Storms Over Open Fields

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Section 1

The white eye of the sun stared down from a perfectly clear sky, watching over a scorching spring day. Drifting pollen and the glittering specks of droning and darting insects filled air shimmering in the waves of heat reflecting from the dusty dry earth. Choruses of cicadas sawed away enthusiastically from their hiding places in the sienna-gold grass of the lake meadow, occasional birdsong chiming in from the stand of windbreak pines down near the lake.

Spring washed across the world, chasing the last traces of winter away.

I ran. Dry grass and packed dirt pounded under my feet, puffs of warm dust coating my legs. Heat sucked rivulets of sweat from my bare shoulders, the moisture evaporating almost immediately. I drew lungfuls of hot spring air and leaned into the corner, trying maintain the pace.

Snarls sounded close on my heels. A glance over my shoulder showed the big cat chasing close behind had gained. Teeth flashed in the gaping maw as another snarl coughed out, a strand of spittle dangling from the panting jaws. Claws in the broad toes caught the turf as the long legs flashed, the tail sweeping to the side 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 slowed, turned to see him bending over with hands on wobbling knees as he wheezed.

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

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

Chaeitch hissed something obscene, flagged me away with a disgusted wave and turned to stagger over to collapse in the shade of the old pine. Sprawled out there sucking oxygen, he turned into a bundle of tawny gold almost lost against the summer-burnt grass.

I went to do another five 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 sentient 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 bipedal tool user. They're superficially similar to lynxes, with the same tufted feline features and neutral colorations. 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 human expressions are. 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 any 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, to which the many scars I carry will testify.

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

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 in another world, on holiday hiking in the hills of Vermont and... something happened. There was an accident of some kind that I only have the vaguest memories of: a massive discharge of energy of some kind, a blinding 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. Thinking about it, perhaps exercise wasn't so beneficial to his physiology. 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 idly at the end. "Looks far too strenuous to be healthy. And you're leaking water 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 rolled the shoulders 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 an overpressured 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. If you look you can tell what's what, but with the fur it's not as... blatant as human nudity is. 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 of white fur 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 half-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 couple of stones 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 Rris 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. With no cellphones, no phones, no instant messages or email, 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, and it was a damn sight larger and better located 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 now 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 when you have to deal with poor light, drifting ash and the smell of incompletely burnt parafin.

As we crossed the wilderness that was the Rris idea of a lawn I could see 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 to the job, I'd wager.

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 theatrically.

"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 of polished wood and smooth lines riding on four iron-bound, wooden-spoked wheels and expensive leaf suspension. Intricate designs were carved into the cab’s exterior panels and trim 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. The Brother’s Grimm on a bad acid trip.

I still get those moments where a sight like that clashes my mental gears.

The journey through a Shattered Water lazing under an 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 clustered smaller buildings and houses with their blank facades and shadowy tunnels leading through to the central atrium. Passed by the cheaper buildings with crazily tilted walls propped against each other by timbers, 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 - and in some cases small trees - 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 like background static 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 and wood 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 attired 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.

A black, wrought iron fence marched around the palace grounds. It was ornate, curled and shaped into fancies of fronds and stems, but the gilt ornamentation along the top carried a definite air of sharpness. The cleared ground on either side was a new addition, instituted following some security breaches. Inside all that, the grounds were expansive, with forests and wild meadows and several small streams wandering off to take an interest in the lakeshore to the west. The Palace itself lounged amidst that like a self-satisfied beast sunning itself: huge and sprawling, an edifice of thousands of rooms and halls that was to Rris Land-of-Water architecture what Versailles is to the French.

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 rippling golden grasses grew knee-high and threw seeds to the winds. The sprawling grounds were all carefully tended to, they just didn't look it.

An oak avenue driveway swept up to a gravel loop at the front steps. While the legions of tradespeople and suppliers required to keep the Palace provisioned had to use the tradesmans’ entrance around the side, I got to use the front door. And those doors did look like they belonged on a fortress; which, incidentally, is 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 simply 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 and 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 the layout of the place well enough by then.

