Storms Over Open Fields

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Section 1

A scorching sun blazed down from a perfectly clear blue sky. Drifting pollen and the glittering specks of droning and darting insects filled the air that shimmered in the heat rising from the earth. I ran. Golden grass and packed dirt pounded under my feet, puffs of warm dust coating my legs. Heat sucked rivulets of sweat that evaporated almost immediately from my bare shoulders. I drew lungfuls of hot spring air and leaned into the corner, trying to keep the pace up.

The big cat chasing a few steps behind snarled and coughed. Teeth flashed in the gaping maw, a strand of spittle dangling from the jaw. Claws in the broad toes caught the turf as the long legs flashed, the tail lashing for balance as he drew closer in a burst of speed that proved to be the final straw. His gait faltered as he staggered and dropped aside. I turned to see him bending over with hands on knees as he wheezed.

"Rot you," I heard him gasp between breaths. "Enough!"

"Come on," I grinned, jogging in place. "That was only three laps. You did better last time."

Chaeitch hissed something obscene, flagged me away with a disgusted wave before sprawling himself out in the shade of the old pine. Turning himself into a bundle of tawny gold almost lost against the summer-burnt grass.

I went to do another three laps of the field. Chaeitch ah Ties. He wasn't human, but he was one of the oldest friends I had in this world; one of the few Rris I felt I could genuinely catalogue as 'friend'. We'd met during my early days in the alien city of Shattered Water, when we'd been thrust together in a working relationship that hadn't been entire amicable. Things had changed. He'd been open-minded toward me, someone to talk to. We'd become drinking buddies and I'd found he was quite willing to help me, to answer the questions I had about his world. Amused and bemused at times, certainly, but not judgemental. Now, we still worked together, but I'd come to consider him a good friend.

What he considered me was a little more difficult to define. Rris minds don't work like human ones. Yet he acted like a friend, so that's the slot I filed him under.

Rris. What to say about Rris? They're evolved felines, that's a good start. Whereas back home apes had clambered and screeched to sapient ascendancy, here a species of proto- feline had made the same transition to tool user. They're superficially similar to lynxes, with the same tufted feline features. But to say they're lynxes is to say that humans are chimpanzees. There's a family resemblance, but so much variation.

They have tails: sinewy tufted things that are as much a mirror of their emotions as our faces. They walk on two legs with a springing, toe-balanced gait and while their stamina leaves a bit to be desired, they are capable of amazing bursts of speed that would make a human Olympic sprinter want to rethink his career choices. Their fur and coloration can differ wildly depending on geographical adaptation. And they have needle teeth and razor claws, as the many scars I carry can testify.

They're a sharp people. And here they're people; they're the norm and I'm the exception.

How did I come here?

To tell the truth, I haven't the foggiest fucking idea. Whatever happened to me is something so far outside of my experience that I can't even hazard a guess. Two years ago I was hiking in Vermont and something happened. There was an accident of somekind that I only have the vaguest memories of, a massive discharge, a flash of light. When I woke, I was elsewhere, I was here. Things sort of snowballed from there.

Two years later I was stripped to the waist in the heat, jogging around one of the fields behind my more-than- adequate house. Chaeitch lounged in the shade under the tree, guzzled water and panted furiously as I pushed myself around the last two laps. He'd joined me on these workouts several times, but he never really seemed to get the point. So he blinked lazily as I eased on down and stretched, sweat rolling over old scars and war wounds, then wandered over to the parallel bar under the tree.

"You've changed a lot," he mused, looking me up and down. I could see his eyes flickering over the network of scars that covered me. "You're bigger than you used to be."

"Huhn," I grinned as I jumped up to catch the polished wooden bar. He was probably right. I never used to be able to do thirty pullups. No cars, TV, fast foods or other modern amenities really helped you get in shape. And there were other incentives to bulk up a little. "Clean living and being chased by Rris does that to you."

He didn't laugh at that. Oh yeah. My first few months, the first year here, had been something of a trial. The situation, the demands put on me, the assassination attempts... the world around me had all become too much. I'd cracked. Big time. That was another scar across my wrist. Things had changed for the better. For the most part.

He watched as I repeatedly lifted my chin over the bar. "That's really supposed to be good for you?"

"Uh-huh," I grunted.

He snorted and plucked a strand of grass, gnawed the end. "Looks far too strenuous to be healthy. And you're leaking badly. I can smell it already."

I dropped back down. I could have probably done more, but after a certain amount of activity that old wound through my shoulder starts to play up. I flexed the muscle and winced slightly, then wiped sweat from my face and regarded the Rris. About five foot of bipedal feline. Average height for his race. His tawny furred body didn't sweat, except on the pads of the feet and hands, but he did pant like a steam engine in hot weather. He'd stripped his expensive clothes off for that run. Right off. They don't have problems with nudity as even unclothed a Rris tends to be about as naked as an Eskimo in full winter dress. Male genitalia are tucked away in a sheath and held closer to the body, hidden away in thicker fur of the belly that continues down to the groin. Chaeitch did decorate his hide though. There were little geometric curlicues and sigils shaven into the fur of his chest and shoulders and three small black dyed bands wrapped around each forearm. To my eyes, the lopsided blaize across his left ear was his most distinctive feature.

"Hot for you?" I smiled.

He grinned back, bearing his teeth in a smile that was a mockery of mine. "Wait till winter."

"Touché. At least I can put more clothes on. You'll have to shave to take any more off."

"Then I'd look like you!" He coughed in mock-disgust. "No thank you. I'll suffer."

I laughed. "Would you at least accept a drink?"

"I think that I can manage. I heard rumors about an old Swampy River you received."

"You're well informed."

He lolled his tongue. Or maybe he was merely panting. "H'risnth does seem to favor you."

"In that case, so do most of the rulers of all the other kingdoms," I sighed. " Kistrechiha sent me a tapestry. Very impressive and very blatant."

"Saaa," he hissed. "The price we pay."

"Your sympathy is underwhelming."

He chittered as I caught up my gear then fell in alongside as we headed on down through the grove of bent old windbreak trees to the lakeshore.

"What about those mills you're putting up over there," he asked, pointing along the waterfront.

"Still got a lot of work to do," I said. "It's tricky. Get a good storm and they'll tear themselves apart. There're ways of designing the blades so they don't spin too fast and that's the hard part."

"Huhn," he mused and I saw his jaw drop a little. It was like that unfocused look a sort of human tends to get when they devote too much cerebral processing time to a problem. Chaeitch was that sort of Rris. He'd go after a problem like a terrier after a rabbit. But he blinked out of it, which either meant he'd solved it there and then or filed it for future reference. "And all those copper wires you're playing around with? Eserisity?"

"Electricity," I corrected.

He coughed in exasperation and didn't even attempt the correct English pronunciation. "You're going to have to find something else to call it," he hissed as we dropped down the storm-eroded embankment onto the stone beach. The water I'd once known as Lake Eerie slap-slapped onto the sun warm stones, a terminator of dark wet rocks marking the waterline. Chaeitch just dabbled his feet and hands. I shucked my moccasins and dove right in.

No ozone depletion. No toxic industrial dumping, no nonbiodegradable litter, no pollution - save the biological runoff from a city of half a million Rris a few kilometers away. I was pretty sure the lake could handle that. At least that's what I told myself.

But it was wet and cold and got that dried sweat out of my eyes and hair. Chaeitch tossed pebbles at a bobbing stick and watched in amusement as I ducked and dove for a while. Rris aren't great swimming enthusiasts. The last one I'd tried to teach to swim...

I floated in memories for a few minutes before wading out.

"Half ape, half fish," Chaeitch said and skipped a stone while I pulled my footwear on again. "How are those paintings going?" he asked.

"Slowly," I said. "The paints are difficult to use. I might have to stick to charcoal for a while." That was true. The locally available media was a pain to use: more temperamental than egg tempera, and they had to be made up from scratch. No handy tubes of Winsor and Newton acrylic or guache here.

"A? You know Rraerch and Rasa are interested? They liked those other portraits you did. You could be starting another fad. Hai, speaking of which, there's another play at the Resound."

"Not... one of those?"

He grinned.

I rolled my eyes and moaned, "Oh, Christ, it is, isn't it."

He cocked his head and chittered a laugh. I hoped he was right and they were a fad. I'd been to one before and had been surprised, amused and more than a little embarrassed. And if rumors could be believed, some of the other skits coming out of the thespian woodwork made that one seem tame.

The breeze off the lake was cool but the sun was hot enough to roast the worst of the water from me and my shorts while we wandered back down the beach to the house. Days off here tended to be very slow and filled with nothing in particular, which we discussed at great length as we headed back home.

It was a nice place. It was a damn sight larger than anything I could have afforded back home. Set back from the lakeshore behind a windbreak of aged conifers, it was a rambling two, sometimes three-story construction of dark weatherboards, slates, towers and garrets with attic rooms and windows in the oddest places. It was big, but it didn't have any of the modern construction techniques or amenities and it'd been built to accommodate Rris stature, which tended to the small side. I'd already got carpenters in to make modifications including raising ceilings and doorways so I wouldn't concuss myself. There was wetback hot water and central heating and the insulation would be in before winter. Hopefully. And also hopefully, sometime soon, there'd also be electric lighting. Candles and oil and gas lamps are atmospheric, but the novelty quickly palls.

There were two Rris waiting for us on the back verandah. Tichirik was perfectly poised, perfectly groomed, quietly standing with a neatly-folded change of clothes in her arms and water on the table. Impeccable timing as usual. As the household major domo cum butler she managed the rest of the household servants and seemed to always be there when I needed her. Damn good at her job and doubtless a government spy. I was pretty sure that nothing went on in that house that wasn't reported in triplicate to an office somewhere in the Palace.

The adolescent Rris with her wore the tunic of a palace messenger and a flustered expression. He stared at me.

"And I thought cell phones were bad," I sighed to Chaeitch. "At least they don't hunt you down. Now what?"

"Sirs," Tich greeted us. "I trust you had a good constitutional."

"Very good, thank you," I smiled as I accepted the fresh clothes. Chaeitch made a noncommittal grunting sound. "What's this about?" I gestured at the page who was still staring. New, I'd bet.

His ears went flat , but he stepped forward. "Sir... a message from the palace. Important. His highness requests your presence at your earliest convenience."

"Translation: now," I rolled my eyes. "Chaeitch, I'm sorry, but that drink's going to have to wait." "All that running for nothing?!" Chaeitch moaned. "All right, you incorrigible alcoholic. We should be able to find something. Tich, there was that bottle opened last night. Can you find it?" I really don't know if that corruption of her name annoyed Tichirik. If it did, she didn't bat an eye; just said, "Of course, Sir."

Section 2

The carriage waiting for me was from the Palace. As one might expect, it was an elegant affair: a closed cab riding on four iron-bound, wood-spoked wheels on leaf suspension. Intricate designs were carved into the wooden exterior panels while the brass fittings for lamps and handles were polished to a mirror finish that glared in the sunlight. With the Rris driver in his tooled leather tunic high on the drivers bench and the two elk in the traceries, the whole thing looked like something from a gothic fairy tale. I still get those moments where a sight like that clashes my mental gears.

The trip through a Shattered Water lazing under a early summer heatwave was another sort of trip. Cobbles rattled under the iron wheels as we skirted outlying fringes of the city, inward bound. We passed by the smaller buildings and houses with their blank facades and shadowy tunnels leading through to the central atrium. Passed by the cheaper buildings with tilted walls skinned with peeling whitewash over wattle and daub, unglazed windows, roofing tiles that were wood and fragments of slate and stone rather than ceramic, patches of grass growing high in guttering where airborne seeds had taken root. Arterial streets and open spaces were clotted by impromptu markets: clusters of awnings and shades where smoky fires burned, Rris voices hissed and snarled and the smells of foods, livestock, and chemicals etched the air.

Further in toward the heart the city changed to reflect the fortunes of the inhabitants. Some buildings were several stories high. Cheap whitewash gave way to stone, mortar and brick, red tile and elegant facades with painted woodwork and murals and shiny metal plaques on the walls of the guild halls. Glass glittered in narrow windows and elegantly dressed Rris went about their business. The roads became avenues, cutting in toward the hub of the central square with its fountains and trees. From there it was north along the shaded avenue, past the old remains of the curtain wall, through the upmarket section of the Rock - or the Nipple. Nomenclature depended on which side of the poverty line you were standing.

Surrounding the Palace grounds was a black wrought- iron fence with gilded spiked fanciness adorning the top. The cleared ground on either side was a new addition, instituted following some security breaches. Inside that, the grounds were expansive, with forests and wild meadows and streams leading off to the lakeshore to the west. The Palace itself lounged amidst that: huge and sprawling, an edifice of thousands of rooms and halls that was to Rris Land-of-Water architecture what Versailles is to human.

The façade was a barrage of windows and glass, hundreds of them gleaming as the sun caught them just right. Walls of pale stone blocks were sectioned by columns rising to frescoed gables supporting a copper roof painted green by the elements. It was a construction that spoke of elegance and dignity and a refinement beyond the brute bulk of a fortress. But it didn't speak it with a human tongue.

It was the same sensation I get when looking at Rris artwork. Their golden ratio isn't the human one. Proportions they find pleasing aren't the same as the ones I do. They don't even perceive the world in the same way or through the same equipment. The architect had used numbers and alignments that just seemed ever so subtly wrong to my eyes.

As did the wild lawns and meadows where golden wind- rippled grasses grew knee-high. The grounds were all carefully tended, they just didn't look it.

The oak avenue of the driveway swept up to a gravel loop at the front steps. The main doors did look like they belonged on a fortress - it turns out that's exactly where they came from. Of course the guards stared as they always did, but by now they were accustomed enough to my presence to just watch me. Just inside the doors Kh'hitch of Woodmaker, king's liaison and personal dogsbody was waiting. All of him. He still hadn't lost any weight. He always reminded me of a snooty plush toy dressed by a mad tailor with a penchant for bloused sleeves and bright colors.

He was good at his job though.

"Mikah, you're wet," he sniffed, looking me up and down. "And you could have dressed."

"I don't spend my days off sitting around in my finery waiting for a call from you," I said pointedly. "I was under the impression this was important?"

"Huhn," he huffed. "His highness wishes to speak with you."

"Oh, joy."

"Mikah," he warned.

"Why, Kh'hitch, your nostrils are flaring."

He took a deep breath then turned and led the way. Unnecessary, I knew it well enough by then.

The Palace was as impressive on the inside as it was on the outside. But then, it was designed to be. The commonly traveled routes, those seen by outsiders, were elegant in the extreme. There were chandeliers and artworks of all sorts including indoor windchimes of crystal I couldn't hear and wood carvings that were supposed to carry ancient scents I couldn't smell. Paintings of landscapes and portraits were displayed in frames far more subdued than the gilt rococo monstrosities human artists seem so enamoured of. Walls were papered in fine embossed velvet or satin in different hues and textures; floors inlaid with parquetry made from individual splinters of wood.

Less traveled routes were merely elegant.

My moccasins were almost soundless against the floor while Rris footsteps tended to clatter slightly as claws ticked against the floor. At least while I was around they tended to.

There were always guards around the King's offices. They were wearing leather armor and polished ceremonial breastplates, and I couldn't help but notice they still carried the old flintlocks and edged weapons. I supposed the Land-of- Water Rris were still sensitive enough about the leakage of arms information to outside countries that they kept the more advanced weapons under wraps. Who guarded the guards? Huhn.

The king's office had always struck me as odd. It was a huge, white room in the southeastern corner of the east wing. Almost all the room was white marble and pale stone, save for the desk on the patch of carpet over in the far corner. The french windows along the outer walls provided a great view of the Palace grounds, as well as a breeze. That room might have been cool in summer, but in winter it was frigid. At least to my sensibilities it was. Yet another example of how a species' needs dictates its design requirements.

The figure was seated at the low desk, bent over scribbling smoothly with a fountain pen. Kh'hitch just left me standing there and retreated quietly, closing the double doors behind him.

I strolled over to the desk and stood waiting for about a minute while the Rris king finished etching chicken-scratches across the page, blotted the ink, then folded the paper and sealed it with wax. Then Hirht sat back on his cushion and cocked his head at me. "Hello, Mikah."

"You paged me?"

"I sent for you, if that's what you mean. Yes. I'm sorry to disturb you on your day off. You were running again?"

"Yes, sir."

"I heard you've dragged ah Ties into it?"

