Light on Shattered Water G.Howell

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Section 1

On that unseasonably hot autumn afternoon the sun was riding high in an endless blue vault, coaxing heat-shimmers from stone and earth. And I was as lost as I've ever been.

My boots raised small clouds of dust as I followed the rutted and rocky little goat-trail up the hillside. Unseen insects chirped and swarmed through the sunwarmed grasses and undergrowth, the razzing of cicadas a continuous chorus in the summer air. That and the occasional cry of a distant animal were the only sounds I'd heard for a long while. The heat and humidity sucked the perspiration out of me as I worked my way around a pile of bleached sandstone rocks upon which a stunted little conifer had taken root and was putting up a valiant struggle against the elements. I wiped the sweat away and slogged on up the trail that climbed the summer-shocked hillside toward the treeline. Something in my pack was digging into my back.

In the welcome shade of the trees, among pine trunks and a carpet of fallen needles, I stopped and took the opportunity to catch my breath; and fiddle with my pack until the load was seated more comfortably. Then I looked back at the path I'd come and forward at the path still to travel and sighed. It was a trail I was following, I was pretty sure of that. It was overgrown and eroded and more suited to mountain goats in places, but it was a trail. Perhaps it'd take me somewhere that had a phone I could use.

I'd been lost while hiking before, but never like this. I mean, there'd been times when I wasn't exactly sure where I was, but there'd always been the inevitable signpost or landmark or town where I could ask directions. Now, I'd been walking for days and I hadn't even seen so much as a road. The cell link in my laptop didn't work, but there was always a chance I was outside the coverage. My maps - paper and digital - neither made sense. They didn't jive with the Vermont I was walking around in, the landscape simply didn't match up: When I thought I'd matched a hill to one depicted on my map, a river turned up that shouldn't be there or a road that should've been there was missing. I hadn't seen anyone, not a person or a building or even a contrail from a plane, not after that. . . whatever it was that'd happened to me. Not a sign of civilization anywhere, but there were still odder things.

On my second afternoon after waking on that hillside without the faintest idea where I was, I'd been following a ridgeline overlooking a steep little valley with a stream at the bottom. There was a family of bears down there, a large one with several cubs in tow splashing through the water. I went the other way; quickly. Later that day, I realised what I'd taken to be a black cloud was moving south, against the wind. Birds, a flock of birds. Millions upon uncountable millions of them flying south. I stripped off my sunglasses and just stood and stared slack-jawed at that unbelievable specacle until the amorphous mass was lost into the red-streaked dusk sky.

I was starting to feel more than a little bit nervous.

It was my third day of fruitless wandering before I'd stumbled across this dirt track. It might have just been an animal track, probably was: I couldn't see any traces of footprints in the dried mud, but of hoof and pawprints there were plenty. Maybe I'd wandered into a private reserve somewhere, even though there weren't any of those marked on my map and I hadn't seen any signs or fences. I'd been following that track for hours and it still didn't seem to be getting me anywhere, but at least it was something; I was already a day overdue. Jackie would be trying to call, she'd be getting worried. How long before she did something like call the Ranger service? The worse thing about being hauled out by chopper would be the embarrassment.

Now the path was climbing the side of yet another hill. Futher down it'd described a snakelike route through thick undergrowth and trees. Tough going: Rain had eroded it in places. Elsewhere I had to climb over exposed roots and rocks and fallen branches, push through bushes that scratched my arms and ripped my t-shirt. I could've worn my jacket, it was quite thornproof, but in that heat it just wasn't worth unrolling it. Anyway, toward the ridge the going got easier as the undergrowth thinned out, making way for the scrubs' larger coniferous cousins. The trail crested the hill at a place where a granite outcropping of huge, weather worn boulders denied the trees a place to grow. A lookout across the broad valley below. And when I clambered up and stood there and saw what lay on the other side of the mountain my spirits soared.

Farmland. There were farms down there. At last some sign of civilisation, however pastoral it might be. My fatigue evaporated into the bright sunlight and I gladly shrugged out of the pack then dropped down beside it and took my canteen from its clip, raising it in salute to the world before drinking. For a while I rested, just sitting there enjoying the scenery.

It was a broad shallow valley; very picturesque, cupped between ranges of low forested hills on either side. What was either a small river or large stream sparkled and wound its way along the valley floor. Patchwork sections of farmland were dotted along its banks, sandwiched between the river and forest the butted right up against their flanks. And along with the fields there were buildings down there. Further up the valley lay a small town or village: a cluster of a few dozen buildings visible through the trees. I couldn't see any cars anywhere, or paved roads come to that, or phone lines, power lines. It was calm and peaceful. A number of the structures in the village flanked a packed-dirt Main Street while others were scattered along the peripheries. I could see some of the larger buildings along the street done in that Tudor style: whitewashed walls with black beams visible across the plaster. Other places were smaller and looked like they were made of unpainted wooden clapboard. Roofs. . . quite a few thatched roofs. I scratched my head. That's illegal; firetraps like that are against building regulations in most states. Elsewhere across the valley were other isolated pockets of buildings tucked away in copses and in among sheltered hedgerows. Farms, by the rings of fields and pastures that surrounded them. It was an odd way of arranging a community, but I guessed they valued their privacy.

Nevertheless, the more I looked the more discrepancies I noticed. But there were people down there. Smoke was rising from chimneys and I could see a few distant stick-figures: walking, working in the fields. . . driving a team of animals pulling a wagon?

I shook my head in bewilderment, stood and stretched, then gathered up my pack. I'd find out what was going on when I got down there. Perhaps it was an Amish settlement, or one of those self-sufficient cadres I'd heard about; something like a kibbutz or ejido, or one of those back-to-nature societies who decide that 'nature' still necessitates building houses and farming and felling trees for polluting wood-burning fires. I'd heard there were some Quaker settlements in this region of Vermont, maybe I'd stumbled onto one of those. Perhaps it was a medieval role-playing festival: society for creative anachronisms, something of a similar ilk. Whatever, they could at least set me on the path back to civilisation.

With a bit more purpose in life I set off down the path. That damned mystery object in my pack was digging into my back agin.

Section 2

The 'trail' curved down to emerge from the treeline, dropping down an eroded bank at the edge of an outlying field. The field was furrowed, ploughed, but nothing was growing, not at this time of year. Carefully I climbed over the rickety fence, just wooden poles slung between uprights. No nails that I could see; cheap and simple. The wood looked like someone had gone to a lot of trouble cutting and treating it by hand, axe marks were quite visible where branches had been trimmed. A gaggle of farm buildings nestled among a dense grove of low trees of some kind not too far off, so I headed toward it.

A brilliant day. A few clouds in the vault of the sky, the air uncharacteristically hot for the time of year. The deciduous trees were already a riot of color, turning the hills rusty-gold in patches while the evergreens formed their own enclaves. Winter was lurking just over the horizon. Further along there was another fence, this one with an unsecured gate opening onto a rutted track leading to the farm buildings. I turned up it.

Quiet though; unusally so. No sounds of animals, no engines. Even when I approached the buildings. Several different structures were arranged around a small dusty courtyard littered with animal droppings, the farmhouse itself: thick thatched roof, wooden weatherboard walls, tiny windows, small door, heavy wooden shutters and a stone chimney with a trickle of smoke showing there was someone home. There were no lights, no phone or power lines, no vehicles or old trucks or the usual debris you find around farms, not even a cigarette butt or recognisable piece of trash. A small rickey-looking building might have been a toolshed and another was probably a barn: larger than the house with big doors hanging ajar. No chickens or dogs. Why wasn't there at least a dog barking?

"Hello?" I called, nervously. Something wasn't quite right. . . Hell, something was way out of wack. "Hello? Anyone here?"

There was a pause before the barn doors pushed open. What stepped out wasn't a person.

It took a second to register. I just blinked moronically at what was standing in the door, at first thinking costume, then for the first time in my life I knew what it feels like to have your heart miss a beat: realising it couldn't be a costume, realising it was too goddamn REAL and then not believing what my own eyes were showing me: a monstrous jigsaw that refused to resolve. Catlike, but standing on two legs. . . a mishappen and distorted human with a cat head, clothing. No, not human. The way the muscles moved. . . it wasn't human. An organic patchwork, Frankenstein's creature. I remember. . . parts of it. Like a David Hockney work, a jumble of needle-sharp detail joined to make a whole: A feline head with wide copper eyes locked on me, a distorted furry hand with a chunky green stone bracelet dangling at the wrist holding the door, a stocky fawn-furred torso, baggy grey pants with flashes of gold, a twitching tail and inhuman, twisted legs and wide-splayed shaggy feet.

Then it opened its mouth and snarled. . . something. The way the noises flowed together, they didn't sound like the noises an animal would make. Loudly. And several others appeared in the doorway behind it: multicoloured fur, green and amber eyes, one holding something long and wooden that terminated in several sharp spikes. It snarled, then shifted its hold on the implement, pointing the tines toward me, others raised blunter instruments that were more familiar, stubby fingers cocking hammers.

I took several steps back, then turned and ran. Even with a twenty-odd kilo pack on my back I ran. Howls sounded behind me. Another creature appeared in the farmhouse door wearing something I had the insane impression was an apron. It squalled and dived back inside, slamming the door. I picked up speed, making for the trees, vaulting a fence, catching my foot and falling flat on my face with a jolt that knocked the wind out of me. I scrambled to my feet and risked a look behind me. One of the things was raising something to its shoulder. A dense puff of white smoke rose, followed by a dull flat-sounding crack and something whirred past. I automatically ducked, then ran again. Another bang and what could only be a bullet whipped past with a peculiar thhrrpping sound.

I hit the treeline and kept going, ducking and pushing my way through the undergrowth, clawing myself back up the hill I'd only just descended and down the other side. I kept going, running blindly through forest and scrub until a stitch cramped me up and I couldn't take another step. I doubled over, then collapsed between the roots of a tree, sucking in lungfuls of air.

It wasn't possible, the voice in my head kept repeating. It's not possible. It can't be possible. . . No.

But I'd seen it; I'd heard it; The buildings were there, the creatures were there. They shot at me. I looked back the way I'd come. There was no sign of them, but if they wanted to follow I'd left a trail like an epileptic rhino. I didn't want to be here, not while they were still so close. Still shaking, I gathered up my gear and made my way further back into the hills, away from the town, this time taking care to cover my tracks.

Section 3

That night I sat outside my two-person igloo, listened to the creek gurgling, swatted at bugs, and stared at the crescent of moon riding low over a distant hilltop. The moon. It was still there; it'd always been there. Eternal and unchanging. But now I stared at it and the longer I stared the more differences emerged. The shapes of the seas were wrong. Where were Tycho and Copernicus? Tranquillity? It was a moon, but it wasn't the one I'd grown up with. The hollow feeling inside grew and the more I searched for answers, the more befuddled I became.

What had happened to me? Was I cracking up? Loosing my grip? Was it something else?

I preferred to think it was something else.

What?

A government project or experiment? I've seen internet files on some of the cutting edge in genetic engineering, and what I'd seen. . . we were nowhere near that.

The Rip Van Winkle syndrome: I'd fallen asleep under a tree for a hundred years and things had changed?

Alien invasion? Then why the crude architecture, why the lack of vehicles or any sign of industry? and that weapon had sounded like a musket. Surely they'd have something more advanced. Energy weapons, or at least automatic weapons.

I picked up my small butane lamp and took out my zippo. Ready to light the wick before I realised what might see it. I snapped the lighter shut and set it aside, suffered the evening darkness while I munched morosely on a sack of Trail Mix. Somewhere else. That accident at those high tension power lines when that isolator came down, that flash of light. It would explain why when I woke up the lines had vanished. I'd thought I'd been knocked on the head and wandered away from the site. I hadn't wandered, but I'd gone further than I'd ever suspected. Or maybe I'd died and this was a weirder purgatory than Dante had ever dreamed of.

Now I was here, wherever here was, and whatever those things down in the town were, they weren't human. I shuddered. How was I going to get away from here, how was I going to get home. Could I get home?

I looked back in the direction of the town, two insulating hills away. What if they came after me? What could I do? Run, I guess. Fight? I had some plastic cutlery and my leatherman, nothing of much use against guns or even farm tools. Would they come after me?

Perhaps I should find out just what those things were, what they were doing there. It might help me find out where I was and just how I was supposed to find my way back home.

And just how should I go about that?

As carefully as I possibly could. If I ever got my hands on you, Elliott. You and your fucking holidays.

Section 4

The town rose with the sun. I was there early, while the sun was just a suggestion on the eastern horizon and a morning mist hugged the valley floor. Already there were figures bustling in the streets. I settled down on the rocky outcropping I'd chosen as my position and set up my monocular, a decent 15x Leica. If I'd used it the other day it might have saved me a lot of trouble.

Cats, that what they looked like, walking and running on two legs with a peculiar fluid gait. They were wearing clothes: things like short kilts, baggy trousers, long shirt-like affairs that hung down past the waist, even things that looked like the baggy shorts surfies favour. Different colors, some bright, almost garishly so, others subdued and earthy.

And they went to work. I saw farmers labouring in their fields, some hoeing and weeding and gathering crops, others working with livestock: goats and deer and bison and turkeys. In the town there were buildings that could have been stores, with barrels and baled goods outside and signs written in some indecipherable script that looked like spastic chicken scratchings. Periodically a harsh, rythmic sound reach up to me from down in the valley: a clash of metal on metal from somewhere in the town. Shorter versions of the creatures that could have been children scurried around the streets and fields, rolling in the dust. A small group wandered down to a spot on the river that looked like the local swimming hole where they romped around, diving and splashing and fishing.

It looked so much like small-town America, a mis-framed Norman Rockwell painting, but for those things. . . Norman Rockwell on acid.

I stayed there for hours, watching them. Was this an isolated community, perhaps the only one? No, there was a road leading off down the valley. Around about midday a wagon plodded into town, pulled by things that looked like mutated llamas: oversized and overmuscled. Obviously it was expected and welcomed because creatures from all around dropped what they were doing and came running when it arrived. Barrels and crates and sacks were unloaded. Mail, I realised. Freight and goods. It had to have come from somewhere.

The wagon was loaded again with stuff carried out from several stores. Trade. It left a few hours later, rattling off in a pale cloud of dust with cubs trailing it to the outskirts of town. So, there were other settlements. Within a few hours travel too; unless that cart had travelled all night.

The next day was pretty much the same and I realised that I wasn't going to learn much sitting up on a hill watching them, but what else was I supposed to do? Last time they'd seen me they'd shot first and not even bothered to ask questions. So I kept watching from a distance.

Section 5

Days passed and I watched them. Once I ventured down.

As darkness fell I crept down to another farm on the edge of town. The late evening: a time when they all disappeared inside their homes and there was nothing moving on the streets.

There were lights burning in the small windows, a warm glow. I crept closer, keeping outside the pool of light illuminating the dust outside. It was a small room with a low ceiling, a fire burned in what looked like a cast-iron stove. The felids were eating. The locals gathered around a table engaged in a raucous evening meal complete with bowls and utensils. Two adults, if one was male and the other female I couldn't see any difference. Two young ones bouncing around, obviously being berated by their elders. At the time I thought of them as a family, but now - more familiar with their social structure - I know better. I could hear the noises of their language from outside and hesitantly tried mimicking a few. . . words. Difficult; they made my throat itch.

Food. I was going to have to worry about that. I had enough stuff with me to last maybe another two weeks if I rationed it, then I'd be on my own. I'd have to set a few snares to catch something. My laptop's encyclopedia probably had something on that. Perhaps I could 'borrow' some food: There were things I thought were smoke houses around that weren't guarded.

Meal over and the room bustled as they cleared the table, bodies moving too and fro in front of the window throwing changing shadows outside. I moved back a bit, just as one looked my way and froze and stared, then pointed and howled.

Shit, and I'd thought they wouldn't be able to see me in the dark. Cat's eyes.

Halfway out across a field there was a yowling noise from the house. I paused and looked back; the door was open, a felid silhouetted in the opening with something in its hands, raised it to shoulder height and I immediately ducked. There was no gunshot, but something hit the dirt nearby. I ran again, only daring to turn on my flashlight when I was well within the cover of the trees.

Section 6

A week went by and I started to worry about food. I started setting snares and catching smaller animals: rabbits, birds and the such. I've always hated the cleaning and gutting that follows, but it was something I had to learn to put up with. Properly prepared, one rabbit was enough to feed me for a couple of days, provided I mixed it with a few plants and other wildlife. I found it was possible to starve to death on an exclusive rabbit diet; missing trace elements or something. I even set up a small smoking process: it helped preserve the meat and hid the scents of a fresh kill from any larger animals that might have been sniffing around.

And I wasn't any closer to finding what had happened. I'd trekked back the way I thought I'd come and there was nothing there. There was that dirt road leading out of town and that was the way the other things had come in. There wasn't anything else. I spent nights lying awake wondering what was going on back home. Were they looking for me? Christ, where would they start? And what hope would they have of finding me?

They were long nights.

And it was about that time I started noticing something new down in the town. There was a house down in the valley below my lookout point that had appeared to be deserted since I'd first seen it: run down with birds nesting in the patchy thatching, shutters and door closed, never any sign of life. Now I'd been seeing a felid around the place: throwing open the doors and windows, cleaning the place up. It had got several others in to help fix the roof and cart some furniture in.

"Someone else new in town," I surmised, giggled a little to myself. It was too easy to believe none of this was real.

It spent several days working on the farm, but not actually farming. A lot of time was spent in the barn, sweeping it out, hauling stuff from inside and dumping it around the back, cleaning it out. I watched the proceedings with interest and curiosity. Late one night, after the inhabitants were indoors and the last of the lights had gone out, I had a poke around. Inside, the barn was a single large space with double doors at each end. The place had been cleaned out, the packed dirt floor covered with a layer of straw. A small stove was set over by the wall, a makeshift flue poking out through the boards. Oddest of all were the benches and tables, four of each arranged in rows facing a desk at the far end. Behind that desk several large flat pieces of black slate were hung from the doors. I walked around in the moonlit interior, sitting on a bench and looking around. What was this? A bingo hall? church?

A few days later I was watching the town waking up as sunlight flowed into the valley, the farmers off to work, but this time the cubs began flocking toward this end of the town, a rollicking crowd of furry little bodies rolling and squabbling in the dust around the barn. Different sizes and ages mixed together, running around, throwing balls and chasing after them. About twenty of them I guessed. The felid who lived in the house came out with a satchel slung over its shoulder and began gathering the cubs together. It was so. . . Walton-ish that when I realised what they were doing I had to laugh. "School's in."

Twenty rowdy cubs were herded into the bard. I shook my head. If it thinks it can keep order in there, good luck. Then I stared at the barn, thinking.

Section 7

Night time again. The moonlight coming in through the barn door not quite bright enough to see by. I flicked on my flashlight, the halogen beam throwing a white disc around the walls, up toward the roof. Yep, like I remembered: right above the door there was a loft or some kind of storage area. It had been boarded off, making a tiny attic space less than a quarter the length of the barn. There was a door up there: small, with a huge rusting bolt, set in a corner of the loft close up against the outside wall. I circled around underneath, shining the light around while I tried to figure out a way up there. No ladder, but if I jumped I could grab hold of one of the diagonal supports under the loft, directly below the door, and haul myself up, perching in the narrow triangle. I pushed my flashlight into a shirt pocket, pointing up, now I could reach up and grab the bolt.

Jammed or rusted solid.

Shit. I yanked hard on it and one of the nails holding the latches to the door pulled loose with a loud squeal. "Shit!" I yelped as I fell backwards. The other nail held and I was hanging precariously from my perch by a bit of rusty metal, my heart pounding. If something had heard me. . .

I caught my handhold again and pulled myself back, pushed the door open, scrambling into the loft: a tiny triangle of a space hard up against the roof. I clicked the flashlight off and pressed against the wall and listened.

Wind. Insects. Otherwise silence.

I was too far away from the house for anyone to have heard me, hopefully. After a while I turned the light on again, shining it around. Junk mainly. There were a couple of scraggly piles of hay and fragments of straw scattered around the place, some remains of sacking. A split axe handle was propped in a corner along with a few rusting bits of metal that might have been nails. Not much else. I guess this wasn't a throw-away society. I'd been hoping there might be a knothole on the inside wall that would give me a view down over the classroom. No such luck. I opened my leatherman and used the awl to bore a small hole. Then I made sure the door was shut, settled down against a bale, munched a bit of smoked rabbit washed down with a swig from my canteen, switched my light off and settled down to sleep.

Section 8

I dreamed. I dreamt I was lost in a maze, running through countless corridors. A final turn and there was a door, guarded by a knight in armour. I hesitated and the knight stepped forward, a sword leaving its sheath. I backed away and the knight raised his visor and a cat's face grinned at me. Snarling something.

Noises woke me with a jolt, blinking at roof joists a couple of arms-lengths from me and wondering where I was. I rolled over, seeing sunlight filtering through cracks in the walls. I pressed my eye against one; the cubs were outside, engaged in their usual chaotic games. A louder voice broke over theirs: the teacher. I heard the door below open and the cubs spilled inside. I moved over to the small hole I'd carved, laying out my notepad and pen while they scrambled for benches. Huh, seemed the back of the class was the most popular place here too. The teacher moved up to the desk at the front.

The first time I'd been able to examine one up close and undisturbed. Not as stocky as the others I'd seen, with tawny fur and cinnamon stripes around the ribs. It walked with a stalking grace that reminded me of a big cat, perhaps a Lynx, especially with those tufted ears and cheeks, the furry ruff around the neck. The legs were odd. . . the broad toes touched the ground, splaying out with every graceful step, while the ankle was raised high, giving the illusion the leg had another joint: similar to a dog on its hind legs, but this looked more. . . I don't know. . . natural. It was wearing a pair of faded red shorts with a pouch slung at the hips. A slender, furry tail protruding from the shorts twitched like a metronome. Perhaps it was the way those hips moved, or perhaps it was the twin rows of black teats visible in the fur down its front that had me peg it as a 'she'. It was as good a label as any, so until I could find out for sure I stuck with it.

She laid her satchel on the desk and pulled out several books: big things of leather and yellowy paper, also a small case that she opened and pulled out some small glass things. Spectacles. I almost laughed as she perched them on her broad muzzle and set the twisted earpieces in place. A schoolmarm. Of course they'd have to wear glasses. I stifled another fit of the giggles.

With the glasses in place and a book open to a certain page she turned to her charges and snarled something. They shut up and she began.

That talking. . . it was like a steam boiler leaking, a tesla coil snapping, sandpaper on sharkskin, a catfight and other noises. Words were growled, sibilants extended. I listened, trying to make some sense of it. Very few palatal consonants, sounds like 'el', 'double ew', 'dee'. . .try to speak with your tongue pressed against the bottom of your mouth and you get a vague idea of what I mean. All the sounds were from the throat and vocal chords or sharp plosives from the lips.

She started scratching on the pieces of slate with a piece of chalk. Scratching up those cuneiform figures, then she pointed at one and made a noise, the class echoed and I tried saying it with them, under my breath, jotting the figure down in my notebook with a phonetic key alongside.

Gho

Ghe

Ghi. . .

Section 9

I guess the education system here ain't quite what it was at home, not that that's much to crow about these days. School was let out about midday. The teacher shut her books and there was a general scramble for the door as a tide of furry bodies spilled outside. As eager as kids anywhere to get back to the outside world. The teacher packed away her books and glasses, then spent a while cleaning the slates she'd used for chalkboards. I closed my notebook and watched her.

I'd learned a lot that day. The cubs called her 'Chihirae'. I couldn't determine whether that was her name or if just meant 'teacher'. There were a few phrases I'd picked up: something that meant something like 'I need help' and 'I do not understand'. Also 'I have to go to the bathroom' and 'sit down and shut up'. She'd also covered something like basic arithmetic: addition and subtraction using some rocks and numerals scratched up on the board. I was surprised at how like Roman numerals they were, also glad they were using base ten decimal and not some variant like base-eight, hex or binary.

So I waited until she'd left before climbing out of my hidy- hole. It was a simple matter of letting myself out the back doors and skulking across a field to the trees, keeping the barn between me and the farmhouse all the way.

Section 10

I went back to the class as often as I could, for weeks. As the weather grew colder and the trees put on their autumn coats, gradually turning the hills to a landscape of gold-kissed red, I split my time between trying to learn more about the felids and squirreling away food for the coming winter. As September passed by I smoked meat and used 'borrowed' sacks and rope to string it safely out of the way up in trees. Strange, but back home I'd spend eight hours a day slaving away in front of a workstation to make a living. Here, I'd spend a couple of hours a day catching and preparing food that would last me several days, the rest of the time was my own. I was almost beginning to enjoy myself, until I was a little lax about purifying my drinking water.

I was sick for the best part of a week with screaming case of the shits. I spent days and nights huddling in the ArcTek igloo. Stomach cramps and hot flushes weren't the worst of it: sometimes I'd only just make it out of the campsite before having to relieve myself. I gave up on wasting my toilet tissue, just went and plonked myself butt-naked down in the stream. Cold, but more effective.

Eventually the morning came when I woke to find the gastric turmoils had subsided. It was a glorious feeling to be able to stretch with having to make an impromptu sprint for the nearest latrine. I unzipped the tent flap, poked my head out and got something freezing cold pouring down the back of my neck. When I'd finished my little war dance I was standing in front of my tent ankle deep in snow while flakes continued to drift down.

White. Everything was white and still as the grave. The hills around were lost behind a stippled mist. The nearby creek burbled along its way, although ice crystals were congregating along its banks and everything else was still, shrouded in a white like cold cotton.

Winter had rolled around.

Section 11

I huddled in the warmth of my Trailblazer jacket and several layers of clothing, watching the town below.

Quiet. Farmers still tended their stock, forking out wagonloads of hay to feed the deer and farm animals, and cubs played in the snowdrifts, but there wasn't the activity in the streets that there'd been during the autumn months. That three-times a week wagon had stopped coming also. Periodically there might be a single rider come into town with panniers on his llama, but that was about the extent of the traffic.

School continued. Longer classes now there was little else for the cubs to do. Chihirae kept the little fire stocked and roaring, taking some of the chill of the building, but it couldn't heat the whole place. With their fur I guess it didn't bother them so much, but I'd taken to writing while wearing a spare pair of socks wrapped around my hands. Awkward, but it stopped my finger going numb. I'd considered using my laptop, but the clicking of keys would've been a sure giveaway. Anyway, I was using some characters I'd made up to accents parts of speech: characters that didn't exist in any fonts I had and wouldn't until I cobbled together a few new ones.

It wasn't easy trying to pick everything up from scratch, at a distance and without help. I could observe, but I couldn't ask questions, have things explained, ask her to slow down. Their numerical system was easy enough: a blessing that it was base ten and I could follow that all right, but their language had evolved for different shaped mouths and brains. Their equivalent of an alphabet was similar to a Japanese syllabary, where each symbol stood for a syllable in their tongue. As in English the characters were combined to make words, but there were a lot more of them than in the English alphabet. I had fifty-seven listed in my notebook. There were also a range of modifiers, adding expression or amount or tense. It didn't seem too complicated, but I couldn't pronounce some of the words and it was so damn frustrating just eavesdropping. I wished I could ask questions, maybe get my hands on one of her books: perhaps that might provide some answers. I could at least set my own pace.

Still, I was learning. When she spoke slowly and clearly I could follow her. When she told a student to write a phrase on the board I'd do the same in my notebook and sometimes I got it right. I could understand the chatter of some of the cubs: one called Feher was making a new sled, Schi - I think that was a nickname that translated as baby-fur - had to leave early to help gather firewood. I could recognise individuals now, there were tell-tale differences in height and stance and especially in the fur colouring. I listened to them telling tales of fishing on the frozen river, hunting, working on the farms. Sometimes Chihirae read to them from the books, other stories. I tried to follow but the gaps in my language were too great. I was lost on even the simplest. Despite that, I found it peaceful; listening to the susurus of her voice as she read to her charges, the class gathered in a semi-circle around the fire like a scene from Danté.

Section 12

Winter brought it's problems: the cold, difficulty finding food, the wind and snow. It also made it tricker to get to the barn. I had to make sure I kept my tracks across the fields hidden. Even if it was snowing enough to cover my prints, the next time the sun came out there would be a staggered line of depressions across an otherwise smooth expanse of snow and anyone with half a wit would be able to tell someone had been there. Still, nobody seemed to go out that way, and the Heath-Robinson broom I made cleared the prints well enough so none of the inhabitants discovered the tracks.

It was well into winter and there was really little else for me to do but go to the classes. Get up before the sun and make my way through the white landscape, among black skeletons of trees and bushes waiting away the winter, sneak in through the back doors of the barn and get myself settled into my cubbyhole. Class always started at 7:45, almost bang on the dot every day. There were a couple of days when no one turned up. Perhaps it was a holiday, perhaps Chihirae was ill, I never found out, but after that it was back to usual.

It was on a normal day, after the cubs had spilled out into a steady snowfall. Chihirae was in a hurry. She didn't clean the boards off as was usual, she just picked up her satchel and hurried out. Late for a date? I watched her bounding through the snow towards her house, then a few minutes later head off toward town. I climbed down from the loft, then saw the leather-bound volume sitting on one of the benches where she'd forgotten it. A book! She'd left a book.

I didn't think. I just grabbed it and ran before she came back.

It was a grammatical text, a godsend. Heavy due to the bulky binding and the thick pages. For two days I skipped classes and devoured that book, scribbling down notes, realising mistakes I'd been making. There were primer notes in it, basic sentences. I spent hours referring to my previous notes, matching words up and trying to make the scratchings SAY something. I found a section with a chart listing all the characters in the alphabet and I found I'd missed a few. I copied everything I could, filling up my notebook and moving on to my sketch pad. Of course a lot of it was gibberish to me, but the bits I could understand I devoured and that let me understand a little more, which provided the key to open a few more doors.

But I didn't dare keep it more than two days.

I left the book lying on her desk and waited in my hiding place. She saw it as soon as she came in. Bright sunlight from the opening doors falling across her desk and she was across the room, grabbing it like it was a long lost child and immediately leafing through the pages. I winced: of course she'd have missed it, books were probably worth their weight in gold here. There was a silence down there, the cubs watching her, then she carefully set it down and turned her amber eyes on the class. I could see her pupils were dilated, her ears down and tail thrashing. "Who [did] this[deed]?"

The cubs looked at each other, waiting to see who owned up. Of course no one did.

"I am [going to] talk to your [parent[s]?] see who [left, departed] [something]."

I couldn't follow it then. Was she going to punish them? I shifted away from the opening. Well, if I was feeling particularly suicidal I could own up and say it was me. All the others had shot at me, what would she do? Especially with all the cubs to protect. I moved back to the peephole.

She'd stoped shouting at them and was staring into the sunlight streaming in through the open doors below me. What was out there? I moved to peek out through the cracks between the boards in the wall: nothing I could see. Back in the classroom she'd settled down, seeming very subdued as she carried the students through their recitations of the two's times tables. I forgot about whatever it was that had distracted her and returned to following the day's lessons.

Section 13

In retrospect I suppose I should've guessed what happened. Well I'm not psychic, so I didn't. The next day the lessons were more grammer and I was able to lose myself in these, trying to make my mouth say words it was never built to say. But whispering isn't quite the same as speaking out loud and I never dared raise my voice. I wasn't sure how good their hearing was, but with ears like those it had to be better than mine.

Tenses today. He ran, he runs, he will run. That's a transliteration: their language has a couple of ways of adding tenses, as well as adverbs and adjectives: with a modified version of the verb run such as Khiscai[ran], Khiscice[run], Kisceiri[running], or by adding a modifier, which is used as a sort of slang: Khisc'ch [will run, run fast, run more] Khisc'e [ran, run slow]. They used the same modifiers in their mathematics: ch [+], e [-].

I worked hard as they went through their lessons, trying to add to my vocabulary. The day passed quickly for me, but the cubs were obviously anxious to get out of the schoolroom and into the bright day. Still, with a bottomless blue sky and sun to take some of the chill off.

Two O'clock and the cubs were out of there. Snowballs and tackling and tails held high as they scurried off toward their homes. Chihirae cleared up, packing her stuff away, then followed them.

I waited, then swung down from the cubby, pushing the door shut behind me. I'd done it so often I could probably do it in my sleep. Drop to the floor and head for the back doors. . .

Another book. She'd dropped a book by the desk.

I should have realised. I should've guessed.

I picked it up, dusting it off. The cover was a supple dark brown leather with an air of age about it. The edges were worn and smooth from untold years of careful handling. I ran my fingers over the binding, feeling the leather and the marks of embossing where faint traces of a gilt foil still adhered: Words, the cross hatching of their language and completely indecipherable to me. The spine creaked softly as I opened it.

Pictures. Hand-drawn, woodcuts, line work. Maps. Felids fighting animals. Pictures of castles other buildings and felids in suits of armour fighting each other. Weird-looking boats and sailors and cities. A history text?

I breathed out in wonder; this could tell me more about them than eavesdropping on a year's classes. Right there and then I sat down at the teacher's desk and pulled my sketchbook from one of my jacket's pockets. And then and there worked through the book, making notes from captions, page after page. The maps were of towns and cities, a lot of them, rivers and. . . and. . .

I stopped, turned the book on its side. It was twisted and changed, but that was the Florida peninsular, the Gulf of Mexico, Great lakes. . . Cape cod was missing. Appalachian range, rockies. . .I stared. It was America, but not America. Some other version of America and I was. . .

Light flashed across me as the front door swung open. Startled, I looked up, squinting into the sunlight and for a second Chihirae stared at me in an expression that was purest shock in any species, then the crossbow came up.

"No!" I yelled in English, my hand starting to come up as if to ward her off and her face distorted into a grin of sharp teeth, the string snapping forward, the briefest glimpse of red fletchings and black iron as the quarrel covered the distance between us in a split second and an impact knocked me sprawling off the chair.

Just below the shoulder. I was scrabbling on the dusty floor, trying to regain my feet, sickeningly aware of the stubby arrow now imbedded in my collar. The pain hadn't hit yet. Look up, she was frantically reloading, on my feet with my arm out to ward her off, babbling, "No, please. . ." in English. Alien words lost in the shock skittered away from my grasp as I tried to recall them and she locked the string back. I bolted for the back door, fighting it open then running for my life, the snow staggering me, pain beginning to burn in my shoulder. I stumbled and fell and when I got to my feet again she was in the door, aiming. A blur crossed the distance between us and hit and spun me to the ground again. Agony burned through my side, a hole through my shirt above my hip, rapidly turning red. I screamed in half-fear half-pain and clawed onwards, splashing wildly through the stream before reaching the shelter of the trees. I don't know how I made it up the hill, but the next I remember I was sprawled over the rock I'd first used to watch the town. Pain made the world spin. A freezing wind was blowing straight through me, chilling me to the bone and leaving me shuddering hopelessly. I couldn't move my right arm and something wet and sticky was coating me, my clothes and the rock beneath me, dribbling in a clammy, viscous mess from my wounds.

No idea how long I lay there just trying to breath through the pain.

Howls brought me back to cold and numb awareness. Figures moving across the fields and through the black and white of the trees, following the pink spots in the snow and my terror overcame my pain. I choked on agony as I clambered to my feet, the world blurring when I staggered off again, trying to run. There was a yowl, howling and a distant crack of sound: a tree beside me showered splinters of bark as something thrummed past. I staggered, slipped, fell and kept going as the hillside crumbled, skidding and sliding on snow and ice and mud, bushes tearing at my face and hands as I rolled and something caught and there was more pain ripping through my shoulder. Dropping and lurching and spinning. . .

Just lying at the bottom of the hillside among mud and rocks and debris, cuts stinging, clammy grip of shock sending the pain away again. I tried to move, gagged and vomited uncontroably until I was dry-retching, shaking like a leaf, cold. Shrieking yowls rang through the cold trees behind me, unearthly and terrifying, and that fear was all that dragged me to my feet again. With no other choice I turned to the only door, the only thing familiar to me.

Section 14

She was in the barn, at her desk, leafing through my sketchbook. She looked up when I staggered over the threshold and my shadow stretched across the floor and her eyes went wide and her hand grabbed for the crossbow on the tabletop beside her.

"Chihirae," I croaked and she hesitated, eyes widening.

The room was spinning, the howls pursuing me growing louder. I giddily looked back at where lean predatory shapes were bursting from the woods, dragged my feet that bit further to collapse at a desk; blood soaking under the filth covering my clothes, running down my arm and side and dripping on the wood and pooling under me. I looked at the chalkboards at the front, the alien scrawls there that blurred in and out of focus, nothing made sense. The figure behind the desk was standing, holding a crossbow and a book and I choked on the agony as I told her in her own language, as her cubs had done, "Chihirae. I. . . I do not understand. Please. . . help me."

Then the blood loss and pain and shock took me away.

Section 15

"Christ, Riley, I'm just asking you to take a few days off. Look. . . I've got this place in the Smokies. A cabin. Great place: heating, utilities, all the mod cons. . . I can give you loan of that for a week if you want. Fishing, climbing . . . you're into hiking, right?"

I leaned back in my chair in front of the SunSparc workstation and pinched the bridge of my nose then looked up at him. "Now? Christ, Elliot, I wish you'd make up your mind. You break our backs over that deadline, now you're telling me to take a vacation. There's something I'm missing here?"

"You're on schedule, right?"

"Yeah, but I was on a roll and DeFriet's having trouble with the decompression algorithm. With the sound routine going on a stock pentium with under sixteen megs, it can't find enough space to. . ."

Elliot interrupted me, shaking his head and sending his extra chins swinging. "That's DeFriet's problem, not yours. Look, I know you've been burning the candle, but you're going to burn right out and that puts us out of a graphics man. You've done your work, now go and take a sabatical somewhere away from these things." He waved an arm at the 21 inch flatscreens scattered around the cluttered lab. The screen saver had appeared on mine: hippos in tutus parachuting down on tiny umbrellas.

"Bonus pay?" I grinned.

His beady eyes narrowed. "Paid leave. Don't push it. Go on. Take a week." Then he turned and moved off with all the grace of a Sherman tank in the Ardennes. Incredible, after two years and I'd never seen him actually bump into anything. It's a wonder that any heart's powerful enough to circulate blood though a lump of protoplasm that big. I waited until he'd gone then stood and leant over the partition. "Hey, Rita, what's with Elliot? Has he found philanthropy?"

She gave me a reproachful look over her glasses. "Are you kidding?"

"Yeah, actually, I am. What gives?"

She rolled her eyes. "A deal on the side. He's got some other outfit paying him mucho dough for some time on big iron."

"On Bessie?!"

Rita gave me an exasperated look and tapped a few keys. "It's a Sun SparcStation. Why do you have to give it such a. . .a bovine name?"

"Why not?" I grinned, "It's for a good cows."

She winced. "Don't start that again. I don't think I could take it a second time. Look, he's given you time off: take it. It'd be good to get away from the office for a while. You're too paranoid. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

I nodded, "That's something I've never been a bull to do."

She grimaced, "Ah, you're full of sheep."

"So ewe me."

So I packed my kit and set off up north in search of the great outdoors. Vermont. The northwestern lakes and hills. The Green mountains. Incredible to think that 50 years ago so much had been deforested, and now native flora and fauna was growing back again. Still, camping yes; wilderness. . . I don't know. Can you call it a wilderness when there's a souvenir stand around every corner, flush toilets, no camping signs, no fishing, no fires. . . And people. I'd seen small towns with fewer people on the streets.

But it was outside and it was away from the office and monitors and deadlines and systems going down before you'd saved and backup discs being used for home videos. I had my laptop with me, but I took the chance to get back to the ancient art of graphics, the pad and pencil way. It'd been some time since I'd done any landscapes so I experimented a bit: pencil, inks, washes. Black and white.

It was the third day and I was just walking my merry way along under a majestic grove of native American high-tension power lines when I remember hearing a loud snap sound and looking up into a growing sun to see an isolator shattering and parts of the structure glowing white hot where a line was welding itself to the tower then there was a pressure that popped my ears and a painful tingle like I'd grabbed hold of a live wire.

Section 16

Agony ripping through my shoulder. Going on and on. Like molten lead in my bones and hornets in my skin, pushing deeper and deeper and I couldn't stop it and couldn't fight it while monsters loomed over me, grinning viciously and I couldn't move at all, couldn't do anything except scream.

Section 17

I'd woken face down in pine needles and crushed leaves. Groaned and rolled, squinting into morning sunlight, aching in every joint and disoriented. I was on a wooded hillside, surrounded by mature pines and dew-damped bracken and a deep silence. Through the trees I could see the far side of a narrow wooded valley.

Somewhere a bird sang.

The air was motionless, cool with a reminder of the past night, smelling of earth and plants and water. A red bundle in the bracken nearby turned out to be my pack. I crawled over to it and sat again while I pulled the straps open and rummaged through it. Everything was there, including my wallet, laptop, canteen. I took a long drink.

What'd happened?

I sat down in the middle of that forest and tried to recall. Shit, I had a headache that was a dull pounding behind my forehead. There'd been the line falling and after that. . .

Nothing. A blank.

Concussion? Shock? Amnesia? I must have wandered. Certainly this was nothing like the place I remembered. Confused, I sat a while, resting and finishing a bar of trail-mix while the sun climbed and the dew burned off in faint mist. As the temperature rose with the passing day I pulled out my map and pondered over that for a while. Last I knew, I'd been about. . . here; on the road about ten kilometres south of Montpelier, bound for Burlington. Now. . . I didn't have any idea; there was nothing I could use as a landmark. Still, if the road had been curving around, then it should be over that way somewhere. I sat a while longer, then gathered my stuff, faced into the sun and started walking.

Section 18

I don't know how much time I lost.

I'd nearly died in the barn that day. I'd lost a lot of blood; I was bruised and torn, suffering from hypothermia and shock and trauma. Most of my memories of that time are fragmented to say the least: memories of pain and vomiting and shadowy figures moving and touching me; sometimes water or some other liquid dribbled over my lips; glimpses of wood and cloth; occasionally an inhuman face leaning close as I opened my eyes, jerking away and leaving me in darkness before I slept again.

The first time I woke with any semblance of real awareness. I opened my eyes and saw wood above me: stained planks, dark, grain running though it like veins, indistinct in the dimness. I don't know how long I just stared at that before enough of me was awake to take stock of my surroundings.

I was lying on something soft that rustled gently when I moved: A bed, built into a recessed alcove in a wall. A box bed. Scarcely long enough for me. Clothes gone. The sheets covering me were warm; thick wool or something. Itchy. No pillow, a mattress of what sounded like straw ticking underneath linen bedding. And my arms and legs were tied down with ropes padded with cloth, another across my chest. There were thick bandages around my shoulder, holding something like a gauze pad. I let my head loll to the side, gritting my teeth. The slightest movement and my shoulder screamed bloody murder. From what I could see the room was dark and austere: shutters on the windows, a closed door, a table with what was maybe a jug on it. I couldn't see anything else. I just lay there in the dimness, unable to move while the fear grew, not knowing where I was, too scared at what might answer to call out.

Some time later there was a noise at the door and a flickering light moved into the room. A candle, the dancing flame illuminating the inhumanly twisted hand of a native. I froze, not even breathing as the underlit shadows of the creature's face shifted to stare at me and hesitated when it saw I was awake and aware: Its eyes glowed with a rainbow shimmer like titanium steel as light changed and a cold shiver skittled over my flesh. For a while it just stood there, watching me, then suddenly moved: an incredibly fluid, springing gait on those peculiar ankle joints as it crossed to the rickety table. Metal clinked on glass as it fiddled with something, using the candle to light a lamp: a wick sputtered, glowed faintly, then brighter. As the creature leaned closer to huff out the candle, I saw who this felid was: Chihirae. Her shadow flickered across the wall behind her, tail lashing in disquiet, inhuman muscles shifting as she moved. And while she watched me I stared back, petrified and helpless.

After a while she spoke and it was just noise: incomprehensible coughs and snarls. I couldn't move, just shivered violently while those amber eyes transfixed me. Muscles in that visage spasmed, her head twitched and she spoke again: slowly, and this time I could make out the words, "Can you understand?"

I licked my lips and tried to think, to pull some words together, and presently rasped my first words: "Yes. Understand."

She reared back, her jaw gaping with a hissing noise. I saw her hand fidgeting around her belt. There was a knife there. Then she leaned forward, teeth bared in a snarl as she demanded, "What are you. Where [something]. Why are you [ something]. You [something] us. . ."

"I. . . not understand," I stumbled through the phrase then licked my parched lips, trying to draw some moisture into my mouth. "Slow."

It stopped her. She gaped for a few seconds, then raked her fingers through those tufts of fur on her cheeks and turned aside to pull a stool up to the bedside. She sat, a safe couple of meters from the bed, then glanced at the ropes and scooted closer. When she spoke this time it was slowly, enunciating clearly; like I had heard her use in class when trying to explain something to a pupil who was having trouble. "What are you?"

"I have. . . name. Michael Riley."

She cocked her head to one side, creases furrowing her muzzle. "Mikah Rry?"

"Michael."

"Mikah."

Uh, she couldn't say it. Same problem I had with their words. "Yes," I told her, then ventured, "Chihirae?"

She flinched, then twitched an ear. "Yes. How [did] you [know]?"

"Say. . . you." I winced, trying to pull the words back out of memory, trying to remember the lessons and the meagre handful of inhuman words I'd spent all those hours fighting to comprehend. "See you. What you?"

My question was ignored. "How long?"

How long? I closed my eyes to think and only opened them with an effort. "Ah. . .You come here." I tried a smile and winced as scratches on my face made themselves felt, "You. . . teach good, well. I listen. I understand. . . small."

No, it wasn't that easy. About two minutes just to fumble my way to a point where I was that comprehensible. Then she sat there a while, watching me, as if she didn't know quite what to think. Though this face-to-face was hard on me, I didn't know what it'd be like for her. I guess I'd had a bit longer to get used to them, to realise they could think rationally, whereas she was trying to come to grips with the fact I could talk at all. "Water?" I grated, hoping it was the right word. "Please? Water?"

She twitched that ear again and for a while I thought she wasn't going to respond. Then she slowly stood and stepped across to the table, returning with an earthenware jug. She was careful not to touch me, to keep her distance as she held it to my lips, but the water was a welcome relief. I drank until she drew away and sat there, cradling the jug while she watched me. I lay quietly, staring back at her and shivering involuntarily until she stood and left the room, locking the door behind her. In a few minutes she was back, carrying my sketch pad. She flipped through the pages and showed me my last unfinished notes, the ones I'd been copying from her book, spattered with dark brown droplets. Dried blood I realised. "Yours?"

The blood or the book? "Yes."

She flipped back to the beginning, my sketches. "Did you [draw]?"

"Yes."

She gave me another hard look. "They are good."

An art critic? I almost laughed and tried to raised my arm to rub my face. The ropes were padded, but quite secure. I couldn't move and she watched my muscles tense and relax again, her eyes flicking from my hands to my face. "I go?" I asked.

She stood then and seemed to smile at me, but that baring of sharp, pointed teeth didn't seem very friendly. "No." Then she picked up the pad, extinguished the lamp and left me. I heard a lock click shut behind her. I just lay there, staring up at patterns in the grain in the wood over my head, feeling the knot in my guts ache almost as bad as my physical wounds.

What is she going to do with me?

Section 19

Low sibilant noises pulled me out of dreams of cold ocean waves washing on a shale beach. I blinked to muzzy awareness, licked dry lips and tried to rub bleary eyes, only to be brought up short by the restraints and a lance of pain through my wounds. That brought back rememberance of where I was. The room was lighter, with wedges of sunlight working their way around the edges of the shutters and casting golden streams across the room. My shoulder, my hip. . . both were throbbing unmercifully and I groaned, wishing to go back to that place where it didn't hurt so much. What kind of chance did I have? Did they know how to prevent infection? If I could get my medical kit. . . Which was back at the tent. So much for that idea.

The noises were still there, faint but audible. Not waves but voices, inhuman sounds coming through from the other side of the door, muffled by the wall. I couldn't make out any words.

Minutes later the latch rattled and the door opened. Five of the creatures filed in, eyes immediately drawn to the bed. I thought I recognised Chihirae coming in among them, standing to the side and watching me as they gathered in a loose semicircle around the bed to study me intently. Feline voices were guttural and sibilant words, an unearthly sound as they talked and gesticulated animatedly, all tails twitching like hyperactive snakes. Males and females? I wasn't sure. Some had discernably wider hips, like Chihirae. Otherwise they were androgynous shapes, fears made flesh and fur. In the gloom they were. . . terrifying: nightmarish shapes against the slivers of light seeping through the chinks in the shutters, overbearingly huge from my perspective. The light from behind alternately blinded and left me in darkness as they shifted and snarled, their discussion? arguement? heated and fluent so I was only able to pick out a few words here and there. Then I heard words I understood: 'kill it'.

My ribs tried to strangle my heart. Frantically I searched the faces, trying to find the one who'd spoken. One of them, a female? glared back with an intensity and hatred I could feel like a hot wind in my face. Several, including that one, were wearing knives at their belts. I started shaking and Chihirae pushed through and stopped, a half-meter or so away. "Mikah. You can talk?"

"Chihirae," I leapt on the opportunity, my lifeline. "Yes. I talk. Chihirae, what happen? What?"

There was a moment of silence from the others, then a babble that sounded like a catfight in a blender, some directing questions and demands at me and Chihirae in a torrent I couldn't follow. I shrank back as far as I could from the glares and snarls, my heart racing, feeling dizzy and confused and scared. Then Chihirae was leaning closer, asking, "What were you doing?"

"What? I do not understand."

"In the barn. Why were you [something]?"

Watching? Was that what she meant? Were they pissed about that? "Oh. . . I. . . I learn. You teach. . . cubs. I listen. I learn."

"Why do you [something]?"

"I do not understand."

"Why did you [hide]?"

"I here. . ." I tried to piece the words together, tried to find the right words. There were so many missing. "They try. . . hurt me. Two."

"They [tried to] hurt you? Two?"

"Try one. Later, try two."

"Tried to hurt you [twice]?"

"Twice. Yes."

There was more arguing, yowling, then the sheets were pulled off and I gasped at the shock of the cold air against my skin. Embarrassing being naked in front of them, vulnerable in that nakedness, terrifying not being able to move. Freezing cold air set me trembling, the tension enhancing the aching in my wounds. Then one of them leaned forward into the cubby and poked the bandage across my shoulder. I screamed, feeling like someone had grabbed handful of nerves and dunked them in acid and Chihirae swung around and backhanded the other away, snarling with bared teeth. The chastised one growled back then turned and stalked out. She faced me again, watching until I caught my breath."Mikah, did you hurt [anyone]? Understand? Did you hurt?"

What was she talking about? "I not understand," I breathed and shuddered again. "Please, Cold."

She said something else, but the room and alien faces were spinning and melting together, my shoulder aching unbearably where he'd jabbed it. "Cold," I mumbled and blacked out again.

Section 20

There were low noises, sounds that resolved into growling voices murmuring. Something touched my face. I flinched and opened my eyes to sharp teeth, broad valentine nose and amber, inhuman eyes with intelligence glittering in their depths. Terror forced a small noise from me and the felid pulled away.

"[something] awake?" I heard a voice in the background call.

"Yes," the felid at my bedside said, then added something I didn't understand. The creature moved to touch my shoulder and I tried to struggle, ignoring the agony that blazed through my chest and side. The felid was shouting something, then Chihirae was beside him and she caught my arm and was speaking, murmuring, "They are gone. [something] he is [something]." I couldn't understand, but it wasn't what she was saying, it was the way she was saying it: calming, stroking my arm with leathery fingertips. "Be still. He [is trying to] help you."

Why should I trust her? She'd shot me, almost killed me, now I was locked away, tied down. But she'd let me live, she'd tended my wounds and looked after me. I looked up at her face: broad, leathery nose pad, Lynx-like tufts of fur and intense amber eyes.

I was still shivering, I could feel it, but the fear was settling. "Be quiet?" she asked, patting my arm.

"Yes," I choked through tightened vocal chords. She looked at the male and said, "Be [something]," then moved aside. The male pulled a chair closer to my bedside and hung the lamp from a hook above the bed, the shadows oscilating as it swung gently. When I looked back at the male he was holding a small, scalpel-like knife, the cutting edge a single line of glittering light. I started trembling again, unable to take my eyes off that blade.

"Calm," Chihirae urged me.

The male pulled the sheets down and cocked his head at me, hesitating before carefully slipping the knife under the bandage to cut them away. I winced as he laid the bandages aside, then started on moving the pads underneath away. Skin and sticky yellow serum adhered to them, hurting as he tugged it away. I could see the purplish-blue flesh below from the corner of my eye. He made a hissing noise through his teeth and gingerly touched the wound with a finger. I flinched and gasped and he stopped immediately. He sat back, then looked at Chihirae, "This will not [work]. I have to [untie] him."

"Is that [something]?"

The doctor waved a hand at me and said something I didn't catch.

Her muzzle wrinkled and she looked at me, hand touching the knife at her waist, then she knelt and undid the knots on the ropes. I lay absolutely still as she hesitated, then flipped them aside. The male - a doctor? - carefully took my wrist and said, "[Does] this hurt?"

He raised my arm and I gagged on the pain that caused, feeling torn muscles in my shoulder shifting. He moved it again, trying the range, but my shoulder was so swollen he could only move it a few degrees before the pain got too much. What the hell had they done to me? It felt like there was a hole right through, in the front and out the back.

Turned out there was. It'd been the only way to get the triangular head out. Push it right through. Thank God I don't remember any of that. He half-rolled me to examine the exit wound, then took a small vial from his kit and spread a foul-smelling yellowish powder over both wounds before replacing the bandages and gauze with fresh ones. The wound on my side wasn't as clean. He had to lance and drain that. Chihirae ducked her head and laid her ears back when I screamed and went rigid, slipping half-under while the doctor tended the puncture and mopped the fluids that seeped out. I was just hanging to consciousness by a thread when he finished.

Light glinted on metal as he wiped his knives off packing them away, glaring like flares in my blurry vision. A figure leaned over me, a shape resolving into Chihirae bending over to hold my wrist and retie the straps. I moved, trying to struggle, and she caught my hands, bared teeth in my face. I stopped fighting and lay panting. "No," I croaked, almost inaudibly.

Her muzzle smoothed. She cocked her head.

"Please. . . no."

She looked at the doctor; he waved a hand in a gesture that could have been a shrug and muttered something. Once more she looked at my face, meeting my eyes, then just patted my leg and pulled the sheets up. I think I thanked her, just before falling asleep with them watching me.

Section 21

I woke with a start into darkness, wondering where I was all over again. It was a second before the memory surfaced, and when it did I raised my hands and turned them slowly, not quite believing the freedom. I sagged back, staring up at the shadows of grain patterns on the top of the cubbyhole, remembering, listening. Silence. That muffled stillness of a sleeping house. The light that'd been seeping around the shutters was gone, so it was dark outside. Did that mean I'd slept away a few hours, or an entire day?

My bladder was screaming for relief.

Slowly, I managed to sit myself up, gritting my teeth as my wounds ached and my head spun. There was just enough room in the bed's cubby to sit upright with my hair brushing the overhead as I rested a while, breathing hard. Then I took a deep breath and swung my legs over the side of the cot. By slow, painful steps I clambered to my feet, wobbling uncertainly on the rough wooden floor. The roof was low, the room seemed to sweep in and out, like there was a tide in my skull. How much blood had I scattered across the landscape? Too much.

There was something I took to be a chamberpot beside the bed. Well, I'd never actually seen a chamberpot before, but it was all there was. I leaned against a wall while urinating, getting most of it in the pot. Hard to see in the dimness. Hope it was a chamberpot, not a valued piece of crockery or funeral urn and I was pissing all over some dear-departed's ashes.

Cold. I was shivering. Despite that, I staggered over to the window hoping to at least get an idea of where I was. It was shut, and the shutters couldn't be opened from inside. I leaned my head against the window, the thick, distorted panes cool against my face. Through cracks in the shutters I could catch glimpses of slivers of moonlight on snow, a starry sky, silhouettes of pinetrees like fractal sets against the skyline. Her house, had to be.

There was a soft noise from behind me as the door opened. I turned, stumbling and collapsing and falling and crying out loud in pain as my wounds shifted and I banged elbows against walls and floorboards on my way to the ground. I scrambled back and huddled on the grimy floor below the window, something body-warm and wet started seeping from my shoulder wound, a dark stain against my bare skin in the dimness. A shadow moved in the door, light gleaming from eyes and a length of steel. The fear returned.

Chihirae slowly moved into the room, keeping the table between us and the knife ready. As if she thought I was going to jump at her. She was fidgeting and her tail lashing, like she was nervous and unsure.

I sagged back on the cold floor, my voice faltering as I rasped, "I not hurt you."

She cocked her head, made a chittering sound and broke off when I tried to move, tried to stand up again only to collapse again with a groan. Chihirae hesitated, then sheathed the knife and moved closer, making up her mind. Her leathery palms caught my arm and helped me up. I staggered and she hauled my arm over her furry shoulder, half-carrying me back to the bed even though I loomed over her by about a foot. Hard muscles under that soft hide, deceptively strong arms, a furry tail flicking against my bare legs.

I lay back on the mattress, shaking from fatigue and the cold and the fading adrenaline rush. Chihirae wiped the trickle of blood away, then collected the sheets from where they fallen and laid them across my waist. "That was [something]," she admonished me.

I didn't know the word, but I could guess. Stupid, dumb, idiotic, moronic. There wasn't much I could say to that.

She cocked her head, then hissed softly, "You are all right?"

The wounds were aching furiously again, but I nodded. "Yes."

She stared at me, her pupils dark pools in her eyes, then she stood and left me. I noticed this time she left the door open, but I made no move to go anywhere. I just lay still, letting the pain and cold slowly ebb.

She was back again within half an hour, carrying a tray. She sat beside the bed, the tray on her lap holding a mug and plate with several pieces of something that could have been bread on it. She handed me the mug. "You are hungry[question]. Here."

It was warm milk. I hadn't had warm milk since I was. . . shit, I can't remember the last time I'd had warm milk. I sipped: It tasted. . . strange, watery, but it was still milk. The images of home and security and familiarity bubbled up from the depths, battering me to my soul with an impact that was almost palpable: here, away from everything and everyone I'd ever known and loved, huddled in a tiny bunk, clutching an earthenware mug of warm milk, eyes swimming while a furry alien straddled a chair and watched me. I choked back a sob and drank to hide the tears. It didn't work.

"What is wrong?" I looked at Chihirae. She gestured at my face "Your eyes; they're [watering]."

My arm ached when I wiped my face. "Nothing. All fine."

She twitched her ears, then carefully reached out to take back the mug. Her hand brushed mine and I shivered again at the feeling of fur against my skin. "Do you want?" She offered me the plate. I took a piece of bread: warm with something like butter melted over it. It tasted even better than it smelt and my shrunken stomach welcomed it with growls.

All this time Chihirae was sitting, watching me, everything I did. I was on my second piece when she asked, "[something] you [what] are you?"

I blinked at her. "I do not understand."

She took a breath, "What are you?"

"Human."

"Hu'an?" She tried the word, trying to work her narrow black lips, long tongue and jaw around it. "Hu'an." She was silent for a while, then, "I have [never] seen a [thing] like you."

"I am same. I have [never] seen a [thing] like you," I forced a smile, echoing her words.

She leant forward, "Where are you from? Why are you here?"

"I am. . . I am," I struggled with my vocabulary, trying to remember the alien sounds that were words never meant to be spoken by a human throat. "I am from home. Many. . . me's there. I do not understand how I am here. I home," snapped my fingers and she jumped, "I am here. I do not understand." I met her inhuman gaze and asked the question that had been burning in me, as it had in her, "What are you? All you. What are you?"

Her mouth opened, then she blinked. "Rris. I am Rris. My name is Chihirae Aesh Hiasamra'thsi. I am a teacher."

"Rris," I tried it. The word started with a noise from my throat, fading into a hiss. Her full name. . . I tried it a couple of times, still not sure I'd be able to remember the full pronunciation. "What is this place?"

"My house. This [town] is called [west]water."

"You are not from. . . Westwater."

"No. I come here to teach. In [winter]. Cold weather. Understand?"

"Yes." I forced a pained smile. "Good teacher. You should be not so good shot."

She flinched, then hissed. "You hurt. You [frightened] me."

"I will not hurt you," I said softly.

She looked away from me, her ears flattening. "I did not know." Then she reached to touch my right shoulder, the bandages there. "I [thought] you were [something]. I [worried] for the cubs."

I flinched at her touch, then sank back onto the coarse mattress. "You thought I was what?"

"You did not hurt anyone?"

"No. They try to hurt me. I run. Why? You ask. . . before."

Her muzzle twitched, she rubbed the side of it. Like she was nervous. Then looked right at me: "Someone was [something]."

"I do not understand."

This time the twitch was more pronounced. "[something]. Stopped. Made no [something]. Not [breathe]. Not live. Stop."

"Dead" I blurted it in english, "You think I killed someone?!"

She jumped, pulling away like I was coming after her. I was panting hard, trembling again. I tried calming myself. "No. I not. I not! I not hurt!"

She didn't say anything.

"You. . . think I . . . do it?" I ventured.

Her ears went back. "Not me. Others do. They think you are a [animal]. They think you [kill] him."

Shit. I felt faint again, heart pounding on top of fear and bloodloss. Bedridden, wounded and lost in a land where I wasn't only a stranger but an alien and now a murder suspect. "What do they do?"

"They are [something]. They do not [know what to do] with you. I say you did not kill. Some still say you did. They are not [sure]."

I looked at her morosely. I never killed anyone. I knew that and it was so hard to say it. "I not. . . did not kill."

"I know."

That stopped me. Confused, I asked, "How?"

Her ears twitched. "You were in the barn, watching us."

"You knew."

"I saw the [something]."

Dust. Sifting down through the floor as I moved. Very visible in the sunlight. She made a small chittering noise when I stared at her. And I'd thought I'd thought of everything.

"Dust," she hissed. "Also your hands.'

My hands? I didn't understand, not until she moved - fast - and her hand was in front of my face: Opalescent claws hooked from her fingertips. "The dead one, he was [torn] from these. You not do that."

I stared at those little crescents. She didn't need the knife: Those were quite capable of shredding me. Then she patted my arm again and said something I didn't understand at all, then added, "You rest now. We talk more tomorrow."

She was looking after me, feeding me and - if her story was true - defending me. She'd shot me, but she'd also saved my life. Maybe if she hadn't caught me the others would have come after me, convinced I was dangerous. They might have been even better shots. No matter what the reasons, I trusted her. It was just a feeling, something she exuded.

"Chihirae?"

She paused at the door.

"I have other things," I told her, then took a deep breath and tried to explain about my camp, where it was. She listened, then ducked her head and said she would look for it. Then the door closed and this time I didn't hear the bolt slide home.

Section 22

Chihirae roused me the next morning, bringing me breakfast: grain cakes and water and some strips of near-raw meat. She was in a hurry, her class was waiting and I wasn't enough to pull her away from that. Snowing out, she said and left me again. I nibbled at the bread, ignored the meat, then slept.

That's all I did all morning, too exhausted to do anything more. Around noon the noise of the front door slamming roused me. Chihirae entered the gloom of my room, brushing snow out of her fur. "Greeting, [something]." She noticed the leftovers. "You do not like meat?"

"I cannot eat. Have to. . . fire more."

"Cook more," she corrected and looked at the meat. "You are not [easy] to look after." Her nose twitched and she popped a piece in her mouth as she left the room. She returned a few minutes later and I had to do a double take. She was wearing my jacket. I stared, not sure whether to laugh or shout at her. A bipedal cat adjusting the fit of my green ArcTec jacket. "Strange [something]. Nice," she said, stroking the spidersilk fabric, then asked me, "How do these [work]?" indicating the fasteners.

I showed her how to work the zips and buttons and Velcro tabs. She fiddled with them, chittering to herself, then grinned. I was beginning to realise it wasn't a friendly grin. "Your place had [better] be [something]. I do not want to be walking around the hills all night."

"You find," I assured her and she snorted and turned and left me. I lay there and listened to the door slam and then to a silence that seemed bottomless.

Section 23

I had weird dreams. Flashes of memories from home mixed with stranger things. That knight again, chasing me through what was sometimes a maze and sometimes a labyrinth of unfamiliar streets. Hang gliding high over some unfamiliar terrain, never losing any altitude and looking for something. A nurse and her lioness face grinned at me and she growled something I can't remember and reached for me with stainless steel claws.

The pain ripping through my wounds when I flinched woke me and I found myself looking up at a group of feline faces: tiny faces, just visible over the edge of the bed. Yelps sounded and they scattered with a skittering of claws on the floor. Cubs. I blinked, collecting my wits, then turning my head to see them better. Still daylight, with sunbeams filtering through the shutters. Small heads with puffed fur were peering around the door, watching me like a cat watches a dog on the other side of the street: ready to bolt at the slightest sign. Muttering at each other.

"Told you it [something] here."

"[something]. What is it?"

"[something] said it [something]."

"Teacher said it was [harmless]. It was just [lost]."

"Right, cub-spots. Does that look harmless?"

And I recognised one of them. "Feher?" I ventured.

There was a silence in which they drew back a half-step, their fur bottling. The one called Feher looking particularly stricken as he realised it was him I was addressing. "How is your. . . sled?" I managed, proud of myself for that sentence.

He took a step backward, mouth working but nothing coming out. Then he dropped his jaw and hissed, fur going up like a bottlebrush. The others chittered and his ears dropped like wet tissues. He was a few seconds pulling himself together, drawing himself up to his full three foot height. "You can talk?"

"Yes." It was amusing. Their cubs can only be described as 'cute'. Scarcely over my hips with volumous fur and gangling limbs, they seemed to be all heads, puffed-out tails, hands and feet. No clothes; they wouldn't need any with all that fur. Warmth and androgyny; I couldn't tell boy from girl. Melting snow speckled their thick pelts. "Where is Chihirae?"

They all looked at each other but none answered. "Not know you here," I guessed. Ears went down. I chuckled, winced.

"What are you?" one of them asked.

"How did you know my name?" Feher demanded.

"I saw you," I said. "I am Michael."

They shifted around, six of them moving to see me better. Furry bodies eclipsed the fans of light spilling through the shutters, turning the scene surreal. The small room was getting crowded. "Teacher shot you?" one asked.

"Yes."

"I saw the [blood]. They are saying you [something] [something] Sherrith."

"What? Talk slow. I do not understand lot words."

"You killed [something] Sherrith?"

My gut lurched. How many thought I'd killed whoever it was? "No." Six pairs of amber and green eyes watched me. "I not killed."

They exchanged glances again. That one who'd asked if Chihirae had shot me said, "Teacher said you didn't do it."

I didn't know what to say to that. She trusted me. . . sort of. She was trying to protect me against the others. "Who is Sherrith?" I asked.

"You don't know?" another cub asked.

"I do not know much."

They chittered and one shifted closer for a better look. "He was[something] at the [something]," the talkative one said, "up the valley, near [something]."

"I did not understand. I do not know some words."

"Why?" another cub piped up.

"I learning talk."

There was more chittering, a smaller one said, "You are not very good at it."

"That is why you were in the barn?" The tallest asked.

"Yes."

'Why were you hiding?"

"I not knew you. Some tried to . . . hurt me. They see me, they try to hurt me."

There was a short silence, then one of the smaller cubs blurted, "You were afraid of us?"

I looked from one intently interested catlike face to another, suddenly embarrased about how the confession would sound to them. "Yes."

"That is [stupid]."

I pulled the sheet down, just enough to expose my shoulder and the bandages over purple-black skin. "Stupid?"

Their reactions were mixed and unreadable; grimaces and hisses. I kept trying to read something human into their body language and nothing made sense.

"You are [lucky] she is not a better shot," Feher observed.

"Why don't you have any fur?"

Heads swivelled toward the one who'd asked that question. He or she ducked its head and flashed teeth. I gave a small smile, "I am from. . . not cold place. Need do not. . . Don't need fur so much."

"Are you like that all over?"

"Yes."

"Cold," one said. Another muttered something I didn't catch, but it brought forth a chorus of chittering, which was abruptly stilled when the one who'd asked about my lack of fur ventured, "Can I touch you?"

I think a few of them stoped breathing then, watching me for my response. I slowly nodded. "Yes."

The cub was cautious, like he was going to pet a strange dog. I lay still, watching him approach, reach out an arm and touch my right forearm with a single finger. I stayed motionless as he stroked my arm: gingerly at first, then with more confidence.

As if that were a sign the others gathered around the bedside, stroking and poking and touching, keeping well clear of my wounds. They wanted to touch my hair, stroke my growing beard, chittered at my feet: They thought they were funny, like they thought pulling the blankets off was funny. Why were my feet funny? Why didn't I have fur? a taiI? I grabbed and caught the sheets, but not before one asked why my [something] was all outside. I flushed red and they chittered again, but only until a growl interrupted them, "What are you doing?"

Chihirae stepped into the room and slowly bared her teeth. The cubs shrank back, their ears going down while she walked forward and looked down at Feher, "You are [something] them here? Why am I not [something]. [something]! I will talk with you [tomorrow]. Go on." She aimed a swat at his head as the cubs made for the door and I heard their chittering laughter fading away. Chihirae looked out the door after them, then huffed a breath that left a white cloud in the air and turned back to stare at me.

"They not hurt," I said in a small voice.

She regarded me levelly for a second, then snorted again and came over to gather the sheets back into some kind of order: "They come into my house. It is [rude?]. Cubs, they never do what I say."

"You are not. . ." I stumbled, tried to figure out how to word it properly. "That is new to you?"

She looked at me and twitched her ears, then smoothed the sheets and paused. "I found your camp." There was a faint clicking sound that took me a second to pinpoint: she was tapping her claws together, a preoccupied little manerism. "How long you there?"

I didn't really know. "Before leaves fell."

"[Autumn]," she supplied. Kept staring at me. "You have some strange [something]. It is. . .I have never seen the like. Where is it made?"

"Where I am from."

"Where?"

I opened my mouth. Several times, then confessed, "I not know words."

Her lip twitched over teeeth. Then she made a snorting sound and stood, leaving me. "Chihirae," I called after her and she stopped at the door, a sunbeam catching her shoulder and turning the fur golden-white. I swallowed, embarrassed, not knowing how to ask an alien this. "I need to. . ." I didn't know the words for that either. "I need to. . .use the small room?"

"What?" Her muzzle wrinkled. Was that confusion?

"Ah. . ." there was that phrase I'd heard in the barn when a cub asked to be excused. I repeated it as best I could.

She blinked, then made that chittering sound. "You mean you have to [defecate]."

"Yes. . .defecate?"

"Ah," she rubbed a claw along the side of her muzzle. "Have to move you again."

She did, and it hurt again. I gritted my teeth and suffered as she helped me out of bed: sit up, then get her shoulder under my good arm and stand up with the cold teasing goosebumps from my naked hide. She was a solid crutch under my arm as she helped me, step at a time, to the door. There was narrow, dark corridor there that bisected the house, a curtain at one end, a door at the other and in each wall. I hesitated and Chihirae let me rest, then it was couple of steps to the end of the corridor and the curtain there. It was a tiny room behind it, with a seat that was a weird affair that resembled a potty: a seat with a raised cup that jotted up in front of my groin. I didn't know what that said about their anatomy. Freezing in there. My breath frosting in the air. "Here," Chihirae panted, her breath as white as mine, "The smallest room, huh?" she chittered again.

Cold, draughty, with the hole leading to a bucket outside. It would reek in the summer. A handful of straw and a half-frozen bucket of water to clean off with after. Chihirae hovered around the curtain, not seemingly bothered by my activities. They're less squeamish about bodily functions than we are, but that didn't make it any more comfortable for me. When I was done she began to help me up, laid a hand on my arm and stopped. "You are [something] cold."

I was; shivering and embarassed. My wounds throbbed with an aching I could feel in my bones. When Chihirae half-lifed me to my feet I could feel her warmth, her skin almost hot under her fur. I was shaking hard when she got me back to bed and set me down. Any trace of body warmth had already vanished from the sheets and the mattress was as cold as the room. Chihirae looked down on me as I huddled, then leaned a little closer; I saw her nostrils twitching before she pulled the sheets up again. "I think you need [something]."

"What. I do not. . . Chihirae? Chirae?" but the door was already closing behind her. I laid my head back and tried to puzzle out what she'd meant by that. I didn't know the word.

But I guessed what it was when she returned about half an hour later, a steaming bowl in one hand, cloth draped over her arm. Bath.

"Here," she laid the implements down on the table, then turned to me and gave a slow, deliberate grin. "You be still, all right?"

"I do not. . ."

"You need to [wash]. You [smell] like a [something]." She dipped a cloth into the water, wrung it out, then grinned at me again: "You be quiet? I can tie you again."

I opened my mouth to protest, saw the lay of her ears, and realised she wasn't joking. I closed my mouth again, nodding and laying back.

Shit! That cloth was hot! I gasped at the first dab and Chihirae hastily pulled away, then slowly resumed again. It was hot, but it was a heat that gradually ebbed, sinking in as she wiped the cloth down my face: softly. Down my neck, across my chest. I lay back, relaxing, beginning to lose myself in the warmth and clean feeling that followed the cloth.

She moved lower.

"Huh?" I started to wake at the feelings. A hand touched my face: "No. [something] looking. Nothing new there," she murmured and I just lay still, aware of what was washing between my legs, embarrassed, wondering at the ridiculousness of it all, converting binary to decimal in my head; anything to keep the blood out of the wrong places. Despite the cold, despite what was doing it, it just felt. . . good.

Mercifully she was quick: down my legs, around my feet. She had to help me roll over and then I could only lie with my arms at my side, but she was slow and thorough, the cloth hot and rough as it scraped my back, leaving a cold, fresh trail to chill in the air. My pulse settled, relaxing under the unintended massage, the occasinal brushing of warm fur. It seemed too soon before she said, "Finished."

"Huhn?"

A hand patted my shoulder. "Finished. [something]. Turn over?" I gritted my teeth as she helped me, panting slightly when I was finally settled. Chihirae caught the sheets to pull them up and hesitated, then asked, "Why IS your [something] all outside?"

"What?"

She touched me then: a furry hand flicked lightly against my dick. "Your [penis], why is it outside?" she asked as casually as one might inquire about the weather.

I could only croak, "I don't know."

She blinked at me, then pulled the sheets up and patted my shoulder, "I will bring food later."

I stared after her as she left, then slept again.

Section 24

Something touched my cheek, nudging me. I made one of those half-hearted, incoherent complaints that's such a part of waking and opened my eyes to a candlelit feline face, the dancing light doing weird things with shadows. "Chi'ra?" Everything was muzzy with sleep.

She withdrew her hand and said simply, "We talk."

"Huhnn?" It was dark out, the single stubby candle the only light in the room. "What?"

"This." She produced a flat black box, a little smaller than a directory. She fumbled with it, hinged the lid open and touched a red button. The screen blinked to life, the desktop popping up. "This. What is it?"

Candlelight one side: the other twisted active array illumination. "Oh," I said and lay back. She'd brought that back with her. How much other stuff had she brought back? There was a low growl from Chihirae and I looked up at the shadows of her eyes. "It is a. . . a thing I. . . Like you are teacher, use book. I use that for what I do. It is like a book."

"A book," she echoed. "This is not a book." She touched the lens over the CCD while her tail lashed against her legs.

"Like a book," I repeated.

She cocked her head and I saw her tongue flicker around her lips before she said, "I don't understand." A claw clicked on plastic as she ran a finger over the keyboard. "What are these marks."

'Writing."

"Writing. . ." her head came up and shadowy pools of her eyes were locked on my face, then she looked down and a fingertip touched a key. "It isn't Rris. You [something] a writing of [something] your own?"

"I don't understand," I said and she stared at me again. "What you said. It not Rris. Is mine. . . my people."

"You have writing."

"Yes."

"What ARE you?" she asked and this time there was emphasis on words, an emotion imparted that was something I couldn't understand.

"I am. . ." I started to say but the words weren't there. "Human," I said.

'What does that mean?"

"Look," I pointed at the laptop. "Pictures on that."

She looked confused.

There was a stylus: a cross between a mouse and a tablet pen. I told her how to hold the stylus, how to open some files. I had about a dozen 28gig PCMCIA flashcards with me, loaded with all kinds of stuff: from my work to art packages to novels and films. Easier than lugging a library around with you. She was slow and clumsy at first, but not too bad for someone who'd never even conceived of a computer. I couldn't say 'open that window' or 'use the file selector', I had to take her through it as a complete newbie.

Only this was a neophyte who'd never imagined anything like one of todays PCs. I gave her a simple walkthrough, demonstrating sound; She'd never heard her voice played back before and stared quizically at the speaker, conjouring images of some feline perversion of 'his master's voice'. She was uncomprehending when I pointed the laptop at her and ran the video capture for a few second. When I played it back she leaned close to see what was moving on the screen then reared back:

"That's me! [Something] me! How do you do that?"

It was graphical tricks like that that really got her. I'm a digital graphics specialist so the card was packed with clip images and animations of every description: from a tour of Manhattan to models displaying the latest fashions to helicopter gunships in action. She didn't speak as the pictures flicked across the screen, bathing her features in a light so familiar to me, so out of place here.

"What is this?" she asked finally, still not looking at me. A picture of New York from the air, Central Park central in the POV while a travelogue droned on, muted to near-inaudibility. "Where?"

"Home," I said.

"Where?" she insisted and I thought she sounded a little scared.

I sighed, my ribs flexing painfully. "I do not know how I come here. I was walking. I walked. It changed. It all other. . . it go away and I go here."

Her head drew back. "You do not make [sense]."

"I home, then I here. I do not understand. I do not know how. It changed." I tried to make her understand. "It changed. My home, then here. I do not know how. I was walking and something happen. I wake here. I walk some days. I see houses." Just lying there in that cold little room, it hit me again: that hollow, empty feeling. An entire world gone forever, stolen from me. Not just the world, there were the people, the friends and family. My job. I had a mental picture of myself trying to explain this to Elliot:

"Sorry I'm late back but I got a bit lost. Ended up on another world and there were these cats and one shot me. Don't suppose I could have my job back?"

Rita; Jackie - my flatemate, my friend, and more than that; my parents in Chicago; friends: Gareth had been about to open an exhibition of his kinetic and laser sculptures. I'd promised I'd be there but somehow I didn't think I'd be able to keep that appointment. What were they doing now? I'd have been expected back a month ago. Were there people searching? Fat fucking load of good it'd do.

A hand touched my arm, pulling me out of my fugue, back into the moment. Amber eyes were meeting mine. A screen flickered in the dimness and she flinched violently. Pink hippos parachuting with umbreallas. I looked at that frivolity and the tears came.

"Mikah? Your eyes are leaking again."

I rubbed my good hand across my eyes.

"You do that when you hurt?" she asked. When I didn't answer she tilted her head, then snorted, tucked the laptop under her arm and left me lying in the darkness.

Section 25

Chihirae did her best, but sometimes that wasn't the best for me. There were the times she tried feeding me raw meat, a time she tried giving me some concoction she insisted was a medicine that had me vomiting my guts out. I'd no idea what was in it, was damned lucky it didn't kill me. She was a better teacher; in the evenings she would sit at my bedside and we would talk. She'd made trips back to the campsite, bringing all my stuff back with her. Of course she hadn't been able to figure out how to pack the tent away, so she just piled everything inside and used the tent as a sack. The Compaq; she played around on that until I had to show her how to connect the solarpack to recharge it. My clothes were a source of great puzzlement to her, I don't know what she thought of my boots, but she seemed to have taken a fancy to my jacket. My medical kit was a blessing, once I'd managed to tell Chihirea what I needed. She brought it in to me and I could tell as soon as I opened it that she'd been rifling through it. I popped a couple of antibiotic tablets, then Chihirae dusted my wounds with antiseptic dust and replaced the bandages with the sterile gauze pads. Two days later the swelling around the punctures had reduced, the aching had subsided. It still hurt like hell to move but I was healing.

My waking hours were long and boring and cold. Chihirae was gone for long periods during which I either dozed or lay and stared at the ceiling. There was no way I could go anywhere on my own: my injuries and two weeks bedridden left me hopelessly weak. Chihirae spent time with me in the afternoons and evenings, helping me with her language, teaching me new words and correcting my grammar. She said I couldn't say some of the words correctly, but that was more of a physical difficulty and there wasn't a lot I could do about it.

Section 26

The front door slamming and the loud snarls of Rris voices shouting woke me. I started awake and lay blinking in the dimness. Evening. Chihirae was a lot later than was usual for her and judging by the sounds she wasn't alone. The voices bcame a lot louder when the door opened and three Rris pushed in with Chihirae behind them. Two of them were male: one of them I though I recognised as the doctor who'd treated me, but my recollection of him was kind of fuzzy, the other as the male who'd spoken about killing me. The last was a female and she was arguing vehemently with Chihirae in a stream of fluent Rris impossible to follow. She rounded on me, levelling a clawed finger and snarling. I shrank away and stared at Chihirae helplessly. Her muzzle wrinkled and she made a placating gesture in my direction: "It is all right, Mikah."

"It is a killer," the other male snapped.

"I kill no one," I protested. They stared, momentarily nonplussed. "I did not kill," I said again.

"[something] you! [something] Sherrith said he saw something like you," the female snapped. "Two days later he is dead. Where were you! What [something] you. Teacher, it is [something]. Kill it [something]. . ." I couldn't follow.

"It said it [something] the [children]. It [something] kill them also?"

"No," I croaked, shocked and scared at what they were implying.

"He cannot have," the Doc stepped in, on my side I hoped. "Look:" he came close and pulled the blankets away to show my hand. "No claws. How could he [something the something] killed Sherrith. And there are no [something]. There was blood under his claws. No [something] here."

The female seized the blankets and threw them across the room, pointing out the red scratches across my hide where branches had torn me when I fell down the hillside. "And what [something] these?"

He snorted. "Not claw [marks]."

"He is right," Chihirae snarled, actually bristling, her fur bottling out in a furious ruff as she launched into a snarling tirade. The female flinched, then spat something back and stalked out with the male in tow. The others swept out behind them and I heard shouting carrying off down the corridor, leaving me lying naked in a room with the temperature hovering around zero, the sheets scattered around the floor. It still hurt when I tried to move and just sitting up moved muscles that shouldn't be disturbed. Walking was agony and - as I soon found out - a stupid idea.

Chihirae returned to find me slumped against the table unable to get the blankets, unable to get back to the bed, doing my best just to stay on my feet. "What are you doing?!"

"Cold," I said in way of explanation and tried to make it back to the bed by myself. She caught me before I did myself some serious damage. "Ai, you are like ice," she exclaimed as she soon as she touched me.

"Cold," I said again.

She cocked her head, then her tail flicked against my calf as she slipped a shoulder beneath my arm and took some of my weight. I limped where she led, which was not back to the bed as I'd expected, but rather to the door and then a few paces down the cramped hallway to the other door.

The house's other room was a little larger than the one I'd been in, but this one wasn't a barren, cold cell. It looked lived in. The window was unshuttered with blackness outside and frost lacing the glass. Like the other room there was a single unmade bed set in an alcove, but here there were also cupboards and stocked shelves in the surrounding walls; a glowing lantern hanging above a table with old books stacked on it. Scattered around the room were items of my own: the tent clumsily rolled up in a corner along with my pack. On the table my laptop and pens and lamp sat alongside a candle stub. In the far corner a small, cast-iron stove squatted like a black gnome, a workspace with a few kitchen implements such as bowls and skillets beside it. A pyramid of wood was stacked against the wall alongside. On the floor in front of the stove was something that looked like a beanbag chair or large, lopsided cushion.

Chihirae helped me across to settle down on the cushion. The fabric was richly woven, embroidered with hundreds of tiny pictures I didn't have time to examine. It was stuffed with something soft that rustled and smelt pleasant: a potpourri aroma. She gave me a grubby blanket and crouched down in front of the fire while I huddled and shivered. The sight of her tail poking through the green fabric of her pants was unsettling and something I found difficult to take my eyes off: just so strange. She talked to me as she coaxed the fire to life:

"They are afraid of you. They think you killed and they do not want to listen. Some of the town think you are [innocent], others think you killed. They want you killed."

"They kill me?" I asked, not really feeling anything. It had all been too much; the emotions had burned down, like the fire.

Chihirae twisted to look at me: a flash of titanium in the lamplight. Her tailtip twitched, "No. I am [something]. If they [something] I told them I bring [something]." She chittered again, "They are quieter, but they have sent for [something or someone]."

"I do not understand," I told her in a small voice.

A sigh escaped her. She pushed a larger piece of wood into the stove and closed the thick door. Cast iron I suddenly realised. The most sophisticated thing I'd seen here. Did that mean they had industry? Steam power? Electricity? Chihirae was talking again, explaining.

"I work for. . . [people] who . . ." she made aimless motions as she searched for a simple word I knew, "[something]? Teach us. Tell us. Make land work."

Government?

"I am a Teacher. A town asks for one, I go. Stay for a while. They try to hurt you I tell them I tell my [superiors]. No more help. Make life hard for them. They send for [something]. He say if you have killed or not. What he says is [final]. I cannot change."

So, she was a government employee, blackmailing them. They kill me, the officials make things tough for the villagers. They'd gone over her head and sent for a. . . a cop? Judge?

"You want to show me to your. . . superiors."

Her jaw twitched. "You go? You talk?"

What kind of choices did I have? Not many. "If you say, I go."

She might have heard the resignation, anyway, something made her look around and meet my eye. "I will not hurt you," she told me.

"Too late," I smiled slightly.

She returned a hesitant twitch of her ears and popped the stove door to throw another piece of wood in. God! The warmth that flooded out was bliss. I'd been lying in that icebox with only my own bodywarmth for heat for so long, now this just felt incredible. It seeped into me, easing the aching in my side and shoulder. Chihirae was speaking again, but her words became a background droning that made it all the harder to stay awake. I just let my head sink back into the cushion and gave in.

Section 27

In the days that followed Chihirae settled me down with my own sleeping bag and mat in a corner near the fire. It proved to be a judicious move as my health took a turn for the better: I wasn't as tired, and when I did sleep, it was longer and deeper. The swelling around the punctures subsided even more, but I guess that could have been due to the antibiotics I was stoking myself with. At the time I never realised just what a risk Chihirae felt she was taking in having me in the same room; I later learned she didn't sleep nearly as well on those first couple of nights. I guess if I were in her place I wouldn't rest so easy either.

The first four days passed pretty much as usual: she would give me some food in the morning and leave me to go off to her class. Clothes rubbed painfully against bruised and swollen wounds so I had to make do with blankets and the stove. It was stoked in the morning, then damped down so it was just ticking over while Chihirae was out with her classes. Her evenings and other spare time she spent with me, spending hours nursing and patiently tutoring me in that cramped little room, teaching me her language, her customs and her life. Her books were possesions she valued more than anything but she still let me leaf through them. All the while she was watching with attentive eyes, ready to pounce if I made a move that might damage her treasures. Of course so many of the words were just chicken scratchings to me, but I could look at the pictures and try to make what I could out of the ones I did know. While she was out I spent the time reviewing my notes, trying to make my mouth wrap itself around sounds it was never intended for. After a few hours I inevitably ended up with a sore throat; Hell, I still do.

And there was that cop.

"A [something]," Chihirae explained.

"I do not know that word, [something]."

Her muzzle wrinkled and she scratched a clawtip against the desktop as she pondered, "Someone who balances? If there is a problem between people, they will [judge] and make a decision. They hold the [power] of the [government]. Their word is what- must-be. [Law]. Do you understand that?"

"Yes." A cross between police and judges? The closest I could come to an accurate translation was mediator; although whenever Chihirae mentioned the name it was always Mediator. . . with a capital 'M'. "They are. . ." I didn't know how to say important, "big? People listen them?"

"To them," she corrected automatically. "Yes. Yes they do." She stared at me, then looked away hastily.

She was worried about this Mediator.

That scared me.

Section 28

A couple of days later. Chihirae hadn't returned home after her classes.

I stood at the tiny window with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, clutching the sill for support. It was already dark outside and cystals of frost laced the warped glass of the windowpanes, snowflakes drifting like glittering stars into the pool of light just outside. Beyond that: night. Blackness. Not even a moon through the clouds. I turned away and winced as my right arm shifted in its sling. Growing cold again. Awkwardly I stoked the fire - laboriously fetching one piece of wood at a time from the stack - then settled down on that cushion and huddled in front of it while it crackled and hissed and popped and the wind picked up outside. Where was she? A whole day gone and there was no sign of her. I rubbed my hands and tightened the blankets around my shoulder. Was I worried about her? Surprising to find I was. She'd almost killed me. I remembered the pain from that, but I also remembered what she'd done for me, how she helped me after, how she stood up for me and believed in me when nobody else would.

I was beginning to like her, and I found that as amazing as everything else that had happened.

So I waited while snow flickered past the window like silent static. I waited while the fire flickered and the warmth soaked me and let my eyelids droop. I guess I nodded off there because the next I remember a hand was touching my shoulder and I started awake with a jolt, my heart racing. Chihirae flinched back to crouch beside me with ice crystals still dusting her facial fur, "Mikah? You are all right?"

I blinked up at her, then saw the other Rris standing in the background: A stranger. A bulky male with ice crusting his ears and facial fur, wearing a long, stained, leather overcoat that hung down to his calves and glistened with oils and metling snow. A tail peeked out from the hem of the jacket and a tattered pack hung from his hand while he watched me. His facial fur was dark fawn with lighter streaks running back into his ruff, his eyes a glacial green. I stared back with a horrified fascination. I knew who this was.

"M'kah," Chihirae touched my shoulder again, "this is Shyia. He is Mediator. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

There was a noise from the Mediator, a kind of surpised snort and I looked again and saw the gun in his other hand; a flintlock pistol. He also looked down, then shifted his grip on the weapon, set his pack down and came closer. "They told me this was going to be different, but I hadn't expected this." His voice was deeper than Chihirae's, like a husky growl that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

"I suppose I have grown used to him," Chihirae murmured.

"Huh." He stared at me. "They said you can understand me."

"Speak slowly. I can understand."

He hesitated and glanced at Chihirae then turned back to me. "You know what you have been [accused] of? Do you understand just what it means?"

"I think so," I said hesitantly, unable to keep from glancing at the gun.

"He is still learning," Chihirae supplied. "Use small words. Can I take your coat."

He blinked, as if he'd forgotten he'd been wearing it, then he fiddled with the gun and laid it down on the desk. Water dripped on the floor as he shrugged out of the heavy overcoat and handed it to her and turned back to me while she hung it on a peg near the stove. He was wearing pants of some coarse-woven material and a quilted vest with lace-on sleeves: incongruous on his furry body. His tail was dark fur, twitching with a life of its own. Things I was beginning to learn about them, one of them being that their tails often said what they didn't. "You have been [accused] of murdering Sherrith Gh'ryis. His [something] said that you were seen near his house. You ran from them. A few days after Sherrith was found dead by [something] else."

"They say I kill him," I said.

His muzzle twitched to show teeth. "I am here to decide. Did you?"

"No. I not kill him! I not! I would. . ."

"Mikah," Chihirae interjected softly and I shut up, hunching morosely while they stared at me; two surreal shapes in the twilight of the lamp. The Mediator glanced towards his pistol on the desk, then at her and said something; too fast and fluent for me to follow, as was the brief exchange that followed. I watched them like a spectator at a tennis match as the ball went from one court to the other. It ended with Chihirae ducking her head and backing off. The Mediator looked at me and said, "I want to have a look at your wounds."

I nodded. If cooperation was going to help me, then I was going to be one cooperative monkey. Goosebumps rose when I turned the blankets down to show my scars; his muzzle wrinkled and I couldn't tell if it was distaste or something else. The massive brusing around the punctures had subsided, but the surrounding skin was still greenish-purple and sensitive. The scabs were beginning to crack, showing the puckers of angry-looking scars.

"You do not have [much] fur," he eventually observed.

"Nothing gets past you, does it."

"What was that noise?"

"No. No I don't."

"Huhn," he scratched at his chin in a gesture startling in its familiarity. "These," he reached out a hand to almost - but not quite - touch the red traces of scratches along my arms and up my neck, "where did you get them?"

"I fall. . . fell down."

"It is true," Chihirae interjected. "You can ask. They were [chasing] him. They saw."

"Huhn," he studied me again, and this time touched the skin around my shoulder wound. A cold, smooth claw traced a hard line across sensitive flesh, making me flinch violently. "Huhn," he growled again, then the claw jabbed hard. I yelped and jumped wildly as I tried to pull away from the pain. Chihirae shouted something and moved forward and hesitated; uncertain as to just what she could do. The Mediator looked up at her, then down at my arm where a trickle of blood was starting to well up. "Your [hide] is thin."

"Why did you do that?" Chihirae growled.

"It would be difficult for him to kill anyone. As you said, he has no claws and [anyone] could [something] his [something] with their own hands." He leaned back and studied me again. "You said there were other things."

Chihirae stood for a few seconds, her head bobbing slightly, then she crossed the room to her desk and held up the laptop. "A lot. This says the most."

"That?" I could tell when someone was looking dubious, but he went to stand beside her. I guess any doubts he might have been having flew south when Chihirae switched the laptop on.

Graphics are. . . were my business: both static and animated. I had a dozen or so 28 gigabyte flashcards filled with everything from clip art to films to music. The old-style CD-ROMs could pack about 640megs; with oldstyle-MPEG motion picture compresion that's about 70 minutes of low-quality animation. 28 gigs and improved compression gives you 56 times as much storage: that's enough room for the entire Star Wars, Godfather, and Jurasic trilogies at broadcast quality on one disk, and DATACRUNCH COMPRESS™ gives you even more megs for your money. The few films I had with me were a varied assortment: a few of the newer releases such as New York Nights, Silken, Aliens Vs. Predator, FireSide and Starship Trooper along with some older pieces: Citizen Kane, The Piano, Hot Shots, Window to a Soul, Dances With Wolves, The Lion King, Wild at Heart, The Hitcher, The Monty Python Series, Basic Instinct, Platoon, and Schindler's List among them. Also a bundle of shorter clips I'd used for references scenes, and with the megapixel HDCCD mounted above the screen I could record clips of my own. There were several games (copied, I'll admit to that. After all, who's going to come after me here?). More serious packages: Encyclopaedia Brittanicca (2003 edition) , Thesarus, References, Classics, Adobe Photoshop and Animator revisions, Director Extreme, Autodesk Applications for 3D and CyberScape, presentation software and Authorware Pro. I'd never counted how many books there were in the Libarary disk, but the blurb claimed there were over five thousand, including necessities such as the Guttenberg Bible, Book of Kells, Pauper's Bible, The Nuremberg Chronicle, The Strife of Love in a Dream by Aldus Manutius, Archtypical Illustrations, . . . well, as an illustrator I find them indespensible. The disk of clipart had all kinds of shit, from scanned images to Keylight stock disks: over ten thousand images. I wasn't sure exactly what I had in there, a potpouri more than two years in the making. A couple of decades ago a laptop was something the NeoYuppies carried - primitive things, each pretty helpless on their own. But they've had their time to grow up. My little Compaq is everything I'd ever need in an office away from home: A studio, an office, bookshelf, library, fax and ISDN node, camera, stereo and video in a package I could easily carry in a utility pocket in my pack. Now a couple of over-evolved cats who'd probably never seen a lightbulb in their lives were playing with it.

She showed him some of the things I'd shown her: a few animations, pictures that probably made absolutely no sense to either of them. The Mediator began to ask her questions I couldn't understand, so while they poked through my files I watched and worried my own thoughts: Did he believe me? How could I make him? Shit, I couldn't speak the language well enough to defend myself if one of them accused me of all the murders of the past ten years.

Again I had to wonder: Why am I here?

It hadn't been a life great epics are made from: a few years of college then a life of fast foods and deadlines and sleepless nights. There were friends and family and loans and an overdraft to pay off. Nothing spectacular, but looking back, it seems all the more important. At the time I'd been living it, I'd never dreamed that life might have been taken away from me. If I'd known, perhaps I'd have appreciated it a little more. What were they thinking back home? Were they searching? What good would it do.

"Mikah?"

I blinked out of my reverie at the mention of my name. The two Rris were watching me dubiously; the Mediator in Chihirae's rickety chair at the desk, she watching over his shoulder. Chihirae asked, " You all right?"

"I fine," I answered hollowly. She twitched an ear: perhaps she could tell when there was something not quite right.

The Mediator didn't catch it. He leaned back and studied me for a second. "Tell me what happened," he said.

"I've already told you," Chihirae interjected. "What he told me, I told you."

"I [something] for myself," he said. "Leave us alone. Wait [something]."

"But he. . ."

"Go."

Chihirae stared at him, then ducked her head and left. At the door she hesitated, looked to me and said, "Tell truth." Then the door was closing behind her. The Mediator glanced after her, then settled himself and steepled his clawed fingers in front of his chest, watching me. "Tell me," he said, "everything. Where are you from. Why are you here. Tell me."

I stared back, trying to weigh him up, trying to find some way to read those inscrutable features. It was like looking at a stone mask; waiting expectantly. I swallowed, then began telling my story. Awkwardly, haltingly, I tried to tell him and he just sat and listened. When I wound up he just sat there for a while longer, watching me with those ice-green eyes, then he shifted and grunted. "Huhn. You [something] a good story."

"I do not understand."

His tail twitched around and he took it in his hands, idly grooming the fur at the tip. "This is all true?"

"True. Yes."

"I [something] do not understand. How can you come here and not know how?"

Again I had to shrug. "I do not know."

He gave me a dubious look, then turned back to the laptop. "Is there more to this?"

Not really much point in lying. "Yes."

He hesitated before touching the machine, before picking it up. He turned it over a few times, squinting at the text on the base plates, then brought it over and set it down on the floor, squatting on the other side. "Show me."

I reached out and touched a key, then looked at him. He just stared back expectantly. All right. I shifted uncomfortably to a half-sitting position and put the computer on my lap, adjusting the screen. He watched as I ran a slideshow. Often he stopped me to ask questions about things on the screen. I answered as best I could, but I didn't have the vocabulary to describe things he had no conception of. He couldn't understand a 767 or the space station. He stared for a while at the pictures of women with an expression I couldn't decipher. Other things I think frightened him: his ears went down when he saw some of the city clips, the shots of New York from over central park. I couldn't answer when he asked how many people there were there.

"Many," was all I could offer.