Inside, the Palace was even more impressive than the exterior had been. But then, it was designed to be. The commonly traveled routes, those seen by outsiders, were quite stunning. Walls were papered in fine embossed velvet or satin in different hues and textures; floors were marble or polished wood inlaid with parquetry made from individual splinters of wood polished and lacquered smooth. There were chandeliers and artworks of all sorts including indoor windchimes of crystal ringing at frequencies 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 with which human artists seemed so enamored.

Less traveled routes were merely extremely 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 wore polished and ornate ceremonial armor which wasn’t the most functional, 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 unfurnished empty white marble and pale stone, save for the desk on the patch of carpet over in the far corner. The open 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 and 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 orange wax. That done, Hirht sat back on his cushion and cocked his head at me. "Hello, Mikah."

"You paiged me?"

"I sent for you, if that's what you mean. Yes. I'm sorry to disturb you on your day off. You were..." he looked me up and down. "You were engaed, I take it?"

"Running, sir."

"Ah." His head tipped slightly. "I heard you've dragged ah Ties into it?"

Now, how had he heard that? "I had to threaten him with lack of 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 for 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 and they would simmer down, only to slowly boil over again. "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 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; habits, food requirements and such. 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 muzzle twitch as he forced his ears to stand still. "That would be of use to them?"

"Very limited use."

"Ah." Again 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, when?"

"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 before realising he was imitating my smile: 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 hour and a half hour 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... complicated 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, passwords and assorted lockouts, 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 and still make you think you got a good deal. 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 two million; 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; the glassworkers in Open Fields produced some highly-prized materials; her Ladyships full lineage; 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 complete with a full set of toy soldiers: a small army of guards and security checks. Necessary in their eyes, 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 the living room. It was dark, the low cushions and tables where we could receive guests in the Rris idea of comfort unoccupied, 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 Rris equivalent of See Spot, See Spot Run. Of which there weren’t a great deal. Printing and paper were expensive and generally limited to the upper classes.

The desk in the study 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, sitting in a way that would strain a human's back, with legs draped willy-nilly 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 laid the book down on her lap and 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," I reminded her, touching her shoulders. Her fur was slightly coarse on the outside with the finer fell deeper in. It was a feeling that was getting to be familiar, something my fingertips knew. When I started kneading the thick hide slid 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."

"Another?... Sa, I see. Ah, lower... there. Hnnn...” she trailed off, her head nodding for a while. Then it lifted a little. ”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 distorting surge we interpret as love. When it comes down to it, love is a cocktail of chemicals our brains produce, and Rris equipment simply doesn't produce those chemicals. It's not a deficit on their part. In fact, it tended to make me feel like something I'd always assumed was a vital part of human existence was less than useless. "You need to need," was what a Rris had told me. It was a phrase that haunted me.

And conversely I can never really fit into their emotional worldview. Trying to understand what they feel would be like someone who's been blind their entire life trying to understand the color blue. I thought I intellectually understood the differences between her and myself, but it was one thing to understand them and an entirely different matter to 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 she let me. And for her I supposed 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, the book laying forgotten and her head lolling while a low, almost subsonic rumble resounded in 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 and waggled her head, rubbing against my chin. "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 to get something."

"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, centermost 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 flavorful Rris spices, such as Nightshade.

Food helped. So did the shower afterwards. I leaned my head against the tiles, turned the faucets on full and let near-scalding water sluice down across that tight spot between my shoulder blades. 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 in Rris.

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 a few second later while my heart restarted, I snatched the towel and started drying out my beard. "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 a little defensively. In truth, yes she had scared the hell out of me.

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

I waved it off, a gesture she might've understood by then. "My fault," I half-smiled at her expression. "I nearly fell asleep."

"Under that thing? You're that tired?"