Now, how had he heard that? "I had to threaten him with wine. He gave in."

He smiled. "At least you're in one of your good moods. There are a few things I want to talk to you about. You know that there have been frictions with more than a few of our neighbors. There have been claims that we are 'monopolizing a unique asset'. Some of them are becoming quite <something> in their protests."

I frowned. "I'm sorry, Sir. I don't know that word... hesira..."

"Hesirethir'k," he gestured. "Loud, continual, outspoken."

Oh. Vociferous. "I understand."

"You understand that that sort of situation is dangerous for all involved? Especially you."

"Yes, sir," I sighed. It wasn't an entirely new situation. It was something that tended to ebb and flow. Other Powers' protests would get louder and louder and Land-of-Water would have to make placating gestures. "What are you doing to keep them happy?"

"Oh, not us," he smiled.

I hesitated. "Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like this?"

He gave a dismissive wave. "It's really not so bad. You were always wanting to see more of the world, so we're giving you a chance. You're going to visit a neighboring kingdom as a gesture of goodwill."

"Cover-my-Tail?"

His ears flicked like someone had blown into them. "How did you know?"

"Lucky guess." I probably shouldn't have given that away. It was a pretty obvious choice though: an influential country, nearby, an already amicable relationship and doubtless Land-of-Water was looking for a allies they could call on if other Realms started putting diplomatic pressure on them. Cover-my-Tail was a prime candidate.

"Huhn," he looked at me curiously. "Good guess. Yes. You will be guests of H'risnth for a while. She has graciously agreed to accommodate you while you discuss business. There will of course be a pre-drawn agenda."

"'Guests'," I noticed. "Plural."

"Ah Ties and aesh Smither will be accompanying you. They're both quite used to handling you. Ah Ties has logistical details to negotiate and we decided that aesh Smither will be a good tutor for you. There are some matters we think it would not be.... ah.... politic for you to discuss."

"Ah. You don't want me selling them plans for a hydrogen bomb?"

I saw muscles in his face lock as he forced his ears to stand still. "That would be of use to them?"

"Very limited use."

"Ah," his amber eyes stared at my face, his head twitching as he seemed to try and read me. "You know this is a very serious matter."

"It always seems to be," I sighed. "You are on friendly terms with Cover-my-Tail? This isn't going to degrade into some political fiasco?"

"Very friendly terms," he stood and turned to gaze out a window at the palace grounds. There were fields of long grass out there, rippling in the breeze. "But you still seem to have a knack for finding trouble. Mikah, this is a simple trip. It's an easy boat ride and then a straight-line talk with their highborn."

He turned to face me, clasping his hands behind his back. "You've met Lady H'risnth before. You got along together. She said she finds you quite fascinating, so if you're polite and careful there should be no problems. Just a friendly chat."

"And how are the other kingdoms going to feel about this?"

Again he looked a little surprised. "They'll see that you're not just working for us."

"So they'll be expecting me to go on more trips. Will I?"

"That remains to be seen. This is a test case."

I nodded. "And how long will this take?"

"We've allocated three weeks. Three days there at the outside, with leeway for bad weather. Two weeks minimum there and then three days back." That wasn't unexpected. Travel time here is a great deal slower than back home.

"And I leave?"

"Day after tomorrow," he said.

"Short notice." But then I didn't have a great deal to pack. "You've been planning this for a while. You could have told me earlier."

"Things have only just been... arranged," he said. "There was a great deal of negotiation over time spans and access rights. Mikah, you do make this job interesting. Now there was one other thing."

"Sir?"

He stepped forward and stopped just in front of me, looking up and cocking his head slowly and then abruptly grinned. I flinched at the imitation of my smile which was a threatening gesture to the Rris. "None of that," he said, smoothing his muzzle out. "You know it causes problems. Just be careful and behave. Thank you."

That was all. Kh'hitch collected me from the antechamber outside the doors and took me to his office. There he spent the next three hours going over my itinerary and travel arrangements in a great deal more detail.

Section 3

For the past few months my life in Shattered Water had been pretty quiet and I certainly wasn't complaining. Since I'd arrive there I'd had enough excitement to last three lifetimes. I'd seen murder, assassination attempts, kidnappings, threats, fights and poisonings. My body was a roadmap of scars and knots of tissue where hostile Rris claws had torn at me. Not only hostile: some of the pale marks across my back were a legacy of my first Rris lover.

That's still a painful memory.

Things had quieted considerably over the past couple of months. I'd taken the opportunity to try and get my new life in order. I'd brought the house by the lakeside. I'd been able to absorb myself in my work. In retrospect, I'd been aware of the simmering undercurrents of politics, but I'd just been telling myself they'd keep to themselves. Of course they'd boil over again.

My work was essentially a transfer of knowledge. The information I held in my head and in my laptop might have been fairly mundane by my standards, but to the Rris they had worth beyond measure. There were technologies, techniques and materials they'd never dreamt of; things that could make fortunes and countries. In the months since I'd been here their steam engine technologies had rocketed from basic single expansion to triple-expansion engines built using alloys non- existent not so long ago; they were harvesting crops using automated reapers; all advances that'd taken humans centuries.

And their weapons had undergone radical changes as well.

Just because they're not as educated, doesn't mean they're stupid. A lot of Rris are a good deal more intelligent than I am. They managed to get weapons information from my laptop by hit-and-miss techniques, simply by watching me, spying on me, copying the shapes of words and letters.

Despite PGP encryption and passwords, my system was cracked by pre-electrical alien cats who can't even speak English.

It was information a lot of parties would kill for. In fact, some did. They threatened me, they threatened Chihirae. It wasn't a state I had any wish to return to. If the politcal winds were picking up again, I was all for casting some oil on the waters.

My carriage was waiting for me as I stepped out onto the front steps of the palace. The sun was high in a brilliant sky, coaxing heat-shimmers from the gravel drive. Insects buzzed and razzed in the meadows of golden grass that rippled like an ocean sunset as a breeze set the stalks to swaying. There was a courier message waiting for me: my driver relayed the essentials to me in a carefully impartial voice. So I couldn't read. It was embarrassing. I was learning, but it took time.

It was from Rraerch aesh Smither. The owner of the largest industrial firm in Land-of-Water and the Government's principal shipyard contractor. She was also Chaeitch's original sponsor and an old acquaintance of mine. She was requesting an immediate meeting with me at her offices in town. I didn't need the driver's translation to know what this meeting was going to be about.

So much for my day off.

Section 4

Shattered Water is always an experience. Any large Rris town is. It's one thing to look out from the relative aloofness of a carriage rattling through the streets, it's quite another to get out and walk around those streets. It's a town where humans have never even been seen or even conceived of, built entirely on alien needs and desires. Form still follows function, so there are similarities: sloping roofs to keep the rain and snow off; there are windows and doors; there are alleys and streets for wheeled vehicles. But all the things that should be familiar all have subtle nuances that just seem wrong to my senses. The architecture is built for inhabitants with smaller statures, so the doors are too small; there are few windows on exterior walls; proportion and ornamentation are designed for inhuman sensibilities. And then there're the crowds of furry bipedal cats all turning to stare at me. It's a feeling that's hard to describe: like stage fright mixed with a disturbing primal sensation as the ancient ape sees the predator's interest. I thought it was something I could get used to, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Now all I can do is fight that nervousness down. It's a sensation I feel all too often as I go about my business. I felt it when I got out of the carriage in the courtyard of Smither Industries. It was a complex of brick buildings with dark slate roofs. As with so much Rris architecture the complex turned blank brick faces to the outside world, broken only by the merest slits of windows. Arched passages led through the outer walls to the central courtyards and the planted gardens there; the huge windows glazed with panes of new glass. As I got out of the carriage I could see Rris around the courtyard stopping and looking my way. Even up in the windows curious feline faces appeared. I ignored them as best I could and headed over to where my guide was waiting. I'd been there over a dozen times and he still looked nervous. The halls of Smither Industries were busy places. There were Rris scurrying around with that odd little scattering sound their claws make on hard floors. On the main staircase they hastily stepped aside as I made my way up to the third floor. Rraerch's offices were elegant, in Rris style. The floors were tiled in tan and gold, the walls paneled in light pine and white plaster. On either side of the office doors were two pieces of what I might normally have considered polished driftwood. Apparently they were works of art, imbued with scents from distant lands. All utterly undetectable to me. Rraerch's secretary was at work at his low desk. He looked up as I approached and his ears went back flat against his skull. He'd always been civil toward me, but his ears had always done that: a reflexive Rris anxiety reaction. "Sir," he greeted me, "she's expecting you." "Thank you," I said. "I know the way." The Rris seated at the low desk turned two pairs of amber eyes my way as I stepped through the door to the inner office. "Mikah," Rraerch greeted me. "You made good time. Sorry to do this to you on your free time." "Not your fault," I said and glared at the other Rris. "Chaetich, thanks a lot. You could have told me." He tipped his hand in a shrug. "I really didn't know. I was preparing for a trip over to Cover-my-Tail and suddenly I'm told it's grown into something a good deal more than a property inspection deal." I took a cushion at the desk: one of those uncomfortably low tables the Rris favor. They find them quite suited to their needs, but I find the experience of sitting on a cushion on the floor at a knee-high table uncomfortable, physically and psychologically. In a human office the desk is a symbol of power and entrenched authority. I suppose the Rris use them in the same way: someone sitting on a low cushion is at a distinct disadvantage when someone's standing. At least you could count on Rraerch having good alcohol handy. I was actually growing quite partial to some Rris wines, and Rraerch had a bottle in a wicker basket sitting on the desk alongside an imposing stack of books.

"So," I said as I settled myself, "what's the deal here? You're all suddenly very keen to shift me over to Cover-my- tail."

Rraerch snorted, wrinkling her salt-and-pepper speckled muzzle and narrowing her yellow-amber eyes. "It's simply a friendship visit."

"Oh? Nothing to do with forging alliances against possible political unrest and economic sanctions?"

She hesitated then blinked. "Hirht told you that?"

"Not in so many words."

"Huhn," she glanced at Chaeitch. I suppose the lack of phones was something that worked to my advantage in cases like that. Hirht couldn't simply call her up and discuss our meeting. "I think you're being a bit paranoid, Mikah. It's a friendship visit. It'll show that Cover-my-Tail and other countries that we aren't monopolizing you. And you'll get a chance to see some more of the world."

Okay. So they didn't have phones, But that didn't mean they couldn't work out their spiel beforehand.

She rolled her glass between stubby fingers and looked up at me. "You could simply refuse to go. We wouldn't coerce you, but it would make things difficult. There's a lot of pressure from other countries for us to... to give them greater access to you. This would pop the valve on that pressure for a while."

"Okay," I nodded. "I'm not against this. It's just very sudden."

"There wasn't a great deal of time to consult you about it," she said. "It's an easy journey. Water all the way."

That certainly beat a land journey, which would have been days of slow, hot, boring and bumpy travel in carriages. "He said the two of you are going along. You're supposed to be... tutoring me?"

"Huhn," now her ears went down. "That. Yes, well, we've had a lot of dealings with Cover-my-Tail. His highness feels that we are the best ones to cram as much information into you about Cover-my-Tail as possible. Their geography, history, trade and exports."

"And about the good Lady herself," Chaeitch sighed.

"She's trouble?" I asked. "I've met her, she seemed pleasant enough."

"She's a very pleasant person," Rraerch said. "She's personable, charming, intelligent, and a shaved astute business dealer. That's the problem. She could buy your hide off your back and sell it back to you before you even noticed. That's what his highness wants me to caution you about. I've had experience dealing with her and I know some of her games, so I can tell you what to watch for."

"How long's that going to take?"

She slapped a furry hand down on that stack of books on the desk. "We don't have long enough, so I'll have to give you the condensed version."

I winced. Chaeitch clambered to his feet. "It's going to be a long night."

Section 5

A bright three-quarter moon hung low in the velvet sky, casting a cold monochromatic glow across the world. The slats in the carriage window cut that moonglow into bars of shadow and light that fell across the floor and my legs, shifting and juddering as the carriage clattered through the nightbound streets.

I just sat back in the upholstered seat and closed my eyes, my head still swimming with facts and figures that'd been pumped into me for the past seven hours. Things I hadn't known, things I'd never wanted to know... the capital was Open Fields; the population was about three hundred and seventy thousand; main exports were coal and iron ore essential for developing industry; ruling lineage was the Esrisa family since the Wall wars one hundred and forty years ago; there were extensive vineyards along the central river valleys; Reli district specialized in expensive inks... and on and on.

At least I knew more about Open Fields than I had known about Shattered Water when I first arrived. And I'd be going in as a guest rather than a curiosity. The itinerary had been planned out and from what I'd seen it did seem to be a predominantly goodwill visit. I had met her Ladyship before and she was a pleasant enough individual. In fact, I quite liked her. We'd gotten on well. Although, after what I'd been told that night I had to wonder how much of that was good salesmanship.

The motion of the carriage changed: slowing, turning. The clatter of iron-bound wheels on cobblestones turned to the muted crunch of gravel and we stopped. I heard muted voices and the door was opened.

"Squad Leader," I said tiredly, not bothering to look around.

"Sir," the commander of the Rris gate contingent acknowledged and closed the door again. I had a house of my own, but it came along with a small army of guards and security checks. Necessary, I supposed. At least they kept the curiosity seekers from peeking in the windows, and yes, there had been some problems with that. Gravel scrunched under the wheels as we started up the drive toward the house.

"Here, sir," I heard the driver say from up on the bench. I sighed and clambered out, bidding him goodnight and heading for the front door. Behind me came the jingle of harness and rattle of wheels as the carriage headed off toward the stables.

Home again. The lights were on in the living area and up on the second floor, glowing a welcoming orange against the almost indistinguishable blueblack of the night sky. As I stepped up onto the front porch the front door swung open, throwing a fan of light out and silhouetting the alien form of a Rris.

"Evening, Tich."

"Good evening, sir," she greeted me. "I trust it was a productive day?"

"Productive, yes," I said, handing my coat over. "And very long. Some warning about these things would be nice."

"Yes, sir," she said neutrally as she hung my coat in the closet and turned back to me. "You sound tired. Do you wish to eat?"

I was hungry. "Food would be good," I said. "

"Yes, sir," the major domo said. "It will be ready shortly."

"Nothing fancy," I said. "You've already eaten?"

"Ah, yes, sir. Ah, her Ladyship has. She wasn't sure what time you'd be home."

"Just reheat leftovers," I said and she ducked her head, headed back toward the kitchens. I sighed and made my way through to the living room. It was deserted, the low cushions and tables where we could receive guests in the Rris idea of comfort, but there was a light on through in the study. The study was a decent sized room lined with bookshelves. Mostly bare: my grasp of the Rris written language was still rudimentary so the only books I could handle were the rare and expensive primers and cubs' books. The desk had been built to my specifications which included raising it a decent height above the ground and getting a good chair. Now there was a Rris figure curled up in the chair, legs draped over the arms and engrossed in a book while the oil lamp on the desk burned low. As I stepped in the door her ears flickered and she looked around.

"Mikah!"

"Good evening, your Ladyship," I smiled.

"Huh," Chihirae arched one leg out, her odd digitigrade foot held trembling for a muscle-stretching second, then the other. "I wish she wouldn't call me that."

"But it suits you."

She chittered and then rolled her shoulders. "How do you stand these contraptions? It puts knots right up my tail and back."

"There are cushions around," I reminded her, touching her shoulders. Her fur was slightly coarse on the outside with the finer fell deeper in. Feeling so strange when I started kneading: the thick hide feeling like it was sliding loosely over the bunched muscles beneath, as if it weren't even attached. She sighed and her head sagged forward.

"Huhnnn," she rumbled. "You're late home."

"Been one of those days."

"What da... ah... Sa, I see. Ah, lower... there. Hnnn. What do they want now?"

I told her.

Chihirae. She was the first Rris I ever truly met. She was a schoolteacher from the town of Lying scales who'd been working at the rural community of Westwater when I'd arrived in this world. She'd been the one I'd first approached for help. Actually, she'd shot me, nearly killed me, then saved my life and defended me from villagers convinced I was a murderer.

Long and complicated story.

She was a friend. A good friend. And yes, we were lovers.