He stared at a picture of North America as seen from five hundred kilometres above the earth's surface and a clawed fingertip reached out to trace the coastline through the clouds. I licked my lips, swallowed on a throat made dry and sore by an hour of trying to wrap vocal chords around noises they were never designed for. Exhausted. Those green eyes shifted to me. "Truth?" he asked again.

"Truth," I replied.

His ears laid flat and he scratched at the fur of his chest while he studied me. Then he ducked his head and reached out to take the laptop back. I surrendered it without a fuss and he stood to set it back on the desk, then looked down at me, "Enough for tonight."

I nodded tiredly and just lay back as he gave me a final glance before leaving the room. I heard Rris voices, muffled by the walls and door. For a while I listened, unable to understand a word and I don't remember exactly when I sank under.

Section 29

The dreams were bad that night.

There were nightmares of the kind that seem so absurd in retrospect, but in sleep they seem to tickle some of the deepest emotions. I don't remember exactly what they were that night, just that there were things chasing me, waiting for me, hunting me. I ran through trees of sand where hands clutched at me and caught me and woke gasping like a drowning swimmer, drenched in clammy sweat. I lay in the darkness, still on that cushion, panting at the ceiling and a voice sounded in my ear: "Mikah?"

"Uhn? Who. . . ?" Shadows shifted beside me, an indistinct blur in the darkness. "Chihirae?" I croaked as I tried to see something.

"Yes." There was a pause. "What is wrong?"

"Oh. . .uhn. . . Nothing."

"You were shouting, [something]. I thought you were going to hurt yourself. What is it?"

I lay back. "Just bad. . . what is word for. . . thinking at night? Pictures in head? You have?"

"[Dreams]," she volunteered.

"You have dreams?" another voice asked. The Mediator? Still here? Didn't he have a home to go to? "Yes," I said.

"Not very [pleasant] ones," Chihirae added. "He does not sleep very well. Many nights like this."

There was a pause, then the Mediator asked, "What do you dream of?"

I searched for an answer, trying to find words. Finally I just settled for: "You."

Wind whined outside; then one of them - it had to be Chihirae - touched my arm again. "We get you back to bed? Yes?"

Half the night on that cushion in front of the stove and I was so stiff I fancied I could hear my bones creak as strong, furry arms helped me up and across to my makeshift bed in the corner. With the warmth of the sleeping bag around me I lay back in the darkness, feeling them watching me. There was a brief exchange of muted Rris, then the sound of the door opening and closing.

"Chihirae?"

"Yes?"

"What do you. . . dream of?"

There was a hesitation, then she murmured, "I don't think they are the same as yours."

Section 30

The Mediator was still there next morning.

Sunlight from outside made the ice frosting the window panes glow. Something sizzled and popped on the stove and Chihirae was breaking eggs into a pair of wooden bowls. "Good sleeping," she greeted me and flashed me a grin: inch-long incisors, multitudes of needleteeth.

I flinched. What'd I do? What'd I do? "You are angry?" I asked in a small voice.

She put the bowl down and cocked her head at me. "I was trying to smile; as you do."

"Oh."

"It was not the same?"

"Not quite."

She chuckled and I sat up on my pallet, working the stiffness out of my shoulder while she watched me. "How are you feeling?"

"It is getting better." I raised my arm and moved it in a slow circle, gritting my teeth all the while. "I can do this without screaming."

"Ah," she ducked her head and idly popped an eggshell into her mouth, crunching and swallowing loudly, then she quietly asked, "No more dreams?"

I shook my head, "No. No more."

She made a small noise and turned her attentions back to the food. I hung my head and ran my hands through my hair, my beard - both growing out past what I was comfortable with. Cold morning air, despite the stove; I hitched the sleeping bag up and watched her, feeling guilty as I did every morning about not being able to do anything. Dammit, just lying there every day; it wasn't just boring, it left me feeling useless, like a spare wheel. My wounds must have had long enough to heal up by now.

Chihirae watched me cautiously when I awkwardly clambered to my feet, still uneasy on my legs. The new skin over my scars felt too-tight: stretched tissue-paper that might tear. I oh- so slowly made my way across to my pack, using pieces of furniture as hand holds along the way.

"What are you doing?" she asked as I began rumaging around in my pack.

"I am. . . not wanting to lie all time," I said, trying to find some clothing, then upending the pack and sorting through the pile. The shirts I'd been wearing when she shot me were a write off: they'd had to be cut away. There were still dark stains on one of my two pairs of bluejeans - no washing powder with hungry enzymes here - but they were wearable.

"Mikah!" Chihirae realised what I was doing and dropped what she was doing. I held out a hand to ward her off. "I want to."

"Last time you [something] you hurt yourself more. Lie down."

"I do not want to."

"Mikah. . ."

"Please," I forestalled her, "I must walk. I feel. . . no good. I lie there long I go out of my head. Please."

She looked at me, then at the clothes. "You need those?"

"I feel no good without clothes."

"What?"

Maybe for them it wasn't a problem. For me. . . "I feel like. . . cold. Like open. Like no hiding."

Her muzzle wrinkled up. "You need clothes." Then she looked me up and down, "I [something] I understand. No fur. Cold."

"Yes. Cold."

She snorted then, a sound that mixed an ounce of disbelief with resignation. "All right. I help you?"

I almost fell over trying to get my legs into my underwear. I nodded and gave a small smile: "Please."

She really had almost no idea of what went where. The Rris have clothing, they use it in extreme conditions as well as social occasions, but they just don't have the number of articles of different kinds of clothing you might find a human wearing. I really couldn't tell if she was amused or bemused by the amount of stuff I had: she looked at my underwear and she gave a hissing laugh.

"What?" I asked.

"Uncomfortable," her muzzle pursed and her ears flickered in what I'd come to recognise as a smile and she helped steady me as I pulled them on. "Would rub," she said, plucking at the Calvin Klein's fabric over my crotch. I slapped her hand away and she voiced a sound I interpreted as a chuckle. The socks were thermolactyl, something that Chihirae admired and she asked me what animal the stuff came from. Halfway into my trousers, teetering with one arm around her shoulders while she chittered and hissed and I swayed, trying not to laugh as well and the door banged against the wall and a pile of firewood walked across the room to land with a crash beside the stove. The Mediator dusted his hands and looked around, his ears flattening at the sight of us: me with trousers half on, bent over, Chihirae helping me stay upright, then his muzzle twitched and he hissed something at Chihirae. She twitched her own ears and growled something back. He just grinned, then plonked himself down at the table and helped himself to a bowl, sitting slurping back raw egg while watching Chihirae helping me finish dressing: blue jeans, proper shirt. She stepped back and looked up at me, cocking her head, "You look different."

"Why so many clothes?" The Mediator asked.

"No fur," Chihirae provided.

"Looks like a [something]," he growled and ambled over to the stove where he picked something out of the frying pan, waved it in the air to cool, then popped it into his mouth, chewing and swallowing loudly. "You know, in clothes it almost looks [something]."

Chihirae gave him a look and a flash of teeth. He gave a small hiss and pointed at the pan, "The meat is burnt."

"Huhn. For Mikah. He needs his meat that way."

He fished out another piece of raw meat and chewed slowly at it, watching me all the while. Uncomfortable, I looked away and patted Chihirae's furry shoulder, "Thanking you."

"You are all right?" she asked as she moved back, leaving me standing.

"Yes," I nodded, managing to stay upright. Already those morning urges were making themselves felt. "I go to the toilet," I told her and turned to make my way to the door, stumbling but catching myself before Chihirae could get there, "All right," I protested, holding out a hand to ward her off, "All right." She looked concerned but kept her distance while I carefully navigated my way out of the room, keeping a hand near the wall just in case. Muted Rris voices sounded from behind, my name being bandied about.

Section 31

Chihirae left us shortly to go to her classes. I heard the front door bump shut and I was alone with the Mediator. He sat at the desk, fiddling with the laptop, slowly poking through a slideshow, studying each image as if it held the secrets to life. I sat back on Chihirae's bed, watching his furry back as he tapped hesitantly at keys. Beyond him, the window framed a snowscape: a treeline with white-washed evergreens and cobalt-blue sky overhead, achingly blue. After those weeks cooped up in that tiny house, the small room seemed very stuffy. The Mediator looked around as I stood, then stared openly as I limped across to the door, to the hall then the front door.

It'd been cold in the house, but when I opened that door the chill was like a bucket of cold water in my face. Morning sun glaring off snow drifted up to a metre against the walls in places. Odd footprints littered the snow just outside, tracks leading north to the road that continued on to the village. I could see a few straggling cubs bound for the barn, their voices carrying on the chill air along with a few snowballs. Wisps of smoke hung above the village: indistinct gauze columns reaching for a powder-blue sky where clouds built up from the horizon like hills of cotton.

I leaned against the doorjamb, staring at the snowscape. All I felt was a hollow sensation, resignation. I stretched out a foot and touched a toe into the ice around the door. It was cold, the air crisp and dry and left a smell like tin in my sinuses. It was happening, it was something I was living, it was real.

"You are going somewhere?"

A dark shifting in the shadows of the hall behind me became the Mediator, standing pincushioned by the splinters of light sifting past me. I shook my head and looked back at the world; "Where?"

Muted rustling of fur on fur and when I looked around again he was closer, looking up as he studied my face intently. I swallowed and shifted back a fraction; his nostrils pulsed. A clawed hand reached up toward my shoulder and I flinched violently, knocking back against the wall behind me. He hesitated, withdrew his hand. "Why are you always afraid?"

"I am not," I blurted.

He cocked his head to one side, his expression completely inscrutable; then turned and looked out the door at his world outside. "Your [something] changes. You do not sleep well. You are always [something], nervous. Do you have a reason?"

I jerked my head back, the muscles in my neck twitching, "I am looking at it."

"I? You are afraid of me for a reason?"

"You are here to say I killed? Some of they," I waved a hand at the village, "say I killed. Not like me. You not like me say same. Say I just animal." I choked on the Rris language and switched to bitter English, "Kill the freak, problems solved."

He exhaled, moisture condensing in the crisp air. "I hunt answers. Questions are the [trail? road?] one has to follow. I have never seen anything such as you, but that won't [something] a fair [judgement]."

And I believed him? Oh, sure. Of course he'd say that. I believed it about as much as I belived we had true racial equality in the States. If one species with slightly different amounts of skin pigmentation couldn't live together, how could two species as different as two poles of a magnet cope? There was no way I believed he could be completely impartial.

He gave me a sideways glance. "You don't trust me, do you."

That got me. Confused, I stared back at him. No, I wasn't sure I did trust him, but how could he tell? I couldn't read anything in his body language, but then again even Chihirae was opaque enough. The way he'd said that: I couldn't tell if he was annoyed, pleased, or simply indifferent about the fact. I just licked my lips and confessed, "I do not know."

"But you trust the teacher?"

I tensely nodded. "Yes."

"Why? She was the one who hurt you."

"Yes, but she is. . . I do not know how to say it. . . good? She helped me. She stands beside me. She trusts me that I did not kill." I hesitated before adding, "She is a friend."

He looked at me again, weighing me. "You don't have many of those, do you. Any [something] you can [something]?"

"I do not understand," I protested, confused and nervous.

"No," he kept staring, "you don't. [forget it]."

That confused me even more; phrases that made little or no sense to me. I looked back out at the snowbound village in the distance, the rising sun throwing a glare from ice and snow and I tried to sort through his words. Was he trying to make a joke or make fun of me? I wasn't really qualified to tell. I just sighed and asked, "What you do with me?"

He cocked his head at that. "That is what I am trying to decide. Even if you are [innocent], you will still be a problem. There would be a lot of people [interested] in [something] you."

I could imagine. I just looked at him then turned and limped my way back to the fire and the warmth. He'd left the compaq turned on; it'd gone into shutdown mode, conserving power. I'd have to remeber to charge it up again sometime. On the table beside the laptop lay the Mediator's pistol. I picked it up without thinking, feeling its heft and turning it over as I examined it. A flintlock with a time-and-use worn wooden grip that didn't fit my hand properly, a dark barrel decorated with a few simple inscriptions that could have been lettering or just the craftsman's fancy. The lock mechanism was mounted on a rotating wheel carved like a flower, while the trigger was moulded in a shape I realised after a few seconds was a claw. I carefully put the thing down again.

"You know what that is?" The Mediator was behind me, standing casually but close enough to move fast if he had to. I nodded: "Yes."

"You have [guns]?" His ears twitched. "Like that?"

"Yes." I sat down at the desk, taking the weight off my feet. I was already tired. "Similar." I looked at the pistol again and asked, "You can. . .hit things with?"

"Not as [something] as a crossbow, but smaller. Easier to carry." He picked the pistol up, moving it out of my reach. "Your guns are different? How?"

I shrugged. "Ah. . . different."

He perched himself on the edge of the desk and I noticed his tail snaking across the desktop. It didn't look very comfortable. What would it be like having an extra appendage like that. What the hell did they use it for? Balance?

"Different, a?" he rumbled.

I looked up, realising he'd caught me staring and I didn't know if he meant the guns we'd been talking about or his tail. He flashed teeth then flicked his furry tail around, catching the tip in his fingers and pointedly, slowly grooming it. I swallowed and he ducked his head, chittered briefly, and raised his eyes to mine again. "Some of your devices are more [complex] than anything else I have seen before. Are your weapons the same?"

"Yes."

"And your kind fight each other?"

"Sometimes," I admitted, then reached to tap at a random key on the compaq and gave a wry smile. "A lot of the time."

He turned his pistol over in his furry hands, just stroking the lines, then laid it aside on the dark varnish of the desktop, silver highlights glinting in light: heavy metal and worn wood, something of death sculpted into something of art. A far cry from the functional killers of human manufacture. "What do you think of us?"

I blinked. "I do not understand."

"What do you think of us? Of Rris?" The Mediator's bottle-green stare studied me. "After what's happened to you, what do you think of when you see us?"

That was a question that vaguely disturbed me. "Why are you asking me this?"

A clawed hand moved in an obscure gesture. "I do not know what you are, how you [something]. I have to learn before I can [something]. Do you understand?"

He was trying to get a handle on the way I thought? "I think so."

"Good." He cocked his head, expectantly? "What do you think of us?"

"I do not think I know. I only know Chihirae and yourself. Not many talk to me." I paused, then smiled, "Your cubs are fun. They are. . . "I didn't know their word for it, so I filled the gap with an English, "cute."

"You talked with cubs? I am surprised they didn't run from you."

That hurt a bit. I nodded, "They were. . .curious. They hear a lot, they wanted to see what I look like."

"You did not frighten them?"

Frighten them? I gave him a numb look, did he think I went out of my way to scare them? "Do you think I want to frighten? I do not want it! I cannot stop it. Every Rris who see me think same. . ."

"Always will," he said softly.

Those words hammered an icicle through my soul. I shuddered; yeah, they would. The rest of my life I would be getting those looks: shock, disgust, intrigue, curiosity and outright fear. I've never got used to it, not completely. At that time, when the Mediator spoke those words, it wasn't something I'd thought about - not something I'd even wanted to think about. The rest of my life. . . Forever's a long time.

I shuddered and looked down at my hands, then at the keyboard of the Compaq. A whole world, a life I knew and understand, one that fitted me like an old pair of slippers. . . behind me, gone.

"Mikah?" Green eyes studied me.

"It is. . .it is not a good thought," I choked on their language, bringing a momentary flicker from his ears. No, it wasn't a pleasant thought, even less so when there was a possibility I could be spending my time as a murder suspect. The Mediator was just watching me with that look I was beginning to find intensely annoying. I swallowed and asked, "What do you do if you think I do it?"

He scratched at the side of his muzzle. "They will want you dead. It is usual, but you are not."

"You not kill me?"

"Something else. I don't know," his tail twitched and he shifted, then stood up and crossed to the window where midmorning sun was pouring in. Muscles flexed under the dark fur across his back, none in quite the right place. "Later, I have to go out. I will leave you here. You stay here." He turned and grinned at me, one of those grins that's the last thing a lion's lunch sees, "It would make [something] much easier for everyone. I do not want to have to hunt you."

And I knew when he said that he meant it; literally. "It's not like I've got much of a choice," I muttered in English.

"What was that noise?"

"I stay."

"Better for everyone."

Section 32

Either Chiherae or the Mediator was back. I heard the front door and looked up from the papers spread out on the desk, my cramped handwriting covering just about every square inch. The laptop screen shone steadily, the word processor dotted with lines of notes and cross-references, phoenetic representations of their language, and the Rris character sets I'd created and loaded in, copied from some of Chihirae's texts. It was Chihirae who came in along with a blast of icy air, pausing and leaning against the doorframe while she shook the remaining clumps of ice and snow that clung to her ankles and feet like it would to a pair of mukluks. "I am really starting to hate winter," she growled.

"You said fur is good for warm," I pointed out with a smile. She hissed at me, then corrected, "Good for warmth. . . for warmth, understand?"

"Yes. For warmth. Understand," I nodded and then spied the other faces in the hall behind her, peering around her hip. Chihirae noticed where my attention had suddenly drifted. "Ah. . .I think you have met these."

"Feher?" I ventured the name of one of the cubs in the front.

"You remember?" He moved forward and Chihirae put hands on his shoulders, stopping him. He twisted to grin up at her, "I told you he would."

"It is not easy to forget you," she grinned back. "All right. Be quiet, he is still not [something] to your [something]. Try not to tear him apart."

He just ignored her, staring at me again, "Why are you wearing so many clothes?"

"Why aren't you?" I retorted. "Aren't you cold?"

"Not cold today," he snorted. Chihirae made a small gesture that could have been Gimme a break. "You can talk better," another cub observed, one of the others who been in my room that day, and the rest of the bevy of cubs started adding their questions.

"Why don't you grow fur."

"Why do you sound so strange?

More qustions as the cubs gained confidence, a bunch of waist-high furry figures in patched snow-dusted clothing gathering around while Chihirae hovered proprietarily in the background. Why was she doing this? Trying to prove something to someone? Maybe it was a field trip, go and see the local freak. Would she do that to me? I blinked and looked down at the cub who was tugging on my jeans, digging her claws into the fabric, "Hey! Careful."

"Are you reading these?" another cub was reaching for the books, Chihirae's books. I hurridly grabbed it before he got his claws on it. Another. . . oh shit!

"What's this?" Feher was tapping buttons on the laptop. "Hot! Look! It moves." I got to the keyboard and saved the document before he did something like cut the power. "What is that?" he demanded.

"A computer."

Muzzles crested and cubs exchanged confused glances. "What is cm't'ther?" a voice piped up.

"This. A tool."

Small hands fumbled at the keyboard and claws clicked against keypads, printing gibberish across the screen. "Does it write?" a cub asked and pointed at some Rris text I'd done earlier, "Those are words."

"How does it do that?"

I showed them. They sat and watched, quietly, entranced while I typed a few things on the word processor. "Where did it come from?" a cub asked.

"Where I come from."

"Where?" a multitude of voices demanded.

"Ahhh," I cast an uncertain appeal toward my non-human mentor and benefactor who'd just finished stoking the fire. She leaned back against the wall, crossed her arms, and looked amused. I was on my own for this one. "All right," I sighed, "I show you. . ."

Section 33

"You did a good job," Chihirae complimented me as I helped her clear away the soiled dishes from that evening's meal. "The cubs seem to like you."

"I am a likable person," I smiled. It didn't translate well: their word for 'person' is Rris, which I aint. Chihirae gave me dubious glance but elected not to push it any further. "They are fun," I said.

"They can be a thorn in the feet," she snorted. "But I don't think think there is anything else I would rather do." She took the bowl I passed her and shook most of the water off. Easier to let me do the washing otherwise she spent the rest of the evening drying her sodden fur. "They enjoyed your machine."

"Most cubs do."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Cubs of my kind, they enjoy using them, especially the games."

"A," she considered that, then said, "You did not show me those games before."

I shrugged and rinsed another bowl out in the hot water. Couldn't just turn on a tap here: melted snow. "They are just games."

She scraped at a leftover bit of gunk on the bowl with a clawtip. "That one that copied a flying machine. Do things like you really have those?"

"Yes."

"I've known people who've chased the tail of flight all their lives. They dream it. I wonder how they'd feel if someone told them what they were [something] for had been done before, was a thing for games." She wiped her hands against her hips and glanced at the laptop. "Those games. . . there is a lot of fighting in them."

True. Starstrike, AT-57 flight simulator, Trinity Unveiled, Hammerhead, Unreal 2, SPAWN. I hadn't shown them Wing Commader IX: the Kilrathi bore a striking resemblance to the Rris and the fate of some of them might not be taken in the spirit of the game. But the violence; who was it who said, "There cannot be drama without conflict'? I don't know. Somethimes I did think there was a bit to much violence in computer games; games like beat-em- ups didn't appeal to me at all, but then humans - however we like to contradict it - are an inherently qurallsome and violent species. I like to look on games as a variation on stress-management toys. A sort of digital punching-bag. Personally I find it eminently satisfying to shoot down a few NKAF MIGS or Imperial TIE fighters, nail a screaming Reaper with a KKD cannon, and the Kilrathi do go up in a juicy ball of flame. I shrugged slightly. "Lot of humans say same," I said. "Most say better there than real."

Chihirae cocked her head and gave me one of those looks I was becoming so familiar with: "True. Many of your kind have. . . things like that?" she waved hand at the laptop.

"Yes. Common, " I told her as I scrubbed one of her wok- like cooking bowls in the greasy water. No washing-up liquid here. When I offered the bowl to her to dry off she was staring at me, her eyes widened and ears tipped back. I could see her tail lashing. "What?" I asked nervously.

Her throat bobbled as she swallowed and twitched ears back. "I just. . . nothing." She took the bowl and shook water onto the floor. After a minute or so of silence she said, "Your kind. . . you think that tool is common. There are a lot of them? They are [something]?"

"Rler ? I do not know that word."

"I have told you about money? Yes? You understand that? It means thing does not cost much monies. Understand?"

Inexpensive. Cheap. "Yes. I understand. Yes they do not cost much monies." She glanced at the laptop again, looking so out of place on that rough old desk of hers. "I do not think we could build something like that. Not in hundreds of years I think. To be able make them cheap, so just common people can use them. . ." She looked at me and I couldn't read that expression on her face. "Mikah, you be very [something]. You are running into darkness."

"I do not understand."

"Sorry; a [metaphor]. I am always forgetting you do not grasp completely." She glanced down at the bowl, turning it in her hands with their stubby, furry fingers; then she sighed and set the bowl aside on its shelf. "Mikah, you are going to scare some people. Huhnn, you already have. They will feel [something] by you, also by the [something] that there are. . . others in the world who make us like cubs. Do you understand?"

"I. . . I am only one. I do not. . ."

"Mikah, it does not matter. There will always be those who fear what you know, what you are: something that is not Rris."

"You mean it shows?"

"Mikah," she looked pained.

"Sorry."

"What you know will [something] many. The [something] will not want to change. Some of the things you have told me, some of the things you have show me, there are many who will do anything to get them, others will not welcome change. The [something] of the [something] will look on you as prey or a [something] to [something]."

"Please, Chihirae, I do not understand. Too fast."

She ducked her head. "I am sorry. Mikah, just. . . be careful. Think. Do not frighten people."

"Like here," I said.

She blinked at me. "Here?"

"I frighten you, you try kill me."

"Ah," she flinched at that, then studied me for a few second - looking nervous? I felt a twinge shoot through my shoulder and she gave a slight grin, a tic of her muzzle, before she turned to retreat to her desk, sinking into the chair and watching me over steepled fingertips. I sighed and touched the dishwater: cold. She'd have to throw the tub out, I still couldn't lift anything.

"Like them," I said after a while, nodding my head in the direction of the town beyond the cabin's walls. "They do not really think I did it, do they? I am from outside, so I am. . . I am easy one to say did it. They do not believe it, they just want to believe it."

She stared at me, as if she couldn't believe I'd said that. "You keep surprising me. Did Shyia say that?"

"Who?"

Chihirae blinked, "Shyia, the Mediator," she said as if I'd missed something incredibly obvious. I couldn't help it if some of their names just sounded like static to me. I just said, "Oh," then shook my head. "No. He didn't."

"Ah. I suppose you might be right," she said, then scratched at an ear and gave me a sidelong glance. "It does show," she smiled.

I looked down at myself. "Do I really frighten people that much?"

"I nearly pissed myself when I first saw you."

"Thanks. I needed to know that."

So the first thing the Mediator heard when he walked in was Chihirae's laughter. He stopped in the doorway behind her, his heavy coat slung over his arm. Chihirae saw me looking over her shoulder and quickly turned, just as quickly sobered. "I missed something?" Shyia asked.

"Ah," Chihirae sat back and raked claws through the thick white tufts of her sideboards. "Just Mikah showing he had [something]."

"Him?" The Mediator gave me another once-over then wrinkled his muzzle - what did that mean? - and went to hang up his coat. Still snowing out there, judging by the melting ice dripping from the travel-worn leather. "I met with the [something]."

"Ah," Chihirae glanced at me, just briefly.

"They want [something] tomorrow night. They want him," he gestured at me, "to be there, so they can [something] when I [something]. . ."

"Hold it," I interrupted. "Please, I do not understand? What is happening?"

They both looked at me, then the Mediator said, "The [something] is tomorrow."

"I do not know that word: Fichi'thi," I protested, starting to feel scared.

"Mikah," Chihirae got up, crossed the room and knelt in front of me, lowering herself to my eye level. "Listen: tomorrow they want to see you, to [something] you, to choose if you killed or not. To decide what to do with you."

Section 34

It was a long, long day after a restless night of bad dreams. I had plenty of time to sit and worry.

They hadn't told me anything. Not a fucking thing! I didn't know what was going to happen, what to prepare for. Did I get a lawyer? Shit, I didn't even understand everything that was happening. Looking back on this account I think that it might not convey just how confusing some of my conversations with the Rris were. For brevity's sake I've had to lop out the endless questions and explanations, the times she spent hours trying to hammer just one concept home. I've done the best I can to chronicle what happened and record as best I could my encounters with the various Rris I've met over the years, but there's just so much I've written only what I feel is relevant. It was damned difficult to talk to any of them, let alone understand everything that was going on.

Chihirae couldn't tell me what was going to happen to me and the Mediator refused to say what he thought the verdict was going to be. He'd been asking questions around the village, so Chihirae told me, learning more about what happened. I hadn't been much of a help: there was so little I could say, even less I could actually tell him. What I did manage to convey I'm not sure he believed.

So I was stuck in that tiny room, still in no condition to make it any distance on foot. Besides, my boots had disappeared. I just huddled on Chihirae's bunk, moodily watching the patches of sunlight streaming in through the window crawling across the floor as the hours wore on. I could only feel fear for so long, after that I settled into a sort of apathy, from there into sleep.

Chihirae woke me when she came in. Dark outside and the fire had gone out, leaving the room chill. She didn't speak, just looked at me while brushing snow off, then ducked her head and went to stoke the fire. Still groggy I sat on the edge of the bed, pinching sleep from my eyes, watching her. After a while she asked, "Are you all right?"

I nodded.

"Worried."

"That obvious?" I muttered.

Chihirae fidgeted, rubbing a hand across the pelt of her chest, then came closer and sat at the far end of the bunk. A few seconds and she scooted closer, close enough to reach over and touched me on my arm, my skin. I flinched and she withdrew. "Please, try and calm down."

"Chi. . ." I choked on her name and tried again, "Chihirae, what happens. Tonight, what happens?"

She looked uncomfortable, perhaps trying to decide whether or not to tell me. Why? That I didn't understand. Didn't I have a right to know? Finally she said, "It is a meeting of those [something]. Everyone this hurts, understand?"

Everyone involved, she meant. "I think so."

"They meet. The [something] of Sherrith; the town mayor; Shyia; the ones who are. . . saying you killed Sherrith. They will decide."

"Do I get to speak?"

"Of course."

"Will they listen?"

And for that she didn't have an answer. Again she touched me, reaching up to stroke my jaw and the beginning of a beard there. Recently I hadn't bothered much with shaving, largely due to Chihirae promting me to leave the 'fur on'. "Perhaps if you had more fur you would be easier to look at."

I gave her a tired look.

"It was a joke," she explained, then touched my hair again. "I think. . .you could use a bath, perhaps grooming."

"Now?"

"You must make a good [impression]. It could be your life."

I ran a hand through my hair. Yeah, I guess I was getting somewhat ripe. "All right."

The water took a while to heat up on the stove, then Chihirae poured it into a copper basin. I had to strip off and stand shivering in my birthday suit in calf-high water while Chihirae helped me wash. Nakedness wasn't such a problem, after all she'd been nursemaiding me for several weeks already. No running water or container big enough for a real bath so it was another sponge bath. She ran the cloth over my back, gentle around the exit wound on my shoulder. Fuck, my arm was still stiff and it always would be, especially on those cold mornings. Having a stick shoved through solid muscle doesn't do anything for flexibility, and it was going to get worse. The discoloration from the massive bleeding was fading slowly, but my shoulder was still tinged bruise-colored. Chihirae carefully worked over my back, around my neck, where I couldn't reach, then helped me with my hair. I dunked my head and used some shampoo from my kit, getting it cleaner than it'd been for some time. Chihirae didn't let me use any of my soap, said it smelt. . . foul. The hot water cooled too fast, leaving me with goosebumps. Chihirae rubbed her fingers across my pebbled skin; "Why are you doing that?"

"I can't help it," I shrugged, feeling her leathery finger pads scraping weirdly against the skin of my arm where the hairs were standing upright. "Cold."

"Ah. Feels [something]. How can you do anything with this thin skin?" She laughed then and patted my arm. "Not long."

It wasn't too bad, the cold. Character building. With the stove door open the fire kept half of me warm enough, it was the other half that started to get uncomfortable. She was thorough, perhaps too thorough: I gasped when she washed between my legs. "Stay still," she hissed and I winced when she lightly swiped sensitive skin with claws only partially retracted. A relief when I was able to get back into warm clothes. Chihirae looked through the meagre collection I owned and told me, "You need proper clothes." Still, she sorted out a selection: blue-jeans, a clean black T-shirt and swan-dri checked shirt over it. "Better," Chihirae pronounced me after a cautious sniff, "Now your fur."

"What?"

"You look like a badly-kept [something]," she said as she went to rummage through one of her cupboards, returning with a small rolled leather pouch. Unrolled, the parcel revealed gleaming ivory-handled combs and brushes and a pair of tiny silver scissors nestled in loops. Beautiful craftsmanship, miniscule engraving and scrimshaw. "Lie. There," she pointed at the hearth.

Uncertainly I did as she told me. Putting my sleeping pad down, laying on that, feeling vulernable with my neck bared, watching the cobwebs up in the vault of the ceiling. Needed dusting up there. Chihirae lifted my head to place one of my towels beneath it then knelt, knees straddling my head so the fur of her thighs ticked my ears and I looked up at her inhuman face, the glint of metal in her hands and my muscles tensed, my heart started pounding.

A hand gently touched my throat, my pulse, "Calm." Then she stroked my beard, fluffing it out, also touching the skin beneath, exploring the bone structure: my cheekbones, jaw. The scissors looked peculiar in her furry fingers: dainty, delicate. I almost laughed, gradually relaxing as she started working, snipping at errant strands of hair. She had her head cocked to one side, intently watching her work, my face. Occasionaly she'd shift, examining me from another angle. Eventually, my beard was trimmed back to her satisfaction. She had me sit up, fur against my back; the scissors were laid aside, a comb taken into hand.

It hurt at first as she used the comb and - I realised with some disquiet - her claws to rake tangles out of my damp hair. A good hurt, yanking my head back as she struggled with the knots in locks that were begining to reach my shoulders. It took a while before she could draw a comb smoothly through it.

"Do all your kind have fur like this?" she asked.

"Usually cleaner." I winced as the comb found a recalcitrant knot.

"This color," she amended and I felt her fingers run through the blonde hair of my nape. "It looks better clean. [something]. Nice. Like light."

I didn't know what to say. The first pleasant thing any of them had ever said of me. "Thank you," It was scincere. There was the sound of a Rris chuckle and I relaxed under the feel of the comb running through my hair, the warmth from the fire. Drowsy after a while, like I was slightly buzzed. A primate's hardwired reation to grooming: natural endorphines and a mild high. Pleasurable. Enough to let me forget about what was going to happen in a few hours. A hand laid on my shoulder and squeezed slightly, "You like this?" Chihirae murmured.

"Uhnn," I answered with an affirmative noise. I suppose she guessed it meant yes; anyway, she chuckled again and kept brushing. It was too soon when another Rris voice asked: "I am not interrupting something?"

The Mediator was standing at the door. His ears were back.

"Cleaning him up," Chihirae replied with a final stroke of the brush. "He looks better doesn't he?"

"Almost [something]," the Mediator said and I couldn't tell if he was agreeing or not. I got to my feet and gave Chihirae an awkward look: I'd never meant to get so engrossed. She returned the look, then smiled and began packing her kit away. The Mediator eyed us both uncertainly - what did he think we'd been up to? - then snorted and shrugged out of his coat. "Kenth said they are joining this evening, just after eveningmeal."

"Good," Chihirae smiled at him. "Calmer on full [stomachs]. Won't want to eat Mikah. That is a joke, Mikah."

"Thank you for saying," it could be diffiuclt to tell sometimes.

"Huhn," the Mediator snorted, gave a joint-popping stretch and sauntered across to the fire where he stood, hands held out to the warmth. Almost amusing. He looked around at Chihirae and added, "and we should get Mikah's things packed. Espescially that machine. They are going to want to see those."

Section 35

My first excursion outside.

Sunset was turning high streaks of wind-blown clouds into wisps of pink and russet gold, the horizon lost behind the hills cupping the valley. Snow squeaked under my boots - materialised from somewhere by the Mediator - as I hunched down into my jacket against the evening chill and followed the track as it wound through snow-bound farmland toward the town. The Rris flanked me: Chihirae wrapped in a tattered old coat of her own had a loose grip on my left arm, helping me whenever I stumbled. On my right the Mediator stalked along with his long coat flapping around his calves, wearing his breeches and quilted vest, my bulky tramping pack slung over his shoulders: incongruous for such a scene, might have been amusing if it weren't for glimpses of the knife and gun at his waist.

I shuddered. Chihirae glanced up at me and squeezed my arm; reassuring me? I faltered and she caught me, reaching up to pat my shoulder. "Mikah? Please, do not be so afraid."

'How do you know?" I asked, staring at the cluster of buildings ahead. There were Rris moving around on the street.

"You smell [something]," she said. "Calm down. They will smell it also, it will make things harder for you. You did nothing, there is nothing to be afraid of.

"They do not know I didn't do it," I nodded toward the town buildings, feeling my heart constricting in my chest. I balked, drawing the Rris up short, Chihirae looking worried and the Mediator wary. "Chihirae. . . it is so strange, all different. I do not know what has happened, I do not know what will happen. I do not understand all you say, what you do." Then I reached down and grasped her hand, feeling her flinch like she'd touched a live wire. Strange muscles flexed there, making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Her nostrils flared anew and I touched the hard curves of claws in her fingertips, "You have these, your teeth. . ." I trailed off, shaking slightly.

"You," comprehension dawned in her eyes, a shocked look. "You are afraid of us?"

I looked from her to the Mediator, neither of them taller than my shoulder, both of them staring back and thinking God- only-knows-what. When I released Chihirae's hand she drew away so slightly. I wiped my own clammy palms and started walking again. After a couple of seconds I heard snow crunching under their pads and this time the Mediator was beside me, watching me. He worked a thumb under a strap to hitch the pack up and said, "It explains a lot. Are you going to be all right?"

I nodded.

"That is yes?"

"Yes. I think so."

He sighed, his breath crystallising in the evening air. "Just, be calm tonight. Don't let them get your claws out."

Disquieting image. A hand touched my other arm, drawing my attention. Chihirae smiled at me, "You will be all right."

Rris gathered around as we entered the town. Not much to it: just a dirt street that snow and feet had turned to ice and mud in places, a dozen or so small buildings spaced along its length. Different types of buildings: clapboard sheathing on some; others timber frame, the exposed beams stained black or reddish. Only one building with two floors, the roofs covered with slate or thatch or wood-tile. There was glass in the windows of a couple of places, goods visible behind the panes. Shops? Groups of Rris gathered on the porches fronting the building, staring openly. Some cubs ran close, a couple of them cubs I knew; then adults shouted and the cubs stopped, reluctantly looking back at their parents who beckoned angrily. The chastened cubs retreated again and waved to me from a distance. I smiled at that, gave a small wave in return and they laughed and sat down on a stoop across the street to watch.

Our destination was about halfway along the short street: a single-floor, wood-clad building with a fanlight above double doors. Rris waiting on the verandah outside stood aside as we approached and I hesitated again. Chihirae touched my arm, gently urging me on.

"Mediator," one of the Rris, a female, called, "is it safe to have that thing walking around?"

"He won't hurt anyone," Shyia reassured the uneasy cats watching me. Chihirae tugged my arm again, up the steps. I had to duck my head getting through the door and inside it was dim, orangish light from a few lanterns and candles. I blinked, my eyes adjusting.

I didn't know what the building was usually used for. There were a few boxes and barrels stacked against a far wall, the rest of the wooden floorspace was cleared. Plain wooden chairs were arrranged in a semicircle, another in the center facing them: like a meeting of alcoholics anonymous. Rris were waiting, standing as I came in, their eyes glowing with oil-on-water shimmers from the slight evening light seeping in from behind me. A closed, dark room with Rris, a lot of them, more than I'd ever seen in one place before. I started shaking again and Chihirae's grip tightened perceptibly. "Sit," she told me. "There. Sit and wait."

That seat in the middle of course. I sat and the chair groaned alarmingly, but it held. Chihirae stayed by my side while a susuruss of Rris voices rose and ebbed around us and floorboards creaked as furry bodies shifted. A lamp was eclipsed and I turned to find myself eyeballs-to-upper-row-of-nipples with a Rris, looked up to see a muzzle drawn back over glistening teeth.

"Leave him alone," Chihirae growled.

The muzzle shifted, like the barrel of a gun, levelling on Chihirae. "It's walking now. You let it go where it wants?"

"He hasn't run, has he?"

The face turned back to me, looking me up and down. "I don't think it could if it wanted. How's your shoulder? Hah? Still sore?" she moved to jab my shoulder and without thinking my left hand was up and locked around her wrist.

Noise in the room hit a brick wall: stopped.

Inhuman bones and muscle flexed under my hand, a presure as she tried to pull away. A pulse rocketed and I froze with my hand locked in a deathgrip around her wrist, staring at a grin that slowly spread into a snarl. I felt the blood drain from my face but couldn't move. Her other hand came up with her fingers splayed to extrude the claws, ready to slash at me.

"Mikah." Chihirae's voice was very low, very steady in my ear. "Let go. Now. Let her go."

Slowly, I loosened my grip and she jumped back. "It is dangerous!"

"He was trying to protect himself."

"Hai!" another voice snapped and the Mediator was pushing through the crowd around us. "Now what [something]?"

"That thing [something] me," the other female snarled waving her hand at me.

The Mediator gave me a look. "Did you?"

"I stopped her. She try to hit me, here," I gestured at my damaged shoulder.

He turned back to the female, "Why were you doing that? Why were you so close that he could [grab] you?"

She snarled at me. "It is dangerous!" Then she stalked back into the ring of Rris surrounding us, a cluster of her cronies grouping around her.

As things settled down again Chihirae crouched before me, "Mikah, please, just stay there. Do not move. Do not let them [provoke] you. Do you understand?"

"Yes. I. . . I am sorry."

She patted my leg, then stood and walked off into the gloom. "Chihirae. . . ?" I asked after her as she left me alone, not knowing what to do, but my words fell on empty air.

The doors closed, then, shutting me in a room with over a dozen Rris. A voice called out, telling them to settle down, and Rris seated themselves on a mismatch of assorted chairs, a couple perching themselves on barrels and bales over against the wall. I looked around trying to catch a familiar face, finding them totally anonymous, androgynous, male and female blurring in the shadows. Their chattering dropped to a few hissing whispers and I looked around the semicircle, seeing inhuman eyes staring back. Chihirae? Where was. . .

"Mikah?"

The Mediator stepped forward, an unfamiliar Rris at his side. "Have you met Kenth?"

I looked at the Rris: shorter than the Mediator, matted- looking fur. Male, I guessed. The tufts on his cheeks were trimmed to be squarish in shape. "I. . . I do not think so."

"We have," the other - Kenth - said. "At the teacher's. He was off [something]. [something] when Ki touched his wound."

THAT I remembered. Not their faces, that still eludes me sometimes, but I remembered the pain. "Oh, yes."

"You don't remember?" Shyia asked me.

"Not really."

"He's the [something]," the Mediator explained.

"I do not know that word, Itchis ?"

"He looks after Westwater, a voice to talk to [government] in Lying Scales. Do you understand that?"

A councilman? mayor? I wasn't sure so I decided to stick with mayor, trying to hang a familiar label on something that maybe didn't have a translatable equivalent. "Uh, yes," I said.

The mayor gave me an uncomfortable look, then made a remarkably human-sounding throat-clearing noise before saying, "You know why you are here?

"You say I killed. You bring me here."

"Uh. . . yes. The Mediator will hear what you have to say and what [something] has to say. He will decide if you are guilty."

There was a snarl from the audience and a female - the same one as earlier? - stood, jabbing a claw in my direction and snarling something in impassioned Rris.

"What she say? I did not understand," I appealed to Shyia.

"It cannot even speak properly!" the female spat, clearly intending me to understand that.

"Too fast," I said but there was more snarling, more arguing that went over my head. I licked my lips, feeling beads of sweat start to tickle my armpits. How could I defend myself I didn't know what the fuck they were talking about? Finally Shyia snapped something at her and I caught the ending words, ". . . sit down!"

She did. Glowering at us, me. The Mediator shook his head like a dog drying itself, then looked around and spoke slowly, clearly:

"To begin with, you should all understand that this creature is not a [something] animal. His name is Mikah and he calls himself a Hu'an. I do not know [something] where he comes from or how he came here, he [something] that was an accident. If what he has shown me is the truth, then his [something] are a lot like ourselves: they have language, they have cities and towns. He is not a [something] animal."

"Looks like one," a voice growled.

"Why the strange clothes?" another asked.

"No fur," the Mediator said. "Not his fault."

There was some laughter. Didn't help me much: I still felt like the entrées at a lions' picnic.

"It still looks like an animal." It was that female again. I was beginning to really dislike her. "How could something like that have towns or cities. If you don't even know where it come from, how do you know that? Perhaps it told you? And you believed it?"

The Mediator flicked his ears, then went over to where my pack leaned against the wall and produced the flat black slab of my laptop and handed it to me. "Show them what you showed me."

I did.

I sat the laptop on my lap, turned the screen so my audience could see it. The flatscreen monitor glowed under the lanterns. There were muttered comments when I started a video from the enclopedia, the guided tour of New York again. I saw Rris tipping and tilting their heads, trying to make sense of what they saw on the screen, then when it clicked they almost went over backwards. Some left their seats to get a closer look.

"[something]," a stocky male hissed, "What is it?"

"City where I come from," I said.

A panorama from the top of the World trade centre showing the suburbs sprawling into the reddish haze of a sunset; stone and concrete as far as the eye could see. When that presentation was played out I ran through a couple of short clips: a potter working at her wheel, some shots of the Isle of Man motorbike race, kayaking on the Yukon, an evening Delta Clipper launch, nut-cases skiing a black pearl slope. Then I stuck my clip- art card in and just let it go through a slideshow, a new image every ten seconds. I didn't watch but I knew what it'd be showing: people, animals, vehicles. . . everything from a world I'd never see again.

The Mayor chose that time to ask, "What is that thing?"

"A tool," the Mediator explained. "Mikah says they are quite [something] among his kind."

"Tricks and toys," the female growled, then exploded, "[Something] my [something]! That thing is a murderer. It killed Serrith! It could [something] any of us next, and you show us toys!"

"He never killed anyone!" another voice spat. Chihirae.

"Shut them!" Kenth snapped and there was a silence in the room, a faint shout drifting in from outside.

"Mikah," the Mediator looked at me again, "tell them everything that happened. From the beginning, what you told Chihirae and I." Then he turned to my audience: "Please, listen. He is just learning to speak so he does not know many words, he has trouble saying others. Just listen to him. Mikah," he gestured to me to begin.

I swallowed, licked my lips and began my story. It was the third time I'd told it. My Rris had improved, I'd had practice, but I was still far from fluent. Still, they listened. Perhaps it was the novelty of seeing something like myself struggling with their language, an animal performing tricks for their amusement, whatever it was they listened. The ones who believed me, the ones who loathed me, they all listened. And when I was finished. . .

"That is [something]!" the female snorted.

"I do not understand," I told her.

She glared at me, a muscle-rigid jaw-locked flash of hatred. "That is not true!"

"It is."

"No!" Then she spoke clearly, spitting the words at me, "We didn't have anyone else on the farm! Sherrith and I were alone! He shot at it and it ran off. It came back later to kill him."

"No," I croaked. "There were others. Two, I think. Maybe more. I thought they helpers. . ."

"We could [something] help?" She chittered laughter: a high, forced-sounding noise.

"Could you be mistaken?" the Mayor asked me.

I shook my head and his lips twitched. "No! I saw them."

"How can you see what isn't there!" the female snarled.

"Raeya," the Mediator addressed the female, "Tell us what you saw."

"You already know. The truth!"

"Humor me."

She sighed and used both hands to brush the tufts of her furry mane, then began her story and I couldn't understand. She was talking too fast, gesticulating, ignoring me as she addressed her peers.

"Too fast," I ventured.

She ignored me and kept talking.

"Please," I repeated, "I cannot understand. Too fast."

"Slow down," the Mediator spoke up. "Raeya, I want him to hear this too."

Her ears went down and she hesitated. When she started speaking again it was slower, almost mockingly so, but it was slow enough for me to keep up with. And I thought I wasn't hearing her properly.

They'd first seen it in the months before winter, when they were storing feed for the animals. She'd been in the house when she heard a shout from outside. When she went to investigate she was attacked by a vicious creature. Sherrith had shot at it and missed, but that was enough to frighten it off. It ran into the hills and nobody believed when they tried to speak about it.

Then it came back. Several times meat had gone missing from their storehouse, some of the remaining stuff half-eaten. A bison was taken. Just over two months after the first sighting, Sherrith went out to the barn in the morning, while that part of the valley was still in shadow. She hadn't thought anything amiss until he didn't answer her calls. When she went outside she saw the creature running across the outlying fields again, running away from the farm. She found Sherrith in the barn, his throat ripped out.

Her mate, I thought.

Oh. That explained that anger.

"[something] Rahtei," the Mediator addressed a Rris sitting in the shadows at the back, perched on one of the barrels up against the wall, "you said you also saw him."

The male shifted awkwardly, standing up. He was big, hefty. "Huhnn, yes. Like it. . . he said, we were finishing eveningmeal. Saw it through the window. Didn't know what it was and it was gone before I could shoot it. Never saw it again after that. . . 'till now. Never took anything, hurt us." He looked uncomfortable then, ducking his head and laying his ears back when he said, "the cubs aren't afraid of him. They like him."

Chihirae was the next one the Mediator called on. She stepped up behind me and I felt a hand brush across my shoulder before she began.

She'd heard the stories about a strange creature poking around the town but hadn't paid too much attention. Every town had its stories. She'd been working with her pupils for a month without any troubles save the usual ones found in any classroom. Then one of her books went missing.

"That upset me. I thought one of the cubs was playing games, but no-one [owned up]. I went around the town, thinking perhaps someone had seen it, but nobody knew anything. It worried me. I couldn't [something] a [replacement].

"A few days later when I arrived for class it was waiting for me on my desk. None of cubs admitted to putting it there or seeing anyone leave it there. I was going to go around their families and find who'd left home early that morning, then saw dust falling from the loft. I realised someone was up there, moving around." She sighed, looked at me. "I had the cubs to think of. I couldn't let them get hurt, so I tried to be [something], not let [something] in the loft [something].

"I finished the lessons without [something]. It was only later I heard of the murder." Chihirae paused then, scratching at the fur of her chest. "They said it was an animal. I'd thought it was a person in the loft, but that started me thinking. There had been a strange scent on the book, stronger in the loft. I borrowed a crossbow from Kenth, said I was worried about animals.

"Next day was quiet. I didn't see any dust, didn't hear anything unusual. I thought maybe I'd [something] it. When class finished I left a book. . . like I'd forgotten it.

"Later, I came back. . . with the crossbow. He was there. All I saw was his face when he looked up at me. It was. . . terrifying. I shot him." She didn't look at me. "He fell and I was reloading. He had an [arrow] sticking out of him and he ran, out the back. I followed and fired from the door and hit him again. He kept running and I wasn't going to follow a wounded animal so I went back to town for help. There were enough interested in chasing him; [something] after the murder. I was still trying to get the taste out of my mouth so I returned to the barn to clean up. I found a book that wasn't mine, filled with drawings and writing, both in normal writing and other stuff that was like nothing I've ever seen. I was trying to make some sense of that when he returned. Almost shot him again, but he spoke. Hard to understand, but they were words. He asked me to help him, then collapsed."

She hissed, a sound like the final dregs of air escaping a deflating tyre. "I guess. . . he was helpless, covered in blood, looking most-way dead, and I [something] he wasn't an animal. I didn't let them kill him." She looked at me then and smiled slightly, "It was the right choice."

"You say that about a murdering [something]!" the dead Rris's mate - Raeya - spat.

"You are very [something] it was him," Shyia said and she grinned at him. He studied her for a short time, then picked out another Rris. Familiar. His face rang a bell, but it was only when he began speaking that I realised it was the doctor, the one who'd helped patch me up.

"You [treated] his wounds, didn't you," The Mediator asked.

"A," the doctor acknowedged. "Bad. Almost killed him getting that quarrel out. I'm surprised he's still alive. Bleeding bad, inside and out."

"What sort of wounds did he have?"

The doc scratched his jaw thoughtfully, "A few. Ahh, worst one was the [something] in his shoulder. Also a tear in his side where a quarrel went through. There were a lot of other bruises and scratches on his head, arms."

"Scratches from claws?"

"No, no. From when he fell. Thin skin. Mostly branches and bushes."

The Mediator plucked thoughfully at his vest with his claws and asked, "You saw Serrith's body?"

"Yes."

"What kinds of wounds did he have?"

"Cuts and scratches. From claws. His throat was torn out, quite deeply. There were more cuts on his arms and back. Whoever did it was strong and had claws." He glanced at me, "He doesn't

"I saw it," the female snarled and there were murmurs from the other Rris in the room. "[something] you! I saw it!"

"How?" the Mediator asked. "At the time Sherrith was murdered, Mikah was in the loft in the barn. He was there all morning. He had to have been if he returned the book before the class began."

Raeya opened her mouth, then grinned at me. "He could have left it there the previous night! [something]! You [something] properly!" She yowled something at the Mediator then: so furious I couldn't understand it. His tail twitched and he glanced at me, then at Chihirae. Raeya said something else and there was some more arguing, too fast for me to follow.

Chihirae touched my shoulder and knelt beside me, "Be calm, all right?"

"What is happening?" I was shaking again.

She stroked my arm. "All right. It is usual, but we'd hoped. . . Shyia wants to use [something]. It is usual, just a medicine. It makes you want to talk, more likely to tell the truth."

Rris murmured and the Mediator came close. He had a small ceramic pot in one hand, not much bigger than a 35mm film canister. Chihirae pulled my sleeve up a few centimetres and said, "He just has to scratch you."

"Hey!" I was confused, suddenly terrified by the sliver of a knife the Mediator was lowering toward my arm. Chihirae tightened her grip on my arm and behind her Raeya was grinning viciously. "Chihirae! No. . ."

There was a brief sting, a bit of blood welling from a centimetre long scratch. "All right," Chihirae soothed me. "Didn't hurt much."

I was hyperventilating, my head spinning. Something was nagging away in the back of my skull, but I was too distracted to worry it out, fixated by the sight of Shyia dipping the tip of the knife into the jar and withdrawing a small dollop of a dark syrupy liquid. Chihirae was still holding my right arm, tight enough to stop me flinching away when he spread the goop over the scratch. Then I had a flash of what happened the last time Chihirae gave me Rris medicine: "Chihirae. . ."

"Finished," she told me with a final pat on my arm then the Mediator was asking me something. I blinked at him. "Tell us what happened again. Exactly what happened."

I licked my lips and did just that. I started talking, breaking out in a nervous sweat while I spoke. That other medicine, it'd really hit hard. The stuff they'd just given me. . . I couldn't help thinking about it, what it was doing to me, and that fear grew as I felt a growing heat prickling all over my body. I choked off, then continued, trying to keep going. My heart lurched, of its own accord, the pounding in my breast increasing steadily until it hurt like I was running for my life, a hand grabbed my guts and bowels and started squeezing. Rris stared as I broke off again, wincing, then tried to continue. Everything was spinning: a dark room with shadows writhing with lives of their own, glowing eyes and inhuman shapes everywhere, shapes that stirred my deepest fears, the fear that my distant forefathers must have felt when confronted with a bear and their hindbrains screamed at them as mine did at me then 'get the fuck out of here!'. A twisted limb caught my arm, another thing snarled and I was trembling uncontrollably, muscles spasming while hot prickling flushes swept over me. Dizziness sent the room spinning, my guts clenched and I doubled over, gagging. A hand grabbed my hair and yanked my head up to a snarling face. Howling in my ears.

I shoved the face away, another, a blow across the head sent me stumbling before I felt the pain, competing with the other pain and I swung a fist and felt it connect. A snarling face lunged for me with gleaming metal raised high then an explosion stunned me, stinking smoke filled the room and I bolted in pure terror, fumbling at the doors before they opened and I was out of the reeking atmosphere into cold night air that hit like a slap across the face and I stumbled and fell into ice and mud and there were more of them circling, closing on me, more weapons being raised and I cried out, scrambled to my feet and just ran, ducked away between buildings and ran while howls rose behind me. . .

The howls were growing louder again as they chased me, working their way more cautiously down the bank I'd slipped and fallen down. Sheer terror moved me. I staggered, clothes soaking and sticking in a mixture that was half-mud and half-blood. Out of the trees and there were houses in front of me. I sobbed and choked, frustrated, terrified, unable to think while the world around me rushed onward. Nowhere to go, there was no one to help me. They would kill me as soon as they saw me.

Scenes from elsewhen flashed in my head, reality gone. I ran.

Snowbound fields turned monochrome by moonlight, cold and clear as silicon, cutting cold. Trembling, dazed and confused, drugged out of my skull I ran until the fields were gone and the woods were around me and the moonlight was gone and I was blind, blundering. There in the darkness I collapsed, vomited repeatedly until I was dry heaving, shuddering and shivering while my skin burned and prickled and my muscles tightened like cables ached and my heart raced and I've no idea how long I lay there in the freezing snow and darkness while the Rris drug ran rampant through my system.

"Mikah?"

The voice came from nowhere and I wasn't sure if it wasn't something from in my head. I couldn't see anything.

"Mikah?" This time something touched my leg; a fleeting touch and it was gone. I flinched, trying to curl into a foetal ball. "Are you. . . can you hear me?"

I raised my head slightly. "Who?" I croaked.

"It's me." A bit of darkness against the blackness shifted, an inhuman silhouette moving slightly. "Chihirae."

"Chihirae." I coughed, the taste of puke lingering in my mouth and nose. Freezing pinches of snow found their way into my sleeves, down my shirt. Wrung out a million miles: totally wasted. Exhaustion sweeping in on the tail of madness and hallucinations. "Chihirae," I started shaking, crying. "Fuck, Oh, shit, Sheera, what. . . What happened? What happened to me?"

"You're all right," she said and I felt her arm around me, helping me sit up. I just leaned into her warmth and clung there with my fingers entwined in the fur under her coat, shaking.

An age later a furry hand brushed gently along the back of my neck. "It's all right. You didn't hurt anyone. It's over now. Come on, you're like ice. Come on."

She had to help me to my feet, then hooked my arm over her shoulder as she guided me through the blackness of the trees and onto the moonlit whiteness of the fields. I was shivering violently now, from exhaustion and cold, my face stung and the new scratches there ached deeply. Somewhere, a wolf howled and I flinched at the noise but Chihirae kept going. Town lights flickered accross the fields before us, then other shapes moved. There were Rris there, a crowd of them waiting. Several of them carried burning torches and I had a flash of old horror films, the mob of villagers going after the mad scientist and his monster. I faltered and Chihirae reassured me, urging me on through nervously shifting Rris.

The Mediator met us on the stoop of the makeshift courthouse. "[something]! How is he? What happened?"

"I don't think he remembers much. What about her?"

"She'll live."

I felt Chihirae give a quick shudder. "It was the [something]. Help me. He is heavy." The Mediator took my other arm and between them they half-carried me inside. I collapsed to sit in a huddle on the floor and Chihirae was there a second later to wrap a blanket around me.

Shouting. Rris shouting, a catfight.

That female, Raeya, with the doc trying to work over her, patching her blood-matted nostrils and muzzle while she yowled at the Mediator and pointed at me. I felt sick, giddy, strung out between exhuastion and fear and the lingering traces of that drug. I just closed my eyes and let the noise turn into a dull roaring in my ears.

"Mikah?" Someone was gently shaking me. "Come on. Stand up. Go home now."

"Home," I mumbled and let the Rris manuever me.

"It's a murderer!" another voice screamed. "It attacked me! You let it live? [something] your [something]! I want it [something]! It is dangerous!"

Chihirae held me steady and led me out of the building while Raeya raged behind us. "I not hurt her," I tried to tell Chihirae. "I not."

"I know," she assured me but I really couldn't tell if she meant it or was just trying to comfort me. There was a sled waiting outside, the bison in the harness steaming in the chill. It was snowing again, a few flakes appearing from the black sky and settling on the beast's shaggy haunches. Chihirae helped me onto a bench in the back and made sure I was settled. I just pulled the blanket a little more closely around my shoulders and sat and shivered while small groups of Rris clustered on the frozen street and watched me. Chihirae returned with a Rris who stared at me then climbed onto the driver's bench while Chihirae settled next to me. A brief lurch and we moved: bumping over mud, then smoothly over deeper snow.

"All right?" she asked me, then reached up to touch my face. "You are hot."

I shrugged away from her touch and raised my own hand to my forehead; Feeling flushed, nauseous, dizzy, not too good. Under the moonlight I could see the scratch the Mediator had given me, a dark black line across my wrist in that light. It stung, I still felt ill.

"Mikah?" Chihirae was leaning forward, trying to see my face.

"What was that?" I asked, showed her my wrist. "Here?"

"Ah." she gently took my wrist in her own hand: her leathery fingerpads felt cold against my skin, but her own skin was warm. "[something] of [something]. Called Isti Firth It is not supposed to do that."

I looked at her hands, then at her face. I hadn't done that. Not very often. I don't know why exactly; like I heard her voice and tried to visualise a person. . . a human saying it. I looked at her hands, her shoulders, neck. . . now her eyes were dark pools in the moonlight, shimmering as she tipped her head quizzically in one of those contemplative looks that cats are such masters of. Amber rings glittered around the blackness while the cold moonlight outlined her tan fur in icy-white highlights. It stunned me, that night, just the sheer impossiblity of it all. "I didn't want to hurt," I whispered. "I am sorry."

"All right," she said, "you just [something] her a bit." I think she smiled then: "No claws and you [something] her. I think if you were [something] you would eat her easily."

I didn't know what that meant, I didn't know how to respond. What might have been an inuendo in English didn't mean the same thing here. All I could think of to say was, "I don't eat raw meat."

She chittered: laughter. "No you don't." Then she abruptly sobered and looked out at the nightbound hills that vanished then reappeared as a cloud scudded across the face of the moon. "No, you don't, do you."

Section 36

How long had that night been? I'm not sure, but I remember the moon was high: near midnight, maybe past it. Over six hours of hell for me. Back in the house I just collapsed, hardly even noticed as Chihirae tried to pull my freshly bloodstained clothes off, didn't really care.

I knew they were dreams, but it still didn't help. It never does.

Huge, silent corridors. Bright. White stone, but an air of decay everywhere. There was something following me and no matter where I turned there were shadows on the walls, muted footfalls behind me. My heart pounded harder as I tried to see what hunted me. Trying to run and there were always shadows and shapes ahead of me no matter which way I went. Another corner and it caught me and light flashed in my face and claws ripped deep into my cheek and an animal face snarled and glistening teeth went for my throat and I. . .

. . .screamed as I woke and the snarling features still hung over me, fighting me and yowling in my face. I fought as it howled and pinned me, and I became aware of where I was, who this was holding me down and telling me, "Calm! You're all right. I've got you. Mikah, it's all right. You hear me? Only a dream."

And I quit fighting her and just collapsed back into my sleeping bag, damp from sweat, shaking violently and I could feel her heart beating as violently as mine through her ribs. Still night outside, some ungodly small hour. A lantern burned orange, casting dancing orange light and black shadows across the walls. I looked at her hands pinning mine, back to her wide amber eyes fixed on me, then I couldn't stop the tears that seemed to be squeezed out by the spasms that rocked me.

Everything gone. My life, my friends and family. Everything and everyone I'd ever known and loved was gone, lost over a distance beyond measuring. Now what did I have? a few mementos of home, a few trinkets, and a future alone in a land where I wasn't even considered a person, where animals that walked like people held my life in their clawed hands. I cried with the fear of the new, the unknown, the lost.

"Your eyes," Chihirae murmured after a while. "Watering. . . It is pain, isn't it. From inside. You are [crying]." Her hand moved up and stroked my face, my skin, just above my beard, touching the dampness of my tears "Why?"

"I shouldn't be here," I choked. "Why am I here?"

For a while she was quiet, then replied, "I don't know." Her voice was a low growl I guess was intended to be gentle.

"I never wanted this. I. . . I never wanted to be here, I not want hurt anyone. . ." I couldn't speak anymore and Chihirae gave a small yelp when I grabbed her and clenched my hands into her fur, sobbing and babbling; confused and lost and alone and I didn't understand what was happening to me and she relaxed and held me close while I just let it all out,

I remember that dark night I fell asleep again with her arms around me, legs entwined, her fur warm against the freezing air and her voice, softly:

"It is all right, Mikah. You will be fine. . ."

Section 37

Cold outside, freezing on my face, warm in the sleeping bag, almost hot. Stiff, drowsy, and erect. I stretched out and felt muscles twinge and fur rubbed against me. There was a muffled noise and a furry arm slid over my side. I opened my eyes to razor teeth and an inhuman face mere inches from my own. Her eyes were closed, mouth hanging open just slightly with her harsh breath rasping steadily. She'd stayed with me all night? Confused, I shifted, tried to move away a bit and she murmured something then twitched and lazily opened her eyes, blinked a couple of times. "Huhhnn? Good sleep, Mikah?"

I tried to scoot away, but there's not that much room in a sleeping bag. She chuckled, then stretched and gave a sharp little intake of breath when some part of her came in contact with that part of me over which I had little control. "What is. . ." she looked puzzled and her hand moved down my stomach, then lower still to touch sensitive flesh. I gasped and she froze, then yanked her hand away and turned a wide-eyed stare on me. Her ears laid back.

"I'm sorry," I blurted, trying to turn away. "I can't stop it. . . in the mornings it. . .I cannot stop it."

She gave me a hard look and a brief flash of teeth, then threw the unzipped side of the bag open and swung her legs out. Naked excepting her sleep-matted fur; sitting with her tail twitching. "I am sorry," I repeated miserably.

"Huhn," she looked back at me, my face and then my groin. I couldn't tell what she was thinking, but her ears were still flat against her skull. "Mornings huh? That happens many mornings?"

Embarrased, I yanked the sleeping bag back up again, the subject in question just starting to realise it wasn't wanted. "Yes," I said in a small voice.

She snorted, then shook her head violently and climbed to her feet. "I don't know which is stanger, your mind or your body." She stretched, a tendon-crackling reach for the sky, totally oblivious to both the chill in the room and the fact she was only wearing her fur. She was a good one to talk about strange bodies, especially that damn tail. I stared, wondering what it felt like to have a backbone as long as you're tall, then tore my eyes away and awkwardly sat myself up on the mat, hitching the sleeping bag up around my shoulders while she busied herself in her search for clothes.

"Chihirae?"

"Huhn?" she grunted as she tested a pair of pants for flexibility.

"Last night. . . I slept better. Thank you for staying."

She cocked her head, then smiled at me. "It was cold. Warmer with two. Yes?"

"Yes." I smiled also.

"I thought you needed it. You were quite [something] last night."

I hesitated, looked at my feet and swallowed hard before asking. "I don't remember. . . I did not hurt her?"

"Raeya?" Chihirae tightened the waistband of her trousers, scratched at her stomach and chuckled, "I think you might have [something] her nose. No one is [something] you; they saw you were defending yourself. Oh, I think [something] had better look at those," she gestured at my face. I raised a hand and winced when I touched the clotted scratches across my cheek.

"Shit."

It was a half-hour later before the Mediator turned up. I heard the front door slam and he sauntered in, his fur disheveled, like he hadn't had much sleep. He sat down at the desk and lowered his head into his hands.

Chihirae looked up from where she was working a log into the stove. "News?"

"They are not happy about what Mikah did." His voice sounded muffled, speaking through his fingers. He raised his head, leaned back, and sighed. "They still think he could be dangerous. [something], they believe me."

Chihirae almost dropped the poker. I put down the egg I was about to crack into the bowl and the Mediator nodded toward me, "Mikah, you are [something]. You understand? You are not under [something]."

"Free?" I ventured.

He looked taken aback, then gave an ear twitch - their version of a nod - and something I'd never be able to emulate. "Yes. Free."

Chihirae vented a startled squawk when I embraced her, then hurriedly released her. "Sorry," I said as she smoothed her fur again, but I couldn't stop grinning. Okay, so I was still stuck here, but if they'd decided they weren't going to string me up, that was one less thing to worry about.

Why'd they decided I wasn't the one they were after? I guess it was several reasons, not the least being the Mediator could be very convincing. Basically, Raeya's story didn't hold water: The townsfolk believed Chihirae's account, that I was in the barn when Raeya claimed the murder occurred; I couldn't have caused those wounds, I just wasn't equipped for it, and none of my own wounds were from claws. Then again there was Raeya's account of her looted storehouse, the food that had been stolen and eaten on the spot.

"Like he said," Chihirae remembered, "he doesn't eat raw meat."

The Mediator snorted. "That isn't normal." To emphasize his opinion he reached over and speared chunk of diced meat from the tray waiting to go in with the scrambled eggs and swallowed it whole.

"One thing," Chihirae said after a while. "If Mikah didn't do it, who did?"

Yeah, that had been nagging at me.

"That I don't know." Shyia speared another piece on a claw and studied it. "I am interested in finding out," he said before polishing the morsel off.

Section 38

Snow continued to fall outside, flurries ebbing and waning in the vagaries of the winds. Deep now. Banking up around the walls of the house, almost to the eaves on the windward sides. Christ only knew why the Mediator had wanted to go out in that.

In the afternoon after struggling back through the drifts from her class, Chihirae was at her desk; head propped on fist, spectacles perched on her nose, tail slotted through the gap in the rear of the chair flicking while she poured over some detail in one of her books: the history atlas. As she'd been doing most of the day. A peculiar sight, a scene that even more strangely struck me as peaceful, as . . . fitting.

I added another stroke with the pencil, darkening in a reverse detail, highlighting her ear. The first time I'd ever tried to draw a Rris and I still wasn't sure I was able to pinpoint just what differentiated them.

With humans it's not just the shape of the face or the color of the hair, it's a multitude of tiny details that blend to give someone character. It's easy to follow the set rules: corners of the mouth in line with pupils, seven and a half heads to the body, ears line up with nose. . . but it doesn't create a character, someone's cheekbones, the set of the eyes, the jaw, particular mannerisms. . .all the little quirks and nuances and imperfections that make the individual.

But she wasn't human. It wasn't the kind of symmetry I'd grown up seeing every day, being immersed in whether I watched television or walked down the street. Aside from her fur, I didn't know if it was the set of her amber eyes, tufted ears or nose. Maybe it was the ears I sighed to myself as I erased yet another retouched attempt. Chihirae paused in her reading and turned in her chair to look at me over her glasses, "What are you doing there?"

"Trying to see you," I said.

"I thought you were studying." She stood and laid her glasses on the desk, stretched, then wandered over and crouched beside me. I heard her breath close to my ear, then she asked, "Is that how you see me?"

"I don't know. It is not. . . right."

"A," she said and I didn't know if she was agreeing or not. "You are good."

"Thank you." I smiled a bit, "It was my life."

"Oh." She sat down beside me on my sleeping mat and stretched her peculiar toes toward the warmth of the fire. "How long have you been doing that?"

"Long as I know," I tried to think back to the first time I'd picked up a crayon, the time I'd decided I wanted to spend my life doing this. "Since I was small."

She blinked at me, perhaps trying to imagine what I looked like as a child. "Does you kind place a lot of importance on [something]."

"What was that word?"

"What you do, making things that are pleasant to look at or touch. Beautiful noises and tastes. [Art], [artisans]. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I understand." I shrugged then and tried to put her previous question into context. "I suppose we do," I finally answered and it's true. I mean, in the modern Norde Americano culture it's difficult to escape it. Some might say that commercial artwork is a bastardization of true art. To be reciprocal, I for one feel 'true art' is a bit of a crock, going downhill since Picasso and Braque and a few other cubists got themselves totally zeroed on some exotic weed, tried to reduce the world to its component geometries and decided it looked better that way. Modern 'art'. Ughh. Give me an Andrew Wyath, a Claude Monet any day.

"Were you an [artist]? Someone who makes art."

"Yes. In a way. Would you like to see?"

"It would be interesting."

It didn't take more than thirty seconds to boot up the laptop and run the macro to show my portfolio. Chihirae huddled up to my shoulder and watched with me, asking me questions as the screens passed. I tried to answer her as best I could, but some things just didn't make any sense to her, things she just didn't have any reference for. "What is that?" she asked as an add for window cleaner spiraled across the screen in a smooth Khaos routine.

"It tries to make people want to. . . buy? Yes, buy a thing to clean glass."

"Why?"

Why indeed. I tried to explain about advertising and competition and wide exposure and market saturation and found out my Rris just wasn't up to it. I didn't know many words related to economics. Try explaining politics or theology with a seven year old's vocabulary. When I was about to start tearing my hair out, Chihirae touched my arm. "Don't worry. Try later. We can just watch, alright?"

"All right," I agreed, somewhat disheartened. Having my face rubbed in my limitations still happens - some physical activities, words I can't pronounce - and it's still a letdown.

And Chihirae chittered at my disappointment. "Don't worry. You tried. You will learn. A, that is a good one. How long does it take you to make one of these?"

She asked more questions, trying to keep them simple and the afternoon turned into a relaxed lesson in languge and cultures. Time passed and the light outside remained the same flat grey as snow kept falling, icing the windows over. Around the stove it was warm, but move just a few metres away and it got cold. Fast. So Chihirae and I sat beside each other on the mat, sorting through pictures and trying to name them. She asked about other art forms: music, plays, literature, architecture. . .

"I have some of all here," I patted the laptop.

"Plays?"

"Sort of." How else to describe films? "Yes. A few."

"With things like you?" Her eyes sparkled with interest, her ears perked high. "Could we see one?"

"Sure. Ah, which?" I put the disk in and called up the main menu. Alongside each entry a minuature animated icon depicting the film it represented danced smoothly. "A few. True and not true."

She leaned closer to squint at the icons: rows of moving figures in miniature, colours vibrant, except for - "Why is that [colourless]?" Chihirae asked, pointing to the icon for Schindler's List . Shit, I didn't think showing her that would be such a good idea. Maybe deleting the entire thing would be more. . .

Censorship is an ugly thing. No matter how I disliked it, that film showed a side of humankind that existed.

"Uh, that was what the. . .person who made it wanted. It does look different."

"A, that it does," she flicked her ears then asked, "What did you mean 'true and not true'?"

'The stories, some happened, others are. . . ah. . ."

"[Fiction]?" she supplied.

"Yes, fiction," I had some trouble with the Rris word, stuttering it.

"That colorless one?"

"It is true." I hesitated, "It is not a. . . nice film. I do not know that I would be able to explain. . ." I trailed off uncomfotably.

Chihirae was looking at me. Eventually she just said, "Some other time then. What about that one?"

Silken. Uh-huh. The film that'd won Emile Disrile her Oscars. A detective story set in Louisiana with a convoluted and subtle plot, characters, depths, cinamatography to rival Dances With Wolves on the big screen, atmospheric music, steamy sex scenes, adventure and action. Everything that - IMHO - makes a film worth watching.

Chihirae breathed out softly as the titles ran, the views of the bayou, wildlife, Baton Rouge, Orleans, the Mississippi river and delta, then she was silent as the film ran, just drinking in the images even though she couldn't understand a word that was being said. I offered to try and translate, but she just wanted to watch. She was close to me, casually leaning against my arm. I could feel her reactions to scenes: tense in the shadowy backwaters, nervous during the chases, gunplay, laughing at some things, confused during others. Then the sex scenes.

She stared. Like she didn't know what to make of the semi- lit couple gyrating on the bed with its silk sheets and wrought-iron frame. Then she chittered loudly, "That is a female, isn't it? They are [something]?"

If that meant what I thought it meant. . . "Uh, Yes."

Slow music. Indistinct lighting. Low moans, gasps, wet noises.

"Is [mating] always like that for your kind?" she asked after another while.

"Ah. . . sometimes."

"It looks [something]. Is it fun?"

"You have never. . . ah. . . what is the word?"

"Mated," she provided absently. "Ah, yes, but never like that." She gestured as the actress threw her head back, moaning, her partner nuzzling down between her legs. "What are they doing?"

I didn't quite know how to explain that. She listened, then her jaw dropped slightly and she looked from me to the monitor and back again. Then her mouth shut with a hollow clop. "You are joking."

"No."

"Huhnn," she made a noise as if she wasn't sure whether to laugh or say something else and an awkward tension seemed to set the air on edge. She made a coughing sound, then looked back as the scene faded to morning, the couple entwined in each others limbs in the warm light sifting through black wrought iron curlicures over the window.

I looked at the alien sitting beside me, leaning against my arm with the flickering light of the Active FlatLine screen strobing across her face. "Do you have a. . . a mate?" I eventually asked her.

"Ah?" she loked up at me, wrinkles on her muzzle. "A mate? What do you mean? You know that word 'mate' is a verb; it does not make sense."

Taken aback, I groped for words, "Is there someone. . . you stay with, you live with. A male you are. . ." Shit, I didn't know the word for married. "A male you live with?"

"Like you you mean?" she chittered softly.

Not what I meant. I frowned, rubbed my chin, then asked, "Chihirae, how long do Rris mate for?"

"Ah?" she looked back to the screen and scratched at her chin with a clawtip. "I suppose [something] goes on a few days, maybe weeks. They might stay together for a while, until someone leaves. It depends on the situation. Sometimes they will decide to live together. Why?"

"You mean Rris just meet and . . . and mate?"

She laughed, chittering. "There's a little more to it than that. It does help if they like each other."

"Oh."

They didn't mate for life. Well, neither do humans, not naturally. It's just various social and religious doctrine over the centuries that forced us into monogamous patterns. Perhaps the marriage rate back home was falling, but it seemed that Rris had never even heard of the concept. Love 'em and leave 'em was the way they lived. Probably because of the lack of dimorphism between males and females: from what I'd seen both sexes seemed capable of standing on their own and looking after themselves, but what about pregnancies? raising their offspring? That loopy female who'd accused me of murder, surely she'd been Sherrith's mate? And what about the other couples I'd seen around the village? Like that Ki, the 'family' I'd peeped in on when I was still skulking around the wilderness.

"A," Chihirae absently answered my question, more of her attention on what was going on on the screen. "Ki and Risa live together. The cubs were not sired by him. What is that thing. . . she - It is a she? - is talking at?" she pointed at the screen where the semi-naked actress was phoning her dealer. I took the hint and saved my questions for later. God knew I had more than enough time.

So we sat and watched the movie. All that was missing was the popcorn. Chihirae was a warm presence at my side, ocassionally chuckling at something she found amusing, more often than not watching in silence and self-contained confusion. It was disturbing: sitting in the darkness watching a film was something I'd done so often with Jackie. Now, I glanced at the. . . the person beside me and felt that hollow emptiness: A part of me was gone and any hope that it might be regained was fading. Chihirae snickered, oblivious, and I turned my attentions back to the screen and tried to push thoughts that could drive me over the edge to the back of my mind.

When the end credits scrolled I had to tell her it was finished. She rubbed her eyes and lay back on my sleeping mat, looking up at the roof. "That was. . . quite a [something]. I have never dreamed there could be such. . ." she raised her arms, waving her hands as though she was trying to grab suitable words out of the air, "The places, things. . . people, the sounds. . .that was supposed to be music? It is like the [something] after [dreaming?]: one is never sure what is real and what isn't." She let her arms drop to her sides, lolled her head to look at me. "Is that considered a good play among your kind. Hu'an?"

"Many people said it was one of the best," I told her.

"Do you like it?"

"Yes." I hesitated. "But. . ."

"But?"

"It's just this time. . . it is like. . . like being in a dark room, looking at the real world through the crack in the wall." I shrugged. "It just. . . wasn't the same."

She shifted, rolling to her side and resting her tufted chin on laced fingers. "A dark room. . . is that how you see us? [something]. A dark room. No light? No color? Mikah, we do not have your toys, but we have plays, we have books, music, art. We are Rris/ people."

"Yes, I know." I nodded slightly. "I didn't mean to. . . I am sorry."

Chihirae licked at her black lips - a flash of a pink tongue - then she said, "You are lonely, aren't you."

I forced a smile and I don't think it fooled her for a second. "It isn't easy."

She seemed to hunt for something to say, just the tip of her tail flicking like a questing snake. "I. . . don't think there is much anyone can do," she finally said. "You are going to have to try and manage. Somehow."

I nodded.

The wind outside seemed very loud in the awkward silence, rattling the windows in their frames and sending droughts skittering across the floor like cold, invisible mice.

"What are you going to do now?" Chihirae finally asked.

"I don't know," I sighed and leaned my head back against the wall. "Try and go home?"

"And if you can't?"

I looked down at my hands, as if I might already be holding the answer to that one. "Try and just. . . live? I do not know. . . Chihirae, can I have a home here? Can I have friends? can I get work?"

She waved a hand in one of her shrugs. "I don't know. But there are going to be a lot of people interested in you and your kind."

I swallowed. "I don't want to live as a. . . a . . . something to stare at."

"I understand," she said softly, then added, "It might be difficult. You will always be different."

I mulled that over, remembering what the Mediator had told me. It didn't do a great deal for my self esteem. "What can I do then? Just be a thing for Rris to look at? To be an animal that does tricks?" Picturing that, imagining it going on for the rest of my life. . . "I do not think I can live like that. Goddamit! I am not an animal."

She turned to me again, a peculiar expression I didn't recognise flitting across her face. "What is that look?" I had to ask.

Involuntarily her hand went up to her face, hesitated. "I did not mean. . ." she began, then made a throat-clearing sound: a small cough. "Sorry for you," she explained. Pity for me. "Mikah, look at yourself. You are. . . not Rris. You look like nothing anyone has ever seen before. You cannot even speak properly. I just want to warn you, do not expect too much."

I nodded slightly.

Her hand touched my arm, moving as if she were trying to stroke non-existant fur. "I didn't mean to worry you like that. [Something], in some ways you are just like a cub. . . there is a lot you have to learn."

"Can you teach me?"

She sat up, then, crossing her legs to sit tailor-fashion. "Mikah, I do not know that I can give you enough time."

"You teach cubs every day," I pointed out.

A thoughtful look crossed her face. "You would like to come to the class?"

I nodded, then realised it was asking a lot of her. I'd still be a burden, and I didn't have anything I could offer in exchange. "I cannot pay money. I can help maybe?"

"How?" One ear tipped backwards.

"I do work around here. Cut wood. Fix things. Maybe I help in teaching?"

'A?" she looked interested and again asked, "How?"

"I answer questions? I can teach some new things maybe."

She hesitated for quite a while and I had to wonder if I'd gone too far, threatening to poach her territory. "If you don't want. . ." I started to say and she cut me off. "No, no. It is not that. I suppose. . . it is something to think over." Her head - a noble feline profile - dipped, then she glared at the stove. "[Something]! That [something] thing! Always going out."

I watched as she occupied herself shoving wood into the soot-smudged stove door, fiddling with vents. Avoiding something. "Chihirae? You do not want me there."

She paused with a piece of wood in her hand, then sighed and settled back onto her knees. "Not me. Mikah, you will frighten some of the cubs, and their elders. . . I know some of them would not be happy."

Oh. deflated, I stared at the floor; I hadn't thought of that.

"Mikah, I didn't. . . I mean, I'm not sure what they would say. I suppose we can only find out, a? I will try, all right?"

I gave her a half-hearted smile. "Thank you." Oh, Jesus and Joseph, was I ever going to be able to live anything like a normal life? Be able to do anything without being thought of as a ravening monster by creatures that looked like fugitives from Dr. Moreau's island?

No.

I've had time to grow accustomed to it, to settle down and learn to live and deal with my problems. I've lived through the highs and lows but If I'd known then what was to come in the next few months. . . well, I'm sure I would have tried to do something desperate. Looking back, I can see there were easier roads to travel, but they still wouldn't have been the right one.

So I sighed, shook my head slightly, then reached for the laptop and called up some music, something mellow, Indigo, Sanctuary. Relaxing, the music and lyrics were human, soothing, something to help me calm down and try to take stock.

"Mikah," Chihirae gestured at the laptop. "Stop that? It is. . . annoying."

I opened my mouth to protest, then something inside me sagged. What was the use. I turned the machine off and stared at the dark metallic face of the screen. Outside, snow flurried through light seeping through the window: silent static beyond the glass.

Section 39

The room was in shadows, nothing but darkness and vague shapes and the blue-white light glaring under the door. I crossed the room. I opened the door. The light was at the end of the hall, the front door. Outside it was night but the light was brighter, burning across the snowscape with a cold brilliance and I saw. . . something, blazing brighter than the moon: a slit, a hole in reality. . . into reality. And there were shapes on the other side, becoming distinct as I got closer and light swept around me: buildings, roads, people, vehicles on the roads and glowing signs. Aother world, one I'd almost given up hope of ever seeing again. It was a feeling of joy I just can't describe, an elation welling up from inside as I stepped forward and the world lurched, a feeling like taking a step too far down a dark staircase.

I jolted into awakeness, sitting bolt upright in a familiar dark room.

"Oh, God. Nooo."

The balloon burst and it hurt, with an almost physical pain. I curled up, burying my head in my hands. The small noise I was hearing. . . I was making it.

"Mikah? What is it? Mikah?" Something touched my shoulder, warm in contrast to the frigid air.

"What's wrong?" another voice registered; not English, not even human voices.

"Another dream I think."

A hesitation. "Fear?"

"No," the hand stroked my shoulder lightly, touched my cheeks to feel the dampness there. "No."

"Huhn. I think he's not much of a [terror?]. Look at him. It is [something]."

"Why don't you try thinking about what it must be like for him! He knows what he's lost and he knows what's going to happen. [something]! How would you [something]? In his place?"

"I would manage."

"You think so?"

I heard a low grunt, a non-commital noise followed by the groan of the door closing. "I don't think he is as [something] as he tries to be," Chihirae murmured in my ear and waited, perhaps expecting me to answer. The hand on my shoulder shifted and claws lightly scratched at my back, up and down my spine a few times. "Mikah? Come on, it was just a dream. It can't be so bad."

I shuddered violently and felt her hand start rubbing my back, up to my nape to stroke the short hairs there; the sensation of her inhuman fingertips raised goosebumps. Her hand hesitated. "You're cold?"

She was trying to be kind, but she just didn't understand. How could she? She was a different species, for Christ's sake. But she was trying to. A teacher; she was trying to learn about me. She'd helped me, perhaps from an academic standpoint at first - realising I was more than an animal - but recently she'd done more: standing up for me, comforting me, helping me keep a fingertip hold on my sanity. A friend. And that startled me, realising that was how I was coming to think of her.

Friend.

I tipped my head back, leaning against the wall behind me while I drew a shuddering breath, trying to calm down. Chihirae shifted her hand to my right arm, just touching lightly and I felt a leathery pad stroke the fine hairs of my forearm. I shivered, then reached across to hold her curious hand, and she didn't even flinch. "I do not mean to be a. . . a burden," I said and she laughed then. "What?" I asked, stung.

"You do not mean to be what?" she said.

"A burden," I repeated the Rris word and she chuckled again. "Mikah, that is an adjective to describe weight. You are saying you weigh a lot. You are heavy."

"Oh," I said and tried to think of the right words but she started chittering spasmodically, closed her eyes and leaned her head against my shoulder. "Oh, Mikah, you are [heavy]?" She clamped her jaws shut and emitted periodic sound like small hiccoughs, her skin almost hot through her fur. I didn't know how to react, somewhat nonplussed by her amusement which gradually ebbed and she coughed and said, "I think the word you were scratching for is [burden]. I don't think you are. I think you are an [something]. A leaf in the wind." She hesitated there, but still leaned against me and I was glad of the warmth against the chill of the air, "Your dream," she asked after a while, "bad?"

I couldn't see her, but I could feel her: a warm, moving shape at my right shoulder, fur prickling against my skin, a warm, dusty, somewhat sharp scent from unwashed Rris. I sighed, "Different. It. . . surprised me. I thought. . ."

"Huhn?"

A deep breath: "I thought I was home. It looked. . .it. . . it seemed so real."

"Then you woke up."

I nodded. All right, so it didn't sound like much upon reflection, but when you've lived it, just coming out of the haze of sleep, it can hit pretty hard. "I'd offer something to help you sleep," she said, "but medicine might hurt you."

"I will manage," I forced a smile and worked my fingers into her fur to ruffle it.

"All you can do," she murmured. "Maybe you should try and sleep now, a? You will be all right?"

"I hope so."

She patted my arm and I felt her warm presence leave me. I sighed, settled down into my bag. I could feel her watching me until I slept again. No dreams I can remember that night, good or otherwise.

Section 40

"Is it someone from the town?" I asked while settling another piece of wood on the block.

Standing like some Dali-esqu scarecrow in his long black coat amidst the white snow, the Mediator made a small gesture I interpreted as a shrug and watched my hands as I shifted my grip on the axe. "I am not sure," he said. "There is nobody who would WANT to kill him. Just about everyone had solid [alibies]. I think his [partner] is mixed up in this more than she [admits] to, but I am not sure how."

I set the axe down and blew on my hands to warm them a little. Cold. I'd never intended to be up here in the winter: my clothes weren't intended for a Vermont winter. "Did she kill him?"

"I don't think so." Shyia waited while I raised the axe and brought it down with a grunt on the wood. There was a sharp twinge in my damaged shoulder muscle. The axe stuck in a knot. Goddamn thing was made out of soft iron: you could blunt it by looking at it wrong. I swore at it, rubbed my shoulder, looked at Shyia, "There were two other Rris I saw."

"Are you sure?"

How many times had he asked me that? "Yes"

"And you can't describe them."

I exhaled in exaperation, a white cloud hanging and disapating. "No." As I'd said before: all I could tell them was that the Rris I saw had fur and pointy ears. They all looked the same back then. "Maybe if I saw them again I could say."

"That might not be possible," he growled.

I swung the axe again and this time a splinter chipped off the side of the wood. "You are improving," Shyia said. Was that supposed to be sarcastic?

"Thanks," I said dubiously, tried again. This time I split it clean down the middle. "Better," he said and watched me rubbing my shoulder, "How is it?"

"Stiff."

"The scar. It'll be deep."

"It will get better?"

"Probably not."

"Shit."

He cocked his head. "What was that noise?"

"Not important," I told him and began gathering up pieces of wood to stack with the rest under the eaves. The Mediator watched me thoughtfully. "Your machine, that is all in your words, isn't it."

"Yes."

"Can you change it to proper writing?"

I looked at him and realised that by 'proper' writing he meant Rris text. Then I realised he was serious. "No."

"Ah." He looked thoughtful, eyes half-lidded as he watched me. "Then can you teach a person to read your kind of writing?"

"Maybe." I dumped a load of chopped wood on the pile and returned to the chopping block. At least they had saws and someone had taken the time to cut this lot into handy lengths before bringing it to Chihirae. Her payment I guess: she teaches their children, the townsfolk help with her keep: food and firewood and a meagre allowance. I picked up the axe, leaned on it and shrugged slightly. "It is. . . made around the way we speak. You cannot speak like us. Chihirae tried it. There are words you have no. . . other word for. Maybe I could." I looked down at the axe and added, "It would be long time. I am not a teacher."

He blinked at me - a brief eclipse of green eyes - and shifted in his coat. Shorter than I was, but he had an air of. . . efficiency about him. Like a sword. Even if you'd never seen one before, one glance would tell you it's not for buttering your toast. I could guess what he was thinking. It's what a lot of Rris have thought since him. Somewhat annoyed I put another piece on the block, swung the axe and split it first time.

"You're worried about what we are going to ask you."

I felt my jaw clench, swung the axe again. Pieces of wood tumbled to the trampled snow and wood chips around the block. Panting slightly I held the axe in both hands and looked at the Mediator, "Of course I am."

"Is there so much to be afraid of?"

I shrugged. It depended. "What are you going to ask me? Tools?" I hefted the axe, "or weapons?"

He tipped a hand in a casual gesture. "Probably both. That worries you so much?"

"What will happen if I say no?"

He hesitated. "I don't know. You are likely to?"

I nodded.

"That means yes, doesn't it. Ah." Wrinkles creased his furry muzzle, as though he was smelling something foul. "If someone wanted it enough, it could be bad for you."

"I could break the Laptop," I said and swung the axe again. The wood split cleanly and when I looked up the Mediator was gaping at me in what had to be shock, the first time I'd seen such an outright look of startlement. "You would do that?"

"If I had to."

A side of his muzzle twitched, a quick flash of inch-long canines. "Mikah, I'll tell you now: Be careful who you say that to." He studied me while his tail twitched, only slowly calming, then said, "If Chihirae heard you wanted to destroy all that [something], I think she would want to hurt you herself." He snorted slightly at that, his breath crystalising in short puffs in front of his nostrils and stood and watched me while I finished chopping the rest of the firewood. I got the feeling he was watching me like I might watch some piece of exotic machinery in action, just seeing how all the different parts moved.

Chihirae returned while we were carting the split wood inside. I had my arms full when I saw her in the distance, trudging back from town along the snow and mud-covered track that led to the cabin, her old coat looking far too threadbare for that kind of weather. She wasn't wealthy, that Rris, also seemed to have a bit more trouble in the snow than I did. Odd that: her feet weren't as broad as mine. Rris walk on their four broad, clawed toes only - digitigrade. It's what gives them that fluid, stalking gait and while lethally fast and agile on solid ground, they did tend to sink into the snow. I guess it was a price they paid when their forebearers started walking on two legs. She saw me and waved, a familiar gesture shared by Humans and Rris alike. "Hi," I called back, my voice carrying over the fields. The Mediator appeared at the door, squinting as he looked to see what I was shouting about.

I was stacking the wood by the stove when she came in and lingered to bat snow and ice from her legs. "Ah, Mikah. Do you want to sit down. I've got some news that I think you should hear."

I put the wood aside and looked at her. "Good or bad news?"

"Good, I think," she smiled and took her seat at the desk.

"You're sending me home?"

"Ah, not quite that good." Her ears went down, then came up again and she managed to look smug, but I got the feeling I might have let the air out of her balloon. "You can [something] the classes. I managed to persuade them. Not easy."

I brightened. "They said yes?"

"There are a few who aren't happy about it, but they said yes. I think their cubs talked them into it. They like you."

I really didn't know what to say. I didn't know how she did it, but it meant a hell of a lot to me. I just caught her and hugged her. She tensed for a second, then relaxed and chittered, "You are pleased?"

"I am pleased," I breathed into her fur, then released her, stepped back to pet her ruffled shoulder fur smooth again. "Thank you."

"How did you do it?" another voice asked; the Mediator leaning against the doorframe. "I was [something] they would rather have their eyes fall out than have their cubs in the same room as him."

"I had to make a few promises," Chihirae admitted. "They also want to ask you if you think it is [something]."

He hissed slightly and his leather coat creaked as he shifted. "If you are putting him in a building with those cubs, I think it is HE who should be worried. No, I don't think there will be any problems."

Section 41

Chihirae kept me close at her side on that first day. Snow creaked under my black boots and our breath frosted in the morning air as we walked the route to the barn. There were already cubs there waiting for her.

Nervous? Of course I was nervous. Chihirae had warned me about it, but it wasn't something I could do much about. The same kind of feeling I'd had on the first day of high school or my first job interview. I glanced at Chihhirae stalking along beside me, swallowed, and settled the laptop where it was slung at my hip.

The cubs saw us coming and small furry figures scurried out over the snow to meet us. The cubs who knew me were effusive in their greetings, their claws catching at my clothing as they closed around me, a gabble of voices:

"My [something] said not to touch it."

"Hai! Mikah, they have let you out!"

"You still haven't grown fur"

"Can I see that game again?"

"Alright, enough for now. Inside, go on. Move, " Chihirae pinched at ears as she got them moving out. "Mikah, try not to be too much of a distraction. You can do that?"

"Yes, teacher."

She hissed and took a swipe at my own ears. Fortunately, they aren't as big a target as Rris ones.

Inside, although in my memory it was larger, the barn hadn't changed. The rough desks and benches, the small stove. As Chihirae led me through to the front I saw the dark stains across a bench and desk. Someone had tried to clean them up, but the stain had soaked into the grain of the wood, turning patches and spots almost black. I stared and shivered, feeling hairs standing on end.

"I didn't know."

I looked down at Chihirae. Her ears were down and her eyes studying my face. I swallowed, nodded, "I understand."

A bench near the fire that creaked under my weight. I had my notepad, pen, and my laptop on the desk before me, stark contrast to the cubs who only had the few slates Chihirae could distribute. She continued her lessons in much the same way she'd done it when I'd been watching from the loft. I'd missed a lot, but her lessons in the evenings helped, also the fact that now I could ask her for help when I needed it; mostly in the language and grammatical areas.

And I tried not to be too distracting to the cubs, but whenever I touched the keyboard to check something in the database heads would turn and voices would pipe up in curiosity until Chihirae restored order. She didn't play favourites: she treated me just as she would any of her other students, calling on me to answer questions, say words. Cubs snickered.

"Something funny?" Chihirae asked one of them after an outburst of giggling.

"Ah, he can't say 'riding'."

"It sound funny," another hissed.

"He can't help that," Chihirae growled. "His mouth is different. He has trouble with words we find easy. Be [something]."

"What was that word?" I asked. Cubs chittered their laughter.

And Chihirae had a couple of other questions for me as well, slightly more curly. Where does snow come from? Why is the sky blue? The snow one, that wasn't too bad. It would've been a great sales pitch for the multimedia encyclopedia, I mean, let's face it: if a software program can present an explantion of snow in a manner that cubs who've never even conceived of evaporation and global weather patterns can comprehend then it must be a useful tool. Chihirae stood near and watched with wide eyes as the children gathered close around to watch the screen, always asking questions I tried to field as best I could.

Children.

Yeah, I guess I was coming to think of them as children. As these Rris were becoming people. I don't know when it happened; I can't pinpoint the exact moment, but somewhere along my twisting, bizzare road, that's what they became. People.

Section 42

Those mornings went quickly.

It was fun, and a vast improvement over huddling in that cold little room. I was learning a hell of a lot from the cubs, all the important little things: slang, vernacular, their swearing. They tell you little things about a culture that books don't cover, but they don't always explain themselves. For example, why was it considered rude to call someone 'red tied'? or 'clipped'? 'Shaven' that I could understand, and it did explain why neither Chihirae or the Mediator liked it when I'd wanted to shave off my growing beard. We'd compromised: I kept the beard, but trimmed back to something approaching what I considered a respectable and comfortable length.

Along with my vocabulary, my pronunciation improved. The cubs gleefully corrected me every time I mispronounced a word. Even those words I'd never be able to pronounce properly. Chihirae spent time with me in the evenings, going through her books together. I could read the most basic of childrens' stories: slowly, haltingly, but I could read them. Some days she'd have me read for the class, the equivalent of 'Spot has a ball. See Spot run'. The cubs chittered and hissed, but they enjoyed themselves. There was that afternoon when class was dismissed and I stepped out the door to catch a snowball across my chest. Chine and Feher chittered and launched another volley, missed me and spattered Rikya behind me. She joined me in returning fire and it kind of grew from there into a free-for-all. I could throw further and harder, but they were damn fast on their feet. Like trying to hit the proverbial butterfly with the proverbial hatchet. Seriously, they were only cubs, but they could probably run as fast as I could, even on thick snow. It eventually ended with everyone covered in snow and ice and having had a ripping good time.

I guess their elders weren't as amused. Later that evening a trio of the older Rris came calling, not so happy.

"It is filling his head with ridiculous ideas," one of the females complained. "He wants to go to the place where that," she gestured at me, "comes from."

"Not the only one," I muttered.

The three Rris stared at me and Chihirae said, "Mikah, not now."

"She was covered in snow. She said it threw a snowball at her when they were playing. Plague take it, Teacher, it might hurt them. Look at it!"

"It isn't just that," another added and their tails writhed violently. "Some of the things it is saying, can you believe them? They believe him! Ehanirih wanted me to boil the water! Said there were things living in it!"

"There are," Chihirae said.

"You believe him also? Why are we talking to you?!"

"Not just Mikah. Have you heard of Rethkin? He is well known in [something] areas at Hillvale Between. His book talks about them."

"Probably where your pet heard about it."

Chihirae chittered. "I can just imagine him walking into the [something] to discuss [something]."

The other Rris set their ears back and Chihirae continued, gathering steam, "Mikah is not hurting anyone. He has never tried to hurt anyone. All he wants is to live his life, something you seemed to be determined to deny him. I was also afraid of him to start with, but he has never done anything to hurt me, he is [something] and [something]. I am afraid I can't say the same about other people."

Rris stared at her, as if they couldn't believe she'd said that. I looked from one to another, worried for Chihirae. She was employed by the town, wasn't she? insulting the townsfolk could get her into trouble. Finally one of them hissed, "I think the Mediator might be interested in hearing about this."