"Long day."

"Ah?" She tipped her head, watching her hand as she stroked it down my chest, water slicking the fur on her palm down as she traced fingertips down my shoulder, across my sternum, my belly, down lower. "Something you mentioned earlier, but if you're too tired..."

"Ah..." I inhaled sharply as she gently caressed, my body responding to ministrations and sensations that were starting to become familiar by suddenly saying it was very awake. "I thought you didn't want to."

"I was busy then," she rumbled. She looked amused, but 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 furry buttocks as I lifted her, pressing her back against the wall, grinned down at her face. She slitted her eyes and wrapped muscular thighs around my waist, hooked arms around my neck. Her hide was a combination of wiry coarse and marvelously soft, prickling and brushing against me. "Here?" she breathed, looking suddenly 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: there were differences in mouth shapes and anatomy and attitudes. So many differences that the act wasn't something that could just happen. We'd had practice, made mistakes and learned lessons, but still we had to be careful. I 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 and could never be 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 brilliance 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 occluded the sun, turning it to a blushing pale pink orb on the eastern horizon. The surface of the lake was rilled with wavelets, slapping against the breakwater. The harbor behind that wall was 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 calm, cool air. Water still puddled on cobbles of the streets, on the flagstones of the docks, flicking from the iron-bound wheel 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 of them 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, and 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 humor 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 that 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; mulling that over before she said. "You are learning though. I have had worse pupils."

"Gee, is that a compliment? I've seen your other students, remember."

She laughed.

"Nothing to worry about. I'll bring you something."

"A?" Her ears pricked up. "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 multitudes 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.

A single ship was moored at this berth, a vessel I was quite acquainted with. I'd had a part in building it. 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 lacquered wood glistening like oil. Morning sunlight filtering through the town, rising above the shipyard roofs, turned fittings, porthole rims and the tops of the stacks to molten brass.

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, shaving was a symbol of humiliation and the facial fuzz made me look at least a little 'normal'. 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 applauded against the bow as the ship left the still water of the harbor 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 fresh lake breeze. From the rail I watched the docks recede and vanish from sight behind the harbor wall, taking with them the sight of the small figure standing there.

Someone else I'd known had brought her to Shattered Water. 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', that someone I'd known once told me. She'd been 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 Chihirae, 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 the 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 only took 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 it all. 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 sounded beside me. "It is necessary, I'm afraid," Chaeitch said, settling down on the sun-warmed wood. 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."

"Huhn, and here we wonder why trouble seems to find you."

I automatically clenched my left hand, feeling the stub where my little finger had been. "I think Rris don't appreciate my sense of humor."

He rumbled again and there were a few seconds of background noise before he spoke again. "You know. . . if there are problems, I put that kit in. Same place."

I sighed, not really wanting to hear that.

Another pause before he added, "I included the new pieces."

"Awww," I shook my head, really not wanting to hear that. "Come on. You really think that's necessary?"

"I hope not," he huffed.

"You know," I mused aloud to the blue sky. "I'm not happy about that."

"A. I know. But if need calls, you know they're there."

"And you all went to so much trouble assuring me this trip is going to be completely unexciting."

"We're hoping," he said. "You're not going to make liars of us, are you? Huhn?" I saw him tip his head back, grimacing at the sun overhead. "I think Chihirae's rightly concerned about you."

"She worries too much."

"After what..." he started to say, then shut his jaw with a clop. Realising he was getting onto delicate ice. His ears flicked a few times, as if a fly were buzzing them. Then he leaned forward and asked, "Can I ask you a question, about you and her?"

"What?"

"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. Without the right cues, 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 scruff biting with you is quite an experience."

"Scruff biting?" I wasn't sure if I'd heard right. "That's... Descriptive."

He chittered. "She said that aspect was... different. I was wondering if it was like that for you. If it was the same sort of experience you got with your own kind."

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

He cocked his head. "Ah? How?"

