast to the past few days,” I said, then grinned. “Don’t worry: I’m not going to decide to move to Bluebetter.”

“Rot, I’m almost tempted,” he said. “But then they always did take ships more seriously than most nations.”

“That’s surprised me. I mean, there’s a whole world out there. Other continents, resources, foods and spices and materials. You don’t seem to care.”

“Huhn,” he blew a stream of smoke. “People care — a great deal. Colonies have been started by several nations, but they’re small. A long, dangerous voyage over so much water, it’s not something many are eager to do.”

“Oh. A long time ago some of our countries used to ship criminals off to colonies.”

“How did that work out?”

“Umm, possibly not the way expected.”

“How surprising,” he said. “But there’s not a great deal of crowding here — there’s still land in the west and south where settlements are thin on the ground. And, Mikah, most countries are stretched thin as it is, usually without enough people to cover their own borders.”

“Would make wars difficult. Go off to fight and someone else takes over your country.”

“A. Not that countries are the targets. It’s the valuable areas, such as the trail here, the rivers and passes. If someone is careless and bites off more than they can swallow, then they will be injured, someone takes theirs and then everything collapses like a rotten house. There are places like this that are easy to defend, but there are also plenty of borders so porous that armies could march past each other without seeing one another. Starting more colonies across water — sending more people and troops away — that’s not seen as a sensible move by most countries.”

“Wouldn’t it pay off in the long term?”

“How? You said your own land was a colony originally? What happened? Those other colonies, how many are still considered as such?”

“Oh. Right. Yeah.”

“With better, faster ships it would probably become more appealing. But I think our neighbors would like to keep their teeth in the edge they’ve got on such industry, so there might be some opposition there.”

“They would do that? Wouldn’t it be wiser to try and keep their edge with new ideas?”

He waved a shrug. “Depends how they’re thinking. The Guild seems to be leaning toward restricting new knowledge, so following the Guild decree might be seen as the easier route. At least, to outsiders’ eyes.”

“And the Guild would class shipbuilding as forbidden knowledge?”

“The ability to move large numbers of troops or cargo around fast? I think they might.”

I sighed. Yeah, small populations and large borders and a lingering feudal attitude. I guess if someone had a serious force multiplier and were fast and ruthless enough to use it before their competitors, they could do a lot of damage.

“A,” Chaeitch took another drag on his pipe. The sweet smell of weed drifted on the cold air. “Politics. I know. That’s why I prefer machinery. You can’t put politicians on through a forge and hammer them into shape.”

“Well you can,” I said. “But it gets messy.”

He chittered and his pipe glowed again. The sun was gone, the moon lost behind racing banks of clouds. But Chaeitch’s pipe wasn’t the only light out there that night; another flash away in the distance caught my eye. I squinted into the gloom until I saw it again.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“What?” Chaeitch looked. “What is what?”

“There’s a flashing light. Right up there in the hills. A signal?”

“Huhn,” he cocked his head, then snorted. “A, signal towers. There’s a line of them up there. They use mirrors and sunlight. There was one at Yeitas’Mas.”

“The odd tower on the fort?”

“A.”

“Ah, I understand. But . . . not much sunlight at the moment.”

“A. There are chemical lights for emergencies. I suppose they consider this one. Huhn, there several lines of them across Bluebetter. They’ve been called the Hilltop Folly.”

“Folly?”

“A. Detractors say the towers cost a fortune to build and maintain and operate. A lot of expense for something that operates perhaps a quarter of the time.”

I scratched my head, confused. “You were just telling me watching the borders is difficult. A communication line like that is . . . a massive advantage. They know what is happening everywhere in the country. Not to mention everyday use; they’re going to know what happened to us before any other messenger could get there.”

“A. When something happens it’s useful. The rest of the time it’s a drain on coffers.”

“What about for everyday uses, such as trading? Merchants would pay a lot to know how much goods might go for in other towns.”

“A. But not as much as they would be charged for the message.”

“That expensive?”

“You wouldn’t believe it.”

I thought back to the rates charged by some telcos back home charged and shrugged. “Sounds like they need some competition.”

“Something like your world-net?”