"I will be sure to mention it to him," Chihirae retorted then drew a deep breath. "Kenth agreed to let him have a chance. Mikah hasn't hurt anyone or broken [something]. He has been friendly and [something]. You can't just [something] him. If Kenth tells me to remove him, I will do it. But until that day, I stand by him."

They steamed, but Chihirae stood her ground: If I was to be kicked out of class, the order would have come from Kenth, the mayor himself. They left shortly afterwards and I just sagged down onto my sleeping mat. "They really don't like me."

"It is only a couple of pebble-brains" Chihirae snorted and sat down beside me, then batted at my arm with the back of her hand. "Don't worry about them. I doubt Kenth will [something] them."

I just nodded.

She cocked her head, then leaned to the side, against me, lowering her head to rest against my arm. A warm, shifting presence against me. "Pebble-brains," she said again.

"Should be shaved," I said.

"You are a good one to talk," and I felt her start laughing at that.

Section 43

Not much clear sky that day, heavy grey cloud over much of it. Snow crunched under my feet, a chill wind sent flurries dancing around my feet and tried to steal the sack I was carrying.

"Hurry up," Feher called back as he scampered ahead with his two friends, "A, you are slow!"

I made a rude noise and they chittered laugher.

"Do that again," Chine urged me.

So while we walked the cubs tried to see if they could imitate a bronx cheer. It was a bit of a walk across the fields and the stream behind Chihirae's place before you hit the treeline. The stream was frozen over in places, not thick enough to walk over so we crossed at one of the places it was wider, but only about ankle- deep. My boots are waterproof, but the cub's feet weren't; still, they weren't too heavy to carry.

I guess I shouldn't have let them come along. With the aid of hindsight, I definitly shouldn't have let them tag along, but Chihirae had asked me to go and collect some deadfall to use as kindling and the cubs showed up just as I was leaving and they said their elders didn't mind and . . . and I believed them. Anyway, what could happen just picking up some dead sticks?

The cubs were enjoying themselves. Chine and Feher were firm friends and always seemed to be together. The other was Ithi'tsa, a female classmate who was only a little less raucous than the two boys. They scurried through the drifts and up into the trees like two-legged lynxs, hurtling back down the slope in clouds of kicked-up powder, a snowball flew and Chine went chasing off after Ithi'tsa.

"Hy," a clawed hand caught my jacket and I looked down into the bright eyes of Feher, panting clouds of mist. "Mikah, how long are you going to be here?"

"Here? Where?"

He waved a hand back toward the village, "Here."

"I don't know."

"They said you were going away soon."

"Who? CHINE! Get off her!"

"The outsider. The Mediator. Him and Kenth, they were saying you were going to Lying Scales. Why?"

I shook my head. That was something I didn't know about. "I don't know," I told him.

He turned away, seeming disapointed, then looked up at me again. "Do you want to go?"

"Feher, this isn't my home. I cannot stay here. . . all time."

"Why?"

Why indeed. Why couldn't I stay here? Live my life here? I sighed and stopped dreaming. "I'm not a Rris. They think I can tell them a lot."

"Like you tell us in class?"

"Like that, yes."

"The Mediator would be angry if you didn't go."

"I think so. And many Rris in the town don't like me. They do not want me to stay. I think it would be better if I go with them. Yes?"

His ears went down. "I don't want you to go."

"I can come back to see you," I smiled. "It won't be too long. Now, do you know a good place to get wood?"

He seemed to deliberate for a second, then brightened, his previous depression cast aside. "Over here," he called and I heard the other cubs shouting as he scurried up the hillside between the denuded trunks, occasionally dropping to all fours. A flash of gold fur between black and white snowscape.

"Hey! Wait up," I called in English.

"You are too slow," a taunting voice drifted back down the slope. I made a rude noise back.

Well, it wasn't a bad spot: a weather-worn gully just below the crest, a nick in the hillside where a couple of trees had come down in a slip, plently of deadwood. The cubs made a game of grabbing twigs, occasionally playing pretend swordfights with a couple of sticks. All in all I think they spent more time chasing each other around than actually working, but what the hell: you're only young once and growing up is a one-way street.

I took my own time, finding larger branches and breaking them into managable pieces to carry in the sack. It'd been maybe three quarters of an hour when I looked up to see three adult Rris at the head of gully. Standing, staring at me. Parents looking for their cubs? No, I didn't think so. I couldn't recognise them, but they didn't look like villagers. "Feher?" I called and pointed at the newcomers. "Who are they?"

Feher and the other two stopped their game and looked. "I don't know," he said.

Three of them, all wearing long stockman-like coats similar to the Mediator's, save these were a grubby white that blended in with the snow and trees. They looked at each other and started moving down the hillside toward us, spreading out. I got a bad feeling in my gut. It reminded me of a film I'd once seen: wolves fanning out as they stalked a deer.

"Feher, Chine, Ithi," I called the cubs with unease growing to fear, "come here."

Thankfully, they did so without argument, watching the newcomers. I herded the cubs behind me, moving back. The three approaching Rris had spread out, a wide arc coming down the gully, a coat swept back and I saw a long sword sheath hanging from the belt, one with a pistol. This wasn't good. I'd almost been mugged once, several punks in a park. They'd used the same kind of moves but couldn't run quite as fast or far as I could.

"Get out of here," I hissed to the cubs. "Go home."

"But. . ."

"Home! Go! Now!"

They did, slowly, then turning to run and one of the newcomers called out: a name or something, I'm not sure, but there was movement in my peripheral vision and I turned to see a forth Rris downhill from us, moving around behind us in a position to head the cubs off and they saw him also, slowed down as he drew a sword, glittering as cold as the snow.

Too fast, it was all happening too fucking fast. I just screamed at the cubs to run, started down the steep bank as fast as I could, kicking snow, stumbling in the drifts, slipping but staying upright. The Rris howled, the one going after the cubs hesitating and turning and looking up at me and I saw amber eyes widening, narrowing, his stance shifting to bring the sword around in a slash at my legs and I dove headlong.

Impact almost broke my neck. A tangle of limbs and leather and fur and snow, slipping and tumbling down the hillside, claws raking my hands, sliding off my jacket, flashes of grey sky and trees and whiteness like a roulette wheel that stopped on freezing white.

"Mikah!"

Ice on my face. I lifted my face out of the snow. Feher through the trees, hesitating, watching with wide eyes and ears down. "Run!" I screamed with what breath I had and he pointed. The Rris I'd hit, not a metre downhill from me, was on all fours reaching for his sword. "Heads up bastard!" I snarled, rolled and kicked a heavy boot right into his chin as hard as I could. His head went back with a sharp crack, a spray of spittle and blood and he tumbled away. I struggled to my feet, my left shoulder, my whole left arm burning. Feher cried out again, a tawny blur scurrying down the hillside, another Rris bounding past me as he pursued the cub in clouds of snow with sword in hand. I gritted my teeth, stooping to pick up the fallen sword as I half-slid, half-ran past, running for the cub's life, for my life as I heard the snarls and grunts of the other two close behind me.

Any other time, any other place, I wouldn't have had a proverbial snowball's chance in a race against Rris, but there and then I had an edge: bushes and drifts I bulled through, boots were better protection and traction than their pads. Somehow I managed not to trip and impale myself on the sword or slam into a tree or trip on a buried root as I took a suicidal pace through the trees, unable to stop if I'd wanted to, legs wavering and lungs heaving.

A figure in white in front of me and out of sheer desperationI threw the sword and - Christ only knows how - hit him. He stumbled, recovered and I careened into him, crashing into his back with an impact I felt in every organ and bone, grabbing him, something snapping and both of us skidding headlong, tumbling and he was on me with claws tearing at me and his legs came up to rake down mine, ripping through the denim and skin and I screamed in pain and struck out, grabbing an ear and ripping, hand around throat and rolling. Like wrestling with a threshing machine, claws flashing and tearing with blurring speed. A gaping mouth of needle teeth and a shockingly-pink curled tongue lunged at my face and fangs caught my cheek, punctured under my chin and scraped against bone, skin and muscle tearing as I yanked away and red washed across my vision and the pain grew like a starburst across my face. I screamed a spray of red and swung an elbow, punched. No thought, just terror and pain and desperation driving me and the Rris yowled through a blood-stained muzzle, squalled fought back and ripped me again and again as we rolled through red-stippled snow and the skeletons of bushes until I was on top and drove my fists down again and again. . .

An impact across my side, under my arm, my ribs. It threw me sideways and I sprawled into snow. Couldn't move. Tried to get up and couldn't move, couldn't feel the cold, just an agony in my face that was a bright spike through my senses, dimming everything else into obscurity. Something caught me and rolled me and I was looking up at skeletal fingers laced across leaden grey. White flakes. Blinked and red washed across my vision and my arm hurt when I tried to wipe my eyes.

A shape moved above me, raised a glittering sliver of steel and thunder clapped and the sky was empty again. Another peal of thunder, echoing, jarring snow from branches.

It was very quiet.

I don't know what I was trying to do. Somehow I managed to get to my feet, I don't remember how. Everything seemed so remote, like my head was stuffed with cotton. I remember the light was painfully bright, blurred. I tried to wipe my eyes and my hand was red, the snow was pink, two Rris bodies didn't move.

I stared at them for a while, looked at the redness dripping from my left hand, felt it running down my side and face. My clothes were soaked. I touched my face and felt pain and something like raw meat and my fingers came away red. The shaking was starting, a numb feeling stealing over me as I tried to move, putting one leaden foot in front of the other.

Water. Light scintilating from trickling water, from the ice crystals congealing along the banks. Beyond it the fields were glaringly white, shifting light that hurt my eyes, and I saw Rris there: shapes running toward me. Noises sounded faintly, shouting that competed with the roaring in my ears.

It hurt to breath. It hurt to move. Shuddering violently and not just from the cold. Pink streamers swirled from my sodden jeans, tendrils of crimson whipping off into the water burbling around my boots. I stumbled as an underwater rock turned benath my feet and somehow my legs held until I reached the far side and only then folded face-down into the snow, half-in half-out of the water. Next I remember there was a Rris voice shouting and something grabbed my shoulder. The world rolled and a Rris face came into view. The eyes going shock-wide.

"Hai, rot."

Another figure crouching over me, propping me up, shouting at me:

"Mikah! Sah, no! Shave you! You [something] drowned- rat! Can you hear me? "

Hard to keep my eyes open and the pain was everywhere, worst in my face and along my right side - like the worst paper cut you can imagine. Noises throbbed through my head, prickles of heat washed over me, consciousness ebbed in and out. I remember there were more Rris around me, the sound of their voices, then hands were holding me. I tried to speak, coughed a spray of blood. My left cheek and jaw hurt like nothing I can describe: the whole side of my face swollen and ripped open. Rris called out and fussed around me, cloth wrapped around my face. Someone caught my left arm and I screamed as it was sharply yanked and I felt something grate and click through my bones.

The pain brought me back, back to more pain, pain from everywhere. I tried to move but hands held me while I quaked and kicked feebly and slowly sank into the dull haze of shock.

Memory of Rris holding me, half-carrrying me across a frozen snowscape. A crowded, dimly lit room with a soft bed and a heat that burned at me. A hellish vision of a Rris, face distorted by reddish light, leaning over me, doing something with a small sliver of metal. Distorted, inhuman hands reaching for my face and I couldn't move away, couldn't flinch in any direction. A small noise like an animal in pain filled the air as I felt metal and thread pulling through my skin and I dimly realised it came from me.

There was a lot more pain. A point came where shock and exhaustion and overload just pulled me away to a remote place inside. Rris moved around my body, doing things with knives and needles and things I couldn't identify.

Enough is enough. There was a point where I just don't remember anything any more.

Section 44

I'd fallen asleep on the couch again. I could hear Jackie out in the kitchen, clattering pots around while the television murmured background music: The Lion King again.

"You're watching that again?" I murmured and shifted and my waking dream shattered into fragments, my body scored with burning lines and I screamed and there was a twisted figure above me, raking me with razored claws again and again and the mouth gaped to bare inch-long fangs.

Hands pinned me and the visage snarled. "Mikah! Rot take you Mikah. All right, it's all right. Be calm."

Slowly I did, the words finding their way through the pain. The face was Chihirae's, her hands holding my shoulders. Hesitantly she released me;slowly, making sure I stayed put and just the slight rocking from that made me gasp. More pain, like a vast papercut across my ribcage. "No, don't." The voice buzzed through the ringing in my ears. A hand moved into my field of vision and Chihirae touched me again, just a fingertip. "Don't move."

I tried to move my mouth and that hurt. The entire left side of my face swollen so I couldn't open my left eye and felt the raw wound inside my mouth. I felt stiches and scabs tugging at my skin as I tried to say, "It hurts," in Rris.

Even to my ears the words were barely comprehendable, but she understood. "I know," she whispered. "I know."

Her home. Her bed. That small cubby set into the wall. Wrapped in sheets and blankets. My sleeping bag rumpled in the corner, looking slept-in. Sunlight spilled in through the small window, across the desk where the laptop played an old Walt Disney animated movie. Chihirae sat beside me and gently took my hand, wrapping her fingers around bandages covering my raw knuckles. I saw her face and I knew that expression: worry, fear. Her ears laid down. And I felt a pang of fear that momentarily pushed the pain aside:

"The cubs," I tried to say.

"What?" she looked pained. "Mikah, say again."

"The cubs," I croaked again through screaming muscles, squeezing her hand harder. "The cubs."

Her head flinched back and her pupils widened. "They. . . they are fine." She hesitated and licked her lips. "Feher was asking about you. They are worried. They saw you and thought you were dead and you. . ." She stopped, clamping her jaws together.

I closed my eyes, taking stock. Stiches, I felt those everywhere: minute tuggings like ants biting at my skin. My left arm: felt like it was in splints. Cuts on my arms, my hands, deep pains down my legs. I remembered those: the Rris toe claws raking my legs again and again. My face, the bandages and stiches there: I remembered the teeth, the inside of a Rris's mouth coming right at me is an image I've never managed to forget. My right ribs, the pain there: it was deep, a searing ache every time I took a breath. What was that?

"What happened?" I tried to ask.

"I'm not sure." She leaned her head back, ran fingers through her facial fur. "We don't know who they are. I don't know why they did this to you. Mikah, you didn't do anything to provoke them?"

"No," I breathed, barely audible.

"The cubs said you didn't." She hesitated and once again reached out to stroke a finger down my skin. "You don't know who they were? Do you? You haven't. . . seen other Rris before us?"

"No," I echoed, not really comprehending what she was trying to say. "They. . . just. . . I didn't. . ."

"All right, all right," she stopped me as I started to get upset. "The cubs told us what happened. You aren't to blame. Mikah, why did you do that? Why didn't you run?"

It hurt too much to smile. "From Rris?" I whispered.

"A," she glanced away. "I forgot." She patted my arm and asked, "Thirsty?"

Yes. Very. Incredibly.

She damped a cloth and touched it to my lips, gave it to me a drop at a time. It helped. I lay back on the bed, trying not to feel anything, just closed my eyes and began to remember: just snippets, little flashes of what had happened; The editing room of my brain clipping the footage of my memory together in some sort of order. "Four."

"What?" Chihirae cocked her head.

"Four of them."

"Yes," she said, her eyes flinching down to the water in her hand. "You don't remember what happened?"

"No."

"A," she licked her lips, "You. . . you killed two of them. Shyia found you just before they killed you. He heard you had gone off with the cubs and went after you. Just as well he did, a?" She made a small noise: a snort, lowered her muzzle and looked small. "Mikah, they nearly tore you apart. I don't know how you. . . I was afraid. I didn't know. . ." She trailed off into silence.

Killed them? Oh, shit. I closed my eyes and was mildly perturbed to find the news didn't really kindle any emotion in me. They'd tried to kill me, I'd killed them. I hadn't been trying to. She was watching me with her ears laid back. "Did not mean to," I mumbled.

"It's fine," she hastened to assure me. "I know, I know."

It didn't do much to comfort me. I sank back, feeling searing lines all over my body throbbing in time to my pulse. I tried to raise my right arm - just a bit - and nearly passed out from the effort.

"Mikah!" Chihirae caught my arm, pressed it down again. "Don't, just lie still!"

I grimaced through the swollen muscles. "How bad?"

"Uhnn." Her ears went down and she rubbed at the fur of her neck. "Mikah, I don't know. . ."

"Please."

Her tongue flicked around her lips. "Not good. Not good. You left a lot of blood on the ground. Your arm - there - is broken. There were over a dozen cuts in your legs that needed sewing up. Also your arms and your face: she almost bit it off. Your ribs there. . . the sword cut deep, cracked a rib. Your coat saved your life there. What is it made of? I've never seen material that can slow a sword so. . . never mind."

"Sword." I closed my eyes. "Don't 'member." I don't even know if she understood me then. My Rris - not the clearest at the best of times - slurred through swollen lips.

"What can we do to help you? Mikah? Is there anything we can do? Do you need food? Medicine? I've tried to find something in your machine but it's all in your language. I cannot. . ."

"She," I mumbled, my brain drifting back and forth through conversation and memory.

"What?"

"She?"

"The one who did this?" She touched my face, almost imperceptibly. "Yes."

"I kill she?"

"Uhn, yes. That upsets you? She almost killed you."

I tried to breath shallowly, tasting a coppery tang on my breath as I digested that. "She'd hurt cubs?"

Wrinkles marched across her broad muzzle and she studied me - just for a second - as if she'd realised I was seeing something she took as gospel through different eyes. "Yes. She would've. Now, I think you should rest."

Pain and disorientation swept over me, fear and hopelessness and a tsunami of confused emotions. I was shaking violently, tears wetting my face and bandages and taking the world away into an amorphous blur. A warm presence stayed by me: musty fur and harsh breath and the susuruss of a low voice.

Section 45

They were endless days of hell. Sleep was impossible. The pain kept waking me, dragging me out of troubled sleep where dreams and pain mingled and intertwined, turning any rest into something far from theraputic. Day after night after day, only sinking below an alpha state when the exhausion and fatigue poisons were enough to dull the edge of the pain, the spasming muscles.

There wasn't a lot the local doctor could do. He cut off bandages, applied a poultice of some kind, but he couldn't give me any Rris medicines. They didn't know what would hurt me, what might kill me, and I wasn't in any shape to help them.

Chihirae was there a lot. Some of the scratches became infected and that spread. When I started running a fever she was there with cloths and water to cool me down, to stop me dehydrating. When the deliriums took me. . . those are times I wish I can't remember. Not nightmares: I was awake, horrribly awake, seeing terrors that didn't exist:

Once again Rris tore at me and this time it didn't end.

A warm and familiar place, the rooms of my apartment, and there was something else there. I remember I was looking for something or someone, going from room to room. Claws came out of nowhere, viscious fangs ripping at me while eyes burned amber in the dimness.

Shapes H.R. Giger couldn't have dreamed of, coming out of the walls.

Jackie watching me wake up, changing even as I saw her, claws coming at me.

The sheets catching me, suffocating me.

Light streaming through windows scorched like molten metal, I was burning as it touched me.

I don't know why I remember them. Like dreams; I often remember those, but what I remember from those nightmarish days were so much more vivid. Compare a greyscale image with a 24-bit one; a charcoal with an oil. Vivid, yes, but they aren't memories I cherish. It's disturbing the stuff I'd dredged up from my subconscious: I've been through some pretty bad shit over the past few years, but far and away the worst's the stuff from my own psyche. It's not something I like to think about.

Section 46

Click

Darkness and confusion. I was hurting unbearably, the support of the desk the only thing keeping me standing. There was a weight in my hand: I looked down, blinking uncomprehendingly down the empty barrel of the Mediator's pistol clutched in my bandaged hand.

I just stared, not understanding what was happening.

A muffled noise and a furry hand flashed past to grab mine, firmly prised the gun away. I looked up into amber eyes:wide and shocked. "Mikah? What are you doing?"

I looked down at the gun again and honestly said, "I don't know." Then the last of my energy was gone and I collapsed across the desk, crying out at the pain in my broken arm. Chihirae cursed and grabbed me. It hurt as she helped me back to bed: stiff and weak and with sutures pulling at my skin. She helped me down onto the edge of the bed and sat herself beside me, still suppporting me while I just stared at the gun on the desk, feeling numb and empty inside as I realised what I'd been trying to do.

A small noise came from the Rris beside me and I looked at her as a furry paw came up to touch my good cheek and the dampness there. Her ears were still back in distress while her amber eyes tried to read mine. "Are you all right?" she asked softly.

"Yes," I answered, almost inaudible even to my own ears. I didn't feel it: I was shaking violently now.

"Hnnnn, Mikah," She held me, laid my head on her shoulder and just held me while I trembled and clutched at her fur. In the background I heard a door open and a voice ask, "What's going on? Is he. . ." and Chihirae's reply vibrating through her body: "Not now. Leave us. Please."

A hesitation, a sound of assent; the closing of a door.

I don't know how long we stayed like that, just holding each other in the darkness. Something rough and warm and wet rasped against my forehead, just for a split second, then she patted my head and helped me lay back and pulled the sheets back over me. Cold in there by now, until a furry figure slipped in beside me and got close.

"Mikah?" a voice murmured in my ear. "What were you doing? Do you want to talk about it?"

"What?" I answered unthinkingly.

A claw poked my skin, making me flinch. "Don't do this, please. You were trying to kill yourself, weren't you."

I didn't say anything. Wasn't it obvious?

"Mikah?" she ventured, then hissed softly. "That. . . that isn't something. . . I know you've gone through a lot, but surely it doesn't mean you have to do something like that? Why?"

I closed my eyes, trying to remember, but it was just a blank. "I don't know."

She didn't say anything; didn't press me. I felt her hand as a comforting weight across my chest, gently stroking my skin. A pleasant sensation beside the pain that was a constant companion. It was just so. . . impossible. How had my life come to this? A cottage in the snow, a dark room and a small bed with an alien. A world where I stood out from everyone else, where I was hunted. A sharp world, one that tore me inside and out, physically and mentally.

"How often?" I asked the darkness.

"Huhnn?" I felt Chihirae shifting beside me.

"This," I moved slowly to try and touch bandages and cuts. "How often will this happen?"

There was a hesitation, then: "I don't know."

I licked my lips and swallowed, wincing at the stab of pain just that motion caused in my lacerated face. "I can't live like this." I whispered and heard her intake of breath. She sat up to look down at me. I could see her eyes in the darkness and she didn't say anything as I continued. "This isn't my home. Chihirae, I don't belong here. I had friends. I had a family. It was my life. All gone. Now, just pain; too much pain."

"No," she was gentle when she touched my face. "It won't be like this all the time. Mikah, I don't know why they did this to you, but we're not all like that. You've only seen this village, but we have cities like yours, we have arts and music and great works. You haven't seen a play in the [resound] theatre, you haven't seen the carving walls in Lying Scales or the carvings in the Living Hall. . . There is more than violence. Please, Mikah, think. I know you are not that foolish."

I closed my eyes again, feeling the stinging as tears welled and a choked sob clawed its way out.

"Mikah," her finger touched the soft skin under my eyes and the moisture there, "don't, please. It will be all right." She stroked, just lightly. "Such thin skin. It hurts a lot doesn't it." There was a sigh, a wash of harsh breath. "I'm sorry, I just don't know what [something] would do to you."

Yeah, it hurt; inside and out. I just lay there, panting.

"Is there anything I can do?"

Send me home?

She waited during that silence, then made a small noise and her hand left me. Another pause, then she swung out of the bed and I saw her silhouette pad across the room to the desk, return and stand by the bed; she was holding the laptop. "Can you. . . would this help? Can you use it. Perhaps you could find something to help. Something that might help with the pain. Is there a plant? Something that might be here? There has to be something. . ." she trailed off and I could see her head shifting in the dimness, the dark pools of her eyes watching me.

Something.

I took the laptop, fumbling at the latch with bandaged fingers, and she leaned over to pop the catches for me with a clawtip. The bluish light cast up from the screen turned her features into something surreal, something demonic. With my hands bandaged up it was difficult to hold the stylus or type with anything other than finger-pecking. Chihirae watched, absorbed and silent, watching both my fingers and the screen as I accessed the encyclopedia and slowly pecked out text searches on drugs and barbituates and anesthetics. There were things that were totally unsuitable: chemicals and synthetics with names I couldn't translate and weren't likely to be found in the village or anywhere on the whole damned planet for that matter. I narrowed the search down to herb and natural sources and there was more succcess with those; she recognised some of the poppy flowers, some of the opiates. Too cold to cultivate this far north, she said. Too expensive. Unlikely the local doc would have any on hand.

However, it was a familiar green leaf she recognised. "That?" She leaned closer to the screen and her ears perked up so that the tufts atop them were practically quivering. "How do you use it?"

I tried to remember the words. God, I was tired, my head was throbbing, "Uhn. . . Dry it, burn the leaves. The smoke. . . You understand?"

She chittered, "Wait. Please. And don't do anything stupid."

"Uh?"

"Please," she said and I felt the pads on her hands press against my hands and then she took the laptop, the mattress bounced and she was out of the room, gone. I heard the front door bang shut behind her.

I opened my mouth, closed it again. She'd recognised the encyclopedia entry: Cannabis Sativa, common-or-garden marijuana. I laid my head back and shut my eyes, but sleep wouldn't come, not through the pain. Again I lay there and stared at the grain of the wood over my head, feeling my lacerations burning like live wires under my skin while cool moonlight filtered through the frost on the window.

Oh Christ, let this work. . .

"You are awake?" It was a different voice. A piece of shadow in the doorway shifted, green eyes flashed.

"Shyia?"

"Uhn." He came into the room and snagged the chair at the desk, straddled it. I saw his tail lashing across the patch of moonlight on the floor as he watched me. "How are you doing?" he finally asked.

"Be worse if you were not there." I forced a smile; "Thank you."

"Be dead if I wasn't there." I caught a glimpse of light glinting off teeth, and then he said, "Who were they?"

"I don't know."

His head shifted, as if he was looking down at his hands, "I think you do. They knew you. They were trying to kill you."

"But I have never seen them. . ." Then I trailed off, thinking back to the first Rris I had ever seen. "I might have. The barn."

"You remember?"

Just the figures in the door. Their faces were nothing, meant nothing. I had no points of reference, all I remember are androgynous, anonymous feline shapes emerging from barn doors. There were details: grey and gold clothes, a greenstone bracelet, but not individuals. No, I didn't remember. They all looked so alike.

Shyia studied me, like he was trying to decide if I was lying or not. And I didn't know why he didn't believe me. Was it simply because I wasn't Rris? I already had an inkling he wasn't entirely comfortable around me, so was his mistrust just xenophobia on his part? Maybe he had a better reason.

"Maybe later," he said, then: "The teacher looked upset. Any reason?"

I licked my lips. "Me," I confessed.

" Ah," I saw him turn in the chair to look back at the desk where his pistol still lay. His ears went down. "Do you want to discuss it?"

I couldn't shake my head; that movement hurt too much. "No," I murmured.

He didn't reply to that, just ducked his head and swung off the chair. He took the pistol with him when he left.

Section 47

It wasn't really sleep. Sheer exhaustion dulled everything into a haze, the fatigue poisons dulling the constant throbbing from several dozen deep gouges. Only dulling; never completely easing. The sudden painful spasms in my right leg snapped me back to sweating wakefulness, listening to the darkness for some undeterminable length of time while a moaning wind fumbled around the walls.

Voices from outside were loud in the stillness, abruptly growing louder as the front door was opened. A pair of shadowy Rris entered, lighting the lamp to reveal Chihirae and the town doctor whose fur was ruffled and peaked as if he'd been dragged out of bed. Probably had. ". . . it doesn't work. Is there something else we can try?"

"I'm not sure," Chihirae fiddled with the lamp, then came over to kneel beside the bed. "How are you doing?" she asked, stroking my forehead.

"I have felt better."

She looked confused, then gave a small chitter. "I can imagine." She patted my face, then eagerly said, "I found some. It isn't much, but it should help."

The doctor had a small leather pouch. There was a pipe, an actual pipe. Also a packet filled with dried weed. He showed it to me and it felt and smelt like the real thing. The pipe was simple: handcarved, with a carefully polished bowl and stem.

"Thank you," I said.

"A," he said, stepped back and pulled his coat a bit closer. Whispered an aside to Chihirae and she chittered. "Mikah, it's [something]. It's common. Just a [something]. Many people smoke it. It is easy to find."

"Oh." I felt the pipe, stroking my fingertips across the slightly uneven surfaces. "It might make me. . . strange."

"What?" her expression changed. "What do you mean?"

""Like when you are. . ." I fumbled for words. Shit, I didn't know their words for drunk. "When you drink too much?" No, that didn't seem to ring any bells. "It makes humans. . . it makes us feel. . . good. Maybe be foolish. Do you understand?"

"Yes." She was quiet for a short time, then asked, "Is it dangerous?"

"No. Not small bit." I hope not.

She just took the pipe and went over to the stove. When she came back the pipe was smoking gently. It'd been a long time, and then it'd only been a few joints at a friend's place. The first few puffs set me coughing and that hurt a hell of a lot, but then it seemed to go down smoother, easier and the pain suddenly wasn't as important. Shortly, the cubicle was shrouded in sweet-smelling smoke, things were blurring pleasantly. I looked at the two cats there and pictured hippy cats with flowers in their manes sharing a joint and giggled, "What's happnin' cats?"

"Mikah?" The name was distorted and a furred face leaned closer. I reached out my arm, fascinated by how long it seemed to be, and touched the fur. The texture was incredible, her puzzlement amusing. So was the fact she had six nipples, like leather buttons under the fur.

"Hai," she caught my groping hand and I watched as our joined limbs seemed to whirl like water going down a plughole. "You are [something]."

"And you must have trouble shaving your legs."

I don't really remember where things went from then; everything kind of runs together in a mellowed-out blur.

Section 48

It worked. Grass might only be an FDA approved prescription painkiller in a couple of states, but that stuff stewed my system enough that the combination of weed and exhaustion was enough to lay me out for some time. Not a miracle cure of course: there was still the pain when I woke and it was the doc who decided to keep me drugged up as long as possible. He took advantages of one of those drugged stupors to remove the stiches, an experience I'm not going to regret missing.

While the drugs helped me get some real sleep, they didn't stop the dreams, not entirely. There were still the night terrors, the times when I was woken by things I can't quite remember crawling around inside my skull.

Still, I wasn't the only one suffering. The Rris had to look after me. Poor Chihirae had her classes to attend, as well as nursemaiding me and that can't have been a pleasant job: bedridden, I couldn't use the toilet, I couldn't wash myself, couldn't feed myself. I'd been through this before and that only made it all the more frustrating to be relegated back to this status, lying helpless while she tended to intimate needs. Claimed it didn't worry her too much; just like looking after baby cubs she said.

Yeah. Right. Sure. I was just like a baby Rris. It's not like I had a lot of say about what had happened to me, but it didn't feel right that Chihirae had to be the one who shared in my misfortunes; not after all she'd already done for me.

The Mediator was. . . around. Sometimes he helped Chihirae: cooking meals, cutting firewood, watching me. I remember half-waking once with him washing me: impartial and thorough. Most of the time, however, he was out. Doing exactly what I didn't know.

I had a few visitors. The cubs, Feher, Chine and Ithi'tsa, dropped by to see me; seeming somewhat withdrawn as if they thought they were somehow responsible for what'd happened. I did my best to dispel that illusion and they came back. I enjoyed those visits, a lot. A flash of color in the plodding days and they made me laugh and forget about everything else for a while. There was one time Chihirae brought several adult Rris in: all unfamiliar, watching me with eyes that flicked across my body.

The cubs' parents. . . guardians, whatever. They were there to thank me. Awkwardly and uncomfortably, but that I could understand. Anyway, it's the thought that counts. Unless the cubs had talked them into it, which I later realised was a much more likely scenario.

And there was the afternoon the doc took the dressings off my face.

Section 49

Chihirae's ears went down as the doctor methodically peeled the bandages away. They adhered to the wounds, reluctantly coming away with uncomfortable tuggings, stained with blood and serum leaked from the healing suture punctures.

"Calm," the doc said as worked. "Don't move your jaw too much." The last of the cloth came away and he moved back to look at me and I saw his expression change: not by much, but it was enough. I reached up and fearfully touched my left cheek, expecting and dreading what I felt: the naked patches in my beard, raised lumps of scar tissue like starbursts and tracks across my cheek and under my jaw, the numb patches where there was no sensation and never would be again.

"It hurts?" the doc asked.

"No," I whispered. "No."

"Pleased to hear it." He sounded satisfied as he packed his equipment away. "It's healed better than I expected. They were bad [something] and your skin is like paper. I thought the stitches might begin to [something]. You are lucky to still have a face."

I gave a small half-smile: The muscles on the left side of my face didn't want to work properly. Lucky?!

He inspected the other serious wounds: the one across my ribs where the sword had sliced, the deeper ones on my legs and thighs where the Rris had used her foot claws to rake at me. My broken left arm was still imobilised in a splint, still healing and sore. I'd live, he declared , but I'd have to take things very easy for a while. Later, after Chihirae had thanked the doc and seen him to the door she returned to watch me in the silence of the little room. "You are upset," she said after a while, her voice deeper than any human woman's; completly inhuman.

"Me?" I gave a small snort and looked up, studying the patterns I'd already memorized. I didn't hear her move, but aburptly she was there by the bed. "Your face," she said and it wasn't a question.

I tried smiling again, "My good looks gone, huh?"

"That was a joke?" She chittered uncertainly and sat herself beside me. "Mikah. I don't know how. . ." She trailed off, looking flustered and tried again, "Your face. . .even before, most Rris would find you. . ."

"Fugly," I interrupted.

"What?"

"Not good to look at."

"I. . . yes," I don't know if I was reading those expressions correctly, but she seemed both relieved and embarassed at once. "You aren't Rris. They won't care if you have a few more [something]. I don't think anyone will even notice." I saw her face twitch. "Even without those a first look at you can come as quite a shock."

"Thank you."

I don't know if she caught the sarcasm. "I suppose you feel the same when you look at us."

Completely inhuman. That face, the body, every muscle and manerism: fur and fangs and eyes like nothing I'd ever seen before. "You are different. Not unpleasant. Sometimes frightening. Sometimes. . . beautiful."

She was taken aback by that, just stared at me.

"Sorry," I mumbled, and I was. Why'd I say that? Just complicated things. "Do you have a. . . a. . . "I didn't know their word for mirror.

Turned out she did: a tiny piece of glass backed with a layer of silver that was peeling in spots. It showed enough, my face, the angry-red worm-tracks through the pale hair of my beard. The scars twisted my face, raising the left corner of my mouth in a permanent small sneer that I could only iron out with an effort. Soon as I relaxed it sprang back like rubber Nixon mask. I stared at the tiny reflection with a hollow sensation in my gut. Maybe it didn't mean anything to the Rris, but it meant something to me! Shit, it was my face!

"It could have been worse," Chihirae volunteered.

I almost snapped something, then bit back the words before they escaped. She was right, in everything: Rris wouldn't care; and it could've been worse. It didn't really make me feel any better, but there wasn't any point taking it out on her. I handed the mirrror back with a half-smile I hoped was convincing. "True," I admitted.

She turned the mirror over in her hands, studying it for a few seconds before looking at me. "Can your kind. . . fix your face?"

"Yes."

"Oh," her ears drooped. "I'm sorry there's nothing we can do. We just don't. . ." she trailed off with small wave of her hand, as though grasping something I couldn't see. "There is so much you must take [something] that we can't do for you."

"I don't understand that word, schethey."

"It means what you are acccustomed to, things you are used to. Understand?"

"Yes." I tentatively tagged the word as 'granted'. Rris words often changed depending on their context. "There are things I miss."

She smiled then and reached out to touch my face, just gently. Her fingertip felt coarse against my skin as she stroked it down my temple, seemingly fascinated by the sensation. "Do you still hurt?" she asked and brushed the scar across my face, drawing away when I flinched violently. "Sorry. [something] you do. Do you want your drugs?"

I was shaking, not entirely sure if the reaction I'd felt was real physical pain or just a knee-jerk reaction to her touch. Already the flash of pain was ebbing and I licked my lips, "No. I think. . . I will be all right."

Amber eyes blinked. "You are sure? Maybe best. You were acting. . . strange."

"Strange?" That confused me and I was beginning to realise just how little recollection I had of the days I was stoned into unconsciousness.

"You got a bit silly," she elaborated. "Talking about things in your words, making noises I didn't understand. You didn't make any sense a lot of the time. I think sometimes you were upset about something. You wanted to mate with me sometimes, and some of those jokes you tried to tell. . . Why would a llama climb a. . ."

"Hey! " My heart skipped. "Wait! Rewind! What was that? I wanted to what with you?"

She squinted, as if going over what she'd said. "Oh, you said you wanted to mate with me." She studied me for a second, perhaps fishing for a reaction of some kind. "Your kind does seem to chase after [sex] a lot. No wonder there are so many of you. You don't have [something] do you; just whenever you feel like it."

I didn't know what the hell to say. She waited for me to speak, then cocked her head. "Mikah? What's wrong?"

"I am sorry. I. . . I didn't mean to say something like that."

Her ears twitched. "Ah, then you wanted to keep it secret."

"No! I meant I didn't want to mate with you."

"You find me unattractive?"

"No. I didn't mean that. I. . ." I trailed off, realising she was leading me on. "You are angry with me?" I asked, somewhat sheepishly.

"Not angry, no. When you first asked I was. . .[something]. It was a little [disconcerting]. But. . . you were not thinking properly." She gave a small chuckled then and looked down as she scratched at her pelted chest. "After all, I don't look like one of your females at all, do I?"

I struggled for something to say and came up with, "You have better ears." She flicked the tufted appendages in a smile. "And you have beautiful fur," she responded, reaching to lightly touch my hair.

It was an awkward moment. Just a second when there was nothing to do or say and her hand stroked my hair where it was growing in again. I touched her hand in turn, feeling the fur along her arm: coarse and wiry outside with the softer layers further in. Eyes met and there was confusion as I tried to read something in those features and knew she was trying to do the same and no words would come.

Or perhaps I was putting more into that moment than was really there. Anyway, if there had been something there it snapped when the front door banged, heralding the Mediator's return.

Section 50

"You're sure you don't recognize any of them?"

I shuddered against the cold and the gooseflesh that crawled down the back of my neck and once again looked over the dead Rris laid out among blocks of ice and other chunks of frozen meat in the village icehouse. Frost rimed their fur and their eyes were frozen over. One's head was twisted back at an unnatural angle, another with two blacked gunshot wounds in the chest and back. The third corpse looked like someone had taken a hammer to it's - her - face: tongue protruding from broken jaw, a missing canine, frozen blood plastered acrss the muzzle. She'd suffocated, choked from a crushed windpipe and I looked to my own scabbed knuckles, remembering bone and cartilage crunching under and in them.

But their dead faces didn't stir any other memories.

"Pity," the Mediator replied, his breath visible as he exhaled loudly. "There was that one who got away. He's had plenty of time to talk to friends about you now."

"You think there are more?"

He huffed and scratched at his chest through the quilted vest he wore. "I think that fine mistress Raeya is [something] in things she should not. "

"She is in cahoots . . . She knows these?" I nodded toward the corpses.

He shrugged. "One of you is lying about about something. While I think you haven't told us everything about yourself, I think you are telling the truth about this. Raeya. . . she does seem to be trying to hide something." He nudged a frozen corpse with his foot. "These were after you for a reason, Mikah. Even if you don't know what it is, you saw or did something you shouldn't have." He grunted then, "Huh, maybe they just don't like you."

There was nothing more we could do in that frigid little building. Rris were outside on that dreary day, watching us. Groups of furry spectators gathered on porches and stoops along the mainstreet, gossiping and chattering as Shyia assisted me back to the sled he'd commandeered: I think it was the same one they'd used to cart me back to Chihirae's cottage after that debacle with their truth drugs.

It was a smooth ride back. The snow was deep and the sled was built solidly, with enough weight on its metal runners to iron out the worst of the bumps. What was uncomfortable for me was the freezing air that set my scars and wounds to aching, especially bad on my face. I huddled down further into the fur-lined collar of my torn and bloodstained jacket.

The cottage was quiet, almost buried in the drifts banked up against the walls. I could see a trickle of smoke rising from the chimney of the small stove over in the barn where Chihirae had her class to attend to. Low clouds embraced the hilltops around the valley, tendrils of mist wending down into the frost rimed trees along the slopes. It was a sober, motionless scene; drably serene. I gazed up at the mists, remembering the assailants who'd ambushed us there, wondering if there were more watching us then, at that minute.

"You see something?" Shyia asked.

I flinched, looked around. He was hunched down in his long coak, watching me intently while behind him the draught bison snorted steam and pawed at the snow, clearing tufts of buried grass to tear up. With snow up to his knees the coat concealed most of the Mediator's body: a feline head perched on what - in that coat - could pass for a human body; snow and mist and dark denuded trees in the background. I was staring. He cocked his head quiziacally and I pulled myself out of the weirdness fugue. "No," I assured him. "Nothing."

Wisps of steam escaped his keyhole-shaped nostrils as he studied me. So many of them do that to me. If I'd brushed off a human with the 'nothing, don't worry about it' routine, they'd usually accept that. Rris don't. Maybe it's because I'm not Rris they aren't sure whether or not to trust me, they take that extra time to assure themselves I'm not going to go for their juglars.

I've only done that a couple of times.

With a final glance up at the hills the Mediator helped me back into the house. I slumped in a chair while he got the stove going again. First time I'd been out for a long time and it'd taken a lot out of me.

A hand touched my head, "How are you doing?"

"Just tired."

"Your ribs. How's that cut?"

It was stinging. "It'll be all right."

"Do you want to lie down?"

"It's all right. I should study. Chihirae wanted me to understand maps today."

He glanced at the books on the desk. "Good. I asked her to make sure you did. I'll sit with you. There are a few things I want to make sure you understand. I think you might need help."

"Only all I can get."

He blinked, then chittered. "I understand."

It was those maps again. They made me nervous. Now I had the chance to study them and compare them to maps on my Atlases the differences were apparent. Not many, too goddamn few. I'd been trying to avoid thinking about it, but the geography lessons I'd had with Chihirae kept rubbing my face in it. Vermont. . . it wasn't Vermont here. Oh, yeah, the Green mountains were still there, the upper end of Appalachian chain, but Lake Champlain was all fucked up; the Connecticut River went way out of its way, and there was a new lake in what should've been the north-eastern tip of the state.

Other states hadn't fared much better. Long Island was no longer an island. The Chesapeake Bay was twisted slightly to the west, as though the Potomac was entering in a different place. The Great Lakes had undergone more changes with Lake Eerie seeming to have grown somewhat; Lake Huron lost some of its girth, turning into a long banana-shape. A lot of Chihirae's maps were poorly detailed, especially regarding areas like northern Canada and the far west and south. Either California didn't exists here, or it hadn't been properly explored. There were a few examples of places that could only be England and maybe parts of South America and Africa, but they read like medieval human maps, right down to the Rris equivalent of 'here be dragons' emblazoned across unmarked areas.

And Shyia told me about the people who inhabited these maps.

Lying Scales: The closest town to the village of Westwater and the seat of government for the local demesnes, lying about 50km to the northwest. 50km as the crow flies, probably a lot further than that by ground if the Rris roads were in the condition I suspected they were. There were other towns and cities marked on the maps, a lot of them on tributaries, lakes, others along lines delineating roads or trading routes or something.

"Lying Scales," Shyia extruded a claw to point out the town nestled at the southernmost tip of Lake Champlain. "Not one of the largest towns, but many roads lead there, also trade from [something] lake. You understand?"

"I did not understand the name of the lake."

"Ah." He repeated himself and explained the words I didn't know. Thief's Lament: It sounded like there was a story behind it but it wasn't the time to ask. Names were a minor problem, especially translating them into English. That's something I don't often do now - I find I do a lot of my thinking in Rris - but back then it was something I couldn't help and certain names became somewhat unwieldy. 'You-Mangy-Bastard' is a small coastal town that reeks of fish; It doesn't translate exactly - because of their social structure, 'bastard' is a pretty meaningless phrase - but in Rris it's a sharp bark, useful as a mild insult. Something that doesn't seem to worry the occupants of You-Mangy-Bastard too much. There were other problems: the names I couldn't pronounce, the fact that he'd been immersed in this environment for his entire life and I was coming into it not only as ignorant as a new-born, but not even having the same mindset. Ideals and values I'd taken for granted back home changed here: their attitude to town planning, family values, color, pleasant weather, food, personal habits, recreation. . . the list goes on.

Still, this lesson with Shyia began to differ from the ones Chihirae had given me. Not so much geographical as political. I knew the Rris had a hierarchical government of some kind; The town mayor answered to a higher power and both Chihirae and Shyia worked for various branches of it, but I didn't actually know WHAT it was. This was what the Mediator was trying to lead me into, one step at a time.

There wasn't one government, there were a dozen. Different countries, subdivided into smaller city-states dividing up the continent I knew of as North America and the Rris called Mainland. Not too surprising, after all; our name for our planet is also our word for 'ground'. Poetic, huh?

Thri'te Ish: Land-of-Water. That was where I was. The territories along the northeast, delineated by a jagged southern border approximately where the New York-Pennsylvania would be back home, the northern border ranging up into the Northern Territories, what I'd known as Canada. To the south, Land-of- Water was bordered by Bluebetter: a long, narrow realm occupying the southern east coast down as far the Florida peninsula. Cover- My-Tail lay to the southwest, encompassing the Appalachian chain. The majority lay to the west, landlocked countries, clustered around the Great Lakes, spreading across the plains to the Rockies: Overburdened, Nights-in-Wonder, Seas-of-Grass, Hunting-Well. . . all the others who's names are so familiar to me now I've visited so many of them in one role or another.

Land-of-Water, all of the lands, were monarchies. Land-of- Water's dynasty had ruled for generations, a line by the name of Chihiski. Hirht ah Chihiski was the current liege lord: a decent ruler from everything that Shyia told me, but I had a suspicion his opinion might be biased. The capital was based in the city of Shattered Water, situated about where Buffalo should have been on the north-eastern tip of Lake Erie. From there the town had access to the ports on Erie, Ontario, and through those, the waterways throughout the kingdom. Shyia showed me some maps and illustrations of Shattered Water and judging by those, it was several orders of magnitude larger than Westwater, but still not approaching the size of a place like Richmond.

Relations with neighboring kingdoms were generally amicable: cooperation, open trade flourished, especially around the Lakes where rivers and canals and the lakes themselves provided an excellent natural transportation network. According to Shyia, Land-of-Water had a substantial industrial base and was a land rich in minerals. Their major exports included ore and coal, with lumber and cattle coming a close second, importing grain and things I didn't understand.

That was where the problem started. Chihirae had kept her lessons basic, working with concepts I could understand: physical things, things I could see. My Rris had improved vastly, but it wasn't up to being force-fed a political manifesto. Shyia began outlining the relationships and alliances and what-not between the kingdoms and that was where I lost him. It was too vague, to far removed from anything I'd been able to cover. The political lesson bogged down into language and grammar lessons that frustrated me just as much as they did the Mediator.

We were still at it when Chihirae returned. Shyia's facial fur was ruffled where he'd rubbed at it in frustration. "You spend your life teaching?" he growled at her. "I would go mad."

She laid her books down on the desk beside my laptop. "It is something you learn to [something]," she smiled.

"I don't think I'll live long enough," he sighed. "Rot it all. Just as I think I'm [something], there is something else he doesn't know."

"I am sure you could do better," I growled.

"Mikah," Chihirae warned me and turned to the Mediator. "I don't think he's doing too badly for someone who has only learned to talk a few months ago."

The Mediator huffed, ruffled fingers through his mane. "True, but he's still hard to understand. What happened to his face hasn't helped."

She looked at me and I saw her ears tip back. I turned away and there was a pause before she coughed, then said, "Well, Mikah. Do you think you learned anything today?"

"That there is a lot I don't know."

She chuckled and lightly swiped the tip of the Mediator's tail. "You see: you have taught him something."

He snorted. "Don't think I'm going to change my [something[."

Chihirae laughed at that then sat herself down on the edge of the bed to begin brushing away lumps of melting snow and ice matted into her leg fur. "I don't think anyone's going to be asking you to do that. Think about what you're trying to do though. You've spent your life doing what you are trying to teach him, you can't expect to [something] that into him in a few days."

His face muscles twitched into some expression I didn't recognise. "We have to."

Chihirae stopped what she was doing. "'Have to'? What do you mean."

"I want to take Mikah out of here on the next caravan to Lying Scales."

"That's. . ." Chihirae burst out, then looked at me with her ears down. "Why? Not so soon. He's not ready for that."

"I know." His tail lashed as he perched himself on the edge of the desk, letting the limb thrash back and forth across the wood like an animate duster. "I don't think it's safe for him here. Those corpses out there were after him and I think there are more where they came from." He hissed softly, then continued, "Mikah saw someone he was not supposed to, doing something they were not supposed to. They will try again and this time he probably won't live. Maybe others will get hurt also."

"But he's not. . . "Chihirae started, then looked at me with distress in her eyes. "You want to take him to Shattered Water?"

"Eventually, yes."

"You know what will happen. You know what it will be like for him."

"I know. I'm sorry, Mikah, but it is better than ending up like those things in the icehouse."

That wasn't a pretty picture. "Do I have any other choices?" I asked softly.

"No," Shyia said.

"If I go away? Like I came here, if I just go away. . . out there somewhere," I waved in the general direction of the window.

There was a silence and the Rris glanced at each other. "Mikah," Chihirae coughed, "they would come after you. They would hunt you."

I had suspected as much. I met the Mediator's green eyes, "Would you try to stop me?"

A moments consideration before he said, "No."

Fear of me? or was there some feeling there? or was he just saying what I wanted to hear. Whatever it was, his tail was lashing like something with a life of its own. "But you aren't going to try that, are you?" he said.

"It isn't something I want to go through again," I smiled weakly then tried to brush my hair back, feeling scars across my scalp. "Maybe this will be more fun, a?"

"Mikah," the Mediator looked like he had something he wanted to say, then changed his mind. "Mikah. . . it won't be easy."

"You're really great at inspiring confidence, you know that," I sighed in English.

The Rris exchanged confused glances.

Section 51

I couldn't sleep that night. Too much to think about. Long after the Rris had turned in and the fire had died to embers I lay in darkness, staring up at nothing while the events of the day played through my thoughts; the possibilities of the future as indistinct as the wooden ceiling not two metres above me.

There was a low cough in the darkness, a momentary rustle of fur on cloth from over where Chihirae was bedded down in my sleeping bag. I felt uncomfortable about that; I didn't mean to be such a difficult houseguest, forcing her out of her own bed.

"Can't sleep?"

I flinched at the quiet voice and looked over at Chihirae: pointless, there was only shadow. "No," I sighed, swallowed. My voice caught when I asked, "Chihirae? What will it be like?"

A pause, then again the rustle of cloth and I caught a glimpse of her surreal figure against the dim blueness spilling in through the window, a puff of her breath in the air, then the bed shifting as another weight settled. "Move over. It's cold out here."

I moved, not thinking, and warm fur and cold feet slipped under the covers: incredibly weird against my skin. A hand laid against my ribs and my skin flinched at the cold touch, "Don't worry so much."

"I'm sorry. It is just that. . . Chihirae?"

"Yes?"

"Have you ever heard of. . . mouth wash?"

"No. What is it? A drink?"

"Never mind," I shook my head. "It is. . . hard not to worry. What you and Shyia tell me, it scares me. Will it be so bad?"

Her hand flexed - so slightly, but claws kissed against my skin. After a time she answered: "I can't say for [something] what will happen. Understand: you are going to a place where many people will try to use you for their own purposes. Some will try to use you against others, some will try to make you do things you don't want to." She sighed then and harsh breath washed over me. "And there will be people who are afraid of what you are, what you represent, of the changes you might bring. There might be. . . accidents."

I didn't say anything, I understood.

"You need more time," she murmured. "Sending you to the court is like sending a cub to judge a [something]."

"It can't be so bad," I forced a smiled.

"I hope you're right." I couldn't see her expression, but in the darkness her hand came up to touch my face, to gently touch the scars there. "You've already made someone angry. I don't think that's a good start."

"But they won't come back, will they? Why? I haven't done anything."

"They thought you had. It wasn't an accident Mikah."

"You are not helping."

She almost laughed, a choked sound, "Mikah, this is the only way I can help you. You must understand: a lot of people won't see you as another person. To them you will be an animal: maybe useful, maybe annoying, but to a lot of them you'll be a [something]."

I shuddered, caught after her hand with my good one and laced my fingers around hers.

"Maybe they'll learn," she murmured.

"You did."

"Ah," she chuckled. "I did."

"Am I so horrible?" I asked. "I don't want to hurt anyone. I am not built for it like you are." I squeezed her hand and felt claws extrude a little.

"I know." I felt her shift again, fur rasp against my shoulder as she laid her head there. "But you have killed two Rris, Mikah. It isn't something that's going to go unnoticed." She raised herself up then, to look down at me I suppose: all I could see were indistinct highlights on fur as she spoke. "Mikah, don't let them upset you. Whatever happens, stay calm. If you hurt someone, accidentally or not, I don't know what would happen."

"I will remember."

"Good," she settled down again, hooked an arm across my chest and actually hugged me, wary of my broken arm. "I would hate for anything to happen to you."

"You make my. . . what is to happen. . ." I touched the fur of her arm, stroked it sadly. "It does not sound like a life I will enjoy."

"Don't say that." There was another hesitation and when she spoke again it was a low voice, gentle and unsure. "You. . .what you did with Shyia's gun; you won't try that again?"

How do you answer that? I'd never intended to do it; the pain, the fear and shock had just gotten too much. In a way it'd been someone else who'd raised that pistol, pulled the trigger. I didn't know what the future held for me, I didn't know if it would happen again.

"Mikah?"

"I. . . I don't. . ." I took a deep breath, to calm down, and made a promise that I had no idea if I'd be able to keep. "No, I won't."

A rough tongue touched my cheek, felt like wet steel wool rasping against my beard. "I know you will do your best," she murmured and licked me again. It tickled and confused me. "What is that? What does it mean?"

"It is a [something] of [something]."

"I don't understand those words."

"Sorry." She laid her head down again and I felt her breath in my ear. "It's to calm cubs. It shows. . . I am here, I am close, I care for you."

I swallowed hard and rolled, trying to see her. "Chihirae, I. . ."

Oh, shit. Oh, Christ, I wanted to say it, I really did, but I didn't know the words. Even if I had, even then , it would've sounded stupid. A foolish sentiment. I closed my eyes and just held her close.

Section 52

It was another two days. Two days of waiting and tension and lesson upon lesson: names, places, customs and protocols, do's and dont's. . . information just piled on top of itself, too much to absorb. I did my best, recorded more on the laptop to review when I had the chance. Even so, I've made enough faux pas in situations that we'd covered in those cram sessions, lessons I'd forgotten.

Shyia continued my education, sitting with me through the days while Chihirae took up the evening shift until long after the light was gone and the town down the valley asleep. At the end of the day I'd collapse into bed, my head still full of Rris and words and sounds and concepts.

There were dreams those nights, some good, others not so. The one I remember most vividly: lying on a table under shifting red lights while Rris with surgeons' masks gathered around, brandishing knives gleaming bloody, now we'll see how it works. The knives pricked my skin and I woke with Chihirae asleep against me, embracing me, her claws dimpling my skin.

I snugged closer. A cold night. The last time I'd be sharing a bed for a long while.

Section 53

"How are you doing?"

"I am fine." I waved her help aside and kept on limping along the road, staggering through drifts that came up over my knees. Chihirae laid her ears back and looked dubious, but let me alone. On my other side the Mediator readjusted my fully-loaded and ill-fitting pack again and squinted into the morning sunlight at the surrounding hills. Was he expecting trouble? Had he seen something? He caught my questioning glance and just said, "Nothing. Don't worry."

That morning was my last morning in Westwater. I'd already been packed when Shyia had arrived to say we'd be leaving. The foul weather we'd been having the past few days had broken up leaving achingly clear skies and a stiff breeze that raised goosebumps on exposed skin. I huddled deeper into the collar of my much-abused jacket and kept limping toward the village.

Main Street of Westwater was busy for that time of the morning. There were wagons parked there, two of them, with bison in the traces ruminating and steaming in the crisp air. Even as we made our slow way along the snow-bound road I could see Rris, hear their shouting on the wind. They were everywhere: bustling around, shouting and waving arms as they finishing loading and securing cargoes in the back of the wagons, bundles of furs, boxes and barrels being tied in place. Of course when they saw us more and more eyes turned our way. Some stopped what they were doing to stare openly, others just waved or shouted a greeting and returned to work.

My boots sunk into a mulch of mud and ice churned by iron-rimmed wheels as Shyia led us to the lead wagon. Difficult keeping my balance with one arm in a sling. A burly Rris - I couldn't tell if it was male or female - was snarling as it struggled to hook up a final loop of rope securing a canvass covering the cargo. "Hesya?" Shyia asked.

"What?" the other snarled in irritation and gave a triumphant 'Hah!' as the rope slipped over the hitch on the rail and turned to Shyia, dusting hands. "Who. . . Ah, you're back. I . . .what the rot is that?"

Shyia looked at what the Rris was gaping at: me. "Ah, I did say there's another passenger."

"That?!" The Rris looked me up and down. Behind, I could see a small audience of townsfolk watching the display with some amusement. "By my mother's [something]. What is it?"

"His name is Mikah, or something like." The Mediator reached up to pat my shoulder. "He won't hurt you."

"I do not bite," I volunteered.

The Rris jerked back and banged into the wagon. "Rot me! It spoke!"

"He does that sometimes," some wag in the audience called out and there was laughter. The butt of their amusement looked around with ears back, obviously confused. Shyia's own ears flicked before he turned to wave the watching Rris away. Some returned to work, others just retreated to the stoops along the sides of the street where they settled to watch from a distance. The Mediator ignored them.

"What is this thing?" the other Rris was asking again.

"Just a passenger," Shyia said. "You'll be ready to leave on time?"

"I. . . uh. . . yes," the Rris couldn't keep its eyes off me.

"Good," the Mediator swung my pack down and looked at the wagons. "Where can this go?"

"Uh . . . there," the other waved vaguely toward the other wagon, transfixed by the sight of me.

"Come on then," Shyia snarled. "I have some cargo to be packed away."

The wagon driver blinked, licked his lips, then hurried off in the Mediator's footsteps.

"Get used to it," Chihirae murmured.

"Won't be easy," I replied and looked down at her. She was watching me closely, like I might go off on a rampage. "Do I look so dangerous?"

She ducked her head. "Sorry. I wasn't sure how you would. . . It was someone who didn't know you. I didn't know what you would do."

"I was all right?"

She smiled then and reached up; her fingertips patted my face, "You were fine. I smiled also, caught her hand and held it, exploring the contours, the muscles and bones with my fingers. "Oh, Christ. Chihirae, I'm going to miss you."

Wrinkles marched up her muzzle as she fleered her lips back; a human-type smile. "It will be too quiet around here with you gone. I hope we can meet again."

I looked down at our hands, her tawny, stubby fingers lacing between my longer sparsely-haired ones. "I. . . I have this for you." She stared when I produced the papers. "For everything you've done for me; It isn't much. . . I am sorry."

She unfolded one: a picture of her at her desk, glasses in one hand, an almost-human smile on her face. One of my Rotring ball-points rolled out into her hand and she looked startled, "Mikah, I can't. . ."

"Sure you can. I'm sorry it's not much. . . After all you've done," I trailed off and shrugged apologetically.

A Rris smile spread across her own features, "Mikah, it is nothing to be sorry about. Thank you."

I shrugged awkwardly. "I. . . there is something else."

"Hnn?" Her ears pricked up.

The Mediator was out of sight, out of earshot, nevertheless I lowered my voice. "Back at the house, in a cupboard, I left papers. Writings. They are. . . important. Please, look after them."

She looked confused. "What? What do you mean?"

"If I. . . if something happens to me they will help you. I. . . "I shook my head. "They can help you learn my language."

Her jaw sagged. "I don't understand," she said.

"It is for you, for Rris. If something happens to me they will be in a safe place."

"But you're going to talk to others. They will want to learn how to read the stuff on your machine, learn your language. You can teach them. "

"I. . .I'm not sure how much I want to tell them." I hung my head, realising how that must sound. "I just think maybe it would be best if there were. . . if there were copies in a safe place. In case something happened. Anyway, you wanted to learn my language, didn't you?"

"All right. I will look after them. Don't worry." She smiled then, "Ah, there's a few others come to see you off."

I looked: a small group of cubs, a half-dozen or so, scampering over and drawing up short, as if suddenly struck shy. Shyia beckoned and they came closer. I knew them: Chine, Ithi'tsa, and Feher. "You're going now?" that one asked.

"It looks like it," I smiled and crouched to bring myself to his level. "I would like to stay longer, but. . ." I trailed off and just shrugged.

"It'll be boring without you," he said and came closer, reaching to touch my face. I suffered his finger stroking the skin of my cheek. "Do you have to go?"

"I think I do," I said. "The Mediator wants me to meet some people."

"Red tie it," he 'pouted', his tail lashing.

"Why can't he stay longer?" another cub demanded of Chihirae.

"It's not safe for him," she explained. "Those people tried to hurt him, they might come back."

"But Mikah killed them!" Chine piped up, taking a bloodthirsty delight in the fact and Chihirae gave me a sidelong look before trying to explain that there might be more. They seemed convinced that I could take on anything. My months of convalescence seemed to have slipped their minds.

" Are you coming back?" Feher eventually asked.

"I don't know. I hope I can," I said, meaning every word.

"They don't let you out either?" the cub grinned at me with tiny teeth. In the background I could see adult Rris watching; trusting me enough to let their cubs get this close, but still. . .

"No," I told Feher, "not often. I think I will miss you also."

He laughed then, then one of the others poked him with a claw and muttered something. He hissed back and Ithi'tsa stepped up to prudly present me with a small package. "We made these. A travelling gift."

"I thank you," I accepted the package made from scraps of leather. Inside was a pair of gloves: neatly tanned tan-colored deerhide, rough stitching, and they fit and they were warm. I flexed my fingers and grinned, "These are perfect. How did you know?"

"Saw it on your box," Feher exclaimed, obviously proud of himself.

I smiled and thanked them again and they preened in the praise, laughing and joking, throwing Rris puns around in word games I still didn't really understand. That was the enjoyable part of the farewell, a time I remember fondly. It was the part an hour or so later that was so much more difficult.

When I said my final goodbyes to Chihirae.

"I have never liked goodbyes."

She ducked her head. "Me neither. It will be. . . quiet around here without you." She smiled wanly, then offered her hand. I looked at it, at her face solemnly waiting. She'd most likely seen the gesture on the laptop and I hesitated for a heartbeat before taking her hand in mine, feeling the fur and muscles and bones. For a second we stayed like that, then in front of all those Rris who were watching us I hugged her close, ignoring the protests from my broken arm, lowering my head to the wiry fur of her head, tufts on her ears tickling me. "Oh, Christ! I'm going to miss you."

She stood there at a loss, tense and uncertain, then she sighed and her arms were around me her head nuzzling my chest. I heard Rris exclamations at this display but I really didn't care what they thought. My friend, and christ only knew when or if I'd ever see her again. It was hard to let go.

Section 54

"You're going to miss her, aren't you."

I pulled my coat a little closer and looked up at the Mediator. There wasn't much spare room in the wagon, just a none- too wide space cleared for us in the back where we sat facing each other, my feet not too far from touching the opposite side. "Is it so easy to tell?"

He cocked his head. Damn, didn't he have a sense of humour? "With that display back there I think anyone could tell. You know that could be dangerous. If someone wanted to get to you they could use. . ."

"Fuck that. Enough with your games for a while. I just wanted to say goodbye."

He huffed, fur bristling. "Games? Is that what you think this is?" Then he coughed and looked away from me.

I hadn't meant it like that. For a second I considered saying something , changed my mind and settled back. The wagon wasn't comfortable. It'd never been designed for passengers, human or otherwise. No seats and no shocks, we had some canvasses bundled up as makeshift cushions, but besides that there was nothing between my butt and the boards.

We'd headed north, up the valley, away from the town, following the stream. I remembered looking back at that final turn before Westwater passed out of sight to see that familiar figure standing, a hand raised and fell in a final wave. Someone who'd come to mean so much to me, into my life, then out of it. Goodbye I whispered as the town was lost around the corner.

It was white out there, a white world of ice and snow and trees bowed low under their burdens. Surprisingly, the forest wasn't as dense as it'd been back home. The trees were huge and old and widely spaced, the undergrowth not as heavy as it'd been in the parks I'd known. Puzzling; the Rris couldn't have accomplised nearly the amount of deforestation and replanting we had. The hills were green and white, natural patterns, none of the firebreaks and man-made scars I remembered. The wind that came off those mountains was as cold as the snow. Midday brought sunlight but little warmth, instead there was a white glare that - after my time in that dimness of the cabin - had me reaching for my Oakleys. It was the first time Shyia had seen them and he stared openly, "What are those for?"

"They are. . . They make seeing more. . . easier comfortable in much light."

He hissed. "Too dark, too light. How can you see at all?"

"We manage," I grinned.

His ears went back a little. "You're going to have to stop doing that. Especially with those things on."

Stung, my humor deflated. "Sorry," I said and as he watched wondered - not for the first or last time - if I wouldn't be better just running.

Section 55

I don't know how they could call it a road. I guess in warmer times it was a pair of rutted lines through the countryside but at that time it was buried under a deceptively smooth-looking layer of snow that did a damn good of hidding the worst of the pot- holes. No bridges either: the times we had to cross a stream or small river it was by ford.

As the sun sank the temperature plumetted right along with it. So it was late and freezing when the pair of wagons drew up to stop for the night, the only light was the cold blue wash from the moon and stars that polarised the snowscape into a crosshatching of light and dark. Judging by the fire-pit and small supply of wood stashed away that place was a regular stop for them. The Rris set about unhitching the bison, getting the fire started and breaking out food. I broke into my pack and pulled out another sweater and even with that under my jacket it was cold. At least the wind had died.

Later:

We sat around a small fire while a thread of smoke climbed to dissapate into a sky dusted with the pinpoints of stars and the spill of the milky way. I still find it soothing to look at that, to know something in my life was staying constant. The Rris had their near- raw meat, mine was shis-kebeb: well done with meat, potato and citrus on the skewer. Sounds weird but it sure tasted alright. I chewed slowly, my jaw aching as the cold got into the scars.

'What happened to you?"

I squinted across the fire at the Rris who'd spoken. One of the wagondrivers. The first time one of them had spoken to me. "Happened to me?"

"Your face," he pointed. "Those marks. . . Or is that normal?"

I touched the scars. "Oh. Trouble with a bandit."

"What happened to them?"

Shyia coughed, drawing attention his way. "They were taken care of," he said softly and I saw the other's ears draw back as they stared at me. A sure way to kill a conversation I thought as I returned to my meal. Until one of the drivers startled me by venturing, "Where do you come from?"

"A place. . . a place where there are a lot like me."

"Near here?" the other - Hesya - asked.

"No. It's. . . It's a very long way away. I don't know just where."

The Rris tipped his head, in a gesture or just because he had a kink in his neck, I wasn't sure. "Then how did you get to Westwater?"

"An accident, I think. I don't know. I didn't have any choices."

"So how are you going to go back?"

That hit close. I glanced at Shyia and he looked away. "I don't know," I finally said. "I. . . don't think I can."

The pair exchanged looks before one asked Shyia, "Are you taking it to Shattered Water?"

"I don't think you need to know," the Mediator replied.

The other looked annoyed, then shrugged and looked at me again, "What are you anyway?"

"A human."

"H'an," he tried the word, laughed along with his companion. "Why is that so hard to say? H'an. Are you male or female?"

I blinked at that, somewhat taken aback. Still, I have the same problem with Rris. "Male."

"Wouldn't know it to look at you." He smiled and tore another mouthful of meat. "How did you learn to talk?"

"I had a teacher."

"Teacher? Oh, that one. She comes here every winter."

"Nice female," the other agreed. "Very nice." Then flashed his companion a peculiar expression, with his jaw dropped and tongue lolling. A leer? or perhaps they were just commenting on her pleasant personality.

Yeah. Sure.

"That explains your [something]."

"My what?" I asked. "I don't know that word, c'rocth."

"They mean the way you speak, the way your words sound," Shyia told me.

"Right," one of the wagoneers said. "You sound like someone high-born."

His friend waved a hand and said, "From you it's like a bison wearing pants." There was laughter from all three Rris, Shyia included. I shrugged.

No beds that night. The Rris drivers settled their bedrolls on top of their cargo; not very comfortable, but better than the ground. I used the last of the firelight to pitch my tent. The Rris made surprised noises and sat up to pay attention when I gave the bag a practiced flick of my wrist and the small igloo popped into shape. It was a couple of minutes work to stake it out in a rock-free patch of ground and make sure the poles' joints were locked.

Shyia cocked his head and said, "Useful."

"Ai! Where can you get something like that?" one of the teamsters called.

"A long way from here," Shyia retorted.

At a pinch it could take two people; human-sized people. With a smaller Rris, there was a bit more room. Shyia lay back on his bedroll with just a light blanket and his fur. While I wormed myself one-handed into my own bag he reached a furred hand up to touch the Thermstal fabric, poked the tent with a claw and snorted.

"Something you don't like?" I asked.

"You need another wash," he said. "You smell like sweating hands."

I just looked at him. For someone who's sodden fur had an almost-unbearable wet-dog reek, he was a fine one to talk.

And he didn't even seem to notice, just lay back and stared at the roof. "You enjoy sleeping in these things? So flimsy, like climbing into a trap."

"You would rather sleep in the snow?" I hinted.

He lolled his head around to fix me with a glittering stare, then snorted and rolled over.

Section 56

Three days travel. Two nights of lying and staring at the roof and worrying before drifting into a restless sleep. It was the second day that the track we were on linked with another, then another, with wheel marks showing there'd been other traffic using it recently. There were other signs of civilization: stone and wood bridges over a couple of the rivers, once something I was told was a signal tower: a few huts around a small stone tower at a crossroads. A couple of Rris wearing what looked like brass breastplates and quilted leggings leaned on the tower railings and watched us pass. Soldiers? Further on a much larger river had to be ferried. A barge more than large enough for the pair of wagons nestled at the end of a short stone pier. The ferryman was watching from the stoop of a nearby clapboard house as we rolled up. A short, stocky Rris of indeterminate gender - a male I think - who dutifully argued fares with the wagondrivers, glared at Shyia, pulled a knife when it found I wasn't on a leash.

After he'd been calmed and disarmed it was another quarter-hour to load the wagons and draught animals and secure them. There was a rope as thick as my arm strung across the river, running through a heavy pulley on the barge. The ferryman just angled a rudderlike thing against the current and the barge began scooting crabwise across the river. Neat trick.

A peaceful crossing. I spent it leaning against a railing and watching scabs of ice floating downstream, shattering and spinning away when they struck the sides of the ferry. The ferryman spent too much time watching me instead of the river. We grounded on the far bank with a crunch of ice and a jolt that had the teamsters shouting at the ferryman as they calmed their animals. Shyia led me ashore where we waited on the icy jetty while they sorted everything out and that night I had dreams where my old life and acquaintances and friends mixed and mingled with Rris in a tangled morass that prevented me getting much sleep.

The third morning we left the hills behind us. We crested the last rolling hilltop to look down on a rolling winter landscape, the Adirondack Mountains in the distance, the glittering of ice on Lake Champlain - Thief's Lament was their name - stretching away to the north. Civilization there, more than the few odd buildings of the previous days. Farmland, swathes cut from the forest across the breadth of the valley, kilometers of cleared land subdivided into smaller parcels, onion-rings radiating out from the sprawl of the town of Lying Scales at the southern tip of Thief's Lament lake. Our small caravan dipped down into the valley, following wider roads passing between snow-drifted hedgerows and rickety-looking wooden fences, passing outlying farms where Rris went about their business, spreading feed for the livestock, cutting timber and firewood. Sometimes workers saw me and stopped what they were doing to just stare.

Closer to and the buildings were more elaborate, richer estates. Mills and granaries. A bunch of buildings with smokestacks and piles of coal outside, belching smoke. I could hear machinery of some kind chugging away inside. Another place gave vent to the most unholy reek; Shyia told me it was a tannery. Shit, and I'd thought modern factories were a health hazard.

There was more traffic on the road. A lot of sleighs, fewer wagons. We were passed several times by Rris mounted on - of all things - Llama: long-legged things with distinctly more bulk than the things I'd seen in the zoo back home. Couriers and messengers Shyia told me, carrying news between the towns. Foot traffic outnumbered all the other, with Rris - groups and individuals of all ages - bearing burdens of all manner and description, even drawing sleds of various types. Most of them were wearing coats of some kind or another, leather leggings, snow clinging to their fur and ice around their whiskers. Once a rider on llama-back drew alongside the lead wagon and chatted with the driver for a time, casting curious glances my way before leaving us behind.

"You're all right?"

I looked across at Shyia who was watching me closely. "Yeah," I nodded, trying to get my breathing under control. "I am fine."

He cocked his head. "You're nervous. You smell it, rot me; you look it."

"I will manage."

He turned to look ahead and I saw his ears lay back for a second. "Just be careful. Don't frighten anyone. Try not to make a [scene]."

"Perhaps it would help if I wore a bag over my head?"

He looked thoughtful, "That might. . ."

"Don't even think about it," I warned and he grinned.

The town proper was fortified. A sawtooth pattern of earthworks encircled the center of the town: a broad, shallow ditch the fallen snow turned into a gently sloping white field overlooked by a earthen rampart topped with masonry constructions that looked a hell of a lot like bunkers. There were canon up there, some big, serious-looking things with bores I could poke my arm into alongside smaller ones mounted on swivels, also armored sentries carrying a variety of weapons from muskets to pole-arms. The road crossed a causeway across the ditch and zigzagged through a gap where the two ramparts overlapped. There was a gatehouse there, with guards in those quilted leather leggings and breastplates who saw me and got interested enough to pull us over.

Shyia stepped down to meet them, producing a scrap of paper and exchanging words. They ducked their heads and withdrew, waving us on through.

A mixture of packed earth and cobbled streets covered with trampled snow, animal droppings, and frozen mud. Boxy looking buildings half-buried under drifts, a lot different from the ones in Westwater. Blocks were occupied by large, high-gabled stone and wood buildings with surprisingly few high-set narrow windows, brightly painted shutters and trim playing sardines in the confines of the town wall. There weren't many exterior doors; most buildings had single large entryways, like dark halls. As we passed I could see doors in those halls, sometimes stairways. I thought they looked like quite unpleasant places to live, but then I didn't know much about Rris architecture.

A central boulevard took a direct north-south route through the heart of the town, smaller roads curving off to either side while things that might have been fountains in the summer now spouted only icicles. Rris, everywhere I looked, Rris. A dazzling swirl of bodies and color in the snow. Fur: browns and fawns and grays and speckled and striped, some with dyes or paints adding greens or red or other colors, some with shaven patterns on cheeks or arms. A couple of shocking-white Rris wearing nothing but belt pouches in the freezing air were almost lost against a snow drift. Even in this weather there were stalls with Rris shouting at the passerbys, shops with gaudily colored awnings and wares displayed on racks or trays or behind glass so thick and distorted that it was difficult to make out just what was being advertised. Rris sweeping streets, repairing roofs, driving or pushing carts. The noise was everywhere, the catfight of Rris talking, shouting, the cacophony of animals and wheels rattling on cobblestones. I knew Rris, I'd lived with Rris, but this. . . it was giddying, confusing.

I closed my eyes, opened them and it was still real as the wagons rattled their way along that snow-covered boulevard in a town in a world that wasn't mine. The skeletons of trees lined the avenue. Probably glorious in the spring, their cloaks of snow and ice crystals gave them their own chill beauty. Cubs playing in the snow: an impromptu snowball fight that had small bodies tumbling and scattering ice. An adolescent pulling a younger sibling on a sled that looked just like the ones my friends and I had played with in our childhoods. The Rris who saw me and pointed and stared and I wondered if this had been such a good idea. Maybe I should've tried to find my own way. . .

A train of thought that was derailed when Shyia had the driver stop at the next intersection and helped me out, hauled out my pack and his small duffel and then we were standing calf-deep in snow in the middle of a Rris town while the wagons rumbled on without us. Shyia slung the weight of my pack, did his best to settle straps that had never been intended for his frame, looked around at the Rris staring at us, then touched my arm, "Come on. This way."

Down a sidestreet lost under fresh-fallen snow. I followed his stalking gait that left a trail of alien footprints in the whiteness while from between coat tails his own tail lashed. Rris would cross the street to avoid us then stand and stare. And there were colors on the buildings: murals and maybe graffiti, paintings of Rris and animals and trees between the windows. Winter-bare trees here also, everything spaced out far more than they would be in a human town of a comparable period. Cubs following us and shouting questions and Rris came out of houses to watch, houses with funny-shaped doors and paths cleared through the drifts, with smoke spilling from chimneys.

There was another wall further on. A big one; the old curtain wall Shyia told me. Three stories high - higher than most buildings in town - with crenellated ramparts and age-worn stones. The tunnel through a gatehouse was dark and ice cold and something skittered across the road in front of us while Shyia's claws clicked on rock and the softsoles of my boots were almost soundless. It was a relief to get through and into the winter sunlight again.

"Shyia? Ai! Shyia!" a voice called. Another Rris was hailing him from the door of a shop across the way. It trotted across the street kicking snow flying, the same kind of coat that Shyia wore flapping around it's legs, a steaming half-eaten pastry in its hand. "Good to see you back. Rot me you've been away a while! Now what in the name of my [somethings] swollen [testicles?] is that thing?"

"Good to be back," Shyia sighed. "Long story. Remember that Westwater affair?"

"That did it?"

"No. Not him. Look, this thing, it's sprouted heads. King's business now."

The other blinked at me with parti-colored eyes - left one amber, the other a darker almost brownish tint - disconcerting, looked me up and down like it might study a slightly-foaming Pitbull-Ridgeback cross, then took a bite from the pastry. "That bad? For that? Shave me but it's ugly."

I gave Shyia an exasperated look. "Do you want to tell him or shall I?"

Worth it to see the other sputter pastry. "It talks?"

"Aye." Shyia looked at me. "He talks. His name is Mikah and he's got a peculiar sense of humor. Mikah, this is Escheri and 'he' is a she."

"Oh. Sorry."

The other Mediator looked from him to me in drop-jawed astonishment, then brandished her pastry and demanded, "Shyia, you red-tied [something]! Where did this come from? What is it?"

He laid his ears back and nodded his jaw toward the few Rris who'd stopped to rubberneck. "Not here. There's already been trouble so I want to get him back to the [something] before we left. Tell you on the way. Can you carry my bag?" He handed over his duffel and nodded at me, "Come on, Mikah."

And as we walked they talked. Shyia related snippets of what had occured at Westwater and in return Escheri filled him in on what had been going on in town: a merchant killed, thefts, something being built, a lot of things I didn't understand. I tried to keep track of their conversation and what was going on around me and avoid slipping on the icy cobbles as I listened. Shyia was more open with this other Rris than I'd ever seen him. Old friends, they had to be.

And in those streets, away from the boulevard, I saw the lower side of their society: the legless cripple huddled in a dirty alley with ribs poking through its fur and an empty bowl buried in the snow in front of it; the other beggars in scraps of clothing against the cold, the Rris who kept their distance and watched the Mediators with more attention than they did me. It wasn't a utopia. I watched another Rris stare at me and hastily duck away and Escheri asked, "Have you seen a town before?"

I blinked at her and gave a small smile: she flinched. "Not like this. No."

She turned to Shyia. "That thing he did with his mouth. . ."

"That's how he smiles."

"Oh." She stared at me again. "What do you think of Scales?"

I opened my mouth, closed it and looked around at the buildings: narrow windows, some with glass others with closed shutters. A Rris ducked its head and hurried on its way. Like something out of a drug trip, I wanted to say, instead said, "It is. . . different."

Shyia strangled a laugh, then answered Escheri's quizzical look with, "He knows towns but I can imagine this is different from what he is familiar with."

"Where are we going?" I asked him.

"The [something]," he said.

"I don't know that word," I did my best to repeat the sound.

"No," he corrected my pronunciation. "The Mediator Guild house. There," he pointed.

A brick wall. A HIGH brick wall with a gatehouse and armed sentries. The guards reacted uncertainly, obviously familiar with the Mediators but confused as to just what the fuck I was. "Sir? What the [something] is that?" one asked Shyia.

"Not your concern," he said, then looked at me and added. "You see anything or anyone out of the ordinary around here, you report it. Any windblown talk about something like this," he gestured to me, "you report it. Got that?"

"Uh, yessir," the guard shifted his weight, moving his halberd back to rest. I eyed it uneasily: the damn thing was twice the height he was, with a nasty assortment of cutting, slashing and stabbing blades at the business end. "Ginsu?" I asked and Shyia caught my arm to yank me along through the gates.

There was a courtyard inside the walls with buildings on all sides: brick stables off to my left, the sounds of animals coming from inside and equipment hanging from the walls. The other sides were the Guild house. Big. Stone and brick and whitewashed plaster and exposed timbers and tiled roofs swept free of snow. The main body was three floors counting the attic rooms; the wings and various extensions not higher than two. All the windows I could see were narrow and glazed, a lot of them barred. There were Rris in that courtyard, some just wearing drab, functional clothing, working at clearing a path through snow, hauling a wheelbarrow, other menial work. Others were decked out in more expensive-looking garb: another pair hunched down into the same kind of long coat as Shyia and Escheri, others with quilted vests and pants, all with pistols and accessories slung at the hip. Mediators. And more and more of them were taking an interest in me. I heard questioning murmurs rising behind us as Shyia bustled me through to the main doors, which opened onto a tunnel similar to the one under the old gatehouse save this one was clean and finished in white marble with lanterns glowing along the vaulted ceiling. It opened into a garden.

It was an atrium; a wide, cloistered area open to the sky above. There was a garden here, a small place with grass and ornamental shrubs. Above the cloister were balconies with carved railings, ornate columns climbing to the roof, glazed windows larger than the ones on the outer walls. Inside out. Were all the buildings in the town like this? The garden in the atrium had felt the bite of winter: bushes were bare, grass was dusted with snow, but there were evergreens that kept their color. A peculiarly bent Rris was clearing debris, turned a gray-furred face to watch us. Old I realised, staring with fascination. The old gardener made a incoherent sound, dropped the basket and fled, doddering on those peculiar Rris ankle joints. I stared after the clattering of claws on stone, the slamming of a door, not sure what to feel or do.

The Mediators were both watching me. Finally Escheri flicked her ears, "He always has been a little. . . nervous."

"Enough," Shyia admonished her and again told me, "Come along."

More Rris were appearing along balconies above. I could hear questions and comments drifting down. Shyia led the way out of the atrium, through doors plated with engraved metal into another corridor, this one paneled with wood, a whitewashed plaster vault curving overhead, the complex, orange-tinted lamps hanging there glowed with the hiss and slight flicker of gas. Our feet tracked melting snow and sludge across the floor, Rris footprints and my boots; up a staircase with a spectacular stained- glass window above the landing into another corridor like the one below, this one with solid black doors along the left side of its length, another heavier pair at the far end with another set of waiting guards who hastened to open the doors for us. Another hallway similar to the others, this with patches of color where pictures hung on the wall. I hesitated at a painting of a bridge across a garden pool with glimpses of fish below the surface. The colors were odd: broad jumps in the graduations, lack of subtle tones in the shading, and there was something funny about the perspective and POV, but it wasn't a bad picture, better than the prints I've seen filling a blank space in a lot of offices. I didn't have a lot of time to study the thing before Shyia caught my arm again to hustle me along to a door. "I want some guards on him," he told Escheri as he opened it.

"What's so important?"

"Shyia," I asked. "What is going on?"

"Later," he told me. "In."

I stepped into the room and got first impressions of small and white.

"Wait here," Shyia was telling me. "Just, stay here. I'll be back as soon as I can."

"How long. . ." I started to say as I turned to find myself talking to a closed door. There was no latch on my side. "Hey!" I yelled at the voices I could hear outside and pounded on the black wood: almost broke my hand and there was no reply as the voices faded away. "Hey," I said, to myself.

It was a spartan whitewashed room. There was a low- woodframe bed with white sheets and a small table with a stool and a candle in its holder. Sunlight streamed in through a slit of a window high up in the far wall, my breath visible in the light. Nothing else: an antiseptic little vestibule, not quite a cell. I touched my broken arm and sat down on the bed to wait. It'd been a long day with too many new things that I was still trying to assimilate. It was a long wait.

Section 57

I woke with a jerk, my heart still racing, blinking at a plaster ceiling illuminated with a flickering orange light. Shit. I licked my lips. I'd dozed off, still fully dressed, but something had woken. . . there was a Rris standing there with a lantern, staring at me squinting into the light. Finally it said, "I brought you food," and pointed to a tray on the table.

I sat up and rubbed my eyes. "Thank you." I glanced at my watch: about six hours. The Rris was still there, watching me curiously. No shock there, just watching. "Do I know you?"

A slight wrinkling of the muzzle. "We met earlier."

I tried to remember the name. "Eseri?"

"Escheri," she corrected my pronunciation. "A. You didn't remember?"

"I'm sorry. I have trouble telling Rris apart." I looked at the dishes: covered by small woven baskets but the aroma seeping through set my mouth watering. I lifted one.

"Shyia said you liked your meat overcooked," she volunteered. "You have some time to eat that, then the commissioner wants to meet you."

I looked at my watch: 23:47. "Now?"

She looked me up and down. "They seem to think you're important enough. Hurry up and eat that."

And they'd got it right: Cooked meat, gravy, and a heavy, warm bread with a mug of water. My stomach growled eagerly. I took up the Rris fork and ate while the female Mediator leaned against the wall and watched me intently. When I'd finished she was still staring. "Thank you," I told her.

She cocked her head, her ears twitching. "That was all right for you?"

"Very good. Thank you."

She smiled then, that pursing of her face. "Good. Now, please come with me."

I did. There were a pair of guards outside the door and they were staring at me like they hadn't known exactly what they were supposed to be guarding. With their ears still back the pair fell in a few steps behind us. Escheri led the way back along the hall, through more doors and around one of the balconies in the atrium; I could see stars above the rooftops, my breath frosting in the chill air. The opposite wing was warmer, furnished differently with more paintings and lamps casting their eerie orange-tinted light. A loud bang made me jump violently and stare at the Rris who'd just come out of his room and slammed the door. Escheri in turn had flinched and was staring at me with her ears plastered flat against her mane, the guards standing back with swords half drawn. I just froze, afraid to move and for a second that tableau held, until she shook her head and glanced at the interloper who ducked his head and scurried off, then she turned back to me, "Just a door. Nothing to worry about."

I looked at my hand: I was shaking. I clenched my fist, trying to keep control. "Sorry."

"Nervous?"

"How did you guess?" I asked.

She touched my arm then; just a tap to get me moving again.

The commissioner's office was situated in the corner of the building. Escheri scratched at the door, then opened it and ushered me in. I stepped inside and hesitated, taking stock: a simple room, plain white-plaster walls with a couple of small black and white portraits hung up, some shelves with a couple of books and other curious trinkets, a potbellied stove shedding heat from a corner. Across the room red drapes were drawn and in front of them squatted a low desk, set low to the ground like a table in a traditional Japanese tea room. My laptop was sitting there alongside a weird-looking lamp and other items of mine: toiletries, clothing, flashlight, medical kit, compass on top of my opened map, my notebook, all strewn across the desktop.

Shyia was there, watching me from an ornately tooled leather beanbag-type cushion, a similar unoccupied cushion beside him. The other occupant of the room was a dark-pelted Rris just as bulky as the Mediator with streaks of gray through its mane watching me from his seat on the far side of the desk. 'He', I was fairly certain. Amber eyes looked me up and down, then he grunted and said, "Thank you," to Escheri. She ducked her head and closed the door behind her. The Rris - the Commissioner - studied me again, "Mikah, that is your name?" Deep voice, the gutturals of the Rris tongue like growls.

"Yes sir," I nodded.

He was expecting it, but I still caught the flinch; a dilation of the pupils and nostrils, the ears jerking. He scratched a clawed hand through his cheek fur and gestured at the second cushion, "Please, sit."

I did so. He watched as I moved, as I lowered myself into the Rris-designed cushion. It was leather, felt like it was stuffed with. . .what? Tiny beads? Maybe real beans. "How well can you understand me?" he asked.

"I do not know some words. Stay simple and I won't have too much trouble."

"Huh," he breathed and glanced at Shyia, then reached out to touch the laptop's keyboard. "This is yours."

"Yes sir."

He sighed and said to Shyia, "Shave me. Shyia, you do find a way to present me with interesting puzzles." He looked at me again: "Why don't you tell me your story. Why are you here?"

With the time that Shyia had been in there he'd had plenty of time to relate my story. The Commissioner probably wanted to hear it from the horse's mouth and see how it corroborated with the Mediator's. I took a second to gather my thoughts. "I was taking some time away from my job. . ."

"A job?" The Commissioner glanced at Shyia: something he'd neglected to mention? Sheesh, if that went on we'd be there all night. "What did you do?"

"I was a. . . an artist of sorts," that was as close as I could come to commercial graphic designer with my fingerhold on their language.

"Ah," he cocked his head at that but didn't ask me to elaborate. "Go on."

"I. . . I was taking some time away from work, coming up north to rest. . ."

I told my story again and for the most part they listened. When my voice began to falter from the strain of speaking Rris for such a prolonged period they gave me a glass of water and some time to rest. Five minutes maybe, then I was talking again. How long did it take? With the questions the Commissioner asked, maybe two hours. When my watch read 02:16; my throat was aching. I started to raise my glass and found it empty.

"You make yourself difficult to believe," the commissioner told me. "If it wasn't for your equipment I think I would be [something] to trust you."

"I tell you the truth."

"A. You sound bad. More water?"

"Please."

Ice water. It helped. I sipped while the commissioner watched me. "You really don't remember anything about the Rris you saw in the barn?" he asked.

"No sir. They looked. . . they looked like Rris." I shrugged, it was all I could say.

"What kind of Rris? Male? Female? Young, old. . . If you saw them again, would you recognise them?"

Shit. I'd been through this with Shyia. "I don't know. I'm sorry, but I just can't say." Hell, I didn't even know for sure that the commissioner WAS male. At least he hadn't corrected my use of the masculine honorific.

The commissioner glanced at Shyia who tipped his head, maybe a gesture like I told you so, then he settled back in his cushion and clicked his claws together. "You ARE going to give some people real problems."

"So I've been told."

He chuckled at that. "We will talk more tomorrow. I am interested in seeing what this," he indicated the laptop, "can do. Shyia, see him back to his room. Anything he needs."

"Sir," Shyia ducked his head and gestured for me to follow him out. The guards waiting in the corridor fell in behind us. The Mediator looked me up and down: "How are you doing? You seem a bit shaky."

"I'll live," I touched my broken arm in its sling. "It's been a long day. Tired."

"A," he ducked his head, "Do you want anything?"

I touched my coat, my beard. "A bath? Clean clothes? Shaving?"

He snorted and scratched at his chin, "The first two are a no problem; good idea. That last: we'll see." At my door he stopped. "Get some more rest, a? I will call for you in the light."

The door closed behind me: heavy wood, no way to open it from this side. Once again I laid myself down on the soft bed, just taking time to kick my boots off before sleeping.

Section 58

The water was deliciously warm, enveloping and soothing. I sank down into the copper tub, luxuriating in the first real bath I'd had in months.

It was light outside. They'd let me sleep late before Escheri came with my wakeup call, a breakfast, then taking me to their version of a bathroom: a small room lined with glazed brown and azure tiles, a drain in the floor, a baroquely-ornate brass faucet and sink, a small table, a stove with pots of water simmering and a hammered copper tub. Rris-sized. A bit cramped, but I wasn't complaining. Escheri told me how they used it: rinse the worst off with warm water before getting into the tub. She showed me the brushes and abrasive clothes they used, most of which were capable of taking my hide right off, then left me to my own devices.

I'd rinsed, then soaked, dunked my head to try - not so successfully - to dislodge some of the fleas I'd picked up, the first time I'd been clean in. . . How long had it been? That July an eternity ago when I'd been happy and knew where I was and where I was going, then months of hiding and running and hurting. Five months. December now. Huh, December 1st. Back home they'd be looking forward to Christmas and the New Year. Jackie had said something about wanting to go skiing, I'd been going to spring a weeks vacation in Colorado on her. What was she doing at that moment? She and everybody else I'd known must have thought I was dead by then, fallen off a cliff somewhere, swept away in a flash flood, kidnapped by Elvis in a UFO. . . any number of gruesome accidents. And there was no way I could get word to them. Looked like I'd be spending Christmas alone.

I sighed and sank down to enjoy the last of the warmth the water offered. The sound of the door opening made me jump. Escheri stood there, an armload of clothing hugged to her chest, staring at me with a sort of stunned expression. I looked down at my exposed chest and flicked water, smiled slightly, "Different, a?"

She grimaced, "I thought. . . I thought you might have more fur than. . ." she just trailed off and gave a little shake of her head, not the same kind a human might give. "I've got some clothes for you to try on. They should be the right size. It was difficult to find someone who might have something that would fit.

After my time with Chihirae any hang-ups I might have had about nakedness in front of a Rris had been pretty much hammered out of me, and while the Rris themselves don't have any real problems with nudity, I was a novelty: Escheri stared openly when I got out of the bath and began to towel myself off, her eyes roving openly. "Those marks," she ventured after a while, "they're not normal, are they?"

"These?" I touched some of the red streaks winding around my arm and said with a tinge of bitterness, "No, not since I came here."

"How. . ."

"Crossbow," I interrupted, pointing them out one after another, "Crossbow, sword, teeth, claws, more claws, and some more claws. You have a lot of claws."

She didn't seem to be able to take her eyes off the scars. Slowly her ears wilted, then she shuddered and tore her eyes away. "It's a pity you couldn't have met us on more [amicable] terms."

"Believe me, nothing would have pleased me more," I laughed wryly, then hurried to placate her when she flinched. "Sorry, that's how I smile."

"By showing your teeth?" she eyed me like she wasn't sure that I was being entirely straight with her. "That is. . . that's not something to joke about, Mikah. It could get you hurt."

"So Shyia keeps telling me," I sighed. "It's not a joke. That's how I smile."

"Oh." Her tail lashed back from behind her legs, agitated. "You can't smile properly with those ears, can you. I suppose those teeth can't harbor too much anger. Just be careful who you do that to. Now, see how these fit you."

I looked through them. All Rris outfits. "What about my clothes?"

"They all be cleaned and we'll try to have them repaired," she told me. "Wear these for now."

She'd brought me a green tunic that came down past my hips and was too tight across the shoulders. Over that there was a tan quilted jacket, also too tight across the shoulders and chest. While I gingerly eased my broken arm into the sleeve Escheri was inspecting the pants she'd brought. Then I heard, "Oh." She was holding up a gray pair, poking a finger through the hole intended for the tail. "I forgot." She looked - if I may anthropomorphisize - sheepish.

"It shouldn't be too difficult to sew it up," I said.

"I never thought I'd be asking someone to do that," she said, hanging the pants out in front of her, then tossing them over to me. While I sized them up she watched me, her head tipped to one side, then asked, "Are you usual for a male of your kind? I mean, your genitals are. . . strange."

Strange? No, I wasn't about to ask. I turned away slightly, "I haven't had any complaints."

"Not yet."

I stopped what I was doing to eye her uncertainly, "What does that mean?"

A twitch of her ears and a wave of her hand. "Don't try [something] with females. That might scare them off."

I just stared at her, not sure what to say. It hadn't been something I'd been thinking of, and looking at that. . . person in front of me, the thought was ludicrous, the idea was. . . it was. . . it brought to the surface memories of a night with someone who'd come to mean so much to me, holding each other, afraid to say what I was feeling unless I was stoned. In a undefinable way I'd wanted to love her, I'd wanted her to be a woman, but what had she wanted from me? There had been nights she came to me, she'd kept me warm. Why? A hollow sensation caught at my gut and I had to turn away from Escheri, embarrassed, confused.

"Didn't worry that teacher too much though, a?" Escheri said after a short time.

I looked at her face: impassive now, studying me, and I realised that for a Rris who'd first seen me under 24 hours ago she was damned relaxed. "Shyia told you quite a lot, didn't he," I said.

"Not as much as I'd like to know," she came back. "He's right about you, you know: you are going to cause some real ripples in the pool."

"Escheri," I hesitated, not sure how it was going to sound. "Has there ever been. . . have you ever heard of anything like me being here before? Any story. . . or something?"

She watched me again. "No. No, never. Then, I've never been one for the old literature. Maybe someone in Shattered Water will be able to tell you more."

"Maybe."

An ear flickered again. "Come on, stop standing around like a water spout and get those pants on. I'll find someone to fix that hole for you. The Commissioner wants to see you again, preferably sometime today."

Section 59

Today the drapes were open in the Commissioner's office. Winter sunlight ebbed in through the windows overlooking the outer courtyard, refracted by the warped panes into myriads of rainbows and prism-smears on walls and papers on the desk. The Commissioner was seated, waiting. A pistol sat in prominent view beside him, primed and most probably loaded. He'd stared at me when I came in, as though he thought the previous night had been a dream, as though he still didn't quite believe I was real.

We talked. He had questions of course, a lot of them. Parts of my story he wanted me to repeat, parts to clarify. He wanted to see more of what my laptop could do: the multimedia, the games, the films. It was late evening when I was taken back to my cold little room and once more the door was locked.

Shyia brought my food that night. He closed the door behind him and set the tray on the rickety table with its flickering candle. "A long day?"

I dropped down off the bed, where I'd been standing to get a view out the window to the courtyard and open world beyond. "A good way to describe it. " I sat down and raked my fingers through my hair, clean for the first time in a long while. "I could get tired of these very quickly."

"A," I saw muscles under the fur moving as he tried to stop his ears going down. "How are the clothes?"

Changing the subject, I noticed. I tugged at the collar of the jacket: I couldn't button it all the way. "A bit small."

"Not many Rris your size," he shrugged. "We'll have your own back to you soon."

"This is where you live?" I asked. "This town?"

"A," he gestured 'yes'.

"Have you got a home here? I mean, family? do you have cubs here?"