Or rather I was. Rris don't love. They can't. They don't have the hardwiring to form such connections. That's not to say they don't form friendships and affections, they just don't feel that surge we interpret as love. They can't: love is a cocktail of chemicals our brains produce and Rris equipment simply doesn't produce those chemicals. The only way I can describe what they feel is to use synonyms and similies, comparing them to things in the human experience. It's not nearly accurate, but it's all I can do. I understood the differences, but it was one thing to understand them and an entirely different matter to be make my body feel it. My hardwiring, the way my body and ape ancestry processed emotions, was continually undermining that knowledge.

It had caused me serious grief in the past. It would do so again.

So I loved her. And for her I was a friend, someone she knew in a new town, a current sexual partner. There would come a time when she would leave. I knew that. I didn't want to think about that.

"A busy day off," she husked when I'd finished. She was limp under my hands now, a low, almost subsonic rumble coming from her chest. Not quite a purr, but that was the best reference I had.

"And how was your class?"

"Milk froth cubs," she sighed. "They're more of a problem than usual ones."

"Attitude?" I asked.

"Ah," she confirmed. "'Specially the older ones."

"Hmmm," I chuckled. "Well, don't let it get to you." I leaned over and nuzzled the top of her head. "Your Ladyship."

Chihriae chittered her amusement. "I never thought anyone would be calling me that. I've asked her not to."

"Awww," I sympathized. "The things you have to live with."

"Hai," she mock-growled and craned her neck back, trying to nip at me. Relenting when I scratched behind her ears. "Huhn, you know how to make peace, don't you."

"I had to learn quickly," I said.

She chittered again and directed my hands to a more needing spot. "So, how long is this trip supposed to be?"

"They said not more than a few weeks."

"You believe that?"

"When I see it," I said, moving my scratching down her neck, down to her shoulders, toward her ribs.

'Hai, Mikah!" she chittered and caught my hands. "Not now, you oversexed ape. I've got to get this done."

"Spoilsport," I murmured, trying not to grin.

She held my hands in her small ones for a second, turning them over, over again, staring and studying them as if she'd never seen them before. She traced a dark claw along one of the lines on my palm and then looked up to ask, "Have you eaten yet?"

"I was on my way."

"I'm sure cook can burn something for you," she craned her head back to purse her features into a Rris smile up at me.

"That was old the first time I heard it," I grumbled as I left her to get on with her work.

I had a dining room. It was another room with Rris furniture, centremost of which was a low, Rris-style table big and solid enough to land aircraft on. The cushions were tooled leather by an artisan whose works were quite in demand, so I was told.

I hated eating alone in there.

The food was something like stroganoff. Beef... unlikely. Buffalo stroganoff most probably. The cook, Segihis, was elderly and seemed to regard his employers as something of an amusement. But he was good and he was learning my tastes. Which meant not working with some of the more flavourful Rris spices, such as Nightshade.

Food helped. So did the shower afterwards. I leaned my head against the tiles and let near-scalding water sluice down across that tight spot between my shoulderblades. Damn, dealing with Rris was still exhausting. Reading them, interpreting the body language... I had to concentrate on that. I kept trying to interpret their signals as if they were coming from humans, and that was dangerous. A baring of teeth was not a smile; a shift into what might be a posture of interest in a human was a reaction to a perceived threat.

I'd known more than a few people back in that lost world who insisted on attributing human emotions to their pets. If I allowed myself to fall into that trap here it would mean trouble. Even with individuals I considered friends it was difficult to relax. There weren't many times when I could lower my guard so those quiet moments were all the more precious.

I yawned, flinched, then blinked. I'd been dozing off standing up. How long... the water was still hot so it couldn't have been too long. Yawning again, I rolled my shoulders and turned my face to the faucet, the blast helping to jolt me awake. I flipped the tap off and stepped out, wiping at the water streaming into my eyes and groping for the towel. A blurry figure handed it to me.

"Christ," I said to an amused Chihirae while my heart started again. "Haven't you ever seen Psycho?"

"If that's something from your world, then I probably haven't," she replied as she took a second towel to my back, patting gently around the tracks of scars there. "You were quite a while in here. I just thought I'd see if you were all right."

"You could have scratched."

"That wouldn't have been as fun," she chittered, then hesitated and circled me, looking up at me with a cautious expression. "You're serious?" She laid a hand on my chest, over my drubbing heart. "Hai," she murmured. "I really frightened you?"

"I wasn't expecting you," I said defensively.

Her ears went down. ""I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean it like that. You were just in here a long time."

"My fault," I half-smiled at her expression. "I nearly fell asleep."

"Under that thing? You're that tired?" She tipped her head and stroked her hand across my wet skin, slicking the fur on her palm down as she traced fingertips across my chest, down lower. "Something you mentioned earlier, but if you're too tired..."

"Ah..." I inhaled sharply, my body suddenly saying it was very awake. "I thought you didn't want to."

"I was busy then," she rumbled and I could feel that vibration through her chest as she slowly pressed against me, hugged against me, the water dripping from me soaking into her fur. She seemed so small, so petite I could lay my chin on the top of her muzzle, but there was dense muscle under that hide. "Not busy now. You too tired?"

"I don't know..." I broke off with another gasp.

"No," she laughed and squeezed again, "you're not. See? I can....Ahi! Put me down!"

"You roused the beast," I mock-growled, my hands curled under her buttocks as I held her up, pressing her back against the wall, grinned down at her face. She slitted her eyes, wrapping muscular thighs around my waist and arms around my neck, slightly coarse hide and fur clenching me. "Here?" she breathed, looking uncertain.

No. Not there. Not then. That could have been... risky. For both of us. I nuzzled her, gently inhaling her dusty scent. Kissing... that also just wasn't practical. So many differences that the act wasn't something that could just happen, it had to be planned, we had to be careful. I still had scars from... a painful memory.

The bedroom was dark. It was comfortable. It was a place where I could be close to her. I know I enjoyed it, that she got pleasure out of it, but it wasn't lovemaking for her. Not the same emotional trip I experienced.

And I knew that while I held her, she wasn't feeling what I did; what a human did. I could look down into the shimmering titanium pools of her eyes and what looked back wasn't something I could read. There was depth there, emotions and decisions I could never empathize with or fully comprehend; a soul staring back and trying in turn to read me.

Nevertheless, in the dark night, when the future was unseen and unsure, she was someone to hold to.

Section 6

A high, thin overcast hung over the world, hiding the sun, turning it to a blushing pale pink orb on the horizon. The surface of the lake was rilled with wavelets, slapping against the breakwater and leaving the harbor behind molasses- smooth, stirring slightly with the motion of the river's currents. I could smell the memory of rain from the night before hanging in the still, cool air. Water still puddled on cobbles of the streets, on the flagstones of the docks, flicking from the iron- bound rims as the carriage rolled to a stop.

The entire carriage rocked on its leaf suspension as I climbed out and looked around at a dockside already bustling with activity. Behind us, guards were closing the wrought iron gates, a couple arguing with peddlers outside. Stevedores and workers were bustling about their businesses in the big workshops and boatsheds, and porters were already working at unloading gear from the back of the carriage. I shouldered my own duffel bag.

"They can take that," Chihirae almost sounded like she was chiding me as she dropped down beside me.

"I can manage it," I said. I preferred to carry my own gear. It just felt odd to have someone else carrying something I was quite capable of. Beside, there were things in that bag that were valuable. In a unique monetary way to Rris; in a unique sentimental way to me.

Chihirae twitched her ears then patted my arm. "You think you're ready for this?"

"Do you think they're ready for me?"

There was moment of surprise, then she laughed. "I don't think anyone can be really ready for you," she assured me.

I almost grinned and hastily caught myself. For a species that uses their teeth as weapon, a grin isn't a friendly gesture. But it's a damn difficult thing to unlearn. "It'll be interesting," I said.

"A, that's what concerns me."

I opened my mouth, then frowned. "I am capable of going somewhere and not causing trouble, you know."

"I've yet to see it," she said and touched my arm again, watching her own hand smoothing down the hair there and then looking up at me. "You will behave? You know your sense of humour is... odd. There are those who might not appreciate it."

"So I've been told."

"Mikah," she started to admonish me and then sighed and ducked her head. "Just... don't make anyone too angry, a?"

"I'll try," I said, not sure whether to feel touched by her concern or stung by the lack of confidence. "It's only for a couple of weeks. And I'm finally going to see some more of your world." I adjusted my duffel and started off across the rain-slicked flagstones toward the wharf. Chihirae stalked along at my side in that smooth Rris walk, not even seeming to notice that the shallow puddles soaked the fur of her inhumanly-shaped feet. "Besides, I'll have my nursemaids."

Chihirae glanced over her shoulder at the guards following at a discreet distance and her muzzle pursed in amusement. "Ah. A couple of attractive females like that following an oversexed ape around. Why should I worry?"

"Oh? They're female?"

"You still can't tell?"

"Well... sometimes. I'm learning."

She flickered her ears and snorted. "A. That you are. I just find it remarkable that you know things most people've never dreamed of, yet some of the most basic things are beyond you."

I shrugged. "Sometimes... it's like learning to breathe all over again."

She was quiet for a few seconds, then said. "You are learning though. I have had worse pupils."

"Gee, thanks," I said. " Nothing to worry about. I'll bring you something."

"A? What?"

"Umm... Uh." I already had a cellar full of their wine. I knew Cover My Tail's main exports were coal, iron ore, lumber... great gift ideas. I know a Rris' idea of a present is somewhat different from the ones I'm accustomed to, but I still wasn't sure what she'd like. "I'll find something."

The wharf was one of the multitude of similar stone moorings jutting out into the river from the quayside. This one was private and part of the shipyards, with its own checkpoint and guards. They just stared at me and let us pass without challenge. I suppose I was pretty distinctive.

The single ship moored at this berth was the Ironheart. It wasn't the first Rris steam ship, but it was the first to be built incorporating a multitude of design innovations I'd introduced: new techniques in metallurgy, engines, hull and prop design. Shortly after I'd arrived in Shattered Water I'd been assigned to Chaeitch, so he could see if what I knew could be put to practical use. We'd actually gotten along. And he was something of a genius when it came to working out how to actually implement an idea. The results were the Ironheart. It was a prototype, a showpiece, and it showed.

Tawny bodies bustled around the ship and wharf; a swarm of dockhands and crew working at loading, stowing, stocking, sanding, polishing and cleaning. The river water gently lapped at the thirty-meter hull, the laquered wood glistening like oil. Morning sunlight filtering through the town, rising above the shipyard roofs, turned brass fittings, porthole rims and the tops of the stacks to molten copper.

I noticed Chihirae's ears flick back, laying down against her skull for a second. She didn't like boats, I'd forgotten that. Was that why she was a little twitchy? In any case, her ears came up again when she saw the group clustered at the gangplank. There were several Rris there, all dressed in expensive-looking garb. The older female with the annoyed expression was Rraerch; the one with the smoking pipe in his mouth was Chaeitch; the one with the pale white leather waistcoat was Marasitha, the protocol officer and diplomat travelling with us; and the other two had the look of Palace officials about them.

One of the officials glanced up to see us walking toward them down the dock. He flinched, stepping back. The others looked at him in surprise, then around at us. Rraerch looked amused and Chaeitch's ears pricked up.

"Hi," I said in english then switched to Rris. "Hope we're not late. She's terrible about oversleeping."

"Hai," Chihirae yipped. "I had to drag you out of bed!"

"Was that it?" I snapped my fingers. "I knew it was one of us."

The officials looked taken aback by that but Chaeitch bobbed his head and seemed amused; by us or by their reaction? "You're in good time," he said. "We've got a few minutes."

"Good," I said, brushing past them. "I'll be right with you."

"Mikah..." Marasitha caught me. "We've still got things to discuss."

What? We'd spent the day before, the entire day, going over what I should and shouldn't say. "I thought we'd done with that."

"There're still a few points..."

"Later," I interrupted, holding my hand up. "Later."

He stopped, laying his ears back. I moved past him, ignoring the others as I stepped up to the diminutive female. She blinked up at me. 'I'll see you, a?" I said. "I'll be careful."

"Promise?"

"Cross my heart and hope... I promise."

Alien hands laid on my chest and claws poked through my shirt, pricking my skin as Chihirae leaned in close. "I'll hold you to that," she growled.

I hugged her, feeling the warmth of warm fur, the compact muscle beneath as I touched my lips to the bridge of her muzzle. "Anyone gives you any trouble, just let me know."

"I can take care of myself," she chided.

"And I can't?"

She reached up and stroked my face, my beard. I hated the damn thing, but she'd insisted; had hated the thought of me shaving. A lot of them had. I'd compromised: I kept the beard, but trimmed it back to a length that didn't leave me looking like the lost mariner. "Mikah, you... I'd hate to lose you."

I hugged her again, ignoring the other aliens staring at us.

Section 7

Waves slapped against the bow as the ship left the still water of the harbour breakwater. Through the hull I felt the engines step up a notch, the slow pulse beating a bit faster as the Ironheart turned into the wind. From the rail I watched the docks recede and vanish from sight behind the harbour wall, taking with them the sight of the small figure standing there.

She'd been brought to Shattered Water by someone else I'd known. She'd come not entirely of her own free will and she stayed out of friendship to me. The bonds Rris feel to one another, male female relationships, are nothing like human ones. There are strong emotions during the spring, the time of the female heat, but otherwise... they don't feel the emotional bonding that human couples do. It seems odd to me, cold and detached in a lot of ways, but then my Rris friends can't understand my attachments.

'You need to need', someone once told me. She was right: I formed close bonds, affections, dependencies, relations, whether it was prudent or not. Someone else had warned me against that, how it could be used against me.

So while I loved her, she couldn't reciprocate. It wasn't a deficiency on their part - they certainly felt other things I never could and considered my affections bizarre - but I knew it meant that if she wanted to leave, there was nothing holding her here.

I really hoped she'd be there when I got back.

The world warmed as the sun climbed higher. The pale overcast burned away, turned the sky from the milky gray to a cutting turquoise blue. On the far distant horizon, stacks of white clouds clambered and climbed into the sky, like insubstantial parapets of the gods. The sun was hot on my shoulders; the wind blowing off the lake cool and smelling of water. Any moisture the night rain had left on the deck soon burned off as varnished wood heated up. A gull swooped along after us for a while, then soared off into the distance. From my perch out of the way on the cabin roof I could see the distant lakeshore passing right on the edge of view: kilometer upon kilometer of wilderness, an occasional rooftop or curl of smoke in the trees, an occasional little jetty, but otherwise untouched.

Marasitha spent a couple of hours doing last second updates to my briefings. He sat out on the deck, shuffling papers from his valise, pinning them as the wind tried to steal them. He was a busy little Rris, shorter than most and that put him a good head shorter than me. I always got the impression he should be wearing a suit and bowler, perhaps carrying an umbrella. There were lists of things I should discuss, subjects I should avoid, backgrounds on various nobility and guild leaders I'd be meeting... on top of all the other stuff I'd crammed in over the past couple of days it all started to run together. At least it was only some late-incoming information that they only just had a chance to get to me, so it was only a couple of hours.

Shadows grew shorter as the sun and the temperature climbed. The air just above the deck hazed almost imperceptibly, like the heat shimmer above an Arizona road. I suspect that was the main reason that the panting Marasitha pronounced that we'd finished and headed belowdecks where it was cooler. At least I had the option of shucking my heavy Rris-made shirt. I laid back on the cabin roof, squinting at the azure sky through human sunglasses and ignoring the open stares of the crew. I don't know if it was my bare hide or the maps of scars that made them lay their ears back.

Damn, was it really necessary that I cram all that information? Some of it might be useful, but a lot of it was simply dross. Who said that knowledge is power? I didn't feel all that powerful, just a little dazed from trying to absorb all that. That the Open Fields printing guildmaster had had a falling out with the master of forestries; there were new books in the embassy; an advisor's daughter was bearing the child of a lamp oil merchant... did I need to know that?

A rustle of cloth on fur beside me. "It is necessary, I'm afraid" Chaeitch said, settling down on the sun-warmed wood beside me. In the brilliant glare of the midday sun on the water his eyes were the merest slivers of black in amber.

I sat up again, rolling my shoulders. "It just seems a ridiculous sometimes."

"Politics," he replied.

"A," I said. "That's what I said."

I heard him chitter.

"What was that about this morning?" I asked.

"What?"

"Those others on the dock. They were from the Palace? They didn't look very happy."

"Oh, there were some details about your guard. It was resolved."