Now I looked at him. "If you hadn't noticed, there are differences." I held up a hand, turning it over. He looked at the furless appendage and his ears laid back.

"A, but... it's so different? I mean, with her? She said it's an experience for her, I was wondering if it's so much so for you."

"Oh," I rocked back, thinking that one over. "That's...Yeah...A, it is."

"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 responses, 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?"

He was acting like he was just talking about the weather, but suddenly I wanted a stiff drink. "I don't know. In some ways, it's... it's frightening: we have to be careful. I mean, there are the physical differences. She... her claws and teeth... she forgets them sometimes. And I'm different enough... I'm heavier than Rris; my... penis is larger and she... well, 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."

His ear twitched, "Yet you persevere?"

"It's also contact," I said quietly. "It's another person, a chance to feel... not so apart. It's also pleasurable, fun, reassuring, and it's... arousing."

Now 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. "So 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. "Hai, this makes you uncomfortable?"

"I went through enough of it with the physicians," I grumbled, then asked, "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? All the details?"

"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 like 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 making the beast with two backs.

Ah.

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

Out of the corner of my eye I caught his tail twitch; 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 for them. "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

The Ironheart was a prototype, but it was still the fastest Rris vessel on the water. Shallow and frequent wavelets, a byproduct of Erie's unusual topography, slapped against the bow. Belowdecks the engines throbbed steadily, transmitting that metal heatbeat through the ship's frame as it pushed along at about nine or ten knots.

It's over four hundred kilometers across the lakes from Shattered Water to Open Fields as the crow flies. 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 were making them quite wealthy. But it didn't seem to be that at all. At least, as far as I could tell that wasn't the reason.

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 - colloquialisms, place names, 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 - was for real. Rraerch, as Chaeitch's patron and principal sponsor, had worked with him and I and we'd found we got on pretty well 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 small townships by name, and I found a lot of those names quite strange: Tearing Ice, Where Is This, Running Still... She knew some of the history behind those names as well. Tearing Ice had been founded during a particularly bad winter storm during which windblown ice off the lake 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. Or so legend went.

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'd always found quite mundane: cars, fast food, shopping malls and cities, flying, television and phones, the internet. Back home we'd were pushing into the informational revolution while Rris were still back in the opening throes of the industrial revolution. They were still concentrating on the distribution of physical materials, not the distribution of knowledge. They'd seen my laptop and Chaeitch literally drooled over the thought of CAD/CAM applications, but the idea of just what computers and networks were capable of still seemed to slip by them. For example, back in that world I wouldn't have been able to use the fact that I was on a boat in the middle of a damn huge lake as an excuse for being out of touch. Just hook up to a cellular or wireless network and carry on as normal. For Rris, that was unimaginable.

It's not that they weren't intelligent. Those two were; smarter than me by quite a margin, it was just they hadn't had the exposure to machinery and concepts. Consider Leonardo da Vinci. A brilliant mind, way beyond just anybody in my own world, yet he didn't know what a light bulb was.

So a lot of that trip was spent chatting, exchanging information the old fashioned way. Funny how that when other Rris demand me to do that it seems like a chore, yet at times like that it was relaxation. 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.

In the afternoon we passed what in my world had been Pelle Island. 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 compared against the great lakes. And there was a lot more traffic there. Across the open water 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 breakwaters arched out into the lake. Fortified guardhouses squatted at each end, flanking the harbor mouth, 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 lay 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. While 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, or they'd been waiting a while, or they had a good messenger network that'd alerted them. 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 soldiers in that group, wearing Shattered Water livery. The others were 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 correcting them is pointless: 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. All that was visible were 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, spiked railings 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 whittled 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 along with an antiquated sewer system. 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 dark 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. If we'd been in a car, the roadside lamps would have flashed through the windows. At the speed the carriage moved, the light merely panned through the carriage as we passed by, 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 capable of putting a lump of lead through an oak door. Quite 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 either, 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 rococo 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. A single huge banner hung from a flagpole directly above the doors, the folds of cloth displaying parts of a pattern I recognized as the royal crest.