He looked past me and up, at the clouds outside. "I don't really know." He shrugged again. "I've mated with a few females. I don't know if they bore or not."

"You never wanted to find out?" I asked, somewhat incredulous.

"Not really, no," he replied in an offhand fashion and gestured at the food, "You want to eat that or just watch it?"

I blinked at him as another fundamental bit of my worldview eroded away. I almost said something, then shook my head and turned to the food. A stew with some kind of hard- crusted black bread to follow it down. It wasn't particularly tasty, but it was filling. While I ate Shyia filled me in on what was going to happen over the next few days. Shit, sounded like a manager taking his group on tour, and on this gig we'd be seeing some of the sights of northern Rrisland.

The Commissioner agreed with his decision: they wanted me out of here ASAP. The northern waterways were closed, the rivers and lakes being slowly choked by the encroaching winter ice. The unpredictable winter storms that blew out of the north would easily render the largest of their wooden boats kindling so the Lakes route was out. It'd have to be overland. First south, downstream; out of Thief's Lament into what I'd known as the Hudson and here was known as the Runoff River. A pun, I found.

Wait a second. . .

"You can do that?" I asked.

"What?"

"You can get to the Runoff River from this Lake."

"Of course," his muzzle furrowed. "Why?"

"But. . ." I caught myself. Things were different here. They didn't need the canal network from Champlain down to the Hudson; it looked like nature had done that job for them. "Never mind. I forgot. Sorry, go ahead."

He looked askance at me, then continued to outline the rest of our itinerary. South, along the river to about where Albany should be, then west, following another river valley through the Adirondack Mountains and on to Shattered Water.

"How long will that take?" I asked.

"About two weeks."

I choked on my mouthful. "What? Two weeks?"

"You know a faster way?"

I opened my mouth, then shut it again. What was the point? "All right," I sighed. "Two weeks. When?"

"As soon as possible. The [Governor] has already got wind of you. You're King's business so that's keeping him from making a local political showpiece of you, but we want you out of here before he finds some reason to keep you around." He made an obscure gesture. "It's going to take a day or so to get the wagons and supplies and escorts arranged."

"I can hardly wait," I enthused, toying with my stew.

He huffed, wrinkled his muzzle. "When you get to Shattered Water you're going to have all the time you need to settle down."

"Hnnn," That didn't sound like it was going to be such a good thing. I scratched my chin, then remembered, "What about getting a shave?"

His ears went down and struggled back up again. "You know, telling someone to go shave is an insult?"

"Please. I'm not Rris. This," I grabbed my beard, which by now was over an inch long, "it won't stop growing like your fur does. I've never liked growing it and it's getting beyond uncomfortable."

"Uh," he eyes my locks, hanging down around my shoulders and scratched at the tufts of fur growing from his own cheeks. "I'll see what I can do."

Section 60

It was the next day when Escheri stopped by. She had another one of those kits like the one Chihirae had owned: a small leather roll-up pouch with grooming tools nestled in the loops. Her's was more functional than Chihirae's had been, with wooden handles on the brushes and combs that were worn with use, gleaming metal scissors with black stone handles. She spread them out on the bed. "You really want your fur shaved?" the look she gave me was one I might give someone who asked me to cut their foot off.

"Just a bit," I said, tried to explain that I just wanted to trim it back. "I can do it myself. . ." I started to say.

"With that arm?" she snorted. "Anyway, it's going to be important that you look right, and I'm not sure you know what 'right' is."

"You don't have any problems with. . . touching me?" I asked, somewhat surprised.

She blinked. "Why should I? Shyia has vouched for you. Anyway, I've got the claws and there are two guards outside the door." She yanked the stool over beside the bed. "Now, sit down."

I sat and she started working, displaying the same sort of skill Chihirae had shown. I asked and learned most all Rris have grooming kits of some kind. They have to take care of that fur somehow or suffer the knots and burrs of outrageous fortune, so they've had practice, but she wasn't familiar with actually cutting it. Nor was she familiar with me: I could feel her touching, leathery fingerpads stealing surreptitious tastes of my skin.

"How do you live with such a thin hide?" she wondered. "Don't you get cold?"

"Yes."

"Oh. That's why you need so many clothes."

"One of the reasons."

"Oh," she brushed a hand against my hair then. "I didn't think it would feel so different to fur. Softer than it looks. Would you mind if I kept some?"

That surprised me. "What for?"

"I don't know. . . maybe make a [something]."

"What is that word?" Another tongue-twister.

"You don't know? A decoration, to wear on the wrist. You understand?"

Yeah. I understood. I hesitated a second. What harm could it do? I was pretty sure they didn't practice voodoo. "I understand. Help yourself."

So as she worked she kept slipping choice cuttings aside. It took a while, a while during which I relaxed under her ministrations, and she talked. Different from Shyia: A more outgoing personality, one I liked. Shyia was all right once you got past the stormtrooper facade he carried around, but he didn't have quite the same. . . likability that Escheri had. If they'd been working together, it didn't take a genius to figure out which half of the good-cop/bad-cop routine he played.

She did a good job on my hair, even though the final result was - IMHO - somewhat unorthodox: cropped short along the fringe and coming down to shoulder length at the back. My beard she rounded off at about an inch long. Not too hippyish I hoped, not that anyone would notice.

Another friend I had to leave behind the following day.

Section 61

I got to see more of Lying Scales the next day; early the next day. Shyia roused me out of bed before sparrowfart. We were already making our way through the freezing, snowbound streets when the sun decided to make an appearance, struggling through the sluggish clouds. This time there was a wagon, along with a armored dozen guards with guns and blades. I rode with Shyia, rubbernecked, asked questions about the town. The buildings in this quarter were larger than the ones I'd seen on the way in. Guildhalls I learned later, along with warehouses, some production houses and more Mediators patrolling the area. There was an enclave larger than the Mediators' hall, with the same kind of high wall and guardhouses: the hall of the local lord.

"Didn't want him getting his hooks into you," Shyia growled to me. "It'd be months before we could get you away from him."

The docks were a kilometer of stone-reinforced landfill jutting out into deeper water, fronting the lake at the north-western end of the town. Dockside swarmed with life: Rris carrying crates and baskets, animals jostling in their traces, wagons and carts cluttering the docksides, wheels and hooves scraping the stone and ice, turning the snow to a mush underfoot. Shouting and animal noises and the sound of water and the creaking of timbers from the boats. A forest of masts at anchor there, wooden ships and boats of all types riding at rest in the lee offered by the spit of land to the north that protected the harbor from the winds and storms that could blow down across the lake. A few larger vessels loomed over the others, but for the most part the boats were on the smaller size: fat, low draught coasters; potbellied boats with drop- down Lee boards on each side; small trim-looking sloops, caravels, others ships whose names I haven't the faintest idea of. Weather- faded colors peeked out from under trimmings of ice and snow, pennants and flags caught the breeze.

Our transport turned out to be one of the broad-beamed vessels docked at the western end of the wharves. There were more guards around it, looking anything but inconspicuous. Of course a small crowd had gathered just to see what they weren't supposed to see. A snarling Shyia escorted me across to the gangplank with a small battalion of gawking, gesticulating Rris watching.

The boat was a fifteen or twenty metre, tubby-hulled, two- master hanging patched and sun-faded orange sails. There was a raised cabin running almost the length of the vessel, the roof perhaps a meter higher than the decking around it. Railings and scuppers were carved and painted with paints that had seen better days. I saw Rris cuneiform across the bow, a name that I tried to translate, then had to ask Shyia the meaning of: Shallowater Flyer.

Crewmembers gathered along the rail to stare as Shyia ushered me across the gangplank while our guards fell in behind. I glanced down at the water lapping below: dark, encrusted with broken ice. The desk was swept clean of snow, showing mats made from woven rope, wood scored by claw-marks. It echoed hollowly under my boots as Shyia led me back along to the steps down into the cabin. A Rris intercepted Shyia along the companion way, almost grabbing his coat sleeve before pulling his arm back, "Sir? We had agreed on the [something]. You said nothing about animals! We can't. . ."

Shyia stopped, curled his lips to show teeth at the other Rris, "That's the passenger. And don't call him animal. He doesn't like it."

The other hastily moved out of the way, eyes wide and ears going down as the Mediator shouldered him aside and pushed through to the steps down to the cabin. He poked his head in to check it out then waved me in. It was a narrow, cramped little space without enough headroom to stand upright. There were wooden benches down each side, spaced out by posts with hooks on them. No sign of any beds. Tiny glazed windows along the walls cast slivers of light. Through them I caught distorted glimpses of Rris legs on the deck, light strobing.

"Have a seat," Shyia gestured at a bench. "Wait here." Then he was gone again. Some words outside and a pair of guards came in to take up positions on each side of the door; two pairs of fur-tufted feline faces watching me from under the odd engraved and segmented coalscuttle helmets they wore. I sighed, then had a seat and waited.

Section 62

We left the town of Lying Scales at 08:12 am by my watch, which I was beginning to suspect was an hour or so off. A smaller boat with a dozen oars giving it the appearance of a gargantuan water-bug towed the ship out of the protection of the breakwater. The wind caught the sails with a dull boom and the ship heeled about , tacking into the westerly breeze sweeping across the lake. Belowdecks I could hear periodic thumps as ice was broken by the hull and I fervently hoped we didn't run into anything thicker.

By midday the town was out of sight behind us. All around was nothing but lake and hills with snow-clad armies of firs marching down to the rocky waterline. Low clouds shrouded the peaks with indistinct gray. In the sheltered v where the railings came together at the prow I sat on the solid timber of the the bowsprit and stared out through rigging and ropes across the metal-gray waters of the lake, the hills and clouds reflected there. The crew members sometimes stopped to stare at me before getting on with their duties. I had to notice they all wore peculiar-looking gloves: like cycling gloves with heavy pads on the palms.

"What are you doing here?" Shyia walked up to lean against the rail beside me, his travel-stained leather coat flapping in the breeze.

"It's the only place where I won't get in the way."

He grimaced at me. "No, I mean, what are you doing."

"Oh. Just thinking."

"Ah? About what?"

"Where my life goes from here."

He looked at me, then waved a hand out at the waters ahead. "Downstream, I think."

My turn to grimace. "In my language, that does not promise good things to come."

"I never promised."

No. He never had. "Well, I'm. . . happy you are here. It would be lonely."

He idly scratched at the railing with a claw, then tried to smooth the mar over with a fingertip. "The Commissioner wanted me along. He considers me an expert on you." He snorted at that, his breath freezing in the air. "He wants me to stay with you until you are settled in Shattered Water. After that. . ." he waved a shrug.

"You are someone to talk to. They," I gestured at one of the guards busy lurking nearby, "don't seem very talkative."

"You do take a while to get used to," he said, then startled me by patting my shoulder. "Don't worry. It takes a while, but it does happen."

I gave a smile at that and he took it as his due and stalked off around the deck, out of sight behind the sails. I turned back to the lake, the cold water, the mist, the stillness and wondered just how long it was going to take.

If ever.

We kept heading in a southerly direction, following the convolutions of the shoreline. By that evening we were almost out of the lakes, down in the lower reaches of Thief's Lament and approaching the headwaters of the Runoff River. As the sun settled low and red beyond wooded hills, casting shadows of twilight and purple across the lapping surface of the lake, we rounded a headland where the lights of a small settlement nestled amongst the trees. I saw cubs run across the snow to the waterline, waving. I smiled and waved back and they froze, then ran away. I could hear distant cries.

Shit.

Section 63

The rest of the journey was peaceful. We made good time downstream through some impressive scenery. There were a few small villages and ferry crossings, once the skeleton of a vessel caught on rocks along the riverbank, but for the most part the landscape was pristine. The Rris hadn't invented synthetics or anything that was seriously non-biodegradable so there weren't any of plastic bags, tires, Styrofoam bin liners and old refrigerators that decorated the waterways back home, here it was a white wilderness straight from a travel brochure.

It was another day and a half on the river. I'd never realised how good Rris night vision was until those nights. When darkness fell I'd expected them to put ashore, at least string lights out. They didn't. Some of the crew went off-shift, stringing up hybrid bunks and hammocks belowdecks, the others continued working. When I went above decks the ship was still moving and all I could see was the snow on the hills around, seeming to glow under a sliver of moon, and the river was a black ribbon with a slight glittering sheen. When that moon went behind a cloud all that was gone, it was black as pitch and we were still moving. Despite Shyia's assurances that they could see just fine it scared the living crap out of me and gave them something to laugh about.

The river leg of the journey ended at a town called Chaskerrit's Peak. An odd name, considering it was in a valley. I guessed there was a story behind that name as well. Somewhat smaller than Lying Scales, the town didn't warrant a garrison, but there were a couple of mediators based there who pulled the strings necessary to move on to Shattered Water.

Reindeer and sleighs.

Well, actually they were elk. It was another peculiar experience to add to my scrapbook - and it's getting to be quite a hefty one. Cats bundled in winter furs driving teams of elk: black harnesses and polished brass, it's an image that's stuck with me. The sleighs were actually quite beautiful; wooden chassis about the size of station wagons, with arched wooden-slatted roofs over the passenger sections at the back. The panelwork over the whole vehicle was decorated: engraved with amazingly carved wooden panels depicting a spectrum of Rris activities throughout the seasons, figures that couldn't be more than a centimeter high, all done in minuscule detail. I spent hours just studying the little shapes, trying to dechiper just what they were doing: farming, baking, riding, building, fishing, hunting, fighting, cutting wood, harvesting crops, metalworking, mating. . . Huhn. I grinned as I lay back while the sleigh shushed through the countryside: pity they weren't bigger.

It was a quiet journey, not entirely uncomfortable. Of course they didn't have shock absorbers, but Shyia'd had an entire herd of furs loaded into the sleigh I was to ride in. They helped keep the chill out and smoothed out most of the bumps. The road we were following was better demarked than the one from Westwater to Lying Scales had been: wider, straighter, bridges over the smaller streams, still not paved, but it was an improvement. It wound its way through what seemed an endless forest: pines, oaks, juniper, spruce, birch, poplar surrounding us, arching up to naked branches lacing overhead. Sometimes I caught glimpses of the rest of broad valley: snow-bound trees lining the valley floor to the mountains to the north and south. For the first week or so we followed what back home had been the Mowhawk River valley west from Chaskerrit's Peak. Not called the Mowhawk here, instead the it was the Wrongturn Tail. When I asked about that, Shyia told me it after the Wrongturn Mountains: their name for the Adirondacks. Here the Wrongturn Tail - Mowhawk - wasn't navigable by shipping, but they were working on it: I saw the works under way to install locks on the lower rapids and a small shantytown had sprung up around the earthworks. We steered clear of the place.

After the valley the world opened up. We skirted the northern tips of what I knew as the Finger Lakes and here were called the Bear's Whiskers. A beautiful area, I'd been camping there a couple of times back home. It was still beautiful, brushed in white with ice crystals wrapping themselves around every branch and twig, but the vineyards and resorts I'd know were gone of course. There were a few settlements along the shores of the principal lakes, mainly agricultural communities with farms along the icebound lakeshores. Shyia told me they also made incomes from trapping and fishing, and salt was mined in the southern reaches of the lakes.

The road improved. Rather, the forest hemming it in spread out and the undergrowth fell back to a respectable distance; the road itself was still lost beneath snow and we often passed between drifts stacked metres high. Lake Ontario - Rider's Song - was a sometimes-glimpsed shimmer on the northern horizon. When the road crested a hill I could catch glimpses of the landscape through gaps in the foliage: a landscape of trees and whiteness, mile after mile of it stretching away. Empty and cold, not a sign of habitation visible, and through it all we kept moving.

I don't know what kind of speed we averaged. Uphill was slow, downhill wasn't much faster; I guess it can't have been more than about forty kilometers a day. My atlas gave the distance between Troy and Buffalo as about 400 kilometers, as the crow flies. As the sleigh goes, I put it at about 550: Shyia's estimate of two weeks was a bit conservative. We lost more time on those days we couldn't travel, the three days or so we spent snowed in when the entire world turned white with freezing blizzard. Time crawled by and Shyia used it to continue my lessons. The other two guards who rode with us lounged down by the curtains at the back and watched with interest as he tutored me. My vocabulary improved even if my pronunciation didn't. In turn I gave him lessons on how to use the laptop. Teaching him English wasn't practical, so he had to memorize icons and sequences, but eventually he was able to work his way through the utilities, playing games and movies and MP4 music files. He developed a taste for some of Gary Moore's earlier work. You've never really had to question reality until you've seen a five-foot bipedal cat laying back listening to the extended mix of Over The Hills And Far Away.

The nights were dark and cold, with the temperature plummeting well below zero. Every evening we stopped; not because of any reluctance the Rris had with traveling in the dark, it was just that the elk suffered from the similar limitations I did in regard to night vision. There were usually places to spend the night: clearings, places that were regular watering holes, small villages sometimes. I used the time while the fires were being lit to get some exercise. It was a time when I could stretch my legs and when the sling finally came off it was the closest I'd come in a long time to actually feeling in decent shape. Shyia, however, didn't like the idea of me walking around by myself: 'dangerous animals' he'd said and had made sure a trio of guards kept a close eye on me.

Food was. . . edible. For the most part it was meat packed in ice, thawed and heated in the evenings. The first couple of times Shyia had guards cook my food they burnt it: burnt on the outside, almost raw inside. After that he agreed to let me prepare my own meals. It was an improvement, but after a week of that I'd have given anything for a salad, a banana, even a bowl of cereal.

In the mornings the camp would rouse before dawn, eat, take their toilet stop, and be on the road before the sun fully cleared the horizon. It got to be a familiar process; one that repeated itself sixteen times before December 26th, the day after the most unspectacular, unusual Christmas I'd ever had and the day of our arrival at Shattered Water.

Section 64

Settlements became more numerous: small towns and hamlets. There was more traffic on the roads: single riders on llamas or deer, sleds and sleighs, some wheeled wagons taking it very easy. We even passed signposts: I was able to make out the Rris scratchings spelling Shattered Water engraved on an stone marker peeking from under a cap of snow.

Gradually the forest began to petre out, surrendering the world to the hamlets, the orchards and vineyards, the farmland.

As the road dipped down from the hills to the flatter plains east of lake Erie the landscape showed more and more signs of Rris habitation. One moment you couldn't swing a cat for the trees, the next there were farms wherever you looked. For hours the road led on through drifts banked higher than my head, fields lying under their white blankets, small clusters of buildings dotted here and there. Gray smears of smoke rose from chimneys into a flat grey sky and I saw Rris out working, feeding cattle, cubs playing, whatever it was they wanted to do that winter morning. Several times we passed watchtowers, these with what looked like bunkers at the bottoms. Rris soldiery watched us and scratched themselves and up in the tower a light blinked out patterns toward the town.

Gradually the fields got fewer and the buildings and enclaves more numerous until we were in the suburbs of the city proper. Shyia cocked his head at me, "Welcome to Shattered Water."

A dozen times larger than Lying Scales, it followed a similar pattern: focal squares and plazas and parks throughout the city with intersecting boulevards radiating outwards from each, subdividing the city into separate quarters. Beyond the suburbs old walls surrounded the very heart of the city, stratifying the quarters like the rings in a log. It was built on the mouth of a slow river, the two halves of the city connected across the estuary by bridges of different designs and materials, some of the older ones with buildings on them. Where the river passed the walls there were towers to either side with the snouts of cannon poking from under tarpaulins. Under one of those towers a group of cubs were throwing snowballs at a target they'd scratched on the stones and the guards didn't seem to care.

Nobody bothered trying to keep the streets clear of snow here - in places it was banked up in drifts a couple of meters deep - so the sleighs were able to keep on going right into the city proper. We passed another wall like the ones at Lying Scales: an earthen berm, two stories high and very thick. Overseen by shuttered blockhouses at strategic points and armed guards on patrol. It stretched off to the north and south as far as I could see. In front of the wall a swathe of land about the length of a football field was free of buildings, dotted with cattle grazing on rolls of hay being dropped from a wagon. A product of the invention of gunpowder: the old curtain walls abruptly became obsolete when a besieging force could batter them to rubble from a distance. When they developed artillery even those earthen berms wouldn't be any protection.

But just the fact the walls were there. . . Every large town I'd seen so far had walls of some kind. Did they have need of them that often? Shyia had lectured me on the kingdoms often enough and I knew there was sometimes. . . friction between them, but how far did it go? Disturbing thoughts, but there was too much else happening to pursue them further.

We stopped inside the gates while Shyia jumped out of the sleigh to have words with some of the guards there. There was animated discussion, he produced a fold of paper emblazoned with a scarlet seal, then led a couple of soldiers over to look in the sleigh. I stared back and their eyes snapped wide. "As I told you," Shyia said to one of them, "King's business. Now, I asked for an escort."

He got it. Within minutes fifteen or so city guards mounted on llamas were flanking us as we made our way along the arrow-straight boulevard leading straight to the heart of the city. While the Mediator was distracted with looking out over the driver's shoulder I inched my way to the back of the sleigh, to a spot where I could catch covert glimpses of the city through a gap in the heavy leather curtains. The town was typical Rris: shops fronted with windows - some glazed, others with wooden shutters - other large buildings showing only walls and thin window slits. Houses built inside-out; like Lying Scales.

Rris and vehicles were moving aside to let us pass. I could see curious Rris staring after the procession, some irritated riders shouting things I couldn't understand but which can't have been very flattering at the guards. It was a ten minute ride to the end of the boulevard where it terminated in a plaza near the old center of the city: a circle lined with evergreens and statuary and waterless fountains that I caught glimpses of as the sleigh swung to the right and we followed another avenue, northwards this time. We circumvented a circular plaza buried beneath a layer of snow. A statue stood in the centre of the plaza, again covered with snow and ice, but glimpses of something underneath were disquieting.

North from that plaze there were more buildings, shops and industry buried in snow. I saw a Rris out with a shovel, shifting snow from a doorway while sunlight gleamed on a bronze plaque on the wall above. Further along we passed between a pair of old stone towers. They looked deserted, stark aginst the sky with snow sitting untouched on windowsills and the crumbling crenellations. Beyond a boundary delineated by those towers the city changed. There were larger enclaves along here: I saw manors and estates with sprawling buildings surrounded by snow-covered gardens and wrought-iron fences. Definitely upmarket real-estate.

Shouting from up ahead and the sun was blotted out for a few seconds as we passed through a gatehouse. More shouting and the sleigh drew to a stop. A hand touched my left shoulder and I jumped, looked around into Shyia's frozen green eyes as he crouched beside me under the low overhead. "Wait here," he told me. "Just do what I say, stay here, keep calm and move slowly. Understand?"

"I understand."

He patted my shoulder again, then pushed the curtain aside and climbed out. I heard Rris moving around outside, their voices, then the curtains were pulled back and Shyia beckoned to me, "Come on. Out."

He held the curtain back as I climbed out and I hesitated there, squinting in the light. There was the gatehouse we'd come through: two stories of carved, marble-clad facade. To either side a high, ornate wrought-iron fence stretched off to the north and south. Rris were watching me; a lot of them. Armed and armored guards everywhere, muzzles and ears turning to follow me, amber and green eyes watching me. I froze stared, slowly looking around at the guards on the top of the gatehouse, the ones nearby with hands fidgeting near weapons: swords and knives, pistols and longarms.

"Mikah," Shyia said again, more urgently this time as he beckoned me. "Come down. . . slowly."

Very slowly. I didn't jump, instead took the small ladder a rung at a time until my boots crunched on snow. I felt very small there, very exposed as I hunched down into my jacket.

"Shave me," a Rris hissed, "That is King's business?"

"Amongst other things," Shyia said. "I have the [something] from Lying Scales. Now, can we get him inside. I've come to far to see something happen to him here."

"Yes sir," the other said and tipped his helmet back a bit. "Follow me."

"Mikah," the Mediator patted my arm to start me moving and called to another one of our escorts, "Bring those packages. I don't want anything happening to them." Then his coat whirled around his legs as he fell into stride with me along a short road enclosed by the interlaced boughs of huge old trees

A palace. . .

That was my first impression of the edifice that came into view at the end of that road. Big, sprawling through snow- shrouded parkland. Walls of massive polished granite bricks, roofs and eaves showed copper-green under the snow: perches from where carved stone Rris kept a blind vigil over the surrounding lands. Windows were high, larger than on other Rris buildings. Winter sunlight glared as bright as molten metal from latticed panes while relief carvings of Rris and animals decorated the lintels. Wings and annexes spread hither and yon; haphazard at first glance - as if the architects hadn't been sure what they wanted - they didn't work by the rules a human architect would. To my eyes the proportions were. . . odd, but in their own way they did work. The gardens around the building were expansive, stretching away as far as I could see, the boundaries lost in the scumbled blending of sky and icy trees. Not the kind of landscape I was expecting, nothing that'd be welcome at Versailles. No manicured lawns and landscaped flowerbeds and topiaries, instead these garden catered to different tastes that ran to open fields of wild grass, icebound ponds and forests, fountains and streams. Acres upon acres of estate.

I wasn't given time to gawk. Gravel buried under snow scraped beneath by boots as the guards hustled me across the sweeping drive and up to the main doors: huge oaken things decorated with wrought ironwork. My boots tracked ice and snow onto the marble floor as we entered a reception hall: a two-story high hall with walls of fantastically grained and polished wood panels, a gothic arch to the ceiling where murals of Rris - dancing? Fighting? - covered the length of the hall: a feline version of the Cistine Chapel. Tapestries and paintings hung from the walls: what could be heraldic devices mixed with portraits of various regal- looking Rris while a strip of burgundy and gold carpet ran the length of the room, covering an exquisitely inlaid marble floor. Expensively dressed Rris stared at us. Individuals, pairs and groups moving aside and staring openly as my escorts led me through the hall. I heard muttering and exclamations rising behind us and I could understand, a fine sight we must have been, after that time on the road when the only washing facilities had been a damp cloth. We'd both certainly looked and smelt better.

More guards moved to intercept us at the end of the hall where a door opened onto another antechamber, a bulky civilian running up with a loud spattering of claws on marble floor, "What's going on here? What is this? Captain? Mediator? Do you have an explanation for. . ." it looked me up and down and nostrils flared, "for this?"

"Sir," the soldier who'd been escorting us bowed his head. "The Mediator just arrived from Lying Scales. Says this is King's Business."

The newcomer hadn't stopped staring at me: a somewhat. . . portly individual. On a Rris it looked strange, like a fluffy pillow, especially with those clothes: bloused pantaloons trimmed with lace. Streaks and curlicues of dark red and green dye colored his glossy brownish fur. Still, there was nothing foppish about his eyes. "This is King's Business?"

Shyia ducked his head. "Yes sir. It's a tale that would take a while to tell, but Mikah is important. I've been ordered to make sure he is safely received here."

"Rhi. . . Mikah?"

"Me, " I ventured. And the Rris's eyes widened, muzzle drawing back to reveal fangs. Guards stirred and metal clanked. "Yes, it talks. Surprise," I rolled my eyes.

"Mikah!" Shyia snapped.

"Sorry," I sighed and bowed my head to the other Rris. "Sir, I meant no disrespect, it is just that Rris reactions to me are. . . predictable. I am pleased to meet you."

Amazing how quickly he recovered his composure. It was just a second before he smoothed over the shocked snarl and looked back at the Mediator and his voice was loud in the sudden silence. "A long story you say. I think it's going to be worth hearing."

Section 65

We'd been separated, despite Shyia's protests. The Mediator had been taken one way while a half-dozen guards escorted me off in another. The room they put me in was tiny: a windowless cubicle with only a Rris-sized cot, no blanket, no light, no heat and a lock on the door. All I could do was sit in cold darkness and wait.

It was a long, long wait through the night. I tried to sleep once and gave that up. There wasn't enough room to pace. I sat down on the cot and hugged my knees to my chest to trap some warmth. All I could do was shiver and stare at the dim line of light glowing under the door and wondered what was going on as I lost track of time.

It was many hours later before a key turned in the lock. I raised my head then turned away from the glare of the light as the door opened. There were voices, someone said my name and I squinted blearily into the light as the shapes of armored Rris appeared outside. I shrank back, shivering violently.

"You could have given him a blanket or a light," one of them said and I recognized Shyia. He'd cleaned up. He was wearing a white quilted sleeveless vest and brown bloused breeches that finished at his knees. His fur had been cleaned and brushed.

"Sir?" a guard asked.

"Never mind," he hissed and beckoned to me, "Come on, Mikah."

"What's going on?" I asked, not moving.

"You're causing waves again. Suddenly, there are a lot of people who want to see you," he said, and added, "They aren't the types who like being kept waiting."

"Is there any chance of having a bath or something first?"

"Not a very good one. Now, come on."

When I stood to follow my muscles ached from the cold and inactivity. The guards all fell back a little when I stepped out into the hall. There were eight of them escorting us, all with steel armor polished to a mirror sheen and carrying a mixture of clunky iron-and-wood firearms and more subtly lethal edged weapons. The corridors we walked through were spectacular: bright, with polished wooden floors, carpets and tapestries and paintings. The high ceilings were arched and crossed with wooden inlays in a repeating diamond pattern. In the center of each diamond was a small shield with what I took to be a heraldic device painted on it. Carved wooden paneling faced the whitewashed walls. Through latticed windows I could see the courtyard in the center of the palace, built to a. . . well a palatial scale, complete with ponds, fountains and a small forest. They liked their trees, the Rris did.

They took me to another wing and another room, this one much more elegantly appointed. Shyia patted my arm as he showed me in and closed the door behind me. I turned to face a shut door with a Rris's face carved in it, then turned again. Things had been changing so quickly, I felt slightly. . . stunned, like things were just flowing around me and I wasn't able to absorb them. Nice room. . . a study. There was the mandatory low-set desk in front of a window overlooking the courtyard, papers on the desktop and a typical Rris cushion-chair behind it. The ceiling was lower here, comfortable for a Rris maybe but uncomfortably close for me. A big city map, presumably of Shattered Water, covered a good part of a wall. There was a Rris in the chair behind the desk: it was the Rris official who'd stopped us, who'd bustled me and Shyia off in different directions. And he filled that position behind the desk very well. Furry folds blended in well with the folds of the cushion, almost as if he were a part of it. He reached out to lay a quill pen down on desk but those amber eyes watched me: steady as two crystals. Shit, he reminded me of Elliot: a substantial physical bulk, and behind that a. . . a competence.

"Come in," he told me. "Sit down." A hand with gray streaks in the fur waved toward the cushion on the other side of the desk. I slowly crossed the ornate carpet and carefully sat, the cushion rustling as I put my weight on it and crossed my legs. Why the hell didn't they use chairs? The Rris behind the desk didn't blink.

"What are you?" he asked.

"I thought Shyia would have told you."

He cocked his head, "He told me. I wanted to hear what you had to say."

"I'm a male human."

"A strange word that doesn't say much." He glanced down at the blotter on his desk: there were papers covered with tiny Rris script there. He looked up again and leaned back, lacing his fingers across his ample stomach. "Ah, but where are my manners, I haven't introduced myself. I am Kh'hitch of Woodmaker, his highness's liaison to the city. Welcome to Shattered Water."

"I. . . uh, thank you, sir." He hadn't been nearly this friendly the last time I'd seen him.

"I've greeted a lot of visitors in my time, but you. . . I've never heard of anything like you. The Mediator said that you claim to have come from. . . what did he say? 'A world like ours, but instead of Rris it is populated with creatures like that'. This is true?"

"To the best of my knowledge it is."

"You aren't sure?"

I shook my head and he flinched slightly. "I don't know what happened to me. I don't know how I came to be here. All I can say is that somehow I came from my home to here; I don't know if that is true, I don't know if my home still exists. Maybe I've gone mad and this," I made a carefully restrained gesture at the room around us, "is all in my mind."

He blinked, slowly. "What do you remember?"

"I was walking. There was a noise, a bright light and. . . I was here. I didn't know it. I was walking for days before I found Westwater."

"A shock for you."

I looked at him, unable to tell if he was being facetious or sympathetic. "Yes. Quite a surprise."

"You met that teacher there. What was her name? Hiasamra'thsi? Chihirae?"

"Yes."

"It's good to hear that program is paying off. She almost killed you though."

"Almost. She also saved my life." I hesitated, then added, "She was a friend."

"Shyia mentioned that she seemed. . . attached to you. She was either sick in the head, or there was a reason. I'm hoping it was the latter. She taught you how to talk?"

"Yes."

"She has done a remarkable job." He glanced down at his desk and the papers there. "Now, Shyia also mentioned there was some trouble, the reason he was sent to Westwater in the first place. What was that about?"

I swallowed. Back to that again. "They said I. . . killed someone. There was a female who said I killed her. . . the male she lived with. I didn't."

"Why did she say that?" he asked and his voice was soft.

"Their house was the first place I went to in Westwater. There were several Rris there and when I saw them . . .when I saw Rris. . . I ran. They shot at me. Later I learned the male had been killed. The female said I was the one who had done it. I don't know why." I hesitated before adding, "She lied. About some things, she lied."

Kh'hitch made a noncommittal noise. "You have killed Rris though, haven't you. That's where you got those marks on your face."

I almost protested that; it was a different kind of situation. All I said was, "Yes."

"Why?"

"They would have killed me and the cubs who were with me. I didn't have much of a choice."

There was an interruption then. The door opened behind me and Kh'hitch looked up, his ears going back slightly. Then he waved a hand impatiently and said, "Bring it here."

Another Rris took a detour around me to lay a sealed envelope on the desk, then ducked its head to retreat and close the door again. Kh'hitch broke the red seal with a clawtip and read the contents. "Huhnn," he said, and scratched his muzzle with the claw, then laid the paper down and looked at me, "It would seem I've been [something]. His highness would like to meet with you. Immediately"

Section 66

A big, white room.

The door closed behind me and I stopped, blinking in the light. Afternoon sunlight flooded in through latticed panes in tall, narrow windows that stretched from the floor to the high ceiling above. Everything was marble, white marble: The floor, the buttresses arching up to the ceiling, the ceiling and the carvings up there, the mantle around the fireplace in the center of the wall to my left. Over in the far corner was a russet carpet; sitting on that a desk and cushion, but no sign of any other furniture.

Nobody around, so I slowly walked over with my boots squeaking on the floor and breath frosting. There were paintings on the wall above the fireplace: important-looking Rris of indeterminate sex. Another set of white laminated doors in the northeast corner. The south and east walls were lined with floor to ceiling mullioned windows looking out over the palace grounds, also white: the forests and paths under their layers of snow, in the distance I could catch a glimpse of the lake waters glittering under a pale-blue sky. The desk was set low in the style of most Rris desks and made from plain, old wood, the surface scored with what looked like claw marks with a comfortable-looking beanbag-style cushion set behind it. My laptop sat on the desk, along with my solar pack, map, wallet, inkwell and rack of quills, and several sheaves of paper covered with Rris script.

. . . here. Not Rris but [something] as [something] as Rris. Male. [Something] a form of [something] with well[something]. . .

I gave it up. My reading comprehension wasn't nearly up to that level, but I was sure they were referring to me. My laptop. . . I touched a key and the display flickered onto the screen it'd been on when last shut down: the movie selection.

"You. . . you must be. . .Mikah," said a voice from behind me and I froze. I hadn't heard anyone enter. Slowly I straightened and just as slowly turned. The last thing I wanted was to alarm the Rris king.

Hirht Chihiski, that was his name. I remembered that much from my lessons. He was standing in front of the other set of doors. Tall and slender, dark tan fur with dark stripes across his ribs and a lighter blaize on his throat, wearing a dark green sleeveless vest hanging open at the front and a russet kilt-like thing wrapped around his waist. A sheathed knife hung at his hip. He wasn't the grizzled old patriarch I'd been half-expecting. As best as I could tell he was young, and judging from his lashing tail and the lay of his ears, a bit worried. I caught a sudden tensing of muscles and stiffening of posture as he got a good look at me.

"Yes, sir," I answered after a pause.

Hirht stared for a bit longer, then slowly stalked forward with his claws sounding a regular staccato clicking on the marble. His eyes were green, like Shyia's, his pupils shrinking to sharp pinpoints in the light. "Red tie me," he murmured. "It is true. You can talk, can't you."

I smiled a bit at that. "Yes, sir. I can talk."

'Shave me." He walked a slow circle around me and the desk, looking me up and down. "You are. . . what is that word? H'uan?"

"Human," I corrected.

"That word." He said and got a bit closer, his nostrils flaring, then he winced and jerked back a bit. "Sorry," I said, "I haven't had a chance for a wash properly for some time."

"Ah," he said, snorting slightly through his nose, as if trying to dislodge a disagreeable scent. Probably was. "When I was told we had an unusual guest, I didn't expect you to be so. . . ah. . ."

"I think 'strange' is the word you're looking for," I offered.

"That. . ." he broke off. "I didn't mean to offend. You must hear a lot of that."

I shrugged and he flinched at the motion, "I'm growing used to it. I am a bit out of place here."

"Was that a joke?" He asked after a moment's reflection.

"Apparently not a very good one."

He blinked and almost smiled. "Maybe you just need practice. Like your speaking. . . You had to learn how to speak?"

"Your language. My kind have. . . our own language."

"Ah. So you're still learning. Give it some time."

"I don't think that will help. It's my mouth. I am not built to speak Rris. It's. . . difficult."

He looked a bit startled. "Well, then I think you're doing well."

"Thank you."

Hirht blinked. "Is there also a reason you wear so many clothes?"

"Don't you find it a bit cold in here?"

He seemed a bit taken aback, glancing around before waving a negative. "It's a bit [something], but nothing so bad as to [something] that." He gestured at me, my clothing and jacket.

I brushed a hand down my lapel. "If I was dressed like you I would be dead quickly."

There was shock at that. "You really don't have any fur!" He blurted, then caught himself. "No, of course you don't." His claws clicked again as he stalked around behind his desk. "Of course you don't." Fur and the stuffing of the cushion rustled as he sat and settled himself. I shifted uncomfortably: tired and hungry and thirsty. "You know," he said, "I didn't believe them. I was told a Mediator had brought in a grotesque, oversized, bald beast that could talk and I didn't believe them. They showed me this," he reached out to touch the keyboard of the laptop. "It is very persuasive. Yours, isn't it."

"Yes."

He tapped out a random pattern on the keyboard before looking up at me, "Like a window to another world."

"I'd prefer a doorway."

Hirht blinked at me, then lowered his gaze to the laptop and his ears laid back. There was a heavy silence before he asked, "Could you show me more of this?"

Shyia hadn't had time to show him much. He could move the icon selection around, but that was about it. "What are you interested in seeing?"

"The Mediator said you had a lot more of pictures of your home. Show me."

I nodded and crouched to lean toward the laptop.

The Rris monarch just about went over backwards in his jerk away from me. I looked at him - wide-eyed with a hand hovering around his knife - then slowly and deliberately reached out to punch the macro that ran the slideshow and stepped back. Music sounded from the speakers, animations flicking across the screen. Hirht's eyes went from me, to the laptop and he moved his hand away from the knife. He was panting.

"I don't hurt people," I said. "I'm not dangerous."

He brushed at the fur tufts on his cheeks, collecting himself. "I. . . It is easy to hear that, not so easy to believe it."

I moved back a bit more and didn't say anything. He stared at me, wide eyes, then shook his head and turned his attention back to the laptop.

Sleek cars, tires hissing and raising tails from rain- slicked roads reflecting the sodium and neon of streetlights. Sleek people in fashionably baggy suits and fedoras. Computer- generated humaniform robots extolling the values of soft-drinks. Water-slicked people on the beach, skintight bathing suits showing curves that disturbed me in a way I couldn't pinpoint. Aircraft overflights of valleys. Computer generated shapes. Delta clipper launches. Astronauts on EVA at Alpha station. Rush hour downtown. Mountain biking. . .

Here, in this heart of Rris power, surrounded by nonhuman creatures and immersed in an alien culture, the scenes in the laptop seemed. . . remote. How long before my memory of these things seemed no more than that: a memory, distorted by time.

Dancing telephones. Amorphous black and white objects of textured human skin morphed slowly, suggestively glistening under drastic lighting. Children playing. Radically altered offroad buggys careening around an indoor course. F-22s engaged in a mock dogfight above the clouds. . .

"Can you stop this?" Hirht asked.

"Press the space bar. . . that long piece there."

He did so. "Those machines; they really fly? Humans ride in them?"

"Yes."

"You have flown like that?"

"Not in one of those," I gestured at the sleek lines of the F-22. "They're. . . military. There're other vehicles for passengers. Not as exciting to fly in. Get on, sit down, and hopefully it gets you to where you want to go without hitting something and you get off and try and find your luggage."

He started to say something, then his ears twitched like Chihirae's had done when I tickled the fur in her's. All he asked was, "What keeps them up?"

"Oh, Christ. I was an artist, not a . . . someone who makes things like that. I don't know too much about that. This will have a bit of information though."

"What kind of information? Can you show me?"

I leaned over the laptop again, ran the encyclopedia and a search then scrolled through the resulting hits. The screen flicked from text listings to diagrams and schematics. The king stared, his jaw twitched, then he asked, "What about ships?"

I listed those, from rowboats to racing yachts to aircraft carriers. Details on sails and hull construction and boilers and screws and paddles. Etc. He tried other topics: medicine, construction, farming and I got the distinct impression he was scrupulously avoiding any mention of weapons.

Hirht shifted in cushion and just sat for a few second, then raked his claws through his facial fur. "Shave me," he murmured. "How much. . . how much of that kind of information is in that thing?"

How could I put that in terms he could understand? "A lot. Same as over a hundred-hundred-hundred books."

He stood in a single fluid movement, his tail lashing as he crossed to one of the windows and stood there, looking out over the gardens outside. I waited quietly, not sure what he was doing or even how he was taking this.

"What are you?"

"Sir?" I squinted into the light.

He turned and claws spattered on marble as he crossed over to me, closer than before. He hesitated, then reached up, paused when I flinched. "Don't," he told me. A single fingerpad touched my cheek, feeling like a patch of warm leather stroking down my skin. Utterly inhuman. I shuddered, flinched again when he touched the scar tissue and he pulled his hand away.

"What are we going to do with you?" he sighed and touched my jacket, running a claw up the zipper. "You, this device, that information. . . It's not going to be long before other kingdoms learn about you, if they haven't already. It's all going to go crazy."

I swallowed, afraid again. His nose twitched and he moved back, just a step. "What are you going to do with me?" A question I'd asked repeatedly and never got a satisfactory answer.

I didn't get one this time either. "We'll have to see," he said, then huffed and asked. "Is there anything you need?"

I looked down at myself and plucked at my jacket. "I. . . I haven't eaten for a while. And I don't remember when I last had a good wash."

He gave a small laugh at that. "We'll see what we can do."

Section 67

Guards took me back to that tiny room.

I turned and asked, "Could I at least have a. . ."

The door shut in my face.

"Light?"

I sighed, then fumbled back through the darkness to find the cot and sat down to wait.

Maybe two hours. I was woken from an unrestful doze when the door was opened again and propped myself up on one elbow, squinting into the light.

"Ah, sir?" It was one of the guards, suddenly so much more polite. "Could you come with us. Sir."

I rubbed my eyes, still muzzy from fatigue, and followed them. They led the way through elegant halls, guarded doors, to a final dark-wood paneled corridor I'd get to know very well. Ten heavy oak doors along each side; tall, narrow paintings showing slivers of landscapes and cityscapes. Light came from a few hissing gas lamps. Guards stood in niches down the hall.

"What is this place?" I asked.

My guards flinched, one licked his jowls. "Ah. . . guest quarters, sir. Your quarters, sir. Courtesy of his Highness."

"Oh."

They led the way to a heavy door at the far end and ushered me in. I entered and stopped, somewhat taken aback. It wasn't the monk's cell I'd been expecting; in fact, if this was anything to judge by, things seemed to be looking up. I turned around, somewhat stunned by my sudden promotion in the general scheme of things. A big room, whitewashed plaster walls, the lower half covered with carved wooden paneling. Sunlight streamed in through mullioned windows set in an alcove in the far wall, the seats there were upholstered with green leather and gold buttons. To my right a fire crackled in its open fireplace behind a perforated copper hearth-guard, a stack of firewood in a box beside it. The black wooden floor was almost completely covered by a flat-woven dark green carpet inlaid with russet geometric designs while down the far end of the room a king-sized bed - a real bed - with a massive carved frame took up most of the available space. With all the furs stacked on it, it looked like a bear had crawled in there and died. Over in front of the windows squatted a low desk, really low: maybe fifty centimeters high with an inlaid top. A floor cushion was set behind it, decorated with orange and brown abstract patterns. Paintings hung on the walls: A landscape, a couple of Rris portraits and still lifes. A light fixed to the ceiling: a damn stupid thing like one of those cheesy wagon wheels they hang up in 'genuine western' eateries, with small gas-lamp bulbs around its circumference and a big glass hemisphere at its hub. Scarcely high enough for me to get underneath without having to duck.

"Sir," the guard spoke and waved to another door in the same wall as the door we'd entered through. "There are washing [something] in there."

I opened the door and looked. A bathroom with a floor of glazed, multihued tan tiles and a recessed circular wooden tub the size of a decent spa pool with a broad wooden sluice beneath the faucets. Wan sunlight seeped in through a narrow window, below that was a bench with a basin and some shelves holding bundles of cloth. In another niche was the toilet, with the same kind of seat with that raised piece in front of the groin. I'd learned Rris males can't urinate in a tidy stream as a human male can and if that piece wasn't there things would get messy.

"There is hot water," my guard told me and showed me. There were a pair of gold faucets on the wooden tub, one for hot and one for cold. I tried them for myself, touched the broad stream that flowed from the sluice and jerked my hand back. "Ah!"

"Sir?"

"Nothing." I shook my hand, it wasn't scalding, but just the fact it was hot startled me. Most of my life it'd been something I'd taken for granted, now it was a luxury. "Just been a long time."

The guard's tongue flickered around his jowls; he looked confused, alarmed. "Yes, sir."

Back in the bedroom he showed me drawers built into the bed frame. "There are clothes in there. Ah, my lord said there'll be food arriving later. You have time to wash and rest."

"Tell him thank you," I said.

The guard ducked his head as he backed toward the door, anxious to be gone. "If you need anything, there will be guards outside." With that the door was closed. I heard the tumblers in the lock click into position.

The window had a second floor view overlooking the barely-tamed wilderness that was the palace's southern park and the ornate wrought-iron grillwork doubled as very serviceable bars. Maybe a gilded cage, but still a cage. I sighed, then went to see just how much hot water I could get out of that bath.

After an hour-long soak during which I must have dislodged a kilogram of dirt I roused myself, climbed out, dried off with a starchy towel and headed back to the other room and bed. My clothes - along with my boots - were gone; something I noted without much surprise or interest as I slipped between clean linen sheets. Despite its lack of pillows the bed was luxurious, soft and spacious and smelled faintly of something like potpourri and that scent's the last thing I remember of my first day in Shattered Water.

Section 68

Something landed on my feet. I started awake, blinking groggily in orange-tinted early morning sunlight and wondering where I was, then rolled onto my back and looked up into a grinning Rris face. "Shit!"

"Morning and waking," Shyia greeted me then stepped back and looked around at the room. "Looks like you've plucked a ripe one here."

I sat up in a tangle of sheets and eiderdowns, trying to get my breathing back down to a more reasonable rate. "It's a nice change." I glanced at my watch, something I've learned to rarely take off. 08:14 am. "Do you have to wake me up like that?"

"It's not so early you know."

"I mean with all those teeth."

"That's how you smile, isn't it?" he asked, rubbing a finger across the desk.

"On you it's. . . not the same." I yawned and rubbed my eyes. Of course he'd known that. His idea of a joke, or. . . he was irritated at something. I grinned myself, "How long are they keeping you?" I asked nonchalantly.

His head whipped around. "How did you know?"

I shrugged and rubbed gingerly at my scarred shoulder. "You're the only Rris in this city who really knows anything about me. Did you think they'd just let you walk out of here again?"

He looked out the window and growled softly, then eyed me suspiciously, "How long have you known that?"

"A couple of weeks."

His eyes narrowed. "You keep surprising me, don't you. You could've told me."

"I wasn't sure. Sorry."

He huffed, a glittering puff of breath momentarily visible in the chill. "Ahh. Well, they want me to look after you for a while. Until you settle in."

"That makes me feel much better."

The Mediator laughed at that. "I'm sure it does," he said and reached out to scratch an aimless pattern in the frost on a windowpane. "Now hurry and get dressed. His highness wants to see you again."

I groaned and got up, shivering in the morning chill; after the warmth of the bed it was fucking freezing in that room. He'd brought my clothes along, lying folded at the foot of the bed. My underwear, jeans, socks, a couple of shirts. They'd been cleaned and pressed, but there was no sign of my boots or jacket.

"Huhn, you look like a map," the Mediator commented. "How are the scars doing?"

I moved my right arm, flexing it, watching the raised tracks of scar tissue writhing over muscle. Felt stiff, especially on cold mornings like this. He kept watching me, head tipped to one side. "They really don't know what to make of you. Hirht's sent for some scholars from the [university? library?] I think he wants them to shake your bushes a little, find out if you're really what you claim."

"What else would I be? Maybe this is a costume?" I gestured at my scarred hide and grinned.

"You know what I mean," he said and frowned. "And don't DO that with your teeth."

It wasn't something I could help.

Food arrived while I was pulling my pants up. A guard wheeled in a tray with a covered platter and his ears went back at the sight of me, bare-chested, half into my pants. Shyia waved at the trolley, "Leave that."

"Sir," the guard ducked and backed out.

"Hope he doesn't get the wrong idea," I told Shyia. He didn't get it,

Breakfast was meat, sliced into thin slivers and cooked in some kind of bitter-tasting sauce, several light pastries speckled with what tasted like sour cream, wholemeal bread, a wedge of pale cheese and a glazed ceramic mug of water. "You were asleep when they brought food last night," Shyia said. "Thought you might be hungry."

I was; It went down without touching the side while Shyia watched impatiently. When we left the room, the trio of guards outside the door fell in as escorts; I noticed the glances at my bare feet which were so radically different from Rris pads.

I wasn't sure where they took me. I thought it was the same wing I'd been in the other day, but it was a different room. A door was opened and I entered, finding myself standing on deep carpet among whitewashed walls with tapestries and bookshelves, a high ceiling, a fireplace taking the edge off the chill. A low table - only calf-high - filled the center of the room; oak, it looked like, with parquetry designs inlaid in the surface. Morning light shone outside the windows and the seven Rris seated on cushions along one side of the table turned as one to stare at me. "Shave me," one blurted, half-standing before catching itself sitting again with a few self-conscious glances at the surrounding Rris.

Hirht fanned a sheaf of papers on the tabletop before him, "Sahh, Mikah. Come in. Sit, over here. Mediator, that will be all."

I hesitated. Shyia patted my arm, then left and closed the door behind him. I glanced after him, then swallowed and did as the King had asked. Heads swiveled as I approached; the only place to sit was a round cushion on the unoccupied side of the table. I took it, gingerly sitting tailor-fashion while the Rris watched me like I was an act at a circus. Seven of them on their own cushions; individuals ranging in size and age, fur coloration varying from dappled sienna to smooth tan. There were a couple I thought were female, but I couldn't be sure, not with them seated and wearing winter tunics. Some of them had dyed patterns of their fur, one had a series of sigils shaved across dark cheek fur: the skin underneath was a lighter gray and speckled with stubble. The cushion was well used, worn to fit the shape of a body; only it wasn't a human body.

Hirht looked me over, like he was assuring himself what he'd seen the other day was real. There were papers on the table, also books, also my laptop, leatherman toolkit, wallet. . . Mine? I wasn't even sure I was my own property anymore.

"You rested well?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. Very well."

"Glad to hear it. And that bath has done you some good," he sniffed then said to the others, "Goodfellows, this is Mikah. The owner of these artifacts and a guest to our lands. He speaks - surprisingly well - but he does have a limited vocabulary and some trouble pronouncing some words."

An elderly Rris wearing a tooled and wool-trimmed brown leather vest gestured at me, then at the laptop, "You're telling us THAT built that?"

"Him or something like him," Hirht said. "Actually, I was hoping you might be able to help me determine that."

I looked around: seven pairs of eyes - green, amber, some almost red - flinched. "You don't believe me?"

The King waved his hand across the papers. "I have to confess I'm not sure what to believe about you. That's why these people are here." Introduction time. He started with the Rris to his immediate left. "This is Achir ah Ner, senior [something] of the [university? library?]"

Achir was an elder Rris with a broad face that was mostly tan fur, a white muzzle speckled with darker flecks, and lazy-looking green eyes. The simple rust-red tunic he wore was thin and couldn't have been much protection against the cold. To his left sat a Rris called Rasa, head of their animal studies department at the University. That was the one who'd been so surprised when I came in, and it was a female. Her pelt was a uniform dark tan with a few darker streaks around her ribs and through the thicker fur down her chest and belly, but her eyes were different: an amber so deep it was almost red. A rare trait for Rris, and - I was to learn - not a very desirable one.

Yase'tco was another elder one: white and gray fur, green eyes, a tip missing from one of his ears and some patches on his chest where the fur grew in wrong testified to a youth spent pursuing activities more exciting than senior study in architecture. Chirit maintained the university archives. I guess that explained his paunch and his gray, frazzled mane, but it didn't explain the nicks in his ears or the small scars I noticed on his chest where his shirt hung open. In a way he reminded me of the Liaison, Kh'hitch, but his personality wasn't what I'd have expected of a librarian. Beside him was Hai'kya, the university's senior technical lecturer; a younger sienna-furred male whose ears twitched nervously.

Chaeitch wasn't affiliated with the university. As near as I could understand he was a private entrepreneur, an industrialist, an inventor. A youngster in comparison with the others, he had an unobtrusive tawny pelt with a lopsided white blaize across his left ear. He was the one with the patterns shaved into his fur: small spiral sigils across his shoulders where grayish fell was bared. He'd practically invented the Rris steam engine. I was meeting the Rris equivalent of Thomas Newcomen. He was there in the company of Rraerch aesh Smither: a dignified looking female who owned the largest shipyard in the city as well as a number of other industrial institutions.

All prominent in their fields, all experts in their fields. I realised why Hirht had brought them here.

"You want them to say if what I showed you is real," I said when Hirht had finished the introductions.

He waved a small gesture of affirmation. "Can you show them what you showed me yesterday?"

I looked down at the laptop that was pushed down the table toward me, hesitated before opening it. The battery level was low and I didn't know what they'd done with the spare. "It won't be able to work for long," I told him. "It needs to. . . rest."

"Rest? Is it alive?"

"No." I frowned, thinking how best to explain this. "It is a machine, but it is like a fire. It needs to be fed to keep working. Does that make sense?"

Hirht pondered that, then said, "Just do what you can."

So I showed them. The slide shows, some of the simulators, maps and encyclopedia entries. The Rris watched, with growing interest and disquiet. There were mutterings, quiet asides and more and more often they asked me to stop, to go back, asking questions. When I was finished the battery level was flickering on the last line and Hirht looked at me, then asked Rasa, "Have you ever heard of anything like him before?"

She never took her eyes off me. "There is. . . I've seen pictures from Chihes Os [Lands-Beyond?] [Africa]. There are animals there that look like him, but from all accounts they're just animals."

"Chirit?"

The Rris from university archives looked uncomfortable. "I've seen the texts she's referring to and there are resemblances, quite striking too. Quite striking. But I've never heard tell of any behaving the way it. . . ah. . . he does. Never."

"Do you think it's possible that his kind actually comes from somewhere on another continent?"

"Sire," Achit said. "I think we would have seen some sign of them before this. If that's to be believed," he gestured at the laptop, "they've covered most of the lands. We would most certainly have run into them before."

Hirht flicked his ears back. "And what are the chances that that is telling the truth?"

"Then someone's gone to a lot of trouble to weave a lie nobody I know would be capable of." Eyes turned to Chaeitch who in turn was watching his fingers as his claws clicked on the table top. "Nobody I've ever heard of could make something like that [gadget?]. If they can do that, why not buildings like that? But I am curious about those flying machines: is there a simple [something] you could explain?"

"I'm sorry, but that word," I did my best to repeat it, "I don't understand it."

"Ah," he glanced at Rraerch who just smiled back. "Ah, is there a simple way to explain how it works?"

I thought for a second and called up a picture of a hot air balloon on the screen. "A simple way. . . If you make a very light round shape, like a bag, smaller than this one. Fill it with hot air. The hot air will try to rise and lift the bag."

He blinked. "That simple?"

"It's something that cubs make. There are other kinds but they aren't as easy to make."

Next question:

Rasa reached out to tap a claw on the table, then leaned forward to ask, "You seem as intelligent as a Rris, but you are nothing like us. How can two kinds as different as our own succeed? Learn to think?"

The way she was eyeing me. . . it was like a taxologist might scrutinize a previously unknown specimen. I swallowed and studied the pattern inlaid in the tabletop: a repeating geometric abstract that seemed almost Greek.

"Mikah?" Hirht ventured. "Do you understand the question?"

"I understand. I'm just trying to think how to answer." I sighed and gave it my best shot. "Time changes a lot. My kind started over the sea, the land you call Chihes Os we call Africa. A very long time ago, before we had tools or could even think. We were just animals." Ears went down around the table but I continued. "We weren't the fastest animals, we weren't the strongest, we didn't have claws or sharp teeth, so we had to use our brains and our hands. It was the smartest who lived to carry on those. . . characteristics.

"With Rris, I'm not sure what happened. Something that happened on my world didn't happen here. Instead of my kind. . . growing, your kind did. My kind is here. . . those animals you were talking about, I think that's what happened to my kind here."

Rasa sat stock-still for a few heartbeats, then said, "That idea. . . of [species] changing, that's. . . it's something that's being taken very seriously. You're saying it's true? That we did change from animals? Do you have Rris where you come from? What. . ."

"Good lady," Hirht interrupted her, "there will be time for that later." The naturalist subsided, her tail lashing to and fro behind her while the King looked further down the table, "Rraerch, you had something to ask."

Owner of a shipyard. Of course her question would have a bearing on that. "If your boats don't have sails or oars, how do they move?"

"You use steam? It is like that. Steam can turn a. . . a thing like a wheel with oars on it to move a boat." I saw both Rraerch and Chaeitch flinch at mention of that, exchanging glances.

"I didn't see anything like that," Chaeitch said.

"We use another way. A . . .a. . ." I just didn't have the vocabulary to describe it properly so I used the laptop and the Britannica to illustrate how a ship's screw worked. Both the industrialists leaned forward, drinking in every detail.

More questions after that, from all of them. Mathematics, biology, metallurgy, construction techniques, agriculture. . . I lost track. The laptop died, batteries depleted, and I had to struggle on without it, using paper and charcoal pencil to illustrate points I couldn't describe. There were questions I couldn't answer: I either outright didn't understand them or they were in fields about which I knew little or nothing. Hour after hour it went on, until my voice started to fail and Hirht finally put a stop to the questioning.

"I think that will be enough for today."

"Sir," Rasa protested, "I've got more questions. I'd like to examine him. I have to have time. . ."

He raised a hand to cut her off. "There'll be time enough later. Mikah, thank you, you've been very helpful. If would please leave us now, the guards will take you back to your room."

It was all I really felt like doing. I just ducked my head and stood, somewhat awkwardly: my left leg had gone to sleep. The Rris were silent as I walked to the door and I could feel them watching me, could hear the outbreak of voices as I closed the door behind me.

Shyia hadn't waited around. I couldn't tell if the trio of guards who escorted me back to my room were the ones who'd brought me out, but they kept their distance. I took my time, dawdling at windows where I had the chance, stopping to look at the paintings.

Almost all in a portrait format. The perspective, that was what was bugging me. Everything was compressed ever so slightly along the x-axis, appearing distorted to me. Also there wasn't as much depth to the paintings, the horizons usually just hints of color; as if the painting had been done by someone mildly myopic. The use of color reminded me somewhat of a Degas. Not only their color sense differed from mine, the actual way they saw the world: more vertical, less detail in distance or stationary objects.

The guards had their limits though, they kept me moving, politely and trying not to touch too much. Occasionally there would be other Rris in the corridors: servants in simple breeches or kilts or just decorated sashes. Nobles - not necessarily wearing more, but what they did wear was more elaborate: brighter colors, more jewelry, patterns shaved and dyed into their pelts. Invariably they moved aside and stared openly at me. Once, a noble - female by the prominent nipples - out with her entourage ordered the guards to stop so she could get a better look at me.

"Ma'am," the officer looked uncomfortable, "we're supposed to take him straight to the guest wing."

"Stop making noise," she brushed the guard aside and approached me. Barely up to my shoulder, pale tan pelt, strips of white leather hanging in loops from her hips, rust-red curlicues dyed in the fur of her chest. "Mothers milk! What is it?"

"A guest ma'am," the officer replied miserably. Stuck between his orders and a hard place.

"Dangerous?"

"A. . ." he never got beyond opening his mouth. She just reached out and touched my arm, then reached up toward my face. I flinched away from the visible claws and she hesitated before withdrawing her hand. "Ugly son, isn't it?" Her friends chittered amusement.

I didn't say anything, looked at the guards and saw his ears twitch down, then turned my back on the female and just walked away. Weapons clattered and claws pattered on marble as my escort hurried after me. Their officer glanced sidelong at me but didn't say anything. I made a conscious effort to relax my jaw.

Section 69

There were deer in the palace grounds. I watched a buck with an impressive rack stalking through the snow at the treeline across the garden, hesitate with one hoof raised, then bound away until it was lost among the trees and frozen white mist blowing in from the lake. I rubbed a bit more of the frost off the windows, but there was no further sign of the buck or of whatever had startled it. I sighed, got up from the window seat and went to toss another log on the fire.

Not a lot to do. The guards had returned me to my room about mid-afternoon. The weather had closed in, the fog rolling in from the lake and covering the palace grounds with shifting banks of gray. I'd poked through the draws in the low desk, finding something that might have been a blotter and a small wooden box full of fine sand, whatever that was used for. Not very interesting. I killed more time lying on the bed, studying the paintings and trying to figure out the styles and composition. The portraits: a dark, 'dramatic lighting' one of a sober-looking Rris noble whom I promptly dubbed 'Chuckles', a much lighter one of a nude individual I decided was female. Difficult to tell, even if she was naked. That inscrutable, slightly-dazed expression on her face that might or might not have been caused by a crack in the canvass made her an unmistakable 'Mona'. Last was a thickset elder Rris with a distinctive paunch and a lot of white through his mane and facial hair, settled comfortably in a chair beside a fire laid in a huge hearth; for some reason he struck me as a 'Henry'.

The sound of voices outside interrupted my reverie, a key turned in the lock and I sat up on the edge of the bed as Shyia entered with my laptop tucked under one arm, the door closed behind him. He tipped his head, studying me, before he asked, "How are you feeling?"

"All right."

"His lordship said you were having trouble talking. They kept you talking too long, did they?"

"A bit." I rubbed my throat, "Speaking Rris can be like trying to swallow sand."

He snorted, almost amused. "I think you might have to manage. That aside, how did it go?"

"A lot of questions."

"What did you expect?"

"I know," I nodded, looked down at the pattern of the carpet. "I answered as best I could. They have more questions, they were. . . arguing."

"Ah." He slowly bobbed his head and didn't say anything else, stalked over to the desk and folded himself down onto the cushion there, laying the laptop on the desktop. "His lordship wants you to fix this."

I shrugged. "Need the solar sheet. To feed it." Their language has nothing analogous to 'recharge'. "Or you could find the other battery."

"Ah." He looked down at the plastic case. "I'll try and get them. Is there anything else you need?"

"Would I be able to go out? Look around the town?"

He hesitated, "I don't think that would be possible."

"Just around the palace then?"

His ears went down. "I'll have to ask. Understand, Mikah, I don't have [something] here. My authority ended when we entered the city. I don't have any say in what happens to you, the best I can do is ask."

"Okay," I nodded. "Thank you."

He scratched at his muzzle with a single clawtip. There was something else on his mind. "There're already rumors floating around about you. His lordship knows it was impossible to keep people from seeing you, but he hopes we can keep your knowledge buried, at least for the time being. He would appreciate your cooperation in that."

"What does that mean."

"Try not to be too conspicuous. Don't talk around strangers and don't discuss what you are doing here with anyone. Understand."

"No. I don't. Who am I supposed to be hiding from?"

He laid elbows on the desk and leaned forward. "I'm not sure. I suppose. . . there are people in other kingdoms who wouldn't want us to get an advantage, merchants or guilds who might see new ideas as a threat to their income and lives. What some fool might decide to do. . ." He moved a hand in a Rris shrug, letting me make what I would of that.

"That is. . . likely to happen?"

"I don't know. . . It would be dangerous. For the Guilds it would be foolish. If one acted against you and was implicated, it would find itself [boycotted/ embargoed] by everyone else. There are limits to their authority. Other kingdoms would probably face similar consequences."

"If anyone could prove they were responsible," I added.

"Ah," a grunt of assent that said he realised that. "That's not something to think about though."

True. It wasn't. "Do you know what happens now?" I asked. "After those questions. . . did they believe me?"

"They have more," he told me. "They all wanted more time to talk with you, so you will be seeing them and other people individually, possibly going over to the university sometime."

"What's that like?"

"I couldn't say. I've never been to Shattered Water before," he admitted.

"I thought you knew your way around."

His ears went down. "Huhnn, I've heard a lot from travelers and Mediators who've shifted out from here."

"What's it like? The town?"

He looked thoughtful and brushed the tufts of fur on his cheeks back. "A beautiful city, I heard. A million people. Biggest market in the land, with ships coming from kingdoms all over the waterways. Almost all the Guilds have enclaves, with some of the best craftsmen, artisans. Thihicarm armories have their works here, the best in a dozen kingdoms. Also the Smither shipyards and docks. The [heat/ expanding-water/steam engine] was invented here. . [Pubs/bars] with drinks you can't get anywhere else, theaters, [something] houses, the mint. There is the Itheminia gallery. The [aqueduct?] bringing water to surrounding lands is supposed to be impressive."

"I'd like to see some of those."

"Ah, I'm sure you'll get a chance." He stood then and strolled across to the window, reaching out to wipe a clear patch in the frost across the leaded glass before peering through. "Are you comfortable here?"

I plucked my jeans. Those, along with my shirt just weren't very warm. "Can I have my clothes back? It is cold."

"Uhn," he turned to cock his head at me. "I'd forgotten. . . I'll see if I can get something for you."

'Something'. Not necessarily my property; if that was what it was anymore.

"Thank you," I said and he never caught the flatness of that, just scratched at his crotch. "Uhn, his highness also wanted to know what food you'd prefer. I told them how you like it cooked, but is there anything you want?"

Hopefully I asked, "Are there any plants? Maybe fruit?"

His ears laid back. Obviously wasn't his first choice of a meal, but he said, "I'll see what I can find."

It wasn't too bad. They burned the meat though.

Section 70

I remember there was darkness. There were voices calling something I couldn't understand and I was running again. Trees ripped at me like claws and just as quickly turned into teetering jigsaw-buildings amongst who's alleys I caught glimpses of sinewy shapes moving whippet-quick while I tried to run again, heart laboring, and a snarling head lunged from shadows and there was that memory-picture of a wet gleaming mouth gaping wide as the fangs ripped through my face.

A gut-dropping sensation and I screamed and was aware I sitting bolt upright, my legs tangled in drenched sheets while perspiration turned clammy in the cold air and I was gasping like a marathon runner. Shapes moved in the darkness and I jumped in utter fright as a half-dozen Rris materialized from the gloom. Guards, I realised belatedly, my heart hammering so loud that they must've heard.

"Sir?" someone ventured. I couldn't see whom.

Another noise, light as the door opened and more Rris silhouettes entered. "What's going on? Mikah? What's wrong?"

"Shyia?" I asked in confusion and blindness.

"Yes. It's me. What's going on."

"He was screaming," a guard said. "We came in and there was nothing. He was just kicking at the blankets."

There was a low hiss, then Shyia's voice again. "I see. The dreams again?"

I pulled the sheets up and nodded. Dizzy and confused and embarrassed.

"He dreams?" another guard asked.

"Wait outside," Shyia said and there was a hesitation before one replied "Sir," then came the sounds of metal and leather shifting as they exited.

Again a silence. I caught a flicker of movement then a more distinct shape as Shyia stepped into the patch of diffuse moonlight filtering through the windows, seated himself on the cushion at the desk. While he could see me well enough, that gave me something other than a disembodied voice in the darkness to focus on. "I thought you were over those," he finally said.

"So did I." My voice was rasping, my throat sore. I pulled the eiderdowns up over my shoulders and sat hunched down into them.

"Maybe it was too soon to bring you here."

I ran a hand through my hair, sweat slicking it back. "I don't know that would change anything."

"Why?"

"It's. . . It's. . . I don't know. It's everything. A million Rris out there," I gestured at the window, "only one of me. All the changes. Everything just pulling me. It's like a river I'm drowning in. I haven't got any control."

"It's not so bad," I saw him making gestures, unable to really see any more.

As if you would know. "If you were in my place. . . If you were on my world, what would you do?"

He hesitated. "That's nothing I've ever experienced. It's difficult to say."

"You are alone. Everyone you ever knew is gone. There's nowhere to run to. You can't speak properly. You can't understand what's happening and people who see you run or hunt you down! Your life is never your own again. What would you do?"

I saw him cock his head and realised how passionate I'd been getting, just trying to make him understand. "I would survive," he eventually said. "There is always hope."

Survive. Hope. Transliterations of Rris words and concepts. I'm not sure I got them right and I'm not sure he understood what I was trying to say. I remember looking at him there, that shadowy figure sitting cross-legged on that cushion with his peaked ears twitching, his eyes flashing like a brief flare of sun off oil on water. A different species: how did he see the world? did he really understand how different I was?

His kind was a predator, had once preyed on mine.

Did those racial memories run both sides of the line?

I shuddered.

"Do you want to try and sleep?" he asked at length. "I might be able to find some marijuana. . ."

"No," I interjected. A bad trip. . . I didn't need that. "Thank's. No. I'll manage."

"All right." He got to his feet in a single flowing movement. He hadn't paused for clothes I saw now. Shit, didn't the cold bother them at all? "The guards will be outside if you need anything," he told me. I just nodded and he left, the door flashing a wedge of light from the corridor as it opened and closed. I heard voices outside but the words were muffled and indistinguishable.

I lay down again and tried to get comfortable. For a long time I lay and just stared up into the darkness and it felt like it was staring back.

Section 71

Next morning I was given clothes. Not mine, but my hosts had gone to some trouble. The pants were of Rris manufacture and a material lighter than denim, but it looked like the pattern had been copied from my blue jeans right down to the rivets. No zipper, instead there were wooden buttons on the fly. They fit all right, as did the long-sleeved green and brown patterned tunic I had to belt around my waist and the cream-colored quilted sleeveless vest. That vest was a blessing, the warmest thing I had.

Following breakfast I was taken to see Hirht again. It was back in that oversized white room with the desk over in the corner. What was the purpose of that place? To show who was in charge? A Rris statement of power like the human convention of facing your clients from behind an oversized executive desk?

It was a gray day outside, periodic flakes drifting out of the overcast. The shutters on those ceiling-high windows were open for what light they could admit: a greyish dimness that didn't do anything to add warmth to the room. This time there was another cushion at the desk and Hirht waved me to it with a flick of his hand from his seat, just watching me and not saying anything. I sat down awkwardly, again wishing they had proper chairs, even if they were the rickety things I'd used out in Westwater. He was only wearing a pleated kilt of some dark material but his knife still hung at his hip.

"I was told you didn't sleep very well last night," he finally said.

I nodded slightly. "I've had. . . better."

"Does that happen often?"

"Sir. I haven't. . . it's the first time for a while."

"Uhn." His cushion rustled as he shifted. "Is there anything we can do? Do you want something to help you. . . no, you can't, can you."

"No sir. Thank you."

"Is it going to be like that every night?"

"I don't know," I shook my head. "It's. . . I can't tell."

"You don't know what causes it?"

I opened my mouth, closed it again and swallowed. Just shook my head again.

"That mean's 'no', doesn't it," he said. "Huhnn. The Mediator said you were quite upset when he left you. Maybe it's just the changes. I know for you they must be difficult. I'm sure you'll get used to it. He said you had disturbing nights in Westwater and those calmed down. These will too."

"I hope so," I forced a smile, for what little that meant to him. Sheer force of habit, but I was careful not to show teeth.

His ears flickered backwards, but only a flinch. "Are those clothes enough for you."

I reached down to rub the linen of the vest between thumb and forefinger. "They are fine, sir. I like this coat. Warm. But would I be able to have my foot coverings back? The floors are very cold."

"Cold?" He glanced downwards in surprise, then looked at my bare feet and this time his ears did go down. He stared for a few seconds before drawing his gaze back to my face. "Good lady Wilder wants to see you at the university this afternoon. You would need them to go there?"

"Out there?" I looked out one of the windows at the snow and ice outside, thinking frostbite. "Yes, sir. Yes. I'd freeze without them."

"All right. I'll make sure you have them. Now, your machine. Can you fix that?"

"It doesn't need repairing. It's just that it needs to be. . . refilled. You can use it for about eight hours, then it needs to be refilled. I need the shiny cloth that was with it to do that."

"Can you do that this afternoon."

"It will take longer. It needs sunlight. When there is not much sun it takes longer to refill."

"You fill it with sunlight?"

I suppressed the urge to pinch the bridge of my nose. "Something like that.

"Something like that," he frowned, a crest of wrinkles marching up his muzzle. "Can you be more specific?"

So I tried to explain about electricity and batteries and found that necessity drew me deeper and deeper into a mire of metaphors that ended up confusing us both. He was getting the impression that electricity was a liquid that could be stored in jars, I was getting the impression that this was going to drive me up the wall. Preschoolers accept the fact that electricity is there, it works. They just have to stick a fork into a wall socket and they have the proof. Here I was trying to explain it to someone who'd never had anything to do with anything even remotely electrical in a language I couldn't speak properly. When I stopped to try and get my thoughts together he raked his claws through his mane. "Maybe this can wait for a while," he said. "Mikah, can you say [something] far your kind is ahead of Rris? You understand?"

I hesitated. "I think so. My kind went through a time like this maybe three hundred years ago. I'm not sure. I think it's impossible to say exactly. I'm not sure it's very important."

"Why?"

I shrugged. "My kind doesn't exist here."

"Comparing ourselves with something that doesn't exist. Huhn? But what if we DO meet your kind someday? What could they do to us?"

Didn't he realize. . . "You've already met them. What are they doing to you?"

He looked puzzled, "I don't understand. . ." then he stopped in his tracks as comprehension dawned. "Ah," he said and looked down at the papers on his desk and whatever was written there. "Ah." When he looked at me again it was a different expression: wary, startled, as though he were seeing something he hadn't noticed before. "[something] of change," he said.

"I don't understand that word."

"A messenger. Carrier of gifts or otherwise. [harbinger]. " He snorted. "Shave me but you're right. That's a twist I hadn't noticed. Just you and in two days you've already started a fire under the university."

"I haven't. . . ." I started to protest, then realised. "That is a. . . figure of speech, isn't it."

"Yes."

"Oh."

He smiled then. "That's something else we're going to have to address. There've been concerns about your language skills so we will have to find a tutor for you. You will need a couple of days a week, but I think that shouldn't be too much of an immediate problem. See how you get on with Aesh Wilder this afternoon."

Aesh Wilder, a female name that rang a bell. "That is Rasa? The one who studies animals?"

"Huhnn," he frowned. "Animals. Rris. The way life works. Yes."

Her. I remembered the way she'd looked at me, like she wanted to open me up to find out how I worked. "Why does she want to see me?"

"Mikah, there're over a dozen scholars tearing at each other's throat to be able to talk with you. I think it's best that she's first."

Section 72

It was just after midday when the guards came for me. They brought the solar sheet for the laptop along with my boots and socks and stood watching with interest as I put them on. Someone had been playing with the buckles and fucked up the settings. Finally got them settled and the officer asked, "Finished?"

"Ready." Felt good to get something warm on my feet and I was equally grateful for the gloves the cubs had given me. My guards led me out of the palace by another route, this one ending at a side entrance on the northern face of the palace that opened onto a cobbled yard. A group of low buildings with peaked roofs were situated on the far side of the square, carriages and wagons visible through opened double doors. A Rris in servant's livery led a pair of lamas through a door and into one of the larger buildings. The palace stables I guessed.

A pair of wooden four-wheel passenger carriages were waiting in the courtyard. Elegant things that vaguely resembled Wells-Fargo stagecoaches, save that every available surface was elaborately decorated with relief engravings. The lamps on the roof, screw heads, door handles and other fixtures were polished brass. Each coach had a pair of elk or somesuch in the halters, their tracery studded with more brass. A guard held the door open while I climbed in. The entire interior of the cab was upholstered in studded green leather, from the ceiling to the facing benches that wheezed as I settled myself. The cab rocked as two Rris guards in all their armor climbed in to sit opposite and stare at me.

There were voices outside, then with a lurch we started moving. The windows were glazed, but the glass was so distorted they let light passbut it was impossible to actually see anything through them, from the inside or the outside. I guess that was the idea. It was a rough ride. There were cobbles under the snow and no suspension in the coach. The cushions helped, but it still felt like you could feel every stone the thing ran over. I had to copy my guards and make use of the leather loops set around the inside as handholds but that didn't offer much comfort when you could feel the wheels skidding sideways on the ice.

"Is it a long way?" I asked.

Both my escort's muzzle twitched back in hurridly- suppresed grimaces. "Ah, no sir," one said. "Not far. The eastern quarter."

Wherever that was. "Is there anyway to open the windows?"

"What for?" the other guard asked, warily.

"To see out side."

"No sir." He said. "We can't do that."

I'd figured as much. I just sat and watched amorphous shapes going past through the warped glass. There were starts and stops, occasionally voices shouting, the complaining noises of animals. If the guards hadn't been there I'd have probably opened the door or at least tried to open a window. That was probably one reason they were there.

The ride didn't take too long, about a quarter of an hour before we stopped and the door opened. Four other guards ushered me out onto a snowswept drive. It was a big old building built of dark clapboard and hidden away by the trees that surrounded it: green and white evergreens, the skeletons of deciduous. I wasn't sure how many floors there to the place: the frontage was a riot of shingle roofs and gables, annexes and additions, windows of all shapes and sizes. This was the university? It wasn't what I'd been expecting.

Looking around I could see other buildings through the trees. There was a large brick place nearby and another slate roof visible a short distance away. "Here." a guard guided me toward the front porch.

"This is the university?" I asked him.

"Part," he grunted. "Other buildings the rest."

A man of many words. The steps looked worn with use and the front door was open with still more guards in the reception hall inside. It was warmer there and everything was made from polished wood that glowed golden-red in the meager lamplight. What parts of the floor weren't laid with threadbare rugs were scored and marked from claws. No paintings here, instead the walls were decorated with ornate tapestries featuring geometric designs that could almost have been old Celtic. Rasa was on me as soon a I stepped into the place. "Ah, welcome, Misah. I'm glad you could come."

"Mikah," I corrected. "I mean, Michael. I like seeing more of your town."

"Good, good," she said, looking me up and down and I wondered if she'd even heard me. "Well, we don't have much time, so if you would follow me. . . Watchkeeper, do you need an entire army [something] around after him?"

"I have orders," the officer responded.

"Orders," she hissed softly and waved a hand. "Oh well, come along. This way. We don't have all day."

I followed her agitated tail and heard the guards fall in behind me. Down the hall into the dimmer interiors, up a narrow staircase. The place had an old smell to it: wood and fabric, the underlying scents of beeswax and oils and something else. It was stronger when we got to the next floor and reminded me of hospitals.

Halfway down a corridor and guards grabbed me, pushing me against the wall and closing in around me as a stranger in great haste rounded a corner and wisely froze when it found itself staring down the muzzles of four flintlock pistols. "This area [something]," a guard snarled. "Who are you."

"Hysck," Rasa provided with a snort. "A student in the wrong place. What are you doing here? You were told this building was closed today."

The student stared wide-eyed at the guns, ears laid down flat. "Ah. . . I had to get my [something]." There was a sheaf of tatty papers clasped in his/her hand. "I was leaving."

"You know?" the officer asked Rasa.

"Huhn? Oh. Yes. She does have a [something] she's working on. Not much trouble."

The officer snatched the papers from the student's hand, leafed through them, snorted and passed them back before waving her along. She ducked her head to him and sidled past, staring incredulously at me before scampering off down the stairs with a clattering of claws. She'd have a story to tell her friends all right.

There were no further incidents. The corridors were empty, as were the rooms we passed. I caught a few glimpses through open doors: cushions and a few low desks, parchment drawings on the walls, charts and wooden models, other rooms with containers like glass mason jars with things suspended in greenish liquid lining the shelves. Now I realised where I'd smelt that smell before: biology labs. Formaldehyde. That didn't do anything to reassure me.

Then Rasa opened a door and gently took my arm to show me in. I went along, all the time plagued by the gut feeling I was making a bad mistake. It was a large room lit by a chandelier of gas lamps in pale glass globes; if there were windows they were behind the heavy green drapes opposite. There was a bookcase with glass-lattice doors protecting thick leather-bound tomes. On the walls hung charts and framed pictures of all sizes, anatomical diagrams of Rris, deer, beavers, other animals painstakingly rendered in charcoal and ink and some in startling color. Ten or so Rris had been seated at low desks and were standing as I entered. I could see the fur bristling on several of them as voices rose in excited chattering and then all my attention was focused on the table in the center of the room: large enough to lie on, padded with green leather and with several sets of heavy leather straps dangling from the sides. Two guards had followed me in, closed the door and taken up stations on each side. My heart lurched into double time. I couldn't take my eyes off that table.

Rasa was talking, waving her hands and gesturing as she tried to get the others to sit and calm down. Eventually they did so and their eyes stayed locked on me while she led me forward. "Nothing to worry about," she assured them. "He looks dangerous, but he is civilized. He won't [something]."

"Goods words for your memorial speech," someone said and there were chuckles.

"Very amusing," she sighed. "Now, as you see he appears to be [something]. He can think, possibly as well as a Rris. He has a [something] language of his own. His [something] hands are well [something] for using tools. I've tried to [something] a match in [something] journal of [something], but there was nothing [something]."

"Understandable," a young-looking Rris spoke up. "But what exactly IS it?" those sentiments were echoed from several of them.

"I have a few ideas. He claims his kind [something] from a variety [something] in the [something]. . ."

She went on at length like that. Parts I could understand but so much of the time she was using names and words I was completely unfamiliar with. Others started asking questions: How could she be so sure? Could anyone verify my story? Was there anything like this on record? What was I exactly? What did I eat? Drink?

It went on. I was shivering and only partly from the cold. A couple of the others went to the bookshelves and retrieved several books and a couple of cylindrical scrolls they opened to unroll A2 sized parchments. Pictures of chimpanzees. Dissected chimpanzees.

I flinched wildly at the touch on my arm and Rasa jerked away in shock. "Mikah?" her hand came up, like she was ready to ward me off if I came at her.

"W. . ." I had to try several times to pronounce the Rris words, " What is happening?"

"They just want to talk. Do you understand? Mikah? Just talk." She reached out again, slowly, and touched my arm. I know she could feel the trembling there and she looked worried, then looked around at the table with its straps, across to where a line drawing of a dissected chimp was spread out across a desk. "Oh. Shave me. . . Mikah, you think we. . ." she laughed then, drawing attention from the other Rris. "Mikah, his lordship would cut my [something] out if he thought we would even scratch you. You understand that?"

"I understand."

"Good. Now come over here. We just want to look at you."

This time I went where she showed me, across to the desks to be seated on a cushion. "All right?" she asked.

I nodded and she patted my hair, made me feel like a dog.

The other Rris gathered. Scholars, their equivalent of biologists - I can't call them anthropologists - I guessed they were that, but looking at them it was so hard to believe it. Fur of different hues, odd joints in the limbs, clawed fingers over illuminated texts and those feline visages that twitched and stared at me. One of them crouched opposite me and tipped his? her? head back and forth while amber eyes examined me. "You can understand me?"

"Yes."

The pupils snapped to dark pools. Rris muttering and whispers went around the room, sounding like wind across a thatched roof. "How well can you talk?"

"I. . . I can manage. Please, talk slowly."

"[Something] sounding," another growled.

"With that mouth I'm surprised he can talk at all," another answered.

"Quite [something] though. See. . ." A clawed hand came up toward my face and faltered. The Rris looked worried, "May I touch?"

I swallowed, then slowly nodded, "Okay . . . Yes."

Fingerpads poked my cheek and stroked along my jawbone. "He has more [something]."

More Rris were touching me then. Fur and fingerpads felt inhumanly strange as they ran over my beard and skin, exploring and probing. They opened books to show sections of primate skulls and jaws. Apes of various types; something that almost resembled a chimp but had the damnedest coif-style hairdo. A Rris wanted to examine my hand, which I reluctantly extended. Three of them joined in, muttering and exclaiming , folding and bending my fingers, feeling for tendons and joints and comparing it with drawings of ape bones. A Rris with white and black speckled muzzle had produced a drawing board from somewhere, a black- stained hand moved quickly and competently as he/she sketched me.

I went with the flow.

They wanted me to strip: asked, then insisted. Like modeling for life drawing I tried to tell myself as stood there shivering in the cold. Embarrassing; not just the nudity but the exposure, the vulnerability, the way they treated me like a piece of meat. The examination was very thorough and impersonal. The two guards watched, wide-eyed at first, then one whispered something to the other and they sniggered. There were exclamations over this and that: my ribs, my spine, shoulders and arms. My legs and feet drew a lot of attention, especially my ankles and heels. Rris were startled when I convulsed as furry digits ran over the soles of my feet: hell, can I help it if I'm ticklish? One touched the mass of scar tissue on the back of my shoulder and there were questions asked about that and all the other marks that criss-crossed me. I learned my heart is in a different position to theirs. My genitals caused remarks and more comparisons with anatomical diagrams and more questions. Of course I don't have a sheath, something I had in common with the apes in the sketches. I still didn't know what Rris male organs were like but apparently my physical shape bore more of a resemblance to the primates than to Rris. My genitals are also disproportionately larger than Rris. I don't know why; maybe we breed for it. I don't have mating cycles. They wanted to know how well I could balance without a tail, why my grip was so much stronger than a Rris's. . . The questions went on, as did the examination, until I had to stop: I was literally freezing.

"Shave me, you are cold," Rasa sounded astonished when she touched my violently shivering arm. "Why didn't you say something."

"I tried to," I said. It was true, I had. It'd dragged out into a debate about what kind of climate I could've come from. "I don't think anyone was listening."

"Shave everything. I should have thought of. . ." She hissed in annoyance and scratched at a cheek tuft. "Get your clothes."

The Rris who was sketching me complained. The trio who were trying to find a precedent for my ankle joints complained, but Rasa had a few words with them. They looked at the guards and I didn't hear anything more out of them. The next couple of hours passed more quietly. They wanted to hear my version of how humans evolved so I sat on one of their cushions and recounted as best I could: arboreal primates forced from the trees when the veldts of Africa began to open out, working in groups, scavenging and hunting food, learning to stand erect which freed the forearms to carry rocks, then shape tools. . .

A Rris wanted to know what we'd been before we were apes.

Another asked, "If your kind grew from the apes, then did we also grow from something?"

There were a few low growls and tails lashed, then the officer returned to announce I was through for the day. Time to return to the palace. Rasa saw me down to the front door where she patted my shoulder, "We'll see you later in the week."

It was night outside. A cold wind stirred the trees and I saw distant lights through the branches. The carriage was cold and dark. My guards sat in the gloom and watched me as I stared at the glass and listened to wheels clattering on stone and ice. Occasional lights passing by outside scrolling across metal on their armor, flitting across their inscrutable features.

At the palace they shepherded me through a side door and along corridors with their feeble oil and gas lamps. I saw Rris servants and a couple of times we passed by better-dressed nobility who stared openly at me. Once a high ranking pair blocked the corridor, demanding to know what I was. The officer smoothly diverted them to the side while the other guards spirited me past.

Back in the sanctuary of my dimly-lit rooms I ran the bath, stripped of and sank into the water. When the water got cold I kicked the faucet and let it run until water gurgled into the overflow. Just soaked, trying to unwind. I guess it worked: I never heard Shyia come in.

"How did it go?"

I flinched; water sloshed. The Mediator was standing in the door, hands tucked in the waistband of loose-fitting black breeches. "Oh, you," I rubbed my face and looked at my watch: 22:23. "It's been a long day."

"Not so well." His ears flickered. "I heard they were quite pleased. You feel otherwise?"

"I just don't enjoy being goddamn exhibit A," I muttered.

"What was that noise?"

I slapped water. "It's different from the other side."

His tail lashed, then he gestured at the bedroom and said, "I brought your food. I'll leave it for you."

"Thanks," I said and he left me alone then, something for which I was grateful.

Section 73

It snowed heavily the next day. The heavy fall muffled everything and made the world a silent, gray place glimpsed through the ethereal clouds of drifting whiteness as I was driven back to the university.

My eyes were sore. I had the beginnings of a headache even though it was barely 7:00. I hadn't slept well that night, spending most of it lying and watching the gas lamps in that pox- ridden chandelier flickering. Still hadn't figured out how to turn the damn thing off. Maybe I couldn't. It seemed to have a life of its own.

More of the Rris had brought sketchpads and this time there was a fire in the grate. At least this time no matter how physically uncomfortable their examination was I wasn't freezing. Just as embarrassing though. They were thorough, impartial and merciless: I felt like a cadaver at a medical school. Their furry hands felt so weird and worst of all they tickled.

There was hour after hour of that while they questioned and probed and sketched: close-ups of my fingers, and hands, feet and ankles, musculature, bones and ribs, my genitals, ears and nose, the patterns of my teeth. Of course it's a slow process, I should know. I saw how much detail they wanted to get and I saw how long it took one of them just to draw a finger, and I resigned myself to the fact that I'd be doing this for some time to come.

I did learn a few things from my time there. A few snippets of information about Rris history and evolution. They had evolved from cats, some kind of proto -felid that may have looked something like a distorted bobcat or lynx. They'd uncovered fossilized remains of creatures that bore a superficial resemblance to Rris but they'd summarily decided the remains belonged to a completely different species. My few remarks about evolution were causing stirs in academic circles.

As did my correction of their belief that muscles were powered by blood pressure.

"Of course it is," a rather thin male laughed when I queried this. "What else could it be?"

I gestured with my hands as I fumbled for words. "There are. . . very many small parts of the body making each muscle. They are like many tiny muscles, very many, all making one. When a muscle has to move the brain tells all the tiny parts to grow small. They all grow small, therefore so does the muscle." I frowned. "Make sense?"

There were murmured consultations between some of them, a derisive bark from the skinny Rris, "It's been proven that loss of blood weakens a body. It [something] that blood fills the muscles, [something/ expanding?] them and [something] motion. Tiny muscles making muscle. . . Hah! Any fools here to believe that?"

I shrugged. "The heart moves the blood. What powers that?" He opened his mouth and closed it again, doing a credible impersonation of a goldfish. I pressed on, " It is possible to make a dead body's muscles move without any blood at all." The old 'frog- legs' routine. I'd done that one in biology way back in high school, I could explain it when they asked how.

The thin Rris who'd laughed at me just glared at me and didn't say anything more. I later found out he'd been pushing a thesis on the subject; my correction would blow holes in his credibility around the university. I hadn't made a friend that day. It would happen again in the future, but I tried to make sure that any time I did try to correct any misconceptions or interpretations Rris held I'd do it as diplomatically as possible.

This examination lasted longer than the other one had. On top of the physical they wanted to try and find out what medicines I might have a reaction to. They questioned me at length about a number of concoctions but I couldn't tell them much: I didn't know what they were showing me so I really had no idea what kind of effect they'd have on me. It was near midnight when they let me go and I climbed back into the coach to return to the palace. I couldn't tell if the guards were the same ones from the first night, but like that night they sat and stared at me the whole way back.

Section 74

Shyia brought my breakfast again in the morning, just as the first sunlight was filtering across the horizon. I hadn't eaten the previous night: I'd crashed as soon as I'd got back to my room. I guess whoever prepared my meals took that into account because my breakfast was large with things like hot cheese scones with melted butter, a drumstick of what tasted like turkey, blueberries, and a glass of water.

"Hungry," Shyia commented as he watched me eat. "They didn't know whether to wake you for food or let you sleep. Huhn. How is it going?"

I chewed and swallowed my mouthful of turkey. "How much longer is this going on?"

"I don't know." He settled himself in the window niche and watched the dawn outside. For a while I ate in silence, then he asked, "What are they doing to you?"

"They want. . . they want to see how I work." I gave him a few details and his ears went down. "Are they hurting you? I'm sure his lordship would order them to. . ."

"No, not hurting. I will survive. It could be worse." Hell, if our positions were reversed: if a Rris had ended up on my world the medical examinations would be a hell of lot more uncomfortable. "You were the one who told me it would be bad."

"Huhn," he grunted and there was another moment's silence. "They've got something else for you today. I heard you're meeting with someone called Chaeitch Ah Ties. You know him?"

"I've met him." The young Rris who'd been present that day Hirht introduced me to some of the Rris I'd be working with, the one who was working on the steam engine. "Do you know what he wants me for?"

He snorted. "You know about something he's probably spent a good part of his life developing and you ask what he wants to talk to you about."

"Good point."

He looked out the window again and scratched at his right cheek. "I've been wondering how long before something catches fire."

"What do you mean?"

"Huhn. Talk about you. . . it's spreading everywhere. Other kingdoms are going to hear about you, if they haven't already. They're going to start asking questions, then making demands. Depending on how his lordship handles things, there could be trouble."

"Bad?"

His tongue flicked across his nose and he looked away. "Hard to tell. But, an insect falls into a fish pond, it doesn't last long."

Great. I lost my appetite.

It was about forty-five minutes later when the guards came for me. The laptop had charged and Belfast Child sounded through the room. When he came through the door the officer stared at the laptop for a few seconds. One of his ears flickered a couple of times then he turned to me, "Sir? Could you come with us. You might want warm clothes. Also, bring that." He gestured at the laptop.

Same procedure as the last two days: carriages waiting at the postern gate. Two guards rode with me in my carriage as morning sunlight filtered in through the warped glass and I held the laptop to stop it bouncing around too much. This time the ride took longer and we didn't make the same turns. Outside I could hear shouting Rris, animals, wheels on the streets and also the sounds of construction: hammers and saws. I climbed out when the door was opened and squinted into crisp winter sunlight. We were in a large courtyard surrounded on three sides by high brick walls and buildings, the other side was dockside, crowded with snow- dusted stacks of crates, barrels, timber and milled lumber. There were ships docked there: four fat-hulled things with two masts lay at anchor. Another two ships were dry-docked at the end of slipways while a few cold-looking Rris workers labored at scraping down the hulls. The harbor was a deep bite out of the city, probably a river mouth, protected by stone breakwaters at the mouth to the west. Sheets of ice crusted the water, especially closer to the shore. I could see more boats and ships at anchor on the docks across on the southern side. Further along the docks were buildings: a series of big wooden sheds that had the Spartan look of warehouses built right out on the edge of the docks. The chill blowing in off the lake brought tears to my eyes and went right through my coat; I pulled my gloves out of my pockets and pulled them on.

"Sir?" The officer and his guards were waiting for me. "This way."

I followed them across the docks toward the buildings while workers took time out to stare at me. A foreman howled in outrage and paraded around, waving his/her arms to get them back to work. My guards shifted a bit closer and kept their weapons ready.

The building wasn't a warehouse, it was a covered dry- dock. Inside was a large workspace with another ship in there, or parts of a ship. It was still under construction, just a keel and ribs surrounded by scaffold, ropes and tackle, stacks of lumber and racks of tools. Light found its way in through small windows high in the walls, water lapped under the big doors at the foot of the slipway leading down to the waterline. Apart from that, the building was deserted.

My escorts led me on through to another door on the far side of the shed. Beyond that was a small hallway with a rickety staircase and another door with a couple of soldiers on guard. The ducked their heads to the officer and stepped aside to let us through.

It was another construction shed, even larger than the other one and as cold inside as it was outside. The ribs of a half- completed hull were nestled in a web of wooden scaffold, like the ones outside except for the paddle wheels mounted on each side and the stubby funnel rising from the wood-bound boiler. Tools of all description and a few that defied it littered workbenches, along with sections and pieces of wood and metal. Hoists, ropes and chains hung from the ceiling joists, hammered panels of metal stood propped against walls. There was a Rris sitting on a pile of lumber with his back to us, tail twitching as the person regarded the carcass of the ship. Didn't even notice us until the officer spoke up, "Sir?"

"Uh?" The Rris turned, taking a smoking corncob pipe out of his mouth and his ears flicking up. "Ah! About time." I recognized him now: Chaeitch Ah Ties. In a flowing move he was on his feet and hurried over, ignoring the guards and grabbing my arm without any hesitation. "Come on, come on. Here." He pulled me over to the boat. The port-side paddle wheel was taller than I was. "What do you think?"

"Very nice," I said. "What is it?"

He gaped at me.

"Sorry," I said. "Joke."

"Joke?" He stared at me and took a puff on his pipe while his fur settled down again. "I didn't think you were the type." He hesitated again, taking the opportunity to tap his pipe down. "You do know something about these?"

"I know a bit. Not too much. I was an artist, not a. . . a. . . someone who makes these."

"[Shipwright]," he offered.

"Shipwright. Thanks."

"But you know a bit. What do you think of this?"

I had another look. When I was a kid I'd built a model steam engine, a small brass one based on James Watt's original design. I'd lathed the shafts and screws down myself. It worked. It leaked and jammed and whistled, but it worked. The Rris steam engine worked on the same principle: a single-expansion engine with boiler, piston chamber, a weighted wheel that I realised replaced the unwieldy walking beam and piston shaft driving a gear train which in turn powered the paddles. Steering was by a rudder. A hell of a lot bigger, but I could make something of what they were doing.

"Be better steering by changing the speed of these," I said, patting a wheel. "Also, you are using a. . . one-time system for the steam. You get more power from a. . .a more-than-one-stroke, also use less. . . .wood."

"Multiple-stroke?" he looked thoughtful.

I put the laptop down on a handy bench and climbed inside the scaffold to get closer to the guts of the engine. "Here," I pointed to the valve assembly on the piston. It was all in brass. "Steam is heated, it pushes this out, then in again, then the steam comes out here, right?"