"Not to their satisfaction, apparently," I smiled.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw him look at me. "You shouldn't take so much pleasure in making trouble for the Palace," he said reproachfully.

"I take my entertainment where I can find it."

"Ah," I saw him tip his head back, grimacing at the sun overhead. "I think Chihirae's rightly concerned about you. Can I ask you a question about you and her?"

"What?"

"The sex with her, is it like that with females of your kind?"

Talk about changing tack. I blinked and hesitated again. He and Chihirae... I'd walked in on them going at it. Literal coitus interruptus. I knew that it'd been the time of year, that what was between them was nothing like a human relationship, but that ancient ape in my hindbrain insisted on screeching at what it interpreted as competition. I knew that was utterly ridiculous. They were both Rris, they belonged together. I was the odd one out and I was jealous of that.

Whoever said instincts are logical?

Why was he asking? He was a Rris male. Without a female in season, without those pheromones for arousal, sex was just an abstract concept to him. He couldn't get off by thinking about it, seeing a shapely female with a great tail, looking at dirty pictures or even masturbating. They simply aren't interested in a sexual way. He wouldn't be thinking about their relationship at all.

"Why are you asking?"

He wagged his hand in a shrug. "I was curious." He blinked amber eyes at me. "She said sex with you is quite an experience. I was wondering if it was the same sort of experience you got with your own kind."

"Oh," I blinked out at the glare of sun on water. "No. Not the same."

He cocked his head. "Ah? How?

"Oh," I rocked back, thinking that one over. "That's... difficult to say."

"Hai?" He ruffled the fur on his forearms, one and then the other. "Not as good?"

"No, not that. It's... " putting it into words wasn't easy. "The feelings are different. She doesn't... It's not like a human female. She's not human. I mean everything; her feel, her scent, her... inside her... it's different. I mean, it's the same, it does the same thing, but it all feels so different."

"You don't like that?"

I suddenly wanted a stiff drink. "I don't know. In some ways, it's... it's frightening: we have to be careful. She... her claws and teeth... she forgets them sometimes. And I'm different enough... I'm heavier than Rris; my... penis is large enough and she... she's made for a different shape so it can be uncomfortable for her if I'm not careful. " It wasn't saying what I wanted to say. I sighed and looked down at my hands and then at the Rris. "It's... frightening, confusing, exhausting. And it's fun, pleasurable, reassuring, and it's... arousing."

His muzzled wrinkled in confusion. That word, arouse, didn't translate properly. Rather, it translated but I had to use it out of its usual context. "It's more than just the time of year for me," I reminded him.

"Ah," Chaeitch said dubiously, not sounding entirely enlightened. "She said. You can be aroused by just thinking about sex, or when she touches you. She said in the night, while you're asleep, you get erections and she can..."

"Thank you," I interrupted and he blinked amber eyes, then flicked his ears in amusement. "Hai, this makes you uncomfortable?"

"I went through enough of it with the physicians," I said. "How much did she tell you?"

Now his amusement faltered as he realized that this was another area in which my attitudes differed from the ones to which he was accustomed. "You...didn't want her to say anything, did you."

I did a brief estimation, then raked my fingers through my overgrown hair. "That much, a?" I sighed.

"Sorry," he looked uncertain. "I didn't know she wasn't supposed to discuss it."

And thinking back on it, I'd never asked her not to. I'd just assumed...

Crap.

I shook my head. "I never said anything to her. I just never thought she would."

"Ah," he said. For a while he just sat there, staring at the glittering water. The breeze ruffled through his fur, setting it rippling like golden fields. He'd been shedding his winter coat, but it still must've been hot. "You don't discuss other mates?"

"Not...usually. You obviously do."

"Sometimes. But you're quite exceptional. I was curious."

"I... see. She answered your questions?"

"Hai, yes," his tongue lolled in a Rris leer. "I see why you're so popular with them."

I reached around to rub at a heat that wasn't sunburn climbing up my neck. "Wonderful," I muttered. "Chaeitch, I'm trying to keep that..."

"I know. Don't worry. I haven't published yet."

I stared.

"That was a joke," he said reproachfully.

"Oh. Thank you."

"You do enjoy her, though, don't you."

In a word: "Yes."

"But your kind... you mate for life? One pair? You're quite...protective of her."

That set off alarm bells. This wasn't just a casual talk stemming from curiosity about an alien's sex life. He was beating around some kind of bush. He'd discussed my sexual habits with Chihirae, that could also mean they'd talked about other things. Like my feelings. Like how I'd felt when I'd walked in on them doing the beast with two backs.

Ah.

"Are you worried that I'm angry at you? Because of your... relationship with her."

His ears flicked, just enough to tell me that I'd scored. "You did seem upset."

"That was some time ago," I remembered. It'd shocked me, it'd hurt me, but it was completely right. "No. I was being stupid. Being human. You... I won't stand in your way. I won't interfere."

"But how would you feel about it?"

I swallowed. "I can't help that," I said. "But it's best for her. I can't offer her what you can."

"You wouldn't be angry."

"Chaeitch," I almost laughed, "if I was going to hurt you, it'd have to be for a damned good reason, and that isn't it."

"Thank you," he said. "I think."

Section 8

It's over four hundred kilometers across the lakes from Shattered Water to Open Fields. The Ironheart was a prototype, but it was still the fastest Rris vessel on the water. Belowdecks the engines throbbed steadily, transmitting that metal heatbeat through the ship's frame as it pushed along at about nine or ten knots.

Back home I could have made the journey in a matter of hours by road. Here, the fastest and safest route was the one we were taking, and it took two days. We stopped overnight at the midway point of the southern-shore town of Tearing Ice to take on more fuel and set off early the next day. The weather blessed us again, giving us blue skies and clear sailing.

I spent most of the day sitting out on the deck, lolling in the sun and talking with Chaeitch and Rraerch. I don't know why I got on so well with them, I just did. It seemed like they didn't judge me, they just accepted me. At first I'd thought it might have been because of the business I was bringing them: the technology and innovations. But it didn't seem to be that at all. At least as far as I could tell.

We discussed business: the ship, the upcoming job, where we could go next. And we talked about more interesting things: what Open Fields was really like, the places to eat and drink, the sights to see, general gossip. That chatting was also useful for me. I'd been living the Rris experience for over a year, which really isn't that long to learn a language. There're always new words - slang, places, references and historical events - cropping up. Just asking for elaboration about unknown words can lead conversations off down entirely new avenues.

But we had the time. And it was a good way to pass it.

Rraerch aesh Smither was another Rris I'd known for a long time. In fact, I'd first met her and Chaeitch at the same time, at a rather impromptu meeting Hirht had convened of highly-placed academics in Shattered Water. I suppose they'd been there to find out if I - and what I knew - were for real. Rraerch, as Chaeitch's patron and principal sponsor, had worked with him and I and we'd found we got on together. They'd been the first to try treating me like an individual and not a commodity, which hadn't been easy with the guards and schedule I'd been assigned. Now it looked like that sort of schedule would be on again in Open Fields, so I took the time to kick back and just talk with them.

In my world that lake would have been Lake Erie, here it was Windswept. The waterways back home would have been bustling with vessels of all types, from the big iron ore and container ships down to small pleasure craft. In this world I saw the occasional billowing sail in the distance, perhaps a few more around the small lakeside villages and towns, and that was heavy traffic by Rris standards. Rraerch knew all those places by name, and I found a lot of those names quite strange: Tearing Ice, Where Is This, Running Without Moving... She knew some of the history behind those names as well. Tearing Ice had been founded during a particularly bad winter storm. Windblown ice had cut up some of the early founders; Where Is This? Well, that was named courtesy of an ancient expedition who'd gotten themselves lost.

I was able to answer a few of their questions as well. They wanted to hear more about my home. My home world, to be more precise. They were fascinated by things I found quite mundane: cars, fast food, shopping malls and cities, flying, television and phones, the internet. They were entering the industrial revolution and had yet to come to grips with the concept of the information revolution. They'd seen my laptop and Chaeitch literally drooled over the thought of CAD/CAM applications, but the idea of just what computers were capable of still seemed to slip by them. It's not that they weren't intelligent. They were, smarter than me by quite a margin, it was just they hadn't had the exposure to machinery and concepts.

So a lot of that trip was spent chatting, exchanging information. Funny how when other Rris demand me to do that it seems like a chore. Company and environment I expect. What was that Confucious said? Choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life. Hell, he also said that wise men say and fools quote, but in a way he was right about career choice. Maybe I just had a perverse nature, but keeping it casual was far preferable to being grilled by merchants and monarchs out to make a quick buck.

We passed Pelle Island in the afternoon. Hours later we entered the St. Claire River at the north-western most end of Lake Windswept and our progress northwards was slowed slightly by the two-knot current. The sun was creeping down toward the horizon by the time we got to lake St. Claire... Season's Door.

It's a small lake. Well, relatively small when counted against the great lakes. And there was a lot more traffic there. I could see several sails on ships under way making for the city, bare masts on others moored out in open waters, probably avoiding harbor tariffs. Calm lake water slapped against the bow as the steersman followed the channel and current eddies out into the lake and then turned toward the sun, toward the western shore and the city there. The westering sun hung low over the roofs of Open Fields, reflected in a golden path leading across the dark water toward the shore. Engine sounds changed, dropping as the steersman throttled back to become a low idling throb, water gurgling around the hull as the ship glided smoothly through moored vessels toward the outstretched arms of the harbor wall.

The stone and granite walls arched out into the lake. Fortified guardhouses were positioned at the ends of the breakwaters, covered ports in the thick walls doubtless concealing canon. On the towers I could see Rris figures moving around a framework. Sparks flashed, then blossomed as a beacon on each wall were lit and flames, mere specters in the evening light, flicked up.

"About time those were replaced," Chaeitch remarked as we passed. Heads appeared at the crenellations to watch us.

Within the embrace of the walls was the harbor proper, sheltering a lot more moored vessels. Ships and boats of all shapes and sizes tied to wharves and docks and just anchored out in the harbor. Masts of all description reached up, silhouetted against the sunset in a tangled forest with a canopy of lines, rigging, spars and sails that rose above us as the Ironheart coasted in towards its berth. The trickle of smoke from the twin stacks died down to the merest wisp even as the engines picked up for a second: water churned as the screws reversed, then shut down. There wasn't a bump as the Ironheart glided to a halt alongside the wharf. The berths directly adjacent were empty, the other ships on the pier were sleek and elegant sailing vessels. Nothing like the dumpy shallowwater traders and haulers that filled the rest of the harbor. A VIP berth.

Of course we were expected and the reception committee was already there. Either they'd done a damn good job estimating our time, they'd been waiting a while, or they had a good messenger network. Guards in armor were posted along the length of the wharf, their polished silver breastplates gleaming in the evening light. Off in the background, near the gatehouse separating the private dock, stood a group of carriages and their attendants. More Rris were waiting at the dockside while the gangplank was run out. There were more guards there, wearing Shattered Water livery, and a group of Rris in civilian garb. Expensive clothes.

"The Ambassador," Rraerch whispered to me, gesturing toward them. "Some embassy staff and guards. Those others will be from Cover My Tail government. Just looking after you."

That many guards? Was there something going on that I didn't know about? More likely they were erring on the side of caution. Marasitha ignored them as he bustled down the gangway and over to the group waiting for us. I moved to follow but Chaeitch laid a finger on my arm. Wait.

I did. There was a brief exchange onshore and then Marasitha glanced our way. "Hai," Chaeitch said. "Come on."

I slung my duffel and followed them down the gangway, the wood bending much more under my feet than it had with the Rris. I saw soldiers stiffening, hands flexing on weapons and tails lashing. I didn't like that. Nervous Rris make me nervous, and these were armed. Their armor was ceremonial, polished and engraved and flaring orange gold in the final light, but the weapons they carried were sill lethal.

I tried to move slowly and carefully.

The higher ranking Rris knew what to expect. I saw some heads going back but they held their ground as I approached.

"Aesh Smither, ah Ties," the Rris Chaeitch had tagged as the Ambassador, a male with the tongue-twisting name Maetoi Tr'hrichetfer, greeted us at the bottom of the gangplank. Waiting a few paces behind him was a group of Rris. Foremost in that was group an androgynous individual with creamy tawny fur, dressed in a light pleated kilt, pale peach bloused cotton shirt and a thing like a cutdown poncho: a pair of finely tooled leather panels hanging over chest and back. Amber eyes looked me up and down.

"And this is... Mikah?" the ambassador said, "That's the way it is pronounced?"

"Yes, sir." My name is Michael, but Rris vocal apparatus has serious problems with the consonant 'el'.

He had good control. He barely gave a flicker when I answered him, but there were stirrings amongst the others. "Very good," the ambassador said. "May I introduce Chriét ah Hesethari, Host for Her ladyship."

The Rris in the odd-looking poncho stepped forward. He was a young-looking fellow, but I wasn't certain what his age might be. I got the impression he was trying not to stare at me, to appear dignified and controlled and he doing a pretty good job of it. "Honored guests," he ducked his head briefly. "Welcome to Open Fields. Ah Mikah, we are most gratified that you're able to join us."

"Thank you, sir," I said.

"Your journey was clear?"

"Very pleasant."

"I'm pleased to hear it. Two days from Shattered Water, that's remarkable time. But you could doubtless do with rest and refreshment in more comfortable surroundings."

The ambassador looked at us and said, "Her Ladyship has offered lodgings at Eisher House, a most magnanimous gesture."

"It's no trouble whatsoever," Chriét smiled. "It's acceptable to you?"

"It would be impolite to refuse," I replied.

'We would be honored," Marasitha said.

There was that flicker again. I guessed Chriét had been briefed in detail on me and was trying to look nonchalant and take it in stride, but the reality is always a bit more real than the telling. "Thank you," he ducked his head. "If you would care to follow me, there's transportation waiting."

As we headed toward the waiting carriages I looked around at the new Rris city. It was just the docks, and those weren't a great deal different from the ones in Shattered Water. The pier we were berthed at was in the VIP section, so it was isolated from the commoners berthing by walls and guardhouses. That evening there were probably more sentries than usual posted. Dusk crawled across the world, from the ground up. Darkness in the lowlands, in the streets and the shadows under trees grew and spread like ink spilled in slow motion. Delineators of dark crawling up hillsides and along valleys while peaks and rooftops glowed rust in the dying light. The Rris were unperturbed: their nightsight was inhuman. That goes without saying, but what was nothing but vague hints of shadows to me were quite clear to them. Useful: Chihirae sometimes read books in what was near-pitch to me. Scary: when she touched me in the night without warning. They did have uses for lights though. Rris night vision was superb, but apparently it was monochromatic. "All the color goes," was what Chihirae'd told me when I asked her, looking down on her looking up with glowing eyes. Navigation lights like the harbor beacons were lit, as were smaller lights on boats and on the docks, for safety's sake. And in the town others lamps were flickering to life: Not the glare of sodium, neon and argon smeared across the shoreline, but isolated pools of naked flame and oil and gas lamps.

So I walked along the docks as the shadows retook the world. Sentries in their glittering ceremonial armor, their bulky muskets carried at port arms watched from the sidelines as our little procession passed them. The carriages were elegant affairs, as fitted royal transportation. The wooden panels weren't painted, but they were carved by Rris craftsmen with a skill and intricacy that made most human carving look like whittling corncobs. The trim on the carriage - the gleaming light fittings and rails and door handles - that wasn't chrome, but real silver. This time I handed my duffle to a porter who almost dropped it before tightening his grip and looking from me to the bag. I guess it was a bit weighty. Not too surprising.

Our carriage seated four comfortably. Rraerch nestled in beside me while Chaeitch and our erstwhile guide sat opposite. Marasitha and the Ambassador had taken the following carriage. If the liason had been irritated about being relegated to the second cab, he didn't show it. Our guards piled into other carriages and several mounted up on spare llamas brought along by embassy guards. In the dim moonlight coming in through the carved privacy screens I could see Chriét watching me: his eyes wider than usual and his nostrils twitched. I could see that he was disturbed: at me, or at the fact that despite everything he'd been told about me, he was still nervous. I almost grinned and hastily converted it to a stifled smirk, hidden by looking out the window as iron wheels rattled on cobbles and swung around out the gate.

I almost missed the group of black-clad Rris standing back against a storefront. Just watching quietly while other spectators gave them room. I guess even Mediators get curious.