“Might be a bit early for that, but if they have that, then possibly the Guild might not be able to object to another information system. Something that performs the same job as those towers, but faster and cheaper.”

“But would still require some new devices or theories. Like your esserisity , a?”

“Well . . . A,” I conceded. “Possibly. Likely.”

“Then I’m sorry to say I think the Guild might still have issues.”

I shook my head and sighed, a pale fog visible as the moon peeked from behind a cloud. Snowflakes the size of postage stamps whirled on the wind, gleaming for a few moments before the clouds rolled back. “Do you think they’re going to be happy about that?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Bluebetter. I mean . . . they go to all this trouble to get us there, and then they find that everything they ask about has to go through the Guild. Who are almost guaranteed to block them.”

“I think they’ll have to take that up with the Guild,” he said.

“You going to tell that to all the other kingdoms? That’s not going to make you many friends,” I replied.

“A. But it will bring pressure on the Guild to perhaps loosen the constraints a bit.”

“That’s a bit . . . passive aggressive,” I said. “Will it work?”

He waved a shrug, took another puff. “It’s legal. And the Guild doesn’t bow to one country’s demands, but if all speak with the same voice, then it can change policies. It’s in their charter.”

“And will take how long?”

“That I have no idea. It’s not a swift process, that’s a certainty.”

“So, not tomorrow then.”

He chittered and confessed: “Probably, no.”

I shook my head. “Well, I don’t think I’m going to wait around out here for it. There’s a warm bed down there and I intend to make the most of it.”

“One thing,” he said. “The walls in your cabin might not be as solid as they look. You might want to consider keeping activities . . . quiet, a?” His imitation of my grin glistened in the shadows.

“Thanks. Thanks a lot.”

His chitter carried on the cold wind as I carefully headed down the step and headed below decks. Sailors and Bluebetter guards out and about on deck jerked hastily out of my way and stared after me as I passed. Our own guards were less jumpy, but the ones on duty in the companionway outside our cabins cabin still stiffened to attention when I went by.

In the cabin the lights were turned down to hissing embers in their globes, just adding some texture to a gloom that was warm and already smelled of wet fur. The throb of the engines pulsed through the floor. A square of light flickered where Chihirae was curled up on the bed watching something on the laptop. Silken, by the soundtrack drifting through the cabin. Her eyes glowed like coals when she looked up. “You look cold,” she observed.

“Feel it too,” I said as I carefully hung my coat up and then started to struggle out of my boots. “How about you? How are you faring? They’ve been treating you okay?”

“A,” she said. “With great deference. They offered me use of a personal steward.”

“Why, congratulations, your ladyship.”

She chittered. “I declined. I think I can look after myself. You know, I don’t like boats, but I think I can get used to this.”

“Better than a carriage?”

“There’s a toilet. I don’t have to shit in a bush.”

“Civilization has its advantages, a?”

“And we can leave all that violence behind?”

The way she said that . . . was plaintively hopeful. I nodded. “We’ve gone further today than we could have in three days on the road. I can’t see how they could keep up.”

She watched me, the light of another world washing across her features as the screen flickered. “You think so?”

“I really hope so,” I said as I stripped off. “Rraerch and Chaeitch didn’t know about this. It should have come as just as much a surprise to our friends out there. And Bluebetter will have troops hunting them down soon enough.”

“That’s . . . reassuring,” she said. I saw her ears twitch back as she shivered.

“They’re doing something,” I said as I folded my clothes. “They’ve got a real interest in keeping us safe. I’d imagine other countries wouldn’t be impressed if something happened to us, so they’re doing all they can.”

“A,” she said, looking a bit more reassured. “That’s . . . what are you doing?”

“What?” I paused, sleeping bag in hands. “I thought we might get some sleep?”

“In that?” she said. “You have a bed. It’s a good bed. See? It’s even long enough for you.”

“But not really big enough for two, a? Anyway, I’m quite used to sleeping on floors, under trees, in old houses and barns . . .”

She chittered a bit. “It’s wide enough. We just have to be . . . close.”

“Quite close.”

“A . . . quite close,” she said.

“How close did you have in mind?”

“Huhnnn, let’s see. Come here. Come on,” she growled and when I was near enough she caught my hand, drawing me in. I wriggled in alongside and we discovered she was right: there was enough room. We just had to get close, then a bit closer still.