"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 busts of Rris carved in stone and wood. 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 about 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 simplicity of 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. We thought you may be fatigued after your trip, so we ensured the invitations for tonight were limited to select few. Later on, after you've had time to rest and refresh, more appointments will be granted. 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 a select few?!' 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 orbited the room 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 where 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 to each sided. 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 low desk. A single figure sat there, hunched over the 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 Esrisa 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. Visible through her ochre velvet sleeveless vest, her belly fur was a pale cream and dotted with salt and pepper flecks that must've that trailed around from the larger dark speckles on her arms 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 an entire 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 artfully arranged 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 that glassmaking 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 green wax 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 dais, at the other water continuously trickled into a basin from a spout shaped like 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 fulfill 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 while. Then I shook my head: No, that would be ridiculously clichéd. 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."

"Okay, first thing: 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 stalked across the expensive rugs 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 in the shape of broad lily leaves: 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 emerged from 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, moccasins 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 pale leather 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 honors," The Lady said to the assembled personages, "your presence today is a welcome occasion. 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 Ladyship's 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. Nothing circumvents prejudices like good, old-fashioned greed.

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 and 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, just a hole in the ground. The reality 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 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 literally staggering with exhaustion. Some of them just dropped to the ground to lay in the sunlight while a fe wothers began the long slog out of the pit. Their hides were plastered and dripping with mud and grimy layers of coal dust that turned them black as night. 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 new facilities could be built anywhere. You'd be better off building new facilities elsewhere to add to your current output." 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 a latch designed for fine claws 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'?"

"Oh, 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. "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 ACat. 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 I could see staff bustling 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. And since they also had to be made by hand, they were expensive beyond the reach of the average citizen. Out in Westwater Chihirae had never owned the like, making do instead with dishcloth-like swatches of cloth and patience. The palace, however, could afford extravagances like those towels and 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. They didn't want something that looked like I'd just come down a chimney. 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 either. 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. So we'd reached an uneasy compromise on the style. The outfits that'd resulted wouldn't pass as formal wear back home and my hosts had considered them almost too austere, but they were acceptable on both sides. My hosts had picked out one of the few I'd brought along 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 immediately 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.

Crystal 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 bright vermillion 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 as I descended the marble steps and waded 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 vacuum 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 always 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 enormous tables: long surfaces of beautifully carved and polished wood. A continuous procession of servants replenished dishes and took empties away: silver trays and platters and covers and bowls. All sorts of breads and pastries, corn, potato wedges and spices and things I couldn't identify. Meat, there was a lot of that of course: Rris still have predominantly carnivorous tastes. Slabs and strips and chunks and cubes were arrayed in artful displays: ground, minced, in pies and pasties and shish kebabs; smoked, grilled, roasted and of course raw. I eyed a spoked platter of grilled venison kebabs and their thick sauce covering uncertainly, then just took a warm bun and 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 thought..."

"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 to form a loose kilt. Those disks were elaborately engraved. With what, I couldn't quite make out. She'd worn that light tan and brown look 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 was 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. "They're really quite good. And should be quite safe for you."

Rris do have some unusual ideas of what constitutes a good filling for some of their snacks. Really, no part of the poor 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 parting of the crowd 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 utilitarian garments incongruous amongst the garish attire of everyone else. Did they get invites? Or were they gate crashing.

"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 congregated, orbited, 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 support 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'd like to hear more about it before I could commit, but 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 had been 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 ropes pulled by land-based steam engines. I'd managed to find a spot in his diatribe 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. "Here, Sir."

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 Esrisa 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 that 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-obliterating effect of brute alcohol. That bottle produced a wine that was slightly sweet, left a faintly tart aftertaste with a hint of spices, was obviously quite expensive, and - I realised after the alcohol vapor blitzed past my sinuses - was one helluva proof.