Section 9

Open Fields was a well-planned city, intelligently laid out following a grid system, but with those intrinsic Rris touches to the layout. Broad avenues headed away from the lake district, toward the west and the fading glow over the horizon. North south roads intersected at intervals, some of them with distinct curves to their constructions. I knew that if I could see the city from the air some of those road would be forming concentric circles centered on plazas, like ripples in the gridwork of the city infrastructure. It was the same as the trees in the avenues and parks, the carvings on the coaches, the organic touches to the most austere buildings. As if something in the Rris psyche couldn't stand being subject to pure geometry.

I guess my own found it restful as well. I did find the cities beautiful in their own way. Quaint is probably too patronizing a term. There was no traffic noise or hydrocarbon stink but there were the pollution problems associated with half a million beings and animals in close proximity. Doubtless milder than you'd have found in a human city of a comparable period, but nevertheless there. By their standards it was probably quite unpleasant - their sense of smell is a lot more acute than a humans.

We traveled westwards down a broad boulevard. Huge old trees hung their boughs overhead. Through the leaves I could catch glimpses of stars coming out. The moon riding low in the sky behind us was casting enough light to emphasize stark shadows. Occasionally there'd be a streetlight or a lamp glowing gently, illuminating a doorway or a sign, but there weren't many. The locals who were out, and there seemed to be a fair number, went about their business in the darkness.

"I understand you haven't been outside Shattered Water," Chriét was saying. Some moonlight was making it in through the windows: a couple of slivers that fell across Rris arms and torso, just enough to screw up my night vision and leave their faces in absolute blackness.

"This is my first time outside of Land-of-Water," I said. I had seen more of that land, from the village of Westwater to the town of Lying Scales and onwards to the capitol.

"I don't doubt that you've been told a lot about Open Fields. Is there anything in particular that you'd like to see while you're here?"

"I was told that aesh Resir'tsa's museum collection is very impressive. As is the royal gallery."

"It was mentioned you had an artistic interest," Chriét said. It was difficult to interpret any sort of tone in Rris voices: I had enough trouble reading their moods when I could see their faces. "I'm sure we can find some time to accommodate you. If there is anything else you require or want, please don't hesitate to let me know."

"Thank you," I said.

The carriage swayed into a right-hand turn, the moon shifting around to shine in my window. I judged we were travelling north-northwest. Thinking back to the maps of Open Fields, that would be about right.

"This is Limemine Hill street," Chriét was saying. "Offers a wonderful view onto Sward Square. Ah, I was told that you have difficulty seeing in poor light, but I'm afraid they were not very specific. This is too dim for you?"

"The moon helps, but yes, it is."

"Ah. A pity. Perhaps sometime in the morning then. Dawn across the lake is quite spectacular."

"Is there going to be much time for sightseeing? I would imagine you've already got a very busy schedule worked out."

Something pricked my leg: Rraerch's way of telling me to behave.

Section 10

There was a point after half an hour or so that the buildings thinned out. Through the coach windows I could see the black on velvet silhouettes of trees scratching against the night sky, the sound of their branches swaying in the wind like the sound of water over gravel. The dark forest, the shadows beneath the canopy where wild things were. I shuddered. The scene reminded me of some of the worse dreams I had.

Through the branches I caught the first glimmerings of light: fireflies dancing in the distance. Then the trees were gone and the moonlight was flooding down on open fields, down on rolling hills of long grass washed moonlight gray rippling in the night breeze. A rolling panorama laid out under a sky painted with the wash of the milky way. And the palace blazed like a fallen star.

It was built along the lines of a toppled capital H, with a broad central east-west transom and wings to the north and south. Lights must have been burning in every room. No electric lamps, of course, so every oil and gas lamp, torch, chandelier and candelabra must have been ablaze, spilling light from windows and doors. Burning torches lined the sides of the drive, laying a carpet of light leading across the moonlit fields toward the palace.

"Impressive," I said. Light from the roadside lamps strobed through the carriage as we passed by, each flash briefly illuminating Chriét's features. He was smirking, I swear he was. Impressing the alien: he'd be considering that a good start.

The carriage drew to a halt right at the front steps. Footmen and stewards hustled forward to open the door, to put steps in place. Chriét stepped out first, and as he was stepping out the door, Rraerch put her hand on my leg and squeezed, just a gentle prick of claws through my pants. I caught her look: a caution. I was about to step out into a place full of heavily armed guards who'd never seen anything like me before. She was right, I should be exceedingly careful.

So when it came my turn to disembark I did so slowly, with my hands in plain sight. There were guards out there, there were a lot of guards out there. I could see troopers in their polished armor ranked up the steps to the front door. They might have been disciplined, but I still saw more than a few flinch and stare at me while ears laid back. They were carrying muskets, weapons which might have been clumsy and unwieldy, but they were certainly lethal if someone got trigger happy. No red carpet, of course.

Gravel crunched under my feet and under the wheels of the carriages drawing up behind us. The Ambassador and his entourage climbed out, all trying to keep from staring too obviously. No photographs here, so all they'd have had to go on would have been descriptions. I gathered they didn't do me justice. Land of Water guards fell in behind us, ignoring the fact they were grossly outnumbered.

I debated going to collect my bag, then decided against it. Chaeitch had assured me it'd be quite secure. After all, if any luggage was mislaid there'd be hell to pay, but I still felt uneasy about letting it out of my sight. So I followed the other Rris up the stairs, past the ranks of armed guards.

The building was impressive, which was the point of it after all. The central part of the palace rose in front of us, the wings off to the side. In the moon and torchlight things were distorted, shadows were harsher and the proportions different. Polished granite blocks made up the three stories of the facade. Windows on all three floors were glazed, the second floor dominated by windows stretching from floor to ceiling. Those windows were separated by columns carved into details that were difficult to see in the light, but they seemed gothic in their detail and complexity. Not structural, but ornamental. High on the roofline, silhouetted against the sky were figures I at first through were more guards, but were probably statues.

"Mikah," Chaeitch hissed and I realized I'd been gawping. I shut my mouth and went where my hosts led me.

The doors were huge elaborately-carved bronze things. Every inch of the two-story portals were covered with figures of Rris bodies, interlacing so the gap between one figure's legs became another's arm. Not carvings. The entire things looked like they'd been cast in one piece. The vestibule inside was white marble lit by chandeliers hanging from braces in the stained-glass dome three floors above. Alcoves in the colonnaded walls contained carved busts of Rris. Some of them were old, split and gnarly looking things with barely discernable features. Beyond that was a great hall, an atrium with an arched, leaded glass ceiling. Wrought-iron railings ran along second and third floor galleries where curious Rris faces lurked and stared. Staff, I noticed. Servants trying to be unobtrusive in their curiosity. The air was cool, the scent a faint one of spices and potpourri and the dusty scent of Rris. Claws pattered on the inlaid floor, accompanied by the faint clink of buckles and armor and equipment as our guide led us down the hall toward the double doors at the far end.

"Her highness is awaiting you in the Sky Chamber," Chriét was saying. "We hope you will forgive the reception. Given more time we could have prepared something a little more elaborate."

"Quite sufficient," Rraerch said. Oh yeah, our hosts were trying to impress. "She has been looking forward to this meeting," the Host went on. "As have many others. The reception tonight has been restricted, but there will be appointments later on. Those have been drawn up and submitted to your embassy." "Ah Marasitha will wish to peruse them, merely for formalities sake. I'm sure everything is quite satisfactory," Rraerch said. "Of course," the Host said. "If there are any difficulties, please don't hesitate to inform us." A low underlying susurrus had been getting steadily louder as we approached the doors. When the doormen swung them open the noise peaked, like a gust of wind through autumn leaves, then died. I felt my heart lurch into overdrive. If it was the Sky Chamber, it was aptly named. We were standing on steps leading down into a ballroom that was like being in the middle of a fabergé egg: patterned powder-blue satin wallpaper, ornate plaster moulding that was almost rococo in its extravagance climbed the walls and ceiling to the central dome of wrought iron and glass. Huge chandeliers of crystal and silver hung from the dome, flaring with hundreds of candles, their light reflecting from the dome above, from the polished floor, from the gilt and silver in the room and in the crowd below. The crowd. A sea of Rris faces turning to stare at us. At me. A crowd of Rris in fine satins and cottons and leathers and glittering metal. My first thought was 'this is restricted?!' The nobility and the court of Open Fields, there to see just what all the fuss was about. Just as their counterparts over in Shattered Water had done. It was a situation I'd experienced before, and not all of those experiences had been good. Some of that had been due to my own carelessness, some of it Rris attitudes. In order to get through I had to put on a careful act and watch my every move, and that wasn't easy. These were Rris who didn't know me, who had no idea I had different mannerisms and that some of those mannerisms, while innocent, could be construed as hostile. These Rris were powerful, often arrogant and used to getting their own way, and could be quick to boil over if they perceived something as a slight. And it wasn't so easy to put the lid back on. I really didn't like those situations. But the others were looking at me. I saw Rraerch's ears lay back and knew I was emoting something strong enough for them to pick up on. I swallowed hard, put on my best poker face and descended into the throng. The rustle of Rris whispers was picking up again around the back of the crowd. Whispers and soft chittering while the crowd stirred in curiosity. However, they kept their distance and parted like the Red Sea before us. The guards were like a moving cordon, never touching their weapons but keeping the Rris bystanders back with just a bit of attitude, armor and the promise of sharp metal.

Chriét led the way through the crowd and I followed, somewhat relieved that they weren't just cutting me loose in there, although if there was a point in parading me past the entire court, I didn't get it. So I walked along behind the guards, taking deep breaths and trying to keep my racing heart under control. The crowd was a continuously shifting mosaic of sound and details. Multitudes of eyes: amber and orange of all hues, rarer flashes of green. Fur in shades of ochre, brown, sienna, tawny, grey, cream, black stripes and speckles. Gaudily colored clothes; lace and satin; ruffs and bloused sleeves; gold and silver filigree woven through fur dyed and shaven in abstract and geometric patterns... The crowd was all around and I couldn't look everywhere at once, so I focused my eyes ahead, at the point were the courtiers were stepping aside to let our party through.

"... is it?"

"Red tie me! Frightful!"

"...one they were talking about."

"Not Rris?"

"...like the [something] in...."

"...serious?!"

Fragments of dozens of conversations and exclamations tangling in the air around us. Nothing I hadn't heard before.

And our escort led us right through that room and that crowd. Right through to the double doors on the far side. Footmen opened them and we entered a hall, an antechamber rather, with another set of doors ahead of us and a single door in the other two walls. The room was brightly lit with gas lamps. The walls were red velvet and the floor was inlaid with a cheerful parquetry mosaic of a Rris dying of grievous and graphic bodily wounds while being succored by a small distressed-looking group. I'd seen a statue a great deal like that in Pinnacle Square back in Shattered Water. Beside the inner doors a pair of guards stood watch, looking our way but otherwise not reacting when we entered. The doors behind us swung to and the white static of the crowd was muted and I was able to breathe again.

Damn. I thought was growing accustomed to situations like that: I'd been through enough of them at receptions in Shattered Water and whenever I had to walk the streets in public, but they were still stressful. Especially in an unknown room in a full of strangers.

"You all right?" Chaeitch murmured. I realized I'd relaxed with an audible sigh, but he was the only one who'd picked up on it.

"Thought I was used to that," I whispered back and he flicked his ears.

"I'm sorry?" Chriét looked around. "Everything is all right."

"Oh yes, perfectly," Chaeitch said.

"Groovy," I smiled. It felt forced.

Chirt blinked, appearing momentarily puzzled, then he ducked his head. "Very good. Now, if you would please, her highness would be pleased to meet with you. Your escort... they will not be needed in there."

Marasitha hesitated, then nodded at our guards. They quietly stepped aside to take up positions along the walls. The Open Fields guards opened the other doors and we walked through, onto deep carpet. It was a big room, and it was blue. I'd thought the outer hall was the sky chamber and I'd obviously been wrong about that.

The wallpaper in the room we entered was a deep blue trimmed with gold across the scocia and the concave ceiling was a deep purple in which gleamed hundreds... thousands of little points of light. Pinpricks in the arch of the ceiling, backlit to produce a representation of the night sky. There were bookshelves around the walls, well stocked with old volumes. Down the far end of the room cushions were arranged in a semicircle before a single figure hunched over a low desk in a pool of light from a single lamp sat. Behind us, the sound of the crowd vanished entirely as the doors closed again and the only noise was a low scribble from the scratching pen of the figure at the desk. There was a final flourish of the quill, then furry fingers carefully laid it aside to dry and she looked up at us.

"Welcome to Open Fields," Lady H'risnth aesh Rei's smiled cordially. "I hope your journey was a good one."

"Very good, ma'am," Marasitha replied. "And a spectacular reception."

The Lady was a young Rris. We'd met before and my briefings had had more than a bit on her. I knew she had one cub and Chaeitch had told me she was considered very attractive by Rris standards. Her pelt was light tawny color and quite long, a trait inherited from her grandmother who, from accounts, hailed from more northern climes. Her belly was a pale cream and dotted with salt and pepper flecks that trailed around from the larger dark speckles across her back and down her tail. Her eyes were that amber color so common to Rris, so inhuman to me. She ducked her head. "It was the least we could offer such esteemed guests. Ah R'y, wonderful to see you again. I have to thank you personally for making the trip. It wasn't too strenuous?"

It took me a second to realize she was talking to me. "Please ma'am, just call me Michael," I said. "Mikah. The trip was fine. Very restful. And from what I saw of your city it seems very beautiful. I look forward to seeing it in the light."

She graciously smiled and gestured affirmative. "It is, and we shall afford you every opportunity. I understand you have an interest in seeing some museums and galleries."

How the hell had that snippet of information gotten to her so quickly? "Yes, ma'am, very much. If there's time."

"I'm sure there will be," she assured me. "If there is anything you would like to see or do, please just ask."

"Thank you," I said and had to glance up at the ceiling again. "This... this is the Sky Chamber?"

I thought I heard Chaeitch sigh but the Lady looked unmistakably amused. "It is. Aptly named, I think. Supposedly an exact depiction of the sky at the time it was created. Fifty six years ago I believe. It is a quite exceptional work."

"Ah," I agreed. I'd wondered why the background color was deep purple, then had to recall that Rris couldn't see that color: to them it was the same as black. "It is."

"You must see the Dawn Room sometime. It's designed by the same artist. When seen at the right time of the morning it is quite... spectacular."

"I would like that," I said.

"It will be arranged," her face pursed in amusement again. "Now, I expect you're all discomforted after your journey. I have rooms prepared for you. Also food and refreshments and staff. I know you want to get down to business, but it is late, and since you made such excellent time, there's no rush. In the morning we can discuss business, but for now, please; rest, relax, enjoy our hospitality."

"Thank you, ma'am," Marasitha bowed.

She gave him a look and twitched her ears, then turned to me and grinned. I heard intakes of breath from my companions and flinched myself, but I think I recognized it for what it was before they did: An imitation of one of my smiles. "Mikah, I think the next few days will prove to be most interesting indeed."

Section 11

I wasn't given a room. It was more like a whole suite.

Chriét showed me in through open doors, into an antechamber of white marble. Fine-veined white marble on the floor, in the polished walls, up to the vaulted ceiling. Opposite the door an alcove housed a gnarled and weathered piece of wood. On either side stood a plain white vase, each containing a small bundle of dried bullrushes.

There were Rris waiting in there. A row of seven of them standing at nervous attention, but they weren't guards. Their clothes were neat, but not expensive. I saw ears go back like a row of dominoes, one after the other as soon as they laid eyes on me. The staff who attended the suite, and therefore me, Chriét informed me. There was Hiesh, the steward of the suite. Then the attendant, the trio of chambermaids, the waiter, and the personal groom. Those individuals weren't introduced by name, they were just servants. They'd probably been hand- picked and extensively briefed, and they looked more than a little nervous of me.

"If you need anything," Chriét told me, "Anything at all, just ask. It will be provided."

The rest of the suite was through an archway to the right and down a couple of steps. They opened out onto a big living area. It was luxurious. By anyone's standards. The floor was carpeted in intricate patterns of woven green and gold; the paneling on the wall lacquered white and embellished with carvings and scrollwork and gilt. There was a desk, there was a table and polished leather cushions, Rris sculptures and artwork scattered around. A cold fireplace lay below a huge mantle embossed with plaster grapes, above was a mirror in a gilt frame, a big one. It must've been worth its weight in gold, given the laborious process glassmaking that was here. Drapes were drawn over the high windows along one wall, the light coming from the glowing flames of new coal gas lamps. The candles on the hanging crystal chandelier were unlit.