"Yes."

"You can use the steam again. Steam pushes when it heats, but when it cools it pulls." I moved my hands, trying to demonstrate. "Get rid of this," I patted the metal wheel intended to power the piston on its return stroke. "Now, steam looses power, expands. Use more than one cylinder. Use small cylinder, then used steam goes on to larger cylinder, then larger one. Understand?"

His tail lashed slowly as he squinted at the engine, took a long drag on his pipe. "I think I see. . . Multiple cylinders. I'd been considering. . . it works? Better?"

"Much. More power, less fuel. Look." I took him back to the laptop and fumbled with gloved hands to load an animation showing a triple-expansion engine with its steam tubes running through the fire cylinder. Looks easy enough to build, but I wasn't sure Rris industry was up to it. The pipes and cylinders had to be cast properly and sealed by advanced welding techniques. A fault in a boiler and the thing could go off like a bomb.

I translated the animation's narrative as best I could, again stumbling through that uneasy territory where concepts and words that just didn't translate made a linguistic fog. He listened attentively and often asked me to stop the animation to have a closer look at something. When it was done he touched the plastic casing and tapped it with a claw, "Shave me, to be able to carry a library around with you. . . I don't think I'll ever be able to look at a quill the same way again." He snorted: a cloud of white condensation. "Ah well. I think we'd be more comfortable talking in the office."

The office was upstairs. It was a little room with racks of scrolls covering a wall, a low desk with a pair of capacious bean- bag style cushions, a single grubby little glazed window rimed with frost and - most welcome - a fire in the potbelly stove. I made a beeline for it, my hands just about touching the hot iron as I tried to work some warmth back into my chilled extremities while Chaeitch bustled about collecting scrolls and papers. He looked surprised when he saw what I was doing. "Ah? You're cold?"

"It's not the warmest around here."

He glanced at the window and the snow falling out there and his ears went flat. "Rot it! I forgot! They said you were [something] to cold. I forgot. I shouldn't have kept you down there. . . oh rot it. I'm sorry. . ."

"Don't worry," I interrupted. "I'll thaw out."

"Oh." His eyes flickered sideways, toward the door and the guards who were waiting outside. "Would you like some wine? That can help warm you up."

Rris wine. I hadn't had alcohol for. . . how long was it now? Months. It was the first time anyone had offered me any. "Please. I'd like to try some."

He ducked his head and fumbled out a pair of Rris mugs and poured from a wide-bodied glass bottle wrapped in a wicker framework. I took the proffered mug and sniffed: smelled like wine, with an unfamiliar undertone. Chaeitch took a swallow and busied himself spreading scrolls out on the desk and weighting the ends down to stop them rolling up again. I took a sip of my own and coughed. If it was wine it was about fifteen percent alcohol, and on top of that it was spiced. Chaeitch's ears went flat against his head. "Fine," I assured him. "Fine. Just a different taste."

Not too bad once you got used to it, and he was right; it did seem to warm you up. Or at least numb you to the cold.

The papers and scrolls he'd produced were plans. I recognized the details of his steam engine. None of the plans were real blueprints or technical drawings. They were just hand drawings. Detailed, that they were, but they reminded me more of sketches from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook than a diagram from a technical engineer's drawing board. Measurements and notes in a Rris cramped Rris crosshatched cuneiform scrawled in red and black ink everywhere, so cramped I could only make out the odd word. Tough to follow but it gave me an idea of what they'd done to the inside of his engine.

We spent the entire day poking through those papers. Jesus, when he got going he was unstoppable. He knew every inch of that steam engine, he didn't have to even glance at the plans to tell me about something: why something was done in a particular way, what an individual piece was made out of. It was something he'd designed himself and practically built himself. His baby.

I guess I was expecting him to be somewhat pissed at me, at least a bit disillusioned. I mean, he'd built something he'd believed was unique, something that would change the world, and he was right in that. Then someone - not even someone he might consider a person - appears out of nowhere and tells him it's old hat. I think I'd at least be annoyed, but he didn't seem to give a damn. I was a source of information, and he used it as best he could.

Engines of all types: steam, rotary, infernal combustion, wind power, solar, electric motors. Those last were a bit beyond him, but he was quite taken with the concept of the steam turbine.

"An [something] idea," he enthused, then scratched at his chin. "Difficult to build. To move at the speeds you are saying. . . I doubt we could work to such fine [tolerances?]. How can you lathe out a chamber from solid metal? What material are the bits made from? Something that can cut iron. . ."

Talk went to methods and materials. Easy to see how something works, but how the hell do you make tungsten-carbide steel? Carbon-fiber? Synthetic Spidersilk? Heat-resistant ceramics? The answers were in the laptop, but from those answers more questions propagated.

The guards brought more wood for the fire and later, lunch. Slightly stale bread, the baked fish was a lot better. They also brought water, which went largely untouched while there was still wine in the flask.

Much later that afternoon Chaeitch spread his notes out across the desk and raked his claws through his cheek tufts. "Rot me. . . I never dreamed there could be so much. You need tools I've never heard of just to build the tools to make these things. Metals, chemicals, tools. . . Everything is linked to everything else. Where the rot do you start?"

"The beginning is always a good place," I said.

He snorted. "Seriously."

"Seriously." I sank back in my cushion and contemplated the piles of notes and scribbles on the desk. Where did you start? "I'm not too sure. Keep it simple. Start at the bottom, maybe better furnaces? Then better metals and tools. . . build up from there."

Chaeitch flicked his lips back and hissed through his teeth then reached over to run a single digit over the laptop's keyboard. His claw sounded click, click, click across the plastic. " His lordship had wanted to try and keep this within the workshops here. I don't think that's going to be possible. I think I can [something] the [something] engine. I've got a few ideas to work from, but the rest. . . I think it's going to take a long time."

I nodded and sighed, "I'm not going anywhere."

He blinked, then asked, "How long are you staying?"

"What?" I stared, not quite sure I'd heard him right.

"How long are you staying? I mean before you go back to your home?"

"Didn't they tell you. . ." I swallowed, and told him, "I can't go home."

His irises flicked to black pools with a lambent corona. "I. . . they said you came here by accident; you are a guest. I didn't know you couldn't go back."

"It's no great secret." I said and reached for my mug, polishing off the last dregs in one mouthful.

Chaeitch stared at me a while longer, then asked, "Another?"

"Please."

The guards came for me later that evening. They were polite but firm when Chaeitch wanted more time. "Ah well," he hissed, his tail lashing, "Until next time then. I'll have another bottle waiting."

"Sounds good," I smiled and he only flinched a little.

Dark again outside, cold enough to freeze sound, but the sky had cleared and a blue moon hung over the skyline. My guards' breath were puffs of crystal in the moonlight as they escorted me across the shipyard compound to where the wagon waited. Rris voices called out questions from the darkness and a couple of my guards replied, telling them to go home.

22:46 by my watch. I did my best to doze during the ride back to the palace, gave up after I'd almost been jolted out of my seat for the third time. My guards were watching me. I stared back, then on impulse asked, "Is this what you joined for?"

They both looked surprised, then confused. "Sir?" one asked.

"This," I gestured at the cab, "This is what you were expecting when you joined the guard? This is why you joined? Did you want excitement? See new places? Money? Maybe you liked the uniform?"

The younger one on the left snorted a burst of laughter, the older one took a closer look at me and sniffed, then reared back. "You've been drinking?"

"Only to excess." In the darkness I saw them both stiffen, as though I might launch myself at them. "That is a joke," I hastened to add.

"Huhn," the older one rumbled. "He gave you wine? I'm not sure. . ."

"Lighten up," I said. "I only had a few."

"I think it might have been a few too many," he said.

I didn't feel drunk. Effervescent, maybe, more mellow than I had for a long time, but not drunk. Was that forbidden to me also? That realization came like a splash of cold water in the face. Conversation lapsed for the rest of the trip. My guards were more tangible shapes in the darkness opposite. Dim patches of moonlight periodically washed through the windows as the carriage rattled through the cobbled streets, the dim, blue-tinged illumination painting the pair in eerie half-light.

Back in my quarters there was a fire roaring away in the grate. It took the edge off the chill, but couldn't do much more than that. I dragged the cushion across and dumped myself into it, wrung out after a long day. Minutes later a mute servant ducked in to deliver a covered tray and retreat again with tail lashing. Dinner: Chunks of liver cooked to some degree with side order of salad, berries, bread and water. I was hungry enough to eat it. Maybe I was drunk I reflected as I pushed the remains of the meal away. Liver. . . unggh.

A scratching at the door heralded the arrival of Shyia. He closed the door and hesitated, eyes flashing like oil on water as they caught the firelight. "The guards said you've been drinking."

"Did they," I said.

He coughed, "Chaeitch wasn't supposed to do that. They really don't want you. . . doing things like that."

That rankled. "Goddamn it! Why? It was just a couple of cups. I'm not going to go crazy."

He didn't say anything but his tail lashed.

"That's it, isn't it," I sighed. "They don't want me getting drunk. 'Monster goes crazy. Kills eight.'. . . Shit, Shyia, I can handle my drink."

"The guards said you were acting a bit. . . strange."

"There's a difference between strange and drunk, isn't there?"

"In your case?" He bobbed his head from side to side. "Who would know?"

"I do. And I know I wasn't drunk. I've had stronger than that."

He raised a hand to scratch at his ears, maybe to also try and hide the fact they were laying back. "Mikah, I really don't have the authority. . . If his lordship doesn't want to risk you drinking something you shouldn't, there isn't a lot I can do."

"They'd listen to you," I said. "They think you're an expert on me." The Mediator's eyes flickered but he didn't say anything. "Chaeitch treated me like I was a person. He talked normally, he joked, he offered me a drink. . . Not many Rris do that."

"No, they don't, do they," he said and scratched at his ear again. "I will do what I can. No promises."

"No expectations," I said and this time he didn't try to hide his ears when they laid flat, he just turned and left, the sound of the latch closing quite loud in the stillness. I sat for a while longer, not really intending to doze off.

Section 75

The water was as dark and sluggish as oil, swirling around me. A speck of light fell into the depths, glinting like metal as it spiraled away into the depths and the river swept me away. Downstream, buffeted by the current like a twig, and the river branched, branched again, moving onwards, viscous, endless, the trees on the banks hunched and stunted. Darkness moved across the sky, twisted limbs knitting in a net that captured the moon and the blackness closed over me and I fought and. . .

Woke gasping and lunging on the floor before the fire, feeble light of dying embers outlining the inhuman silhouette of a guard, glinting highlights off armor as the Rris bobbed uncertainly on his ankles, "Sir?"

"Uhnn?" My muscles protested as I tried to sit up, cramped and getting cold. "What. . .? What's going on?"

The guard shifted around, keeping a safe distance. "You were sleeping badly."

"Oh." I sat dumbly for a few seconds, then rubbed my eyes and flicked the light on my watch: 03:26. God.

"Are you all right?" the guard said.

"Fine. Thanks."

I saw the guard's ears flicker back and tail lash. "Perhaps you should be in bed? It would be more comfortable."

"Yeah," I nodded. At least there was only one guard this time, not the whole damn squad like last time. The guard watched me warily as I got up, yawned and still watched me as I stripped to get into bed. I realised I didn't know the bug-eyed guard's gender, then realised I really didn't give a fuck. Give them something to gossip about.

The guard was still staring. "Is there anything else?" I asked.

"Ah?" The guard flinched, then laid ears back, "No sir. You will be all right?"

"Yeah," I nodded wearily. "I'll be fine."

With a respectful duck of the head and a glimmer of brighter light as the door was opened and closed, the guard was gone. I lay back under the mountains of sheets and furs and tried to listen to the silence of snow on the windowpanes.

Section 76

The following days followed the same tracks: early mornings and late nights, a lot of work. I went to bed exhausted and cold and often hungry. I guess the cooks did their best, but they were still learning just what I found edible. . . and that didn't consist of just overcooking a heart. They didn't seem to know the meaning of weekends, or if they had them, they didn't apply to me.

For the next week or so I had more meetings with Chaeitch. Sometimes with him alone, a couple of times with other Rris associated with his guild in various capacities: engineers, metallurgists. There were more questions of course and a couple of times Chaeitch took me down to the workshops where Rris were working on the steam engine.

Every time I went in there something had changed. On the first trip the paddle wheels had vanished and I could make out the props and braces where a driveshaft was going to be run out through the stern. On the following visits the engine itself was being reworked. I could recognize the changes being made to the boilers and steam lines where they were intending to install secondary piston chambers. Chaeitch showed me parts of the drivetrain they were working on, a gearbox to let them increase the gear ratio. He explained they wanted to build a high speed pump to power a blast furnace, so there was more work to do on that: researching the compressor and the material needed to line the converter. They were also making some progress in processing tungsten: they'd at least been able to identify most of the chemicals used in extracting it from the raw ore.

That was essential to the refitting. We needed to work to much higher tolerances and harder materials than the Rris were accustomed to, and to do that we needed better tools. High-carbon steel bits would cut cast iron, but to cut steel we needed tungsten bits on the new machine tools the Rris wanted: the lathes, die presses, saws and planing machines. They were coming, but again they'd take time.

Days I wasn't at the workshop I spent over at the university. The Rris doctors had a seemingly endless number of tests they wanted to try on me: How well could I see? How strong was I? What kind of endurance? What light levels did I find comfortable? What kind of temperatures? At the same time they were absorbing and mulling over what I could translate from the medical resources in the laptop: tidbits about diseases and viruses, operating and first-aid techniques, antiseptics and the two-edged sword of antibiotics. Their microscopes were still in their infancy: enough resolution to make out some of the larger inhabitants of a drop of water. A Rris savant in another town had been postulating that these might be responsible for diseases and illnesses. I remembered Chihirae saying something about that back in Westwater.

It was another four weeks, my watch telling me January had turned to February, before I had something extra added to my schedule. I guess someone complained about the effect my difficulty with the Rris language was having: slowing things down while I struggled to make myself understood. In any case Kh'hitch was the one who led me through the palace corridors to another wing. The library was constructed along Romanesque lines with a central 'nave' bisected toward the far end by a perpendicular transept and separated vertically into two tiers by a wooden balcony. Each of the tiers was lined floor-to-ceiling with shelves and these in turn were packed with books and scrolls and envelopes and wooden tablets. Sunlight streamed in through an arched stained-glass window high in the far wall, throwing shards of multi-hued light across the maroon carpet than ran the length of the room. Low-set desks and cushions were set out like pews in a church. Mobile stepladders squatted at the foot of the shelves. If the library had ever been a busy place, it was deserted now.

I followed Kh'hitch's substantial bulk along the 'nave', squinting into the brilliance of the stained glass: A stylized sun flared against a darker backdrop. To each side the shelves were weighed down by bulky leather-bound volumes: brown, red, some stark black covers. Gold and silver foil embellishments gleamed. We passed a rack of books behind glass, the leather bindings and covers so worn that on most of the whatever had originally been there had been polished down to a few flakes of gold foil or a few etched lines. "How many books?" I asked.

The Advisor snorted, his breath condensing. "Nearly a thousand I think. I don't have the exact figures. The collection at the university is larger but there are more [somethings] here."

"What is that word?"

He glanced up at me, then said, "First ones. Before there were copies made."

"Ah." Originals ."Impressive."

His ears twitched. "Being able to fit all this into a box you can carry around with you. . . Now that that I find impressive."

More conventional lattice windows filled the ends of the transepts, the left-hand one flooded with early-morning light. There was a Rris seated at a window desk. He looked up as we approached and I was momentarily shocked by the gauntness, the almost metallic grayness that dusted what had once been a tawny coat. Black eyes rimmed by amber flashed at me from what could have been a bare skull covered with velvet. One ear was a ragged stump. Old, really old. This was my tutor?

Kh'hitch ushered me forward and introduced us, "Esseri, this is Mikah, your student."

"This?" The elder grinned slowly at me: a front fang was broken, the other capped in gold. His? Her? voice rasped, adding a grating tone to the normally sibilant Rris language. "Bigger than he looks in the pictures."

"He'll behave himself. " The Advisor gave me another look before ducking his head and leaving us.

Esseri leaned back and watched me, I saw the tip of a tail lashing agitatedly. The tip of a walking stick poked from where it lay behind the desk. "Well, come on," the old Rris growled. "Sit down. You can understand me?"

"Yes, sir," I said as I hastily settled myself on the cushion opposite. It smelled like Rris.

Esseri's one good ear laid back and something like a laugh escaped the wizened old muzzle. "Not 'sir', ape."

I flinched at that, "Sorry, ma'am." I used the female honorific.

"Huhn," she snorted. "I think some parts of your education have been seriously neglected. You speak like you've got a mouthful of rocks."

I blinked, taken aback but unable to refute that. Chihirae had tried, she'd done her best, but the final fault lay with me. "Ma'am, I just can't speak like Rris. My mouth is a different shape."

"Yes," she stared at me with a tautness around her muzzle, her pupils flicking down to narrow slits in those amber eyes: sharp as obsidian. "I had noticed. Well, maybe there's a chance it can produce something that sounds acceptable. Can you read?"

"A little. I haven't had much practice."

"Huhn." Her eyes never left me as her nostrils flared, scenting me. Then she flicked her head and reached for a sheaf of paper lying on the black lacquered desk between us. Her hands were wrinkled, completely gray, and shaking slightly as she pushed the paper across. "All right. Let's see how much you do know, ape. Conjugate those."

"My name is Michael."

"Whatever. Conjugate."

I hesitated before picking it up. It was a list of basic verbs. I went through a fair few of them without too much trouble but there were a lot I didn't know. She sat back and watched me as I read them. I mean really watched me, studying my mouth. Her remaining ear flickered when I had trouble with anything or was forced to mispronounce a word, but she didn't try to correct me. It didn't take long.

"Now, count to twenty."

I did so and she listened, the tip of her tail lashing like a metronome, then she asked, "How's your history?"

Almost non-existent. I'd picked up a few snippets here and there, but not much. She quizzed me, asking questions: who was the first to cross the Spine mountains? When did K'trei usurp the throne? When was the Atlantic crossed? Who was involved in the Highland Alliance or the Chiret Treaty. Things like that. I couldn't answer any of them.

"Who was this teacher?" Esseri spat. "She doesn't seem to have done a very satisfactory job."

"You. . . you don't know what she had to do," I said, with what I considered restraint. "She did the best she could."

"Doesn't seem to be enough," she said.

"She saved my life," I retorted, getting angry. "She taught me to speak Rris. She also had to look after me and do her job at the same time as well as standing up for me against Rris who wanted me dead. I think she did more than enough."

Esseri stared at me and her good ear laid down again, "You do, do you." She snorted, "Truly, your accent is terrible. For a start 'K'Kchirshi' is pronounced 'KI-ah-Ki-chirshih'."

I opened my mouth to say something, then swallowed it and instead tried to repeat her.

A strange one that old teacher. She was scared of me, I could tell: The way leaned back in her cushion, away from me, that little flinch whenever I had to lean forward, the way she kept sniffing the air. She still taught me though, and that was something I couldn't understand. Why? If she was so uncomfortable around me why did she do it? Perhaps she didn't have a choice.

If that was it, she tried to take it out on me. Everything I did was wrong in some way. My vocalization, my grammar. She made me drill words I had trouble with over and over again. A lot of the time it didn't make any difference: it couldn't. That same day she started me on a history text, reading it through. She wanted me to learn the words I didn't know, both definitions and pronunciations, and I tried, I did my best.

It was a long day.

The sun was long gone and the puddle of light the lamp cast around of the desk left the rest of the library in darkness. Esseri was a silvery indistinctness in the dimness, leaning back into shadows with her eyes reflecting pools of flame as she watched me. For a while she sat there while I fumbled over a word that didn't seem to have any vowels in it before I realised she wasn't saying anything. I stopped and she watched me for a while longer, then snorted and picked up her twisted walking stick, using it to help her clamber awkwardly to her feet. She didn't say a word as she detoured around me, as stiffly as I seen any Rris walk, and then was lost in the darkness. I couldn't hear her footsteps, just the dull boom of the library doors as they closed.

I sat there a while longer, staring down at the vellum pages of the book on the low desk before me.

"Sir?" A voice from the darkness behind me. One of my guards.

"Coming," I told him. I was cold, stiff as I stood and picked up the lamp to follow him.

Section 77

Shyia stopped by the next evening, while I was washing up after a day in the workshops down on the wharves.

"His lordship said Esseri was quite aggravated with you." The Mediator was leaning against the doorframe. Didn't bother him in the slightest that I was in the bath. "Said you were being stubborn."

"What?" I stopped scrubbing, twisting around to see him better. "What do you mean?"

He snorted. "You aren't trying. You didn't listen to what she was telling you."

That wasn't something I'd expected to hear. I blinked at him, then protested, "I was! I tried! It was all day and I tried I talk better. . ." I was tripping over my own tongue. I sagged back in the bath and took a breath, hearing water dripping in the silence, a mist rising from the surface into the freezing air. "I tried. I did."

"I believe you," he said. "I'm not sure. . . there's something about her. I don't know. . . she was angry at you."

I remembered how she'd been acting. "She was afraid of me."

Shyia scratched at his arm, frowned. "You're sure?"

"I'm sure," I shrugged and tossed the brush across the tub. Damn thing was Rris, intended for their hide; It just about took mine right off. "Trust me. I'm getting good at telling."

"Huhn." He looked at me and I saw the tip of his tail lash. "There wasn't supposed to be a problem. Why? What happened? Did you do something?"

I shook my head.

"That's 'no', isn't it," he growled. "Don't do that. I know what it means, no-one else does. You didn't insult her? She'd had enough warning, but you didn't smile or do something like that?"

"No." God, a gesture I'd always seen as so innocent, something so ingrained that repressing it was like trying not to breathe, now it was something that could earn me enmity I couldn't afford. But, I hadn't smiled; there'd been no reason to. "No, I didn't."

He growled again and stalked across the room, his toe claws sounding staccato clicks on the floor tiles. The washbowl pinged when he flicked it with a claw. "I'll have a talk with Kh'hitch." He moved along to touch a towel. "How're you being treated?"

"It's a pretty cage," I said. "Pass that over here."

"Huhn," he tossed the towel across. I caught it as I climbed out and hastily toweled off before the chill froze the water on my body. The Mediator watched me, his ears flicking. "You're not happy?"

I reached for my shirt. "Happy? Tomorrow I'll be down at the docks. Day after that I have to see Rasa again. After that they want me to meet with the Foundry Guild. Then it's back to Chaeitch. On top of that I've got that tutor. I wake up in the morning. I eat. I am taken to where I'm supposed to be that day, then they bring back with barely enough time to wash and sleep."

Distracted from watching me dress, he blinked. "You were expecting different?"

"No. But, I. . ." I shook my head. "I would've liked to've seen some of the town."

"Hnnn," he growled. "I know. It's really not up to me." He glanced at the narrow slit of a window. "I'm sure you'll get your chance."

"In this decade?" I muttered.

"What was that?"

"Not important."

He snorted a cloud of steam, tinted orange in the dim gas light. "Someday somebody is going to understand what you say."

"In this decade?" I grinned.

"Probably not," he conceded. "Now, I think you should get your hairless hide out of here, before you freeze."

Good advice. I paused to pull the plug on the bath before retreating back to the main room and the warmth of the fire there. The meal tray had arrived unannounced and Shyia amused himself with lifting the covers and wrinkling his muzzle at my food while I finished toweling my hair dry. "What are you doing these days?" I asked him.

"Me?" He replaced a cover. "They're keeping me busy. The Guild and the Palace have questions about you, also about that situation in Westwater."

"Do you know what it was about?"

"No idea yet," he said.

I've noticed it before: he's got a good poker face, a bit TOO good: When he's using it it's as if his face is cast in stone: his ears freeze, jaw takes on a certain immobile quality, and that moment he was as inscrutable as a feline Rushmore. Something he didn't want to tell me.

"Uh-huh," I said, and let it go at that.

"How's your work with Chaeitch going?" he asked, blatantly changing the subject.

"Better than I expected. I never thought you could build a boat so quickly. Another couple of weeks and the engine will be ready for testing."

"So we can do something well, for a backwards people," he grinned then, and I really wasn't sure if he was imitating one of my smiles or using a genuine Rris grin, with all the connotations that went with it.

"You said it, not me."

"Huhnnnn," The Mediator growled. "Eat your meal, if that's what you want to call it."

He stayed around a while longer and I welcomed the company and conversation. It passed the time and - hell - I needed the practice. Later that night when he'd left I lay back in the furs of the bed, looked at the portraits staring back at me in the light of the dying fire. "Hey, Guys," I asked them. "How long've you been here?"

They didn't answer. I burrowed deeper into the blankets, eventually to sleep and dream twisted juxtapositions of Rris and human memories.

Section 78

Days passed and scarcely any of that time was my own.

At the university there were more interviews. I spent untold hours talking with a small cadre of Rris scholars, answering questions about everything from biology to cooking. They'd set up an interview room in that wooden university building. It was a small room, with a tiny window throwing light across a single low desk and a few cushions. There were always a couple of them, with a scribe lurking unobtrusively in the background and taking notes in an indecipherable shorthand. The Rris savants were always prepared, with their questions worked out beforehand and written down. They would go through their lists and their questions and when I couldn't answer, there was always the laptop. The images on that helped a lot, illustrating concepts I couldn't explain.

There were times that I wondered if I should be doing it. What was my interference doing to them? To their way of life? I wondered if I should just refuse. I also wondered what they would do to me.

Down at the workshops on the waterfront things were progressing. By late February Chaeitch had completely rebuilt the test boat. Now it was slimmer and leaner, the driveshaft ready for the single cast bronze screw. There were still modifications being made over the basic Rris engine and the result was looking vaguely like the drive system from Stephenson's Rocket. The steam chamber was enlarged, reinforced with riveted iron bands, integrating a wood-fired chamber running through its core. We could've increased the steam pressure by running extra pipes carrying hot exhaust gasses through the boiler, but I doubted the materials we were using could've handled the stress. I was quite sure the joins couldn't. It was something that would have to wait for a later model.

A cat's cradle of leather-insulated pipes linked the boiler to the multi-cycle piston system where condensing steam powered the cylinder on the return stroke. There were problems with the piston guides, mainly due to Shattered Water's industry's inability to machine precision guides. Another problem that'd have to be dealt with.

The engine certainly wasn't elegant to look at: an unwieldy mess of copper pipes and riveting and caulking, but we were more concerned with getting the thing working. Refining it down into a more manageable bundle was going to have to wait until better materials and tools were developed. They were working on it, but Chaeitch told me they were having some trouble with the Metallurgist Guild.

And the lessons with Esseri continued, her hostility unabated.

She refused to believe I had trouble with their language. I drilled words and phrases over and over, with the only result being a sore throat. If there was an improvement, it wasn't enough to satisfy her. Every time I moved too close or too suddenly she bared fangs. She kept to her schedule, but she wouldn't answer my questions, trying to teach without acknowledging I existed.

"Why's she doing this?" I asked one evening as I sat before the fire and tossed a bit of wood from hand to hand. "I tried to be friendly. She just. . . treats me like I am shit."

Shyia looked up from where he was perched cross-legged on the desk, watching as Luke Skywalker and his father dueled with light. "They're not really fighting," he said.

"Christ! Will you forget that?" I threw the stick into the fireplace, causing the embers to settle and send a fountain of sparks whisking up the chimney. "I'm worried that she'll go for me, or have a heart attack. I don't know why."

The Mediator looked up from the laptop and blinked slowly, his eyes shimmering titanium and I had that sinking feeling. "You know, don't you," I said with certainty.

He waved his hand in that little gesture that meant 'yes'.

"So? You feel like telling me?"

"His lordship wasn't sure that we should," he growled as his ears laid back, then he reached down to pause the film and turned to face me, perched there like a dark-furred idol. "It's not you she hates, not really."

"Not really?" I didn't understand.

"It was a long time ago, about twenty years. She was younger - which should go without saying - and on an expedition ship . . . to Africa. She was with a shore party going a short distance into the interior. They must have disturbed a [something]. . ." He looked away from me and waved a small shrug. "Anyway, the apes tore her partner to pieces. She had to run. She couldn't help him."

I stared at him.

"You wanted to know," he eventually said, watching me carefully.

"I'm not an ape," I finally managed to say.

He waved a hand, dismissing my words. "I've seen those pictures. Similar enough."

That. . . hurt. "But I'm. . . She knows I could never do that. I don't hurt people."

"I think she does, but she doesn't feel it," he said, his voice a rumbling growl. "You've killed Rris, she knows that. It's something that's not so easy to brush aside."

I mulled over this for a time while a chunk of ice slowly revolved inside me. "If you knew this, why choose her?"

"I didn't, but the administration probably never really considered it was going to be a problem," he said. " She's supposed to be good and she's trusted here. You know she used to be his highness' tutor when he was younger."

"I'm not his highness and as for her being good. . . It's difficult to tell when she treats me like I was lower than a snake's asshole." Okay, so I was feeling a bit bitter.

He blinked. "I don't know that they'll just get rid of her. It's not as if they can just [something] through tutors until they find one who can tolerate you. I think you might have to learn to live with it."

Section 79

Esseri was waiting in the library, ensconced at her desk in the puddle of sunlight that seeped through the leaded windowpanes. She didn't say anything when I rounded the corner, didn't even look up from the paper she was scratching away at, but I saw her ears go flat against her skull. My boots made soft noises on the carpet as I walked over to stand in front of her desk. I had a flash of the times I'd walked up to the teacher's desk at school, back in another world.

"Ma'am?" I asked.

"Sit down, ape," she rasped and I did so. "My name is Michael," I said.

She looked up at me. A narrow face, with graying fur drawn tight over the bones and eyes that were pure Rris: the lambent amber rings around pupils like polished black stones. She just snorted and a grayed furred hand shoved a book and a piece of paper across the desk, being careful to come nowhere near me. "Eighth verse. Read it."

Nothing more than that. I carefully leafed through the pages until I was pretty sure I'd found the page she was referring to. A history text, a section on the trade embargoes leveled against Overburdened after an incident known as Ghirits Ridge that'd happened a hundred and fifty years ago. I stumbled my way through it, not understanding one word in ten. Rris writing. . . it looks like, well, chickens scratching on wet clay and it's just not. . . I don't know why, but it's hard to read. It's similar to the differences between the legibility of a serif and a sans-serif font in body copy, only far more pronounced; like trying to read binary, the way the characters blend together. Maybe because it's a script never intended to be read by human eyes or processed by a human brain. Perhaps Rris eyes saw that as a model example of fine typographic layout, but mine kept blending it into a mess of crosshatching.

And Esseri sat there and picked everything I did to pieces. I tried to pronounce the words as she directed me, over and over, and eventually she hissed disgust. "You are useless, you know that."

I looked at her, then slowly put the book down and leaned forward. Her nostrils flared wide as she jerked back, away from me. I reached out and laid my hand on the desk, palm upward. "Touch me," I said.

She stared: rigid and trembling. What if she had a stroke? Did Rris have strokes? "What are you. . ." she started to snarl.

"Touch me," I told her and she looked down at my hand. Her ears vanished down into her silvered mane but she made no move. "You aren't supposed to. . ." she tried to bluster and failed miserably. "You're getting out of place, ape. If I call the guards. . ."

"Why would you? You're afraid of me?"

"No! Shave you, you twisted. . ."

"Then touch me." She looked down at my hand in utter horror.

I slowly drew my hand back and cradled it with my other, feeling the scars on the knuckles and up the back where a Rris' teeth had ripped the skin. The marks across my face ached slightly in the chill. "They told me what happened," I said. "In Africa. I'm sorry, but that wasn't me. That wasn't any of my kind. I don't do that."

"You've killed." She was panting: her breath forming strings of transient puffs in the cold air. "They told me. . . you've killed Rris."

"I've killed," I acknowledged, looking down at the marks on my hands. "I fought for my life. I fought for people I cared about. I. . . barely won."

"You murdered a farmer! That wasn't defense!" she spat.

That stung. I opened my mouth to protest, to say I didn't do it, and then saw her eyes and knew it was what she was wanting. "You believe I do that?" I quietly asked.

"Look at you," she snarled.

"Because I look like this, that means I must have done it?" I asked. "Why're you here? You hate me so much, why're you doing this?"

Esseri turned her head away, then back to stare at me with those immobile obsidian eyes in that silver-dusted face. "It's my job," she rumbled in a timbre I'd never associate with a human that old. "They told me to teach. I'll do it. I don't have to like it, or you, ape."

I looked away from that hatred, down at the desk where the book lay open to a woodcut of Rris aboard a barge or something. I nodded, then stood. "Neither do I," I said and she didn't try and stop me when I walked away.

The guards outside the library doors were startled to see me. "Sir?" one of them asked when I appeared. "Do you need something?"

"Let's go," I said and kept walking.

"Sir? Is there something wrong?"

One of them overtook me, blocked my way. "Sir, you can't. . ."

"I can."

They were all around me and now I saw their expressions: eyes wide and ears flat against their skulls and hands hovering near their weapons. I was walking on eggshells. "I don't have to stay there to be insulted," I told them. "I can do that anywhere."

I started walking again, keeping my hands in plain sight as I shouldered through. They hesitated a few seconds, then claws clattered on wooden flooring as they came after me to escort me back to my rooms.

Section 80

"Come in, Mikah," Hirht gestured from his chair in front of the fire.

The rest of the day had been quiet, giving me time to myself. I spent it in my quarters; not that I really had much choice. The door and guards outside didn't worry me, the solitude was a change from the pace of the last weeks. I spent hours just sitting in the chill of the window niche, watching droplets of water beading on an icicle, hesitating, then falling. Contemplating. I started a sketch of my room on a scrap of parchment, then screwed it up in frustration as a darkness I didn't want to draw covered the paper. Wasted time reorganizing my desktop, going through pictures of home, then through some recordings I'd made a couple of months earlier.

"How does this work?" Chihirae's face moving in the screen. "It is on? Ah! I would [something] a toy like this." A close-up of her mugging for the camera.

Other stuff like that. I missed her.

I finally used a swimsuit TIFF of a sultry Lona Deiss not wearing a swimsuit as wallpaper: let them make what they would of that.

The guards had come for me in the late evening, escorted me through dark corridors with that indefinable taste of Rris habitation in the air. Seen by moonlight, the huge atrium garden was beautiful: White and pale blue, delicate lattices of frost on branches turned to glittering lace. Stark blackness of shadows against crystal whiteness with the paths through the heart of it forming a geometric pattern that was a balance to the organic intricacies of nature. I stood and stared through that second-floor window until a guard nudged my arm, moving me along.

Another wing, in a section I'd never been to. Double doors with guards in brown and crimson lacquered armor: the gleaming polished steel of segmented breastplates and coalscuttle- style helmets with engraved leather ear and cheek guards, a flaring rim to protect the neck. So elaborate it had to be ceremonial, but the pistols and swords at their waists seemed functional enough and their hands never left the hilts as they watched us pass.

The corridor beyond was carpeted with soft deep-blue pile, the walls paneled to waist height with carved wood, and above that in a royal-purple velvet-like cloth with patterns brought out as light and perspective shifted. Gas lamps set behind milky glass blown in the shape of leaves emitted a gentle glow that was reflected from the thick panes of a narrow window at the far end of the hall, glinting from the polished brass fittings of the three heavy doors on each side. A guard scratched lightly at one, then opened it and ushered me in.

Red. That was my first impression. Red everywhere, from the velvet on the walls, to the drapes to the grain in the furniture. Lamps behind globes of milky glass flickered softly, exaggerating the shadows in the carved wall panels, barely lighting the rows of books nestled on their shelves behind latticed glass doors. A fire crackled in the grate, wafting sparks up the chimney and throwing a pool of light across the low table and the pair of chairs set before it.

I blinked. Chairs. Big, wooden frames of dark wood embellished with fanciful carvings of Rris and trees and animals. The seats were quite low and broad, the upholstery was red, of course, leather polished smooth by furry hides. Waiting, seated crosslegged with a half-filled glass in his hand, the Rris king watched me as I apprehensively glanced around.

"Please, sit."

I did so. The chair was lower, and broader, than I'd expected. More like sitting on a low platform than a proper chair. I settled awkwardly and tucked my legs up in imitation of the Rris. He watched me curiously, his head following my every movement, then raised the cup and I caught a glimpse of his tongue darting out to lap: their equivalent of a sip. I shifted slightly, uncomfortably; the chair was built for different proportions.

Hirht gestured at the table between us. There was a decanter and another glass there, already filled. "Please, drink. I was told you seem quite partial to our wine."

I smiled slightly and leaned over to take it. The glass was broad and relatively shallow, without the curvature inherent in the wine glasses I knew; the liquid inside it was a red, almost ruby in the wavering light. Bristles in my beard scratched on glass as I sipped, found it tartly acceptable: strong and spiced like the stuff Chaeitch had offered. I took a longer draught. I needed it.

"That's to your taste?"

"It's good. Thank you."

His ears flicked. "Mikah, I heard you had some trouble today." Uh-huh. It was what I'd been expecting. "What happened? Was there something about Esseri you didn't like?"

I turned the glass, watching the wine orbiting slowly. A memory flash of blood in a crystal-laced stream. I shuddered. "It wasn't. . . working. Sir."

"The guards said you seemed upset or angry. Esseri said you walked out on her. Is that true?"

"Yes."

"This is related to the questions the Mediator was asking, isn't it." The Rris snorted softly and I saw the tip of his tail curl out from behind him and twitch. Maybe that was why they had such odd chairs: their tails got in the way. "He shouldn't have told you."

"Sir. Shyia told me what happened to her, and I'm sorry, but it really doesn't have anything to do with me. She seems to think it does though. I think she remembers what happened more than she wants to. Every time I've seen her. . . she. . ." I trailed off, shook my head and took another drink.

Hirht was watching me, a tension about the cant of his head now. . . if I was reading him right. Damn light made it difficult to tell anything. Was that intentional? "She said there were a few problems, but not of that sort," he said. "She said you were a slow learner; you were disrespectful; you didn't follow her instructions." He ticked points off on his fingers then cocked his head. "It doesn't sound like she was the one with the problem, does it?"

I gave the tiniest shake of my head. "Not when you hear it like that. No."

"Then why don't you let me hear your memories."

Mem. . .? Oh, he wanted to hear my side of the story. I told it, as best as I could remember. From when I'd first met Esseri, the talk I'd had with Shyia, to when I'd walked out on her. He was a good listener, not even interrupting when I mangled his language.

"Can I believe that?" he asked when I was done.

I shrugged. "She is Rris and I am. . . I am not. You can choose what is easier to believe."

His face stayed impassive but his tail lashed. "Do you think that makes so much difference?"

"To her it did."

"Huhn," he made a noncommittal growl and turned his head to watch the flames, his fur scattering light into a faint halo about his inhuman profile. "Can you be sure?" I could see shadows morphing as he spoke, muscles shifting as his jaws moved. It was inhuman, fascinating, distracting attention from his words for a second.

"I. . . I think I can." I had enough memories of that. "I have seen it before."

Hirht's head shifted again, watching me. "A lot of people have said you have trouble understanding them. Are you sure you [something] her right?"

"I know what I saw," I said again.

"You can't be sure. . ."

"I know!" I snapped, my voice raising and torn muscles in my face spasming and I saw him flinch, his hand moving an inch toward the crack down the side of the cushion. What'd he have tucked away down there? I really didn't want to find out. "I'm sorry," I said in more subdued tones. "Since I've been here it's something I've become very familiar with. Yes; I'm sure."

He stared at me, at the scars ripped across my face, then looked away and I saw him shudder. His fur was bottled. "I will see what we can do," he said eventually. "I'd hoped. . . She's a good teacher. It will be difficult to find someone as good as she was and get them accustomed to you."

I almost said 'Chihirae', but that was. . . it wasn't fair on her. Dragging her away from her home and her work.

"I'll talk with Esseri again. Perhaps something can be arranged." He picked up his glass again and this time didn't just sip. I watched his throat working as he swallowed, then blinked at me. "What about you? How are you doing?"

"I am doing all right." I hesitated before asking, "I haven't seen anything of the town. I would like to see a bit of your world."

Hirht sipped again. "You realize we can't just let you walk around town by yourself."

I nodded, then added, "Yes."

He glanced at the fire, then said, "I'll see what can be done."

I nodded again, but didn't say anything.

"There were a few things I'd been wanting to ask you," he said after a while. "Some questions about your home. Do you feel like answering?"

"If I can," I said.

"Huhn," he scratched at his leg before asking, "The place you come from, you have kingdoms, don't you?"

"Similar things. Yes."

"How many?"

"I don't know, not exactly. Maybe two hundred?"

"That many?" He made a low sound. "How many of your kind? Do you know?"

"I don't know the Rris number. It is like a thousand multiplied by a thousand multiplied by a thousand by eight."

Hirht took a second working this out, then I saw him jerk rigid in shock. "You. . .you are sure?"

"Not exactly. It is close."

He stared at me for what seemed like ages. Trying to decide if I was lying or not I supposed.

"You are not joking?" he asked.

"No, sir."

"Rot it all, I don't have that many hairs," he growled, wrinkles marching up his muzzle. "All right, you have kingdoms. What about your government? You have highborn?"

"Highborn?" I asked, thinking back to my lessons with Shyia. Oh, yeah. Their monarchy. "No. I mean some lands have a system like yours. Mine doesn't."

"Ah. Better?"

I twirled the stem of my glass between thumb and forefinger, frowned down at the dregs. The sordid charades and posturing of Politics had never been a particular interest of mine. "Different. Better at some things, maybe not so good at others. We like to think the good outweighs the bad."

"Describe it."

Again I had to hesitate. "I'm not sure I. . . I don't think I can do it properly."

"Try." Green eyes watched me. I saw his pupils were cracked wide, reflected firelight glowing in the blackness: nervous?

I nodded and tried. Voting, elected representatives, presidents and elections, senates and the constitution, trying to put it into words never intended to be processed by a human mind. "Our government is chosen by the people. . ."

"H'ans," he interrupted.

"The people," I continued. "Every four years the people select new governments, with a new head."

"Where are they chosen from?" he asked.

"Anyone who wants to run."

"Anyone can become ruler of a kingdom?" he sounded incredulous? "That is. . . [something]! Could a woodcutter rule a land wisely? It would be disastrous!"

"That's not quite. . . I mean, it takes time. Your small towns have mayors and Lords. We have similar. A woodcutter could choose to work in government by starting in his town council."

"But if he was a fool. . ."

"Then the citizens wouldn't choose him."

Claws tinked against glass. "Maybe your people can choose wisely. I don't think ours can."

I had to shrug. "We can't either. That's one of the problems."

He snorted. "When you say that, it sounds like perhaps we aren't too different after all."

"We have our fools and we have our geniuses," I said.

"Ah," he breathed. "And what are you?"

The question took me aback. "I'd like to think I'm normal."

He laughed at that, a bark of amusement that startled me. "Normal? You know things our scholars haven't even dreamed of."

"There's a difference between knowledge and intelligence," I said.

"That's something I've heard before," he said and studied me again for a few seconds, then gestured at my glass. "More?"

I glanced down: it was empty. "Please."

Crystal chimed as he refilled my glass from a decanter. I thanked him, sat nursing my drink while he returned the bottle to its tray. We talked for a long time, the level in the bottle falling steadily. He had questions about everything: government, elections, the countries and their relations, human relations and society. I answered as best I could, struggling to find bridges between two languages on opposite sides of a vast gulf. By the time the fire was guttering the wine was gone and I was having great trouble getting my tongue around Rris sibilants. And Hirht asked me if I had a female I was bonded to.

Jackie. . . Why did he have to bring that up while I was in that state? What was she doing now? She must've thought I was dead. She must've been worried. Were they still searching? Could someone find out what'd happened. . .everything mixed together in an alcohol-sodden jumble. I blinked, the room blurring through tears.

"Mikah?" The Lord looked shocked when he saw my face. "Your eyes. . . What's wrong?"

"Wrong?" I asked. "She's gone. Everything's gone. My life goes to shit and you ask what's wrong!" English. He flinched back, unable to understand a word. "I think you've had enough," he said.

"Yeah, I've had enough," I mumbled. My glass tumbled and cracked when I buried my face in my hands. "God! I've had enough!"

I flinched as a misshapen hand touched my arm and I looked up at one of my guards. Hirht watched impassively as a pair of them helped me to my feet. Damn leg had gone to sleep. I staggered, lurched against a guard who hissed when I leaned against him. . . her. She growled something at the king and he kinked an ear. "Let him sleep it off," he said.

The journey back took a lot longer than the journey up had, probably because I didn't seem to be able to manage a straight line. My escorts had to help me on the staircases. Back in my rooms I remember they dumped me unceremoniously on the bed and then my clothes were being pulled off, my protests ignored. Someone told me to 'drink this'. Just water.

I woke once that night to go to the bathroom and puke my guts out. When I'd finished heaving and coughing and raised my head there were the shadows of guards lurking at the door.

Section 81

"Morning and waking!"

I groaned into the mattress. Light flooded the room and I felt it burn through my eyelids and ricochet around in my skull. I groaned again and pulled the heavy sheets over my head. A second later they were yanked off completely and I cried out in protest as the shock of the morning air hit me. "How are you feeling?"

"Shyia," I growled through clenched teeth. "You shit!"

The Rris grinned at me and laid his ears down. "That's a swear, isn't it? Shit?" It was an English word that could have been designed for their mouths. "I'll take it that means you are feeling better." He cocked his head then, "You don't look it though."

"It's called a hang-over," I grimaced as I sat up and clutched my head. Shit. What proof was that wine?

I've never drunk a lot. I don't have much of a tolerance for alcohol so it doesn't take much to get me sloshed and once I am, I'm a loquacious drunk. As Hirht had found last night. What had we talked about? More to the point, what had I talked about? What had he heard?

Had he known? How could he?

"Hang over?" Shyia was asking. "What do you mean?"

I shivered, goosebumps forming. I rolled over and swung my legs out, grimacing as the changes in blood pressure did things in my head. "You know. . . you drink too much. . ." I trailed off and blinked at him. "You never feel like this after drinking too much?"

"If you mean feel as bad as you look, then no."

"Lucky bastards," I grumbled in English. Hirht hadn't seemed even the slightest bit tipsy. How many refills had I had? A lot more than him. I remembered him sitting and watching me, nursing his drink for hours, every now and then dipping his tongue to sip. Had that been his intention all along? I felt like a fool.

And a part of me wanted to crawl back into that bottle and curl up and stay there.

A heavy cotton tunic of Rris manufacture landed on the bed beside me, drawing me back to the now. "Put it on, before you freeze," Shyia told me. "Your food should be here presently. Aesh Smither wants to meet with you and Chaeitch ah Ties first thing this morning , so you won't have much time to eat."

God. Work. I felt like throwing up again. I hunted through my meager wardrobe for pants, coming up with a pair of jeans. The old bloodstains were still quite visible but there was nothing else available.

"Mikah?" Shyia had flicked the laptop on and now was staring at the desktop. I'd forgotten about the wallpaper of Leona showing her assets; both of them. "What's this?"

"A woman," I told him.

"Oh. Yours." He cocked his head at the screen.

"No."

He looked up at me. "Not yours. Who then?"

"An. . . actor."

"So why did you put it here?"

"I wanted to see a pretty face," I told him, pulling the jeans on and when I looked up again he was still studying me, then used a dainty clawtip to flip the machine off seconds before the scratch at the door heralded breakfast. It was fairly unmemorable: chunks of unidentifiable meat in a heavy gravy - almost a stew - along with solid, fresh-baked bread. I forced a bit of it down, not really hungry.

The ride to the workshops on the docks was the same. The same coach, a pair of humorless guards I didn't recognize who watched me steadily. It didn't do anything for my hangover, the racket of the wheels on cobblestones going right through my skull. I tried dozing and surprised myself, waking with a jolt of adrenaline when a guard poked my knee with a clawtip to say we'd arrived.

Things had changed in the workshop. It was more cluttered than ever with more workers, more equipment. Some of the new lathes had arrived and had been set up. They were Rris built devices, requiring two Rris to power the treadle turning the shaft, but the bits and cutting blades were of improved carbon steel. They weren't precision devices, but accurate planes for a planing machines were being worked on. A Rris steam engine to turn the lathes was also on the schedule, but that was a few weeks off.

Down near the slipway the hull of the test vessel nestled among its supports while Rris workmen caulked seams and seals around the driveshaft. The prop was new, bronze gleaming like metallified fire in the sunbeams that found their way through the dusty widows up near the roof. About half a meter in diameter it hung below the stern like a whale's family jewels. The heart of the test shell was being fitted with an older model Rris engine. A hoist system was lowering the boiler down to where five mechanics were waiting to connect the tubes to the engine. Keep the thing in manageable modules had been a suggestion of mine; we were going to use the Rris engine just to test how well the screw worked while in the meantime the improved engine was locked to its testbed.

"How long?" Rraerch aesh Smither asked.

"That's a rather personal question," I said. Chaeitch snorted a laugh and Rraerch's head whipped around to stare at me.

"I think that was his idea of a joke," Chaeitch provided.

"I hope so. I meant," she said with a penetrating look at me, "How long until the first test."

"Ah," Chaeitch leapt in there, I was coming to realize that this was what he lived for. "Another two weeks. Twenty days at the most. I'm a bit worried about the seals on the pipes here. With the pressure they're carrying there's a good chance they [something]. We won't let it run to exhaustion on the first trial, just lope a little. The pipes will be changed when some of the machinery Mikah's given us designs for is finished."

She looked uncertain. "It's not going to explode?"

"Shouldn't. You want to take bets?" he smiled.

Rraerch had a right to be worried. There was going to be a lot of pressure built up in that thing and if it popped there'd certainly be damage, perhaps injury, hopefully not death. The shipyard was her property and she was understandably reluctant to see it blown to pieces. I wondered how Chaeitch had managed to swing this: partnered with someone with the industrial clout of Rraerch and backed by the financial resources of the monarchy. He was brilliant with machinery, but as far as I could tell he had all the business ability of lint. He must've had some lucky breaks somewhere.

The new engine's test bed was a bulky wooden frame holding the mess of tubes and cylinders at the far end of the shed, opposite the hull. Rraerch studied it, kneeling to study a seam we'd pegged as being particularly suspect. I saw Chaeitch glance at her rump before crouching beside her, pointing out parts of the system's underbelly.

"You're testing it in here?" she asked.

"Next door," he said, referring to the other boathouse that was unoccupied at the moment. "Out in the courtyard for the first tests. Less to damage if something goes wrong."

"You're expecting trouble?"

He growled softly and rapped the boiler with the heel of his hand. It rang with the timbre of hollow metal. "I've learned not to expect anything with these things."

She snorted. "I remember that [something] with the engine you showed a few years back, the one with the loom."

Chaeitch grinned at the memory and I had to keep reminding myself that didn't mean good humor in a Rris. "I remember. Did the fur on his arm grow back?"

"[Something] if that happens with this," Rraerch said and glanced up at me, just a furtive look. How much of my reputation was riding on this? If the thing blew up, what then?

"Hopefully it'll all go smoother," Chaeitch said.

"Be easier for everyone," Rraerch grunted.

They spent a while going over the engine. Chaeitch was getting right into it and enthusiastically pointing out refinements, modifications he wanted to do, how it could be improved when the tools and materials became available. Rraerch watched and listened, asked questions. She was interested in knowing how these engines could be applied to ships and just how big Chaeitch thought they could be made. What kind of range? How much fuel did they have to carry? How would that affect payload?

They were questions we couldn't answer. Not until we'd tested the engine to see just what kind of performance we got from it.

"And there is no guarantee that this is the engine we'll want to put into ships," Chaeitch said. "You've seen some of the other devices Mikah's people use. There are a lot that are more powerful than this, but we can't build them. We can't even make the machines to build them."

"Will we be able to?"

"I hope so," he scratched at his crotch. "Problem is chemicals. Mikah knows what they're called in his tongue, but that doesn't help us any. Still, we've made some progress. We've got a metal that cuts iron like you'd bite through bone. Even cuts through steel. Expensive to make, but worth it."

She looked across at the lathes. "The new tools?"

"Ah." I saw his tail was fluffed out. What did that mean. Pleasure? Whatever, he kept talking as he led her over to the machine area. There were two lathes already there and several stacks of junk had been cleared away to make way for other tools. The lathes were heavy beasts: the frames were single pieces of black cast iron, as were the gears and adjustment wheels. The bits and shafts, however, gleamed with the specular highlights of polished metal.

Chaeitch showed Rraerch the high points and listed some of the other power tools he wanted set up when the engine was put in. The drills and saws and die presses. Somewhere in the shed a bunch of workers began pounding rivets through sheet metal. I winced and turned away as the hammering did horrible things with my hangover. I sat down on the heavy wooden base a lathe was bolted to and rubbed my eyes. Shit, I needed a drink. The lathe had seen some heavy use recently, judging by the amount of shavings lying on the ground between my feet. I just rubbed my throbbing temples for a while before noticing, then frowned and reached down to pick up a curled thread of metal.

"Mikah? What's the matter?"

"Uh?" I looked up. The Rris had stopped their conversation and were staring at me. Rraerch's ears were back, the tip of Chaeitch's tail was ticking back and forth. "Are you ill?" she asked, looking worried.

"I'll live." I hauled myself to my feet. "Too much to drink last night."

Now she looked outright alarmed. "You're drunk?"

"No, no," I winced. "It's called a hangover. I just found out Rris don't get them."

"I think I'm glad to hear it," Chaeitch said. "Anything you need?"

"Aspirin?" I asked.

"What?"

"Don't worry. No, I'll live," I said. "Just need some water."

I knew they were watching me as I crossed the room to the water pitcher, dipped a ladelful out of it. Still had that shaving of metal in my hand. I sipped from the cup, weighed the metal in my other hand: We were still using mostly copper and cast iron, soft stuff. Someone had been doing a lot of milling of a heavy low- carbon iron.

I was pretty sure I knew what it was from.

Section 82

Warmer weather.

Water dripped from icicles outside my window as the temperature rose above freezing for the first time in a long while in the heat of mid-afternoon. Another heavy snowfall covered the brief melt, leaving a treacherous layer of ice under fresh-fallen powder and the next few days were freezing days of darkness under leaden gray clouds and driving snow.

It blew itself out eventually. One day there was blue peeking between scattered clouds, sunlight shining in my windows. The next snowfall was half-hearted, the brief shower of semi-liquid slush spattering on the windowpanes and freezing when night came again. In the town the roads were icy, the drifts subsided a few inches. The metaphorical mercury rose over the next few days and when the afternoon sun shone, Shattered Water was filled with the sound of trickling water flowing along a thousand drains and streets, punctuated by the occasional crash as an icicle lost its hold. The monochrome landscape visible from my window was changing as a few bold trees ventured forth early buds and shoots.

My life didn't change. I spent the days being shuttled from one place to another. There were still questions and examinations at the university where Rris doctors all but took me apart. The examination room was littered with charts and diagrams, sketches of various parts of my body pinned to the wall. They gave me tests: hearing, sight, pricked me with pins to see how sensitive my sense of touch was. Things like that. It was impersonal and utterly humiliating.

There were numerous interviews with Rris scholars, physicians, biologists, all trying to get as much as they could out of me. I was asked about health and illness, diseases and healing, geography and astronomy. They wanted to know everything they could and I tried to help, but it was like draining a bathtub with an industrial-strength pump: I just didn't know that much. I could look it up on the laptop, then they complained that my answers didn't make any sense: they didn't have a base of reference. For instance, the Rris who was trying to find out what governed individual characteristics - fur color, eyes. I could tell him "DNA", but that'd be utter gibberish to him. As would my best translation of the definition in my encyclopedia. A lot of talking, a lot of queries and questions, but I never had many of my own answered.

Down in the workshops things were a little easier. I liked Chaeitch and I got the vague impression he liked me. The workload was just as high, but it was of a more tangible nature. Chaeitch and Rraerch introduced me to specialists, metallurgists, engineers, craftsmen and representatives from various guilds being contracted to supply equipment and materials. There were more questions and elaborations, more problems they expected me to have the answers for.

Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not an industrial engineer!

I didn't have all the answers. Not even close. They wanted so much, so quickly: Metals, casting techniques and forges, die stamps, drills and saws. . . there were a dozen projects going on at once, with more springing up all the time. When the Rris hit a problem they couldn't solve, they'd come to me. Never-ending and frustrating; there was no such thing as a simple answer when each solution has to be explained, when you have to search for words to explain concepts they'd never heard of. The laptop helped, but I was the one who had to go through the files and try to wrap my brain around the various subjects, trying to get enough of a grasp on the concepts that I could relay them on to the various Rris in my still-limited command of their language. Even then, it couldn't tell me everything I needed to know.

It rained. For the first time in what seemed like years I heard actual rain drumming against the roof and washing snow from the streets and reducing drifts to icy piles of dirty slush. And along with the changes in the season there were changes in the Rris I was working with: subtle things I didn't notice at first, but as days passed they got worse. Rris workers were distracted. There were careless mistakes, little things that several times blew up into arguments out of all proportion. Once I asked Rraerch a question and I had to poke her shoulder to get her attention: she had the damnedest expression on her face, staring into space as if she wasn't all there. It vanished into her laughter when I asked her what was wrong. I didn't understand; she acted as if my question was a joke or something.

That night was another of those restless ones:

Night. On the road. Sheets of rain rippled across the windshield, battling against the wipers. Lights from an oncoming car flickered through the car, warped and shimmering from the water, flashing across Jackie dozing in the passenger seat: pale skin and closed eyelids, an errant wisp of dark hair veiling her face. The old radio hissed, Chaupin coming through the static. More lights from behind. I looked back to Jackie and screamed as the furry, misshapen shape blurred at me across the car and I saw and felt gleaming teeth closing on my face, screamed and flung my arms up and whole car lurched:

Woke tangled in sheets and furs. The door was ajar, a wedge of feeble light cast across the carpet and the foot of the bed. Outside, a gust of wind blew rain against the windows. I jumped when a Rris silhouette moved in the darkness. "Sir?"

I sagged again. One of my guards; I must've been making some noise. Another dream. They were getting to be all to common.

"You were dreaming again, sir."

"I noticed. " I sat up. I was shaking, a fine tremor in my hand. I clenched my fist and the tremor ran up my arm. "Shit."

The guard hesitated, then said, "It's happening a lot. Do you want something to help you sleep?"

I looked up at the guard - anonymous and androgynous in the gloom - and shuddered at the thought of what a Rris-specific valium might do to me. "No. Thank you, no."

A slight creaking as the guard shifted, then, "Sir, if you don't mind a question?"

"Shoot."

"Sir?"

"Go ahead. Ask."

"What is. . . Jahk'hy?"

What. . . ? I thought for a second, translating the Rris lisps into human consonants, then flinched. The dark shape standing by my bed hadn't moved. "Jackie?" I asked softly.

"Ah. . . that was the noise."

Snippets from the dream were still vivid; again I felt someone walk over my grave, "Where did you hear that?"

"You call it sometimes, sir. What is it?"

I hesitated. "A woman I knew."

"A. . . woman." There was a hesitation. "Your kind, sir?"

"Yes."

"Ah. Thank you sir." The sound of Rris feet on carpet and the light from the door was eclipsed, then a hesitation. "Sir?"

"Do you get. . . lonely?"

Lonely. The Rris word carries different connotations; it's as near a translation as I can come. I looked up at the guard, a shadow backlit by the light from the door. "Yes," I said quietly.

"Sir," the guard ducked its head then closed the door. I pulled the coverings back over myself and laid back, listening to the rain and wind outside.

Section 83

Shouts rose as Rris engineers carefully raised the engine assembly onto the heavy carriage that'd move it out into the slush- crusted courtyard for its first test. Eight Rris wearing odd-looking padded gloves hauled at the chains on the tackles that lifted the engine while a dozen more nudged it this way and that to make sure it sat properly. Chaeitch bustled around like an expectant father, making sure nothing was dropped or jolted.

"Will it work?" Rraerch asked.

"I don't see why it won't," I said, trying to put on a braver front than I felt; there was so much that could go wrong and probably would.

"Another day and we find out," she snorted, then hugged herself, ruffling the fur of her upper arms. The weight of the cast iron and copper engine settled on the carriage. I frowned as wood creaked, but it held. Rris yowled satisfaction. At least they'd been paying attention: there'd been an accident that morning when a male broke his hand with a hammer. Just missed the rivet it turned out. Careless, and it was just one of a spate of accidents we'd had in the past couple of days, all caused by distraction and carelessness, all avoidable. And I didn't know where Chaeitch was. He should've been there to help with his pet project, but there was no sign of him. Nobody seemed particularly worried by his absence though, so I put it to the back of my mind and stuck to business. There was no way he'd miss the first trial of his engine.

Took most of the day to get everything ready. By evening the engine was secured and double checked to make sure nothing had worked loose. The first test would be early the next morning and hopefully that would let us find any bugs and iron them out before we had to present the thing before the nobility and patrons.

Once those final checks were done there wasn't much else any of us could do but wait for morning, so that day they let me go early. It was barely dark as Rraerch walked with me and my escort to the carriage waiting in the dockyard forecourt. "I'll see you tomorrow then," she said, then flashed a smile tinted with a glimpse of her teeth. "Oh, there's something I've been wanting to ask you," something slapped across my backside. Startled, I glanced down to see her tail flicking back. "What's it like not having a tail?"

"I've never had one, so it's hard to compare. What is it like having one?" Her tail came back for another swat and this time I caught it, tugged lightly and her eyes widened and it whipped out of my hands, feeling like a silk bottlebrush whisking through my fingers. "Sorry," I apologized, feeling I'd transgressed.

"No. My blame," she said, looking me up and down with a peculiar expression.

"What?" I asked.

"No matter," she said, then chittered and batted my arm. "Tomorrow?"

"I'll be here," I assured her.

On the ride back I sat and stared at the shapes moving outside the glass. There was more noise at that hour of day: shouting and traffic, animals protesting, vendors advertising their wares at the top of their lungs. I had other things occupying my mind, nagging worries about the engine. It should work, there was no reason it shouldn't. But supposing it didn't? There was so much that could go wrong, there were so many little details that weren't available to me. The diameter of the condenser line, the cylinder drainage valves, tolerance on the piston. . . they all gnawed at me.

In my rooms I opened the laptop and set a Pink Floyd selection playing on random shuffle, just to chase away the silence, then went and ran a bath. It help untie some of the knots, just soaking in that warmth and darkness, the Dark Side of the Moon drifting in from the other room. Wind picked up outside and rattled the windows. It hadn't been the longest day, but it'd been stressful and I was glad of the chance to unwind, the first I'd had for a while. I just leaned back and listened to the wind and water, trying not to think about anything.

It was too soon when the music finished and the water grew cold. I splashed out onto the freezing tiles, wrapped a coarse towel around my waist and made for the warmth of the fire in the next room. It was dark through there, the feeble light cast by the gas lamps didn't reach the corners, leaving corners and blotches of darkness. The bright glow of embers in the hearth was a lot more inviting.

"Sir?"

I nearly hit the roof at the sound of the unexpected voice. I turned to see the fur on my bed moving and standing up and eyes reflecting firelight. "Sir?" the Rris asked again in a small voice.

"Who. . . who are you?" And what are you doing on my bed?

"Hych, Sir," the stranger stepped forward and ducked its head. Dark earthen fur, mottled with black patches, amber eyes, ears notched and the tip missing from the left one. Something hanging from a slender gold chain around its neck glinted in the light. Female, by the two rows of teats showing above the small russet kilt around her waist. Didn't look dangerous. Would the guards have let her in if she was? Did they know she was here? Why was she here?

"Okay. Hych. What are you doing here?"

Closer still. A hesitation, then another step. She wasn't looking at my face when she reached out and I froze like a rabbit caught in headlights, aware of her claws and my skin and the fact I was wearing nothing but a towel. Her furry fingertips brushed my chest and claws kissed my skin in a slow scratch across my chest, down my ribs before I jerked away. She started and seemed at a loss, then reached down and fumbled with her kilt.

"What are you. . ."

Let the garment fall to the floor.

". . . doing," I finished lamely and she stood there in nothing but fur and firelight, the halflight turning her alien body into a caricature of a person: twisted limbs and musculature like an ill-seen dream, like something that had been stalking my sleep for uncounted nights. The bones in her pelvis were odd as she canted her hips; I realised her pubic fur had been trimmed short. Her lambent eyes flickered up to meet mine for a second before darting aside, a furtive look at my groin, then she turned away and in a single graceful motion knelt on the carpet by the fire, rear raised and her tail sweeping aside as she spread her legs.

I gaped, a lurch of tightness in my guts. "Oh, Jesus Christ! Get up! Dammit! Get up! Now!"

She stood and now looked confused and not a little scared. "Sir?"

"Is that all you can say? Look, what are you doing. . ." I stopped myself; That was obvious enough. "Please, why did you come here?"

"His Lordship sent me," she said, then added in a small voice, "You aren't satisfied with me?"

"No. I mean, I'm sure great you are. . . you are. . . Look, I just don't want to. . . mate with you. I think you don't want to with me either."

She flinched. "I want whatever you think is best."

"Shit!" I sighed and circled her to sit myself on the edge of the bed. "Look, I think it's best that you leave."

Her eyes widened and she glanced at the door. I realised that she'd been sent here; if she was turned down someone might think she'd done something wrong. Would they reprimand her? They might send another.

"It's not you," I told her. "I am just. . . tired. Not in the mood."

"Ah." She ducked her head and fumbled at her necklace, removing the locket: a tiny glass vial that she offered. "Do you need this?"

I warily took it: a few drops of a cloudy fluid inside. Curiosity got the better of me. "What is it?" I popped the top. "Christ on a. . . What IS this?!" Smelt like cat piss.

It was. Urine, she said. I hastily returned it and she looked shocked. "Sir? It doesn't arouse you?"

"No." It certainly didn't. "If you hadn't noticed, I'm not Rris. Now please. . ." I gestured at the door. "I'll explain what happened. Not your fault."

The look of relief that crossed her face was indescribable and quickly covered again. She didn't stop to argue, just grabbed her kilt and made for the door. I watched it close behind her and sat there, still staring as I tried to come to grips with what was going on inside. What she'd been sent here to do. . . it was . . . it was something I'd felt for Chihirae, but it was something couldn't bring myself to follow through with. Sex with a Rris; It was a ridiculous thought, halfway between ludicrous and repellent in my mind. Something that couldn't happen and yet. . . Chihirae. . . I wished it had and berated myself for a fool.

Across at my laptop I overrode the screensaver and looked at the desktop and the picture there: smooth skin, the curves in the right places. THAT was a woman. What had just been in my rooms, that wasn't. . . it wasn't a human. It was female, but it wasn't. . . it wasn't a woman.

I shuddered and for a second it was Jackie I was picturing crouching and presenting to me, Chihirae kneeling with a flash of organic pink under her tail. What was down there wasn't the same as a human woman's. Frustrations and hormones making the urge unbearable: back in the bathroom I masturbated, groaned at the pictures spinning in my head as I finished, afterward leaned my head in my hands and sat panting and shivering and spent before retreating to my cold bed.

Jackie.

Chihirae.

I cried that night, while the wind rattled the windows and the paintings kept their opinions to themselves.

Section 84

A crisp, cold spring morning. A chill morning sun turned the sky over the lake salmon pink, bathing the clouds over the city in soft light, turning them to cliffs of gray and orange mist. Columns of smoke rose from hundreds of chimneys, reaching almost vertically into the sky to merge into a faint haze.

I'd found a patch of morning sun in the lee of a cradle holding a dry-docked fishing boat, looking out over the water to the far bank upriver and the activity there. Rris were distant figures bustling through the riverside marketplace, their fur and clothes blending into a multi-hued visual cacophony. Smoke drifted up from open fires at stalls and shops where food was being cooked. Morning sunlight glittered off windows, the occasional patch of snow still clinging to rooftop tiles that glistened slate black and clay red. Further upstream I could see one of the bridges that linked the two halves of the city, wagons and foot traffic rumbling across it in a steady stream. Rris were busy around the wharves and the boats tied there, their masts creating a forest of timbers, cross-spars and ropes. The sounds of tools and Rris voices carried faintly across the water. I hunched down into the warmth of my jacket, hands jammed into my pockets.

The previous night preyed on my thoughts. This wasn't my home; It never would be. I didn't understand why they'd done that, I didn't understand what she'd been talking about. It wasn't sane, it wasn't the way I thought.

How much went on in those furry heads that was just incomprehensible to me?

"Something interesting?" Rraerch stepped up beside me, her ears pricked up and arms crossed, ruffling and rubbing at the fur of her upper arms like a human might on a cold day.

"Just looking. Is it a celebration day?"

"What?" she squinted at the activity over on the far bank. "Oh, no that's just the morning market."

"It happens every day?"

"Yes. You didn't know?"

"I don't get out much."

She turned and looked up at me, cocking her head. "Are you all right? You seem. . . quiet."

"I didn't sleep very well."

"Oh, well, I think we were all worried. You do have a lot riding on this though." Her muzzle pursed in an expression of confusion. "I would have though you'd be anxious to see if the engine works, not standing here staring at a river."

That wasn't what I. . . never mind. I nodded. "You're right. Has Chaeitch shown up yet?"

"A few minutes ago."

The engine was set up over near the workshop. The carriage it was mounted on was chained to the ground while Rris were still stacking cords of wood nearby. Chaeitch was doing a last minute check on the cylinder valves, something that'd already been done at least five times. He looked around at the sound of my boots, "There you are."

"He was watching the river," Rraech said.

He cocked his head and scratched at a tufted cheek. "No interest in this?"

"No, it's not that. I. . . I don't. . ." I sighed, then shivered in my Rris made jacket. "It doesn't matter." I forced a smile then, "Shall we get this show on the road?"

Blank looks.

"I mean, shall we start?"

"Why didn't you say so?"

They wouldn't let either me nor Chaeitch near the thing. A Rris laborer had drawn the short straw for stoking, other capable Rris watching the pressure, the valves and cylinder. The firebox was stoked and lit off, a steady trickle of smoke started leaking from the stack. Low pressure test, the needle barely nudging a quarter of the way around the dial with its Rris gradient: blue to orange. Pipes creaked and trembled, but they held. The piston in its cylinder rocked, trembled, didn't move. Yelps of alarm rose when a young Rris jumped in and leaned its weight on the drive wheel and the piston started to move.

I heard metal grind, then a sound like a giant's sniff and a gout of steam vented: the piston started its return journey, picking up speed and turning the wheel. The Rris at the main steam line tapped it, bleeding pressure to hold the speed at about half a cycle per second. The engine sputtered and leaked steam and water, but it ran, better than I'd expected it to.

A hand grabbed my arm and I gasped as claws sank in. "Shave me, Mikah! It works!" Chaeitch yelled up at me, seeming like every piece of fur on his face was erect with jubilation. "It works!"

"Chae!" I winced in pain. "My arm!" and he looked confused, then shocked. "Saa! Rot it! I forgot. I didn't mean. . ." he babbled as he tried to unhook his claws. There was a moment of confusion, the engine almost forgotten as guards hastened toward me and I tried to assure them nothing was wrong while Chaeitch tried to disengage his claws. I was bleeding, I was sure of it, but I wasn't about to check and the shirt was dark enough to hide any patches.

Steam pressure was increased and the engine picked up speed, settling down to a smooth pattern. The gauge was under the halfway mark when the wheel being driven by the piston developed a bobble. There was a snapping noise, then a loud Spang! and a whistling shriek and panicked yells from Rris as a sheet of steam poured out of the boiler. It singed the tail of the Rris on the pressure gauge before he got clear and the steam wafted in eddies, then quickly dissipated. The piston sighed to a stop.

Forlorn wisps of steam continued to puff out of the damaged seal. There was a silence, into which I said, "Shit."

A chuckle from Rraerch, "I couldn't have put it better myself."

It was that seal again. The engine worked, better than we'd expected, but the materials just couldn't cut it. The bronze had just sheared away from the rivets, and that was at quite low pressure. If it'd been stoked up, a larger surface area to the boiler, and with everything properly insulated we'd be able to draw a lot more pressure, but there was no way the current equipment could hold that.

Everything considered, it was an educational morning. We had a product that was superior to the current Rris engine, enough so that it'd make an impression on the brass. All that had to be done was refine it enough that it didn't blow its stack when the pressure was turned up.

The man who'd had his tail singed by the steam hadn't received anything worse than a few blisters, light compared with what could have happened. Excited Rris workers set about tidying up the mess and returning the engine to the workshop. Rraerch stayed to watch as it was moved and was pleased to hear that repairs wouldn't be difficult. She patted my arm in way of congratulations before going to report to her own superiors and leaving us to our work. I didn't feel nearly as elated as I suppose I should have.

Workers were already working at unloading the engine from the carriage, the sound of hammers pounding on sheet metal and rivets filling the shed when Chaeitch took me back to his office. We spent time talking about how the seams could be strengthened, then most practical solution being to get the planing machines finished, then machining proper screw threads and pipes from iron. He wasn't sure we'd have time for that, so we looked into reinforcing what we had. There was also the question of the copper piping around the seams. The copper ore the Rris could provide wasn't as pure as it could've been, so it was a great deal more brittle. By further refining the ore could be purified further, but the conventional Rris technique took money and time. Something better would have to be found.

I sat on a cushion at Chaeitch's desk and listened while the Rris mechanic listed options. Not well enough, I guess: My mind kept drifting back to things that happened in the night and I flinched when Chaeitch asked a question and I realised I hadn't heard. "Sir?"

He stopped, studied me intently for a few second while an ear twitched, then he said, "Mikah, you've been very quiet all day. I'd have thought that seeing that engine going would have roused something out of you. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," I said, then hesitated. "Chaeitch, can I ask you. . . I have a problem."

He cocked his head, then laughed. "You're asking me? I thought you were the one everyone went to with problems."

"Chaeitch, please. Can we talk?"

"Sure." He stood and went over to a cabinet, returning with a bottle and a couple of glasses. "Maybe this will help."

He poured and I sipped. It did, a warm path that hit bottom and warmed from the inside out. Then he asked, "What's this about?"

"I'm sorry. . . I find this difficult. Ah, last night. . . a woman came to my room. A Rris."

"That surprises you?"

"She was sent to have sex with me."

"Ah." He rubbed his jaw, glanced down and back to my face again. "Did you enjoy yourself?"

"No. " I shook my head. "I didn't do anything. I didn't know what was happening. I still don't. Chaeitch, what the fuck's going on? People. . . they are saying things I don't understand. Rris out there," I waved in the general direction of the workshop, "are acting like. . . I don't know what's the matter with them. And Rraerch has been acting strangely every time she talks to me." I swirled my drink, watching the ripples. "She thinks it's funny."

He stared, looking taken aback. "It's spring."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

He sat still and I saw his pupils dilate, shock. "You really don't know?"

"No, I don't." I was getting sick of this. Why couldn't someone give me a straight answer?

He coughed and looked down at his drink, then chittered laughter. "Rot me, Mikah. It's spring. You don't have [something]?"

"What's that word?"

He lounged back in his cushion and laughed again, then told me what that word was and explained other things.

Rut. Estrus. Heat. Rris females came into season during spring, the time of year when they could get pregnant. They didn't have any choice about it, apparently: when spring rolled around they got very randy. The males responded to this and it was the only time of year when they could become physically aroused. They responded to scents. . . pheromones. . . he wasn't clear exactly what, but spring was a time Rris enjoyed. There were holidays and celebrations and festivals off and on for several weeks. The wine flowed freely, Chaeitch joked.

That time long ago when Chihirae had ask if we could have sex any time we wanted to; that was what she had been talking about. No wonder they were distracted. I glanced at the bottle on the desk. Wine flows freely? Not around here it doesn't. Do I ever get a holiday? Sometime in the foreseeable future?

Females, he told me, they could feel arousal at other times through the year, but spring was the only time when males could get it up. That was where Chaeitch had been the other day, with a ladyfriend.

"So when is your season?" Chaeitch asked.

"We don't have one."

His ears flicked. "I'm not sure I heard that correctly. You said you don't. . ."

"Have one," I finished. "I am. . . I suppose a bit like your females. My kind are. . . in season all the time."

This time his ears went down and he stared in disbelief. "What do you mean? You can mate whenever you want?"

"Uh, yes. Within limits."

"Rot me," he chittered. "How can you do anything. As soon as a male and female get together. . ." he made a gesture with both hands that was very human in its vulgarity.

"It's not like that." I shook my head. "That's what happens with you?"

"Ah," he took another sip. "The females. . . when you smell them, it is like a [something] in your nose." He tapped the bridge of his muzzle with a fingertip. "Gunpowder in your brain. The erections can become uncomfortable after a while." He looked at me and chittered laughter again. "That female in your rooms last night, she probably couldn't understand why she couldn't get a reaction out of you."

She'd got a reaction, all right. It just probably wasn't what she'd been expecting. I took another drink, then thought back over what he'd said. "You can only mate once a year?"

"For a few weeks, usually. There are ways around it. . . there are drugs that arouse a male out of season, but they're expensive and it's not quite the same. " Then he pursed his muzzle and looked thoughtful. "What's it like for you? Being able to mate whenever you want, how do you get anything done?"

The conversation continued in the same vein for a while longer. I learned. Things no-one else had told me, questions no- one had answered were explained. Had Chihirae thought I was like Rris males? Was that why she was so confused about some of my behavior? What had she been expecting of me?

And what had I been expecting of her? Human emotions? Deep down, I think I had been.

Chaeitch got up for a refill, then ambled over to the dirty little office window. A peculiar tableau: the Rris standing there sipping at his drink. "I'd never thought about your questions," he said.

"I don't understand."

"Huhn. We ask you questions by the hundreds. I'd never thought you might have some of your own. How much don't you know?"

I laughed at that and he looked startled, then almost rueful. "That could have been worded better, couldn't it. I mean: you have been in town two. . . nearly three months now. How much do you know about us?"

"Not as much as I would like to," I said and a hope grew that I might finally have a chance to be heard. "I'd like to learn more. I'd like to see some of Shattered Water and Rris. Your town, work, art and your life. I don't get many chances."

He was about to answer when a scratching at the door interrupted him. A guard. "Sir. I'm sorry to intrude, we have to take him," a hand gestured at me, " back to the palace."

Chaeitch looked surprised. "Now?"

"Yes sir. Orders from his Highness."

Chaeitch snorted. "I suppose I can't argue with that. Mikah, I will see you later then."

I sighed and got up, stooping to leave my cup on the desk. The guard's ears went down at that. What had he/she been told about me and alcohol? There were more guards waiting downstairs, a carriage out in the forecourt. Again an anonymous pair of guards sat and watched me as the carriage bounced and rattled its way through the streets.

I ignored them, mulling over what I'd learned that morning, over what it meant to me.

Section 85

Hirht and Kh'hitch were waiting for me in the king's offices: a smaller room more suited to informal meetings than that huge white marble office. There were windows opening out onto the palace's central atrium garden, walls draped with tapestries and paintings that seemed to exude a feeling of age and the scent of oils and fabrics. Under the elaborate rugs the floor was polished wood. In the sunlight shining in through the windows was a low circular table laid with a few trays of meat and pastries, surrounded by plush embroidered cushions. Kh'hitch had a scribe's kit at his place: a clipboard affair with a few sheaves of paper, a quill holder and an inkwell with a weighted base.

"I hear your little project down at the shipyards is coming along," Hirht said after I'd settled myself on the cushion placed opposite. "Any problems?'

He was sitting with his back to the window, sunlight behind his shoulder haloing his fur in a nimbus of white light, being shattered into a hundred pieces by the facets of the cut crystal goblet in his hand.

"Nothing serious so far," I said. There was a small ceramic bowl at each place, filled with what seemed to be water. For drinking?

Kh'hitch delicately reached out and speared a morsel with a clawtip. "There was a problem, wasn't there? It exploded?" He popped the mouthful, chewed a couple of times and swallowed.

"It worked, sir. It didn't explode. A seam. . . broke. We were expecting something like that to happen and it is easily fixed. In fact, it worked better than I had thought it would."

"Much of an improvement over the current engines?" Hirht asked. He was watching me intently.

"I think so."

"Think so?"

I shrugged, watched Kh'hitch devour another piece of meat. It looked raw: blood stained his fingertip. He dipped them into the bowl at his side, the water turning pink. "Sir, we weren't trying to see how much strength we could get from it. It was a test to see if it would work at all. We could not try it. . . not as fast as it can go. We fix part, then try again."

"I see." Hirht glanced at Kh'hitch and scratched at his forearm. Still in a thick winter pelt I noticed. That'd be getting hot soon. "When will you know?"

Again I shrugged, a habit I've still not been able to break. "We can fix the joins, then try again. From what I saw I think it is better than your machines."

Hirht steepled his fingers and leaned back. "Rraerch felt the same. What about the new tools and materials? Will they help?"

I hesitated. "Probably not on this one. Later engines, they will be better." Could probably use the current engine to test new valves and so forth.

"Mikah, how many of your kind did you say there are?"

The change in tack was unexpected. "Sir?"

Kh'hitch said, "Your kind: there are a lot of them, aren't there."

Compared with Rris. "Yes."

Hirht reached out and a single clawtip flicked the rim of the fingerbowl on the table before him. "Mikah, there are a lot of skilled craftsmen in Shattered Water. They make everything from our clothes to wagons and tools we use and at the last [something] there were about seven and one-half thousand of them. Even if all of them could stop what they were doing and start working on some of the things you've shown us, it's not nearly enough to sustain an industrial base as your kind have. If the whole population of Shattered Water did that I don't think it would be enough. Do you understand?"

"How many Rris in Shattered Water?"

"Nearly six hundred thousand."

If they were watching for a reaction, they didn't get it. The numbers weren't that impressive when compared with a city like Chicago or New York or Roanoke. And you couldn't include the farmers and merchants and specialists who already played important roles in the city's infrastructure. Did that count include cubs, those unable to work? They'd hit on something I'd never realised: I could give them all the information they wanted, but their society wasn't physically - let alone mentally - capable of absorbing it. They simple couldn't support a full-scale industrial society yet. Take the Manhattan Project during the second world war: there were probably more skilled people working on that project alone than there are Rris in Shattered Water.

"Can you do anything about that?" Hirht was asking.

"I'm not sure. You have other towns, I think you will have to choose what town suits which work. There are places that have more coal or more metal than others. I think they would be the best places to put foundries."

He looked interested. "You can tell where coal and ore can be found?"

Again I had to say I wasn't sure. "In my world. . . I have maps that show where such places are. Here, I don't know."

Hirht looked thoughtful, probably filing that piece of information away for future reference. "Distributing industry is one idea, but your kind. . . you say you have flying machines, ways to communicate like that," he clicked two claws together with a surprisingly loud sound. "We don't. Most towns are days or weeks apart and the river network is useless in winter. Can you build us a system like your own?"

I stared at him, biting back a surge of irrational anger. Dammit, they expected me to have an answer for everything "No. Not like ours."

"You sound sure of that."

"I think I am. Building something like that. . . it is just too big." I sighed and rubbed at my chin. I needed a shave, I wanted to get rid of that damned beard. "My kind took hundreds of years to go from where you are now to where we are now. With what you are pulling from me, you will learn a lot faster, but as you said; you just don't have the. . . the people to build something like that. You would have to start smaller and grow with time."

"Why can't you just show us how to build flying machines like yours?"

"They're too. . . complex. The tools we use, the machines of my world, they aren't simple. They aren't things you can build with your knowledge and tools. You need machines to build the machines to build the machines. The. . . knowledges you need to build them are all joined." I laced my fingers to illustrate. "You learn one simple thing, it teaches you something else. It all joins. It lets you build bigger things. It is hard to explain; do you understand?"

"I think we have to find you another teacher," Hirht snorted.

"I'm sorry." I sagged.

"No. I think I understand what you are saying. It is like building a house: you should start at the ground and work up, start with small bricks to make a larger whole."

"Yes." Good metaphor. I wished I'd thought of it. "If you miss bricks there are holes in the walls. If you miss too many, the house might fall. I think you should not let your. . . want-to-be. . . ambition? Yes? You should not let that get ahead of what you can do."

"You do," Kh'hitch murmured. "Why?"

"Sir. The engine you are having built. . . that is a very old idea among my kind. But to build it you need new forges, new metals and tools and the time to learn to use them properly. If I told you how to build another engine tomorrow, a better one, but one that needs different tools again, you wouldn't have time to learn how to use what you have properly. You would know HOW to make it, but you wouldn't know WHY it works."

"You can tell us."

"No. I can't. My machine has a lot of information, but it doesn't have even a small part of all that is out there," I gestured at the world beyond the window and both Rris flinched. "I can't do everything. There is a lot I don't know and just aren't able to tell you. My kind doesn't know everything; There are things. . . Rris medicine for example. . . we know nothing about those. For you to just. . . believe and follow everything I say without thinking for yourselves, that is just foolish."

Ears went back and there was a pregnant silence as the two Rris officials stared at me. I wondered if I might have gone a bit far. "You're right," Hirht finally said and raked the claws of his right hand through his cheek tufts, combing the fur out. "Rot it. How long would it take? For us to reach your level; How long?"

I shook my head. "I'm not sure. With what I can tell it will be a lot faster than it took my kind to get where we are. But still. . . it won't be in the next hundred years."

"That long?"

"If it takes you that long, that will be a lot sooner than it took us."

He huffed and glanced at his Advisor. "Your thoughts?"

Kh'hitch growled softly, not a threatening sound; a deep rumbling he did while thinking. "He makes sense," he said. "A hundred years seems like a long time to us, but think about what's been done over the past hundred years: it isn't a scratch on what he's shown us in four months."

Hirht's ears flicked. "Mikah, can you write a list of what you think can be done in the meantime?"

"I will need help. My writing is not. . ."

"You'll get it," Hirht chittered. "Kh'hitch, do something about a teacher for him."

"Sir," the Advisor ducked his head.

Hirht's ears flickered, sending dust particles dancing in the sunlight streaming in through the windows, then he looked at me again. "So, Mikah. You can't change the whole world, but maybe you can start by changing a part of it."

"Sir?"

"Depending on how your engine goes, there are other projects we'd like you to have a look at. I think they would go a long way down the trail to starting some of these news industries you've mentioned. And there are several more Guilds who've taken an interest in you and what you have to offer. They'll be wanting to meet with you sometime soon."

Great. Just what I needed. I tried not to let any trace of that thought show.

"For now," Hirht continued, "can you tell us how your other work is going? Is it on schedule? Are you getting the help you need?"

That took a while, taking inventory of everything that was going on at the workshops and up at the university. I detailed what progress was being made on the tools and machinery, how refinement of superior metals was coming along, the construction of blast furnaces and prototype pumps for the Bessemer converters. Those were the things I knew about. I was sure they had their own agendas, that there were things going on I didn't know about, but there really wasn't much I could do about those. Kh'hitch took notes while I spoke: his quill pen scratched over the paper, laying down Rris cuneiform script in tight, regimented formation. With almost every line he had to stop and carefully dip his quill in the inkwell before continuing. I wondered how long my pens would last: I'd used quills before, and would much rather use a ballpoint or even a modern calligraphic pen.

Two pages were filled with the bird-scratchings of Rris cuneiform by the time I was done. My mouth was dry enough that I was tempted to take a swig from the fingerbowl; I glanced longingly at the dregs in the bottom of Hirht's goblet. "Thank you, Kh'hitch," Hirht said to his Advisor by way of dismissal.

Kh'hitch clambered to his feet: not without difficulty. A fat Rris; they aren't that common. Their digitigrade stance makes it difficult for them to remain standing for any period of time. "Will that be all, sire?"

"Yes. Ah, I would like copies of those," he gestured at the papers.

"Sir," Kh'hitch ducked his head, then turned and left us.

Hirht waited until the door had shut, then flicked his ears and looked at me; a calm amber stare, like a satiated cat might give a bird on the lawn outside. "You didn't like Hych?"

I flinched. "Sir, I just didn't want to."

"She displeased you in some way?"

"No. It wasn't her fault." I hesitated, trying to gather my thoughts and remembering what Chaeitch had told me. "It wasn't anything she did. I'm just not. . . I'm not Rris. I don't have the same. . . ah. . . feelings you do. Spring doesn't mean the same to me."

"What do you mean?"

I gave a small laugh, nervously raked my hair back. Damn, I needed a barber. "It's a conversation I just had with Chaeitch. I don't understand a lot of it myself. Your females. . . they don't effect me they way they do you."

Just for a split second the facade dropped and there was a look on his face, a realization, a sudden flinching as perhaps it hit that I wasn't a misshapen Rris, that the differences went a lot deeper. It was a slip hastily masked as he looked away and growled something I didn't catch.

"Sir?" I asked, a hornet of fear starting to circle my guts.

"Huhn," he shook his head. "Nothing. Spring. . . isn't your season. When is your rut?"

"We don't have one. Or rather. . . we are mildly in season all year."

"You can mate anytime?" He didn't try to hide his surprise this time.

"Yes."

"Rot me." His cushion sighed as he leaned back and studied me, then a black lip twitched back to show a glimpse of white teeth; just a flicker. "Rot me, I knew you were different, but this. . ." He chittered, his ears flicking. "You don't even need a female for mating?"

"Sir?"

He just snorted and waved the question off. "Rasa's been wanting to talk with you about your mating habits, and after last night she's been quite insistent." He chittered amusement and eyed me thoughtfully, "I don't think she's going to hear quite what she expected. "

Section 86

The following days were a mixture of hard grind at the workshops and more humiliation at the university. I suppose it's justified; I mean, what would human scientists do given a talking chimpanzee? a talking cat? They'd have questions, at least as many as the Rris did. They'd wanted to know about human mating patterns. . . all about human mating patterns. They saw the encyclopedia entries, the video clips and illustrations showing human anatomy, reproductive organs, procreation, gestation and birth; the articles on sexuality and mating behavior. Through it I was peppered with embarrassingly detailed questions about everything from genetics to foreplay and the act itself to homosexuality to STDs. I answered as best I could and sometimes left them confused, other times left them amused and a couple of times managed to outright shock them. I didn't have an opportunity to ask why, not at that time.

The Compaq could only tell them so much. They also wanted my opinions on human mating behaviour, wanted to know what my feeling were: how I felt during sex, how I was aroused. It was difficult, especially 'feelings'. I'm still not certain that what I feel and what a Rris feels are the same things. How does a Rris 'feel' anger? Love? Hate? Passion? I've seen all those, and sometimes they seem almost human, while other times they're incomprehensible expressions flitting across inhuman features. Unless I could climb into a Rris skull and look out through their emotions, there's no way I'm ever going to know what really goes on in there.

Then there were more physical examinations, but there were things I drew the limit at: demonstrating I could become physically aroused without a human female present was one. Especially not when there was a Rris with a ruler waiting to measure the results. And I was dreading that they'd ask for a semen sample. I'll do my bit for science, but enough's enough!

Thankfully, that never came about. After the ruler incident I think they guessed what my reaction would be.

My time down in the workshop was more enjoyable. Even if the work was physically harder, it was something I could throw myself into and forget about everything else. The engine repairs went well, the new lathes were ready and Rris craftsmen had a ball with them. It was just a couple of days before we had cast iron replacements for the steam-line connections. Chaeitch also had the boiler reinforced, this time with iron hoops heated until they glowed red, hammered into place, then left to cool and contract. There was no way they were coming off in a hurry.

I had a new tutor. A male this time, by the name of Chotemri. He wasn't as outright xenophobic as Esseri had been, but then he didn't go out of his way to be friendly. He did his job though: helping me learn the Rris language, their history and life. And he was fair about my pronunciation difficulties, accepting them for what they were and doing what he could to overcome or work around the problems. There wasn't a lot of time for those lessons; most of the time they were slotted into a free day or the precious few free hours I might have in the evenings. No. . . Not a lot of time, but it all helped.

And day by day I watched from my barred window as spring fought it's way into the world. The last of the ice was falling from the eaves, buds and leaves blossoming from the deciduous trees. There were grass fields down there in the palace grounds: not landscaped, but long, lush grasses and a wilderness of treetops stretching away to the faint mirage shimmer of the lake a couple of kilometers away.

A million miles away.

I still had nightmares. There were shadowy, ill-formed images that came at me in the dark, the times when there were trials and I was in the dock and there was a hanging judge with a lion's head, more dreams of claws and pain. Sometimes the guards would wake me, other times I woke myself. I don't know how many mornings I woke bleary and thick-headed from lack of a decent night's sleep.

With my workload there'd been little time I could call my own. With the tuition, there was even less. It was always late when I returned to my quarters, barely enough time to eat and bathe and then sleep.

"You've been busy lately."

I wasn't expecting the voice when I entered my room that evening. Shyia was hunkered down in front of the fire, wearing a long, light-brown shortsleeved tunic, a poker in hand and the light doing drastic things with the highlights and shadows of his face as he watched me. "I haven't had a chance to talk with you for a while."

"Like you said, I've been busy," I said as I crossed the room, laying the laptop down on the desk before collapsing back onto the bed.

"Huhn, from what I've heard things seem to be going quite well for you."

I blinked up at the ceiling, then propped myself up on my elbows to stare at the Mediator, "What have you been hearing?"

"Well, your work. There's a lot of satisfaction with the way that's going. Some of the new metals you've come up with have caused a stir. I hear the Glassworkers Guild has expressed an interest."

"Great," I muttered and dropped back again. That was news to me.

"And I heard you refused an offer of companionship for spring."

That again. It was such a big deal to them? "I just. . . I didn't want to."

"You never told me you didn't have seasons."

I grinned up at the ceiling. "You never asked."

There was a low noise, between a growl and grunt. "But you can mate anytime you want?"

I stopped smiling, not sure where this was leading. "Yes."

"Did Chihirae find this out?"

I hesitated at that question, then abruptly sat upright. Across the room the Mediator was watching me, that oil on water shimmer eclipsed as he blinked slowly at me. "What?" I said.

"Did you have sex with her?"

"No," I said. "No."

His ears flickered. "You were often in the same bed together."

"She was warm." It sounded lame, even to my ears. He made a sound that could have been a chuckle. "Is there a point to this? Or were you just curious."

"I was curious," he admitted. "I was also wondering if she should be watched. Mikah, more than just Guilds know about you. Both the Palace and the Mediators Guild have had inquiries about you. Not outright, hidden in the trees, but other kingdoms have been asking some questions about the sudden. . . changes Land- of-Water have been making. We've also apprehended several [something] from other kingdoms at the foundries and dockyards. Complaints were lodged with the embassies and they were [expelled]; they probably kicked out some of ours in turn, but we can't find all of them. They know you are here, they probably have some idea of what is going on. Something's going to happen soon: exactly what, I don't know, but someone might look for leverage."

"Chihirae?" I asked. "She in trouble?" stuttering over my Rris in my anxiety.

He looked at the fire, then back at me. "You still do feel. . . something for her. Don't you."

"Something." I looked inside and smiled slightly at what I found there. "Yes, something."

In the firelight he looked momentarily puzzled, then that facade fell into place again. "And what would you do if someone threatened to hurt her? To get at what you know they threaten to hurt her. What would you do?"

I looked at my hands and for a brief second they seemed distorted: furless and clawless. I blinked, clenched fists and relaxed again. "I don't know," I said in all honesty. "Whatever I had to."

He snorted at that. "If any of the highborn had to make a choice between you and Chihirae. . . well, the teacher is meat."

I just nodded.

"Don't get too close to anyone. Someone will try to use it against you. Remember that."

I stared at the Mediator. "You must have had a sad childhood."

He bit, and there was an outright flash of anger at that: ears flattening and a glitter of teeth in the firelight. "You're calling this games again?" he growled.

"Shyia, I'm calling this my life. What do you want me to do? I find it hard enough to be accepted here. I can't. . . turn my back on the friends I have."

"Even if it could mean their lives?"

I sagged; didn't answer.

"Something I've noticed about some of your friends," he continued. "I've noticed some of the people you're working with don't like you as much as they'd have you think. I don't think they'd hurt you, but they certainly have no great fondness for you. They'll be using you for your knowledge, what you can give them. Did you notice?"

"No. I knew there would be Rris like that, but I didn't notice."

"Would you want to risk you life for someone like that?"

I shook my head slightly.

"Rot me. Don't DO that. You know people don't understand. . ." Shyia broke off, sighing; then shook his own head in a shaggy waving of fur, "Well, you're going to have to learn how to choose your friends better. " He cocked his head and eyed me speculatively: "How well can you read us? I mean, our bodies, our feelings?"

"Some of it is easy. Your ears and tails and eyes give a lot away," I pointed at his where the tip was gently twitching. "Other things. . . I don't know. It is hard, especially when there's not much light. Your fur hides a lot."

The Mediator glanced down, running his left hand absently through the fur of his right forearm. "I've never had any trouble."

"You grew up with it. It is like another language you all speak without knowing it and there are no teachers. It is just something you know. Often, you have an expression or a gesture that is almost human, but means something different for you. That's quite confusing."

"Like your smiles."

I nodded. "Like that."

"You are still doing that though, aren't you?"

"I try to be careful, but. . . it's the way I smile. It's like breathing: It's not something over which I have much control. I can be careful, but that is all."

He growled something, then said, "That is all we can ask, I suppose. But if you do that to someone who wants to cause trouble, that is all the excuse they would need to hurt you and say they were defending themselves."

"They would do that?"

"There are those that would. Some of those scholar friends of yours. . . some of them have got a lot of stake in projects. Some of them have put their lives and their careers into their work. Now you come along and say it is wrong, or it has been done before. They might get the feeling that you've shown them up as fools. You can understand how that might upset some of them?"

I nodded, hastily said, "Yes." I'd run into a couple like that already. A discussion over geology had almost gotten out of hand, but the Rris had calmed down. Hadn't he?

"You can't tell, can you," Shyia rumbled, then he got up from where he was crouched in front of the fire. I heard cloth rustling against fur as he crossed to the window and rubbed some of the condensation off a pane, leaving a clear patch through which he stared out into the darkness. His tail twitched and he rounded on me. "Rot it. You just can't tell! Mikah, some of those Rris you're so friendly with would gladly see you dead, but they're smart enough to know that if they laid a claw on you they'd be skinned! All it takes is one idiot who doesn't see that. Just one."

I was silent, quite taken aback by his outburst. "And what can I do about it?" I asked after a while.

The fire cracked and sputtered, sap igniting in a small gaseous jet. The Mediator was an eerie shape over by the window, his ears laid back as he looked out into the blackness outside. "I don't know, Mikah," he finally said. "I don't know. Learn, I think that's all you can do. Be careful; study people; learn what they really want. Don't trust anyone; and don't smile."