Chapter 59

At dawn we woke to another town outside the porthole and the sounds of distant industry as bunkers were filled with coal. Rris workers hurried to and fro and I could hear vendors in a dockside market hawking their goods. For us passengers there was time for a proper wash and then a civilized breakfast at a proper table. Before we were finished the Pigeon was under way again, the engines thumping away as they got up to speed.

After the full breakfast and some time making small-talk and dodging questions from Hedia, the shipboard Bluebetter medic took a look over my wounds. The visibly nervous Rris snipped a couple of the stiches on my scalp wound, washed it with alcohol and proclaimed it to be healing, but I’d have another scar to add to my collection.

After that Chihirae and I spent some time up on deck, getting some fresh air and frostbite. Funnily enough we seemed to have some time to ourselves. Chaeitch and Rraerch were in a meeting with Hedia and the mediators seemed to be off with Makepeace somewhere. That was a bit worrying: if they weren’t talking to me, then they were probably talking about me. Chihirae reminded me that it wasn’t always about me.

Sightseeing wasn’t on the menu that morning. Fog and snow reduced the world to the inside of an egg. Visibility was only a couple of dozen meters and beyond that was an amorphous grey murk. Somewhere up there was a sun, but the only light getting through was a diffuse and cold pale glow. White flakes swirled through the icy dry air, sticking to anything they touched. Speed was cut right back, with lookouts up on the prow peering into the gloom and shouting out warnings about anything that might possibly pose a hazard. The fog froze on anything it touched, coating the decks and railings in ice which crew went about busily breaking and scraping away.

That sort of weather would’ve been perfect for another unwelcome surprise. It was silly: I knew we must’ve put ground between us and our pursuers and there shouldn’t have been anything to worry about, but there was always a nagging feeling that something unpleasant was lurking just out of sight in the fog. That’s just paranoia — perfectly normal after you’ve been drowned and hunted and beaten. We returned to the warmth of the saloon. With the dining table hoisted up out of the way into the ceiling there was a lot more room. Plenty of space for us to settle ourselves with paper and pens on cushions near a window where Chihirae continued my education.

Chaeitch, Rraerch and Hedia turned up after a while. “Hai, Mikah, Teacher,” Chaeitch cheerfully greeted us. “Good morning. Still on the reading and writing?”

“A,” she said. “Making slow progress.”

“If there’s anything we can do to be of assistance,” Hedia offered.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Chihirae said. “It is, I think, not so simple. Our writing doesn’t . . . fit him.”

“It’s like the trouble I have with words,” I offered. “I know I don’t pronounce some very well. I can’t: my mouth is the wrong shape. The writing is similar: my eyes and mind are . . . the wrong shape so I have trouble . . . pronouncing it.”

“I see,” Hedia replied and I could see she didn’t entirely comprehend but was being diplomatic.

“He’s improving though,” Chihirae said. “I’ve had students who weren’t as quick.”

“Give him a few more years and he’ll be reading like a three year old,” Chaeitch added.

“Ahead of you then, a?” Chihirae retorted and I laughed.

Hedia looked from one of us to the other, as if trying to figure out if we were having her on. Eventually she just politely inclined her head. “Incidentally,” she said, “you might be interested to know we have just left Water Pass, so we’re out of the Rippled Lands. This fog is usual around here this time of year, but it will clear. With good weather it should only be three days at most downriver and then across the bay to Red Leaves.”

“That’s good news,” Rraerch said. “Always welcome.”

“Any news about our attackers?” I asked.

Hedia froze for just a fraction of a second, then gestured negative. “Apart from what you’ve told us there’s been no news of any bandit, thief or raider activity on the Trail. It’s been quiet. Remarkably so.”

“And ahead of us?”

“We’ve enquired,” she said. “But we won’t know for sure until we reach the next town. However, there was no mention of any local troubles on our way up.”

“Thank you,” I said. “That’s reassuring.”

Chapter 60

The day passed by like the landscape outside: quietly, smoothly and reassuringly uneventfully. That was a pleasant change. There were more writing lessons, some grammar and vocab and then some history. I learned a bit more about the river we were on, the fighting that had gone on before the borders settled. I asked if Chihirae knew about the signal towers. She said she’d seen mention in some books, but that was about all. There were still arguments about if they were practical.