Then there was the bedroom. It was big, with a similar color scheme and decor as the outer room. The paintings hanging on the walls had a feeling of age about them, and the mirror opposite the bed reflected the light of more gas lamps. The bed... well the huge bed with its satin spread looked about the right size to double as a parade ground. No pillows though. My luggage was neatly laid out on a bench just inside the door, and while I wasn't about to check there and then, the red royal seals looked to be intact.

The ensuite was all fine white tile, green trim, and silver fixtures. At one end of the room was a huge bath on a dias, at the other water continuously trickled into a basin from a silver swan head. The toilet... that was one of those convoluted Rris saddle-affairs against the far wall. No door or curtain. I'm still not used to the Rris laid-back attitude to bodily functions.

Chaeitch, Rraerch and Marasitha had lodgings in the same wing, but their quarters, while plush, weren't on the same palatial scale as mine. The guards in the corridors were the Land of Water personnel who'd come with us. Obviously they were going all out to be hospitable, and probably to impress me. The rooms were extravagant in the extreme and the extras like the gas lighting, the mirrors and the indoor plumbing were the latest word in Rris amenities. They probably never realised that to me they were not only mundane, but expected. I wondered how long ago they'd been installed. Was it just for my sake?

"Is it to your satisfaction?" Chirét was asking.

I had to ask. "You've got cable?"

"Sir?" The confusion on his faced was mingled with a flash of what was almost panic.

"Relax," I sighed. "Old joke. It's most satisfactory."

"Yes, sir." He still looked decidedly uncertain. Would inroads be made in trying to find out exactly what 'cable' was? "There will always be someone attendant to your needs. If anything is required, at any time, simply inform them. Hiesh," he gestured at the steward lurking in the background, "will endeavor to fulfil your needs."

"Thank you," I said and the Host ducked his head, took a couple of steps back and turned and stalked away across the room toward the antechamber. Hiesh bowed his own head as his superior passed and then stiffened again. Okay. Severe pecking order. And the servants were probably under strict orders and even... I hesitated and looked at the big mirror over the fireplace, considering it for a second. Then I shook my head: No, that would be ridiculously cliched. I shrugged, then headed on back to the bedroom and stopped in the doorway.

"Hiesh," I turned to the steward.

"Sir," he flinched.

"You can relax too," I said, looking at the Rris. I couldn't guess his age, but he was elegantly groomed and obviously aching to do right. "How much did they tell you about me?"

"Sir?"

"Is that all you can say? Loosen up a bit. I'm pretty informal and I don't bite or scratch. They didn't tell you anything about me? I find that hard to believe."

"Sir, they said to treat you like highborn. Sir."

"They did, a?"

"Yes, sir."

"Did they explain about my smiling?"

"Smiling, sir?"

Ohboy. They hadn't told them. "I can't smile like a Rris. Different ears, different face. When I smile sometimes I show teeth. It's not a hostile gesture, it's just the way I am. Understand?"

"I believe so, Sir."

"Good," I smiled. He flinched then caught himself. "Well, better," I said and turned for the bedroom. "Is there somewhere I can unpack my clothes? And no I don't need help; I am quite capable of doing it for myself."

"Of course, Sir."

"And my name's Michael."

"Yes, Sir."

Sigh.

Section 12

Satin sheets were wrapped around my legs. My face was flat against more satin, the smooth fabric sliding against my beard. I blinked muzzily, still mostly asleep and floating in a weird warm place where Chihirae and Jackie were playing mahjong.

"It's morning, Sir," a voice was saying.

I opened my eyes, blinked. The Voice was right. It was. Dim light was filtering in around the side of the curtains, and then suddenly flooded the room as the drapes were pulled aside. "You slept well I hope, Sir," the steward, Hiesh, was saying as he opened the curtains, then came over to stand at the side of the bed with his hands clasped before him. "Your schedule has been prepared and is waiting on the desk. Her highness wishes to start as soon as is possible. Kiesh will help you with preperations, Sir. And is there anything you would prefer for your breakfast?"

"Huh?" I responded and struggled to sit up, yawned and stretched. Tendons popped and crackled.

"Breakfast, Sir?" He was staring. Not at me. Matter of fact he was being pointedly careful not to stare at me by keeping his eyes locked very fixedly at a point over my head. I scratched my chest, amused, then his question registered.

"Oh," crap, I hated not being able to order a simple continental. "Bread rolls or grains are fine. Cooked eggs are good. Not too much meat, and if there is make sure it's very well cooked. Almost burnt please." By Rris standards that would be medium rare.

"Yes, Sir," he said and went to organize it.

Outside, it promised to be another flawless day. The sun was low, turning the horizon white and leaving the sky overhead a deep and bottomless blue. Young light touched the hills, washing over the golden grasslands around the palace. I stood in the window and admired the view as I ran through a few vigorous stretches, then a few dozen crunches and pressups. Going for a run would have been a good start to the day but I wasn't sure how my hosts would have taken it.

I'd was on my dozenth crunch when I heard the voice venture, "Sir?" I kept going but glanced around at the Rris standing in the doorway, carrying an armful of blankets and staring at me. I guess it had good cause: it's not everyday you walk into a room to find a giant hairless ape lying on the floor, feet tucked under the edge of the bed and repeatedly folding and unfolding himself.

"A?" I grunted as I touched elbow to knee. "I'll be done in a few minutes."

It... she was still there when I'd finished. As I got up her ears went back and she got that look that said she was seriously thinking about running. "Can I help you?" I asked, grabbing a towel and wiping sweat away from my eyes. "I met you last night? You're on staff?"

"Sir," the Rris with the stack of linen squeaked, then tried again. "Sir, we were told to attend you."

"Attend me?" I wasn't entirely sure what that meant.

"Yes, sir," she squeaked again and glanced around, as if looking for someone else. "To assist you this morning."

"With what?"

Her ears went back and she was looking positively distraught. "Sir, anything you need. I... I'm here to clean. I didn't mean to stare sir. I'm sorry."

"Ah, Okay. Thank you. Don't worry. Go ahead," I said and caught myself before I smiled at her, then slung the towel around my shoulders and headed for the bathroom.

The bath was impressive: sunken into its dais and lined with white tiles painted with small green lillies, it was big enough to be a small swimming pool. The faucet was a big silver sluice and definitely not mass produced judging by the quality of the engraving on it. There was hot water. Well, tepid at best, but the morning wasn't cold and it was a bearable substitute for a brisk shower. Arranged along the side of the bath were brushes, things designed for raking through Rris fur and coarse enough to scratch me raw. The soap was the grey, grainy stuff like coagulated porridge with sand in it so common here. Horrible to use, but it was all there was. I dunked my head, rinsing the coarse stuff out of my hair, and when I lifted it again there was another Rris standing there and staring at me.

The rotted groom there to 'attend' me, which included helping me wash. I had to persuade him that I was quite capable of doing that by myself myself, but did agree to let him lay out my clothes. That was enough to salve his professional pride and give me some privacy.

Although when I saw what he'd laid out I started to wish I'd brought Tich along.

Section 13

If the day had started off hectic enough, the pace picked up. Within an hour I was walking the corridors of yet another alien palace. Chaeitch, Rraerch, and Chriét had been waiting in the antechamber when I'd come out of the bedroom, Chaeitch chittering aloud, Rraerch looking distinctly amused and the Host seemingly a little bemused. They'd been there long enough to overhear my... discussion with the groom over the outfit. Is it really so difficult to understand that pants with tail slits might not be appreciated by someone without a tail?

That had been sorted out. My clothes might have been a peculiar cut by Rris standards, slacks and a loose-shirt weren't haute couture here, but it was a cut that fit me. I'd had them custom made by one of the best tailors in Shattered Water, using my well-worn clothes from home as patterns. The materials were unorthodox, but they were comfortable. I'd also unpacked my laptop from its padded and sealed travelcase and carefully slung that over my shoulder. Back home it'd been expensive; here, 'priceless' still didn't come close to describing it.

A small procession made its way from the guest quarters into the halls of the palace. The Shattered Water Rris - Chaeitch, Rraerch and the guards - and I were escorted by Open Fields royal guards in a cordon around us, some in front and some behind. Their weapons were holstered or sheathed and secured with yellow ribbons. A mark of courtesy Rraerch told me, showing that the weapons couldn't drawn quickly.

Soldiery was becoming a part of the background by then. It wasn't difficult to not even notice them while seeing the rest of the world. Sunlight flooding in through windows we walked past was warm against my skin and gleamed off marble floors and expensive ornamentation in the palace halls. Outside the heavens were a cloudless blue vault, arching high above a vista of summer-golden grass and the green of trees. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day.

We walked through marble halls and past history. Not a human history, but it was still a past deeper and richer than my young United States had known. There were tapestries and paintings hundreds of years old. There were cracked and time- bleached wooden totems imbued with the ghosts of scents of notable Rris long-dead when Lincoln was in diapers; polished maple wall panels with bas-relief carvings depicting stories of people and places, no two the same.

Chaeitch prodded me with a claw and reminded me that we did have an appointment to keep.

It was in an audience chamber off a suite in the southeastern wing of the palace. The setting was informal and minimalist. The room was bright, with light colors: pale creams and white embossed wallpaper void of any pictures and coarse woven white rattan carpeting. A dozen floor cushions with side tables were arranged in a circle, nine of them occupied by Rris. The only one I recognized was the Lady H'risnth. She was across the room, on her cushion in a pool of sunlight flooding through the windows at her back. Daylight flared from her loose white cotton blouse and the golden torc around her neck.

Rris gaped and openly stared at me. The Lady simply inclined her head and for a second I thought I saw a flicker of amusement. "Good morning, Mikah. You slept well?"

"Very well, thank you, Ma'am," I bowed. "My thanks to you and your staff for your hospitality."

"And our thanks to you for being here today," she smiled. "Please, sit."

I carefully folded myself down to the indicated cushion then unslung the laptop and placed it on the table beside me. Rris watched me. I guessed that a lot if not most of them had probably been in that crowd the previous night, they'd seen me before, but I was still a novelty. Chaeitch and Rraerch took the vacant cushions to either side. I saw Rraerch give me a careful glance: trying to judge my mood.

"Good folk," The Lady said to the assembled personages, "your presence today is an honor. Our guests have come a long way and the least we can do is ensure it is worth their while. I am sure this [something] will be prove to be a productive and peaceable forerunner of many more such unions."

I almost frowned. There was a phrase I didn't know. And underlying all that there was something else. A warning? I didn't have time to puzzle over it. After that little speech The Lady settled back, folded her hands and let the Rris to her immediate right - an advisor - take over. Her amber eyes turned to me and she blinked, lazily it seemed, and I had to turn my attention to the advisor.

It was introductions first. The Rris in the room were leading Guildmasters; those the Open Fields government had considered highest priority. They knew I was only there for a limited time, so they'd picked representatives from various guilds and institutions. There was the Metalworkers and Miners Guild administrator; the printing guildmaster; Merchants and Traders master; a representative from the Engineering Guild; a couple from the University, one of them a 'life-studier'. In other words a biologist. They were fields that they thought could profit the most in the time available. No military representatives there. Or rather, nobody was introduced as outright military. But when it came down to it, a farmer was a military resource.

Reactions to the introductions were... mixed, to a certain extent. They were there by the good graces of the government and they knew it. They were courteous, polite and a couple of them, the biologist, seemed openly friendly, but it was difficult to tell for sure. They'd doubtless been briefed about me, and it'd doubtless been made absolutely clear to them that if any of them gave me any trouble their hides would be used as doormats. So they were as gracious and polite as they might be to her highness herself. I only noticed a couple of instances of ears twitching back, of lips flicking back from sharp teeth.

I was getting used to meeting Rris. It didn't work both ways. There were a lot more of them than there were of me. But they were willing to listen to me, and especially to what I could give them. Greed is a powerful incentive when it comes to circumventing prejudices.

They were primarily interested in industrial applications. Especially where they could be applied to their mining and refining industries. Iron and steel were major industries in Cover My Tail, so therefore so were transportation, coal and coke mines and products related to them, like the increasing demand for coal gas. New techniques and equipment were of serious interest to them.

And so was the fact that Land of Water had massively improved steam engines and that these engines required high- grade coal to run. It wasn't difficult to see that if these machines gained in popularity then there would be a corresponding demand for fuel. You could almost hear the cash registers ringing up the totals in their heads.

Those engines also provided opportunities and solutions to other problems. Like improved pumps and lifts for deeper mines; like boats and trains that could haul more goods further and faster; like reduced workforces and therefore reduced costs. Just one technology could start an avalanche of other possibilities, each bringing with them further opportunities. These Rris were businessmen. I could practically see their nostrils twitching as they scented rich meat in the air.

And through it all the Lady H'risnth sat quietly and watched, seeming almost disinterested in the whole thing. She watched, she twitched an occasional ear, but she didn't say anything. She watched me, I know that. Once I glanced at her and caught her eye and I'm sure I caught a flicker of an amused smile, as if there was a joke between us, quickly hidden again under serene imperturbability.

I'd been warned that she was a sharp player, but for some reason she was sitting this one out.

"And are these designs so difficult to produce?" the Metalworkers master was asking me. He may have been one of the most powerful members of that guild, but he had spent time actually working at the craft. He knew a thing or two about the subject. Probably more than I did when it came down to the practical aspects of ironmongery.

"Sir, some of the innovations look simple enough, but if they're not carried out correctly and with the right materials, they can be lethal. Simply raising the pressure of boilers is pointless if the plating and seams won't take the extra strain. And simply making the walls thicker makes it more expensive, larger and heavier and therefore any extra power you gain from the size is lost in simply moving the engine and its fuel."

He looked thoughtful. "And these materials and tools for manufacturing, they are complicated."

"Some of them extremely so."

"So of course we would be buying them from you."

Chaeitch stepped in: "Initially, yes. For the time it took you to develop your own. Which I'm sure you could do in admirable time."

I saw the guildmaster's head go up fractionally and there were slight movements from the others: shifting weight, twitches of tails, flicks of ears... Lady H'risnth glanced at me again and I saw her pupils dilate momentarily. Two years I'd been there and I still couldn't interpret most of that body language. The head going back in a human would have been wariness, but in them I thought it was something a little like... would pride be the word?

It was dangerous ground for me. That was why Chaeitch and Rraerch were there.

"Faster than we were able to," Chaeitch drove it home. "We've been down that trail so we know exactly what will have to be done and the footsteps to follow to get there. You won't be going off down any of those interesting dead ends."

It sounded good. Like the computer industry back home: You can buy the product, brand spanking new off the assembly line, but the supplier will always still be a few steps ahead of you. If you want to troubleshoot or upgrade, then you and your cash'll have to go back to them. By the time Open Fields got any sort of engine running, Shattered Water would have the next generation.

The morning continued in that vein. Each side trying to take while making it look like they were giving. Which is what salesmanship - and politics - is all about. It all felt decidedly... unclean.

I didn't have any regrets about my chosen career path.

Except that my former career was as a graphic artist, not an engineer. My training was in arts and design. My work exposed me to a lot of different fields, but only fractional aspects of them. In the past I'd produced brochures for vineyards, interactive displays for pumping manufacturers, animations for tool manufacturers and shows for petfood producers. I'd covered some aspects of those industries in detail while other sections I didn't have the foggiest idea about. When it came to retooling a society on the cusp of an industrial revolution, artistic ability didn't rank highly on the scale of desirable skills.

I was all they were going to get.

Section 14

Our hosts must've been aware of my limitations and my difficulties with the Rris language. Speaking a tongue my vocal chords had never been intended to speak for any period of time was uncomfortable for me. Actually physically debilitating in fact. They made sure my water glass was full, the servants also bringing trays of snacks and titbits which were good excuses to shut up for a few seconds. Some of the hot pastries they brought through were extremely good, although the way the Rris watched me masticate each mouthful made me feel like I was putting on a sideshow for them. If they were annoyed by the interruptions, they didn't give any outward signs of it.

There were so many of those little snacks that when the stewards announced that the midday meal was ready, it came as a surprise. I hadn't felt the slightest bit hungry, but when I looked at the window the shadows were shorter: it was noon. Time had passed faster than I'd expected.