I stared at him, feeling numb inside. "That's all? You don't ask much, do you."

Then he grinned, wide and glittering - all razor points and saliva in the firelight, without humor at all. I flinched and the grin slowly faded. "You understand that expression, don't you. Remember it. Every Rris can wear it, in the open or behind a mask. Remember it." He stared at me for a few seconds longer, then ducked his head. "Goodbye, Mikah Rye."

I didn't have anything to say, so I didn't say it. The door closed behind him and I sat there while the fire crackled. A few minutes later a steward brought a tray in, left it on the desk and hurried out again, all the time trying not to even look at me. I lifted the cover: fish in crumbs and some kind of sauce.

I wasn't hungry anymore.

Section 87

Sounds of Shattered Water found their way into the workshops, slightly muffled by the wooden walls: distant shouting of Rris, wheels on roads, the cacophony of a multitude of animals. From the grimy windows high in the walls, through chinks in the clapboard walls, streams of golden morning sunlight poured, dust motes dancing in their hearts. Metal and wood gleamed in the light: burnished brass on fixtures and valve and linkage rods, lamp-black iron pipes clustered around the recumbent bulk of the boiler, the reflective oiled surface of the milled steel piston shafts. The smokestack now terminated in bronze moldings of leaves, splayed out around the end of the funnel.

From my seat on a stack of lumber I watched as teams of engineers and laborers pushed and pulled the wagon with its heavy load of engine bolted to it toward the shed's doors. Iron- rimmed wheels clattered loudly against the flagstones, mingled with barks of advice and caution from the Rris. We could have performed the test inside with a chimney run out through the wall to expel exhaust, but Chaeitch wasn't keen on losing the whole workshop if there'd been any trouble. Good point.

The doors were rolled aside and highlights exploded from polished brass as sunlight swept over the engine. I sighed; If the thing ran half as well as it looked, we'd be home free.

There was a blur of tawny fur in the corner of my eye and I looked around to see Chaeitch sitting beside me, watching the workers as if he'd been there for minutes. Still shakes me to realize how damned fast Rris can be. "Worried?" he asked without looking around at me.

"What gives you that idea?"

He raised his head a bit and seemed to sniff the air. "You smell [something]. It's noticeable."

I looked at him: dressed up for the occasion in green and ochre breeches and a dark brown vest with green trim, his mane and ruff groomed and trimmed. A gold ring was clipped to an ear and a fine gold chain looped from a pocket in his vest, probably his supply of weed for his pipe. Quite a contrast to my mismatched hodgepodge of Rris jacket over my human shirt and blue jeans and my shaggy mop of uncut hair. I couldn't tell what he was feeling: neither by sight or scent.

"Don't be so anxious," he assured me with a flash of a smile. "It's going to work. Have more [faith] in yourself."

I shrugged. He was right. It was essentially a shareholder meeting and the engine should work. The valves and pipes had been reinforced and triple checked. . . but there was still Murphy.

A claw hooked my sleeve and gently tugged. "Come on," Chaeitch said. "Their honors will want to see you before the demonstration."

Outside: a fine spring morning, warming as the sun climbed. Light washed the eastern brick walls and tile roofs of building surrounding the court, the others still wrapped in shadow and dew. Benches had been set up there, velvet padded things like elaborate church pews, widely spaced out so the nobility wouldn't be crowded. A carpet, a goddamn carpet had been laid out over the cobbles: an expensive-looking rug as ornate as a tapestry and so big it must've needed its own wagon to get it here. And the engine itself. . . once the wagon was anchored and the thing checked, it was covered with a heavy red cloth embroidered with the Rris equivalents of heraldic devices. If that was intended to keep it low- key, they couldn't have chosen something to make it more conspicuous.

More guards arrived. Troops with the brown and crimson armor, polished steel breastplates and coalscuttle helmets of Palace guards took up stations around the inside of the courtyard wall, the northern gate, probably outside as well. I found myself with a quad of armed soldiers shadowing me.

"What the hell are they for?" I asked Chaeitch, lapsing into English. My swearing In Rris still needed work.

"Your own protection," he assured me.

"Protection? Against what?"

His ears flickered back for a second. "Just precautions. In case someone takes [something] at you."

I took a breath and glanced at the soldiers. They stared back, nothing showing on their faces, but their tails were twitching like metronomes. "You really think there's going to be trouble?"

"No. I don't. They're their on his lordships orders. I don't have any say." Chaeitch's eyes were unnaturally wide, his pupils wide and black when he looked at me. "You're going to be all right?"

The way he said that. . . Used in Rris syntax I wasn't sure if he was inquiring after my well-being or asking if I was going to cause waves. "I'll manage."

He cast a glance toward the gates. "Just be polite and try not to frighten anyone."

"That's not always my decision."

Chaeitch snorted, then chittered slightly. "Ah, I see your point. Well, do your best."

It wasn't much later when the first of the spectators began to arrive, and they did it in style. The carriages that drew up in the courtyard came in varying degrees of 'fancy': from simply 'quite', up to 'Rococo'. The sounds of wheels and animal hooves clattering on the cobblestones vied with the sibilants and spats of Rris voices as carriage after carriage pulled into the courtyard to deposit its passengers before moving off again. The crowd of high-ranking Rris lords and their escorts gathering in the yard swelled. A blaze of colors, fur and clothing and jewelry: gold and bronze and scarlet and sky blue and forest green and sun yellow, a circus of colors and textures. Self-possessed individuals, males and females wearing attire and attitude that said they were important; others following them in the more subdued livery of servants and stewards, others who could have been personal guards.

Chaeitch was supervising the engine now the covers were off and the boiler was lit, stokers working to get the steam pressure up. I waited where he'd told me and tried to be inconspicuous. I didn't do a very good job and almost immediately drew more attention than the engine. Rris stared from a distance, then drew closer, a crowd gathering. As strangers stared at me and more began to drift in my direction I became more and more uneasy.

"What the rot is that?"

A trio approached: an elder one with graying fur in its van-dyke brown mane and the thicker fur of its - his? - chest and a pleated wine-red kilt around his waist, the other two were younger: a male and female I think, the male wearing bloused pantaloons with a satchel slung at his side and a clipboard under his arm; the female in plain dark-blue breeches, carrying a powder horn and several pouches at her belt. Bodyguard? Not even up to my shoulder, but she was wiry and it was pure muscle shifting under that tan hide.

"You," the older demanded of a guard, "What is that? Is it supposed to be here?"

"A guest of the Lord," the Guard answered.

"But what is it?" he demanded.

Another Rris spoke out, "I've seen it around the palace. Quite valuable apparently."

"Valuable?" The elderly male looked up to meet my eye. "It is [something]."

My guards stiffened, looking around at the small crowd that'd gathered to rubberneck. Maybe a dozen high-ranking Rris with their hangers-on gathering in their own individual clusters. There were military officials there as well: I saw a Rris in the decorated leather jacket and kilt of an officer with a conspicuous bracelet glittering on a wrist watching me intently from the back of the crowd, gone the next time I looked. "Is it dangerous?" a Rris was asking, moving a bit closer to stare up at me and I moved back a bit when I saw the hint of claws visible at the fingertips.

"No, ma'am," the guard replied.

"Ah! I saw something like that in the [something]," another noble spoke up. "An animal brought back from Africa. It was called an Ape. Dangerous beasts."

"Ape? I heard they. . ."

"I'm not an ape," I said and everything stopped, just for a second before the water-on-hot iron noise of excited Rris broke out: questions jabbered at me and the guards. I jumped when a clawed hand locked on my elbow and Rraerch stepped up beside me:

"Good folk, this will all be explained to you shortly. If you would be so kind as to take your seats we can proceed with the [something]. I'm sure you're all anxious to know what your [something] has [something] you in return. His Highness is due shortly and the demonstration will start when he arrives."

Most of them slowly moved away, but there were reluctant ones, more questions and assurances before they deigned to return to the seats. Rraerch kept a grip on my arm: not especially hard, but the claws were out. "Mikah, skin you," she sighed when they were out of earshot, "You have to go and scream in the streets, don't you."

"What?"

"Never mind." She hissed, then quickly smoothed her facial fur and mane down where it'd started to ruffle. "Now, you know what's happening?"

"Yes."

"Good. They're going to want to ask you questions. Please, just answer. Be polite, don't insult anybody. Saaa, his Highness."

Another carriage was arriving, a large one drawn by four elk. The windows were louvered, the rest of the carriage paneled with dark wood whose every square inch seemed to be carved with relief engravings. Pennants bearing the intricate white on black geometric devices of the Chihiski lineage fluttered from the roof. An armed escort rode shotgun, palace guards in their glittering polished armor mounted on llamas. They were carrying hardware that ranged from everything from guns that resembled sawn-off shotguns to cut-down pole arms and I wondered if that was SOP or if they were expecting trouble.

"Mikah, I have to go," Rraerch told me. "Just. . . be careful." She released me, patted my arm and stalked off toward the engine. I rubbed my elbow and watched as Hirht stepped out of the carriage, followed by the furry bulk of his Advisor and another Rris in the uniform of Land-of-Water military. She was big for a Rris, that one; half a head above her fellows, graying about the muzzle with shock-white fur in her mane and with an odd dappled pattern to her fur. Arms rippled with the musculature of someone quite used to wielding a sword.

Rraerch greeted the king by ducking her head and crouching slightly, then tipping her head back. He touched her throat lightly, said something, and she stood again to show the high born to their seats. Hirht glanced around, saw me standing in the background and stared for a couple of seconds before flicking his ears and turning his attention to the business at hand.

The rising sun was warming my back as I stood quietly, watching the proceedings. Tails were lashing through the backs of the benches as the nobles watched Rraerch stepped up to the engine, few wisps of steam escaping into the air from the rumbling, hissing machinery behind her.

"Good folk," she began. "You've all been most generous in your support and [something] for this venture. You knew it was a slightly risky [something], yet you've shown great [courage] and seeing what's around the next corner [foresight?] in placing your support behind us. I know you've all had doubts about this project," There were a few mutters at that, "but I am pleased to be able to inform you all that it has [something] a success."

Reaction to that. A general stirring and pricking up of ears. Rraerch gave them a second then stepped aside and gestured to the machinery behind her. "You're all familiar with the current engine and it's limitations. This [something] a lot of them. It's as powerful as three of the old engines, it can run longer, uses less fuel, weighs less, and is considerably stronger."

The engineer on the throttle slowly opened it up and the machine sniffed, then slowly the piston arm came down, up again. Smoke twisted from the jaws of the stack, the big wheel turned, slowly at first, gathering momentum and speed. Without a regulator it was the engineer's job to monitor the speed of the thing, to keep it steady, also to keep the pressure below that mark on the dial. The new joints would probably hold, but it wasn't a good time to test them to destruction.

In any case it ran without a hitch. Chaeitch stepped in to give the lords a running commentary; pointing out the modifications and changes, the new materials and techniques being used. From what I could tell, it seemed to be going well. The dignitaries seemed interested: tails weren't lashing, a few flagging ears had gone up again as they followed the demonstration. They seemed even more interested when Chaeitch mentioned some of the possibilities the new tech offered: faster trade routes, trade goods, productivity, wealth.

Capitalism was alive and well in Shattered Water.

"You see the possibilities," Rraerch summed up as the engine was wound down, venting steam pressure with a spray of condensing water vapor swirling around her legs, "We have the means for [undreamed of?] achievements within our grasps, for a hunt into new territories. With your continued support and [foundations?] we can refine and improve these innovations." She paused for a second to glance back at the engine, now at idle, then looked back to her audience "I can see there are interesting times ahead. Are there any with the courage to [fight? Dance?] with it?"

A hesitation, then a noble spoke up: "New machines, new metals and tools. Very impressive, but just WHERE is this coming from?"

"You met him earlier."

"I know Ah Ties is quite capable, but I think this is beyond even. . ."

"No. Not him." She took a breath, then gestured to me: "Mikah, come here."

Heads turned and I saw ears go down flat against manes. They stared as I went to her. "That?" one finally said. "You mean that is responsible for. . ." The Rris, male or female I couldn't tell, trailed off.

"You never told us about this," another said.

"Would it have made a difference?"

"I believe it might have. Shave me, but what is it?"

I caught the movement in the tail of my eye as Rraerch glanced at me. "His name is Mikah. He's a male H'uan. Where he's from and what he's doing here isn't the issue at the moment, but he's intelligent, at least as intelligent as a Rris, and he's the one who gave us these." She waved an arm toward the engine.

"How could something like that build that?" some skeptic growled.

"It wasn't easy. I had some help," I said and there was hesitation before a spattering of chittering. Rraerch looked slightly startled at that, but she recovered quickly. "Huhn, Mikah. Yes, he might be. . . unusual, but he carries new ideas. A lot of them. This is just an example of what he can do."

"Not that impressive." Heads turned to stare at the speaker: A Rris in military uniform. The same one as before? Something was nagging at the back of my mind. "A few improvements? Is that so world-moving?"

Rraerch's ears twitched back. I saw Hirht's muzzle wrinkle, just a spasm in the short fur before he resumed his impassive mask. "Just improvements?" Rraerch asked.

"That is what they are, isn't it?" the other said and kept staring at me. "It couldn't do something useful? Could it let us fly?"

"How high?" I asked and the officer's ears went down flat at the chittering from the others.

"Mikah," Rraerch quietly warned me, but I think her reaction was more relief at their amusement than annoyance toward me. "There are more impressive devices. There are ideas you've never dreamed of, possibilities that can reach beyond our grasps. His Highness has already honored us with his pledge of full patronage and support and I urge you to consider your commitments. You have the opportunity to share in the rewards of the hunt; I think it would be a mistake to turn away from it."

Of course there were questions then, a rising snarl of Rris voices asking, requesting, and demanding answers. Rraerch ducked her head and raised a hand and didn't say a word until there was silence. "Now, good folk, I know you have questions, but may I suggest we [something] to more comfortable and private quarters to further discuss this. The Green rooms at the Shi'his Halls have been reserved and you are expected. If I can meet you there in an hour, then any questions or problems you have will be answered."

She ignored the babble that rose behind her as she turned away. "Mikah, come along. "

The guards fell in around me as I followed, an itch developing between my shoulder blades as she led me away from the Rris nobility and their chairs and the carpet out there in the courtyard. In the privacy of Chaeitch's little second-floor office she stood at the window overlooking the courtyard, then sagged with an exhalation that could have come from her bones. "Rot, I'm glad that's over. All things considered, I think it went quite well." She turned to look at me. "You could have shown a little more respect."

I shrugged. "I thought I was quite restrained."

"Shave you. . ." she caught herself and chittered slightly. "Too late for that, ah? I meant these people are important. Your future will hinge on their decisions. It would help if they had a favorable opinion of you."

I sat myself down on one of the cushions at Chaeitch's desk. "If they're important, did you have to. . . tease them like that?"

"Tease? Saa, that." She looked out the grubby little window again. "It works well with them. With some of them, the best way to hold their attention is to dangle something [tantalizing?] and keep it just out of their claws. Fishing for their favors in a way."

"Ah. And I'm the bait."

Her tail stopped moving, froze, then just the tip started flicking back and forth. "Mikah, they have to know about you. They'll have to deal with you sometime and I'd prefer they know about you now than having to try and persuade them you exist later on. You understand that?" She turned, and grime-dimmed sunlight bathed half her face, yellow-amber eyes startling in the darker fur.

"I understand," I said.

Rraerch almost looked relieved. "Good. That's good. Now, I'll be going to the hall to try and settle the rest of this business. They're going to have questions all right." Her ears tipped down and she studied me, then snorted, "I hope I have the answers. You. . . Chaeitch is going to want you around to check over your little toy there so you stay here for a while. You'll get your chance to meet them soon enough, you can expect that like the sun in morning."

"I'm looking forward to it."

She gave me another curious look, obviously unable to tell if I was being facetious or not, then snorted and stalked over to the door. "It'd be [something] for you to wait here, at least until things out there have settled down." A clawtip flicked the simple wooden latch open and she hesitated, a hand on the door; "There'll be guards outside."

The door closed behind her.

I sighed, then leaned forward on the desk, held out my right arm and unclenched my fist: My hand was trembling, I was wound tight as a spring.

Section 88

It wasn't a pleasant feeling. The world - a convoluted and complicated place at the best of times - was spinning beyond any control I could exert. My life was no longer my own, with every minute of my day regimented and prescribed and ordained.

The lords had been convinced. Well, most of them. Rraerch told me all but three had agreed to sponsor my introduction of human technology. Already there was another workshop being built alongside the current pair and the old one was being extended. Now Chaeitch's team was working on fitting the engine and screw into the hull of the test boat in preparation for the first waterborne test while at the same time work on the next incarnation of engine was underway: similar principals, but more compact and solid.

The Guild Lords were very interested in that engine. Half a dozen different Guilds were vying to be the first to get the new machinery to drive the bellows in the smelters, looms and wheels in the textile mills, water pumps, millstones. They weren't being very patient about it and Rraerch in turn was pressing Chaeitch to get the new engines finished which put more pressure on me.

The Textiles Guild was especially interested. That was the Guild that been among the first to use Chaeitch's original steam engine to drive some looms. Now there were improved devices available, they were willing to invest. And they weren't small players either; Their production was a major part of Shattered Water's economy, with textile, dyes, clothing and fabric being among the most prevalent consumer items and exports. The Guild's members ranged from the herders who managed wool-bearing livestock to the weavers and tailors on up to the big textile plants and merchants who ran them. They owned their own ships, operated their own caravans with extensive trade networks throughout the kingdoms. According to Rraerch they'd pledged substantial support, but had to be persuaded to wait until the improved engines were available. Probably for the best: they wouldn't be impressed if a boiler went up in the middle of a factory floor.

Long hours were spent shut in a room that came to seem too small with Rraerch and Guild and Palace Liaisons. They wanted to know what innovations I could provide to suit their fields of expertise. The Textiles Guild's representatives were very interested in my clothes, as well as the schematics stored on my laptop: improved looms, gins and spinning jennies; new materials; formulas for new dyes and inks. Silk and spidersilk especially intrigued them, but without silkworms and their food supply, silk was out of the question; and Rris industry certainly wasn't up to producing synthetic spidersilk.

The Printers Guild wanted new ways to manufacture better paper and were interested in a basic three-color process. Metallurgist's Guild kept me busy with the Bessemer converters, especially the ceramic linings. The Physicians didn't have a guild as such, but they were loosely affiliated with the Chemists and Reactions so they had a representative in attendance when those Guilds sent members to interview me.

Those audiences weren't easy for me. Every time a Rris first laid eyes on me, no matter what sort of advance warning they might have had, the reactions were the same. There was the staring, the hesitation. When they spoke to me, it was as if I were an imbecile or child. I know my pronunciation wasn't the best, but surely it wasn't that bad. The worst ones were the overbearing bastards from the Merchants Guild, the ones who just refused to believe I could be intelligent. They addressed all their questions through the Palace Liaisons and treated my answers as though they weren't of much consequence. Every day was a gauntlet where I faced Rris those sorts of reactions, everything ranging from mild startlement up to outright hostility. That, combined with the dawn-to-midnight workload took its toll. It was all I could do to collapse into bed at the end of the day, and those nights when the nightmares came didn't make it any easier.

The Land-of-Water Nobility was also getting edgy about security. Apparently there'd been more and more questions from foreign embassies. I didn't have all the details, just what Chaeitch was able to tell me, but I could guess the other Kingdoms were getting damn curious about what was going on. The new steam engine. . . well, they already knew about the engine. Land-of-Water had been exporting the technology for several years; they'd had time to reverse-engineer and produce their own. The new engine. . . I was sure Shattered Water eyes weren't the only ones to have witnessed that test. Other kingdoms might have believed that Chaeitch refined the old engine, but the sudden appearance of all these new concepts was going to raise a few eyebrows. . . ears. . . whatever. Already the work on the boat was taking place under much tighter security and the Rris I were meeting were closely screened.

I wasn't being moved out of the Palace as much. The only times were on the occasions when they needed me down at the workshops and those times there was increased security: more guards, keeping me out of the open as much as possible . The upper echelons were nervous about something and that meant all I saw of the world I was living in was the greenery of the gardens through the bars of my window.

Section 89

A cold night wind from straight off the lake blew in through the shed's open river doors. Across the river I could see a few lights burning on the far shore: orange-red fireflies reflected in the still surface of the dark river. Water lapped steadily at the bottom of the slipway, an odd color in the orange-tinged light from Rris lamps that illuminated the interior of the workshop bustling with activity unusual for that time of night. Sounds of Rris voices barking cautions and instructions competed with the rattle of chains and groaning of timbers as the boat and cradle were lowered down the slipway.

It floated. I felt that was a promising start.

Security. That was foremost on the Rris' minds. That was why the test was being held in the middle of the night; that was why the bronze screw and rudder were covered by oilcloths until they were safely submerged and out of sight. Slowly, the boat was eased out of its cradle and tied alongside the wharf while Rris firemen got the engine up to pressure and checked for any troublesome leaks. A couple were found: minor things quickly caulked with tar while the boiler was stoked and a trickle of smoke found its way into the night sky, a silvery-gray mist in the moonlight. It wasn't a very impressive vessel, being little more than a 12 meter hull with the bulk of the engine mounted amidships, the Heath Robinson assembly of the transmission following the keel below and a basic block and tackle system linking rudder to tiller. No decking to speak of, no cabin or other finishing, but then it was never intended to be a luxury liner.

Chaeitch was among those making the final checks and preparations. A few final words to the engineers who'd be operating it and the hull rocked as five Rris figures nimbly leapt over onto the wharf. Chaeitch's claws clattered on the wooden decking as he came back to join me back in the shed, watching from a distance as the steam lines were opened, wreaths of water vapor wrapped around and condensed on metal as the pistons jerked into motion. Ropes were cast off and stevedores moved in with bargepoles to keep the hull clear of the wharf.

"What is that you say?" Chaeitch murmured to me. "'Fingers crossed'?" He held up his hands but wasn't able to quite cross his stubby fingers.

I let vent a small laugh and showed him how. He stared at my fingers and I saw the involuntary flinch in his eyes before he turned back to the boat.

Et tu, Chaeitch?

The engine picked up its pace, a rapid thump, hiss , then the transmission was shifted in and I winced at the grating sound. It'd been smoother in the dry runs, but then the blades hadn't been trying to push water. Still, the gears settled and the boat started to move back out of dock, the tail beginning to lazily swing around downstream as the lazy current took it

There was a silence throughout the workshop, the workers, engineers, guards all watching intently with ears pricked up as the boat moved further out. I couldn't see much now, just the vague shape of the boat in the moonlight and sparkles of water dripping from the line connecting it to the dock. There was a movement in the engineer's compartment.

"That's it," Chaeitch explained. "He's changing direction."

Again there was a grinding of gears, the engine picked up the pace and the boat stopped moving as an agitation appeared in the dark water under the stern, then the vessel began moving upstream. Slowly at first, picking up speed as it moved back past the wharf and upstream into the darkness.

Jubilant yowls arose from the watching Rris.

"Huhn," Chaeitch's muzzle pursed in a pleased smile as he stared after the boat. "Impressive. A sail might make better time with a good wind, but for a first try it's quite impressive."

"A Scarab racer it's not," I agreed. "I'm surprised it works at all."

He looked at me and snorted, "You should have more confidence in your work. So far, I'm impressed."

"Lot of people are." Rraerch came up to stand beside Chaeitch. "Still, it's a long throw to the boats Mikah's your kind have, isn't it Mikah."

"Give us some time," Chaeitch said and the other Rris chittered.

The boat made another chugging pass of the dock before the captain swung the bow around and brought it back in for a less than perfect dock; bouncing it off the buffers along the wharf. Immediately lines were hurled out and secured and workers with the odd gloves they had to wear hauled it back to its cradle. Water sloughed off the hull and the gleaming metal of the prop as the cradle hauled the hull back up the slipway and the doors were closed right behind it.

All in all, the screw had weathered the test pretty well. The mounting pins were secure and didn't seem to have been overstressed; the seal for the driveshaft had leaked a bit of water, but nothing to be concerned about. The transmission was another matter: There were fragments of metal in the gearbox where some of the gears had been chewed up. The damn things weren't meshing properly when the screw was under load.

"Not too much of a problem," Chaeitch mused as his stubby fingers moved in to run across the deformed edge of a gear. "Look. Rot me, the metal is too soft. This should be a one-half hundredth of carbon. And if the edges are beveled that will make the travel easier." He gestured at the nearby Rris with the clipboard. "Get that? I want words with the tail draggers over at the foundry."

"Sir," the scribe jotted a note and sent it off with a runner.

"Rot," Chaeitch hissed again and stood up to rake his mane back with claws. "Ah, well. It's annoying, but not too bad. It'll be a couple of days to produce the new parts."

"Nothing serious?" Rraerch asked him.

I stepped back and let the Rris iron out the kinks in the system. It was what Chaeitch was damn good at: taking ideas I could provide and finding a way to make them work with the materials at hand. Sure, I could say the steam engine was a great idea; I could show him the principal behind the changes I'd put forward, but I didn't have the skill to use the Rris tools. I couldn't forge the metal or work the lathes, even the basic woodworking tools were far enough removed from the convenience of power tools that I had trouble with them. God, tired. I yawned then grimaced at the sensations that awoke around the dead part of my face.

"Mikah?" Chaeitch had chosen that moment to glance up. "Something wrong?"

I shook my head. "Just tired."

He stood up, wiping his hands on his breeches, and a more intent look on his face. Rraerch blinked; glanced from him to me. "You're sure?" he asked, then reached out to touch my jaw and turn my face slightly more toward the light. "Your eyes look. . . different."

"Just tired," I said and he looked at his boss.

"Rraerch, how much sleep has he been getting?"

She scratched her jowl as she studied me. "I really couldn't say."

Chaeitch blinked at me and wiped his own cheek. "All right," he snorted. "Mikah, why don't you finish for the night."

I didn't want to argue too much. "If you're sure. . ."

"I'm sure. Go on, out of here." He waved me out of there and yelled across the workshop to order the guards to get me back to the Palace. "Get a decent rest, ah?" he told me.

"Thank you," I smiled but he was already back to the job at hand.

The guards did their job, bustling me out to the carriage waiting in the poorly-lit courtyard. Despite the jolting and rattling I dozed off as usual, to be woken when a claw jabbed my leg. They'd gotten quite used to waking me up that way.

The gas lamps in my quarters flickered fitfully, bathing the room in a vague twilight. I rubbed my eyes as I crossed to the window alcove to stare out that the blackness, compound reflections of the room behind me visible in the panes. I could hear the wind in the trees outside; from somewhere else came the barely-audible susuruss of Rris voices. Yawning again I turned to bed and hesitated at the desk.

The laptop was open, and I was sure I'd closed it that morning. I just touched a key to power it up. The desktop selection cursor was on the Encyclopedia Britannica. I pressed enter to run that and was greeted with the library screen, then just out of curiosity checked the search history.

For a while I stood and stared at that list before, then deliberately reached down and shut the machine off. The list. . . it wasn't a search I'd initialized. Someone who wasn't familiar with English characters had been searching, trying to match words with things they'd seen elsewhere, probably copying the shapes of the letters. It wasn't much of a surprise at all, not after the metal shavings in the workshop, the lathes bits they'd wanted built.

Not a surprise. Not a surprise at all I reflected as I fell back into bed. Too tired to think on it: the same thoughts just jumbling and tripping over themselves until that point where consciousness fades into the realm of the subconscious.

I dreamed of farms and snowbound hills again, with inhuman figures hunting me. A snarling muzzle and sun-on-bronze eyes behind the gun that shot me.

Section 90

Something was going on.

A guard brought me my breakfast the next morning, but then there was nothing. My usual escort didn't show up to cart me off to the waterfront workshops or some other meeting in a remote corner of the city or Palace. I waited, thinking maybe Chotemri was going to be stopping by, but nobody showed up. So all I could do was keep waiting as the day dragged on and morning turning into afternoon. I passed the time by going over my language notes and replaying phrases Chotemri had dictated to the laptop in an effort to improve my pronunciation. Monotonous, a dull way to spend a day, but I was getting very tired of Rris criticizing the way I mangled their language.

The midday meal arrived and I tried to question the guard, but s/he wasn't very keen to stay and chat; just dumped the tray and left. Water, grilled rabbit, something like sweet potato, and - surprisingly - slices of tomato. I wondered if I might be able to get the cooks to make ketchup. It'd be something to spice up the meals. Anyway, I took my time eating, sitting in the window alcove staring wistfully out at the sunlight and greenery. The first time in a while I was able to relax, but I had to wonder just what was going on.

It was quiet for hours, until the light outside was turning to the suffused gold of evening sunlight. I heard the voices in the hall outside first; muted through the door, but someone sounded mightily agitated. A guard opened the door and held it as Kh'hitch bowled in. "Mikah," the portly Advisor greeted me. "There's been a rather sudden development. His highness asks that you meet with him tonight."

"Development?" I asked.

He growled softly, a deep rumbling as he crossed the room to gaze down at the work on the desk. "It seems that your activities have attracted a great deal of unwanted interest. Immediately following your work last night several [something] from foreign embassies arrived to demand explanations." His ears went back flat against his skull. "They. . . insist on meeting with you. They are quite [something] about it."

Someone else. . . quite a few someone elses had seen the trial of the boat last night. They knew I was involved and I was doing more than just improving on what Land-of-Water already had. "If you don't show me?" I asked.

He stiffened and stared at me, as if trying to judge just how much I knew of what was going on; how much I could guess. "They have been quite insistent on seeing you," he said, not really answering my question. "His lordship has decided you will meet with them this evening. There is to be a [something] and meal and you will be present. This will require you to be properly presentable and to show appropriate respect to their honors. You can understand that?"

"Yes." Contrary to what he might think, I did have a couple of brain cells I could knock together. But if he wanted me presentable, there was a slight problem. My wardrobe didn't offer the most elegant of ensembles.

"That's taken care of," he assured me.

'Taken care of' involved what seemed like a small army of servants, tailors, seamsters and stylists. I put up with poking and prodding and whispered comments I guess they thought I couldn't hear because my damn ears weren't pointing their way. They measured me: arms and legs, waist and chest. Swatches of cloth were brought out, colors compared. They copied the cut of my human clothes and then applied their own flourishes: a velvet and cotton shirt of cobalt blue and green with bloused sleeves trimmed with gold thread and buttons. The trousers were black and overly long, designed to be tucked into the top of my boots so the bottoms bloused out like something a character from 1001 Arabian Nights might wear. Parts of it didn't hang too well: the tailors were accustomed to working to Rris proportions and I guess they reverted to those in a few places. Anyway, the jacket was a bit tight across the shoulders and the pant's crotch was too snug. The whole outfit looked garish and overdone to sensibilities accustomed to austere black tuxes and formal wear, but Rris found it acceptable.

My hair and beard were done while the clothing was being sewn up. A pair of Rris armed with elaborate versions of those familiar roll-up kits of clippers and combs timidly tried to get me to sit so they could work. Rris groomers, barbers, hairdresser. . . whatever you want to call them. I cooperated and sat where they wanted: on the desk cushion in the sunlight. A male and female pair, they gingerly touched my hair, made surprised noises and ran their fingers through it.

"Is this normal for your kind?" the female asked.

So, they at least knew I talked. "Is what normal?"

There was a sharp intake of air and a hesitation. Perhaps they didn't believe everything they were told. "This color," she finally said. "The length. It's normal?"

"I don't usually let it grow so long," I confessed.

Stubby fingers moved toward my face and I flinched as a flash of razored claws replayed behind my eyes. The Rris jerked his hand away, his own eyes wide: "Sir?"

"Sorry," I said. "Just. . . be careful with your claws."

And I saw his eyes flicker to that spot on my jaw where my beard was scraggly and didn't quite manage to cover the torn skin beneath. "Yes, sir," he said.

They were careful. Claws and combs pulled through my hair, making some sense out of it, then clippers were working here and there, sending blond locks falling to the catch-cloth. Guards were watching as they worked, watching even more intently when the female came around to touch my face and beard, then gently tilt my head back and the gleaming metal of those little scissors came up.

She touched the bristles with the leathery pads on her fingertips. There was a tiny prickle as claws touched my skin, carefully ran along my jaw, from ear to chin. Her eyes flickered, a twitch of muscles as the iris dilated then contracted again as they met mine. It's hard to describe what it's like to look into a Rris' eyes. They aren't human, but that goes without saying. Unless the Rris is extremely agitated there's no sclera; the pigment of the pupil fills the eye and for so many is predominantly a deep amber, a hot orange with the jade black of the iris that in literally the blink of an eye could go from a slit of night to a black pool. Inhuman, animal eyes. How can an eye convey emotion? For the most part it's the muscles and tissues around the eye that shift, framing it in different contexts to provide emotional cues and reading any of those movements into a Rris is dangerously inaccurate. But there is something there, a glimmer that no animal has. . . that essence in the depths, that spark of something that's more than just cunning or calculation.

And she'd also frozen, her eyes locked on mine. Then slowly she cocked her head and a cautious little smile pursed her features. How many of my thoughts had also been hers in that split second?

"Sir?" she asked, and I was aware I'd started to raise my arm, as if starting to ward the blades away. I lowered it again.

"Go ahead."

She was careful, as delicate as if she were practicing shaving on a balloon. I tipped my head back and watched the ceiling as the scissors danced around my throat.

Snip

Snip

Section 91

The guards' polished steel cuirasses and helmets threw reflections from the gas lamps that burned along the walls of the hall. The light didn't quite reach the high ceiling where carved figures lurked in the shadows of a graceful groin vault. Pennants and tapestries and paintings hung in the shadows, the figures of elegantly attired long-dead Rris nobility gazing down as my escort and I walked the length of the hall toward the doors at the far end. More guards flanked us, squads lined up to either side down the length of the hall. They weren't Land-of Water soldiery. Offhand, I could count the troops of over eight different kingdoms there, their armor and livery differing wildly. There were soldiers in bronze breastplates; stained and painted leather of all colors; chainmail coifs; quilted things that looked like embroidered flak vests. Heads turned as we passed. I could feel eyes staring at me all the way down that hall, a few incomprehensible murmured comments drifted after us. I glanced down at the carpet under my boots and when I raised my eyes again I was staring at the gold inlaid wood of the doors. The well-oiled hinges didn't make a sound as they were swung open and one of my guards ushered me in.

It was another big room. Dimly lit. A fire was blazing in a huge hearth at the far end and in front of that sprawled an equally oversized table. If the Rris seated at that table had been talking, they were silent now, all heads turned my way. I stayed where I was, any confidence evaporating like liquid nitrogen in a balmy spring breeze as my chest contracted about my heart.

"Honored guests," a voice spoke out, "this is Mikah. Mikah, come here." A figure beckoned and with no other options I crossed the floor. The table was a hollow rectangle, with three sides occupied and a single empty cushion at the nearest end. There were foodstuffs, drinking vessels and utensils arranged along the table, along with huge candlesticks flickering quietly. Hirht was the one who'd spoken, occupying the center cushion at the far side with his back to the fire, flanked by a pair of Advisors/ scribes. Down the other two sides of the table sat the ambassadors.

If I'd thought my outfit was a bit garish, I needn't have worried. Compared with this lot my attire was as subdued as an Amish's Sunday best. The light wasn't the best for me, but I could see scarlets and blues and yellows and greens, flaunted jewelry, tinted and shaved fur, bloused sleeves and even damned ruffs similar to the things that used to be in vogue in the England of the Victorian era. Individual's fur color differed, from one individual with a white pelt that was almost ghostlike in the gloom to one with a dark coloration that could have been black or dark brown or gray, leaving a pair of shimmering eyes hanging in the darkness where its face mixed with the shadows. Eleven of them, Hirht and his Advisors making fourteen ranked around the table.

"Please be seated," Hirht said and I folded myself down to the cushion, aware of the eyes watching me. For some reason my camping cutlery was laid out, the clunky red plastic handles completely out of place amongst the fine porcelain and crystal.

"This is your mysterious visitor?" a Rris spoke. "The descriptions really don't do it justice."

There were a few snorts. "And something like that is supposed to be responsible for all these developments that have been popping up all over Shattered Water?" Someone said, "Can it really talk?"

"Yes, I talk," I said.

A brief pause. Then agitation and noise raced around the table as the ambassadors all started up at once: talking, snarling, demands and questions. Some were directed at Hirht, fewer at me. I flinched back from the commotion even as Hirht was appealing for calm and when the last of the guests was quiet - not necessarily happy, but quiet - he sat back. "Gentle folk, I've told you all I can. We don't know where Mikah comes from; we don't know how he got here. We are helping him as we can and in return he is providing suggestions. . ."

"Suggestions," one snorted. "Honored Hirht, from what I have heard of these 'suggestions', there is more at stake here than a homeless. . .animal. Just what IS this thing?! Where is it from? I. . ."

"Ma'am," Hirht gently interrupted. "I've told you all I can. Perhaps you would like to hear his side of the story."

There were dubious looks. "Can it do that?"

"He has a surprisingly good hold on proper speech," Hirht assured them. The ambassadors exchanged looks, then assented. "Mikah," The King said, "Tell them, as you told me. Gentle folk, it would make things a great deal easier if you could wait until he finishes before asking questions. Mikah, please, proceed."

I swallowed, glanced around at the feline faces intently watching me, and once again started telling my story. They listened. There were few interruptions, mainly when someone couldn't understand what I was saying, but for the most part they listened. Perhaps there was a fascination in the faces around the table; perhaps not just in what I was saying, but in the fact I was speaking at all. I told them what I knew about how I'd come here, which wasn't much. I related my time in Westwater, and there was some agitation when I mentioned the incident in the woods; Rris eyes flicked to the scars across my face, and ears went back. I told them about Shyia, the trip to Lying Scales and the few days I'd spent there. After that there was the river journey downstream from Thief's Lament and then the final trip to Shattered Water.

My throat was aching with that familiar rasping that was a symptom of speaking too much Rris by the time I'd finished. There was hesitation, then the questions started, turning to angry shouting as they tried to outdo one another. I shrank back, anxiously turning from one demanding Rris to another and without a chance to reply until Hirht brought his mug down with a retort like a gunshot. They shut up and heads leveled to glare at Hirht as he nonchalantly laced his fingers.

"Thank you, good folk," he smiled. "I'm afraid you might be overwhelming Mikah. It would be easier if your questions were more ordered, yes?" I saw some flickers or reaction at that. Annoyance? I wasn't sure. "Mikah, if you would take questions from aesh Shahi." He gestured to the Rris directly to my left.

"Ah, sir," I croaked, cleared my throat and tried again. "Sir, could I have water?"

"My apologies. I forgot." At a slight gesture a servant moved in from the shadows around the room's peripheries to fill a mug at my right hand. Her hands were trembling slightly, the crystal pitcher tinkling against the pewter mug. It was clean water though, and the Rris stared openly as I drank. Beyond them Hirht steepled his fingertips as his ears flagged amusement, hastily stifled.

"You are quite done?" the Rris. . . Shahi. . . asked.

"Yes, thank you." I smiled sweetly and she twitched, then clamped her jaws and asked, "Why did you come here?"

"Here?" I set the mug down. "I told you, I don't know."

"No, to Shattered Water. Why did you come here? Why are you helping them?"

The question startled me. "I haven't had any choices. I came here and I didn't know what had happened to me, I didn't know anything about Rris or your kingdoms. Since then, I've. . . I've gone with the current."

"But you had choices concerning the decisions you made here," the next Rris said, extruding a retracting a single claw to make a tiny tic, tic noise on the tabletop. "You are providing Land- of-Water with information on how to build these new devices, aren't you?"

"Yes."

"But. . . why?"

I glanced at Hirht, then back at the Rris who'd questioned me. "Sir?" I guess I got the gender right; I wasn't corrected. "Why not? They asked me, and I am a . . . guest in their land."

He was about to say something, then closed his mouth again. The Rris to his immediate left took his turn to speak: "Why did you choose to give them those devices? The engine and . . . whatever it is that makes that boat move."

Again I glanced at Hirht, but he seemed to be letting me field my own questions, and that confused me. "Sir. . ."

"Ma'am." The pupils flexed. "You can't tell?"

"Not very well, ma'am. No. I'm sorry if I offended."

She tipped her head to stare at me down her muzzle, then flicked her thin black lips back from her teeth. "Huh. Go on."

Where was I? "Ah, I was asked to demonstrate what I knew. I thought they were small changes that could. . ."

"Small!" There were snorts from several Rris.

"Rot it all. . ." the Rris with the neck ruff started to snarl, then deliberately caught him/herself. "Honored Hirht, news of this. . . discrepancy has already been dispatched. I know my superiors will not be please to hear you've been [something] a [resource?/ opportunity] that should be open domain!"

"And now what do you intend to do with him?" a dark- furred Rris with a red pendant earring asked. "He's given you metals, those engines. . . How much more does he know?"

Hirht cocked his head. "That is something we aren't sure of. His kind are. . . they are more knowledgeable than we are, but what we can learn from that is still to be determined."

"Who do you mean by 'we'?" the dark-furred individual growled. "You're talking about Rris in general or just Land-of- Water."

Hirht gazed around the table. "Ch'thrit, perhaps your country would be [something] to remove the tax on passage along the Earthy and Meander Rivers? Mrethi'k, would Cover-my-Tail give us access to your coal? Would Serimuthi let us mine their gold fields."

"I don't think these are the same things," Mrethi'k said, a bit stiffly.

"You're saying you want payment for this?" a clawed hand swept toward me.

"Sir," a tawny ambassador with gold inlays gleaming in his black and sienna velvet vest spoke up. "For now, we would ask a chance for our various [somethings] to examine your guest."

Hirht frowned. "You can ask of our scholars. They have ample information on Mikah."

"Thank you, sire. But I for one would like to hear [something] opinions." Echoes of agreement rose from around the table.

"You are saying any information we provide might be incorrect?" Hirht asked.

"Not at all. Merely that it might be. . . limited."

"And does anything in your information answer the question 'Is this thing's story true'?" the Rris directly to my right asked. "It is quite incredible, and that little story just raised more questions: Where were you traveling to? Why? Why is it no-one has ever heard of your kind before if you are so numerous. In such a short time you've made more changes than any kingdom has seen in the past fifty years." The Rris - a male, I guessed, due to the lack of visible nipples under the open-fronted tooled leather waistcoat he wore - looked to his fellows. "Doesn't this concern anybody else? Because it scares the piss out of me!"

Brash, yet tactless. Agitated chitters escaped a couple of the other ambassadors.

"How much else does it know?" the dark furred Ch'thrit mused.

Hirht's ears flickered slightly. "That, we're not sure, your honors. Your staffs will be provided with what information we have. And that will tell you what you need to know." He looked around then, at a steward who'd materialized from somewhere and ducked its head, murmured something. "Ah," Hirht purred and stretched, "Food. Excellent. Yes, we'll eat now."

The steward gave another duck of its head and retreated. There were a few irritated looks from various Rris around the table at the change of subject. "Sir," one leaned forward, "what of the information he has already given you? Do you intend to [something] this information among other lands?"

Eyes flashed cold reflections as Hirht turned and metal rattling in the background startled me until I realised it was only cutlery. "I'm sure something can be worked out," Hirht was saying as I turned back.

"You are referring to payment?"

"I'm referring to whatever is most acceptable between our realms," Hirht said as servants came and went from the table, silent as ghosts as they laid out platters and covered dishes of meats, woven baskets holding breads, crystal decanters and pewter mugs, utensils like surgical tongs and chopsticks with tines at the end. "Perhaps some other service."

"Maybe an easing on tariffs?" an ambassador suggested.

"Maybe," Hirht smiled.

"Don't you think that might be a bit extravagant?"

I was startled again as a servant appeared at my right hand to lay a dish before me and be gone before I could ask what it was.

"An engine with twice the strength of your current ones that uses less than half the amount of fuel," Hirht looked amused. "I think that any asking price would pay for itself."

My meal was predominantly meat, several types that'd been properly cooked, thank god, as opposed to the dripping gobbets presented to the Rris ambassadors. I had a steak soaked in what looked like a bernaise sauce, smaller chunks of crumbed meat and strips of filleted fish laid along the side. Sprigs of greenery to the other side, circlets of tomatoes and potatoes. My drink was - surprisingly enough - water, but overall the meal actually looked appetizing.

"Mikah? That is how you say your name?" The ambassador halfway down the left side of the table idly brushed at the lace ruff on a bloused sleeve and eyes flashed in the candlelight. "You think that what you know should be [something] by your hosts? You have no desire that it should be [something] to other Rris?"

Putting me on the spot now. I swallowed as Rris stared at me, "I'm not able to say how you manage your own affairs. I did what I was asked to."

"And if you were asked to make weapons?"

I hesitated, cast a glance to where Hirht sat with the same poker face Shyia used. "Sir," I said finally, "I cannot support anything like that."

"Why? You've killed Rris. You said as much yourself."

I looked down at my hands then back at the intent visage, the amber eyes. "I never had a choice. Making weapons. . . I don't want to hurt anyone."

He cocked his head then casually stabbed a piece of raw meat with a fork and popped it in his mouth, chewed a few times and swallowed hard, not taking his eyes off me. "So, what do you WANT to do?"

I shrugged slightly. "Go home," I said and picked up my own utensils to cut into my meal. The other ambassadors stopped their own meals to watch me raise a morsel of steak and grimace. God! The sauce was bitter, almost metallicaly so. My tongue wanted to smear itself against the roof of my mouth to rub that taste off. I coughed, swallowed then took a draught from my mug. "Jesus!" I gasped.

"Something wrong?" Hirht inquired.

I blinked at my plate and gestured with my fork. "This sauce. It is quite. . . ah . . . strong."

"Ah," he smiled. "That's the point of it. It gives the tongue something to interest it."

"Oh." This was their version of tobasco sauce maybe? I hesitantly tried another piece and it was just as unappetizing the second time around, a bitter sting that was metallic in its unpleasantness. There were a few Rris chitters.

"I suppose it can't be to everyone's taste," Hirht chuckled as he slowly shredded a crust of bread in his hands.

The fish was better, only slightly tainted with the sauce, and the breaded stuff turned out to be veal McNuggets. But the taste of that sauce lingered and I finished my water trying to get the taste out of my mouth. The vegetables weren't bad at all. I wished I could have had more of them. Those, along with the bread and cheeses, were quickly polished off. The ambassadors still had their questions, asking me if I was prepared to work for another kingdom? Would I work for whoever could pay me the most?

Would I do that? If I did, what then? How would the other kingdoms come to feel about that? Would someone decide that if they couldn't have me, then nobody would? That thought tightened the knot in my guts and I nursed my cup.

"And your metals?" the Rris female named Irthiasi from Nights-in-Wonder far to the northwest, "I hear you have interesting new amalgams."

"I'm sure the Guildmasters will be interested to listen to any petitions you might have," Hirht said.

"And you know nothing about how they might be used?"

"I don't. . ." I missed his reply. My cup was empty again and I was till thirsty and now faintly nauseous. The candlelight seemed to glow brighter in a washing glare that hurt my eyes. I tugged at my collar and turned my head away and the room swam like a tide, existence drifting away then back again.

"Ai? You are all right?" the Rris to my left was asking me.

"All right?" I blinked. "I. . . yes. Please, more water?"

I drained my glass almost as soon as it was filled. My hand was shaking and I clenched it in a fist, not really hearing the sibilants of Rris language that was beginning to mix with the roaring in my ears. Nausea washed across me again and I clutched at the edge of the low table.

"Mikah. . ."

"I don't feel so good," I mumbled and clambered unsteadily to my feet. "I think I. . . I am. . ." I croaked and managed a step before my knees buckled and I stumbled and fell. I tried to get up but my arms didn't want to cooperate; I half raised myself, fell back and was aware my name was being shouted and hands caught me to roll me over to lay and blink the dazzling blurs above me into the features of Rris. "Food," I tried to say poison but didn't know the word. "Medicine. . ." I choked off, trying to breath through the smothering weight all around me. There was a lot of noise, audible through the dull pattering of my pulse and my limbs felt like they belonged to someone else: dead weight, like trying to move an arm after it's been asleep. Light and darkness shifted as Rris moved around me, furry faces came and went leaning over and speaking nonsense, hands caught me and lifted me and the world went out of focus.

Blinked, and I was flat on my back watching a groin- vaulted ceiling passing overhead, the nightmare face of a cat in a gleaming metal helmet turned to glance down at me. . . .

Blinked and someone else was moving me, laying me down among blankets and I struggled in feeble panic as inhuman features looked down on me and grinned with needle teeth. Claws pricked my skin as stubby hands pressed me back down on soft sheets, my muscles twitching and heart stuttering while damp cloths wiped at bare skin and coolness laid across my burning forehead and it was too much effort to stay awake.

Section 92

Distant sounds. Like water on shale, wind in trees, sibilants and susuruss of muffled Rris voices. I took a breath, becoming aware of cool air, the blood warmth of the bed and the feeling in my limbs, opened my eyes to a blackness that was almost solid. Another sound in the room: a hiss of breath, then the unmistakable sound of claws on wood and a wedge of light briefly stretched across a pale frescoed ceiling as a door was opened, then closed again and the sound of voices was abruptly stilled.

I closed my eyes again and took stock: thirsty, washed out and slightly nauseous. My muscles ached and I felt as weak as a kitten, but I could move. Laboriously I levered myself up to sit in darknest amidst a nest of tumbled sheets while shaking wracked my limbs. Cold air, or my skin was hot. The slight scents of alcohol and illness permeated the room. I shuddered, closed my eyes and rolled my head to try and work some of the stiffness out of my neck.

"Rot take it!" a voice snapped and I opened my eyes to faint lamplight shining through the open door, eclipsed by the silhouette of a Rris. "What are you doing?" it demanded as it entered, two more close behind it.

"No. . ." I tried to protest as they laid hands on me, pressed me back to the sheets. "I am fine."

"Fine!" The voice from the darkness snorted. "That would be the last word I'd use to describe you." I flinched away when a leathery pad touched my face. "Calm," the unseen Rris urged and the hand returned to touch my nose and then my brow and a Rris grunted. "His heat is down a bit."

"And his heart?"

In the dark, leathery hands touched my chest, the hollow of my neck and the Rris said something I didn't understand. They weren't having any difficulties seeing; to me there was nothing but vague shadows while patches of darkness with a bit more solidity than others moved around, occasionally haloed by the feeble glow from the door. When a light was struck I had to gasp at the pain that stabbed into my eyes. Just a candle, but I had to turn my head away from a glare that seemed to go straight through my skull. Not my quarters, I realised. Not a place that was intended to impress anybody. Just a bare, functional room with whitewashed walls, high ceiling, a pair of narrow shuttered windows to my right and a tiled floor. The candle sat on a low desk with its ubiquitous cushion. The Rris doctor touched my face, then told me to hold still while holding my eyes open and peering into them. A hand was waved in front of my eye, alternately shading it and exposing it to candlelight until the doctor huffed and stepped away.

"How is he doing?" I heard someone ask and the doctors offered muted replies. Another Rris approached my bedside and I watched dazedly as the King of Land-of-Water settled himself on a cushion at my bedside. "No, don't move," he told me, then his thin black lips twitched back. "Huhn, Mikah. At least you are looking better."

"I suppose I ruined the meal," I said.

He chittered at that. "A. I have seen other ways to [something] an evening. None quite so dramatic though."

"They are still here?" I asked.

He looked taken aback, then leaned toward me. "Mikah, that evening was two days ago."

Two days? I'd slept two days away? Perhaps he knew enough about me to be able to read my shocked expression for his ears went down. "You haven't been well. You had a lot of people very worried."

"What happened to me?" I croaked.

He clicked claws together. "That. . . we're not sure. We thought [poison] but there weren't any traces. The kitchen staff were made to eat from your meal, but they didn't suffer any ill effects." Harsh, but practical. "Maybe the culprit had taken an [something]. Maybe it was something that was specific to your kind."

That sauce. I was convinced it was that foul-tasting stuff. Maybe to the Rris it was their equivalent of a chili sauce but to me it had a far more potent effect.

"I don't know the details of how to prepare it," he said in answer. "It will be looked into. Meantime, I suggest you try and recover."

"Sir."

He paused, then said. "What you said about weapons; you meant that?"

I had to think back to understand what he meant. Oh. "Yes," I said softly. "I meant it."

"You understand that other kingdoms might not understand that. To them, you'll also be a potential source of new weaponry as well as an industrial advantage. Would you hold to your ideals if someone decided to declare war over you?"

Again there was that sinking feeling. "Would you really try to fight the rest of the world, even I did help you?" I countered.

He smiled then: diluted amusement with just a dash of teeth. "That's something I hope we don't have to find out."

"Sir, that's not likely is it? I mean. . . what are they going to do?"

"A." He settled back, the tip of his tail twitching behind his back. "They were annoyed that I wasn't willing to release all the information you've given us. They will accept what I have offered, but reactions were. . . mixed." That was an oblique an answer as I could possibly get. He stood then and looked toward the door, then back at me. "Why don't you rest now, a?" he said and left, the physicians standing aside as he passed and I belatedly realised one of them was Rasa. She glanced my way and her ears flattened, then struggled erect again.

Section 93

I mended quickly enough. The next day I was on my feet; albeit a bit wobbly and my eyes still ached in bright light. They returned me to my quarters in the late afternoon, the bright sunlight giving me a nagging headache. The squad of guards stationed outside my door at the end of that corridor stiffened to attention as I approached and one met my eyes and I saw his/her own widen in startlement and hastily flicker aside to something of interest down the hall behind me.

My escort saw me inside and I stalled them before they left. "Where is Shyia?" I hadn't seen him for a while.

"Sir?" The soldier asked.

"The Mediator who brought me here. Where is he?"

"I'm sorry sir. I really don't know."

Then they were gone. I sighed, turned and squinted into the light coming in through the window. Dammit. With my hands behind them, the front of my glasses made an acceptable mirror. I held them up, tilted them, then gaped in shock at the black pools that were staring back at me: my irises were dilated, even in the brilliance of my room, the gray of my pupils gone behind glistening blackness. They were the eyes of a furious Rris, eyes I remembered all too-well. I touched the skin below my eyes and understood why Rris had been so fidgety around me recently.

What the hell had happened to me? An aftereffect of whatever had poisoned me? How long was this going to last?

Later Kh'hitch stopped by to visit as I sat in self-imposed gloom with the drapes pulled. No altruistic motives, just wanted to see how I was doing and explain there were going to be a few changes. The ambassadors weren't entirely satisfied: Accusations hadn't been leveled yet, but they all had their suspicions about who'd been responsible for my poisoning. Apparently, not even Hirht was immune from respectfully-phrased accusations and I had to admit that little scene had been a great way of getting me away from awkward questions. The ambassadors had taken the information Shattered Water had offered, but they weren't happy with it. They'd been demanding access to me, to let their own people talk with me.

Hirht had declined.

"We aren't expecting trouble," Kh'hitch told me. "However, your guard will be increased. You will not go anywhere without an escort and express permission. You understand."

"Yes, mother," I said.

"What?" The portly Advisor cocked his head and his muzzle wrinkled. "Mikah, that is a revolting concept."

I also tipped my head to the side and looked him up and down. "You know, you're right."

He snorted and refused to play along any further. "Understand! This is being done for your own safety. It's just a precaution. Just in case someone tries something foolish."

"Such as what? Killing me?" On some level inside I was dully surprised to find how little the idea bothered me. With everything I'd been through, and now the bars of my cage closing in; the idea of an assassin just didn't scare me.

"Doubtful," the Advisor said. "A precaution, as I was saying. And there'll doubtless be more foreign ticks poking their muzzles into business around here. A good escort will ensure they keep a respectful distance."

For a while longer he went on to explain what was going to be happening. I'd be spending the next few days in the palace where I'd be doing my work while security at the various facilities around the city was reviewed. And when I was moved my bodyguard would escort me everywhere. That irritated me but he didn't want to listen to my complaints. At least he didn't propose having them sleep in the same damn bed.

Section 94

My eyes still ached. For five days I wore my sunglasses whenever I had to go into bright light and still I had to put up with nagging headaches as well as the stares and comments the glasses elicited. My tutor found them quite disconcerting and once a Rris noble approached me to ask where she could get a pair. Five days of that before a doctor noticed my eyes were improving.

At least that was a bit of good news, the one bit I got in a week spent being rushed around the palace with a dozen armed soldiers in tow. Hours upon hours in closed rooms with scholars from the university, Guild representatives, nobility who had vested interests in various enterprises. It was the usual thing: inquiries about new tools, dyes, comparative history between Humans and Rris. The Glassworkers Guild sent a delegation to look into manufacturing new optics for microscopes, telescopes and such.

Several days passed before I was taken out of the Palace again. This time there were two carriages along with a mounted and armed escort riding llamas. I had a crazy impression that we must've looked like some twisted motor cavalcade, with cops carrying blunderbusses and crossbows riding woolly beasts with attitude problems. At least the ride was easier than it'd been in winter when the wheels skidded on ice-slicked cobbles and the inside of the carriage was a refrigerator.

The riverside workshops hadn't changed, but now there were guards everywhere. In the forecourt I could see armed royal guard at the gate and patrolling the yard. I slung the laptop over my shoulder and headed for the workshops with my shadows behind me. Chaeitch was with several other engineers clustered around a gearbox assembly. One saw me and touched his shoulder, muttered something. He glanced over, his ears flicked up and he bounded to his feet to hurry over, then hesitated when he saw the two soldiers hovering at my shoulder.

"Hi Chaeitch," I said, smiled tightly.

He cocked his head. "It's good to see you're up and about again. I'd heard you were quite ill. Feeling better now?"

"Oh, yeah, much better," I assured him. "And I found some new friends," I said wryly, jabbing a thumb back at my shadows.

His ears flagged amusement, then he glanced past me at the guards and his amusement faded. "Come on. There's a lot to catch up on."

And there was. They'd stripped the prototype engine out and were constructing a more refined version. The transmission had been stripped down and new gears had been cast, but Chaeitch was interested in other designs and configurations. Workbenches were littered with wooden mockups of gears and frames, pulleys and chains. I spent that day sorting through schematics of everything from cycle deraileurs to the transmission from a '98 GM Impact. There were also artificers interested in forms of wind power humans were familiar with, so I was digging out files related to eggbeater windmills and sailwings. I'd have to study up on aerodynamics myself before I could relate human technical information to the Rris.

Over at the foundry the foreman's fur was on end over the composition over the lining of the new furnaces: The brick they were using was sublimating, contaminating the metals and throwing off their ratios, so of course they needed a new mix. There were questions about when the new engines for the converter compressors would be ready; clarifications on alloy mixes; news on the latest batch of lathe heads.

Lessons in comparative geography between two worlds at the University. There were scholars interested in finding out just where our two species branched off so drastically.

Land-of-Water was still receiving irritated petitions from various embassies, but so far they'd deigned to arrange interviews and I couldn't help but wonder just how far this was going to go. No matter what might be going on in the world, it certainly wasn't making a dent in my schedule.

Section 95

The furnaces along the far wall were roaring, opened doors throwing skittering shadows across the huge foundry floor. Gouts of sparks flew as Rris with shriveled fur and decked out in heavy leather protective suits tipped crucibles of molten pig iron into clay molds. Steam whistled through vents as the last of the moisture was forcible expelled from the molds. Across the other side of the hall the test models of the converters were still in use, bellows being used to force air through the pig-iron, burning off impurities in a spectacular flare of liquid metal. A trio of Rris metalworkers used long handles to tip the waist-high crucible and pour the steel off into ingots.

As yet the full-scale one was untested; still waiting upon the engine for the compressor. There was no other way to generate enough pressure to pump air through 5 tons of molten metal. After that would come the open-hearth furnaces, but they'd require a better supply of pig iron and a new building in which to build them.

"Later this week, you think." The grizzled Rris with his face fur singed back into a curled stubble growled. "Burn you, Mikah. We heard that last week."

"You're hearing it again," I told him. "I can't make wheels turn any faster."

Khieschi snorted and scratched at himself under the leather apron. "A. I've told them you need more time here."

"I don't have more time," I sighed.

"I've noticed," His tail lashed and he waved a hand at the approaching guards. I glanced wearily at my watch.10:00, and about time too. "Suppuration! We need longer," Khieschi appealed.

"My apologies sir," the guard said stiffly. "But we've got our orders."

The foreman snarled something, then turned away. "Get it out of here then."

The guards glanced at me and I shrugged, slung my jacket over my shoulder and followed them. As soon as I stepped into the gloom of the street outside the cool night wind blowing in across the city from the lake hit me, feeling like an arctic blast after the metal-tinged heat of the foundry. I took a deep breath, looking up at a solitary wispy cloud doing its best to obscure the full moon. A clear night, with the vault of the dark sky smeared with the glow of the Milky Way, a jagged skyline of steep rooftops and crooked chimneypots silhouetted against the stars. The carriages were waiting with oil lamps mounted in sconces above the cabs casting feeble glows that did little to help illuminate the area. Armed escorts were mounted on their souped-up llamas, weapons cradled across the saddles as their muzzles turned from side to side, scanning the streets and windows like turrets.

The carriage rocked on its springs as I climbed in and the green upholstery sighed when I sat. My two guards took their accustomed places opposite. At least now, aside from a few cursory glances, they no longer stared at me. As the carriage started of with a clatter of hooves and the protests of animals I leaned my head against the padded wall and dozed fitfully. Tired, visions of liquid metal and flame tangling with snow and gentle amber behind my eyes.

I never heard the first explosion. The window to my left bowed inwards, then imploded in a spray of bottle-green glass and the carriage jerked violently to the side under me, slamming me into the upholstered wall. The world spun and I found I was lying on the floor with a dazed guard sprawled across my legs, the whole cab tilting over to the left at a crazy angle. Smoke poured in through the broken window, along with a volley of dull retorts I recognized as gunfire and the vocal-chord tearing yowls of Rris screams. Another explosion sounded and my guards grabbed me and pressed me back down again while the carriage rocked and more shots sounds outside. Flames were licking at the upper window as one of the guards snarled something. I looked up as the other raised its head to look out the window, a double-barreled pistol in its hand. Barely got its head over the sill when it was kicked back with a peculiar yip and a crossbow quarrel buried up to the fletching in his muzzle. The other guard yowled in fury as the spasming body sprawled back and another volley of gunshots sounded; the carriage rocked again while splinters of wood and curls of upholstery stuffing flew from the wall beside the window and reddish firelight streamed through the jagged perforations. I tried to make myself one with the cramped floor, then winced when the guard dug claws in.

"When I say run, you run," the Rris snarled in my ear over the howls and gunshots and now the sounds of metal clashing from outside. "Understand?"

"Yes," I choked out, the terror beginning to seep in over the confusion. A few seconds since the routine had been so drastically interrupted.

The guard rolled off me and I caught a glimpse as he. . . she? Yanked cords from a pair of small globes, one after the other, and hurled them through the window. Explosions like percussion caps in a dumpster and a pattering like hail on a tin roof against the side of the carriage.

"Go!" The guard screamed, forcing the door open, raising pistol and cutting loose with both barrels at something I couldn't see. "Go!" as claws pulled at my jacket.

I went, out the door and into a confusion of acrid, reeking smoke and shadows turned to dancing blackness by the flaming wreck of the other carriage that was tipped on its side. Lamp oil had spilled, leaving blazing rivulets trickling across the cobbles and woodwork. Smoke billowed, stinking of gunpowder and making my eyes water and roiling around the panicking and downed animals and Rris guards laying in the street amongst rubble and spilled timbers from a shattered wall. Run? Run where? Another series of gunshots crashed, the sound echoing off the walls of the buildings and I ducked into a doorway, just about tripped over the body of a guard and something spanged! Off the stone above my head. High, I realised when I saw a tongue of fire spit from a window, lancing down into the street. Down the street there was a pair of answering gunshots, then a scream as another weapon fired from high up. I knelt and grabbed up the weapon from the dead trooper's hand: a heavy bulky thing like a sawn-off shotgun with four barrels and a wooden grip enveloping the lower two barrels. I didn't know how to use it, I didn't even know if the damn thing was loaded. The hammers were down, so it'd probably been fired. I hefted it by the barrel, finding the weight somewhat reassuring: at least it'd make a satisfactory club. Rris yowled in the darkness and I ran again, ducking into the first alley to find a flimsy gate blocking it. Locked. I stepped back and kicked as hard as I could and something splintered and it slammed open.

A clawed hand grabbed my arm and I spun, bringing the gun up at the face of the panting black powder-streaked Guard. "Sir! Rot it! I thought. . . !"

Howls rang out and through the swirling murk dark figures moved. The Guard took one look and yanked on my arm. "Run!"

I did, stumbling and tripping in the darkness with claws scrabbling on my jacket and the guard urgently hissing to 'hurry up'. I couldn't. Even in armor and near-pitch blackness Rris were faster than me. Another corner into a side street where the moonlight glittered on small barred windows and big wooden doors. My boots thumped against cobbles and breath rasped in my lungs as the guard tried one door, then another. Locked. A cry from behind and a Rris figure appeared in the street. The guard raised his gun and fired: a flare of fire and smoke and the distinctive ssspang! of a musket. Whoever that had been cried out and staggered even as we ran again.

The side street opened onto a view across the river: a dockside on the riverside, the northern side a wall of blank-faced boatsheds and warehouses. A few crates littered the wharf, a couple of frames with tangles of fishing net strung out to dry catching a latticework of moonlight and shadow. Further along the dock to the west a fishing boat was high and dry, its inverted hull resembling a beached sea leviathan. Beyond it lay another street: the only other way out of there.

"Come on!" The guard spat, tail bristling and fired his second barrel back the way we'd come, stuffed the spent pistol into his belt on the run and drew another, then yowled in dismay.

I'd seen them too; the dark and fast shapes that darted out onto the docks fifty meters ahead of us and raised what could only be weapons and those years of television violence paid off: I hit the ground at the same time as the guard while a sputter of gunfire rang out and shots whined past. I didn't even have time to thank god for the inaccuracy of those guns before the guard's hands were clutching at me again, his claws skidding on the puncture- proof synthetics of my jackets as he urged me toward the dubious protection of offered by nets hanging out to dry.

We dropped panting behind the folds of draped hemp, the river on one side and rolls of netting on the other. They reeked of fish and lakebeds, water and wet hemp, the cobbles of the dock were hard under my butt as I tried to find a place where rolled nets offered a bit more protection. To our southern flank the wharf dropped off to the dark lapping water of the river, and there wasn't a damned boat handy. The guard poked his head up and I winced, remembering my guard in the carriage. A shot rang out and he raised his pistol, returned fire with a gout of acrid smoke and ducked down again. "Sir? Are you all right?" Hard to understand him. He was panting hard, gasping air.

"Okay. . . yes," I said. "I. . ." another Rris appeared, in a dark outfit I didn't recognize. The gun in the hand was coming around and my arm was up and pulling the trigger before I realised what I was doing.

The gun was loaded, it was cocked.

A hammer snapped back, a split hesitation then a blaze of light and smoke and flame, a recoil that kicked my arm up and back and made the muscle in my shoulder burn in complaint and when the metallic smoke cleared there just wasn't a Rris there at all and my arm felt as if someone had put an electrical jolt through it. A damn shotgun.

"Not bad," the guard was staring at me, then hastily turned attention to where it was needed. "Surprised you didn't break your wrist."

With that recoil. . . a Rris's wrist wasn't a strong as mine, there was a good chance it would. "Last of our worries," I coughed, tasting sulfur and copper smoke. They were behind us and in front. "Doesn't look too good," I panted, a bit lightheaded, surprised at how calm I was feeling. Shock, I guessed.

The guard's ears flattened. "I can keep them occupied. You can run. . ."

"I can't outrun Rris," I told him. "Not even close."

"Rot it. . ." another shot, then a fusillade that knocked wood splinters flying and cracked a wooden spar in half, a net tumbling into a heap. I ducked up and this time held the blunderbuss with both hands when I fired another barrel past the guard who ducked aside with flattened ears and a curse. A weird trigger mechanism and when I fired the hammers jerked back, yanking a thick string that flared into smoke with a sharp hiss, then the gun fired with a booming blast and cloud of smoke and sparks. A Rris along the dock howled in what sounded like pain. Two barrels left.

"How long help come here?" I garbled my Rris, getting panicky. No phone or radio. . . no fast vehicles. I knew the answer even as I asked the question.

"Too long," the guard grunted, working to reload his pistols. I watched his hands, tipping measured amounts of powder from a pewter horn, tapping in a ball and wad with a short ramrod. Fast, but I took the opportunity to fire another blast in the direction we'd come from. Figures who'd started to work their way around the corner ducked back. One barrel left.

"You're supposed to be the one with ideas," the guard growled. "You have any now?"

I looked around. No boats in the water, damn it. Okay. "Out. . .Get out of your armor."

"What?"

"Not swim with it on."

The eyes went wide. "I can't swim with it off. You can't be. . . nobody can swim that far."

The far side of the river. . . maybe two hundred meters, probably a bit more. "I can."

"Then get going!"

"Get out of that armor. I can't manage you with it on."

"You don't mean. . . Rot it! Go!"

I ducked down as more shots whined overhead. The Guard produced one of those grenades, yanked the string violently and threw. There was a sharp bang and a few yelps. "GO!" the guard barked.

"I'm not leaving you."

"You have to!"

I sat down, making it quite obvious I wasn't moving. Two of my other guards were probably dead and I wasn't leaving this one to die. "Get that armor off."

Another fusillade of shots clipped nets and thumped into wood. A glass float shattered noisily and sent fragments tinkling across the cobbles. The Rris looked out at the darkness of the river, fired another unaimed shot at our assailants, then snarled something probably obscene and began yanking at the buckles of the armor.

I grinned and fired off the last round without any positive results then dropped the bulky gun and started stripping off my boots and socks, then my jacket and optimistically tucked them under a pile of rope, fervently hoping I'd be able to pick them up later. There was a clatter as armor and equipment hit the cobbles. Huhn, my guard was a he I saw, and he kept throwing glances at the river with ears flat against his skull. "Run and jump," I told him. "Don't breathe when your head is underwater, and watch your Damned claws!"

Then I didn't have time to lose any more clothes. He fired his last round as the dark-armored assailants ran forward, then howled something. I grabbed his arm and propelled him toward the water.

A three meter running drop. I lost my grip on him when we hit and surfaced to find him floundering desperately. There were shouts from above and I grabbed the mass of sodden fur, winced when he grabbed back at me. "Breathe!" I growled and heard him gasp air before dragging him under with me.

A leaden, soaked sack of fur; that's what it felt like I was towing. One that grabbed back with needled claws and struggled desperately as he started to need air. Nowhere near my limit. I surfaced and gunshots raged, the line of the docks enveloped in a moonlit grayish haze speckled with winks of light. White gouts of water kicked up and a few pellets skipped by with burring whines. A breath, a chance for the Rris in my arms to gulp air, then under again.

I could understand why they weren't good swimmers: He was a natural sinker. Like a furry, two-legged brick. I towed him with one arm and swam as best I could, but I had to surface twice more before we were out of range. Again I was grateful their guns were so inaccurate, but we were well out into the blackness of the river and the bank was a darkness against the skyline before I felt safe enough. The breeze blowing up from the lake was cold, but it helped balance the sluggish river current as I hooked one hand under the guard's chin and started kicking steadily for the far shore where lights burned.

"What's your name anyway," I asked when my mouth was clear of the water.

"Blunt, sir" he coughed the words. I could feel his pulse pounding in his throat. His feet were trying to kick, as if he was searching for something solid, but doing damn little to propel him along. It's strange how well designed for swimming humans are: hairless oiled skin and what hair there is is streamlined, eyes can focus underwater, slight webbing on fingers and feet, a nose that wasn't much good for anything else but was angled to keep water out and a reflex that lowered the heart rate whenever the face was submerged. Rris - by comparison - are furry bricks. Maybe their four-legged ancestors had been fair swimmers, but somewhere they traded buoyancy for leg power. Their fur will hold air for a while, enough for a short dog-paddle, but beyond that their musculature just weighs them down.

"Blunt?" I shut my mouth against a slap of water and tried not to think about what might've been dumped into the river further upstream. "Name or nature?"

"Huhn? Huh, nature. Blunt claws."

"They don't feel it."

"When I was a cub," he sputtered. "How. . . did you learn this. . ."

"Water cub," I said.

"Huhn? What?"

"I was born in water." I don't know. Ask my mother: it was a fad at the time.

"That's. . . unusual," he said faintly. Then in a voice that was more of a low moan, "Ai, no. Rot me. No."

"What?"

"A boat. They're following."

I stopped swimming and treaded water, Blunt's legs butting against mine as he tried to kick at the water. There was a shape back there: a darkness on the water, a rowboat with oars raising glitters of water and a Rris standing upright. "You sure?"

A flash of smoke and sparks under the moonlight and the sound of a gunshot rolled across the water. Yep, pretty sure.

"Swim," the guard barked, somewhat desperately. "Get out! Go!" He started trying to struggle out of my grasp.

"Hold on," I gasped. "Wait. . ."

Could I outswim them? I doubted it. They could get me without guns: just come close enough to whack me with the oars. Another gunshot kicked up a spout of water too close. I couldn't run. . . so. . .

"Here. . ." It took a couple of seconds to strip off my shirt. Made back home, its weave was a lot tighter than anything Rris made, so it held a bit of air. Hopefully, that bit would be enough. I bundled it into a sort of a float and pushed it into the guard's hands. "You'll have to try and keep yourself. Try float. Not long. I come back, yes?"

"I. . . "his sodden ears wilted. "Go. GO!" He floundered desperately when I let go, thrashing and tipping his head back. The makeshift float wasn't enough to hold his weight, but it helped: he was able to keep his head above water. There was another gunshot from the boat and I hyperventilated three times, ducked over and dived.

Black down there: a pale wavering disk above where the moonlight broke the surface but the rest was like swimming in cold ink, a bottomless vault of darkness below me. I dove, my jeans restricting my legs as I kicked in the direction of the boat. A muted thump ran through my body: another gunshot I realised as I twisted, rolled, trying to find the darker shape that was eclipsing the glow of the moon, leaving a water-bug trail of ripples as oars dipped in.

My lungs were starting to feel it, my heart racing as I kicked upwards as hard as I could, compensate for the distortion of the transition layer, hit the edge of the hull with my hands and pushed, feeling it yaw away as I surfaced. A slideshow of brief images and sensations: Night air was almost warm on my skin; my hands grabbing the side of the boat; a shocked Rris face turning my way with mouth opening; the Rris with a gun teetering as the boat tipped. The noises were cut like a film edit as I dove again, yanking the side of the boat with all my weight. It rocked back, tipped, hesitated a moment, then came all the way over. Heavy objects splashed into the water around me as I kicked away. A frantic something of metal and leather and fur brushed me and caught at me even as I twisted away: I almost inhaled water as a clawed hand caught my arm and claws raked across my skin, a Rris face flashed briefly in the murk: a horrific mask that was gone as soon as I'd seen it.

There were noises down there; muffled sounds I tried not to hear.

I wasn't exactly sure where I was when I surfaced. The inverted hull off the rowboat was a dark lump meters away, drifting downstream as it slowly settled beneath the water. Cries sounded out across the water, pleas sounding amid frantic thrashing and one by one they were cut off. There was a single figure clinging to the boat as it slowly sank and the panicked whimpers were audible from where I trod water.

Oh, god.

"Blunt!" I yelled the name as best I could. And the sinking Rris started crying out, surrendering, begging, anything. . . and there wasn't anything I could do. I set my teeth against the pain in my arm and stroked away from the pleading, toward the sounds of distress a short distance in the other direction.

There were a pair of hands and a lot of thrashing and I caught him as he was literally going down for the third time, or he caught me. I cried out as claws sank into my skin and almost went under myself before I got my arm around his neck and hauled him to the surface. "Hey! Calm down! I. . . got you."

He coughed and sputtered and sucked air hungrily while I kicked out for shore again, doing my best to keep the two of us afloat. My left arm under his chin was aching badly where claws had gouged me and I knew I was losing blood. There wasn't a lot I could do about that. It was a minute later when the Blunt had his breath back again, he said. "What happened to them?"

"Hard to swim with armor," I panted and tried not to think about what I'd done. How many? And none of them could swim. They'd tried to kill me! They'd killed people around me! I tried to hold onto that thought and kindle some anger, but there was that Rris in my arms. In the water they'd been helpless. What I'd done. . .

I'd done what I had to. I tried to push the thought to the back of my mind and concentrated on swimming, but there was that image of a horrified face vanishing into those black depths. Ahead of us the lights of the far bank edged closer painfully slowly.

Section 96

Fishing boats, ferries and runabouts, the larger bulks of traders all docked along the wharves: a forest of masts and rigging silhouetted against the night sky. The sounds of lapping water and gently creaking timbers carried across the river, underlying the hissing and cries of excited Rris voices. Lights burned along the riverside: both the warm glows in windows and doorways as well as the flicker of lanterns and torches out on the quayside. Rris figures moved about there, probably watching the clouds of flickering smoke rising from the fires that burned on the far shore.

Cold, aching, and exhausted I swam in past the unscalable hulls of the ships toward the stone wall of the quay. It was damn hard keeping my own head above water, let alone the weight of the Rris guard. Shouts arose as we neared the dock, startled yowls sounding out and then the light of lanterns shining down as I reached the quay and a series of oddly shaped rusting iron rungs set into the stone. Then I didn't have the strength to do anything but hook my arm through a rung and hold on while I sucked air and my lungs ached. Damn, the water was like a heat-leech: I couldn't feel my feet, my hands, and there was a cold ache through my chest. Rris were shouting down at us. Something heavy splashed into the water nearby and Blunt snarled back, then wet fur nudged my arm, "Come on. Can you climb?"

I shook my head, not entirely sure my arms would hold out. "I. . . I'm not sure. I think so."

"All right. Hold on, here. . ." sodden fur brushed against bare skin as he got an arm around me. "Try," he urged. "I'll be here."

I fumbled for the rungs and began hauling myself up. My arm ached abominably: my muscles felt like spaghetti, but the Rris guard was close behind, close enough to take some of my weight and maybe even catch me if I fell.

There were Rris at the top, a semicircle that fell back in shocked silence when I hauled myself up and stood on trembling legs, gasping, dripping and shuddering. Blunt was right behind me, looking like a drowned rat with soaked fur plastered to his body. Damned weird. If I hadn't been so cold and exhausted I'd have laughed.

"What the rot is that?!" someone blurted and I glared that way but was too tired to make a reply.

"Is there a patrol near?" Blunt was demanding.

"And who're you?" a bulky Rris snapped back, a hefty black stick in his hand.

"King's guard," Blunt replied.

"Huhn? You look more navy to me." There was laughter and Blunt glared. "Right now, most of the patrols seem to be dealing with whatever's going on over there," the stick gestured at glow among the buildings on the far side of the river. "You know anything about that? Has that. . . whatever it is, got something to do with it?"

More Rris were gathering to rubberneck and Blunt was getting twitchy. If the situation turned ugly, neither of us were in any shape to do much. The breeze hadn't been that cold an hour or so earlier, but now it felt like an arctic wind straight off the ice. I was shivering violently. "He's King's business."

"Really? You think we should believe that?"

"It might be a good idea," another voice broke in and the crowd hastily parted to let a figure in a long leather coat pass through. Shyia? No, it wasn't a face I recognized. The Mediator looked me up and down, then turned to Blunt. "Guard? What command?"

"Blunt ah Chotemith. 3rd section, Royal Guard. Shahani Cove arm under Serit. We need help."

"Ah. I know them." The Mediator turned eyes back to me. "And I've heard of this creature of yours. You can talk, can't you? You can understand me?"

"Yes, sir," I said, trying to concentrate through the giddyness. "Just don't speak too fast."

Another uproar from the surrounding Rris, but the Mediator's ears just flicked slightly. "All right, the Redmale Bridge Guild house would be safest tonight."

"I don't think I can. . ." I took a step that seemed to stretch out forever and the world slowly tilted. Blunt barely caught me on my way to the cobbles. "Sir?" he cried out.

"Sorry," I mumbled. "Cold. . ."

"What? You're freezing. . ." he broke off and looked at his hand, then at my arm; the blood was almost indistinguishable against the pads and wet fur, but was quite visible against my skin. The cold had numbed it and probably minimised the bleeding, but it was still ugly. "Hai! Rot me, you're hurt." Turning to the Mediator. "He's not going to make it that far. He needs warmth, a doctor."

"The Thieving [Cormorant] Tavern's just there."

"A physician. . ."

"There's that Maithris," another voice suggested. "She's staying there."

"What? That [something]?"

"Just get her," the Mediator snarled as Blunt helped me limp through the gossiping crowd toward the haven of the tavern door with a stuffed cormorant holding a lantern in its claws hung over it.

Section 97

The brightest light in the room came from the fire crackling to itself in the grate, casting a pool of warmth and light onto the hearth where four solid chairs were set in a semicircle. The wrought-iron rack over the fire was festooned with pots of all shapes and sizes simmering gently, filling the air with the aroma rich stew and other less-definable smells. A few small oil lamps were hung from rafters in strategic spots, casting lonesome pools of illumination to steal the gloom from the darkest corners. At one time the room had been several smaller rooms, then the walls between supporting wooden pillars had been knocked out to make this one larger area. Tables were scattered around that area: heavy things of solid planks with benches intended to be sturdy and utilitarian rather than ornate. Booths set around the peripheries offered their occupants some privacy in the shadows.

And it was busy enough that night, probably more than a few there to see the extra attractions and the pretty lights still flickering across the river. Rris patrons kept their distance from the hearthside, leaving a deserted space around the fireplace and us. The Mediator had sent messengers off to guard stations and the local Mediator Guild Hall to fetch armed help, but that'd take a while to show up. Meantime, the Mediator had taken station off to one side, a hand on his pistol while he watched the room and everyone who entered.

Blunt was a shaggy figure sitting cross-legged and naked on the hearth while his bedraggled fur dried. Alongside, my jeans and shorts - my only clothes to survive the night's escapades - were hanging on a fireguard and steaming slightly in the heat He seemed pretty sure that our assailants wouldn't try again. He said they'd lost a lot of their force and wouldn't risk a frontal attack when reinforcements could show at any time. He watched carefully while the Rris doctor worked on my arm.

"Hold still," she growled.

I flinched again and she held my arm down to the table while she dabbed the cloth against the deep scratches along my upper left arm. She'd stanched the worst of the bleeding, now was trying to clean them. I'd balked at the use of her limited supply of Rris tinctures, so she'd resorted to sulfur. I awkwardly pulled the itchy woolen blanket around my shoulders and watched her, her head dipped in concentration over her work.

A strange sort, that doctor. I'd been curled up on one of the chairs drawn close to the fire, huddled down into the heavy woolen blanket while a mixture of water and blood dripped onto the floor when the Mediator stiffened and stalked off toward the front door. I looked around as she came in with a couple of locals. A scarred Rris gestured at me and I saw her amber-yellow eyes widen before the Mediator intercepted her, spoke with her for a while then brought her over: a young female with a cowled cloak and a small bag containing the tools of her trade. "She's a physician. She'll tend to your arm."

The Rris glanced at him, then at me and shrugged out of her cowl and slung it over the back of the chair next to me to reveal a dusky-tawny fur peppered with patches of darker grey spots. Younger than I'd thought I realised after a seconds contemplation. Maybe Rris males considered her attractive, maybe she was as ugly as they came, I didn't know. She's a doctor? But she sat herself down. "You can. . . speak?" she said, somewhat apprehensively.

"Yes," I said, then added, "And I won't hurt you."

She blinked, then chittered. "No. Of course you won't. Let me see your arm."

Now it was my turn to be taken aback, but I held out my arm and she took it with one hand, pushed the blanket out of the way. "Ah." A finger ran across my forearm, feeling the skin below the three furrows Rris claws had torn. Her fingerpad was like a cool piece of leather sliding over my skin. "Painful?"

"I've had worse," I grimaced.

She blinked at me again, then let me go and said to the Mediator. "Bring one of those small tables over here." He looked a bit affronted, but went to get it while she dove into her bag, pulling out odds and ends. "What are you, anyway?"

"Human."

"Haa? I've seen pictures of something similar to you in books." The Mediator placed the table between us and she laid out an assortment of cloths, small bags and knives. I stared at those dubiously, then at her as she pulled out a small case, unfolded a pair of spectacles and hooked the stems around her ears. "Had a different name though. Put your arm here," she patted the table.

I did so and she looked at me over the spectacles: "H'an. . . What is that word?"

"Human."

"Ah. Odd-sounding word. Where does it come from?"

"My own language."

She didn't look up from where she was dabbing away at clotting blood with a porous cloth. "Your own language? Huhnn, what's that sound like?"

"A hell of a lot easier to pronounce, doc," I said in English.

Now she glanced up and cocked her head. "Interesting sounds. Like water flowing." She turned her attention back to my arm. "Huhn, quite deep. Not bleeding too badly though. They look like claw marks."

"They are."

"Who did this to you?"

"I don't know. Didn't seem to like me very much though."

She chittered and once again glanced up at me over her glasses, right at my face, at the scars there. "Not the only one apparently."

I winced when she touched a sore spot, not just emotionally. "Sorry," she said and glanced at my eyes again. "Where are you from?"

I watched her hands, carefully dabbing away the gore. The cloth was a reddened mess. "Difficult to explain. Another. . . place. Where there are many like myself."

"Africa?" she asked.

"No. Not like that," I hesitated. "All I know is I was home. . . then I was here." Why was I telling her this? I really wasn't sure. In this murky little bar with other Rris watching and listening she was asking and I was telling her. But nobody had talked to me this way since. . . Maybe that was it: She reminded me of Chihirae. Especially with those glasses.

"In the flick of a tail?" she asked.

That about summed it up. "Like that. Yes. I not know for sure for several days. Then I found a Rris town."

"Ah." She patted my arm, then stood and crossed to the fireplace where she poked around through the pots on the hearth, found something that obviously satisfied her, and hung the kettle over the flames. "Where was that?"

"Town called Westwater."

"Haven't heard of it. Could they tell you what had happened?"

I stiffened a bit, remembering the figure in the doorway, the shots. "They. . . I couldn't speak Rris then. I watched. I learned."

"Why didn't you try to talk to them?"

I almost smiled. "You have a lot of questions, don't you. What is your name?"

She sat back a bit and pushed her glasses back up with a bloodied forefinger. "I? Maithris aesh Teremae, at your service." Her ears flickered. "And do you have a name?"

"Michael. Most Rris find it easier to call me Mikah. At your service."

Maithris chittered a bit. "Myach. . . Misak. . . Mikah. You're right: It is easier." She wadded up the soiled cloth and tucked it away, unfolded another. "You know," she smiled, "you never answered my question."

I sighed slightly. "Why I didn't talk to them?"

"A."

"They saw me. They shot at me. I had to run."

"Ah." She glanced up and for a few seconds was quiet. "Then how did you finally meet Rris? Why did you stop running?"

"They caught me," I said simply.

She must've felt the tremble in my arm: when she looked at me again her ears flattened. "Hurt you, didn't they? Ah. I see why you try to reassure people you're not dangerous. Sometime I would like to hear the whole story." Her furry hand laid the cloth aside and picked up a small corked vial

"Hey," I pulled my arm back. "No. No medicine. Please. Rris drugs are dangerous for me."

"What, this? It is harmless."

"No," I repeated adamantly. I'd had too many close calls with 'harmless' Rris products. "No medicine."

Maithris blinked, then twisted a hand in their equivalent of a shrug. "All right. If you insist. But that is dangerous. Can you understand infection?"

"Yes. I also understand poison. That is what some Rris medicine is to me."

Startlement. Blunt was sitting up now, watching carefully. "What? All dangerous?"

"I don't know. What have you got?"

She produced a small apothecary of drugs: vials and tubes and pots, pouches, rolls, twists. Pot, I recognized that. Also the tobacco, but the other stuff was meaningless to me: the painstakingly drawn labels meaning nothing and the various liquids and pastes even less. The simplest she had was the only one I was willing to try: powdered yellow sulfur.

"Hold still," she growled when I flinched, then bent closer, dabbing at the wounds with boiled water to clear the worst of the clotted blood, then sprinkling sulfur. The stuff stung slightly and my arm twitched.

"How long have you been here?"

Conversation took my mind off what she was doing. "Here? Since autumn the last year."

"And in Shattered Water?"

"I think. . . four months? Close to that."

"You've seen cities before?"

"Yes. My kind have some."

"Hmm?" She glanced up for a second. "Like this?"

"Same in some ways, different in others."

She chittered. "What do you think of Shattered Water?"

"I really haven't seen much of it."

"Huhn? After four months? Where are you staying?"

"At the Palace."

Now she looked startled. "That high? Sounds like your fortunes are changing. I hear the gardens there are beautiful, the Living Hall especially."

"I'm sorry. What is that?"

"You're staying there and you haven't seen the gardens?"

"I get a view of them from my window," I offered. "Some of them."

"The Resound Theater? Gold Row? The Freespan Bridges?" To all of these I had to answer no. "None of them?"

I gave a small shake of my head, a gesture she couldn't understand, then looked up. "Well, you do have a nice river."

Blunt snorted and hastily looked away. Maithris glanced at him then and picked up some clean cotton pads. "You haven't seen anything? Suppuration! Why?"

Breath gusted out of me in a sigh. "I don't get out much."

Maithris looked up, obviously confused. "You don't have any interest in seeing what's around you?"

I sagged. "It would be a great pleasure," I said quietly. "I've asked. Many times." I looked at Blunt who blinked back. "I suppose guest is only one word for it."

She stared at me: a curious look, as if she were trying to read me. Slowly she picked up another bundle of cloth and began unrolling it: strips of cotton. "Mikah. . . what do you do?"

"I. . ." I caught Blunt's warning glance, "I make suggestions. I can't really say."

She also glanced at Blunt. "All right. Now hold your arm out." I did so and she began bandaging me up. "Sometime, I really would like to hear your whole story."

"Maybe I could. . ." started to say and there was a commotion at the front door. Armed troopers pushed in, Royal Guards bulked out in full skirmish armor with flintlock rifles and bayonets held at the ready. There were shouts of alarm as customers were pushed out of the way.

Maithris also looked around in alarm at the clattering of armor and equipage and her ears went back at the sight of a squad of armed infantry making a beeline for us. I reached out and touched her hand lightly, drawing her attention back. "It's all right." I sighed then, "As I said. . . I don't get out very often."

She looked from me to the guards and back again. I had a feeling that she understood.

Section 98

The Palace was in a worse state than Capitol Hill during a Congressional pay review. It was a small army that delivered me back there and as I stepped from the carriage I could see lights burning everywhere, squads of guards patrolling the grounds. This little incident had obviously put the wind up someone's back. My guards tried to hurry me along but I was too tired: I just limped my way across the drive, the borrowed cloak covering my arm in its sling. My pants hadn't had time to dry properly and clung uncomfortably.

Guards were everywhere throughout the Palace corridors. Occasionally I saw terse-looking nobles with their household guard in tow stalking the halls as my own escort rushed me through. The hall to my own quarters had a dozen guards stationed along its length. Feline eyes watched me intently and locks on my door rattled as it was opened, then rattled again as it closed behind me.

My rooms. Quiet. Dim light from that ridiculous lamp; Clean clothes folded on the bed and a faint potpourri scent from the cushion at the desk. I crossed to the drapes and opened them, looking out through glass and bars onto the moonlit gardens.

Living Hall? What was that?

I let the drapes fall back again and sat myself on the edge of the bed. Were my boots still there? I wondered as I looked at my feet. Someone had tried to kill me and I was worried about my boots. I almost laughed at that, but all that came out was a small strangled noise and I ran my good hand through my damp hair. Shit. How often? I'd thought this was behind me, now death followed me even here. How often was this going to happen?

I didn't have those answers.

"Mikah?"

I hadn't heard the door and Kh'hitch's bulk was surprisingly stealthy. "I'm glad to see you're in one piece. They did say you're hurt. Is it serious?"

I shook my head, quietly said, "No. "

"Some good news." He wandered over to the desk, looked down at the dark laptop. "I have to say, we apologize for what happened. The guards will be reprimanded."

That rankled. "There was nothing they could do."

He growled something then asked, "And you risked your life to save one?"

"I was supposed to leave him to die?"

"That was his job, Mikah." Kh'hitch's ears tipped sideways and he sighed, like a gust of wind. "Still, I think there might have been trouble if you'd tried to walk around town by yourself."

There probably would have been. I hadn't thought of that, and now. . . god, I was tired. Shaken. "Where's Shyia?" I asked.

"Who?"

"The Mediator. The one who brought me here."

"Huhn, him. He went back to Lying Scales some time ago."

"He. . ." I blinked. A second shock that night. When he'd said good-bye, that was for good? "He left?"

"Yes. Why do you ask?" He was looking at me curiously.

"Oh. No reason." I was feeling numb.

The Advisor studied me thoughtfully. "I think it would be a good idea if a doctor looked at you."

"I saw a. . ."

"Yes. I know about that. I think it would be better if someone. . . qualified did it."

In my books, there weren't many Rris doctors who could be called qualified. Certainly not by the standards set back home. However, I kept that thought to myself.

"You'll cooperate, won't you," Kh'hitch said. It wasn't a question.

"Yes," I sighed.

He ducked his head and padded over to the door, knocking to be let out. I watched him leave. Shyia. . . I thought he would. . .

I suppose that was selfish: I couldn't expect him to stay here, but still. . . that was one of the only Rris in this world I'd even remotely considered a friend. Now he'd left. . . I felt as if I'd been cast adrift. I sat there for a long time, staring at the pictures. Who'd they been? Were they still alive?

The doctor stopped by a bit later. A male who gave a perfunctory once-over, hissed at the bandages: "Cheap." Then replaced them with a gauze and left me alone.

It was a bad night: once again the guards woke me out of a nightmare in the early hours of the morning. A single guard watched me while I lay alone, breathing heavily, my legs tangled in clammy sheets while I stared up into the darkness.

Section 99

Who was responsible? Well, there were suspects. Over a dozen of them.

And they were untouchable.

The other kingdoms had been refused access to me. Hirht had provided them with some information, but they were convinced - probably rightly so - that he was still withholding things. He'd been wanting to try and keep me as a Land-of-Water resource and someone hadn't been about to stand for that.

Even if the assassination attempt had failed, the point had been made.

And thinking back on it, maybe it'd been supposed to fail. There'd been chances for the assassins to kill me but they'd never taken them. In the darkness and confusion they might have simply missed me, but somehow. . . I still have my doubts. Still, the message was clear enough: If the other realms couldn't have me, then nobody was going to have me. There was no way that Hirht could hope to protect me: If someone really wanted me dead it was going to happen.

On top of that night came renewed demands from the ambassadors, along with new promises of sanctions, blockades and increased tariffs on all trade goods. I wasn't party to the discussions. I got most of my news second-hand through various Advisors, but it was enough for me to get a handle on what was going on. It didn't sound as if it was going to turn out to my advantage. Still, a bit of good news: they found my boots and jacket.

Section 100

It was Hirht's informal office. He was standing at the window, his back to me as he gazed out across the sunlit gardens outside. A sparrow landed on the windowsill, just on the other side of the glass and his head twitched that way, ears up.

I closed the door. "Sir?"

He turned and the bird startled off the sill, out of sight. "Mikah. How's you arm?"

I flexed it. I'd gotten rid of the sling a couple of days ago, but the scabs still pulled when I moved my hand. "It's fine. Just a few scratches."

"With a hide like yours that could be enough," he growled. "Sit."

The stuffing of the tooled-leather cushion rustled as I settled into it. The king sat himself down at his desk, his fur gleaming in the pool of sunlight flooding in through the windows behind him. His desk was awash in papers: illegible from where I was sitting, but I could see quite a few impressive-looking wax seals adhering to the velum and parchment. He leaned forward and scratched a finger back and forth along a small rectangle of wood: shavings curled away from his claw. "Mikah, you're aware of the demands other kingdoms have been making in regard to questioning you."

"Yes."

"Well, following that. . . incident, I've decided to [something] to their requests."

"I'm sorry. I don't know that word chaeahsia?"

He sighed. "It means: I agree to it. Understand?"

"Oh. Yes, I understand." Acquiesce.

"Good," he clawed gouges out of the bit of wood on his desk. I keep a scratch pad myself, but that was taking things a little too literally. "And you understand it is going to make things difficult. There will be more people wanting to meet with you, and I won't have authority over these. For the most part they will be foreigners associated with embassies; some specialists brought in to ask you various questions."

"About what?"

A soft hiss escaped him. "That. . . I don't know. Some are dubious about what we've told them of you. They want to confirm for themselves that you're not some hoax we concocted to drive in political wedges.

"Anyway, your schedule will be rewritten. You will need more security and will probably need longer days."

I felt my heart stumble. "Sir. I don't know I can. . ."

"Mikah, I know you're working quite hard, but any farmer puts in at least as much time as you."

But a farmer is in his own home. He's among his own kind. He isn't trying to second-guess what might be going on in alien minds, trying to speak a language he was never intended to. He doesn't have to watch his every gesture, to be careful not to smile. He wouldn't cause a riot if he walked through town or went to buy a piece of bread. "Sir, it's not like that. It's. . ."

"What?"

How could I explain? The tensions, nightmares. . . "I get very tired, sir. It is very. . ." Did they even have a word for stress? The nearest I could come was the term for weight on a rope.

Hirht looked a bit confused, then flicked his ears. "Huhnn. Well, it won't be for too long. You won't snap before then?" he smiled.

Looking back on it I can see he thought I'd made a mistake and he was making a pun out of it. I took him at the English translation of the term 'snap', not understanding he really didn't realize what I meant. "I hope not."

He snorted and tapped at a sheaf of paper: "That's some good news. Now, these interviews won't be private. You'll have guards and an Advisor with you. I have details of what you'll be free to discuss and what is confidential. You understand?"

"Yes," I sighed. "Do you know who did it?"

He hesitated. "You mean that attack? No, nobody has claimed responsibility."

"Is it likely to happen again?"

Hirht raised an extruded claw above his scratch pad, then gently lowered it and studied the sharp little crescent. "I don't know. I don't think so. I believe they were trying to make a point and now it's been made, there won't be any further use for actions like that."

"And if they decide they still aren't being told everything?"