"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."

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."

"Putting it mildly. 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 there are Rris artists," 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 on the paneled wall. "You work with charcoals, don't you? Those colorless renderings? Perhaps something like that."

"Yes, I suppose..."

"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. Not many people had had an opportunity to see it. 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, individual sheaves as well as 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. Ah, a fixative would be useful, if such a thing is available. Something to stop the charcoal smearing? A linseed varnish can work if sprayed on. Umm, I'm afraid I don't know what is available here."

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 something," 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 would expect that you could return that evening. After the worst of the heat."

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 alone. 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."

Section 19

Soft morning light washed across the world. Fields lay under a faint blanket of mist while high overhead a V of ducks winged their way across the clear sky. The morning sun peeked through windbreak trees along the crest of the hill, just a hands breadth above the horizon. If I'd been travelling in a car those trees would have caused it to strobe through the window. As it was, the carriage moved slow enough that it simply blinked every so often.

The day was already heating up. She'd been right about that.

About an hour of slow and bumpy travel later the carriage turned sharply. The sound of iron bound wheels on the packed dirt road changed to the squeaking rattle of gravel. I caught a passing glimpse of a stone gatepost and wrought iron gate just before we started up a long drive. On one side I could see the side of a hill, trees, grass and wildflowers; out the other, cornfields gently sloping away downhill, the rows of stalks motionless in the still morning air.

We followed the drive up and around the curve of the hill. I wasn't sure what I'd been expecting. They'd called it a manor house, or something that translated to that anyway, so perhaps a large house. What came into view was a damn sight more than I'd expected. More of a small castle than a house. Perhaps chateaux would be a better term.

It was a light stone building set among wild grass and dark pines. There were towers and garrets and elaborately decorated dormer windows set into the steep black-slate roof. Profusely ornamented cornices blending the line between wall and roof. I could see two floors, each with balconies with wrought iron railings, ornate windows made from hundreds of smaller panes of glass and bay doors.

I rocked slightly as the carriage drew to a halt with a jolt and the driver rapped on the side. The door was opened by a footman, whose expression visibly faltered before he was able to regain his composure. I pushed up my sunglasses, caught the strap of my carry case and stepped out onto flagstones at the foot of the main staircase.

While it wasn't on the same scale as the palace, it was still impressive. More so when you consider that it was a family residence. At least two main floors, not counting the attic and basement. Building material was a pale gray stone shot through with paler streaks. Granite or some kind of sandstone? A few steps led up to bronze-face double doors, polished bright enough to reflect the world. Above them, the tympanum was engraved with almost-Celtic geometric patterns intertwined with a pair of facing Rris heads and shoulders: Rris heraldry.

I was staring. The waiting Rris were staring at me. Behind me I heard the sounds of metal rattling as my two guards - the pair Chaeitch had been absolutely adamant accompany me - dismounted. They were armed, heavily, but their weapons were honor tied. They fell in behind as I shouldered my bag and headed on up the steps to the doors.

I shucked my glasses, tucking the stem into my shirt as I passed through the portals and looked around. Decor wasn't as elaborate as the palace had been. Not bland, just deliberately austere. The entry hall was spacious and bright, the light shining in through high windows gleaming off pale marble. There was a grand staircase sweeping up to the next floor. Pale stone also dressed the walls, which were hung with huge but very beautiful tapestries. I saw scenes of fields and harvest and also battle and warfare.

"Mikah ah Ri'ey?" A voice said.

I looked around and didn't see anyone else who might have passed for me. A Rris stalked toward me from a side door. Tall, elegantly attired, pretty muscular with glossy speckled fur and female. Well, I was pretty sure it was female. "Good morning, Sir. Her ladyship bids you welcome to her home," she said with a polite duck of her dead."

"Thank you. I appreciate the invitation," I said.