Lunch was served in an adjoining room. White gauze curtains billowed into the room like insubstantial sails. Behind them an entire wall of french windows opened onto a vista of summer skies and the grass and tree covered hillsides of the palace grounds. Food was laid out on the huge table in the center of the room and as you might have expected, it was a lavish spread with bowls and trays of assorted meats and pastries and breads and more meats. The plates were a fine porcelain, looking a feeling a little like bone china. The cutlery was silver, and polished spotless. I was able to use the Rris utensils pretty well by then. At least, the forks and knives I didn't have any problem with, it was the things like chopsticks with little tines on the ends I had a bit of trouble with. I was all too aware of the Rris watching me as I manipulated bits of food from my plate to my mouth. Her ladyship... I glanced her way to see her staring back, just staring unblinkingly at me with her head tipped slightly to the side and an expression that might have been amusement insinuating itself about her features. Might have been. I wasn't sure. There was an appetizer of filleted slivers of fish marinated in wine. The main course was some kind of tiny birds, roasted and filled with a mildly spicey stuffing. I felt a pang of apprehension when I tasted that.

"Not to your taste?" Chaeitch inquired. I looked up. I hadn't realized I'd reacted to that mouthful and now all the Rris were staring at me.

"It's very good," I said. "But the spice in this..." I trailed off, gesturing at the main course.

"It's all quite safe," the life-studier spoke up. "If that's what you were referring to. There was a list..." he also hesitated, looking around at the others as if he might have committed a faux pas.

Chaetich's ears twitched and he looked at my dish. "There's nothing you haven't eaten before," he said and added, "Safely," with another flick of his ears.

They'd tried to think of everything, hadn't they. The reassurances helped, but...

I glanced around the table. Rris nobility stared back. A circle of feline features watching me, hands hovering halfway between plate and mouth with food momentarily forgotten. They were curious, I could see that, but they didn't ask. When I took another mouthful there was an almost imperceptible ripple around the table: a loosening of tension, a relaxing of ears and muscles in our hosts.

I'd been honest when I'd said the stuff was good. It was. It was simply experience making me wary. The unpleasant experience I'd had with Rris condiments hadn't killed me, not quite, but it'd certainly been enough to make sure I'd never forget it. There'd been suggestions of poison, but in the end it'd seemed most likely that it'd been a flavoring the Rris used like we used peppers. Harmless to them, toxic to me. I'd made my own cook quite aware that experimentation in his cooking wasn't a good idea, not without being absolutely sure. But my hosts and my friends were assuring me the food was safe and I had to trust somebody.

Sounds of cutlery and enthusiastic Rris mastication provided a background to the conversation, which drifted back to technical talk interspersed with questions about other subjects. Like the impromptu language lessons, a single topic could branch off into all sorts of unexpected scenic routes. A simple question about the construction of new smelting facilities led off into questions about supplies of kiln lining material from Shattered Water, exchanges of coke and iron ore, possibility of drawing and fabrication machinery and questions about production capability from back home. That last one... I didn't really have the foggiest idea. But I dropped some figures I did know, like GMs annual production numbers from a couple of years back. The Metalworkers' Guildmaster almost choked on his mouthful.

The plans for the afternoon revolved around a flying tour of some of their facilities. On the list were a coal mine, a foundry and metal workshop, and lumber and a grain mill, all out in the western districts of Open Fields. Chriét handled the summary of the programme, quite transparent in his efforts at applying a gloss to the descriptions to make it sound like the glittering tour that it obviously wasn't.

The Lady sat quietly, decorously lapping from a small china cup as the Host enthusiastically described the program, using quite a few elaborate adjectives I didn't know. She was watching me, I was quite aware of that, and it rattled me a bit. I could feel the stare and every time I glanced at her those amber eyes were on me. She didn't speak, just watched.

When the meal was done the Host politely announced the carriages were waiting. I rose with the Rris and before leaving bowed to the Lady, thanking her for the hospitality.

With graceful ease the Lady returned the bow. "The pleasure was mine," she rumbled, then smiled slightly and blinked slowly at me.

I was staring. I felt a hot flush climbing up from my collar as I turned away. Out in the hall Chaeitch smirked at me, lolling his tongue slightly.

"Oh, shut up," I growled out of the corner of my mouth.

He just looked smug.

Section 15

Iron-rimmed carriage wheels bumped and rattled on the unpaved roads, the afternoon sun low enough to shine in through the windows. Draught animals bleated and complained, the sounds mingling with the strident rasp of insects and birdsong in the sward beside the road. Dust disturbed by our passage hung in the still air, smelling like hot summer and farms.

Sitting in a slow-moving box on a hot afternoon, feeling a combination of heat-induced lethargy and plain tiredness after the tour. At least with cars you can crack a window for a bit of ventilation, but a elk-drawn carriage didn't offer that sort of option. The windows were wide open but the thing simply didn't move fast enough to produce much of a breeze. I found it warm: for my fur-clad companions it must've been stifling.

Chaeitch, Chriét, and R'raerch were sitting and panting steadily. I glanced at the two males sitting opposite with their jaws gaping and tongues lolling and then quickly looked back at the scenery scrolling by outside, choking back a laugh. At my side R'raerch gave an inquisitive chirrup, looking from me to the other, but she didn't say anything.

The mine we'd visited had been about twenty minutes ride to the west of the city. I'd been expecting a small strip mine. The actual thing didn't meet my expectations.

The initial prospectors had struck a rich seam and they'd been following it ever since. And that'd apparently been for a long time. The hillside in which the original mine had been struck in was almost gone, cut in half. What remained was a terraced pit larger than several football fields surrounded by a wasteland of cleared trees, heaps of broken rock and trampled earth. There were buildings around the periphery of the pit: several rough-looking sheds of rough-cut lumber with chimneys dribbling smoke and a couple more newer-looking constructions of brick with glazed windows.

There was activity everywhere. Rris and animals moved around the pit, hauling carts and buckets. I saw a group of Rris emerging from what could only be the opening of a shaft in the side of the pit and had to stare. They were staggering with exhaustion. Their hides were plastered and dripping with mud and grimy layers of coal dust that turned them black as night. Several of them sneezed violently and as the bunch began a weary slog out of the pit I remembered some of the stories I'd heard about early mining back home and had to wince.

If anything those stories had been understating things. It was hell down there.

The open cast mine had been getting the easy stuff. The originally vein had followed close to the surface and it'd simply been a matter of chopping away the hill to get to it. They'd found other veins of hard coals branching away from that main seam and those were more difficult propositions. Shafts had been sunk, chasing those deeper veins, and those mines were black holes in the earth. Cramped, poorly lit, ventilated or drained. The Rris workers toiled in near blackness, continually rained upon by freezing water and mud, smothered in coal dust that played havoc with their acute senses. Material dug out by hand had to be hauled along claustrophobia-inducing tunnels and then up to the surface. Again, all by hand. The whole process was slow, inefficient and absolutely appalling for the workers.

What raw material was brought to the surface was sifted and graded into only a couple of different sorts. Some was carted off for use in heating or industry smelters while - more recently - other grades went for gas production or use in engines. Wagons hauled loads of the stuff off toward the city and the smelters.

A managerial type had been cashiered as our guide. He must've been briefed well because he only stared at me for a few seconds before starting the tour. He still kept a safe distance between us though. An hour was spent showing us around the brick and wood facilities. The stables and rickety bunkhouses, the new brick enginehouse where a feeble and unreliable steam pump managed to wring a trickle of seep water from the mine. Our guide pointed out various features, proudly extolling the state-of-the-art techniques.

God, just off the top of my head I knew about improved engines for pumps and winches, improved lamps and safety equipment, railroads for distribution, silos for storage and loading, safety lamps for the miners. My laptop encyclopedia would have information about techniques and specialized machinery that would improve conditions and productivity.

However, it'd been made abundantly clear to me that we were just there to look; to observe; to evaluate. Land-of- Water didn't want me giving away information for free. There was definitely a market there and they had what that market wanted. But I looked at those miners collapsing in exhausted bedraggled heaps beside the mine, the muck covering them caking in the hot sunlight, and I had to feel guilty. Land-of- Water would milk this for all it was worth, and it was worth a lot.

After the mine came the foundry. Practical considerations had placed it near the mine; about fifteen minutes travel southeast, situated at a point where ore and coal supplies congregated. I'd seen places like it before, with the big furnaces and the open casting pits where molten metal was poured into sand moulds. The foundries in Shattered Water had been almost identical when I'd first been shown them. It was something I'd been through before, so I had an excellent idea of what would be required to upgrade the place.

Although, as we were shown around, I couldn't help but notice there were closed off areas where our tour didn't take us where there were indications of construction going on. I knew industrial espionage was alive and well in the Rris business world. I didn't doubt that they were frantically trying to make their own upgrades. Well, some were obvious enough, like using rail and overhead winches for shifting bulk cargo, but other things weren't as simple. For example: the non- sublimating lining for the blast furnaces.

Overall, however, providing what they needed wasn't going to be a problem. Although, just what they were willing to pay might be.

The lumber mill was next. It was in actuality a cluster of busy wooden workshops surrounded by stacks of logs and planks. Inside, the work was done by hand. Teams of Rris worked with huge saws. Not rotary or band saws, but giant, unweildy, hand-powered toothed rip saws powered by four Rris at each end. Each team could handle over a dozen logs, on a good day.

In contrast to that was the grain mill. I'd been expecting something like a windmill. What I got was a huge old building that'd obviously grown and expanded over time, built on the hillside below an old stone reservoir fed via an aquaduct from a river a couple of miles away. Five massive overshot wheels were set in the millrace running along the side of the building, each groaning as the water ran over the top, filling buckets and turning the wheels before running along to do the same to the next wheel. Inside, huge, chunky wooden gears squealed like living things as they meshed. Patches of lighter color flashed amongst the aged wood, indicating sections where worn parts had been replaced. Millstones the size of monster truck tires ground with the unstoppable ponderosity of tectonic plates. Corn flour was the main cereal milled there, but they also managed some strains of what I thought of as bread wheat and barley. Back home, our cereal products had been selectively bred over millennia to become modern wheat and barley and corn. Rris were predominantly carnivore: they put more stock in livestock, but they also extensively cultivated grains and vegetable produce. There was a great demand, and that mill was able to supply a great portion of that demand. But population growth continually put a strain upon supplies. They were sniffing the winds of change.

Rris methods were antiquated by my standards, but they all worked, they were simple and reliable. Why change them?

To get more. To get more faster, cheaper, more efficiently. To feed a growing population and industrial base. And the Jones' had nice things, why couldn't they? Some things transcended species differences I mused as we left the mill, bound back toward the city.

"May I ask what you thought?" Chriét asked.

Talking to me. I glanced at Chaeitch, who just flicked an ear, looking interested but not offering an opinion. "Impressed," I said. "I didn't know you could do that much with just water and wood."

He tipped his head slightly. "I'd have thought that it would seem quite... old by your standards."

That was leading the conversation into treacherous territory. I didn't need to inadvertently insult my hosts. "Sir, it was impressive by anyone's standards."

"But you would recommend changes?"

I hesitated, then said, "Sir, to the mining and lumber facilities, yes. To the mill, no."

"No?" He looked surprised. And there was a slight reaction from Chaeitch as well.

"I think the machinery is simple and working well. New machinery could work better and faster, but not quite yet, and it could be built anywhere. You'd be better off building a new facility elsewhere." I shrugged and looked at the countryside passing by outside for a second. "And I think it would be a mistake you'd regret in the future: it's a beautiful old building."

Chriét blinked and Chaeitch coughed. "It might be a little premature for final decisions," he said and I caught his glance. "We're just here to evaluate."

Section 16

I pulled the drapes aside and fumbled with the odd latch before the balcony doors swung open. Cool evening air washed in. To the west the sun was just a fading glow over the horizon, the sky fading through dark violet toward night blue. High overhead a few stars were already peeking out. Behind me, back in the suite, I heard the sounds of Rris voices and then the front door closing as the servants left.

Wind blew across the meadows around the palace, sending ripples through dark grass.

"Kh'hitch wouldn't like the way you handled that," a Rris voice murmured and Chaeitch stepped out on the balcony beside me. "Telling them they don't need to buy something."

I shrugged. "Kh'hitch can take a long walk off a short pier."

A snort.

I didn't turn. "Selling them something they don't need, that's not a way to treat a client. Lie to them, it could cause serious problems in the future."

"You really think they should leave that mill?"

"Uh-huh."

A pause. "That was 'yes'?"

"Yes."

"Uh," he huffed. "You said they might regret it later."

"A. It's true. It's a nice old building. In the future they'd probably regret destroying something like that, something that showed how the city grew up."

"Ah," he said, not sounding entirely sure. I guess they weren't at a point where preserving historical buildings was a priority.

For a minute or so the evening was silent. Meadow grass waved in the wind. I could see a Rris couple wandering across the Palace grounds, their shadows stretching away in the moonlight.

"Chaeitch?"

"A?"

"Is there... something about the Lady I'm missing?"

"Missing? What do you mean?" "I mean, she was staring at me."

A slight chitter escaped him. "You find that unusual? I'd have thought you'd be getting accustomed to that by now."

"Not... it wasn't that. Just... the way she was watching me. It was... not usual." "Huhn," he huffed, leaning forward with forearms on the balustrade and not looking at me, his feline profile silhouetted against the evening. "That was what embarrassed you. Why?"

I shrugged, watching the last glow of the sun fading. The air was already noticably cooler. "Because I didn't know what it was. I couldn't tell what it was. In humans... it'd mean different things. I've learned it can be risky to assume it means the same in Rris."

"Different?" his ears pricked.

"Different," I said.

He knew me. "As in male female different," he suggested, then chittered, his furry shoulders shaking. "You... rot, Mikah, led by your genitals, ah?"

I flushed. "Wait till spring."

"Not all year long, though," he retorted. "Perhaps she knows that."

Oh, Christ.

Perhaps Chaeitch noticed something because his ears twitched and he chittered again. "Smooth your fur. Joking. It's just curiosity. You are something of a novelty after all. She was probably just nipping you to see if you'd twitch."

"She wants to play those games then I'll smile back at her," I grumbled.

"Hai," his head turned. "Be wiser not to. You know where that's landed you in the past."

I sighed and waved agreement.

"Anyway," he straightened and swatted at a bug buzzing his muzzle, "time's stalking. We'd best be getting ready. I've got to get my fur brushed out, and you should do the same. And try not to frighten the staff, ah?"

That wasn't so easy.

Okay, so there wasn't a lot of time and the staff were trying to respectfully hurry me along, but there were times they were a little overzealous. I tried to keep a reign on my temper as I tried to explain things to the groom.

'Sir," his ears were flat against his head, "I'm supposed to..."

"I don't care," I said, holding the towel with one hand and moving my other arm to block the bathroom doorway. "I'm quite capable of washing myself unaided."

He looked from my arm to my face, wearing an expression as if what I'd just proposed was incomprehensible. "But sir, I'm supposed to assist you..."

"And you can do that by not helping."

"Sir, your fur needs tending. Your back fur... your..." he trailed off, looking at my chest.

"Exactly," I said. "I'm low maintenance."

The servant looked utterly confused and actually upset. Dammit, he was just trying to do his job, and Chaeitch would have my ears if I teased him too much. "Look," I sighed, "I won't be long. Just lay your stuff out. When I'm done, you can do... whatever you have to do."

"Yes, sir," he acquiesced.