He was still for a fraction of a second, the pupils in his eyes dilating. "That. . . I doubt anything will happen. Understand: they will learn what you are. They will see just what they can gain from you and when they do. . ." He sighed, "All I can say is that anyone who harmed you would [something] the anger of the other kingdoms."

"You're sure of that?"

The Rris king laughed: a sound not at all like a human chuckle. A stuttering chitter filled with uncertainty and I knew the answer myself. No, he wasn't certain.

Section 101

Changes. Not for the better.

I'd sat with ambassadors and scholars and teachers and artisans. Rris from places I'd only heard occasional mention of in my lessons, from neighboring kingdoms and places on the other side of the known Rris world, they all wanted their time. I'd talked for hours with representatives from some of the most powerful kingdoms, answered questions and shown pictures. I'd even sketched a simple portrait of the Lost-Sun Ambassador when she'd queried my profession.

Rules. There were always Land-of-Water Advisors there to watch, always guards - for both sides. I'd received lectures and instructions from all kinds of officials, from Advisors to upper echelon military.

General Kisti aesh Hostei. She was an imposing figure: tall for a Rris, her muzzle and torso fur peppered with gray and old scar tracks and her cheek tufts a brittle white. Old, yes, but stocky enough to look like she'd been chiseled from granite: muscles shifted under her fur like tectonic plates in motion and she wore her much-used armor like most people might wear a favorite shirt, not seeming to notice its weight. Assertive; she was used to getting what she wanted. . . in some ways she reminded me of Shyia, in others of a bear. And despite that, there was still a hesitation around me; a movement to keep as much distance between us as possible..

It was the first time I'd been introduced to the military establishment. Why? I'm not sure. Nobody ever told me. I think they'd been trying to find out how cooperative I'd be about military information. And when they learned that I wasn't likely to be very cooperative, they'd decided to see how much they could find out on their own. I'd often returned to my rooms to find the monitor log in the laptop full of misspelled access and search attempts. I didn't pursue the issue.

The general lectured me at length. Someone had tried to kill me in her city: that was a slight against her and her works that she took an almost personal offense to. She told me what was going to be done to make sure that didn't happen again: more guards and security, careful screening of everyone who was to go near me . . . nothing I wasn't expecting. Then she started explaining that other realms would ask about weapons, they would ask about ideas and ways of war.

"You would like it if I didn't tell them anything," I said.

Her left ear was a stub, but it twitched as the right one laid down. "What you feel is right," she said and I knew those weren't her words. The way she acted. . . she didn't believe I could feel anything.

I smiled - a hollow grimace that didn't mean anything to either of us - and nodded. "All right."

Section 102

The Land-of-Water nobility refused to let me be taken to the embassies, so the foreign delegations were escorted to the Palace where the audiences were to be held. Every couple of days I was taken to the conference room to meet with the Rris. The time I wasn't engaged in those meetings was spent at the workshops where the Rris were doing their best to fit two days' work into one. My guard had been increased and it was a small army of a couple of dozen soldiers who rattled around with me. Inside the palace a squad of four heavily armed troopers followed me everywhere.

Awkward times. Rris kept their distance and I was quite aware of the whispering behind my back. Rraerch was withdrawn, keeping her distance and Chaeitch - who had been openly friendly with me - was nervous around me. They'd heard what happened. They'd asked how I was, expressed their shock, but under that there was the fidgeting, the sidelong glances. They'd heard I'd killed Rris and it really didn't matter what the circumstances had been. Maybe it'd be comparable to a guard dog killing an intruder: it was doing its job, but it was still a man killer.

How many had died? They never told me. Maybe they didn't know.

The meetings with the foreign delegations were another matter. A closed room with Rris who might have been one of the ones who'd tried to kill me; other Rris who'd never seen me before - never conceived of something like me before - and treated me as one might a circus creature: see the tricks it can do. Isn't it remarkable?

The first meeting. It was in another of those meeting rooms the Palace seemed to have a plethora of. A large room on the second floor, three latticed windows looked out over the sweeping front drive and the tree-lined avenue stretching away. The marbled top of the gatehouse was just visible above the treetops. There wasn't much in the room, nothing in the way of furniture save the seven cushions and low tables on the carpeted floor. One was over by itself in front of the windows, the others arranged in a loose crescent on the side of the room near the door.

"Be seated," Kh'hitch instructed, sweeping his arm toward that single cushion. "They'll be here shortly."

The door closed behind me as I crossed the room and I hesitated, turned when I heard the key turn in the lock. The door was black, constructed of solid pieces of timber that looked like they were damn good at their job. I sighed and let my arm slap despondently against my jeans then turned away and wandered over to the window.

There was activity down on the drive: Three carriages parked in the paved courtyard before the Palace, Rris moving about. I could see a few guards, their armor glittering in the sunlight, others tending the elk harnessed to the carriages. I touched the windows, the organic flow of the crude glass cold under my fingertips as I watched the Rris going about their business and the chill sensation continued on to the pit of my stomach: that emptiness that seemed to drag the world in with it.

The metallic scritch of a key in the lock jolted me out of my funk. I turned as the Advisor entered and hesitated, then gestured at the cushion. The Rris behind him also stalled for a second, her eyes going wide as she watched me take my seat. Shahi, from Hunting-Well. I'd met her. . . I'd seen her at that rather ill-fated reception meal a couple of weeks back. She'd seen me before, but even so there was that involuntary flinch; that twitch of eyes and ears when she saw me. The other five Rris didn't know me and they stared openly.

Five of them, all with an affluent air about them. Red and orange and green velvet, fine cottons, tooled and oiled leather glistening in the sunlight. A hefty Rris wore a torc with enough glittering rocks to start a magpie salivating; a somewhat more trim individual with delicate silver chains looping from its ears in a sharp contrast with the dark fur. Shahi was wearing breeches of supple white leather, something like suede. A light khaki vest blended with her fur while shaved patches traced gray serpentine patterns down her arms. Eyes flickered as the newcomers studied me sitting there in my human manufactured clothing: an Eldritch 'Stranger Than You Think' T-shirt, Swan-dri and blue-jeans.

"Ambassador, you've met Mikah before," Kh'hitch said to the female representative from Hunting-Well.

She cocked her head and maybe smiled a bit. "Yes. Although he appears to be feeling a little better today."

I caught Kh'hitch's warning glance and caught myself before I said something I'd regret and just sat quietly as they took their seats, joints bending inhumanly as they settled down onto the cushions. Kh'hitch was puffing a bit by the time he'd got himself seated, but he rallied admirably, drawing himself up like a furry Buddha with his paunch hanging into his lap. Again I had to wonder at the Rris aristocrats' choice of indoor furniture. A pair of guards took up stations against the whitewashed walls inside the door, their polished steel armor gleaming like mirrors in the sunlit room.

I'd been briefed on just who I was going to be meeting, but Kh'hitch ran through introductions anyway. All affiliated in some way with Hunting-Well, a centralized realm whose western borders ran along the Earthy River [Mississippi] and northern tip flirted with the southern shores of Lake Endless [Michigan]. Among their main exports: cattle and related produce, grain and textiles. Nobody had told me why they'd been chosen for the first interview; maybe they'd just drawn names out of a. . . well, some kind of receptacle, hats not being so popular here.

Shahi was watching me curiously, but without too much concern. More apprehensive were her associates. Alongside, her deputy was Chareth, the dark-furred male with the silver ear-chains busily producing parchments from a satchel. Retikhiasth was the consulate archivist; a twitching young Rris with a emerald green tunic that matched her green eyes and somewhat russet fur. Ch'isthori and Hatorik were merchants and Hunting-Well's Traders Guild representatives in Shattered Water. The final member was the hefty Rris with the jeweled torc, also a black leather vest and ornate sheath - empty - slung at the belt: Hiskny, their 'security' Advisor. The local military attaché concerned with consulate security and probably a few other more. . . um. . . covert departments.

"And how are you this morning?" Shahi asked conversationally.

"I am managing," I answered, trying to ignore the audible intake of breath from the Rris called Hatorik.

"Good," she smiled. "Now, what have they told you not to tell us?"

"Ambassador," Kh'hitch didn't exactly growl. "If this is going to be your attitude, we might as well. . ."

"Apologies," she smoothed with a single motion of her hand. Kh'hitch subsided, but was still simmering. "Mikah, that story you told the other night, it was very interesting. In fact, we'd all like to hear a little more about the place you came from. You don't know where it is?"

"It's not like that," I tried to explain. "My home is like. . . all of this. This world. But it's not this world."

"That doesn't make much sense."

"Look. All I've been able to figure out is this is a might- what-have been. My world is too."

"A what?" she and the others looked puzzled. Also Kh'hitch. It was the first time I'd aired this theory.

"I'm not sure. You understand time? Say that time is like a tree." I moved my hands and saw tails start to twitch, placed them back in my lap again. "There is the trunk, then a decision might be made, a choice taken and that trunk branches. In one world one path is taken and at that moment another world is created where the other path is also taken."

There were looks of confusion.

I sighed. "Look, what happened at that meal: maybe there was world created where I died, another where there was no poison, another where someone else ate it by mistake. All possibilities branching off from the main trunk. In my world the branch led to my kind rising to the top, on this branch it is your kind. Somehow I. . . jumped from a branch where my kind existed to this branch."

Shahi's head was back, her fur was slightly bristled. "And this is an idea you just. . . had?"

Well, there was that old series Sliders that led me on to do a bit of poking around quantum physics. . . "My kind have thought about this for a while," I finally said.

"Your kind," she mused. "We've done a bit of research and came up with this." She held out a hand for the roll of parchment her deputy handed her, opened it in a smooth movement. It was a detailed ink line-drawing of an ape perched on a branch, its mouth open in a grin that bared long teeth. "This look familiar?"

I sighed, nodded and belatedly waved an affirmative. "An ape. Not my kind."

"No? I wouldn't look at you and say that."

"I said that in my world Humans are like Rris are here. I think that is what happened to my kind here."

Rris eyes glanced from the paper to my face. To my eyes there wasn't much similarity, but what were they seeing?

"Excuse me," another Rris - Retikhiasth - ventured. "Ah. . . if that is what his . . . sahh. . . kind looks like. What do Rris look like where you. . . ah. . . come from?"

Everyone looked at her, then at me. I smiled slightly: nervous young lady, but sharp. "Different," I told her without elaborating and saw how that peaked her interest.

"All right," Shahi gesture with the rolled paper and handed it back to her deputy. "Enough of that for now. We have a few more important matters to cover. Mikah, you have been giving our hosts information, haven't you?"

"Yes."

"About what?"

"Various things. There were improvements to the steam engine they were using, also changes to boats. A more. . . eco-no- mical way of producing steel. Changes to the textiles mills and looms. There were some changes to maps. Also, new metals for tools. . ."

"Please, clutch it," Shahi forestalled me, looking flustered and I stopped, somewhat confused at the command myself before realizing it was a figure of speech I hadn't heard before. Kh'hitch's nostrils flared but he said nothing while the ambassador rubbed at the fur on her forearm. "You're doing all this, by yourself?"

"Yes."

"Huhnn. . . You said your kind is more. . . knowledgeable than we are. How much more so?"

"That's. . . difficult to know. We went through a time like yours, I think a couple of hundred years ago."

I couldn't help but notice how the fur of her ruff was lifting, literally getting her hackles up. "That doesn't make any sense."

Time. It wasn't something they easily understood, how much things could change in two centuries. "Maybe two hundred years ago my people were like Rris are now. Time went on. We learned. We made more tools, better tools. Our knowledge grew. As a cub learns as it grows."

Maybe not the best analogy. "You think we're like cubs?"

"Not like that. You still have a lot to learn. So do we."

She snorted and rubbed her forearm again, ruffling the sigils shaved there. "Saaa. . . Did you have a profession?"

"Yes. I was an artist."

Outright surprise. "You? An artist?"

"Yes."

There were a few smiles. "That's not a profession I would've expected in something like you. But if that's so, how do you know about expanded-water engines and metallurgy?"

"I know a bit about it. It was enough to give suggestions that Rris could. . . build on."

"Ah. Just suggestions. And from those Land-of-Water has made these changes. I would like to know a little more about what you have done."

I glanced at Kh'hitch who said nothing. I took that as a sign that he'd no objections and started telling them about some of the work I'd done so far. That took a while, quite a while; about two hours by my count, and all the time the Ambassador's deputy was scribbling away, taking notes with a quill and inkwell.

"You've been quite busy," Shahi noted when I finally finished.

I nodded, rubbed my throat. Speaking Rris wasn't getting any easier. "Could I have a drink?"

Kh'hitch made a gesture and a guard exited. Amazingly quiet for someone carrying that much metal.

"You're all right? Shahi asked.

Nothing like last time, just a sore throat. "I'm fine," I assured her. "I'm not made to speak like a Rris."

"Ah," uncertainty flickered across her features, then she snorted and muttered something to her aide who scratched away at his notes. Her tail flicked and she turned to Kh'hitch. "Advisor, this is. . . You were intending to keep this to yourselves."

Kh'hitch's expression didn't flicker. "In the beginning we had no reason to suppose there would be any interest from other kingdoms. By the time we were aware of what was happening, so were other lands."

"You saw no reason to inform us?"

"Would you?"

She growled something that could be translated as: "That's beside the point," but didn't push it.

The guard returned with a pitcher and a glass. If s/he wasn't happy about being relegated to the status of a servant, the furry face showed no signs. I drank greedily, then looked at the mug and wished they had refrigerators.

Shahi was muttering something with her aide, glancing at the transcripts then leaning over to confer with the two traders. I couldn't quite make out what they were murmuring about, but they exchanged a few words before she turned back to me. "You claimed that you had no intention of dealing exclusively with Land-of- Water. You came here by accident?"

"Yes."

"Would you be willing to offer some proof of this? You've given Land-of-Water examples of your knowledge, would you share that with other Rris?"

"I'm not really able to say. I think it depends upon circumstances."

"Hnn. A very [something] answer," she mused, tapping her muzzle with a forefinger. Before I had a chance to ask her what that word meant, she continued, "We would be interested in an example."

"Such as?"

Shahi looked to her left, to the merchanters, where Hatorik squirmed slightly and his ears turned back but he said, "We thought you might have a better idea of that. There were a few uncertainties about just what you knew."

"I will have think on that a bit," I said. This had been something I'd been warned about so I'd had time to prepare a few ideas based on Hunting-Wells main products. "Would an improved method for harvesting grain be of interest?"

Shahi's muzzle wrinkled very slightly. "What sort of improvements?"

"In one hour a single Rris could harvest as much grain as it would usually take five Rris working all day."

That got them. Even their tails were still, then Shahi said, very slowly, "We. . . we would be interested."

I thought they would be. Even Kh'hitch seemed a bit taken aback.

The other merchant raised his hand to point a stubby finger at my legs. "Those coverings. . . I don't think I've seen their like before. What kind of material is that?"

Slightly surprised at that line of questioning I plucked at my jeans. "This? It's called Denim."

"Most unusual." He murmured something to his associate, then asked, "May I look closer?"

"Mikah. . ." Kh'hitch started to say.

"It's all right," I said, raising my hand and the Advisor subsided but still looked wary. The guards shifted almost imperceptibly when Hatorik stood to approach me. His toe claws were out, I saw, catching on the carpet as he stepped over. Those alien tendons in those peculiar digitigrade feet and ankles flexed as he knelt and his glance flickered from my face to his hands as he touched the denim at my ankles, then pinched it between thumb and forefinger. "Strong. . . Very unusual stitching."

A finger ran along the seam. "I've never seen a weave like this before. . . and [rivets]; I'd expect to see those on a suit of armor."

I told him a bit about the fabric: how it was derived from cotton spun on mechanical looms, but I didn't explain the details of the process. The zipper left him intrigued and frustrated: I demonstrated it, but refused a closer examination. Rather Kh'hitch did. They had a sample of what I could show them and he wasn't going to give away too much. Hatorik had started to complain but Shahi had uttered one word of warning and he'd backed down.

There was one final issue, the delicate reason the military attaché Hiskny was present in the delegation. Shahi's tail twitched slightly, betraying her agitation when she said, "Advisor, my apologies, but this is a matter of some concern. Mikah, you did say you weren't willing to provide information on weapons."

I felt my own muscles twitch and Kh'hitch tensed a bit. "That's right," I said slowly.

"Your kind, you said you are more. . . knowledgeable than we are. This applies to those fields as well?"

So that's where this was leading. "Yes," I said. "I'm not dealing in those. I think I have enough problems without making myself a military target."

"You think you haven't?"

It was the first time Hiskny had favored us with spoken words. His muzzle twitched slightly when I looked at him and one finger tapped at his belt where the knife sheath hung. "That engine. That alone has applications that are far from peaceful."

I nodded. "I know. I regret it, but can be used for. . ." again, my grip on the Rris language wasn't strong enough and the words I wanted eluded me. "They can be used for better purposes. I can't tell you how to run your. . . business, but I won't tell you how to build weapons."

The military Advisor tipped his head and looked somewhat puzzled, either at the attitude or the vehemence. "Why? Your kind have weapons? What do you have against them?"

I took another drink and idly reached up to rub the old wound through my shoulder that was aching again. "You. . . you carry a knife," I said, glancing at the scabbard. "You ever had to use it?"

"On occasion."

"Did you enjoy it?"

His chin came up and I could see tendons flexing under his fur. "I had the satisfaction of doing my duty and my [honor]."

Honor. That was the best translation I could come up with. Another concept that had no real analogies and in time would just become part of the way I thought as even that changed to click in with the world around me. I nodded. "You'll learn. I had no choice; I didn't enjoy it and I have no wish to be responsible for more."

"And what do your hosts say to that?"

"They know," I said. I never mentioned the laptop, or the fact my hosts had been doing some research of their own.

Kh'hitch was studying me, unblinking eyes set in a furry face that didn't have as much fat as the rest of his body. "It hasn't been a subject we've pressed him on."

"Then you're not working on developing weapons," Shahi asked.

"No more than you are," the Advisor smiled.

The ambassador smiled back. Her face at least; a plastic expression that didn't entirely reach her ears.

It was early evening by the time affairs were finished up. The light outside was going, the sky darkening with high, wind- sculpted wisps of cloud burnished to glowing metal by the dying sun. I was hungry, tired, and my throat was raw. The ambassador wanted another meeting, scheduled more talks with specialists. She wanted the designs I'd offered as soon as was possible and discussed bringing in experts from her homeland to carry out further talks. When the time finally came to leave they offered their respects and flowed to their feet, not showing any sign of discomfort after being seated for so long: my own had turned to lumps of wood long ago. The guards stepped aside as they passed, then followed with a hint of noise from oiled leather and metal scraping. When the door closed even I could hear the outburst of voices from the far side, indecipherable noise that faded into the distance.

"Ten more of those?" I said to Kh'hitch.

"At least," he snorted. "Go on. Get some food and rest."

It was advice I wasn't about to argue with. My legs wobbled a bit, but they got me back to my quarters. God, another ten days of this. I stripped and sank into a hot bath, just letting the knots in my shoulders and back seep out. The Rris who delivered my meal showed up to put the tray at the side of the tub. I noticed the glances at my wet skin, but I was too tired and too hungry to care.

Section 103

Kh'hitch had been right; a fact that didn't make me too happy.

That day had been typical of the days that followed. Some went a bit better, others went a lot worse. All of them wanted some token that I was what I said I was; some proof that I did have something to offer them, as if what I'd already done for the Land- of-Water Rris wasn't relevant.

I gave them what they asked for. The Hunting-Well delegation were given the diagrams for a basic threshing machine based on the McCormick reaper intended to be drawn and powered by animals, but with provision for addition of a steam engine. Other kingdoms went away with plans for microscopes, seed drills, spinning jennies, barometers, denim fabric, powered shearers, powered trip hammers and saws along with several metallurgy suggestions. Most took their samples, albeit with the air of somebody who's been sold something without quite understanding what the salesman was talking about. A couple of ambassadors, that surly one from Bluebetter for example, weren't as civil. He wasn't convinced I wasn't more than an animal. More of his words were directed at Kh'hitch than myself as he protested that Land-of-Water was producing new weapons and supporting dissidents in their own land. When he did talk to me it was in a respectfully patronizing manner, as if I were less than a fool.

I suffered through it. At the end of the first meeting I found my hands were sore from being clenched into fists for so long. My nights weren't any better: I'd wake in a cold sweat from nightmares. Once I woke to find myself standing in the middle of my room in a pool of silvered moonlight filtering through the windows and clouds outside: naked, heart pounding and shaking violently as the night terrors faded.

And there were more changes outside the diplomatic talks as well. Scholars from two other neighboring kingdoms arrived on the docks: courier ships from other Realms along the lakes routed to Land-of-Water specially. Again, the examinations; the experience of being treated like a piece of machinery, and now that some of the cloak of secrecy covering me had been withdrawn there were more Rris interested in me; more ways of making me feel like a side of meat.

"Come along," Rasa aesh Wilder urged me. "We don't have all day for this."

For what? I wondered as I followed. Another part of the University, this was. The newer buildings on the tree-lined campus were brick, with high, peaked tiled roofs while the older ones were predominately dark wood. In many places the two styles merged and mixed together and the red, angular faces of the brickwork melded into the more flamboyant and gothic wooden architecture with its weatherboards, slate tiles, turrets and steep roofs. Now, my guards followed me and the trio of Rris teachers through the university halls into one of those older wings. Rasa kept up a steady chatter as the tiled floors turned to squeaking boards under my feet, the black wood scratched and gouged from the passage of countless clawed feet. Her voice was a steady patter: pointing out details of interest through the university, a lot of reassurances; which only served to worry me more.

Through a door, down a half-dozen steps, another short hall with more doors along its dimly lit length. "You won't have any trouble," Rasa was saying. "Just do what's asked of you. Rehichia's been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long while and I'm sure they'll have questions. Take them one at a time."

"Questions. . .?" I started to ask as she showed me through a door at the far end.

"Go on. He's waiting."

I didn't know what was happening: as was happening so many times there was so much crammed into a day that nobody had time to explain what was planned. I had to take it as it came, and this time it wasn't what I was expecting.

Not a room, more of a hall: big, circular, with walls of dark polished wood. High overhead, rafters curved up to support the cone-shaped timber roof where skylights sent shafts of dust- flecked warm light angling down to spotlight a portion of the wooden floor before me, leaving the rest of the big chamber in shadows. There were easels there in that light: a pair of frames as tall as I, the thick papers mounted on them covered by a single blank sheet. A chalkboard stood between them and a tall Rris turned from where it'd been scratching a chart of some kind on the board. "Hai! Not before time. Over here please." A white stick tapped the floor beside the chalk board.

A stubby hand patted my shoulder and I cast a confused look at Rasa. She smiled, ducked her head and quietly closed the door. My guards took up their stations to each side.

"Now," the Rris by the board snapped, its. . . his voice reverberating from the curved wooden wall behind him. I hesitated, glanced at my guards who gazed back impassively, then started out into that pool of sunlight.

Stopped dead when I saw the tiers of benches in the shadows beyond the light. There were Rris there, not filling the hall by any means, but dozens of feline heads turned slightly to follow me, tufted ears peaked in interest. A dry rustling sounded along with the liquid sibilants of Rris whispers, papers shuffled and quill pens shifted uncertainly. A lecture theater. . .

"Here," the Rris at the board growled, tapping his pointer at the spot. I sighed, once again glanced around at the guards waiting in the wings: They weren't going to intervene, but they probably wouldn't let me leave. I stepped forward, because it would have been too humiliating to turn around and run the other way.

"Notes," the lecturer called, his voice loud in the hall and just below the echoes I heard the rustling of papers again. "This is a prime example of the [something] of adaptable growth. He is a primate, most probably of the same stock as African apes." He threw back the cover sheet on an easel to unveil a black and white drawing of an ape half-crouching on a branch with a dead bird clutched in one hand. Perhaps a chimpanzee? Maybe not, there were a few things that didn't look quite right. Whatever it was, the lecturer raised his stick and began ticking off features: the shape of the skull and jaw, the teeth, eyes, ears. Pens scratched as the Rris in the seats scribbled notes and I realised why this seemed so familiar.

A lecture hall: those were students.

And I was a glorified teaching aid. As the presentation continued the lecturer flipped the pages back, producing more sketches and close-ups of various portions of the ape's anatomy. I was the counterpoint, compared to show how elements had changed and refined. Inevitably, I was asked to remove my shirt, then my boots and socks, leaving me in my shorts which was as far as I was prepared to go. Perhaps he'd been warned about that: I wasn't asked to drop them.

Chitters rose from the audience when I removed my shirt, hastily stilled when the lecturer glared and then began using that pointer to keep a safe distance while he indicated spots of interest:

"You will note his legs are developed for a [bipedal? Upright?] stance. The bones are longer and straighter for supporting weight while muscle development is more [something] around this area. Feet are unusual in that the [something] bone is [grounded?], removing weight from the toes. You will notice the [similarity] with his fingers? In his case they've [something], obviously not as capable at grasping as his ancestor. From that we can [something] that at one point his kind might have used all four limbs before they began walking upright, in turn freeing their forehands for other tasks. Something I believe would have helped their development would be their lack of claws. It would [something] the development of tools for defense and. . ."

He went on, covering everything, slowly, steadily and thoroughly. Dull too, not only because I still couldn't understand a lot of what he was saying, but because he seemed to be one of those natural cures for insomnia. And when he reached the last illustration the other easel was uncovered. The parchments were filled with depictions and anatomical renderings of Rris and also parts of something I recognized. Rris had found bones, fragments of bones from long-dead creatures that bore disturbing resemblances to modern Rris. A Rris artist had incorporated photorealistic illustrations of the remains into his idea of what the original creature had looked like.

Slightly twisted, but it was a cat's skeleton, of course. The problem was that because of it's unsettling similarities with Rris, they'd tried to portray it in a bipedal stance. Now they were toying with the idea that it might have been a quadruped. With my interest piqued I stepped a bit closer, noticing the paper was rag mat: nice stuff too, with tiny flecks of fibers and wood giving it a character and enhancing the slightly bluish ink of the crosshatches. . .

"Hai," the lecturer snapped. I looked at him: standing there with arms crossed and tail twitching. If it had been anatomically possible for a Rris to tap his foot, he would have.

There were a few chitters from the gallery as I moved back to where he wanted me to stand and the lecture continued. This time comparing that fragment of the past with my ancestors, comparing modern Rris with their ancient cousin. Evolution, I realised somewhat belatedly. That was what he was discussing. And with me he had a walking, talking 'after' sample to prove it was possible for an animal to change over time, to become something more. It didn't surprise me too much that the Rris had taken to the evolution theory so readily. Creationism would have probably been puzzled over, then some very fundamental and basic questions would have been asked. The standard answers would - understandably - never hold water with Rris.

Evolution however, the seed of that concept was already being bantered around in academic circles before I appeared to add my two cents. Now it had not only acknowledgment that evolution was an accepted theory elsewhere, but something that was evidence species could change.

Still, that didn't do anything to make lecturers like that Rehichia any more interesting. I could see there were a fair number in the gallery with heads resting on their hands as they took notes, a lot of them watching me instead of the lecturer, and more than a few yawns. In fact, that set me off and there were a few muffled chitters before I could stifle it.

He never noticed, kept going on with a diatribe about the differences in Rris finger structure that were so full of physiological references that I couldn't understand. I turned slightly away and made a casually unobtrusive 'yak-yak' gesture with my hand. Apparently it was a universal gesture and drew a few chitters.

The lecturer - pondering on how climatic differences would affect growth of fur - never noticed.

Well, he went on: At length. I amused myself, and not a few of the audience, as best I could. He never saw the little gestures, and his flinching when he turned to find me peering over his shoulder was quite amusing.

Section 104

"Just what were you doing?" Kh'hitch growled, leaning forward on his desk to brandish the sheaves of paper at me, the parchment a yellowish-orange in the lamplight. "Skin me! I've read the guards' reports. Do you have the faintest idea what kind of trouble would sprout if Rehichia decided to lodge complaints?"

"He never even noticed," I shrugged.

"That's not the point. Rot it! You've got your [something], you know. There are people who disagree with your ideas, with what you're doing. They would feast on cub pranks like that!"

"Would they?" I asked.

"You think it doesn't matter?"

"I think that I haven't had much of a choice about what I do," I retorted.

He cocked his head, ears going back slightly, but there was that Rris stone-face lack of expression settling in. "You're unhappy about something?"

Unhappy. . . my jaw dropped, then I swallowed and took a breath. "Do you know. . . do you know what it is like to be a thing? To be on show? To be run around like I was an animal?! To be an exhibit in a goddamn zoo?!" I hissed, lapsing into English and the Advisor twitched back just a bit. I saw that flinch in his eyes, as he glanced past me at the door of his office. There were guards out there and if he felt threatened. . .

I unclenched my fists, took a breath and sagged. "I'm sorry. Sir, I'm very tired."

For several seconds he didn't budge, then: "Huhn." He tipped his head, but his expression didn't change. "That would explain a lot, but it doesn't excuse it. Mikah, it's dangerous for you. Can you understand that?"

I sighed quietly. "I understand that. I've been told it often enough, but it. . . does that mean the rest of my life will be like this?"

A pair of copper bracelets jangled as he moved his hands in a shrug. "That. . . I doubt anyone could tell you the answer to that. Things change, situations tack in their winds. For the most part, it's what you do that influences your course."

An unencouraging oblique answer. My heart sank a little lower and I didn't reply. I guess that silence reassured him a little; the Advisor settled back in his cushion and laced stubby fingers across his ample stomach. "It's something you should remember. For now, I think you should get some rest. We're anticipating the arrival of several important guests within the next few days. They've all expressed great interest in meeting you."

"Important?"

He made a sound that might have been a cough. "Their majesties from some neighboring lands. They all found occasion to take the trouble to journey here."

"Oh." That was all I said. Inside: oh, god. No more. . .

Section 105

The blades circled about the side of my neck, hesitated, then moved with a purpose. A few locks of hair fell and fingerpads brushed against my cheek as the Rris tipped my head, ran a comb through my hair and clipped away a few more strands. She cocked her head to study the result, flicked an ear, ran fingers through my hair to primp it into a new configuration. I think she was enjoying herself. Another somewhat frustrated attendant used a much finer brush in an attempt to smooth down the hair on my left arm, without much success. My right hand was taken by a Rris who started paring my nails down with a file. . . a goddamned manicure; or maybe they just wanted my nails at a length that couldn't hurt anyone.

I'd been washed, cleaned, trimmed and brushed, then doused with some liquid that might have been a Rris perfume but certainly wasn't appealing to me: it smelt vaguely like the lion's enclosure at a zoo. Was this how a Cruft's entry felt before the show?

Thankfully, I was allowed to wear my own clothes. I suppose Hirht had a reason for that: some psychological reason, some power-play. . . whatever it was, I wasn't complaining: Blue jeans and a loose white cotton shirt weren't Savoy Row, but they were still more comfortable than an outfit tailored by someone who wasn't familiar with human proportions. They'd also been scrupulously cleaned and I almost laughed at the thought, I hope they followed the washing instructions. . .

"Please, sir," the Rris trimming my beard quickly pulled the scissors away. "If you would be so good as not to move. . ."

I tried to be still while Rris hands moved sharp metal around my face. The previous night and early morning had been the culmination of three intensive days of cramming. My fatigue- fuzzed brain was packed with the facts and details that'd been drummed into me: kingdoms' and monarchs' names, especially the three visiting kings and queens from some of the closest neighboring kingdoms: Overburdened, Cover-my-Tail, and Bluebetter. I hoped that one would be less abrasive than his ambassador had been. There'd been detailed explanations about their staff, geography, populations, ports and cities and areas of production, imports and exports. . . I don't know why they wanted to cover so much extraneous stuff: I guess they didn't want me making any foolish mistakes that might reflect poorly on Land-of- Water.

And later that morning I was taken to meet the nobility.

A herald stalked the hall ahead of me. Nervous, I could see that. In the stiffness of his gait, the way his tail bottled slightly, his ears turned back slightly to catch the sound of my footsteps. Early afternoon sunlight was prismed by the crude glass in the windows, enough finding its way through to throw a glare off the marble floors, from the gleaming steel and lacquer carapaces of the royal guard squad pacing us. We followed a route that was familiar to me, through halls and down staircases to the ground floor and the bustling of Rris and the faint of sound of music.

Even in daylight, there were lamps burning everywhere. Gas flames flickered through crystal and glass. Gold and silver gleamed in the airy halls, huge portraits peering down from their perches at the Rris who walked the corridors below them. Gilt threads glittered in the weave of pennants and tapestries and high overhead gold-trimmed groin vault shouldered off the arches of a marble ceiling. Carved feline figures stretched out along the arches, intertwined with one another. That same hall I'd been ushered down on that disastrous formal dinner those months ago, it looked a lot different in the light of day.

And the Rris there. . .

Royal guards in their polished cuirasses and helmets stood at their posts along the halls. Not many of them, almost a part of the backdrop as they stood with polearms at port. Palace staff were equally unobtrusive as they lurked on the sidelines, always ready when any of the dignitaries needed a merest whim granted.

Ah, the nobility. Not so many of them, but by sheer dint of presence they seemed to fill the hall, doing best to overshadow one another. As my escort led me down the hall to the huge doors at the far end we passed several knots of these Rris and their entourages. Eyes turned to stare at me, amounts of cloth Rris would never normally wear swirling and shifting. Not as much a human dandy might drape themselves in, but what they wore was gaudy, outfits intended to make the wearer stand out: brilliant hues, colors like scarlet and emerald green, were predominant.

I saw a female with nothing but loose strips of silver-filigreed red satin hanging from her shoulders to her hips and belted at the waist; red streaks painted in the fur of her forehead. A companion decked in a tooled vest of stiff black leather with bloused white sleeves that went to his elbows while a heavily carved leather panel hung from his belt as far as his knees. Another hung down his back, with - I reasoned - a slot in it for his tail. Huhn, try sitting down in that getup.

The music was louder as we neared the closed doors, louder and with an underlying hissing of Rris conversation. The guards posted there had feathers in their polished steel helmets, apparently from some now-denuded bird that had once been very big and a fire-engine shade of red. The cutlery on the end of their pole-arms flashed as they snapped to attention when the herald approached, then simultaneously opened the doors and I didn't have any choice but to enter.

Conversation faded but the music played on.

The hall was different in the daylight, much lighter and seemingly much larger. The drapes that'd covered the western wall were spread, the ceiling-high French windows behind them open to the world beyond. A cooling breeze meandered under the high ceiling, teasing the fronds of high plant arrangements around the perimeter of the room. Planters overflowing with intricately arranged flora stood to each side of the doorway, arches of fern leaves and foxtails framing a room of Rris nobles who - individually and in groups - turned their eyes my way.

That tension in my guts, my muscles tightening and twitching. . .

The herald glanced at me, a look that was as nervous and as fleeting as the deer in the gardens. "Sir. . . this way."

I followed. My feet followed. Rris parted to either side and a muted chatter went up behind my back as the crowd closed behind me. Not a solid mass but small knots and congregations, clusters orbiting and mingling while eyes darted my way. A few hundred individuals, groups scattered around the big room. Color and light, sunlight on fur of all colors: natural and dyed. Red streaks in sienna fur above suspicious eyes; a tie-dyed effect with pastel tones on a dainty female's arms; curlicues shaved into chest fur and lined with russet and gold. The clothes were costumes, were statements of affluence: silver chain mail so fine it resembled cloth, velvet tunics; filigree wound through pointed ears so the flesh resembled the traceries of a circuit board; a female with a technicolor harness cut to allow her six nipples - painted scarlet for some reason - to protrude.

A masquerade, I thought as the inhuman moved around me. A tiny part of me kept expecting the guests to take the masks off. Music drifted above the sibilants of Rris speech. Over the crowd I could see the musicians on their podium in their corner playing a mixture of strings and soft percussion. No wind instruments. It was the first time I'd heard Rris music: an eerie sound I felt, the time and pitch skewed in odd ways. And the tune was familiar. I realised with a shock dulled by the confusion around me that it was the Blue Danube.

"I'd wondered if you'd notice," said a voice. Hirht was watching me from the edge of that circle of clear floor that seemed to follow me around the room. Other Rris were gathered around him, gazing at me in fascination. "An. . . unusual sound to say the least," the king mused.

"It is a matter of personal taste, I think," I said carefully. Rris ears pricked up.

"As you said," another noble said to Hirht, "an [uncouth?] accent, but comprehensible. Mikah, was it?"

"A. That's about as close as anyone can get," Hirht smiled. "Khostyia, this is Mikah. Mikah, may I present Khostyia ah Myri."

"Sir," I bowed slightly, the facts ticking over in my head: Khostyia ah Myri, king of Overburdened, the land to the North of Land-of-Water. Lighter Skies was the capital, an economy based around seaports on the coast and lumber on the lake networks.

"So, this is the one who's been making the waves," the Rris mused, staring at me as he stroked a fingerpad down the leather trim of his red velvet tunic. "He's not quite what I was expecting. A kind of ape, I was told."

I felt my jaw tighten. "Distantly related," I said.

"Ah," he mused and continued to scrutinize me while curious Rris milled around. "Most unusual, Hirht. And some of the other things I've heard about him?"

"Can be discussed later," Hirht smiled.

"Of course." His head bobbed, sending his cheek tufts and mane swaying. "So, why did you come here, Mikah?"

I shrugged. "I really have no idea. I don't know why I'm here, I don't know how I came here. I was. . . home, then I was here."

"It was an accident?" Khostyia looked surprised.

"Yes."

"Huhn. That's common where you come from?"

"I've never heard of it happening before."

The music changed and turned to something I'd never heard before; probably no human had ever heard it before. I assumed the off-key scales were real Rris music. I also realised it would take me some time to grow used to it, let along appreciate it. I walked with the kings of Land-of-Water and Overburdened while they talked and asked me questions and a swarm of their aides and hangers-on and sycophants orbited around. I was startled to see a pair of Rris wearing breeches that looked familiar; right down to the stitching, the rivets and the leather patch over the back pocket. The nobles drifted through the crowd, towing me along with them as we talked. I answered the questions and the smalltalk for some time before Hirht told me that we'd talk later and gave me a duck of his head that seemed to say 'behave' as he and Khostyia left to circulate.

I stood there as they vanished into the knots of Rris who moved around to stare at me. When I did move there was an island of clear floor that followed me around the room. I wandered for a while, catching the occasional words from conversations going on around me: friendly talk, business talk, promises made and indignation over broken ones. Nothing I really understood. There was food on a table: a spread of all manners of delicacies from small pastries to drumsticks and fragile crystal glasses. I took one up and tried it: wine. I drank and grimaced at the tartness, the tang of spice, but it helped settle my stomach. I took another glass and headed toward the open doors to the outside.

Socializing guests were gathered in the sunshine on a marble verandah, drinking and talking. A sweeping staircase led down to calf-high golden grass rippling gently in the warm breeze under a clear sky, a few scattered guests sitting relaxing in the grass in a way that wouldn't be seemly in a diplomatic function back home. And as I was about to step through the doors someone said, "Sir," and the haft of a halberd came down before me like the arm of a toll-booth.

"Apologies, sir," the guard told me. "You can't go out there."

"What?" I asked stupidly.

The guard ducked its head, but the pole-arm didn't waver. "I can't let you go outside, sir."

"Why?"

"Orders, sir."

"Sir, it would be better if you didn't," one of my own guards told me. I looked around: all my own guards were a bit closer and I wondered again if they were there for my protection or as my leash. I sighed and flicked the wooden haft of the halberd with a finger. The guard snatched it back and looked annoyed and I just turned my back and headed back into the crowd.

Rris eyes watched me. Nobody I could recognize, not immediately. Eyes ran over me as Rris came close to stare then moved away again. As I headed back toward the food a Rris - female, by her hips - came a bit closer than others and I was startled by her facial fur: completely gone around her eyes, cheeks and nose baring the grayish skin in an unsettling parody of my own face. Shocking green eyes met mine. She smiled and faded back into the crowd.

I blinked, did a double-take, but she'd been lost in the swirl of bodies. What was. . .

"Unusual fashion, isn't it?" Kh'hitch ambled up to my side, a wine glass in his own hand. "Can't see the attraction in it myself."

"I don't think it would suit you," I assured him.

He looked at me, eyes narrowed, then he snorted. "I never had any intention of trying it." He dipped his head and his tongue flickered as he sipped from his glass, then regarded me thoughtfully. "How are you coping?"

Did he think I was going to go berserk? Run amok? "I will manage."

"Huhnn," his eyes flickered, glanced past me. I turned to meet more Rris nobility: the Cover-My-Tail ambassador Mrethi'k, his aides in attendance, and another elegantly attired female watching me with interest.

"Advisor," the Cover-My-Tail ambassador greeted Kh'hitch. Then, "Mikah."

"Ambassador," Kh'hitch greeted him, then turned to bow to the Rris at the ambassador's side. "Ma'am. It is a pleasure to be your host. Everything is to your satisfaction?"

"Quite. It's been a long time since I've been to Shattered Water. I see there've been a few changes." Disquieting amber eyes studied me intently, watching my face, "Not the least of which is this."

"Mikah, Ma'am," Kh'hitch provided.

"Huhn. . . Mikah. You do stand out in a crowd, don't you. Is half of what I've been hearing about you true?"

"That would depend on what you've been hearing," I said.

Her ears flicked back, "Well, that part at least is true. Not a Rris/ person. What was it that you're called?"

"A human," I said.

"That noise, yes." The eyes wandered, unabashedly looking me up and down. Expensive clothes of fine white cotton and olive suede, with expensive metal in the jewelry threaded through her ears, on the circlets through the van-dyke brown fur of her arms. A silver-inlaid knife was sheathed at her left hip. One of the visiting monarchs I wondered? One of the trio of visiting lords was a female, so that was quite probable. The eyes noticed my glass. "You drink wine?" she seemed surprised.

"Only to excess."

She looked a bit startled. "I think that was a joke, Lady H'risnth," Kh'hitch provided. "He has an. . . unusual sense of humor."

"I hadn't expected him to have any at all," she replied. Lady H'risnth. . . she was a monarch. The Queen of Cover-My-Tail I remembered. She was younger than I'd expected, younger than Hirht, even though I wasn't sure exactly how old he was. Cover- My-Tail was a nation on friendly terms with Land-of-Water, but even so, Kh'hitch had his poker-face on again as Lady H'risnth studied me and cocked her head: "And I hadn't expected him to be a [something]."

I blinked and looked to Kh'hitch, but he didn't provide a translation.

"Is there any [something] you favor," she was asking me.

"Ma'am? I'm sorry, I didn't understand that word: chikeae'ch?"

"He hasn't completely got his grip on our language," Kh'hitch explained. "Mikah, chikeae'ch: it means someone who appreciates quality for what it is. Someone who enjoys the best of something. You understand that?"

"I think so. Connoisseur."

"You know that kind of person?" the Lady asked, a touch of susprise widening her eyes.

"Yes. My kind has them too."

"Ah," She glanced at her ambassador. "And is there a particular wine you favor?"

It wasn't what I'd expected: a day discussing Rris wines and vineyards. . . "I'm afraid I haven't had much experience with your wines."

"You like them? the one's you've tried?"

I rolled my glass between my finger, the dregs swilling around. "Oh, yes. My kind don't usually spice wine though."

She was interested in that and for a while the conversation centered around wine-making: the methods and differences. No, I'm not a vintner, but I'd done some work - brochures and illustrations - for a vineyard out in the Finger Lake districts once and I'd learned a lot about their techniques. Not gospel for the entire industry, each winery has its own tricks and secrets, but it was enough to give me some insights into how the process worked.

I have to say I was actually beginning to enjoy myself. The Lady asked questions as they all did, but she did it in an easy, conversational sort of way. I found myself liking her as we walked and talked, ambling back to the table for a couple more glasses. Behind us my guards and H'risnth's entourage tailed along, Kh'hitch engaged in a subdued exchange with the ambassador. We talked about wines, the differences in our tastes. She recommended some of the older vintages from grape-growing regions of the Swampy River valley areas in Cover-My-Tail, even offered to have a few bottles sent over from the embassy.

"Most generous, but I think you might have to ask my hosts about that," I said.

"Oh. They wouldn't approve?"

I lightly dipped my finger in the remains of my wine and ran it around the rim of the glass. Several Rris turned their heads at the clear tone that produced. "I think they're a bit. . . over- protective," I said.

"Huhn. . ." she breathed, then stood a bit straighter with her ears going up as more Rris nobility materialized out of the throng. It was getting crowded in that crowd: I felt like a target with the arrows that were the nobles' entourages centering on me. I recognized the Bluebetter ambassador among that pack of newcomers, so the larger Rris at his side would probably be Chita ah Thes'ita, king of Bluebetter.

Big guy for a Rris, probably wasn't used to looking up at people. The top of his head came up to a bit above my chin, the tufts of his ring-bedecked ears another eight centimeters above that. His clothes were fine purple cotton and velvet, hanging loosely and more for decoration than practical reasons in the warmth. He gave me a once over with his head cocked, then spoke to Lady H'risnth, "Obviously, you've already met. Is this guest of the Water Landers everything I've heard?"

She smiled, "He seems quite civilized."

Chita's ears twitched in a gesture that could be loosely construed as a raised eyebrow. "Huhn? Really?"

"Sir, this is Mikah. Mikah, this is his majesty Chita ah Thes'its. I'm sure your hosts have told you everything you ever wanted to know about his kingdom."

Maybe it was the wine, or perhaps just her laid-back manner. I wasn't thinking when I stepped forward and smiled broadly.

I saw the armed guards moving, just as blurs before it felt like I was hit by sandbags, the world spun and knocked the breath out of me and I don't remember the crack when the back of my head hit the floor.

Sprawled on my back on something hard. Noise all around, someone shouting my name. Something was shaking me and with each movement the pain in the back of my head set off surges of nausea. Opened my eyes to a blurred world of light and milling shapes.

"Sir!" Blinked and it was cat in a tin helmet crouching over me. Blinked again and it was a Rris guard patting my face. The hand was yanked away when I moved my head and winced up at foreshortened circle of Rris hanging over me, Kh'hitch and other nobles staring down at me. The noise wasn't the blood in my head: there were raised voices in the background, arguments. "Sir?!" the Guard said again.

"I'm okay," I mumbled in English. "I'm all right." The world swam when I sat up and the muttering went up a notch. I touched the back of my head and winced: a lump that felt like it was the size of a goose's egg and a trace of blood on my fingertips. There was shattered glass and spilt wine on the floor. All I'd done was smile. . .

"Can you walk?" Kh'hitch leaned over me, his face impassive.

"Yeah. . . Of course I can. . ."

I got partway up, then my legs decided to turn to jello. Kh'hitch snapped something to the guards, they crouched to catch my arms and helped me to my feet, then hooked my arms around their shoulders and tried to half-carry me out. I saw Hirht, the other monarchs watching me with wide eyes, hundreds of other Rris faces watching intently: whispering and murmuring. It was too humiliating: I shrugged the guards off and made my unsteady way to the doors.

Section 106

"Pestilence take you! What were you thinking?!" Kh'hitch snarled in my face. "Showing your teeth to a lord like that. . . were you trying to get yourself killed? Maybe start a war? Of all the rot- brained things you could do!" He spat, a drop-jawed hissing in my face then spun to stalk off across my quarters, only to round on me again. "You've been warned about that. Many times, yet you still. . ." He just broke off and snarled again.

"It's not something I can help," I said quietly. My head was still throbbing, but nothing seemed broken. I couldn't feel anger. In fact, I wasn't feeling much of anything: just smiling, just that act could. . .

"Nothing you can help," he rumbled, then exploded again: "What were you thinking?!"

"I was trying to be friendly."

"Friendly!" Was there an echo in there? "By showing your teeth?"

"How else am I supposed to smile?" I asked dully.

"You. . ." he stopped and I saw his eyes flicker across my face, my ears. No, a Rris smile was impossible for me. "You can keep your teeth politely covered," he finished.

After the reaming out, after Kh'hitch had stalked out and slammed the door behind him, I sat on the edge of my bed, put my pounding skull in my hands and squeezed my eyes tightly closed. I ached, the pulsing in my head mixed with nervous exhaustion. I sighed and looked around, to where the Rris on my walls were staring back, judging me.

"So, what do I do?" I asked.

They didn't bother to reply. I rubbed my eyes. A bath; I needed a bath.

I started the water running and just stood there, staring at the broad stream of water as it fell on its journey from the sluice to the bottom of the tub. Swirling water, bubbles and undercurrents. . . Only when it started slopping into the overflow did I blink back to awareness and shut it off. Back in the other room I stripped off, left my clothes in an untidy pile on the floor and picked up the glass and pitcher of drinking water.

Not wine, but then I wasn't really tasting it much.

I sat in the bath for hours. Afternoon light coming in through the leaded glass of the small bathroom window made a tic- tac-toe pattern of shadows and sunlight on the pale cream wall, the brilliance hurting my eyes. I drank, sat with glass in hand and arm along the rim of the tub.

Just smiling. It almost got me killed. A gesture that my instincts told me meant friend, something I grown up knowing to be an innocent gesture, now it was hostility to souls that'd never known my learning.

A life of that. A life of wearing a mask to hide what I was. The rest of my life. A life of these rooms, this routine; Day in and day out. A life of things that wouldn't see me as a person. A life of those looks and those reactions. A life of guarding my every motion, my every expression and movement. The thoughts ran through my mind but never really hit anything. If the emotions were there they weren't firing, just hid in that empty place deep inside. Jackie? Where were you? What had I done to deserve this? If I could see your smile just once again. . .

Just a smile. . .

I never felt the glass when it shattered in my clenched fist. I didn't feel the cuts but when I looked at my hand there were dribbles of blood from the slash on my index finger, the other on my palm.

The sunlight was warm, bright.

The piece of glass was big enough to hold easily between thumb and forefinger, a curved piece with an edge that fuzzed out of vision.

"Chihirae, I'm so sorry. . ." just a whisper.

Sharp enough that it cut deep when I slashed hard across my left wrist. It hurt, a sudden and brief rage of pain up my arm that slowly faded to a dull pulsing in the warmth of the water. The shard of glass vanished into the depths of the bath: a final glitter spiraling and flipping down into the ribbons of pink, the cloud of red that spread and embraced me.

I watched the sunlight for a long time. So bright it brought tears to my eyes. Moving so slowly. . .

Section 107

Noises. Stabs of pain across my shoulders as I was grabbed and lifted and dragged onto a cold surface turned slick by splashed water. I was muzzily aware of Rris guards frantically moving around me, the tiles of the bathroom floor smeared with red; soaked, as were their hands. I tried a vague movement but they held me down and I felt a remote amusement at the fear in their eyes.

Something was around my arm, pulling tighter and tighter. The limb hurt for a while, then feeling ebbed to a wooden numbness. Again I tried to move. There were more voices. Bespattered guards, their polished armor no longer immaculate, held me still and I could feel their claws. More Rris, doing something with my arm and all the sensations seemed so remote, then hands sat me up suddenly and the world washed out of my vision.

Blinked. . .

Up at a ceiling moving past, a lurching motion. I couldn't move.

Another blank in my memories. . .

Up at a Rris holding me down, wide amber eyes staring into my own. There was pain in my arm, a Rris doing something with sharp metal and I tried to tell them to stop but staying awake was impossible, even with that roaring in my ears.

Section 108

Bright light.

Autumn leaves crackled under my feet. Step by step.

The forest thinned, the farmyard opening out before me. Silent, motionless. Buildings loomed to either side, gray and dilapidated, with a dead and washed-out feel about them, the barn ahead of me. The doors were wooden slats, the grain bleached and warped by weather and time, the cracks between boards blacker than they had any right to be.

Another step and they swung open. The figure in the darkness: glaring eyes, jaw dropped in a snarl and the arm with the greenstone bracelet came up, the bore of the gun huge . . .

No!

A flash of bright light.

A room I knew. I'd been through high school here. The scratched and peeling cream and white glossy paint on plastered walls. There were the desks in their rows, the high arched windows across the far side of the room, the cords hanging down from the smaller fanlights set above them that'd been painted closed years ago. One of the windows hung open, the sounds of children drifting up from the yard a floor below. Looking out I could see them, but they couldn't hear me, even when I shouted.

"Don't do anything foolish," said a voice. It was English, impossibly English, but I knew the voice.

She was out of place there, sitting at the teacher's desk in front of the chalkboards. Fur glowed golden in the light, her head cocked slightly to one side. "Chihirae," I said, not feeling surprise at the anachronisms.

Muscles shifted as she shrugged: a human shrug. "You keep surprising me. What were trying to do?"

"I don't want to."

"Want to what, Mikah? You promised."

"I'm sorry," said in a small voice.

She cocked her head. "It's not going to be easy."

I sat. That the chair and desk were too small for my frame didn't seem to make any difference. There were words and shapes carved into the formica: things I couldn't read, but I still knew what they were. "It isn't fair."

"That's what you expect? Fairness?"

"I miss you."

"Ah," there was that look, that one I remembered so well. She was wearing glasses now and her mouth was twisted in a smile impossible for Rris. "The world is there for you to make choices. I know you'll have to make some hard ones."

"You don't have many choices," Shyia said, his black coat a shadow moving across the room. The old door rattled as it closed behind him.

Jackie was watching me, her short hair hanging in artful disarray over one eye as she regarded me reproachfully. "Michael? Why did you leave?"

I wanted to cry. I tried to tell her, but she also got up and left.

Chihirae was polishing her spectacles, slowly and carefully. The metal and glass flashing as she turned them over in her hands. "It's all right, Mikah. It's only a dream."

"I want to stay here."

She looked slightly reproachful, as she had when I kept forgetting my grammar. "You know you can't."

"Chihirae. . ."

And the world blurred to a white light. She was still there, a shape moving in the dazzling brilliance.

"Mikah." I was aware that hands were touching me, sheets bundled underneath me. Something brushed across my face and I cracked my eyes to bright light and silhouettes. A figure leaned over my bed. "I think he's awake."

"Mikah?" I recognized the Rris.

"No," I tried to say.

"What? Can you hear me?" Hirht asked. "Mikah, what happened?"

I was tired, my left arm ached abominably. There were Rris surrounding me, looking down on me as I lay there. The king of Land-of-Water, doctors. Sun was streaming in through the windows, dust motes dancing and spiraling in the light that hurt my eyes. With effort I raised my left arm to see the splint and bandages swaddling my hand and wrist. White strips of gauze, pads of cotton and the faint dusting of sulfur.

I grabbed at them, trying to tear them away, trying to rip the sutures away, trying to escape.

Alien voices howled and hands grabbed me to pin me back to the bed. I screamed and tried to fight, crying in frustration while doctors frantically fussed around me, shouting noises that echoed through my head. Panting sobs, exhausted, my vision spinning and the room lost in the roaring noise and onrushing blackness.

Section 109

They wouldn't let me go.

The doctors were always there, watching me every hour of the day. The straps were padded and quite secure; I only fought them for a short time before I learned it wasn't worth it. There wasn't any point: they couldn't stop me going back to that place inside where I didn't have to face this world. I could hide there, ignore the hell that life had become. I could see Jackie again, people I'd lost.

Why go on? Why go back? Something inside me knew what would be waiting and that spark just didn't rekindle. I knew I was dying, and I just didn't care.

I didn't eat, refused all food; fought when they tried to force it into me. I guess they managed enough to keep my body going, but I know I had no wish to continue.

It's that wish that makes life possible. Without it. . . I lay still while all around the transient Rris came and went, watching the light come and go and waiting for it to fade one last time.

Section 110

Opened my eyes and there was something different. Different enough to draw a flicker of interest.

I lay still for a while, just trying to figure out what it was. The light, the way the shadows were moving.

A breeze blowing through the room, cool against my bare skin and hot sheets.

My neck ached when I lolled my head around. Sunlight was streaming in through the open windows, the curtains dancing and fluttering in the cooling breeze that brought with it the scents of water and trees and dusty grass. I could hear faint sounds of Rris, but louder were the rustlings of wind in branches, cicadas and birdsong.

The windows were open? Where were the bars? My dull confusion was compounded when I realised the straps were gone. I was lying on my bed, a light cotton sheet draped over my hips and legs. I raised the dead weight of my arms, the mitten of gauze and cotton on my left hand and wrist.

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't try that," a voice said. "I don't particularly want to die."

A strange Rris was settled in the sunlight washing over the desk, relaxed in the cushion and watching me with lazy eyes. I stared and lowered my hands: something in the Rris's words didn't ring right.

The Rris watched me quietly, calmly.

"You. . . don't want to die?" My throat hurt, my voice rasped and my Rris sounded worse than ever.

"Ah," an ear flickered and the Rris waved a hand: a languid and flowing gesture. "You die, I die. Do you want a drink?"

"Drink," I blinked in confusion, trying to think things through as the Rris stood and fetched a glass, filled it with water from a pitcher. It. . . she, I saw when she turned my way, a pair of loose-fitting breeches belted low at her waist. "What. . . what you mean?"

The mattress shifted when she sat, scooting up beside me. I dully realised I was naked and she was a stranger and I really didn't care. "Here, can you sit up. . . ah." A furry arm went under my head to help hold me up. I gasped at aches and stiff muscles and she stopped, just holding me, then slowly raising the glass. "Here, it'll help. Just slowly, just a sip."

I was running on automatic, just doing as she suggested, and the water was good on my parched lips.

"Well, Mikah," she said when she took the glass away, "If you die, then I will be killed."

"I don't understand," I said in a small voice.

She looked down at me and smiled slightly, then lifted the glass and I drank again. "It was their terms for letting me talk with you."

"Who. . . are you?"

"You don't remember?" Her breath gusted and she started to wave a hand in an aborted gesture, brought it back to tap on the rim of the glass. "You weren't in such good shape that night, either. You'd just been swimming in the river."

I remembered, dredging through the murk for the nuggets of memory: the grey and tawny fur, the face sitting across the table from me, those same eyes glancing up from their work to study me. "Maytris?" I ventured.

"Huhn. Close," her ears twitched. "Maithris."

And I stared. "Why're you here?"

She let me lie back and glanced down at the glass cupped in her hands, the fur of her fingers matted down by the condensation beading on the outside, then smiled. "I heard you weren't so well. I came to see how you're doing. You've got a nice place here, you know." She looked around. "Just one thing I've been wondering about though."

I bit. "What?"

She gestured at the paintings staring down from the wall, "Who are they?"

Who. . . I blinked stupidly at her. "I don't know."

"Oh," she cocked her head thoughtfully. "There might be some interesting stories behind them. That fellow, he might be related to the Liaison, you know:" she poked her flat belly and patted it. "Same build, huhn?"

I found myself smiling at that, and her ears twitched, then she reached over and without a qualm gently ruffled my hair. "Might be interesting to find out, huh?"

Section 111

What the hell was going on?

I gingerly sat down in the window alcove seat, panting hard and light-headed from my short journey across the room. The bars had gone, the cool morning breeze coming in through the open windows and brushing across the hairs on my skin made the effort worth it. No sun yet: my room wouldn't get that until the afternoon, but I settled, let the sheet drop down from my shoulder and leaned back to stared into the crystal blue of a June sky while the stridulation of cicadas in the palace grounds was carried on the wind. My wrist ached distantly as I cradled the bandages and splints on my lap: less than nothing compared with other pain I'd been through.

Maithris. What was she doing here? From what I'd gathered she was a not-too-well-off everyday town doctor who couldn't afford gauze bandages. The king of Land-of-Water had the pick of the cream of the crop; he could choose from the best, so why use her? Had she been responsible for getting rid of the restraints? Getting the bars removed from my windows? How had she got the leverage to arrange that?

A scratching at the door and a polite pause before it opened. Maithris, trying to balance a covered tray on one hand and close the door with the other. "Morning and waking," she greeted me cheerily. I watched quietly, warily, while she set the tray down on the desk, then squatted with her hands dangling between her knees and smiled at me. "Ah, walking around already? A pleasant day, isn't it?"

"Who are you?' I whispered.

She looked a bit taken aback. "Mikah? I'm Maithris. You remember? You asked yesterday. . ."

"No." I shook my head slowly. "No. They value me too much. They've never let me speak to anyone. I've been kept behind guards and soldiers and walls and bars." I looked back at the open windows. "How can you change it like that? Who are you."

She tipped her head quizzically. "I'm just a doctor. I heard you were ill; I offered to help."

"Why?"

Her ears flickered and she smiled again. "I like you."

My turn to be taken aback. I stared, then said, "Maithris. When Rris see me, they don't like me. I can see the thoughts when they first lay eyes on me, and those thoughts aren't nice ones."

Now she leaned forward a bit. "I didn't just see you, I talked to you. I saw you after you'd saved that guard's life; a life which by all rights he should have given to save YOU. I've heard some of your story, of what's happened to you and I know that somewhere there's a woman who's come to see you for what you really are. You may not be my mind's ideal picture of the handsome male in my life, but that skull of yours harbors something more than an animal's mind. Besides, you have quite beautiful fur. Now, maybe you feel like some food?" With a flourish she lifted the cover from the tray.

I was floundering, not sure what to say now. She came over to sit beside me on the window seat and persuaded me to try a bit of this, some of that: soup, some light meat pastries. I'd eaten them before I knew what I was doing.

"You do have some appetite," she observed, a flicker of amusement touching her face and ears. Then she stood to set the dish with its few remaining crumbs back on the tray. "Pretty good fare you're getting here. It's to your liking?"

"Yes," I said and looked out the window, then glanced back at her. "How did you hear about. . . me? I mean, I'm sure Hirht didn't spread it all over town."

She snorted. "They came to me. I think they were desperate. I already knew about you, so there wasn't much to lose, was there?"

I made a small sound of affirmation and she scratched her chin, then smiled. "Well , why don't you get some rest, ah?"

Probably good advice. While she picked up the remains of the meal I leaned back, just listening to the sounds of the world outside. I only intended to close my eyes for a second.

Someone woke me.

A Rris hand gently touched me, just enough to wake me into muzzy consciousness. The light was low, late-afternoon gold on the trees and washing in through the windows; warm against my skin while the air was cooling. I was aware, made a feeble grab for the sheet and missed, when furry bodies took my arms and half- carried me back to bed.

Section 112

Faces surrounding. A glittering of breath in the darkness; rushing of light through trees while masks and masquerades whirled around and around; the dazzling of sun and snow, whiteness and the trees was the glitter and diamond light of a ballroom. Grotequeries whirled, pirouetted, drifting laughter hidden behind masks of silver and platinum. Darker shapes moved behind the scenes: wolf-lean flashes of soul black among pristine brilliance, the terror that kept me moving while figures danced and drifted around me, hemming, herding. Darkness flitted, orbiting at the edges of vision. Laughter rose and the lean predator shape erupted from the brilliance, gaping maw darker than coal and swallowing the world, ivory fangs raking and biting deep. . .

Yanking me from sleep screaming and clawing at the ache deep in the muscle of my ruined cheek. Stabs of pain spasming my face up into a rictus of pain and terror while the memories of snarling hatred sank back to the depths and hands caught me, pressing my hands down, protecting the bandages. "Mikah! It was a dream. Mikah? It's all right. . . It's all right. . ."

A hand stroked my hair and the voice murmured reassurances. In the darkness and confusion I just clutched, feeling fur under my hands. A movement, then arms went around me and held me close, in familiar warmth.

"Chihirae," I choked.

Sharp claws stroked through my hair and a low voice purred something incomprehensible. I just held on and shook, until there was nothing left and sleep came again to wrap dark wings around me.

Section 113

Woke with a start in a tangle of sheets.

Morning light was seeping past the drapes. The still feeling of early morning: a coolness in the air, a taste of green. I was alone in the room, but I distinctly remembered. . .

A hasty check of the sheets brought up a few tufts of light tawny fur. I held the strands up, then shook my head, sighed and rubbed my eyes. So, there had been someone there last night. Who? The guards had grown accustomed to my nightmares; they didn't always come running when I woke in the night. They certainly didn't climb into bed to hold me until I calmed.

The dizziness wasn't as bad when I stood this time. I still had to briefly lay a hand against the wall to steady myself, but the room didn't reel as badly as it had the last times I'd roused myself. I fumbled for shorts and found them where I usually kept them in the drawer under the bed. Getting into them wasn't easy, but after a couple of teetering attempts I managed it.

Beyond the curtains and the windows it was another crystal morning. A thin curtain of mist was burning from the fields and around the trees in the palace grounds. A V of geese crossed the sky, then another, and another. . . Thousands of them in an airborne caravan that couldn't have existed back home. I could have joined them, opened the windows and gone.

Gone into a world where I was the only one of my kind. I'd simply be escaping from one cage to a much larger one. But outside there was room to run. There were those hills and forests that stretched as far as the eyes could see; lands where a single person could loose themselves completely and utterly.

A land where the inhabitants would do their utmost to find me again. I remembered and shuddered. . . flashbacks to the nightmares that still plagued me: being hunted by Rris; it wasn't an experience I wanted to repeat.

I pushed away from the open window, went to use the toilet. The bathroom had been cleaned up; there was no way to tell what had happened there. I stood for a few seconds, staring at the tub, then went about my business.

When I came out Maithris was sitting on the bed, waiting with a covered breakfast tray on the sheets beside her. The expression on her face flickered and settled into a smile almost immediately, but I was sure there'd been something else there.

"Morning and waking," she cheerfully greeted me. "I didn't expect you to be up and about so early."

"I didn't much feel like sleeping."

"Ah. You had a restless night."

She knew? I stared, then looked away: embarrassed. "That was you? I mean, last night."

"A." She didn't take her eyes off me.

"Oh," I shifted awkwardly, clenched and unclenched my fingers. Grabbing out in the dark like that, desperate for someone to hold to. . . What had I been thinking? What was she thinking? "I'm sorry. I didn't know. . . I thought. . ."

Her ears twitched. "Don't worry. I know. You needed it."

Still, I sagged. She'd held me, comforted me. . . "Thank you," I whispered.

Maithris raised a hand, "Don't. You needed it." She smiled and hooked a finger under the handle of the silver tray cover. "As you need this. Try the quail pastries: they're excellent."

I carefully sat beside her and she laughed when I awkwardly glanced at her. "Go on. And afterwards, if you're feeling up to it, I've got something to show you. No, I'm not telling you now, just finish that."

Curiosity got the better of me.

Maithris watched while I ate. Sitting there with one leg up, hugging knee to chest. Calm. Relaxed, and as best I could tell it wasn't an act. Her tail was still as a piece of hairy rope, her ears lazily twitching at odd sounds. I couldn't figure her.

Later, she offered to help me dress. I shrugged her off and she just stepped back, took a seat and watched me. When I put my boots on she had to ask, "Why do you need those?"

"I don't have pads like you do."

"Ah. Your kind have always worn things like that? I mean, what do you do if there just aren't any?"

"The bottom of my feet can get tougher. Like your pads. But it takes a while and is quite uncomfortable."

"Ah."

I tightened the laces. A wave of giddiness spun the room when I sat up again and when it settled again Maithris was on her feet, "I'm okay," I held out my hand to ward her off. "I'm fine."

She stopped, but still looked concerned. "You're sure? You. . . your skin is pale."

"I'm sure. Just sat up too fast. I'm fine."

For a few seconds she studied my face, then ducked her head. "If you say so. Now, you feel like a walk?"

She held the door open for me. Outside, nothing had changed: there were four guards on duty in the hall, standing at attention with armor and accoutrements polished to a mirror finish. Maithris strolled beside me as we started off, just ambling and we were a few steps down the hall before I realised the guards weren't following.

"Why should they?" Maithris said offhandedly. " It's not as if you were going for a stroll in the Cracks with a sack of gold. The Palace is full of soldiers after all."

A doctor? A doctor who could rescind Royal Guards' orders? I didn't understand.

But it was a change to be able to walk without a retinue, a change to be able to set my own pace. Maithris didn't rush anywhere, just strolled at my side and gave me time to look out the windows, have a closer look at some of the furnishings and decorations. Some of the carvings were beautiful, the wooden sculptures done with a finesse and sensitivity toward the wood grain that made figurines of Rris come to life, eagles soar. Others were. . . odd. Maybe abstract lines that might have been pleasing to Rris eyes, but weren't very appealing to mine. Or maybe they were meant to come across as harsh and discordant.

Maithris and I took our time, wandering through halls and chambers trimmed with gold leaf, floored with veined marble. Rooms with velvet carpets and drapes, hand-carved panelling and scotia. Nobles and legions of servants, the occasional guard went about their business. When a young Rris passed us going the other way, brushing the wall as it detoured widely, I could hear claws spattering on the marble.

"You have places like this where you come from?" Maithris asked me.

"Like this?" I ventured, not quite sure what she meant.

"Here," her hands closed in a gesture embracing our surroundings: "The Palace."

"Not palaces. Not in my country. We've never had monarchs."

"What?"

I looked up a wooden bas-relief carving depicting a group of Rris standing in a river with nets in their hands. "My country is quite young compared with others. We use a. . . different system of government. Older lands have had them; some still have them. They have palaces like this."

"Ah," she breathed, as if that explained everything. If she had more questions she kept them to herself.

We were on the second floor in the outer northern wing of the palace when we reached a closed door: a ceiling-high narrow thing of paneled wood with a carved strip across it at what be average eye-height for a Rris: tiny engravings of Rris felling trees, dragging logs, shearing animals, mining, going on to Rris in workshops and at workbenches, grinding and mixing. The final panel was a larger Rris at an easel. Maithris laid her paw on the handle and said, "I just thought this might be of interest to you."

The door opened on a long hall. Two stories high, with a balustraded gallery overlooking the floor we were on. High above, the ceiling was peaked. Skylights threw wells of illumination down through the still air into the hall, spotlighting the black and white tiled floor. Paintings hung from the walls on both sides of the hall; hundreds of them framing the silence.

My boots were almost inaudible on the tiles when I went in. Maithris followed with the insect-like tik-tik of partially retracted claws on ceramic.

Old pictures, I was sure of that. Maybe not as old as they seemed: the atmosphere in that hall wouldn't have helped their aging any, but they still had a history. I looked up at a dark portrait, a female(?) in a cuirass, helmet held before her. A scar bisected her muzzle, in the background a bloody sun was setting over a city. Shattered Water?

"The Royal Gallery," Maithris said, her voice awakening weird echoes in the hall. "I thought you might be interested."

The brushstrokes were unusual. Again I was reminded of a Degas: a short-sighted artist translating what he saw to the canvas. No. . . not short sighted, just seeing things another way. There was a small landscape painting: a small white farmhouse among rolling fields while above purple and black stormclouds climbed into the sky. Like the others the focus was sharpest on foreground objects and blurred out on more distant objects. It enhanced the feeling of depth in the picture, but they lacked the detail I might have expected in similar human works. And it wasn't just a particular style an artist might have been experimenting with, they were all like that.

"I am," I murmured. "I am. God! How old are these? Who painted them? This one, what. . . what is used to paint it, what kind of paints. . ."

"Hold on, hold on," she hissed, raising a hand. "I don't know that much about these."

No. She wouldn't. She was a doctor. In this culture people probably didn't get much exposure to fields outside their own specialty. I mean, where was she going to see a documentary about local artists? Did they have newspapers? Magazines? I didn't know. So, I just nodded, moved on to a picture of a Rris frozen in the act of leaping. More detailed than others? It seemed to be a bit sharper.

"What do you think?" she asked and there was anxiety in the question.

"I. . . I don't know." I reached out, almost touched the cracked varnish of the frame. "Maithris, these have been made by Rris for Rris. I find them intriguing. They show me how you see things."

She studied the next painting with me, "You mean, you see things differently? How?"

"I think I see small detail and color better. Also things that are still and further away."

"Huhn," she glanced at me, seeming a bit affronted. "You think so?"

"I think so." I almost smiled. "But your kind has better hearing and compared with you, I have no sense of smell."

Maithris snorted, glanced at me before she chittered a small laugh.

We spent the better part of two hours there. I had inspiration for some pictures I'd like to work on. Sometime, when I had the time and materials. Maybe I could try emulating the Rris style, but shifting the palette further back to human norm. If I abstracted the image a little it would produce an effect quite similar to earlier impressionalist works. I didn't put up an argument when Maithris suggested we head back. I would've liked to see more, but I was very tired. I guess I still wasn't in the best shape.

That night I dreamed the sky was red and long-dead Rris from paintings were gathered around me, a crowd in a multitude of clothing styles, fur decorations. Their voices were a low sibilance that carried through the sky. I half woke, turned over and the voices were gone.

Section 114

Nobody woke me before the sun was up. I wasn't bounced from place to place around town. I wasn't poked and prodded like something under a magnifying glass. I didn't spend days being questioned about a piece of machinery.

I didn't know what to make of it.

They left me alone, giving me time to think and try and get my life together. Maithris visited a couple of times a day. Other Rris let me be. I didn't see Kh'hitch or Hirht. There weren't any doctors or scholars, just a solitude that I knew was probably enforced, but it was still a welcome oasis. I found the time to pick up a pencil and for the first time in a long while used it to sketch something besides machine parts: the view from my window. Nothing spectacular, but it was therapeutic and gave me something to occupy my hands.

Why were they doing this? Fear, probably. They were scared of me trying to kill myself again.

Why didn't I?

Again, I didn't know. I could try, I guess. Rip out the sutures, hang myself, dive headfirst through the window. . . They might stop me; then again, I might succeed. But somehow that urge was gone, either the desolation inside had dimmed or something else had taken its place. And now. . . I started to think about more positive steps I could take.

Perhaps I could bargain my way. Exchange what I knew for. . . for what? My freedom? It wasn't like I could just walk out onto the street and start up my life again. A home somewhere? And I had to laugh to myself at that thought, picturing a suburban house in the middle of Shattered Water. No, that wouldn't be very practical. Perhaps Maithris would have some ideas. I'd have to ask her.

Meanwhile, she was company. Openly talkative and tolerant and friendly. She brought me food, a variety of safe dishes and delicacies I'd never tasted before. She made jokes and laughed at my bumbling attempts at Rris humor. I wasn't sure if she was amused at the jokes themselves or just my efforts. Friendly, yes, but I knew it wasn't completely sincere. How much of that was an act for my benefit? I wasn't sure, but there were the times I caught that furtive look. A sidelong glance, maybe a flinch when I made a sudden move or grinned too broadly. A quick lapse in her guard, just as quickly masked by bravado and cheer.

But she was trying; she was doing her best. For that I liked her.

Section 115

"That's one I haven't seen. Those are words, aren't they?" Maithris asked, squinting at my T-shirt as we walked. "What do they say?"

I pulled the bottom of the shirt to tent it out and looked down at the lettering and cartoon, "Ah, 'Rebonk, Stay Hard'. I don't think your language can say it."

She waved a hand a Rris we passed then asked, "What does it mean?"

"It is a. . . a pun. A joke. It takes a familiar saying and makes it into a sexual joke."

"A joke about sex?" She looked puzzled, then interested: "What is it?"

I sighed and tucked the shirt in again. "Maithris, it really doesn't come across into your language."

"Oh," and damn me if she didn't look disappointed. I almost laughed. "Then maybe you could teach me your language?" she said.

"I'm still learning to speak yours'."

"Ah, there is always later," she smiled as we stepped into another hall. The doors at the far end were open, beyond them the palace grounds. I hesitated.

"Maithris? Where are we going?"

She smiled, a sort of innocent 'what, me?' expression, "Huhn? I thought you might enjoy a walk outside."

I blinked. "Outside? But. . . can I. . . I thought I wasn't permitted out there."

A violent snort. "Huhn, that was clutching foolishness. The palace is fenced and there are guards. Come on."

The guards at the door watched as we passed but didn't make any move to stop us. Outside, there were a few unimpressive clouds seeming lost in the vault of the sky. The wind stirring the treetops and rippling the grass in the fields around the Palace was warm, not doing much to take the heat out of the afternoon. Small birds darted and swooped over the meadows, picking tiny insects out of the air. I could taste dust and greenery as we stepped out onto a path of neatly trimmed grass, crossed that to the calf-high unrestrained glory of the meadow. Dirt crunched under my boots, grass brushed against my legs.

Maithris walked beside me, her fur rippling in the wind like the grass of the field we were walking through. Her breeches were knee-long, green, trimmed with bands of decorated leather around the cuffs, waist, and seams and a small leather pouch bounced at her belt. I could hear her panting slightly and stalks rustled against her legs as she moved in that fluid, stalking gait. I noticed burrs sticking into her fur.

"What?" She asked me curiously and I realised I'd been staring.

"Strange legs," I said.

"You think so?" She glanced pointedly down at my own legs. First time I'd worn shorts in a while and the differences were - so to speak - glaringly obvious.

I grinned. Point taken. "So, do you have a destination in mind, or is this just a walk?"

"Ah, keep a grip on that patience," she smiled. "We have a destination."

"In here?" I raised an eyebrow as we entered the edge of the forest. Cooler after that walk across the Palace garden, the sunlight diffused by the canopy overhead. And it was beautiful there under the trees: Thousands of shifting points of light worked their way through, motes and insects flickering in the beams.

There was a path, of sorts. A track of packed earth, moss and smooth stone cut through the undergrowth, following a winding path through the trees and bracken. Leaves crackled under my boots: Maithris' pads were almost silent as we climbed a low knoll. At the top I hesitated to look back: the green-copper roof of the palace was just visible through the trees, not so unlike so many buildings back home. Everywhere else was trees. Last time I'd gone wandering off had been with the cubs back in Westwater and I'd been. . .

I shuddered and behind me Maithris asked, "Mikah? Something wrong?"

I sighed and shook my head. "No. Nothing. Come on, where are we going?"

She fleered black lips back from sharp teeth and I flinched before I realised she was trying to copy one of my smiles. "Ah. Not yet. It's not far, just down here I think."

She set off again and I followed her. The moss-covered stones on the downslope were a bit slippery, making me watch where I put my feet. "You don't know?"

"Hai, they don't let commoners just walk around the Palace grounds you know," she said, brushing a fern frond aside as she rounded the trunk of a gnarled old tree. "This is first time for me also."

"Great," I said as I followed her. "The inexperienced leading the incapable, a?"

And she chittered outright at that, a real laugh. "Now, where did you hear that?"

"It's similar to a saying my kind have. Doesn't quite sound the same in your words though. What exactly is 'it'?"

"The Living Hall," she said, climbing a convoluted root growing across the path. "This."

I'd been expecting a building. I didn't see one.

It wasn't bright in the clearing. Branches from trees on either side laced in the center, the canopy fracturing the sunlight into a shifting myriad of sunbeams. An oddly geometric clearing that reminded me of a church knave. The ground was covered with short, verdant grass. Among that, moss-covered rock sprouted: weather-rounded granite bedrock, flat prominences of it producing terraces and steps and a feeling like I was looking at something grown. Twisted roots the size of my arm curled and spread like a natural net, tendrils poking down through split stone. A stream bisected the clearing, the sound of running water drawing my attention to the sparkle of sunlight on water. Maithris stepped up upon a natural stone dais, then raised her arms and turned a full circle. "Well?"

I blinked as my eyes adjusted. "Jesus," I whispered.

The trees around the clearing hadn't been left to grow by themselves. Branches and trunks were bent and twisted, entwining with their neighbors, lacing and looping and wrapping around one another. Above my head, branches were growing together to produce the unmistakable outline of a Rris torso, branches replacing the legs. All around the clearing they started to stand out from the background, like Escher pictures where you focus on a pattern of birds then realize the negative spaces are fish. The clearing was a hall, a living hall. Sculptured trees for walls, for columns and arches, loosely knitted thatches admitting light like windows.

Even more impressive were the sculptures. I saw stylized Rris, birds and animals. An eagle with skeletal wings of bare twigs, a stag's head and rack staring back down without eyes, a pair of Rris locked in an embrace. . . Not carved, but made by persuading the trees to grow the way the artists wanted.

I say artists, because. . . that's what it was; Art.

"Your kind has this?" she asked.

"This. . ." I shook my head. "This kind of art is. . . known. But nothing like this."

"A? Why are you whispering?"

Would you yodel in a cathedral? I mean, it was that kind of feeling. "Sorry," I said at a more reasonable volume and grinned sheepishly. "Is there a purpose to this place? Or is it just art?"

She gave me a curious look, then waved a shrug. "It's art, I think. The place is old, very old. I think some of these trees have been [trained] for nearly five hundred years."

"The palace isn't that old?"

"No. You'd have to ask an historian how old the palace is, but this goes back to times before the palace, when Shattered Water was a walled port. The tale says that Kathrik was a craftsman out here. He and his mate Chita had stayed together for over ten years. She was sterile, unable to bear cubs, but he still stayed with her. So of course both of them were considered quite odd. It's said that when she was killed by a bear he changed, withdrawing to his homestead. When he died the land was parceled and the townsfolk found this." She waggled a hand and smiled.

"Smaller of course, but those," she pointed at a grove of old trees down the far end of the glade, "are the original pieces. Kathrik and Chita."

The trees had grown, distorting the figures somewhat, but the shapes were still there: a pair of Rris standing, limbs entwined, bodies merging where the branches of the tree were melding. Maithris cocked her head, then chittered, "Those old ones would be shocked to see they're still together. They left their mark, no matter what some [somethings] might think." She sat herself down on a mossy rock and leaned back.

"Since then the Hall has become something of a landmark. The Palace [something] and sculptors do their work, so it grows, changes."

"It's beautiful," I said softly, quite truthfully as I sat myself down beside her. I glanced at her. "Maithris? Why is a couple living together considered strange?"

"Huhn? Why, it's just not. . . usual. I mean, people might stay for a while, to have cubs or somesuch, but why should they stay? There's no. . ." she trailed off and turned to me. "Ah, your kind does?"

I nodded.

"That means 'yes', doesn't it. You mean you choose one mate and stay with them? Like swans?"

"Mostly."

"Mostly?"

I sighed. "Maithris, one thing you can certainly say for my kind is that there are no certainties. If one thing is true, then the opposite can also be true. We are quite. . . what is the word? Spread-out. . . varied?"

"[diverse]?"

"Diverse. A. Thank you. In my country it's considered normal to have one mate for life. It's also considered normal to have different mates over a lifetime. It's against the law to be officially mated to more than one at any time. In other countries it's a sign of. . . wealth for a male to have many females."

And she gave me a look, confusion etched across her face. "Laws can change in countries here also, but that. . . how can anybody live in peace in a world like that."

"Who says we live in peace?" I shrugged. "We fight and squabble."

"A lot like Rris," she said. "You're not so different."

"That is news to me."

She chittered and rocked back, tilting her face to the light filtering through the canopy: it dappled her fur with bright speckles, a sunspot flicking across her eyes pushed her pupils down to narrow black slits in amber. I settled back as well. The moss wasn't damp, was soft enough to lie back on while watching branches overhead swaying and a few wisps of high cloud passing beyond them. Quiet. Just the wind and water, a few birds and insects. Warm enough, even under the boughs woven into shapes and patterns that caught the eyes and led them into deeper and deeper geometries, into shadows where odd silhouettes played. A squirrel dashed across a branch, leapt to another limb and scrambled up a tree: a blurred stop-and-start spiral up the trunk with the sound of claws scritching on bark. I just closed my eyes. . .

. . . and a hand was shaking my shoulder. I woke with a start, my heart racing as I sat bolt upright and the Rris standing over me fell back a step. "Huh? What?"

"Mikah?" Maithris cocked her head. "It's all right. It's just time we started heading back."

"What?" I looked around. The light had changed, the shadows longer and the air cooler. My back was damp from the moss and my watch said four hours had passed.

"I didn't want to wake you," Maithris told me. "I think the rest is doing you good. But you must be hungry?" My stomach answered for me and she glanced at my belly, an amused expression on her face. "I thought so. Come on."

She offered her hand and I stared at it for a second before taking it. Not something I'd done very often and the appendage felt weird in my hand, the bones in the wrong place, not a very strong grip. "Huhn," she coughed as she helped me to my feet, "Heavier than you look. A good sign, a?"

She stayed by my side as we left that strange grotto. At the treeline she paused by a leaning bole, raised her hands with fingers splayed and slowly, almost luxuriously dragged her claws down the bark. Pale scratches appeared in the bark, fresh among a multitude of older ones.

"Mai? Should you be doing that?"

She brushed her hands off as she rejoined me, "Don't worry. It's traditional for visitors to do that."

Ah. A sort of guest book. I looked back at the tree: the trunk was so scored with scratches around its circumference that it was a wonder the thing was still alive.

Maithris suddenly frowned, her muzzled wrinkled as if she were mulling something over. "What did you call me?" she asked.

"Hmmm? Oh, sorry," I gave her a small smile. "Maithris."

"Ah," she chittered. "You have trouble saying my name?"

"No. I just. . . I'm sorry. I offended you?"

"No, I was just curious why you called me that."

"I suppose my kind has a habit of shortening names. It is a term of. . . of familiarity."

"Ah," she looked gravely serious. "Then we are in a state of familiarity?"

I didn't know how to answer that and her expression fractured into laughter, chittering at the sky.

Section 116

Maithris sat in the window niche, her feet tucked up in a tailor's squat up as she watched me eat my breakfast. She was wearing a kilt that morning, a wrap of heavy pleated material belted at her waist and colored in a green and brown tie-dyed pattern. It bared her chest and the lighter fur peppered with black running down her front. I noticed her tail protruding down alongside her right leg, the tip flicking back and forth. She had something on her mind.

I finished my piece of smoked turkey, and toyed with another slice before asking, "You're worried about something?" When she gave me a questioning look I nodded pointedly at her tail.

"Ah," she whipped the appendage around and caught it in her hands, then began preening the white tuft at the tip. "In some ways you're fortunate not to have a thing like this chasing you. Seems to do what it wants most of the time."

I smiled slightly. "That's what you're worried about?"

Maithris cocked her head. "No. It's nothing, really. I. . ." The scratching at the door interrupted her. She glanced at the door behind me, then at me. "You're going to let him in?" she asked.

Him? I hesitated before twisting around and calling, "Come in."

Hirht hadn't changed. Was I expecting him to have? It'd been three weeks, not such a long time really. The king was alone when he stepped into the room, then almost as an afterthought closed the door behind him and approached me. Stopped. Standing a few meters away, just watching me. That poker face again, restrained courtesy as he ducked his head. "Mikah," he rumbled.

And I couldn't meet his eyes. "Sir. I'm sorry."

"Don't be," he sighed and seemed to sag a little. "Please. I didn't come hunting after your apologies. I just wanted to know if you're all right."

I realised I was clutching at the edge of the desk, my knuckles white. I took a breath, forced myself to relax, but the knot in my guts persisted. "I. . . I am fine. Thank you, Sir."

"Good to hear." Hirht shifted, glanced past me at Maithris and back to me again. "Mikah. . . Hai. We haven't been very thoughtful hosts. If there are any apologies to be made, they are ours. You have them."

"Sir, that's not necessary. . ."

"I think it is. Nobody wants to hurt you, but we had no idea what was happening. If you need anything. . ." he broke off, his eyes flickered to something beyond me and he sighed and made a small gesture with his hand. "Mikah, just so you know. This time is yours. Anything you want, please ask."

I closed my eyes and swallowed. "Thank you, Sir."

The Rris king ducked his head to me, "Mikah." He turned at Maithris and there was a flicker of an emotion there when he bade her, "Until later, Doctor."

"Sire," she inclined her head slightly, but her ears were trembling. As if she were keeping them up with an effort. And when he'd left she did lay them back, then shook her head violently and raked her mane back into shape with her claws.

"What's happening?" I asked.

"Oh, it's nothing," she said. "He's just a very stubborn person."

"What does that mean?"

Maithris screwed up her muzzle. "It means he doesn't like doing what other people want him to do. It can make things awkward."

"You mean like persuading him to give you free run around the Palace?"

She smiled: "Among other things, a."

I also flashed a lopsided smile and picked a pastry off the silver platter, examined it carefully. I'd already learned my lesson about biting into unfamiliar Rris food: not only do they prefer a lot of their meats raw, but they consider a great deal more of the animals edible than we do. A Rris might be capable of ripping off and swallowing chunks of muscle, but if I tried something like that I'd probably choke. This pasty seemed to be safe, some kind of fish pate inside. Strong flavor, but quite palatable. I took a bite, then looked at Maithris and raised my eyebrows. "He was serious about anything I want?"

"I believe so. You have something in mind?"

I had wondered how far I could push it this first time. Not too much, I decided. "I'd like to see more of the gardens."

"I think that can be arranged," she said.

Section 117

I suppose one could have been forgiven for thinking it was an untouched wilderness. Acre upon acre of rolling verdant forest and woodland; centuries-old pines and oaks, birches and elms towering and spreading their canopies over a lush undergrowth of bracken and ferns. The clearings were naturally rugged, filled with uncropped grasses and scattered rocks, the summer air filled with specks of sun-warmed dust and insects, the smells of hay and greenery. But under those trees were paths, occasional shelters where users of the park could find refuge from the weather, sculptures and other signs that this area was inhabited. I saw a lodge nestled in amongst the trees: a wood and stone building with slate roof and glazed windows. A place where high-ranking Rris nobility could rough it Maithris told me as we wandered west through the Palace grounds.

We talked as we walked, just idle chatter. I asked her a few questions about herself. She'd been born the daughter of the mayor of a small town along the southern borders, months away ride from Shattered Water. She'd studied under the town physician, then her father paid for her to study under a master in Shattered Water. She'd been apprenticed to a physician in the south-eastern quarter for seven years and now. . .

"Not like this," she smiled - ruefully, if I was judging correctly. "Poorer. Crowded. Cold and hungry a lot. I wanted to get out of there quickly. I didn't have much money; I had some ideas but. . ." she trailed off and waved a shrug.

"What?" I pressed.

"Oh, they weren't taken very seriously." She hissed slightly, then raked fingers through her mane and smiled: "What about you? You were an artist, weren't you? How did you choose that?"

Changing the subject. I glanced at her, then shrugged myself. "I always enjoyed drawing, and I was good at it. I wanted a job in which I could enjoy myself and make a living."

"Did you apprentice?"

"No. We've got schools that teach art. I went to one of those."

"A school just for that?" She skittered over a root laying across the path. "How long?"

"Four years."

"Four years? Shave me! Ah, well, I suppose some artists spend their lives on their work." She brushed a frond aside and glanced at me. "That's not such a long time for you though, is it. How long does you kind live?"

"About eighty-five, ninety years. It varies.

Now she looked startled. "Ninety. . . they said you had a longer [lifespan] than Rris, but that. . . that is more than I'd expected."

They'd asked me about it before, but my questions had never been answered. "How long do Rris live?" I asked.

"Mikah, I suppose most would live about forty five years. Sixty is very rare but it's not unheard of." Maithris gave me a sidelong glance, up and down. "You didn't know?"

"They never told me."

She hissed slightly. "They expect you to live among us and they don't tell you things like that. What else haven't they told you." Then she forestalled my interjection, "Perhaps I should rephrase that, a? Is there anything you'd like to know more about?"

I laughed a bit. "Just about everything, I think. Is there any chance I could see more of Shattered Water?"

"I'll have to see about that, but I'm sure something can be arranged." The path turned to cross a small stone bridge spanning a stream. Down below, in still eddies and the calm offered by the lee of stones, boatmen skated across the water's surface, raising ripples as they darted about like miniature dodgems. I stopped to watch them for a second while Maithris continued for a step, then turned to watch me.

"You've heard that before, haven't you," she said after a while.

I shrugged.

"Ah," she sighed, then stooped to pick up a pebble. Her wrist moved strangely when she tossed it and downstream a kingfisher dove at the ripples, pulling out at the last instant in an affronted flutter of wings. "I'm sorry, Mikah. I should say I'll do my best. I can't make any promises that you'll be allowed to walk by yourself through the square on market day, but I will try to arrange something. You have my word on that."

"Thank you," it was all I could say. Like that kingfisher: too many bits of bait dangled in front of me.

The gardens were quiet but not quite deserted. The pair of armed guards a few dozen meters down the track dispelled the illusion of solitude. They didn't do anything, just stood aside and watched us pass with wary eyes and helmets tucked under their arms before stalking away in the opposite direction. A warm day, I was quite comfortable in the shade in my only pair of shorts and Eldritch T-shirt. Maithris was only wearing her kilt, her tail protruding from a slit at the back, her ears flickering when an occasional midge buzzed them.

It was further than I'd expected, about half an hour of walking before the trees thinned, opening onto broad sky. A narrow strip of grass separated the rocky shore from the treeline and beyond that Lake Erie was a vast expanse of glittering blue stretching away to the horizon. Sunlight tracked a path of sparkling white highlights toward the skyline, a light as harsh as if it were reflecting off burnished metal. To the north there was a darker haze of land in the distance: that'd be Canada. . . no, still Land-of-Water. Small waves lapped against the shore, a quick and steady pulse carrying pieces of driftwood and a few leaves. Out along the skyline there was a flash of red and white: the billowing sails of a ship under way tacking into the wind. The wind: a breeze cooled by the lake, bringing with it the scent of water and greenery.

"Your world looks like this?" Maithris asked as we walked along the lakeshore on that glorious day.

"My world," I smiled a bit. "I think this is part of a city. This would be docks or roads."

A tree at the lakeshore. An old, gnarled spruce with the soil under its roots eroded to leave an exposed tangle of wood, leaving the trunk tipped out toward the lake. Maithris touched a hand to the trunk and looked up to the sun shining through the branches, "I think I prefer it like this."

"So do I."

She chittered, then turned and leaned back against the trunk. "So we do have a few good thing to offer."

I nodded and looked around. Down along the beach a single crenellated gray stone tower was perched on a rocky lakeside prominence. I squinted and shaded my eyes, able to see the figures of Rris on the ramparts. A Guardtower. I guess they'd need some kind of security along the beach. "That must be a dull job," I observed.

"Ah?" she squinted. "Oh, the guardhouse? I suppose someone has to do it."

I sat down on the grass and dangled my legs over the small bank where storm-blown waters had nibbled at the earth. Now the lake was placid in the heat of the afternoon, the tiny wavelets lapping the shore like a hurried metronome. Maithris dropped down beside me, staying in the shade offered by the tree. She was panting a bit I noticed, her jaw hanging and tongue protruding. "Warm for you?" I asked, grinning a bit.

"All right for some," she growled. "You're not carrying this." She pinched a fingerful of fur on her arm.

"Hey, get me some scissors and a razor and I can fix that."

She affected a shocked expression, "But then I would look like you!"

"That's a bad thing?"

She chittered and leaned back against the tree, the light filtering through the leaves and branches dappling her fur in gold and shadow. "Ai, I suppose your hairlessness does have its advantages. It's hot in Africa, isn't it?"

"Hotter than this," I smiled, then gestured at the water. "Why don't you just go for a swim? That'll cool you down."

"There?" she looked at the lake and her ears went down a bit. "It's. . . big. I mean, how deep is it? I don't know if it's safe. . ."

"You can't swim, can you," I smiled a bit. "Hey, come on. It's a great day for it. I'll make sure you don't sink out of sight, all right?"

"I don't know," she looked dubious.

"Okay. I'm going in," I said as I started pulling off my boots and socks.

"Mikah!" she protested. "Your hand?"

"It's healed enough. It won't get infected."

"But. . ."

"Are there. . . dangerous animals in there? Large waves?" I asked and she waved a hesitant 'no'. "Then what's the problem?" I asked and stripped off my shirt, leaving it beside my boots. The stones on the beach were almost hot under my feet, even where they were water-slicked they were warm. I whooped, splashed through water up to my knees then dove under and surfaced with a strangled gasp. It wasn't that cold, but after the heat of the day it was stimulating contrast. I shook water from my eyes and floated on my back, "Come on!" I called to Maithris, "The water's fine."

Inside, I wondered how far she was willing to go to humor me. I didn't want to push her over the edge or get her in trouble. Hell, I liked her, I just wanted to try my leash a bit. Now she was pacing on the shore, stepping awkwardly on the rocks while her tail lashed furiously. "Come on," I called, teasing her. "It doesn't bite."

Her muzzle twisted and she took a few hesitant steps forward, just up to her ankles, then hastily moved back again and stood there, shifting her weight uncertainly. Where the water had plastered her fur down she looked like she was wearing dark socks. Then she slashed her hand at the air and said, "Ah, shave you," and stripped off her kilt, throwing it back onto the beach where it fell in a crumpled, multicolored lump. Even without clothing it's difficult to call a Rris naked; that fur covers everything. Her's was a mottled tawny hue, with darker almost coffee-colored patches across her flanks, the lighter, dark-speckled fur of her front running down to the longer fur around her crotch. She had a scar on her outer left thigh, a narrow strip maybe as long as my hand where the fur grew ragged. I saw her take a breath as she walked out toward me, determination in the set of her face and the cool water climbed, up to her waist, chest.

"Careful," I said, "It drops off a bit about. . ."

She gave a yelp and vanished.

". . . there."

I caught her as she bounced up again, coughing and sputtering with water streaming from her fur. I pulled her back to her depth where she coughed a bit more, wiped water from her eyes and shook her head violently, sending a glittering spray of water flying. "You. . ." she growled and spat water, more sreaming from the sodden tufts on her cheeks, "Why didn't you tell me?"

"You took it a bit quickly," I tried not to smile at her appearance: thick fur turned slick and almost black clinging to her frame. "I tried to tell you. If you're careful, it's fun."

"Fun? I feel like a beaver."

"Cooler though, a?"

She narrowed her eyes, then very deliberately splashed me in the face. "Hey!" I snorted water.

"Cooler, a?" she smiled.

I splashed back and she ducked, chittering. Things escalated from there and for a few glorious minutes it didn't matter what she looked like, it could have been anybody I was splashing around in the lakeside with. She was fast, I could scoop more water, but her energy seemed boundless while I was still a bit below par. I ran out of puff before she did and held up a hand while I sat down in surf shallow enough to be warmed by the sun. Hah! And I didn't even have to worry about a thinning ozone layer. "You cooled off enough now?" I asked the dripping Rris.

Maithris shook again and a rainbow flashed in the spray surrounding her before it settled and she raked her facial fur back into shape. "Huhn, I haven't done anything like that for a long time."

"Then you must be naturally good at it."

She chittered. "And you must be part otter. Does all of your kind enjoy the water so much?"

"A lot do."

She cocked her head and regarded me, up and down, a curious expression on her face. I looked down and touched my chest; still wet, with the tracks of not-so-old scars quite obvious. "What?" I asked.

"Your hide," she gestured and smiled. "It could be made for water. It even looks better wet. Well, better than this." Her face twisted in a Rris expression that could be construed as a wry grimace as she held up an arm, her fur slicked down. All over. I tried not to laugh as a sodden tail slapped the water. "And it must be easier to dry. Huhn. . . do you think you could teach me to swim?"