She was good. I didn't even catch a flinch that time. "I'm Thri'mir, her Ladyship's steward. Her Ladyship will be with you shortly. In the meantime may I show you to a place where you can rest and refresh yourself after your journey?"

That was a welcome suggestion. An hour in a carriage on the unpaved roads outside most of the cities wasn't entirely pleasant.

A servant hovered at a discreet distance.

"Ah, your luggage, sir?" Thri'mir indicated.

"I'd prefer to carry it," I said and nodded at the servant. "Thank you."

Thri'mir looked a little taken aback at that, but then ducked her head and turned to lead the way upstairs. I followed, eyeing her rear ahead of me swaying, the tip of her tail switching back and forth. Hmm, not so calm after all.

The room she led me to was huge, bright, and dressed in marble as white as snow. Sunlight gleamed from the pale stone, streamed in through skylights, windows and balcony doors along the southern side of the room. That half was lower than the other side by a bit, separated by a low balcony and about five steps. On the upper tier were cushions, a table laid set with a centerpiece of dried grasses and flowers.

My escorts took up positions on either side of the door while Thri'mir utterly ignored them as if they didn't even exist. "Sir, there is food, drink," she gestured at covered trays, glasses and decanters on a sideboard. "Anything else you require, please just ask."

"Thank you," I said.

"Her Ladyship will be with you momentarily," she ducked her head and backed out, closing the doors behind her.

There were drinks on the sideboard and I was parched. For a long second my hand hovered over the cut crystal decanter filled with amber liquid, then reached for the water. Glass in hand, I wandered over to the mezzanine. Down in the lower half of the room were more cushions and a couple of big padded loungers, and off over in the light beside the windows there was an easel and a wooden trolley. I stepped down into the sunlight.

I was impressed. There was a frame on the easel with paper professionally stretched. Very good stock: rag mat soaked and dried on a frame. Back home that stuff was hand made and cost a lot more than the factory stuff. Here, it's the norm. On the trolley were other tools: a lacquered box containing a range of black sticks. Charcoal of various types and grades. Another held sticks of white chalk. There was also extra media, cloths, some small glass jars with oily liquid in them, brushes, and some small blades. I was a bit surprised to see those; they were just slivers, more like razor blades, but they were knives. What puzzled me for a second was the small brass container with the nozzle and plunger on top. I picked it up and turned it over a few times before the penny dropped: of course, they didn't have aerosoles.

"I think that's everything you requested. An artist was able to assist us in regards to that substance you requested. It's all to your satisfaction?"

Lady H'risnth aesh Esrisa was standing on the steps, hands clasped behind her back and watching me with interested eyes. She was dressed in a simple, short-sleeved green tunic that shimmered with the tell-tale signs of fine satin. The same movement showed that the material incorporated multiple weaves, hiding a design similar to paisly that showed under certain angles of light. It was cinched at the waist with a belt of copper links. The light kilt she wore was simply knee-length strips of soft leather. In that warmth, anything more would have been horribly uncomfortable.

'Yes, Ma'am," I said. "More than adequate. Thank you."

"Ah," she hissed softly and strolled over. She was alone, no guards. My guards were nowhere in sight. "Your trip was comfortable enough?"

"Yes, thank you, Ma'am."

She snorted. "Hai, and I think you can dispense with that. From everything I've heard about you, formality is not your strong suite."

"Isn't it? I thought I was doing rather well."

"There's polite, and then there's obsequious," she flicked her ears. "Why do I think you're deliberately overdoing it?"

Damn. Rumbled. I smiled carefully and shrugged. "It keeps my handlers happy."

"Handlers?" she looked puzzled, then brightened and chittered out loud. "Ah, they do seem to keep you on a tight rein. They were most reluctant to let you come here unaccompanied."

"I'm amazed they agreed to only two guards," I said. "They seem to think I go out of my way to cause trouble."