We finished up when they wanted to prepare the saloon for dinner. So there was some time to get outside again. The fog had cleared, as Hedia had promised it would, and the darkening sky was streaked with high feathers of translucent cloud, smeared east to west as if rubbed by a giant finger. When the dinner was ready it was hot and filling: bison steaks and carefully cooked sweet potato and blood, honey, and suet fritters. Not as bad as they sound, really. The wine was a good one, properly aged, light and ever so slightly sweet, not like a lot of the strongly tart vintages that come from a lot of Rris vineyards. Table talk was conversations about the day and about the immediate future along with occasional queries directed to me by Hedia or Aesh Rurusi. They were mostly harmless little questions about where I’d come from and my life there, not enough technical details for the Mediators to step in. In fact, I did think they were being remarkably low-key; barely uttering a sentence between them.

After the meal a few of us headed outside. The icy deck had been sanded down. The sun was gone, stars glittering overhead, occasionally eclipsed by smoke and constellations of swirling sparks spilling from the ships funnel. Chaeitch and Hedia had their pipes lit and were discussing the respective merits of their favorite weed.

“Mikah.”

I looked around to find Rohinia at the railing beside me. He was just wearing a quilted vest and kilt and cold wind ruffled his facial fur, but he just blinked placidly out at the river. “Makepeace has asked to speak with you.”

“A?” I looked back behind him. There were crew about their duties, but I didn’t see her.

“No, not here. Her cabin. She wants to talk with you. I understand it is a private matter.”

“She asked you to tell me?”

He twitched an ear. “She didn’t. But I understand private, a?”

“Oh,” I said. I didn’t understand. Not entirely. “Now?”

“A.”

I frowned, drummed a quick staccato on the rail with my fingers, then said to the other curious Rris, “Please, excuse me.”

“Of course,” Hedia said, looking a little puzzled. Chaeitch just puffed his pipe, eyes gleaming.

The guards inside nodded politely as I ducked in through the door. Just as Makepeace stepped out of her cabin. “Huhn, sir,” she said, tail lashing. “I was . . . I was wanting to talk with you.”

“So I heard,” I said.

She seemed to think for a second, then stepped back, holding the door open. “If you would, sir?”

I entered. She closed the door behind me.

Her cabin was smaller than mine: a deep closet really. It was still elegantly finished, with lustrous wooden paneling and a brass-rimmed porthole in the narrow wall opposite, right above a small, cabin-wide desk with a cushion. There was a narrow shelf with an inset basin and jug of water. A small gas-lamp spilled a meager ration of ruddy light.

“Please, sir.” Makepeace said as she bustled past me and pulled a strap on the paneled wall to fold down a narrow bed. “You can sit.”

I didn’t. “What’s this about?”

She looked extremely uncertain. “Sir, you know you did say that you owed me?”

I swallowed. Hard. “A,” I cautiously acknowledged. “I did.”

“I would like to collect on that,” she said, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

I looked at the bed. At her. “Is this you asking . . . or them?”

Her eyes flickered; an expression of embarrassment or awkwardness. “They did ask, sir. I’m asking you now, sir. That is . . . if you really intended what you said.”

I sighed and sat down on the bed beside her. The pallet was a lot thinner than the mattress Chihirae and I had and was a lot narrower. “I did,” I said, dreading what was going to come next.

“Then, sir, I wanted to ask you for a true answer to this question: what have you done that you are most ashamed of?”

I blinked. “What?”

“Your kind, I mean. What do think the worst thing your kind has done? Oh, rot, is that right way to ask?”

That wasn’t what I’d . . . I opened my mouth, then laughed in relief and leaned back against the wall. Makepeace was looking confused and worried. “That’s it? That’s all you’re asking?”

“A, sir,” she said and then in a smaller voice asked, “It’s acceptable?”

“It is. It’s . . .” I thought for a while and had to say. “I’m relieved. It’s a good question.”

“You will answer truthfully?”

How would she be able to tell if I didn’t? “A, I’ll try,” I said. “It’s difficult.”