"Hmm? I thought you weren't keen on the idea."

The Rris hissed a bit and sloshed water at me. "I think I was being overly cautious. I still remember you half-drowned after your last swim."

A twinge went through my shoulder, even though that was a wound that had healed cleanly. "That was. . . different."

"I know. I know," she said. "When you consider the situation, you did the extraordinary. It's just something I overlooked. Now, I can't think of anyone better qualified. Ah?" it was a question.

"All right. You've got yourself a deal."

So, that afternoon was one of the more unsual ones. It's not often I've given swimming lessons to a felid doctor and I realised I was enjoying myself when several hours passed without me noticing. I was able to teach her a bit: She learned that trying to breath underwater was not a good thing; she got pretty good at a dog paddle, but she still had to expend a lot more energy to stay afloat than I did. It was a bit unsettling to see her panting head raising a wake as she paddled in circles. If I hadn't known, I'd never have taken her for an intelligent being.

I wonder what the occupants of the watchtower made of it. Maybe Maithris didn't see it, but I saw the guard up there with the telescope trained on us. Maybe they got a few laughs out of it, but it was a reminder that I was still being watched.

Section 118

"You're expected, sir," the left-hand guard said. Their were a pair of them at their stations on each side of the door, the long steel blades of their pole-axes reflecting the blue of the sky visible through the windows down the hall behind me. They watched me closely as I knocked on the piece of wood guests would normally scratch on to announce themselves, then entered Hirht's private office.

The windows behind his desk were opened onto the atrium, letting a breeze circulate through the room, stirring papers and taperstries, ruffling the fur of the three Rris waiting for me. Hirht was sitting at his desk, a couple of papers and an inkwell arranged on the blotter before him. Opposite, Kh'hitch and Maithris turned on their cushions to see me: she smiled, the Advisor flicked an ear but otherwise remained impassive.

"Come in," Hirht said, waved me toward a cushion beside Maithris. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine, thank you sir." The way they were watching me. . . They were worried. Did they think I'd try again? Would I? It was something I couldn't answer.

"That's good to hear." The Rris king glanced down at the papers on his desk, then cocked his head at me. "Mikah, I realise this is an awkward time. For everyone. After that little. . . incident, other Kingdoms have been expressing their concern that perhaps you're not very happy in our care. There have been several offers to take you out of our hands."

I didn't know if I was expected to have an answer to that. Offers. I wondered if that was a euphamism. Perhaps some of the other kingdoms had been a little more insistent in their demands than Hirht was letting on. A claw extruded from a fingertip and snagged a sheet of paper, drawing it toward him and those amber eyes flicked up to meet mine. "Would you like to? If you wish to leave. . . Nobody would stop you."

I hesitated. Unable to help myself I looked around at Maithris, at the other two Rris in the room. They were alien, in thought and deed. It wasn't my home; it was a place I doubted I'd ever be able to fit into. But. . . it was all I knew. I couldn't trade that for another unknown. I couldn't. I knew that would push me over the edge and beyond.

"Mikah?"

I shook my head, very slightly. "No sir."

"A." For a split second his attention flickered toward Maithtris, then back to me. "Are you willing to continue the work you've been doing?"

Now my stomach knotted as I wondered what I'd gotten myself into. Maithris reached over to lay a hand on my knee. "Hai, don't worry so much."

And Hirht smiled a bit. "The doctor pushes her deals. We would like you to continue. We would also like to offer you [something]."

Maybe Maithris saw my confusion at the word. "Pay you," she offered. "Also time when you can do what you want."

"Pay?" I asked, somewhat confused about the turn of events.

"We thought fourteen days free every month," Kh'hitch said. "The pay would be ten golds a month. There is also the [something] that would be [something] from the sale of ideas as well as. . ." He went on for a while using terminology that was completely beyond me. I guessed they were economic terms, but that was something my lessons had never covered in much depth. "You would be guaranteed a share of this, if that is acceptable to you."

I blinked, then ventured in a small voice, "Is that much?"

They all stared. Mai almost laughed and ducked her head as she composed herself. "Yes, Mikah," she said. "It is much."

"Oh."

Hirht's extended claw was tapping slowly at the paper. "Is this agreeable to you?"

"Please. Much of what Kh'hitch said, I didn't understand. I am getting a share? Of what? I didn't understand those words."

The Advisor frowned. "Your ideas can be sold to others: other Kingdoms, Guild, merchants. From the money made from that, you will be given a share. Also, if the people who brought those ideas make money - a [profit] - from their use they will pay a fraction of that to Land-of-Water. You will also receive a share of that. You understand?"

"Yes." Yeah, I understood royalties and profits. "I'm sorry. I just wanted to understand. . ." I let that trail off with a tight smile.

"And now you do? Is this all right with you? There is nothing binding. . . if you want to change later, you have that right."

How was I to know how much ten golds was worth? Would it buy a house? Or a hot dog? Was the information I could offer worth that much? I looked to my left, "Mai. . . Maithris? Is this good?"

She smiled back and waved a hand in gesture: as if she were tipping out a palmful of sand. "It's good, Mikah. But it's your decision to make."

A step into the unknown.

Inhuman eyes watching me intently. I swallowed, then nodded. "I agree. You have a deal."

Hirht smiled, then gestured at the paper before him. "Would you be willing to put your mark here? It will make things official."

The creamy paper was filled with close-packed cuneiform script. At the top left was an elaborate seal featuring a Rris profile surrounded by branches and Rris words. Below that, line after line after line, so the page seemed to have more ink than bare paper. I could only read one word in ten; maybe not even that.

"I will have to trust you, I think," I said.

"You have my word there is nothing there that we haven't already told you about," Hirht said and even so I found myself glancing at Maithris. She actually nodded. I awkwardly took the proffered quill, dipped it, then and carefully signed my name. I saw Hirht blink at the looping script, then he took a pinch of sand from the box beside the inkwell and sprinkled it on the document. I passed the quill back, then impulsively left my hand extended. The king looked confused.

"It's a custom of my people," I explained, "We finish an agreement by shaking hands."

His eyes flickered from my hand to my eyes, then he visibly braced himself and extended his own hand: tan fur with a darker palm, dark brown fur among the leathery pads of his palm and fingerpads. A coppery bracelet hung loosely on his wrist, sliding up his arm when I carefully took his hand and shook just once. There was a look on his face when I touched him, his pupils flinched before he squeezed once in return and withdrew his hand with a decorous grace.

Section 119

"How did you do that?"

"Hai?" Maithris looked up at the question, then back to trailing a finger along the slender cast iron columns fronting the cloister as we walked. "Mikah, they're afraid."

"What?" That was news. "Of me?"

"Of you. For you." She raised a hand to lean against one of the fluted columns and looked out over the garden in the central courtyard.

I stepped up beside her. "I don't understand." In contrast to the outer Palace gardens, these were elegant and constrained. Trees, shrubs and long grass with a symetrical spiderweb of cobblestone paths wending through them.

Mai sighed, a long, drawn-out hiss and started strolling again. Not a human skeleton under that hide; movements and muscles that flowed and shifted in an inhuman gait, a female gait as she led the way through an archway and out into that garden. I realised what I was staring at and flinched away, blinked as she looked at me, "It's. . .it's your unpredictability. I really don't think anybody knows just what you're going to do next."

"I don't want to hurt anybody."

"Not just that. They don't know how you'll react to anything. You might not hurt others, but you might hurt yourself. After. . . after you. . . after what happened. . ." she trailed off with ears drooping.

"Mai," I said simply, "I tried to kill myself." I was mildly surprised I could say it without feeling what that had meant, like it had happened to someone else.

Now her her ears went down. Not anger, but still distress of a kind. "I. . . know."

"What is your word for it?"

"Word?" She turned to stare at me. "For trying to kill yourself? Mikah. There is no word for it! It's not. . . normal."

"No word?" I blinked.

"No. Your kind has one? It's that common?"

Suicide? "It's common enough."

She hissed softly and I saw her tail lash furiously. They didn't even have a word? Then what I'd done would have been so incomprehensible. . . was that what they'd meant when they asked me what'd happened? They didn't believe I'd done it myself? "Why?" Mai asked. "What could be so terrible that life would be thrown away?"

Was this about my people or about me? I just shook my head, feeling the twinge in my scarred face. "Fear. Loneliness. Anger, hatred. Need for attention. Helplessness. Insanity." I stopped talking and shrugged. To our right a statue stood nestled in among the trees: a Rris with a snake wound around the body. Fighting? I couldn't tell. Water sprinkled from the reptile's mouth, coating the entangled figures with a damp sheen.

"And for that you would die?" she said. "You would just end life?"

"Sometimes. . . it's preferable."

She hissed again, softly, and asked, "Do you think you're insane?"

That struck me as amusing. I laughed, a sound that came out like a kick in the stomach. "Compared with? How would I know?"

"And a lot of Rris are feeling the same way. I know people aren't sure if you're in control of your mind. You might decide to hurt someone; you might decide to hurt yourself. Do you think you would?"

I swung my arm and plucked a leaf off a bush, folded it over and over, watching it fragment. "I don't want to hurt anyone."

"You've said often enough. But yourself?"

I touched that place inside, searched my feelings. "Once, I would have been afraid to. . . to do anything like that. Now," I sighed, "the thought doesn't scare me."

"It scares them," she said, then hung her head and glanced sidelong at me. "It scares me."

I knew what she meant. If something happened to me, it would be taken out on her.

"Not just that," Maithris said. "I like you. I really don't want to see anything happen to you."

I stopped and so did she, looking up at me with those amber eyes. A memory of what Shyia had told me drifted by, people would say things they didn't mean; people would lie to me to try and gain my trust. I reached up, slowly, moving my hand closer toward her and those eyes stayed focused on mine, not flinching when I touched her cheek and stroked the fur on the side of her muzzle: like silk under my fingertips with the grain, velvet against. An unusual sensation.

She smiled at me.

"I'm sorry," I said, withdrew my hand. "I didn't mean to. . ." Even Chihirae had flinched sometimes.

"Don't worry," she assured me. "Why did you do that?"

"Most Rris. . . move when I get too close."

"Ah," she said knowingly, then stepped right up to me, reached up and looped her arms around my neck, looking up into my face from just a few centimetres. I felt her harsh breath, her heart beating where she was pressed against me. "And you don't?" she grinned, feeling my own tension with nowhere to retreat to. She cocked her head, then abruptly jumped up to lick my nose. Her arms released me and as she stepped back one finger traced the ruined part of my face. "Still, I think you've got more reason to fear us."

I flinched away from that hand. She waited, then gently touched my arm, leading me on again. We walked in silence for maybe a minute. At the center of the Palace courtyard was a pond: an irregular pool dark enough that I couldn't see the bottom. Were there fish in there? Aside from a few leaves drifting amidst the reflections of overhanging trees, there was no sign of movement in the darkness.

On all sides the Palace rose above the trees and landscaping: the cloister ran the circumference of the courtyard, interrupted in places by french doors, verandahs and high windows. Above the green cooper of the cloister roof were the windows of the second floor. Hundreds of white-framed arched mullioned windows, balconies with carved balustrades spaced along the face of the building. The third floor sported smaller windows and again there were hundreds of them. How many rooms in this place?

And how many Rris in those rooms watching us?

I felt uneasy in this place. Beautiful to look at, but in the same way the statues were: lifeless, cut off from the outside. And I felt like the bullseye waiting for the arrow, unable to see who might be watching from any of those thousand windows.

"That's why they listen to you?" I asked the silence. "They're afraid of what I might do I they don't keep me happy?"

"Not as simple as that," Maithris said, then frowned. "Or maybe it is. They don't want you hurt, and they don't want you hurting others."

"So why do they listen to you?"

She didn't look at me. "I told them. . . things about you. Ideas I had. I was close enough that they decided to listen to me."

"Ideas? About what?"

"How to keep you happy." Was she telling me everything? I didn't think so.

"You think you know?" I asked softly.

"Mikah, it didn't take a genius to see that the way they were treating you wasn't right. I don't know anybody who could be happy living like that, and to see that their future didn't offer anything better, it. . ." she was going to say something, then changed her mind. "I asked them how they would feel. They gave me a chance."

"Will what they've offered now be better?"

She looked up at me, "And you said I have a lot of questions, hah? Well, they've given you pay and time you can do what you will with and they've begun to realize you aren't a bucket they can drink what they want from then discard. As to whether it's better, I think it'll be what you can make of it."

"All I can do is try, a?" I tried that noise she so often used in her interrogatives and she chitttered a bit.

Section 120

Two days after that meeting I started working again. They weren't wasting any time.

The weather had changed: that morning a mass of gray cloud had blown in across the lake, bringing cooler air and a heavy, short-lived shower that was finished and gone with as quickly as it'd come. It cleared the dust from the air and left water droplets hanging from eaves and leaves. Sunlight broke through the clouds, islands of light scudding across the countryside.

I sat on the cushion at the conference table, watching the last fat raindrops racing each other down the windows. It was another room I'd never seen before, although with over 800 rooms in the Palace, there were a lot of those. The French doors looked out over the northern Palace grounds: the trees and the gray mountains of the sky beyond. The walls were hung with pale velvet wall covering that showed different textures depending on the light striking it. There were paintings: more of those big old things. I have to say Rris've got a better taste in frames than humans: instead of those revolting rococo gold-plated things our classic art seems to come packaged in, the Rris use more tasteful wood and metal. Some decorated, some plain.

I took a sip of water from the glass on the table in front of me and glanced at my watch. 9:47. My damn leg was going to sleep. I was almost glad when the door finally opened to admit Kh'hitch with the ambassador from Wandering and his assistant following.

"You'll understand if time is short today," Kh'hitch was telling the ambassador and his staff. "Mikah is still recovering after his incident. I trust you understand you're fortunate to be granted this interview."

"And it is greatly appreciated," Ch'thrit said and ducked his head toward me. "I trust you are feeling better."

"I am," I said, not missing his glance at the bandages around my wrist: just a wrapping to cover the healing scar. He was. . . flamboyant. His attire seemed to be chosen with an eye to hues that lived as far away from each other on the color chart as was possible: a blue jacket with bloused sleeves as far as the elbow, orange trim, calf-length red breeches with yellow brocade. There was gold filigree around the end of his tail, gaudy jewels on bracelets on his wrists and his chest fur was shaved and dyed in geometric patterns that seemed to center around his six almost non-existent nipples. I didn't know if Rris had homosexuals, but every time I saw him I felt as if I might be looking at some stereotypical rendition of one.

"Pleased to hear it." He flipped the tails of his jacket back as he sat himself down with his secretary beside him. Further down the table Kh'hitch settled himself with a sigh, the furry folds of his stomach spilling onto his lap. "I have to say we were most distraught to hear of your accident. And just so you know, Wandering's hospitality is always available if you ever find yourself in need of a change of scenery."

"Most appreciated." I glanced at Kh'hitch but was disappointed: he hadn't flinched. "But I think I will stay here a while."

He'd probably expected as much. He didn't press it. "As you wish. Now, perhaps we could discuss business. There was some question of what you could offer us? I have prepared a list of some areas in which we think your ideas might be of some help."

Kh'hitch took the envelope the ambassador handed over and inspected the blue seal before running a claw under it, breaking it. He spent a minute poring over the letter, occasionally twitching his muzzle or ears or uttering a small noise as he read. Ch'thrit watched him for a short time, then studied me, my clothes, the laptop on the table. I stared back, counting the tiny gold rings he had threaded through the edges of his pointed ears.

The paper landed on the table and Kh'hitch tapped at it with a claw, then slid it across to me and leaned back. I turned the sheet around for all the good that did: I still wasn't able to read it. I was able to recognize the occasional term, such as the marks for steam-engines and boats, but most of the others Kh'hitch had to translate.

Wandering was a wealthy kingdom. It controlled several hundred kilometers of both the Meander and Earthy rivers as well as some of the southern lake districts. Roads networked the country which drew its revenue from the markets and trade as well as the tolls and tariffs on traffic passing through. And they seemed keen to keep the monopoly on that transportation empire. Most of the list was geared toward meeting that end.

Steam engines, the designs and specs along with the equipment for manufacturing them. Also details on the hulls and propulsion systems we were using, along with improved pumps, goods-handling equipment , storage facilities and communication systems. The first items were available but the rest of it would involve work. A lot of work and a lot of resources.

"Of course, that is quite within your abilities?" Ch'thrit inquired.

Kh'hitch looked at me.

I nodded. "That's possible. The pumps and engines are no trouble. Some of the other items though, they will need more time."

"You don't foresee any problems?"

"If I could do that, then they wouldn't be problems." The Rris didn't smile and I shrugged. "There will always be problems. The communication system would be the trickiest. Are you going to be wanting just information on how to build a new system, or will you want the. . . parts to be made for you?"

"We would want the plans along with some working samples. If we're pleased with the result, more orders will be forthcoming."

Kh'hitch ducked his head. "Very good. And within the next two days you will receive a [something] of what you can expect to pay."

I was watching Ch'thrit's face but I still didn't see a twitch. Not bad. Steam engines, machinery, new technology, upgrading their entire transportation system: he must have had some idea just how much that was going to cost.

Section 121

The other Rris kingdoms hadn't been idle while I'd been recuperating. I was only just beginning to get some idea of what kind of uproar my near-death had caused, the rumors of assassinations and hoarded technology, that I'd been seriously injured while creating a weapon. I found out some of the consulates came to the Palace with accusations that the whole affair was a hoax perpetrated by the Land-of-Water so they could claim I was dead then hide me away for their exclusive use. All that time more Rris savants, scholars, philosopher, physicians, crackpots and even nobility with interests or pretensions to the sciences had been arriving in Shattered Water. There would doubtless be more arriving as savants sent by Kingdoms further afield arrived.

In the meantime the Palace was inundated with questions and demands from increasingly impatient embassies. Their experts wanted to talk with me, to study me, as if they still weren't convinced I wasn't something more than a hoax. And eventually Hirht bowed to the pressure.

I was taken to the university once again. Under armed escort. At least this time they were good enough to tell me what I could expect, so I wasn't walking into that auditorium blind. Maithris had seen me off that morning, laughing as she patted my arm and told me not to frighten too many of the poor fluff-heads. But there was still concern in her expression. I told her not to worry.

As I tried to do as I walked down that dark little wooden corridor toward the sound of a multitude of Rris voices. I took a breath as I passed through the doorway and out onto the auditorium's floor. Wood creaked under my boots. From high above the skylights threw down shafts of light, spotlighting isolated parts of the stage. Around the rim of the stage gas lamps did their best to compete, without much success. There were chairs out there on the stage, eight of them lined up through patches of light and shadow. Rris were waiting in those, looking around as I entered. I recognized Achir in the center, also Rasa and Chotemri. Other facial markings were familiar but I couldn't put names to them; maybe they'd been present at. . . examinations.

There was one more chair, set in front of the others in the rectangle of light cast by a sunbeam. Why? As time passed that light would move on and leave the chair in darkness. Still, that was incidental. It was quite obvious who that chair was intended for and for a second I flashed back to that dark room in Westwater and similar circumstances.

This time there were more Rris in the gallery. More eyes watching me. That sibilant noise like dry leaves blowing in the wind surged as I entered and the shadows of the gallery stirred. More Rris. . . it was a full house. Okay, so the place wasn't the Superbowl, maybe a few hundred of them, but for me that was quite enough. I stalled for a second, then kept walking because it was too humiliating to turn and run back the other way.

Rasa met my eyes and actually acknowledge me with a nod. Chotemri, I hadn't seen him since the. . . incident, stared at me. I could see a muscle on his neck twitching under the fur and guessed he didn't like this any more than I did. It helped, a bit. And when I took my place on a chair that'd never been designed for my anatomy, they were behind me, out of sight but not out of mind. And that damned sunlight made it difficult for me to see the audience while pinning me like a bug on a board.

Two hundred pairs of eyes watching. There'd been more than that in the Palace during that disasterous ball but I hadn't been set out for them to stare at then. Eyes flashed as they caught the lights, metal and jewlery glittered, fur of all colors and styles. Although the place was full, they weren't packed in. Individuals kept their distance from one another, and the gallery itself was split up with token dividing walls along the isles, quartering it into sections. Constructed like their homes, like their towns and cities: designed to give an impression, an illusion of privacy. Maybe for Rris, this was packing them in. There was a group of Rris who might have been students from the university; other groups would be visitors from other kingdoms, maybe ambassadors. . . I wondered if Maithris was up there. I couldn't tell. It helped to think that maybe she was.

That day was predictable. It reminded me of show and tell back in grade school. Rasa stood to carry the introductions and then was gone. If they had a system to handle the questions, I couldn't pick it out. There'd be a roar of noise and an individual would be picked out to shout a query. There were the usual ones, there were the unusual ones, and then there were the downright weird: how would I know how the harvest in the midwest would turn out? Or the best place for a fleet to fish? And a couple of questions about my sex life were quite unnecessary. Anyway, I did my best to answer them, but there were always those I didn't understand or couldn't explain. The Rris behind me helped a bit on those and handled the questions that were directed at them, and there were more than a few. I think there were a fair number of Rris in the audience who asked them questions just to avoid having to talk to me, and others tried to make it difficult.

The acoustics in the auditorium were good enough that the voices of speakers on the stage carried, but sounds from the gallery were somewhat muffled. Maybe the Rris didn't have so much of a problem with that, but I did. If people asking questions didn't speak up, I had to ask them to repeat themselves. A waste of everyone's time.

The sunbeams drifted across the floor as the morning passed into afternoon. I talked, while the light described its slow passage across the floor I talked, until my voice was hoarse and my throat felt raw from its fight with the Rris guturals. There wasn't any water available, a lamentable oversight on someone's part. It was only when my voice gave out completely that the day had to draw to a close. I just opened my mouth to try and speak and all that I could manage was a rasping croak.

That scared them. The presentation came to an impromtu end as I was rushed out in a congregation of panicked physicians and specialists, bodies bumping against me in that dark corridor off in the wings. I flinched wildly as hands touched me in the dimness, turning from one to another in confusion as they gabbled questions and I couldn't see properly or answer, I could hardly swallow: my throat felt like it was lined with sun-dried cactus. And more shouting snarled out:

"Move it, shave you! Out of my way!"

"Who. . ." Someone else barked. "Rot it! Guards!"

"Rot you, clothead! I'm [something]! Hai! Mikah?" Someone caught my hand: furry fingers wound around mine. "It's me, Maithris. Come along, we'll get you out of this."

She led me, pushing through the crowd that was growing as some of the audience found their way backstage. We met a contingent of guards coming the other way and Mai growled a few word to their commander and left them to crowd control duties as she ushered me away down the corridor until the noises were lost behind us.

In the solitude of a quiet side-corridor Maithris stopped. I leaned back against a wooden wall and closed my eyes while I took rasping breaths. "You really don't look so good," maithris said, studying me. "What happened there?"

I shook my head. Somewhere, there were running footsteps: the sound of claws pattering on wood. A pair of guards in lightweight armour turned the corner and drew up short at the sight of us. Maithris ignored them.

"Ah?" she asked, drawing my attention back to her when she squeezed my arm, letting her claws press against my skin. "Too much talking?"

I nodded.

"Of all the clot-headed. . ." Maithris snorted. "I warned them. Can you talk?"

"Not well," I croaked, the Rris words cracking into incomprehensibility. I felt a stab of fear at the thought of laryngitis, remembering the helplessness of not being able to make myself understood. Dammit, I didn't want to go through that again! Even if it was only for a few days.

"Oh, supuration take it," she sighed and raked at her mane with claws extruded. "What can I do?"

I mimed raising a cup to my lips and she brightened. "A! Wait there," Mai told me and turned to the guards, snapped something and held out her hand. The guards exchanged looks, then one of them fiddled with a belt canteen, detached it and handed it over. Maithris pulled the stopper to sniff it before she passed it to me. "They've been known to fill them with stuff besides water," she explained when I gave her a questioning glance.

The canteen was a hard leather flask with straps to tie it to a belt. The spout had a flattened mouthpiece. God only knew where the water had come from or if it'd been boiled. I tasted it: warm, tasting of leather. I chugged half of it.

"Better?" Maithris asked.

I nodded.

"Mikah," she said gently. "I know what that means, but most people don't. It might be a good habit to break. Ah?"

This time I held out my hand, palm up, and curled my fingers in.

"That's better," Maithris smiled and took my hand in hers. I pulled away, but not before she'd felt the trembling. She drew back a bit, lowered her muzzle to look at me, then reached out again to touch my arm, "We'll get you back home now, all right? Come on."

Section 122

After that inital fuss and confusion things calmed down a bit. I spent the evening half-expecting a horde of physicians to descend on me, but Mai was the only one who visited me. She brought my dinner - a meat broth in a mug and warm bread - and also a small roll of red leather so battered it seemed brown, tied with black laces. I hadn't seen it before, but the form was familiar enough. "I thought you mightn't feel like talking," she explained as I picked at my meal. "And your fur needs some attention. You're [something] around the mane and your cheeks. You don't mind?"

After today. . . Even after today, I didn't really want to be alone. I shook my head, then tipped my hand in the Rris gesture. She chittered and while I finished my dinner, laid a cloth on the floor beside the desk and unlaced the kit, unrolled it on the desktop. The worn leather was a richer red inside, the tools tucked into slots cut into the leather gleamed, rivulets of orange lamplight running along polished metal. Similar to other kits I'd seen in some ways: there were wooden combs missing a few teeth, a couple of brushes, a small pair of scissors, some tweezers and other small implements. Much-used, with wooden handles polished smooth. "It was my sire's," she was wearing her spectacles, sitting tailor- fashion on the low desk as she watched my hand touch the metal on the scissors and stroke the leather before drawing back. "His before him. I don't know how old it is, but it's been handed down for generations. Tradition." She stared at the kit, thoughts almost visible behind her eyes. Then she shook herself, fluffing fur over her whole body: "Ah, well why don't we do something about that haystack on your head now. Take your tunic off and sit, here."

I did as she asked, making myself comfortable on the cloth. She moved, the cloth of her breeches brushing against my arms as she placed a foot on either side and then fingers were touching and running through my hair, the gentle touch of claws was unmistakeable: hard in contrast to the pliant leather of her fingertips. A comb started tugging and I winced when it caught a knot. Fingers and claws worked again, easing it out.

There'd been other Rris who'd done this. A teacher in a small backwater town who showed me something that went beyond kindness; a constable in a lakeside trading town who was willing to trust. . . Mai was as good as they had been. Her fingers knew what they were doing and worked with an adeptness I'd seldom encountered in human barbers. Rris learned how to take care of their fur early in life. And now I found myself relaxing under Maithris's ministrations as she combed and brushed and then the scissors started their work. I felt my shoulders loosen, a tension I hadn't been aware of leeching out of my limbs as I sagged and leaned back into the attention, letting her hand tilt my head as she needed. I was half-asleep when she touched my neck and brushed away bits of hair: "Mikah?"

"Uhn?" I complained.

"Enjoying it, huhn?" She rumbled in my ear. "Your face now."

"Hmm?" I blinked, more awake now and Mai chittered and stroked my shoulder. "Your face? Your fur there needs some work. I might as well do that now. Lie down."

I hesitated, flashing on Chihirae asking the same thing. Maybe it was just the way they preferred to work. Whatever, it was comfortable, especially with the carpet. Maithris shifted to kneel at my head and I blinked up at the shadowy and foreshortened figure that loomed over me, the upside-down face with that ridiculous ceiling lamp a clumsy halo in the background. Her muzzle pursed in a smile, before she touched my beard, curled fingers underneath to fluff it out. Claws touched my throat and I flinched involuntarily.

Immediately her hands pulled away. "Sorry," she said and her fingers moved more carefully. Especially when she took up the scissors again: the sharp metal moved steadily while I laid back and watched her amber eyes behind the spectacles, intent on their work. The spark that burned in there was that same undefinable glimmer that seperated humans from beasts, but those eyes were so different.

I reached up and she froze when I touched her lower jaw, just stroked the fur there. It was like velvet in places: short and soft, a vein pulsing, a faint tremble. . .

She caught my hand and for a few seconds studied my fingertips before meeting my eyes. "Feels different, a?"

I closed my captured hand in a 'yes', and she flashed me a small grin, then let me go. The scissors worked again, trimming it down to an inch or so: a length that could be mistaken for a Rris's facial fur. I wasn't a Rris, but nevertheless they still did all they could to change me into something that might make me a bit more acceptable in their eyes. And when she was done I caught her hand before she could put the tools away.

"Mikah?" Something that could have been worry flickered behind her glasses. I gestured at the cloth where I'd been sitting, now littered with clippings of hair.

Reluctantly she sat, then tried to twist when I perched on the edge of the desk behind her and gently tugged at her linen vest. She hesitated before shrugging out of it. Not quite as relaxed as she pretended to be, but she was trying. I touched her shoulder and her hide twitched. I stroked the fur, tawny and sienna and grey, feeling the coarse hair on the outside and the softer insulating layers further in before I picked up a comb: very short, closely-spaced teeth that seemed ideal for this.

Maithris said, "Ah?" when it touched her back, then a guttural, "Huhn," as it raked through and that tension eased a bit. After a few strokes she grunted when the comb caught on a burr. "Go with the [flow? current?] of the fur."

It took quite a while: her arms, her back down to her breeches. Her mane and the longer, lighter fur down her stomach were thicker, the fur was tougher than it looked. She gave me advice: what tools to use, how to twist the comb to get to the underlying layers. It took a while to work out tangles and twice I caught small scurrying specks and crushed them between my fingernails.

"They're good for something after all," Mai rumbled sleepily, now laying sprawled on her back while I groomed her front. Apart from those six nipples her torso was as androgynous as a treetrunk. Did they become tumescent during pregnancy? Another piece missing from my knowledge of Rris.

"What?" she asked and roused herself enough to touch her chest, where I was staring. "Ah, I'm not the female you were thinking of? Ai! Careful!"

I spent longer yanking that knot in her fur out than I needed to.

Section 123

Thankfully, that laryngitis was short lived. By the next morning it'd cleared up enough to just leave me with an annoying itch in my throat. It wasn't a very pleasant way to learn what my limits were, but from then on the Rris paid more attention when I asked for a break for a drink. They just hadn't realised that for me, speaking their language was a task that didn't come as naturally.

The following days held more meetings and another grilling in front of the assembly in the University auditorium. Private meetings. . . well that depended upon the Rris I was talking with. Some were easier to get along with than others: there were those who settled down readily enough, while others were simply in-your-face abusive in their insistance on treating me like a clever animal. Three times I just walked out of an interview, much to the clients' fury and my hosts' annoyance.

I'd forgotten about the time off I was due.

Section 124

I woke suddenly and sat bolt-upright in bed, the sheets rucked up around me and my heart pounding. The room was warm with a musty heat. Midmorning sunlight was glowing through the drapes, a sliver finding its way through a chink and splitting a bright line across the ceiling. Midmorning? I wasn't supposed to still be in bed. Why hadn't someone woken me? I was supposed to be. . .

I wasn't supposed to be anywhere. The memory rose like a cool spring to drown the surge of panic. Slowly, I heaved a sigh, then flopped back onto the sheets, naked in the warmth of the room. God, I wasn't supposed to be anywhere. A day off, some time I could call my own. After that week it was a welcome thought.

A scratch sounded at the door across the room.

"Uhn? Who's there?" I didn't feel like raising my voice. Needn't have worried, with Rris hearing being what it is.

"Mikah?" the muffled reply came. "It's me."

Me? Maithris. She breezed into the room with a breakfast tray and an open smile. "Why aren't you up?" she asked as she set the tray down and went to throw the drapes open. I winced and turned away from the glare. "You don't want to miss the best of the day."

I squinted into the light that lit Maithris's fur with a halo of white. "What time is it anyway?"

"Time you got out of that bed."

"Hnn. Give me a good reason."

"Saaa. That's a tricky one." She sat in the window alcove and stretched out, seemingly unconcerned as she brushed at an invisible speck on her emerald green breeches. "I thought you wanted to see more of the town, but if you'd rather lie there like a hairless accident victim. . ."

I blinked: "You know, that's a good reason." The bed creaked as I sat up, cross-legged among the sheets, "You're serious? I'm allowed to go into the town?"

She smiled, looking for all the world like the proverbial cat with the proverbial yellow feathers hanging out of her mouth. "I'm serious."

There was a catch. Somewhere, there was a catch. "How many guards?"

"Ah. A couple. A few. Not too many though."

"How many?"

"Four," she said, then waved an apologetic shrug. "Sorry. They insisted."

I sighed and scratched at an itch on my leg. "Only four? Why am I not surprised?"

She leaned her head back and her jaw spasmed as she chittered laughter. "Then you don't want to go?"

"Hey, I never said that."

"Then you might want to get some clothes on. I think people would laugh their jaws off if you show yourself like that."

"At least I don't have to worry about getting my tail caught in a door, " I retorted lightly.

"Saa. You can only dream of having a tail like this," she said smugly and flicked her's around to preen the white tip.

"I'm happy as I am, thank you, you walking rug," I smiled as I got up and stretched, my joints and tendons crackling audibly. Maithris cocked her head as she regarded me with an expression that might have carried a pinch of amusement while I dressed.

Later, we walked through the corridors of power, following halls through the heart of the Palace. Windows to my right looked out into the central courtyard where Maithris and I'd walked and talked those weeks ago. The geometric layout of the paths was more obvious from up here, the carefully-restrained wilderness of the greenery less so. Down a staircase to the ground floor, then through panelled halls to the northern trade entrance. A squad of mounted guards were waiting in the courtyard there, along with a carriage that could only be for us.

It wasn't as ornate as some of the others I'd been in, probably for a good reason. This carriage was panelled, the dark wood glowing with a rich gloss. The trimmings were brass, sunlight throwing molten highlights from polished lamp-brackets, handles, rivet and bolt heads. A guard was holding the door open, standing at attention as we approached. When the penny dropped I grinned, hastily smothered the expression: "Hi, Blunt. How are the swimming lessons going?"

"Sir," he ducked his head, "I really don't want to see that much water ever again."

I chuckled and offered Maithris my hand to help her step up. She looked a bit puzzled, then lightly bounced up into the cab as if her legs were spring steel. I shrugged and clambered in after her, setting the carriage rocking on its suspension. While I sat myself down on the upholstered bench opposite Mai, Blunt closed the door behind us. I was surprised to note this carriage didn't have those warped windows that the Rris used for privacy. Instead of glass panes the windows were covered with intricate wooden screens: delicate patterns of curlicues, plant blosoms and leaves. A lot of them, providing an excellent view of the world. I touched the screen to my right, feeling the breeze blowing straight through, able so see out easily enough, but anyone outside would have trouble seeing just who was riding in the cab.

"You know him?" Maithris asked, nodding her head toward the door.

"We went swimming together," I said. "You remember?"

"Ah, yes. That one." She flicked her ears and craned across to look out after him. "Huhn, good-looking," she said, falling back into her seat as outside a Rris barked something and the carriage moved off with a jolt.

"Is he?" I raised an eyebrow, wondering what she found attractive in a man.

And she looked at me, amusement flickering her ears. "Yes, very. And don't worry. You're still. . . unique."

"Ah. 'Unique'," I nodded. "That 's very diplomatic."

She smiled then reach over to pat my knee, "But you've got beautiful fur."

"Oh, that's all right then," I said and heard her chitter out loud as I turned to watch what was happening outside.

It took a couple of minutes to travel the length of the Palace drive. The light and dark flickering of treetrunks passing by outside paused, then we passed under the gatehouse and for a few seconds there was darkness and the echoing of hooves and wheels clattering on cobbles sounding off marble walls. Then sunlight flashed back into the cab and I could see guards, beyond them the wrought-iron fences of the Palace stretching away.

"This is the Swamp Way," Maithris told me. "It runs right to the gut of the city, through the Pinnacle Square and Smither Square. This area's the more expensive part of the city. Some of the manors along here are ancestoral Clan homes. Very affluent lines."

I'd seen that on the way in. Most of the places were fronted with brick walls or spike-topped iron fences. Invariably, beyond those were abundent hedgerows and trees, hiding all but the distant peaked roofs from eyes on the road. How many times had I made this same journey and never seen any of these things? All those times I'd been bottled up behind that murkey glass, seeing shapes and forms, but never what was actually there. Now, I could see the weather vanes on roofs, different shapes riding the arrows: a crouching Rris pointing, an albatross or some other seabird, a bear. . . I saw the wrought-iron gates on one place being opened to let a carriage and its entourage exit.

"Sometimes this area is called the Rocks," Mai said, "sometimes the Nipple."

"Nipple?" I wondered if I'd heard that right.

"A," she chuckled and gestured to one of her lower ones. "As in the people living here suckling off the milk of the city."

Ah, a sort of derogatory term.

We were driving on the left-hand side of the road, I noticed. Past the last of the estates the carriage passed between the old towers. "Part of the old wall," Mai said as I craned to see the top. "Before my time. Hundreds of years before."

"Is there a lot of use for city walls?"

"Well. . . before these were built, I know there were several battles fought around Shattered Water and the city was invaded twice, I think. Afterwards. . . Land-of-Water kept their fighting on the borders, or did the fighting in the marketplaces and conference tables." She grinned, "But for the hundred years they stood, those walls never fell."

The birches along the boulevard were in full leaf, greenery and shade waving in the wind. Other traffic passed us: wagons and carts, buggies and carriages; Rris mounted on llamas and elk, others out on foot. The buildings here were the large, spreading types so prevalent in Rris construction. The facades were decorated, but what windows there were were small. Glazed though.

"Guild buildings, most of them," Mai had scooted over and was sitting directly opposite so our knees were barely touching. "That's the. . ."

"Printing Guild?" I provided, noticing the plaque fixed to the front of the building as we passed.

"Right," she looked surprised, then squinted at a passing building. "You can read them?"

"Uh, some. It's easier to see the pictures," I said, referring to the little icon of what was unmistakably a printing press that'd been stamped above the text.

"But from here?" she blinked at me, then gave an abrupt little shake of her head and turned to look out the window again. The screen threw a paisley texture of light and shadow across the profile of her muzzle, glimmering on her eyes. "Anyway, the more prominent Guilds have their halls around Pinnacle Square."

"The Mediators?" I asked out of curiosity.

Her ears flicked. "Ah, they do tend to keep to themselves. Their hall is further over toward the river." She gestured to the south.

Pinnacle Square wasn't a square. Instead it was circle that for some reason reminded me a little of a Trivial Pursuit board. A large circular plaza with roads radiating from a ring-road like rays from the sun: four large thoroughfares leading to the cardinal points of the compass and a host of smaller streets branching off in all directions. The pie-slice shaped wedges they divided the plaza into were used as parkland, planted with the preffered unkempt grass and trees, seperated by broad malls. I could see cubs frolicking among the greenery, chasing a brightly colored ball. One caught it, then was brought to the ground in a tumbling cloud of dust when a playmate caught its tail and yanked hard. I winced, they played rough.

The monument in the centre of the plaza was. . . interesting. Atop a square dias about three meters high was a statue: a small group of five Rris, three facing outwards towards some unseen threat with claws bared and muscles visible beneath the stone fur, guarding their companions. One of those was tending to its comrade, obviously grievously wounded, with bones actually visible through gashes in arms and across the chest. Not a touch they'd allow on a public monument back home.

"The death of Ch'rothiyah aesh Tyi," Mai told me, "A queen some time ago. She died in a battle on the Bluebetter borders and the Chihiski dynasty succeeded her."

I stared at the statue, at the agonised face of a dying, long-dead Rris. I shuddered.

It took a while to follow the ring-road around the plaza. I was still used to cars, and while the carriage was better than walking, it wasn't what you could call speedy. Maybe fifteen kilometres an hour. I kept getting the feeling we should have gone further in the time we'd been travelling.

From Pinnacle Square we continued south, to Smither Square. Again, it was circular, the birch and oak trees lining the shady avenues and around the square the fountains were filling the air with mist and rainbows.

Fountains. Dozens of them. Jets of water arching ten meters into the air where wind caught them and tore them to droplets and mist that refracted light into fans of spectral color. Marble took on a sheen like dolphin skin in the amalgam of sunlight and moisture, the statues of Rris in various poses around more abstract shapes.

"Have you seen this before?" Mai asked. "What do you think?"

I leaned back in my seat, swaying in time to the movement of the carriage. "I'm impressed. Last time I saw this it was a lot of icicles. This is. . . quite beautiful. Where does the water come from."

She waved a shrug. "The river, I suppose."

Then how did they get the water pressure that high? Was there a pumping station just for these fountains. "Smither," I mused. "Is that related to Rraerch?"

"A Smither designed this," she gestured at the window. "I don't know if they're related. It's possible."

The carriage was turning off the square, still southbound. I guess they must have worked out a route beforehand, but now the road had changed to narrower streets. The cobbles were rougher and the buildings closer together: large buildings of brick, whitewashed plaster, even wood. There were a few small windows, the archways leading to the heart of the buildings usually open. I caught glimpses of the atriums those passageways opened onto, often with gardens, maybe statues, washing hanging out to dry. Once I saw a bedraggled and skinny Rris tucked away in the shadows of one of those tunnels, a ragged cloth pulled around its shoulders. It was rapidly rocking back and forth, not looking up as the carriage passed by. Elsewhere, Rris filled the streets, the sibilants of their conversation were a low backdrop to the clatterings of wheels and hooves on cobblestones.

"Is your home around here?" I asked Maithris.

"Here? No. I have a room across the river."

"Oh." The carriage hit a drain or some other rut in the road and we both caught at handgrips to keep from sliding across the upholstery. "Isn't that a long way to travel each day?"

Calm eyes blinked at me, not quite laughing. "I've been staying at the palace. Not quite as far to go."

"That does make more sense," I said, feeling a little foolish.

Outside, a congregation of Rris were gathered around a stall where a pair were bickering, their animated snarls carrying over the street sounds. Cubs ducked and darted around legs, dodging through traffic and pedestrians. There wasn't so much road traffic here, certainly not as much as back home. There were carts and wagons, but when they weren't present, the pedestrians used the roads as they willed. No sidewalks here; when there was traffic they just kept out of the way. The breeze blew in through the screens, bringing with it the smells of the Rris city: the scents of food cooking, fish frying, smells of animals and dung and sewers that perhaps weren't as good as they could have been.

The carriage paused, then turned left, and I saw we were travelling east along the riverside, the breeze carrying the smell of water and mud and fishing nets hanging out to dry. Not too far ahead was the first (last?) of the bridges across the river. Behind us. . . somewhere there'd be that isolated quayside from where I'd swum for my life.

"Is that the market?" I asked Mai, pointing at the jumble of colors and movement across the river.

"There?" her pupils dilated as she looked. "A. One of them. Fellwood Square market. We're bound that way."

A boat was setting out from the wharves, a small fishing vessel. Crewmembers pushed off with poles until the current caught the prow, swinging it downstream. Sideboards were dropped, stained and patched sails were run up the mast and the boom swung around, the small vessel listing slightly as it tacked further out into the main channel. Then the carriage swung onto the bridge and the boat was lost from sight.

"Redmale Bridge," Mai told me. "It's the newest of the four bridges. Built about twelve years ago."

The candence of wheels on cobbles changed to a hollower sound as we hit the flagstones. Wide enough for two lanes with sidewalks and stone balustrade. Gas lamps hung from ornate iron lamp posts, one about every twenty five meters. A pair of Rris were working on one: a Rris up a the ladder passing the glass cover down to an associate on the ground.

How many Rris does it take to change a lightbulb?

I smiled slightly and shook my head at the thought.

"Something wrong?" Mai asked.

"No, " I said. "No. . . it's just that. . . Sometimes I see things that're almost familiar. I just find it. . . out of place."

"You don't expect to see them?"

"There's that. But also, they seem so human. Seeing a Rris doing it. . ."

"What?"

"I don't know. I know it's what you always do, but it just feels odd."

She looked out the window on her side, eastward toward the heart of the town. "You're still not used to us, are you?"

"I'm not sure I ever will be."

The sound of the wheels changed again as the coach left the bridge. Off to the right was Fellwood Square market. Tents and stalls and awnings were everywhere, a garish circus of brightly colored cloth, patched cloth, patterns faded by sunlight. A lot of the stalls had signs painted on them, a few of which I was able to read : fish , wood , dairy products , tools . . . Rris moved among the stalls, Rris of all colors and shapes and sizes, talking, shouting, wheeling and dealing. Animals added their noises to the din, poultry screeching and draft animals lowing as they were displayed and examined. A peddlar approached the carriage, waving pieces of cloth from a tray around his neck. A guard on llamaback appeared from where they'd been following and headed the merchant off.

I watched all this, glimpsing Rris life through a window. As the carriage moved these things were being lost out of sight again. I was barely scratching the surface, there were depths to that market I'd never know.

I hesitated, then touched Maithris' leg. "Can we stop here? I'd like to see this."

She looked taken aback. "You want to get out?"

"Yes."

"Mikah," she looked out the window at the Rris there, then at me again. "That would be dangerous."

"Do you think it would cause a riot?"

"I don't know. I. . ."

"Neither do I," I told her. "I would like to. I'd like to know if I'll ever be able to walk down a street without causing a riot. I'd like to know if I can at least show my face in a public place, if I can lead something approaching a normal life."

She stared at me.

"Please," I asked. I didn't know what else to say.

For a second she didn't move, then reached up to tap on a small hatch. It flipped open and she said something to the coachman. The carriage rattled to a halt and a mounted guard rode up to Mai's window. Not Blunt. "Ma'am? There a problem?"

"We're getting out," she said.

I saw the guard glance toward the market. Already passerbys were glancing our way. "Ma'am? That's. . ."

Mai hissed something: low and fast. The guard's ears flattened, then it ducked its head in acknowledgement and reigned the llama around.

"Thank you," I told her.

The Rris doctor turned to me, her eyes trying to read my face. I'd asked, but I still felt fear, something I tried to hide and I don't know if I was altogether successful. "You're sure about this?" she asked.

"I think so."

"Think so," she sighed. "Mikah, I know you've been through this before, but you'll have to be careful."

"I know," I said and ticked off the points on my fingers: "Stay calm, move slowly, be polite, and don't smile."

She patted my knee, "I couldn't have put it better myself. You ready?"

"As ready as I'll ever be."

Maithris opened the door and looked around before stepping out. She hardly touched the step on her way to the ground, touching down as lightly as if she'd just stepped off a staircase instead of a half-metre drop. I followed, more slowly and the four guards closed in around us. I saw the squad leader give Mai a meaningful look that she shrugged off by simply turning her back. "Come on, Mikah."

I walked beside her as we crossed the street. A wagon rattled by on the other side of the road, heading back toward the bridge. The driver gave us a passing glance, then did a doubletake that under other conditions would have been hilarious. As it was his team veered and he had to haul them back on course or run into the market.

The reaction of the Rris wasn't too different from what I'd expected, from what I'd received before in Westwater and Lying Scales and numerous small settlements. Rris saw me, gawped, hissed urgently to their companions, and the turning heads spread through the crowd like ripples from stones dropped into water. I felt a touch on my arm and looked down; Mai smiled and gave me a reassuring squeeze.

Rris melted aside like ice from hot water as we entered the outskirts of the market. I couldn't be sure if it was the sight of me that did it or the quad of armed guards around us. I stared as much as the Rris did, trying to take in as much as I could. The sounds, the colors, scents. . . everything richer than I'd imagined: a living tapestry of infinite depth, infinite variety.

But for the Rris at my side, I'd never have seen this.

A Ris at one of the larger stalls stepped back as we approached, staring at me with wide eyes but not willing to dessert the stand. I stopped to look at the wares on display. Cutlery laid out in rows: bowls and utensils, lathed plates, wooden spoons shaped for Rris mouths. Hanging from the awning were more elaborate products: spoon handles embraced by carved Rris and animal shapes, pointillation patterns on pewter bowls. The owner didn't make any move to try and sell me anything.

We moved on and the crowd kept shifting, new Rris moving to stare while other shifted away. There were a few calls of, "Hai! What's that?"

"Where'd you get the pet?"

Things like that. We ignored them and if anyone got too excited, a hard look from a heavily armed guard usually calmed them down.

Elsewhere there were stalls selling meats, grains products, tools and utensils, pots and pans, and odds and ends that I could rightly identify. Vendors displayed samples of their crafts to advertise their services, everything from furniture to roof tiles. Enclosures held animals of various kinds, adding their noise and smells to the crowd. Rris dickered over wagons piled with stacks of milled lumber or quarried rocks. I noticed a small stall displaying grooming equipment and curiously headed in that direction. Mai looked around and hurried to join me.

Two Rris were behind the counter: a youth gaped at me and hurridly whispered to the older - much older - Rris in a dark brown tunic and seated in a rickety looking chair. The younger one broke off and took several steps backward as I approached, looking absolutely terrified with eyes wide and fur bottling. I ignored the youth and looked over the stuff on display. A selection of leather kits without tools in them, they were laid out seperately: scissors, combs, brushes, knives and tweezers. Simple and functional wood and metal.

"I hear you've got an unusual pet," the elder Rris said. I looked up, startled. It. . . she? Seemed to be addressing me. Then I saw her eyes: milky white. Blind, her ears twitching.

In afterthought, I probably shouldn't have, but before Mai could say anything I offered, "Yes. Quite unusual."

Mai stopped with her mouth open and gaped up at me, then her ears flickered and she had to turn away to smother a chitter.

"A. My eyes here said it seems quite fearsome."

"Oh, he knows how to behave," I said. Behind us the sound of the crowd had changed subtly as Rris stopped to witness this exchange.

"Good to hear," the old one said, then cocked her head slightly, those white eyes tracking across me. "If I may be so bold, you sound very. . . unusual. Are you ill?"

"Ah. A condition I've had from birth," I said. Well, it wasn't a lie.

"Huhn." She opened her mouth and licked a whitened muzzle. "Forgive me for mentioning it. I have a similar [affliction]." A bony arm with threadbare fur gestured at her eyes. "You are interested in my wares?"

"You made these?"

A dry chitter. "Myself? I can't tell night from day. No, I just sell to discriminating people such as yourself."

Mai looked like she was choking. The youngling watched wide-eyed.

"How much for brush and three combs? Those, near the back."

"Ah, good choice," she said. "Those. . . eight heads. Each."

I looked at Maithris. "Is that a lot?"

Still smiling, she glanced at the brushes. "I'd pay four. Each."

The blind Rris frowned and turned towards Mai's voice. "What's that? Who's that? Eyes! You said there was a lady and her pet."

"There are," the youth squeaked.

"He takes exception to that word," Mai said. "Three heads."

"How much is a head?" I asked.

"Fifty heads to a gold," she said.

"Good lady," the blind Rris appealed, "what is going on?"

"Okay," I said. That gave me some idea of just how much I was being paid now. Ten golds was. . . quite a lot by their standards. "Thank you for your time," I told the stall owner.

She gaped, then bared teeth that were still quite white. "What are you?"

"Curious," I said and walked off. Arguing voices rose from behind me.

Mai was at my side. "I thought you wanted to buy that."

I shrugged. "I don't have any money."

Now she looked surprised. "But you're being paid. . ."

"Yes, I just haven't been given any. I haven't really needed it."

She glanced around, watching a Rris who'd passed by quite close to us, then flicked her ears. "Rot it, they've set up a [something] for you. I should've thought they wouldn't give you [something] cash."

I turned that over, then had to say, "I didn't understand that."

A savings account, she explained. Or something close to that. My pay was most likely handled by the treasury. Unlike back home where my money probably wouldn't exist anywhere but in a computer, my pay would be in cash stored in the treasury strongboxes. Fair enough, but it'd be handy if some of that could be handed on to me.

"I'll see to it," she assured me.

"Maithris!"

We both looked around. A Rris hurried toward us, then hastily backpedalled when two guards stepped between us. "Maithris?" the Rris called eyeing the guards uncertainly.

"Hai! It's all right," she called and the guards reluctantly stepped aside. The stranger returned their wary stares and sidled past. "Eserét! Good meeting!"

"Good meeting indeed. Maithris, nobody's heard anything from you for weeks. Now. . . Where've you been? What's all this? And what is that?"

She chittered, "Ah, I've been busy."

"So busy you couldn't at least have let people know you were alive?" the newcomer asked, still staring at me. Male, it was a fairly safe bet; With fur the color of straw, white chest fur with a peppering of black vanishing into the waistband of a pair of somewhat stained brown leather breeches. His left ear was also black, the gold ring threaded through the edge a startling contrast.

"A job," Mai replied. "It came up quite unexpectedly. I didn't have time for farewells."

"Huhn. People were worried. But what were you doing? It has something to do with. . . this?" he looked me up and down. His eyes were a cutting green: not so common amongst Rris.

"Something, yes," she said. "Oh, and this has a name. Mikah, this is Eserét. He's an old friend."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," I said.

His ears sagged like limp dishcloths. "It talks," he said in a small voice.

I thought I saw Blunt snigger.

"A," Maithris gave me a resigned little smile, "he talks. His name's Mikah: my charge for the time."

"Charge?" he echoed. "You mean patient? That?"

"Don't be like that," Mai said, then looked thoughtfully at me. "He does take a little getting used to."

"Who?" I asked. "He or I?"

She chittered and slapped my arm in mock-reproach, then she glanced around at the growing crowd, frowned, then said to Eserét, "Come on, walk with us."

He hadn't taken his eyes off of me, even while we started walking. "Maithris. . . what is. . . he?"

"A friend," she said, and those words twanged a string inside me. "He's a h'an, something like that."

"So you're a vet now?"

Her ears laid back a bit and she waved a 'no'. "It's not like that. He's not an animal. Just. . . different."

Eserét cocked his head. "This has something to do with those ideas you were trying to [something]?"

"A bit," she said, and the expression her face was almost smugness.

"Hai, so you're going to collect from Chesai? That's not going to please him any."

Mai's face pursed up in a smile. "I'd forgotten about that."

"He'll certainly be trying to."

She smiled again, "I'll make sure he doesn't."

"I'd like to see that," Eserét said glanced at me again, then at the guards. "Does this has something to do with the Palace?"

"He's a guest there."

"And all their lordships who've been pouring in?"

"Not unrelated," she said. "There're a lot of people who want to talk with Mikah."

"Talk? About what?"

She waved a shrug. "Ideas," she said.

Confusion tipped his head. "He has a lot of those?"

A low rumble sounded from her, and she flashed me a quick sidelong glance, a small smile, "A, yes. He does. He hasn't seen much of the city though, so I thought he needed a guide for our trails."

"Ah. Anyplace in mind?"

"I don't know. Hai, Mikah, have you tried a roast tail before?"

"Roast tail?" I echoed somewhat dubiously, glancing at her own limb. "Uhm, I don't believe so."

She chittered amusement at my misunderstanding. "No, not that. It's just a name. Come on, I'll show you."

I smelt the stall before I saw it. One of those scents that reaches in through your nostrils and grabs your tastebuds. I wasn't the only one: I saw Eserét lick his chops as we approached. It was a wagon with a green fabric awning and three metal grills set over glowing coals on the cobbles outside. Whole haunches of animal meat were hanging from the wagon, more lay in sizzling rows on those grills. A pair of Rris were working with knives at a cutting block, cubing meat. The finished products were kept on stone warming slabs near the fires.

"Kebabs," I blinked.

"What?" Mai and Eserét said at the same time.

"You call them tail roast? My kind calls them something else."

Mai forestalled Eserét's obvious questions, "You like them? Yes? Come on."

The cooks gaped at me and I saw fingers flexing on the knives. I was very careful to look as unthreatening as I possibly could. Mai had to attract their attention then repeat her request twice before one of them backed over to place a stick back on the burner, then provided her and Eserét with a stick of diced meat. Two heads apiece. She fished in a small pouch at her belt and came up with some thin coppery-hued coins, counted them over carefully into a black palm-pad. The Rris clenched a fist around them and tucked them away into his own belt pouch, then pulled back to take the cooking stick off the grill. Mai accepted it from him, then handed it on to me.

A bit charred on the outside; pink on the inside. Sweet meat, with a slight tang and some pieces were tough to chew. I wondered just how long the meats had been hanging there without refrigeration and was doubly glad of the extra cooking. The sanitation didn't seem to concern Mai who was ripping into her's with gusto, champing away openmouthed on chunks of meat. Eserét was just as voracious in his consumption of the kebab, but he watched me while I worked at mine.

"You like that?" he asked after a while, speaking directly to me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mai's head come up, ears alert.

"It's good," I said, held up the kebab: the stick was a splinter, looked like it'd been hewn off a larger piece of wood. "What is it?"

"Ah. . . venison, I believe." He glanced around, as if thinking, I can't believe I'm having this conversation. . . "Do you know what that is?"

"I know," I said.

He ducked his head, worked on another mouthful, then looked at Mai, "I can owe you for this?"

"Why not?" She said. "You always have."

He looked a bit surprised. "So agreeable? You must be being well [something]."

Again she was faintly evasive. "I can feed myself."

I took another mouthful, looked around again at the gawping Rris. Somewhere along the way we'd picked up an entourage of cubs: a half-dozen animate bundles of fur with outsized hands and feet scurrying after us, high-pitched yips and snarls ringing above the other noises of the market as they shouted and laughed, skittering around and staring at me. I restrained an urge to throw them pieces of meat. A cub who didn't look any older than Feher or Chine had been darted past my legs and away between the guards. Mai aimed a swat that never came anywhere close and the cub ducked away, chittering while its friends shouted encouragement. I turned to look at them and beyond them the crowd shifted and I saw a Rris staring at me.

Tan clothing and brown, fawn fur, wide copper eyes. Something fell into place. Not so much the features but the stance, the expression, a flash of green stone before the crowd shifted again and closed around the individual. I kept staring. I felt I knew that Rris, and that knowledge stirred something else inside: a nervousness. . . no, something more than that; something that sent a cold chill right through me. I dropped my kebab.

"Mikah!" Mai hissed, then looked up at me and abruptly sobered. "Mikah? What is it?"

"Did you see. . ." I started to say but the Rris was gone.

"What?" Mai pressed.

"I saw. . . I thought I saw. . ." Other Rris shifted around, more hot amber eyes staring at me, the noises around me not sounding like any language I knew.

"Mikah?"

I shook myself, looked into another inhuman face and it I heard the blood pulse in my ears several times before something clicked and it was Maithris there, not just an alien.

And something in her face shifted also. "I think maybe we should go back now. Mikah?" The guards were watching me doubtfully.

I nodded faintly. "I. . ." I took a deep breath that helped a little. "Yes."

Her face set: "You've had enough. Eserét, it's been good seeing you."

He looked a little affronted, "Something I did?"

"No. No. Not you. Give my best to the pack, a?"

"I'll do that," he said and Mai handed him her food then took my arm, leaving Eserét staring after us with a kebab in each hand as the crowd slowly filled in around him again. Her sense of direction was good, better than mine; I was lost as she led the way through the maze of stalls and merchandise, cutting around and between stands. The market thinned, the press of Rris ebbing until we rounded a corner and saw the carriage waiting on the street alongside a cast iron lamp post.

Rris voices were shouting outside as I sat back on the upholstered seat, leaned my head back and closed my eyes. Presently the carriage rocked, the door closed and we started off. A couple of minutes and the only sounds were the wheels on cobblestones, the sounds of the city outside. Then a hand touched my knee: "Mikah?"

I didn't look, just said to the blackness behind my eyes, "I'm sorry."

A snort. "There's nothing to be sorry about." Then there was another silence before she asked, "What happened out there?"

I sighed, rolled my head around to look at her: huddled up into her corner of the carriage, hugging her knees with feet on the upholstery. "I thought I saw. . . I saw a Rris I thought I recognised."

"From where?"

"I don't know," I said.

"You might have seen them around the Palace."

Again: "I don't know. I don't think so."

She studied me again. "It frightened you, didn't it."

I remembered what those feelings were, looking at Mai and seeing nothing but an animal for that split second, and I felt ashamed. "It was. . . It was a reminder of where I am."

Her ears flickered. "You forgot?"

I gave her a small smile. "Sometimes you seem almost human."

"I'll take that as a compliment, thank you," her features pursed in a slight smile in return. Outside, the wheels rang hollowly on the bridge flagstones. Maithris caught my glance at the window. "I thought it might be better if we started back."

I almost started to protest, then nodded resignedly.

"It's not going anywhere," she assured me. "There'll be time enough."

Through the window grills behind her ornate street lamps kept time, passing by outside as the carriage progressed. Away on the horizon a boat unfurled sails: white sheets billowing into a stiff breeze.

Section 125

Through the window I saw the helmeted head of the guard at the shipyard gates turning to follow the carriage as we passed by. Animal hooves and wheels clattered on stone as we drew to a halt and then guards were there to open the door. I stepped down, blinking in the morning light as I looked around. The shipyard hadn't really changed much: there were still the brick walls and the wooden sheds, a few boats in docks and more under construction on the quayside. The sound of hammering rang out across the courtyard from one of the cradles where Rris were working on the superstructure; another was smearing something thick and tarry on hull planks. I set off along that familiar walk toward the workshops, the guards falling in behind me.

Smoke hazed the air inside the buildings. Sunbeams from the high windows transfixed it as phantom wisps wound in the draughts. As soon as I stepped inside I could smell burning charcoal, wood, hot metal. A few Rris workers moved around inside the shop, shadows through smoke and twilight: bent over workbenches, a steady ringing of metal on metal rising from where one was laboring at a small forge. The boat was nestled at the head of the slipway, the boards of the hull polished far more than I'd remembered and now with twin fluted smokestacks rising from the stern. They'd been doing some work.

"Mikah!"

A Rris figure vaulted out of the boat onto the scaffold, then down to the ground in a fluid movement like quicksilver on marble. "Suppuration take it, Mikah! It's been too long, " Chaeitch called as he came over. "Where've you been hiding yourself?"

I stared: the fur covering the left side of his face, chest and left arm was crisped to short curls. Black grease covered his hands. "What happened to you?"

"Ah?" he looked down at himself. "Oh, a bit of trouble with one of those furnaces you were talking about."

"Just about lit yourself up like a candle, you mean. " Rraerch appeared around the boat's prow. "A bit longer and you'd end up looking like Mikah."

"Then it wasn't all bad," I said and Chaeitch flicked a mock-glower at me.

A time of greeting and catching up. They hadn't been told exactly what had happened to me. They'd heard there'd been another attempt on my life, but that was the all of it. I didn't enlighten them, but Chaeitch still noticed the scars on my wrist and gave me a faintly puzzled look.

Then it was their turn to show me around the workshop and the boat. I was surprised at what they'd achieved while I was gone. There was a centrifugal govenor on the steam line now. The finishing on pipes and joints was of a much higher quality than the prototype I'd last seen; polished brass fittings, varnished wood, a cast-iorn boilerplate with a Rris head moulded around the door. No less than eight props were stacked round against walls and on the benches: all slightly different designs and sizes. Different models they'd been trialing. One thing I noticed that they didn't explain were the steam lines running to the foredeck. They weren't connected to anything but had sockets where something could be plugged in, along with reinforcing on the deck. I asked.

"A [something]," Chaitch told me, then saw I didn't understand. "For lifting heavy loads. Nets." He made winding motions with his hands. Ah, a winch or a crane. Interesting idea.

Improved alloys and tools meant that just about every piece of the boat and engine had been refitted at least twice. Stacks of old pipes were waiting to be carted back to the forges and melted down; bits of plating littered the workbenches; I recognised what had once been hoops securing the old boiler hanging from the walls.

Chaeitch had been working down inside the open hull. The top was off the gearbox, the planks alongside littered with papers covered with sketches and notes. The mechanism was a sliding-gear transmission, more complex than it'd been the last I'd seen it. "We tried stepping up the [ratios]," Chaeitch said. "The mills didn't seem to work as well at high speed."

Mills? That's what they were calling them. As in 'windmill'. And cavitation would be a problem, especially at high speed with propellers that were doubtless of less than optimal design. Nevertheless, what they'd done was still impressive.

Later, I joined the Rris up in Chaeitch's little office. The grimy window still hadn't been cleaned, giving a sepia-tinge to the light filtering through. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and not for the first time I wondered if Chaeitch had ever even thought about getting a cleaning service in.

Still, the desk and cushions were clean enough. Rraerch settled bonelessly to her cushion beside mine, hooking a leg across the other while on the other side of the low desk, Chaeitch produced a bottle from a drawer and laid it on the blotter. A trio of glasses followed.

I frowned. "I'm not supposed to. . ."

"I know what they said," Chaeitch said as glass clinked on glass. "They can go piss into the wind. Have a drink."

Rraerch lifted her glass and readily did as he suggested. I sipped mine, then took a longer pull. "I thought this would be a good for those rare occasions," Chaeitch said. "And this seems as appropriate as any."

"Where've you been, anyway?" Rraerch asked. "It's been difficult getting an answer out of anyone. I heard there was a disturbance during a banquet. A foreigner attacked you? Something like that?"

"No," I shook my head and looked down into my wine: swirling ruby liquid. I shuddered. "No. Not that. I. . . I was ill."

"I see they got you your own personal physician," Rraerch smiled.

"Ah," Chaeitch chittered then. "And a nice thing she is too."

"Hnn? You found yourself a lover, Mikah?" Rraerch smiled and twitched her ears. Teasing: I felt a hot flush prickling around the back of my neck and hastily took another drink.

"Is that all you can ever think about?" Chaeitch berated her.

"You know, I do believe it is," she responded cheerfully, raising her cup again.

He snorted and made a gesture toward her, a mock slashing movement without claws extruded, then asked me, "Who is she anyway?"

"Her name's Maithris. I met her a while back; after that attack on the carriages."

"Hnn?" He looked surprised. "That one? How did she come to be looking after you? I'd have thought the Palace would have all the physicians it needs."

I shrugged. "I'm not entirely sure myself. She requested it."

Ears went up. "She likes you?" Chaeitch asked, then caught Rraerch's look. "Ah, sorry. I didn't mean it to sound like that."

"I know," I smiled slightly. "I felt the same way. It's not. . . usual."

"A, you do take some getting used to," he said and Rraerch chittered and asked, "So, you like her?"

Again I glanced for answers in my drink and looked up to questioning faces: "Yes. I do. I think I've been alone too long."

"Helps to have friends," Rraerch murmured, then reached out and a clawed hand gently patted my knee. "Hai, you may look different, but inside there, you're a good person." She lapped a sip from her glass then cocked her head and studied me thoughfully. "There are a lot of Rris I couldn't say as much for."

I had to smile. "Thank's."

"Careful," Chaeitch warned me, "I think she's getting warm for you."

And Rraerch snorted into her drink. "And you say my mind's on the mattress. Beside, he's got himself female companionship for the moment."

"Hey, We're just good friends," I said.

"That's one name for it, I suppose," Rraerch smiled at me over the lip of her glass.

Not serious. I'd realised that quicky enough; just an exchange of banter and some innuendo. The drink probably did its bit, but I found myself relaxing with the Rris and it didn't matter what they looked like, I was just sitting back enjoying a good drop with some friends. Eventually, the conversation meandered around to more serious matters: the current work and ideas for the near future.

The boat would be making its maiden voyage in a few months, after a few more trials. Not too far: along the lake network to an as-yet undisclosed destination. Chaeitch was also interested in converting the engine for use on a railroad. I learned that the idea had already been tried by the Rris. Already there were over a dozen miles of line running out of Blizzard's Coat over on lake Tailtied along with some old-model engines. The project had met with limited success, as the engines couldn't handle gradients of even .25, so they were only used for ferrying heavy goods to and from the docks and along the Blizzard [Niagara] river. Now Rraerch was petitioning for government subsidies in expanding that line along the Blizzard river toward Shattered Water.

Still, the pair had their reigns. Both Chaeitch and Rraerch were working to an agenda dictated by higher powers: the Palace, their shareholders and sponsors. Steam engines were high on that list, as were other power supplies. Chaeitch was trying to get a grip on understanding electrical power, something that'd require more time before any serious could be attempted, but he had plans for an experimental telegraph system. Rraerch had funding to produce a series of hulls and steam engines, larger than the current test bed and with more power, cargo space and capabilities. She asked about hull construction techniques, also about our use of sails. I think she was slightly disturbed to learn that apart from recreational use, they didn't play much of a part in my society at all. For a person from a culture where the wind and water are the lifeblood of society I guess that the news that windpower can be superseded might be a little upsetting.

And that afternoon, after a bit of talk and more than a bit of alcohol in the form of a very palatable wine, I realised that there was no reason I couldn't change other things. And they didn't have to be as dry and indiffiferent as metal and wood.

Section 126

First came the sound of voices outside, a familiar chitter of laughter, then the scratch at the door.

I looked up from the papers on the desk and stretched with the warmth of the afternoon sun on my back, then glanced at my watch: right on time. "It's open," I called.

"I'd be surprised if it was otherwise," came the cheerful reply as Maithris poked her head around. "What does you kind say? He'o?"

"Hello yourself," I greeted her as she came in. "Grab a seat. I'll just be a minute."

Maithris sat down opposite, watching as I carefully dipped a quill in the inkwell and scratched a few words on the paper. "What're you doing anyway?"

"Trying to use this damn pen," I grumbled as I finished the sentence, sprinkled a pinch of absorbant sand on the paper and funneled it back into the pot. I sat back and glumly surveyed my somewhat blotchy work. "I think I need more practice."

She also tipped her head, trying to see. "That's your writing?"

I nodded. "My name. I'm not so good at your kind. Anyway, it's just some ideas I wanted to keep straight in my head."

She blinked at me, maybe trying to see those ideas, then gave a small twitch of her ears. "You've been busy lately? I haven't seen a hair of you for what. . . Two days now?"

"Down at the shipyards again," I said.

"Sai," now she smiled. "I hear you're quite friendly with those two."

"You seem to hear a lot."

"With these?" She raised both hands to brush her tufted ears back, letting them spring back into place like a pair of Weebles, "How could I not?"

I had to grin at that and she affected a stern expression and motioned toward her mouth: I hastily rearranged my smile. "Anyway," she continued, "I also heard you wanted to see me about something."

"Yes." I glanced down at my hands, suddenly feeling awkward. She watched me, and with those amber eyes it was quite disconcerting. "I've got some time to myself now. I wondered if you'd like to watch some of the. . . plays I've got. Plays from my kind?"

She looked a bit surprised, then amusement pursed her features. "Of course. That'd be fun. Why'd you even have to ask?"

I gave an awkward shrug. "I don't know. I just thought you might have had something more important to do. Or you just didn't want to. . ."

"Enough," she chuckled, holding up a hand. "No, please. It sounds interesting. I haven't seen much of your kind. What kind of play?"

I just swept my hand toward the laptop: "Your choice."

So a few minutes later she was ensconced at the desk, the laptop screen propped in front of her while she scrolled through the movie preview icons. I crouched beside her and answered questions:

"What's this one?"

"Ah, that's about a man who'd been a crippled as a soldier in a small, insignificant war. Now he works as a servant for a rich household. The story is about how he tries to. . . impress a woman who's already. . . taken by another man." Concepts I'd grown up with simply didn't translate into Rris.

Muzzle wrinkled and head tipped thoughtfully, then the next icon.

"Hai! Those look like Rris."

Hmm, the old Lion King. "Not quite. They are not-real characters. Animals shown to behave like people. It's a story for cubs, but it's also fun for elders; about growth and change and responsibilites and a people's place in the world."

"Animals?" She leaned forward to squint at the screen. "They look like people. Ah, they're the ones you told me about."

"A."

She cocked her head the other way. "Sounds quite intriguing. And what's this one?"

The scratch at the door interrupted my reply. Mai's head came up, her ears alert, "Who's that?"

"Don't worry," I smiled. "Just food. Good timing too."

She looked surprised, then interested as I answered the door. The Rris servant waititng there with the trolley ducked its head and watched me carefully. "I'll take it," I said and the servant backed off, looking a bit confused as I pulled the trolley inside and closed the door. The tray on the cart was silver, as was the cover, with a handle formed by a pair of entwined silver swan heads. Mai was standing, sniffing the air as I wheeled the trolley back and presented it to her, "I just thought we could use something to eat. Let's see if they got it right."

Raised the lid with a flourish. Hot steam and a mouthwatering familiar aroma rose into the air; Mai pulled her head back, looking almost comiclly startled.

"First time I've had pizza on a silver platter," I mused. "Doesn't look too bad."

Pizza. Jumbo sized. Already sliced. Tomato sauce, cheese, carefully selected garnishings and a plethora of meats. All laid out on a huge platter among silverware, fine china plates and fingerbowls with intricate gold and blue patterns. Maithris ran a shockingly pink tongue around her chops, then asked me, "What is that? A dish of your kind?"

"Sort of," I said. "A tradition. Something to eat while watching plays. If they got it right, that side should be cooked more to your taste."

She took the offered plate - somewhat dubiously - sniffed, then picked up the piece: awkwardly, considering the size of it. A lump of topping slid off the base and fell to the plate, but she managed a mouthful, chewed in the openmouthed way of all Rris, then swallowed and licked crumbs and cheese from the fur around her mouth: "It's good," was her verdict.

"Glad you approve," I smiled, then gestured at the laptop, "Shall we?"

"Certainly," she bowed, then took another bite from her pizza, licking her chops again. "And bring the rest of this stuff, ah?" Barely understandable through that mouthful.

The first film she settled on was - ironically enough - The Lion King. I wasn't too certain how she'd take it and kept an eye on her as the opening credits rolled. When she first saw the characters a visible flinch jolted her and she leaned forward, watching as the animated cubs romped.

"Do you want me to tell you what they're saying?" I asked.

"Huhn?" She cocked her head, considering, then tipped her hand. "Ah. No, thank you. Just watch I think."

So we did. Settled ourselves on the floor with a few pillows as cushions and leaning back against the foot of the bed. She sprawled out, bonelessly, her legs splayed and claws hooked into the carpet while the tray of pizza was sitting handy between us. The stuff wasn't half bad actually: the crust was different and the cheese had an unusual flavour, but all in all it was quite palatable. Besides, it was good to have a taste of home again, and this was as close as I'd been for a long time: Watching movies with a friend and eating junk food. All right, so there were a few niggling differences, such as the nature of my companion; but hey, those I could live with.

Anyway, Mai wasn't such an unappealing companion. I glanced across at her as she smiled, laughed at scenes that tickled her in some way, munched away on slices of pizza. A friend. No matter what she resembled, I liked her. If only she were. . .

No, that was getting into dangerous territory. A borderland where it might be possible to cross for a time, but anything beyond that was impossible. I'd been there once before and I didn't need it again, but it wasn't so easy to close the doors on those emotions.

I watched her wince as flames rose on the screen and Scar vanished for the last time. Yeah, he was scum, but he had style. The final credits scrolled onto the screen and her ears went back, "What's this?"

"The play's over. The names of the people who made this."

She watched for a few seconds. "There're a lot of them."

"It takes a lot of work to make something like that."

"Ah," She rubbed her muzzle, "I suppose it would. I wouldn't know where to start." Then she stretched her legs: one at a time, her peculiar feet pointed and quivering, held for a short time then lowered. "Sai. That was intended for cubs?"

"That was the idea. A lot of adults enjoy it though."

"All that for cubs. It was very. . ." She seemed to hunt for words, then said, "Mild, I think would be the word. No hunting, no blood. Violence was hidden. Real fighting is quite different. And no sex or real excitement."

I blinked. I'd never looked on it that way. What were Rris plays like? "It was intended for children."

She cocked her head. "So you said. You have different standards?"

"Don't you?"

"I don't think anyone makes entertainments especially for cubs. Maybe toys and songs and there are books for education, but not plays."

"Why not?"

Maithris waved a shrug. "The [something] are trying to make money. I dare say it would cost more to produce such a show than it would earn. Anyway, if they can they simply go to the ones that are showing."

"Do you have age limits for plays?"

She looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"Uhn. . .are there age restrictions? I mean, plays where only Rris over a certain age are allowed in?"

Now surprise widened her eyes. "What? Of course not. I think the idea is to try and attract as many people as possible. You mean your kind do that?"

I nodded. "As you said, that film doesn't have show violence or sex. Cubs' films don't."

It was her turn to ask, "Why?"

"It can be. . . disturbing. We try to keep them from. . . what is the word? Unpleasantness?"

She chittered at that. "Sex? Unpleasant?"

I shrugged slightly, "There are things they should learn about when they're a bit older."

"Huhn," she mulled that over, then flickered her ears and her muzzle pursed in a smile. "The differences between us run a lot deeper than simply looks, a?"

I returned a tight smile that I didn't entirely feel. "I'd noticed."

"Yes," she said slowly and then hesitated, looking to the screen where the Disney logo sedately rotated. "I suppose you would have," she said in a small voice, then smiled again. "Well, perhaps we could have a look at another play? Is there one you think's particulaly good?"

So, I showed her through some of the other films on the cards, translating the synopses for her until she picked one. Basic Instinct isn't my favourite film, in fact there're a lot I'd choose before that one: the only reason I had it on record was because I wanted to grab the leg-crossing scene and splice Elliot's head onto it. Don't ask: private joke. Still, it was her choice. Anyway, there'd be plenty of time to see the rest.

We finished the pizza in the first quarter. Mai watching wide-eyed and absently gnawing her way through slice after slice. Maybe the Lion King was entertaining, but it really didn't show anything of back home. Basic Instinct though, that had the cars and buildings, gadgetry and conveniences, the people, the sex and the murder. When the clothes came off Mai's ears went up. Then she said, "Oh."

A bit later, above the soundtrack from the bed: "That's a female, isn't it."

"That's right."

"But what's she. . .Huhn. . ." She trailed off and just stared with her head cocked and jaw slightly open.

She watched, and I could see confusion on her face as the film went on. Things like the car chases, the telephone conversations, they all needed explanations. I gave them when she asked, but for the most part she was content to watch the characters, all their running to and fro. Still, there was a reason that film had been so controversial, and that held just as much mystery for Maithris. I know a lot of it went right over her head: nuances and hints that I could read readily enough simply didn't register with her. The nototrious leg-crossing scene however, did elicit a confused expression, as did the final sex scene.

Mai blinked, then her ears tipped back. "Mikah," she asked slowly. "Why does she tie their hands? Is that. . . common?"

"Not uncommon. It's a. . . game. Showing dominance."

"Huhn," a low growl was all the opinion she offered as she watched Sharon Stone riding her partner, then: "Doesn't that hurt? I mean, [something] him like that?"

I remembered similar scenes with Jackie and gave a small chuckle, "Hurt? No." I didn't know what Rris male physiology was like in those areas, but by now I was quite sure it was considerably different from mine. "No. It's quite enjoyable."

She glanced at me, then back to the screen. Her ears laid back a little but she didn't say anything more until the titles ran. For a few seconds she blinked at them, then leaned back and stretched her arms out. "Your world. . . It's really like that? Those vehicles and buildings. . . so many paved roads. To hear you speak about it is one thing, but to see it. . ." she broke off and scratched at her neck. "Hai, I suppose to you it's quite normal."

"Ah, these plays," I gestured at the laptop, "usually. . . ah, try to make things look more interesting than they really are. It's as real as any story can be."

Mai just leaned back, staring up at the ceiling. "The story was about dominance, wasn't it. Control. Not just in the sex, but in their lives. That female was teasing the male, letting him get so close but no further. He was trying to think he was leading the hunt, but she had him following trails leading nowhere. Letting him believe he was in control and using that mistaken belief to lead him like reigns."

I looked at her, more than a little surprised. "I thought you couldn't speak my language."

The Rris doctor smiled. "I've seen enough of you and your expressions. I could understand some of theirs. A story about a state of mind; we have such, but I haven't heard of one so subtle. Using frustration as others might use a knife."

Sharon Stone, subtle? An alien with no understanding of the language and yet she'd picked out details I'd never considered. "You can see all that through expressions?"

She clicked teeth together in a snap at the air, then glanced sidelong at me. "They're something you have an abundance of. Once you're accustomed to them, they do say a lot about what goes on inside your head."

"Ah. And you're an expert on that, aren't you?" I teased.

"Perhaps in the differences," she retorted, then her pupils flickered to black in sudden distress and she turned away: suddenly interested in the outside sky. "It's getting dark. You think we'd have time to see another?"

I shrugged. "Sure. You like a drink? I'm afraid I can only offer water."

"Fine," she smiled and stretched a leg out, then pulled it back to her chest. "First though, I've got to urinate or something's going to burst."

While she was gone a menial came by to light the ceiling lamps, a touch with a burning taper on the end of a pole and the gas wicks glowed to life. The Rris servant ducked its head and left as silently as it had come. It didn't take long before the light drew the bugs, a half dozen butting against the ceiling and lamps and more bouncing off windowpanes. I paused before closing the drapes, watching the last of the sun vanishing beyond the silhouette of treetops in the west: a darkening sky, the underbellies of high wind-streaked cloud painted sienna and salmon by the setting sun. Shadows fluttered against the sunset as a few late birds retired to their roosts in the trees.

"Something interesting out there?" the voice behind me asked.

"Just a pleasant evening." I closed the windows, drew the curtains and turned back to Mai, who finished tying the drawstring on her breeches before perching herself at the foot of the bed. "You don't find it a bit warm?" she asked.

I smiled at that and raised an eyebrow: "What do you think?"

She hissed softly and scratched at a temple with a clawtip. "Foolish question, a?"

"I've heard worse," I assured her. "Now, you've chosen a story you'd like to see?"

"I don't know. . ." she hesitated. "Are there any you find amusing?"

"Ah," I grinned and knelt down at the keyboard to begin sorting through some of my clip files. "I think I can help you there. I've got some plays that're considered classic humor."

"There's no color," she said as the preview icons appeared on the desktop.

"No. They're from a long time ago; before they could. . . show color. There's no talking either, but I don't think that's going to matter. They're from when my kind first started making plays like this, but they're still amusing." I shrugged. "At least I think they are. I'm not sure you'll think the same."

"I'll try to understand them," Mai patted my head then scrambled down to sit beside me as the film started. She stared. For a while she watched the screen and I saw her jaw twitch, then she shuddered and chittered once; then again; and again.

I don't know what was funnier: Chaplin's slapstick antics, or the furry felid rolling around in helpless spasms of laughter.

Section 127

I'd spent enough time in the university, but this was the first time I'd actually gone in through the front door.

I sat back, watching with interest as the carriage turned and wrought iron gates passed by outside as we entered the university grounds. Gravel crunched and rattled under iron-bound wheels as we followed the short avenue through the grounds, a sound that changed to a low rumble on the flagstones paving the sweeping drive directly outside the main buildings.

"I didn't know this place was so big," Mai said as she peered through the windows.

"You haven't been here?"

"Could never afford it," she shrugged. The carriage rocked to a halt and she patted my leg, "Ah, well. Come along."

I ducked out of the carriage after her and stood in front of the university building, squinting into bright sunlight reflecting from white-framed windows in the sandy brick facade. Either a new building or it'd been recently refurbished. There were Rris around, entering or leving the building. A group on their way down the front steps stopped to gawp at me, moving aside as Mai and I passed them on our way to the front door.

It took a while to find the library. Two Rris we tried to ask didn't seem to want to stay around and talk. The first said it didn't know while the second uttered an inarticulate squeak and ran. Third time lucky: a group of seven younger Rris who didn't run. I heard their voices before they rounded a corner and stopped dead.

"Hai," Maithris took advantage of their surprise, "We're looking for Chirit ah Riers. You know where we might find him?"

They exchanged dubious looks, then one ventured, "Ah, his study's down the hall. Last door."

"Thank you," Mai smiled.

"Ah, sir," another Rris spoke up and I stopped, surprised that the Rris was addressing me. "Forgive my asking, but you know Rehichia wasn't very happy about what happened at his seminar?"

"No?" So, he'd found out. "Good. I can't say I was either."

"So we noticed." That muttered aside drew a couple of chitters.

"Sir?" another Rris student - small, slender build with light greyish fur peppered with black - watched me with green eyes. "Is what they say about you true?"

I carefully waved a Rris shrug. "I don't know. What do 'they' say?"

Chitters, and the Rris ducked its head. "You're an ape?"

Mai winced.

"Ape." I chewed the word and smiled with restraint. "I'm an ape in the same way Rris are those skeletons Rehichia showed. It was a very long time ago."

"Ah. You look different." Eyes looked me up and down. "Don't you get cold without fur?"

I glanced at Mai, "Why does everyone ask that?"

Now she shrugged. "I really couldn't imagine. Now, I'm sorry, but ah Riers probably doesn't want to wait around for the rest of the day. Mikah?"

"Yeah, You're right," I sighed and bade the students farewell: "Good meeting you."

"Ah, it was," the gray furred one said as I walked off with Mai. Chitters rose from behind and I wasn't sure if they were making fun of me or not.

A claw nicked my arm. "Made a friend, a?" Mai smiled at me.

"Did I?"

She snorted. "You saw. She was quite interested in you."

"She? That was a female?" I considered that for a second, then shrugged. "I suppose I am a bit more interesting to look at than most Rris."

Mai hissed and took a swipe at a wall, claws retracted so her fingertips just slapped wood. "She," she chittered. "Of course that was a female. You still can't tell? And by 'interested' I mean she looked like she might have wanted to try something that tastes a little different."

"What?"

"She was looking for some spice, a?" Now she lolled her tongue at me.

"You mean it was sexual?"

"A," she smirked.

"You. . . she. . . She was coming on to me?" I looked back down the hall, but of course they were gone.

"Whatever that means," she said. "Why so surprised? Looking at your entertainments, it could be hard to imagine your kind thinks about anything else."

"Oh, very amusing," I growled and she laughed even as we reached the last door in the corridor. She scratched above the latch and a muffled reply sound from inside.

The door squeaked a bit and I followed Maithris into gloom; bumped into her when she stopped inside to look around. Some light filtered in through a small window, the only light in a room that seemed to be papered with glass fronted bookshelves. All of these were filled to overflowing with books, scrolls, and sheaves of parchment. What didn't fit into those shelves sought refuge on the desk opposite the door. Unusual: it wasn't one of the low desks that seemed the norm for Rris, one that required you to sit on a floor cushion. Instead, it looked like something that could have come straight out of a human executive's office, a huge old- looking thing fronted with heavy mahogany panels, the wood matching that of the two low chairs set before it. The desktop itself was lost benetah teetering stacks of leather-bound volumes and slim folios that formed a parapet around the edges of the desk from behind which a frazzled Rris's face looked up at us. "I was expecting you a while ago," Chirit said.

Maithris ducked her head. "Apologies, Sir. This place is bigger than I thought."

He chuckled softly. "Ah. Strangers can find it confusing. Mikah, I haven't seen you since Rehichia's seminar."

I sighed. "Everyone seems to remember that," I said.

"Huhn. Good to see that [something] fool have some of the air taken out of him," the elderly Rris snorted. I felt slightly confused: Kh'hitch had reamed me out for that tomfoolery, but most other Rris seemed far from bothered by it. "Be seated," he offered.

I had to pick up an armload of papers from my chair, looked around for a place to set it before finally placing it on the floor. The upholstery was worn, the stuffing so compacted that it felt like I was sitting on wood, save this wood had been shaped by inhuman rear ends. Not so comfortable. Mai also squirmed a bit and her tail looped out through a groove in the back.

"Now, business," Chirit continued. "You requested to see the archives?"

"Yes, sir," Maithris said and glanced at me. "Mikah, he has a question. I think the only answer might be here."

"And this question?"

"Has there ever been anything like him recorded? Anything nobody could explain?"

A slow exhalation of breath. "You're not the only one asking that. His highness has had a group working on that question for some time now. Plenty of strange happenings in the records, but as yet nothing like him."

I hadn't expected much more, but, "Perhaps I could look at a few," I offered. "I might recognise something. . . I don't know, I might see something that means more to me than it would to Rris."

He cocked his head and one hand came up to stroke his greying cheek tufts. "You believe there's much chance of that?"

I glanced at Mai, then looked away and shook my head. No, there wasn't much chance at all.

"Sir," she said. "There might be something that's been missed. There might be some scent that'll tell us what happened to him." Then she touched my arm and squeezed gently as she said, "He hasn't many other hopes."

Chirit ducked his head: "By all means." Then he stood, using the side of the desk to lever himself to his feet, growling a bit as he did so. "I can show you what we have, but there's so much to be sorted. . . it will take a long time."

He had a walking stick propped beside the desk, a tool he leaned heavily on and I saw his left hand and arm carried a long strip where the fur didn't grow. I guess I was staring because he said to me, "Altercation with someone who was a better bladesman than I. What about your face?"

"Altercation with someone who had bigger teeth than I," I said.

Chirit's head went back, the pupils of his eyes dilated to all but blot out the amber that was usually there. Maithris gave me a look and I realised than mentioning fighting Rris might not have been the smartest move. For a few seconds Chirit studied me, then relaxed and snorted. "Huhn. Come on."

It was just down the hall. A glass-panelled door that led down a short wooden staircase and along another hall. I caught glimpses of some of the rooms off to either side: storerooms they looked like, stacks of cloth, or boxes, bottles. A few workrooms with benches and tools hung carefully on the walls. The smell was musty, like dust and old leather and stronger, chemical scents. A utility corridor, the door at the end opening into the university library.

Not as ornate as the Palace library, it had a newer look and feel about it. The high ceiling and the upper walls were plastered and whitewashed, a brilliant white in the illumination from skylights. The main room was a rectangle with various antechambers and vestibules branching off down its length. Shelves filled all other available wall space. Dark wood and brass railings polished to a sheen. Spines of paper and colored leather - black, red, green, gold and brown, thousands of them, lined on shelves racked up so high they'd have to use footladders to reach the upper ones. Tables were arranged down the centre of the library, the low-style with floor cushions and perhaps a dozen Rris poring over books. Heads lifted at the sound of Chirit's stick on the floor as he led us toward the back of the libarary, a low susurration filled the room behind us.

Mai glanced up at me: just checking. I returned a tight smile.

Chirit led us to some private studies set toward the rear of the library: small rooms with reading tables, lamps and cushions and doors, set up for seclusion, quiet and privacy. The eldery Rris opened the door to the last and I heard a startled yelp, then, "Sir. I wasn't expecting. . . Sai!"

That exclamation sounded when I ducked through the door. A Rris was standing where it'd apprently jumped up from a low table scattered with literature, unrolled scrolls and writing equipment. A slate chalkboard hanging from the wall was covered with Rris text, some parts circled or underlined.

"That's him, isn't it." The Rris was staring at me, ears slowly coming up again. "That's what this is all about?"

"A, that's him," Chirit said. "Mikah, aesh Teremae, this is Makepeace. . ."

"Makepeace?" I blinked, not sure if I'd translated correctly. The Rris all looked at me.

"Yes," Chirit said. "Makepeace."

"Okay." I almost made a crack about something that'd be completely meaningless to them, then shrugged. "Makepeace. Why not?"

Chirit coughed, then continued. "Makepeace has been hunting the archives for any references she can find. I think you'll want to talk to her about her findings, so I'll leave you in her care. Makepeace, I expect you to afford our guests every courtesy."

"Of course," she ducked her head.

"How many are working on this?" Mai asked. "Not just her, surely?"

"Hai, no. Malichai and Hesk are hunting the archives at the moment and there are a dozen students involved; when their studies allow. Now, if you will excuse me?"

"Of course."

"Ma'am," Chirit flicked his ears at her, then started for the door. A moment's hesitation, then he turned back to me. "Best luck," he said, then was gone.

Best luck. I hoped I'd have it.

We sat, settling ourselves at the table. Makepeace settled as gracefully as a falling feather and watched as I took my place somewhat more awkwardly, flinched when I spoke. "Chirit explained what you've been doing. If you've found anything. . . I'd like to have a look at anything you've found."

"Sir," her hands busied themselves with scraps of paper, "There isn't much. Such an ambiguous request and there is so much to search. What we've found. . . we just don't know what we're looking for. . ."

"Makepeace," I interjected and she stopped her babbling. Scared, I recognised that look. "I don't bite."

"He's not as terrible as he looks," Mai chipped in.

"You flatterer, you," I grumbled.

She smiled. "You get used to him. Believe me. Now, what've you turned up?"

My time with Maithris had made me forget a few things. One of those was how strange Rris tended to react to my presence. Maithris's reassurances smoothed Makepeace's ruffled fur, but she still wasn't that comfortable addressing me. For the first hour or so, Maithris acted as a buffer between us: a go-between whom Makepeace found it easier to talk to.

They'd found a lot of reports of strange occurances. Reports of noises or lights or disturbances:

". . . and there was a noise of thunder in the night and the next day the milk cattle were dry."

". . . were fires throughout the town. . ."

". . . green lights around the guild gates. A steward was slightly burned when he struck it with a poker. . ."

"A hamlet was struck with an unknown illness. Several people were struck down with debilitating fevers. . ."

Hours later: Pages upon pages of notes and references of things like that. Some were unusual, inexplicable, or otherwise mysterious; many others were foolish or simply the results of ignorance. There were histories of strange animals, most of which had since been identified and in a few cases turned out to be outright hoaxes or jokes. But there was nothing that might have suggested the presence of another person. . . another human. Nothing that might have linked to a way home.

"You were really expecting something?" Maithris asked.

I rubbed my forehead and eyes, then sighed into my hands and raised my head, shook it: "It was a long shot."

"Long shot. . .? Ai, I understand." The weight of a furry hand settled on my shoulder and squeezed; claws nicked my skin through my shirt, "There's still a lot of places to search, and the other kingdoms might have something. I'm sure they'd be willing to search their own archives."

"Yeah," I flipped the notebook in front of me shut and patted her hand, held it for a second before she lowered it, then noticed Makepeace staring at us. "How much more stuff like this is there?" I asked.

"Uhnn," she blinked and tore her eyes off Mai's hand. "A lot, sir. We've still got most of the archives ahead of us."

"You see," Mai told me brightly. "There's still hope."

"Yes, there's still hope, " I replied with a small smile. "Just not much."

She looked a little pained, stared at me for a few seconds, then hissed air through closed teeth and turned to the other Rris: "Makepeace, thank you. You've been most helpful."

Makepeace ducked her head and said, "My job, Ma'am."

"Of course." Mai looked at the papers covering the table. "We'll doubtless be back again, but if you find anything. . ." She left that hanging. If they found anything, it was their choice whether or not the information made its way to us.

"Chirit will be told," Makepeace said and Mai tapped my arm, "Come on, there's nothing else we can do here."

"Thank you," I told Makepeace before we left her to get on with her work. As we walked away from the room we passed a pair of Rris who stopped to stare after us. I heard a few muted comments and turned to see them going into the room we'd just left: Makepeace's partners I guessed. Well, she'd have an interesting story for them.

"Not too disappointed?"

A tight smile. "It wasn't much more than I'd expected."

"Ah."

Faces turned to watch us as we left the library, as they all the way back to the front steps of the university. The carriage was still waiting, the river sitting up straight as we came out. A flick of the reigns, hooves and wheels rattling on flagstones as the carriage moved to draw up at the foot of the steps.

"Sai," Maithris touched my arm, a leathery finger tracing across my skin to get my attention. "Maybe you'd like to go somewhere?"

That caught my attention, "Such as?"

"Ah," she squinted up at the sun, the light awakening highlights in the fur of her muzzle. "Hungry? I know a place we can get some food."

"And they'd let me in?"

"Well, you've been there before."

I had to think for a second before the penny dropped. "There?" I asked incredulously.

"It might not look like much, but the food's good. Anyway, I've got friends there; they'll put you up. What do you say?"

What did I say? I was tired, disillusioned. It would have been easy to go back to my rooms and hide my head in the sand, ignore the alien around me, shelter from the world: a sure path back to the scars on my wrist. No, she was offering her friendship and I'd be a fool to refuse. I returned her smile:

"I say yes."

Section 128

"We'll be fine," Mai assured the captain.

The soldier looked uncertain. "Ma'am, we have our orders, and leaving you alone in there. . ." He gestured at the weather- stained tavern, the facade with the stuffed bird above the door bathed in the warmth of the setting sun. Wisps of clouds in the otherwise clear sky beyond the red-tiled roof reflected golden light.

"In there are my friends," she replied. "Nothing's going to happen."

"Ma'am. You can't be certain. And I was ordered. . ."

"And you know the authority his highness vested me," she growled.

The captain went rigid, then his ears laid back as he ducked his head. "Yes, ma'am. We'll wait."

His tail was lashing as he went to rejoin his squad. Mai came over to where I was waiting. "No problems," she said.

"He seems to think there is," I observed, then looked at her curiously: "What did you mean, about your authority?"

She waved a shrug, "Time for that later, ah? Come on, you might be able to go all day without eating, but I'm hungry." She took a few steps, then looked back, "You're coming?"

I rolled my eyes, then hurried to catch up with her.

The reaction when we stepped inside was predictable. There were maybe twenty five or thirty Rris at tables and booths around the room. Conversation around the tavern died, ripples of silence spreading around the room as they saw us, saw me. The crackling of the fire in the hearth was loud in the stillness, the smell of food mingling with the scent of a large number of Rris: not the most appealing aroma. I looked to Mai for her cue and saw her ears had gone down. I guess she hadn't expected such a reaction, but if she was going to take me to places like this, she'd better get used to it. It was brighter in there than it'd been the last time I'd visited: Light slanted in through the front windows, sunbeams visible in the smoky air.

"Maithris?" a voice ventured from the back of the room and I saw several Rris flinch at the sound. "Hai! Maithris!"

The Rris who'd called out was one of a group at a table back toward the fire. The caller's tablemates all looked at it as if they though it were crazy.

"You remember Eserét," Maithris murmured to me. "Come along."

I stayed at her side as we threaded our way through the room, accompanied by the sound of furniture scraping on the floor as patrons shied away from me and the low murmur that spread in our wake. Rris all around stared openly, including those sitting with Eserét. Five of them. Of the Rris gathered at that table I only recognised Eserét, that one from the market with his dark left ear and the gold ring threaded through it. The others were strangers, sitting with their food forgotten on the plates before them as they watched me.

One of them, wearing a tie-died tunic trimmed with what looked like hemp rope, looked at Eserét and twitched his ears my way: "That's what you were talking about?"

"Huhn, I told you," he snorted, staring as we approached. "Maithris, what're you doing here?"

She cocked her head, "Same thing you are, I'd expect. We thought we'd hunt down some good food. So, what sort of mood is Yischas in?"

"Hnnn," he looked down at his plate and the half-eaten meat there. "Hurried, I think."

Another Rris, a smoking corncob pipe in his hand, leaned forward: "Hai,