I shucked the towel and sank down into the hot bath. Animal-drawn vehicles might have their rustic charm, but they've also got the full range of dust and smells, lack of suspension and heat. It felt good to sluice that off, to sink down and dunk my head, washing away the grime of the day. Through the bedroom doorway suite staff bustled around, sorting out armloads of varicolored cloth and murmuring amongst themselves with occasional glances in my direction. That was a reminder that I didn't have time to linger. As soon as I climbed out the chambermaids were there, armed with towels. Rris fur required a lot of drying, so towels had to be expansive and absorbent. They also had to be made by hand, so they were expensive beyond the reach of the average citizen. Chihirae had never owned the like, making do instead with dishcloth-like swatches of cloth and patience. The palace could afford luxuries, like those towels. The chambermaids patted at me with them as they ushered me through to the bedroom. The Rris idea of formal clothing differs from what I'd been accustomed to back home. I'd been through occasions require formal garb before and I knew there'd be more in the future, so I'd wanted to get a proper suit tailored. That idea was shot down before it even got off the ground. It had been explained to me that the clothing should suit the station; that just the cut didn't cut it. Color was required, and texture and something that looked as if some effort had been made. Think baroque Victorian-era lush mixed with imaginative leather and metalwork. I'd brought several formal outfits with me, all custom tailored back in Shattered Water. They might not have approved of a black suit, but I can't say I was that fond of some of their styles. The kilts weren't too appealing, and I was damned if I was going to be stuck with a pair of bloused breeches with a tail hole in back, or a Robin Hood's Merry Men type of outfit like I'd been stuck with in the past. My hosts had picked out one and it'd already been pressed and laid out on the bed. Red and black and silver featured predominantly. I was slightly taken aback at the attention as hands toweled me off, others guiding me to sit on a cushion, lowering me so the groom could start on my hair and beard. I saw ears twitching, spasming with the effort to keep them upright and not lay them back down against their heads in a gesture that could be interpreted as insulting. They were all nervous and jumpy, but they worked smoothly, their hands gentle on the numb tissue around my scars. The groom working on my hair did so carefully, with practiced but wary movements, as if he were around a skittish animal. There were a few instances where my physical differences caused them some problems. Brushing down the hair on my arms was pretty fruitless, as were attempting to trim my claws. Apart from that, things went pretty smoothly. The clothes had been well attended to and fit comfortably, even if the material was pretty coarse. Back home the cut would have been called martial: red creased dress pants with silver frogging, a red and black tunic with a high collar and double button-over front with silver buttons and trim. The whole thing was quite garish and way over-the-top by my sensibilities, so it'd be perfect for Rris eyes.

"You look good," a voice behind me said. I looked past my reflection in the mirror at Rraerch and Chaeitch. He was dressed in greens and browns: felt breeches and a gleaming leather vest, intricately tooled and trimmed with gold. She was also in green, although her tunic and kilt were in tiny patchwork squares of more shades of green than I could count. Wrapped around her torso, her arms, was gold filigree: like tiny curls of vines and ferns. Ummm. Green and red. It felt pre-planned. "It's not a bit... bright?" I asked as I adjusted my collar. An understatement, if anything. The red was almost a bright orange. To a Rris' sense of color that would be red: they had difficulty seeing quite the same spectral range I could. "It's quite spectacular," Rraerch said and I wasn't sure if she was being honest or tactful. "Tell that to Adam Ant," I said in English and hefted the final touch, the yellow and orange sash. "Do you think I really need this?" They thought I did.

Section 17

Doors swung open. Chandeliers hung from a ceiling glittering with golds and silvers, a heat shimmer haze rising from the hundreds of blazing candles. Below them shifted a chaos of colors and shadows: a crowd of a couple of hundred brilliantly costumed aliens, moving and orbiting one another in intricately interlocking patterns of influence.

I felt my heartrate start to pick up and sucked a deep breath. Both Chaeitch and Rraerch glanced at me and then at one another. I don't think Chirét noticed as he stalked in ahead of us. When I stepped through and stood at the top of the sweeping staircase, heads were already turning our way.

That wasn't too surprising. I suppose we were a sight: An honor guard of Land-of-Water guards with weapons trust- tied escorting a couple of high-class Rris in their green and gold finery and a human in red regalia looming a full head and shoulders above everyone else in the room. The noise in the room, the indescribable sound of Rris conversation like ocean surf on gravel mixed with coughs and rolling growls, that dimmed noticeably. Ripples of silence spreading outwards, the hissed whispers following right on their tail.

My boots were inaudible I waded down the marble steps and into the crowd.

Seen from above, the room around me might have resembled an exercise in brownian motion. The Rris were particles, clouds of particles thinning out immediately around me. In that space they were orbiting uncertainly: approaching, curving away again, just watching. Lords and ladies, the wealthiest and most influencial of guild houses and landowners and merchant families with their brushed fur and finery gleaming under the lights.

That caution wouldn't last, I knew. I'd been through situation like that before, and I knew there'd be those who'd take this as an opportunity to try and skip the usual screening, to pick my mind, to ask questions and petition me. As I walked out into the sea of Rris I could already spot the wakes heading my way.

It was something I had to deal with as tactfully as possible. The next couple of hours or so were spent carefully fending and deflecting requests and offers and invitations. I'd been explicitly warned that accepting or committing to anything in such an informal setting would almost certainly lead to resentment and schisms later on. Behave myself and try not to frighten people, that was the advice Chaeitch had given me.

My escort hovered in the background, drifting in an out of the technicolor crowd, eclipsed by bejeweled finery but keeping me in sight. Always just there while I talked with the Metalworkers Guildmaster, was politely interrupted by the Weaver Guildmistress, moved a few steps to find a merchant I hadn't met before wanting to talk buisness. Again and again, one after the other. Those hours were spent just getting across the room.

Food was laid out on white benches. A continuous procession of servants replenished dishes and took empties away: silver trays and platters. All sorts of breads and pastries, corn, potato wedges and spices and things I couldn't identify. Meat, there was a lot of that: Slabs and strips and chunks and cubes, in pies and pasties and shish kebabs; smoked, grilled, roasted and of course raw. I eyed a spoked platter of grilled venison and its sauce uncertainly, then just took a handful of popcorn. Rris stared as I nibbled a mouthful.

"At least you're not flashing your fangs this time," a Rris voice at my shoulder said.

I turned to tell Chaeitch, "Go cough up a..."

It wasn't him this time. Her ladyship was standing there, looking up at me with her head cocked slightly.

"Ma'am," I blinked. "I though..."

"Ah Ties still dragging that carcass around, is he?" Lady H'risnth looked amused. "Ah Thes'its does draw that sort of reaction sometimes."

The evening was warm so she was dressed lightly, in the Rris idea of elegance. Tan seemed to be her color. A pale leather collar lay about her neck: a narrow V down to her clavicle. From that, across her front and back, hung cream cotton strips, a belted at the waist and weighted at the base with silver disks. They were elaborately engraved. With what, I couldn't quite make out. Her kilt was darker leather, pleated strips also inlaid with silver. She'd worn that light tan and brown the first time we'd met, at that formal night back in Shattered Water where. Back when I'd... I'd... She was right, that incident wouldn't die quietly.

Her own guard were spread out behind us, forming a loose cordon that nobody seemed particularly eager to try and cross. But they were certainly watching her, and me.

"You might want to try these," Lady H'risnth suggested, indicating some small pastries. "Theyre really quite good. And should be quite safe for you."

Rris have some unusual ideas of what constitutes a good filling for some of their snacks. Really, no part of the animal is safe. I tried the proffered treats, gingerly. She noticed.

"Goose liver [something]," she offered and looked amused.

Foie Gras. I'd had something like it before, at a very expensive function back in the other world. "It's good," I said, taking another bite. It was.

Her ears flickered again. "Come. Walk with me."

This time the crowd parting before us was due to her guards. There were more than a few disgruntled looks, but nobody tried to interrupt as she led the way through the crowd. Over the heads of the crowds I saw a trio of mediators off toward the back, their black garments incongruous amongst the garish attire of everyone else.

"You're enjoying yourself?" she asked.

"Oh, yes," I said.

She gave me a sidelong look. "From what I understand you've been talking business non-stop all evening. You really find that enjoyable?"

This time I hesitated, trying to think of a tactful way to phrase it.

She chittered. "I didn't think so."

The air out on the terrace was cooler. I didn't realise how warm the room had been getting until I stepped outside. Black and white tiles made geometric patterns in the light spilling from inside, out through the wall of widows. Lamps blazed along the balustrades: tall granite sconces spaced along the edge of the verandah filled with oil, burning like olympic flames. Moths orbited, congregated, suiciding into the light.

The Lady leaned up against the marble balustrade. "This is the sort of work you enjoy?"

These.... weren't usual questions. Over the railing was the night, the fields under star and moonlight. "If it was enjoyable would it be work?"

Her eyes flashed a multihued shimmer as she cocked her head, then chittered. "That was very good. Answering a question with a question. Those plays were right: your sense of diplomacy is a little different, a?"

She'd seen those? I felt a flush crawling up my neck.

"Huhn," she looked me up and down again, then leaned back against a lamp post and slowly stroked down the fur of her chin and throat. The light from that angle did weird things to her features. ""There was something I wanted to discuss: An artist, weren't you?"

"Ma'am? I mean... yes Ma'am. Sort of... It was slightly different, but that would be the closest, I think."

"Ah, I've heard some good things about your work," she said, turning to look out across the starlit fields. "I'd like to talk to you about that. Would you be interested in a doing a commission?"

"A commission?"

"More specifically, a portrait," she said. "You're interested?"

I nodded, then gestured a Rris 'yes'. "I am."

"Excellent," she smiled. "I'm afraid this isn't the place to discuss it. Monopolizing your time isn't polite." Her feline chin nodded toward the doors where guards politely kept hangers-on at bay. "There would seem to be plenty of others who'd glady do that."

"Perhaps I should charge them by the minute," I said.

She looked thoughtful. "Interesting idea," she said, then smiled again. "Don't worry. I'll send somebody to rescue you in another hour or so and we can talk somewhere more private. And I think there might be a good vintage waiting to be opened."

The tip of her tail flicked against my leg as she turned and stalked back across the terrace, her retinue following back into the ballroom room behind her until they were swallowed by the crowd. Immediately, that crowd started to spill back out onto the verandah, Rris nobility heading my way with a predatory gleam in their eyes.

Section 18

Behind me, the sound of the function faded into the distance. All I could hear were the insect-spattering of my guide's claws on the marble floors, rattling faintly in the dim corridors.

Male or female, I couldn't tell. As her Ladyship had promised, it was near midnight when the messenger had approached and stood respectfully off to one side while a Rris merchant talked at me about his idea of pulling ships around the lakes with huge steam-powered ropes. I'd managed to find a spot to acknowledge the messenger who'd offered me a respectful duck of his head and passed me a note. All that was on it was a seal embossed in red wax: her Ladyship's mark. She was trying to keep it low-key. I'd begged an urgent appointment to escape.

As the messenger led me away through a side door I caught a glimpse of Chaeitch heading my way, looking panicked with ears back and eyes wide. Last I saw was Chriét intercepting him and speaking urgently before a guard closed the door. "Her Ladyship?" I asked when we were away.

The messenger waved an affirmative. "Sir, she said to tell you, 'it's a good vintage'."

"A," I said. It sounded a bit too much like trite cloak-and- dagger stuff, but it let me know this individual was representing her Ladyship. She was trying to reassure me.

My guide led the way through the nightbound palace. In deference to Rris night vision, there weren't a lot of lights so we were walking through halls of shadows. Statues peered from black niches, doors and arches led into foreboding darkness. In another hall, moonlight seeped in through skylights to wash across the wooden paneled and white- plaster walls, turning Rris paintings and tapestries to monochromatic facsimilies of daylight. The occasional lamp was a welcome pool of warmth.

"Sir," my guide said as we stopped at a door. We were on the third floor, somewhere in the south wing. I thought.

The room was a study that was obviously well used. There were books on the shelves, paperwork on the desk. French doors hung ajar, letting the slight breeze stir the gauze drapes. Several gas lamps hissed and popped quietly, moths gathering and bumping around the milky glass globes. Lady H'risnth aesh Rei's closed a folder on the desk in front of her. Sitting beside her hand was a tray with two glasses and two bottles: wine and water. "Mikah, please, sit."

I folded myself down onto the cushion she indicated. Getting off my feet felt good but I was a little apprehensive. The atmosphere was... cosy. And that conversation Chaeitch and I had had before kept creeping to the front of my mind.

"I find this sort of environment far more conducive to good conversation," she smiled. "Peace and some good wine makes it far easier to get things done. You've been talking for a while. I understand that's not so easy for you. You must be a bit thirsty."

"A bit begins to describe it, Ma'am," I smiled, carefully keeping my mouth closed.

She was calm and smooth while pouring. Her hands were perfectly steady on the glass, gently swirling dark red wine from the ornately blown dark green bottle. I took the offered glass and she watched as I sipped and then raised her glass. I saw a faint flash of pink as her tongue flicked into the liquid: their version of a sip.

I was beginning to gain an appreciation of Rris wines; an appreciation beyond the blunt reality-dulling effect of alcohol. It was slightly sweet, left a faintly tart aftertaste with a hint of spices, and was obviously quite expensive.

"You're enjoying your trip?" she asked. A personal question. She'd have pages of reports of exactly where I'd been and what I'd done but they couldn't tell her what I was thinking.

"Yes, Ma'am," I said. "I've been very impressed. Your hospitality has been wonderful."

Her eyes flicked to my face and I got the distinct impression she was trying not to look amused. "Ah, good answer. Very diplomatic. You've been taking lessons, haven't you."

"No Ma'am, it's not that. You've been most generous."

Now she did smile. "Thank you," she said. "Although I can't imagine looking at holes in the ground is anyone's idea of fun."

"I've never done it before," I said. "New experiences are always interesting."

Her ears flickered. "Then by all accounts you must be leading a very interesting life."

"There have been times when I would prefer thing to be a little more mundane."

Her eyes flicked, just a bit, but I caught the glance at my scarred cheek. "Then perhaps you might be interested in that offer I mentioned."

"A," I sipped. "A commission?"

"Yes. A portrait." She ducked her head slightly. "To be more specific, my own."

I blinked. "Ma'am? You want me? I mean... I'm flattered, but surely you have artists who're more than qualified?"

"Of course," she said. "But I gather you're quite qualified. And I think it would be a... unique opportunity. I would love to see your work."

"A full portrait? That is a fairly ambitious undertaking."

"Oh, not a full oil, nothing like those," she gestured at an old crackled portrait hanging. "You work with charcoals, don't you? Those colorless renderings? Perhaps something like that."

"Yes."

"Would tomorrow be too soon?"

That startled me. "Ma'am? Tomorrow. Isn't there a schedule...?"

"Oh," she smiled. "That's quite flexible. And you requested a chance to see some of our own galleries."

"That would be wonderful."

"Would the Estate collection interest you?"

It took me a moment to understand what she meant. I'd only seen a mention of that in text. Apparently there was an extensive collection of fine art in the Rei family estate: very rare and very exclusive heirlooms. I stared and realised she was staring back.

"Mikah? Your answer?"

"How can I refuse an offer from a queen," I smiled. "That would be most undiplomatic, wouldn't it?"

She chittered slightly. "A, most impolitic."

"In that case I would be honored. "But I don't have any material. Papers, sticks... I wasn't expecting to be doing anything that required that."

"Is there anything in particular you will need?" she asked.

"Umm, good quality paper stretched on a canvass, quite large; charcoal and chalk sticks of varying hardness, a sharp blade. Oh, and some clean cloths."

"A?" the Lady blinked at me. "That's all?"

"I believe so."

She inclined her head slightly then gracefully reached to pluck a quill from an inkwell on her desk and sketched a quick note in the angular scratching of Rris script. "I think we should be able to provide those," she said and carefully replaced the quill. Then raised her glass, regarding me over the rim. Her eyes contrasted strongly with the wine: yellow amber and burgundy red. "If there's anything else, please just ask."

"I think that should be all."

"A carriage will meet you in the morning to take you out there. I'd expect it will take the entire day to do everything?"

"A charcoal can still take some time to do properly," I said. "But a day... that'll be enough."

"Good," she leaned back, still looking quite relaxed. "A carriage can meet you in the morning to take you out there. The journey takes about an hour, and I know being on the road when the sun is high isn't the most pleasant so I'd advise an early start."

"Not a bad suggestion," I sipped and nodded out of old habit, having recent memories of the heat in those wheeled ovens. "Ma'am, I was meaning to thank you for that wine you sent me. It was quite good. This is from the same vineyard?"

Now she looked intrigued. "You noticed?"

I'd never considered myself a condiosieur, but the Rris wine had a very distinctive flavor: much stronger than anything I'd known back home. "It has the same taste."

She blinked at me again, then flicked her ears quickly. "I don't know many Rris who'd pick that up."

"I think my sense of taste is a little different."

"A? Like your sense of color? You do continue to surprise, don't you. I look forward to having a talk with you. Who knows what else we might find out?"

Alone? I felt another pang of apprehension at the way she'd said that, then a flush of embarrassment. Chaeitch'd been right: I kept reading human nuances into their remarks. I took a swallow of wine, the last few drops.

"But that's for later," she said. "Now, it's getting late and you've had a full day. Until later, Mikah."