“You don’t know?”

“No. It’s just that there’s so much.”

Her eyes widened, looking almost hurt.

“Hey, we’re not perfect,” I shrugged. “And we’ve had more time than you to make mistakes that we don’t always learn from. Something that’s the worst..? I just have to think about it for a bit.”

“A. Yes, sir,” she said, looking relieved.

“And that’s it, is it?” I asked. “You could ask anything of me, and you choose to ask a question for those two? You could’ve had money, or more of those books, or access to the Palace library . . . whatever you wanted.”

“Yes, sir. But . . . they asked, sir,” she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

I sighed. “Sometimes you’ve got to know when to say no.”

“Yes, sir.”

I gave her a hard look, wondering if she was having me on, but she seemed sincere. “Let me think about your question. A?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” She cocked her head. “If I may ask one other thing: why were you relieved by that question?”

“Oh, I thought this might’ve been about sex.”

She looked confused. “Why is that, sir?”

“Um, those Mediators have a . . . they have a ridiculous notion that I might be coercing people with sex,” I explained and shrugged again. It sounded stupid when I said it aloud. “They’ve been annoying about it. I thought they might have asked you to . . . ask me.”

“Oh.” She blinked. “I have heard you at night. It didn’t sound like coercion. I thought you were enjoying yourselves.”

“That’s what I thought too,” I said, hesitated, then asked. “Makepeace, may I ask you something?”

“I . . . huhn, of course, sir.”

“Does it . . . how do I say this? Make her look bad?”

“What, sir?”

“Us. Her and me. I mean, look at me,” I gestured, pretty pointlessly. “She’s Rris. I’m not Rris. Do people ridicule her for having sex with me?”

“Oh, it’s not the sex, sir,” she said and then her ears went back flat — a panicked look, as if she’d said something she shouldn’t have.

I paused. “Then . . . what is it?”

“I . . .” In the feeble glow of the gas lamp Makepeace looked like a trapped animal. “I shouldn’t say, sir.”

“It’s about her and me, yes?”

“Saaa . . . A, sir. But . . . oh, rot. I really don’t think I . . . You won’t answer my question if I don’t tell you?”

I hesitated. “No. I’ll answer. I did promise, and I stand by that.”

A quick sigh escaped her. “Thank you, sir.”

“But if you want me to deal levelly with you in the future, I’d advise you to do the same with me.”

I could see the indecision there. Eyeshine flashed as she looked around, as if trying to find help, then she sagged. “Yes, sir.”

“Then what is it?”

She fidgeted. I waited for her to get her words together. “Sir, your kind stay together for life? Like swans?”

“Not always. We’re adaptable, but it happens a lot. Why? Is that what people talk about?”

“Well, yes, sir.”

That puzzled me. Was that worse than gossip about our sex life? “Is it that concerning?”

“It’s . . . not usual, sir.”

“I know it’s happened before. That Living Hall in the Palace grounds — the Rris who made that stayed together for life, didn’t they? So they . . .”

“But they were insane,” she said quietly.

That was a punch to my gut. I stopped mid-sentence. That was something no-one had mentioned. “Insane.”

“A, sir,” she said, twisting her hand around — not quite an affirmative or negative. “People who live like that tend to be. Or perhaps one is. That sort is . . . is not normal. They cling to the other . . . . They can obsess about it. Bad things happen.”

“‘Bad things’.”

Her ears went back flat again. “Oh, shave it, sir,” she said, distressed. “Bad things; strange behavior; obsessions; people abducted or hurt or worse . . . They are alarming. They make alarming stories. People remember those. That is why the stories persist.”

I remembered her at the University, helping me dredge through old stories for hints of other humans in my situation. Was that why she was assigned to that job? An expert on their versions of ghost stories? I was a bogeyman? I chewed that over. “They think I’m . . . like that?”

“Sir, with respect, you do things that are strange. There have been rumors. I don’t know details: things you’ve done. Saying you’re keeping her; that she can’t leave; that you’re . . .” she trailed off. “Perhaps as the officers say.”

I sat quietly, digesting that. The engine noise was louder in her cabin, closer to the engine rooms. Eventually I found my voice. “Does she know any of this?”

“I couldn’t say, sir. Probably.”

“Nobody has ever told me this before.”

“It’s not common, sir. That was a reason that story about Kathrik and Chita has stayed around.”

I’d thought it romantic tale. To them it wasn’t. It was quite the opposite. It was a cautionary tale. “I was told they were considered . . . odd. That was all.”

“A, sir. And driven enough to make the Hall.”

Which was, by any standards, a masterwork. Was this usual for their artists? I shuddered.

“Sir?”

“Thank you, Makepeace,” I told her and shook my head as I stood. “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

I left her, sitting there in the dim red light of her cramped cabin and looking horribly concerned.

Chapter 61

“You’re quiet,” she murmured above the pulse of the engine in the darkness. The bed shifted as she rolled over, her fur tickling and scratching as it brushed against me under the sheets. “Since you spoke with Makepeace. Something happened?”

“Something, a,” I grudgingly acknowledged.

A low chitter. “You know I’m not concerned if you had sex with her.”

“It wasn’t anything like that!”

“But it was something.”

I didn’t know how to broach that subject, so I didn’t exactly lie. “She had an odd question.”

“A? What was it.”

I told her what Makepeace had asked me.

“That was it?” Chihirae asked me in the warm darkness of our cabin. She sounded dubious.

“A. That was it.”

“What’re you going to tell her?”

“The truth. When I figure it out.”

She was silent. I could feel her breathing, thinking, for a while before she said, “That moving picture you showed me, about the war and that list and those camps . . .?” she left the rest of that question unasked.

“That was bad, but that wasn’t the worst. An ally of ours in that war committed far worse crimes. And we were supposed to be the good side.”

“But why . . .”

“Politics,” I sighed into the nape of her neck. “There are so many things that are terrible, but when seen and compared with other things over hundreds of years later, they are . . . not lessened, but perhaps . . . watered down? No, we’ve done things that seemed fine on the surface at the time, but over time have proven to be worse than anything done deliberately.”

“Mistakes, I think those are called.”

“A. You’re right. Should I be ashamed of mistakes? Or deliberate acts?”

“Huhn,” she growled softly and patted my chest with a velvet hand. “Perhaps you shouldn’t overthink this. I don’t think there is a right answer. They asked for your opinion, didn’t they?”

“A.”

“There you are.”

“I just think if I say the wrong thing, it’ll come back to bite me.”

She chittered briefly. “I’m sorry. That just sounds like a very Rris thing to say.”

“Is it wrong?”

“No. No, it’s not. That’s why you should say just what you have to. Keep it simple and true and give them what they asked for.”

I considered that. It was sound advice. “A. Alright. Thank you.”

“That was all it was?”

I hesitated. “Have you heard of Kathrik and Chita?”

“Huhnn,” she made a thoughtful sound. “The names sound familiar, but I can’t immediately say yes. Why do you ask?”

“Just something I heard today that I was wondering about.”

“Serious?”

“I hope not,” I said, quite sincerely. “There’s quite enough to worry about.”

She shifted again on the narrow bed, laying one hairy leg over mine. “Just a few more days and we’ll be there. No more bandits and guns. No more flea-ridden inns or cramped carriages and boats.”

“Hedia did apologize for the . . . small accommodations. They don’t have much space. I can sleep on the floor if you want . . .”

“Stop that,” she snapped, literally, at my nose. “I’ve seen Makepeace’s cabin — this is an open field by comparison. But some room to move will be nice. Oh, rot, and the first thing I want is a real bath. One I can stretch out in. And a good groomer to get these tangles out.”

“So I’m not a good groomer?” I teased.

“Oh, you’re good, but you’re not Guild.”

“Could I apply for membership?” I asked, scratching at that spot behind her ears.

“Oh, it would take a lot of training,” she rumbled. “An apprenticeship for years. Then the applications and Guild approval and the growing of fur and a tail and ears and . . .”

“I can just stop doing this, you know.”

“Or I could vouch for you. I’m sure they’d listen to me.”

“Oh, would you? I would be ever so grateful.”

“Huhn? Really? You know, you could do with a trim as well. You are starting to resemble the wrong end of a bear.”

“You say the nicest things.”

In the darkness her hand fluffed at my beard and she made an amused noise. “Certainly something’ll have to be done before Red Leaves if you want to make a favorable impression: trim that face fur and take your mane in a bit . . .”

It was a bit of playful banter in the night. It was just enough to take my mind off the questions that I desperately wanted to ask but just as equally didn’t want an answer to. They still lurked there though, percolating away in the back of my mind even as I fell asleep with her breathing gently beside me.

Chapter 62

Once we passed through the final water gap the Rippled Lands were behind us and the lay of the world changed. The regular procession of tired mountainous ridges rolling across the landscape petered out. The river broadened, slowed, the dark water curling and roiling lazily as if relaxing on its final leg to the sea. It was no longer overshadowed by steep outcroppings or compelled to carve its way around granite hillsides, rather it could flow through loam and soft soil. Now, there was a horizon again. Endless tracts of forests marched away to the edge of the sky in the distance and down to flood plains and marshy lands scumbling the edges of the river. Those marshes ran deep, the frosted reeds and ice backing up for kilometers. The road no longer ran along the riverbanks. Instead it skirted the woods on the far edges of the wetlands, occasionally visible where it bridged a tributary or rose on embankments from flood-prone land. Villages and towns also kept their distance from the water and avoided low-laying terrain. Settlements that did come down to the river’s edge sprawled across hilltops and other high ground and nestled behind extensive and expensive-looking levees and revetments. Hedia confirmed that spring flooding could be a problem in this area.

There was another stop to take on fuel. The town was a decent-sized one, a hub for trade on the river and for the surrounding countryside with docks large enough for the Pigeon. There was coal waiting, along with supplies including baked goods: bread, pies, rolls, and biscuits. They were all freshly baked and I’d wondered how they’d known they were required and to have them ready. The heliograph system, of course. Too expensive for everyday business use, but they were willing to utilize it to make sure their guests were catered to. Or perhaps they were trying to show off. Or perhaps . . . something else.

A few hours filling the bunkers and then we set off again. The skies were clear, the sun bright and the air cold and brittle. Still, not as bad as it’d felt up in the mountains. I saw a trio of wolves drinking from the riverside, looking up to watch the Pigeon as it steamed past at the point of a wake of grey smoke, soot and embers. Hedia kept regularly asked me if there was anything I required. Chihirae continued my lessons in language and reading and the saloon, but otherwise the Rris gave me some space. I wondered if the Mediators had something to do with that; they were always around in the background, keeping an eye on me. Giving me time to think.

That was a mixed blessing.

My written vocabulary was improving, but my ability to actually string those words together into forms Rris found coherent was still lagging. Through the day Chihirae had me go through exercises, writing down simple sentences. But the rules always seemed arbitrary to me. I could lay down the basic sentence structure in their scratch-like crosshatched writing, but when it came to go back along the simple structure and add the modifiers to subjects and nouns and predicates, I always seemed to get something wrong. And that something seemed to vary depending on sentence tense, case or usage in a paragraph — if that’s what you could call the structure cluster the segments occupied.

“It’s something you learn over time,” Chihirae had reassured me, but I was already aware I was learning their written language a lot slower than any Rris cub normally picked it up.

I went for another walk around the deck that evening. The sun was setting behind the mountains, now a line of cloud on the western horizon. The evening chill nipped at my cheeks and my breath frosted out in clouds like the Pigeon’s smokestack. Up on deck there were never guards far away, either Land-of-Water’s or Bluebetter’s. The ship wasn’t that big and it wasn’t practical to expect all the troops to spend all their time crammed into the holds, so the stretched their legs on deck just like the rest of us. I knew they weren’t supposed to interact with me, so the Bluebetter guard I approached and asked to see his firearm laid his ears flat in panic, frantically looking around at other frozen guards for support. I saw Hedia watching, then wave an unobtrusive little ‘yes’ gesture and the guard unstiffened enough to hold the weapon out to me at arm’s length.

By my standards it was small and lightweight, suiting the stature of the general user. The stock was solid and well-polished, but without any of the carving or giltwork I’d seen on older Rris weapons. It was a breech loader, with a bolt opening a simple chamber. No magazine though, just extra rounds on a bandolier worn by the guard, which p