"A?" the Lady ducked her chin and regarded me. "Well, from everything I've heard, interesting things seem to happen to you," she replied.

"So everyone keeps telling me," I sighed.

"You don't sound so impressed with it."

"Let's just say that interesting can get very unappealing."

"Ah, a shame. Then of course you wouldn't want to see what I thought you might find interesting."

I ran that through in my head, then said, "I walked right into that one, didn't I."

The Rris Queen laughed aloud. "Then I take it you do want to see our little collection."

"Well, if you insist."

Section 20

She did. And I didn't protest too loudly.

As I found, it wasn't something to regret. The Esrisa family private collection was certainly impressive. It had its own gallery: a long room with inlaid wooden floor, bass relief castings on the white plaster walls and columns. Paintings were hung on display along those walls. Plinths around the room contained sculptures, small pieces of ornamentation and jewelry. A glass-fronted cabinet held chinaware: dishes and bowls heavier than porcelain but decorated in spectacular glaze.

Old, some of the pieces were. Very old. There were paintings on crude parchment and canvass, sketches on yellowed paper and vellum, carvings and sculptures. All different, but all artfully executed, intriguing. I couldn't call all of the works beautiful: They were created by aliens, created for alien senses and sensibilities so there were proportions and colors I found odd. But they were works of art. I don't know of one museum or gallery back home that wouldn't gnaw their own legs off for a chance to be able to display a collection like that.

There was a series of paintings. Looked at individually they would have been a series of five landscapes done in portrait format, as so many Rris paintings are. Masterful renditions of forest and a glade with light spilling through the canopy, gold against green. Each painting was like a window onto the scene and the center one was a portrait. In that picture a Rris of indeterminable sex was standing in the foreground, rich red and gold clothing standing out brilliantly and showing was of not inconsiderable status.

"My grandfather on my sire's side," my host told me as we walked the gallery. We were alone in there, with no guards or interruptions. That solitude said a lot. About what, I wasn't quite sure. But she seemed quite unconcerned and amiable as she showed herself to be quite an expert on the collection, relating the history of each piece and ever willing to answer questions.

A good percentage of the portraits were of her kin. Of distant kin going back generations. Rris don't have a tightly-knit family structure, not like I knew it. They don't consider pair bonding, or marriage, normal behavior. They don't, they can't, form those kinds of mental attachments. There'd been a couple of times when conversations had touched on the subject and I hadn't been able to understand attitudes that seemed so... uncaring to me. Conversely they couldn't understand my attachments to individuals.

Exposure would help things become clearer to me. I don't think many Rris were as enlightened.

Several of the pictures in that collection were considered masterpieces. They'd been... acquired over the last couple of centuries in the same way that artworks back home drifted around: through trade, seized in wars or skirmishes, or even as payment for debts. Of course there were the portraits, but there were also scenes from battles - victories and defeats, occasions of note such as the completion of a bridge, celebrations and memorials full of Rris in bright costumes and dyes. There was also an extensive array of everyday scenes. Just paintings and pictures of Rris cooking, washing, cooking and baking, working the land and cutting wood, nursing and mating. I blinked at those scenes of Rris scruff biting, as they'd put it. The only place you'd usually see something like that back home would be on a cable channel, not hanging in a national gallery. But all those everyday scenes carried a gritty depth, a solidity and attention to life that denied all romanticism that a lot of human works carried.

Paintings, pictures, artworks... they carried the same name as their human counterparts. They were charcoal and paper and pigment and canvas, and like human art there were as many different techniques and inspirations as there'd been artists. But there wasn't a one that I could look at and mistake for a human work.

It's... it's a combination of all sorts of little things. The proportions, those always seem odd. Perspective . Then there's the use of color. Rris eyes might be great at detecting movement, but they can't see as wide a range of colors as mine can. I'd done some simple experiments on that, and to them some of the deeper shades of red and blue were black, so some of the pigment blends weren't as subtle as I was accustomed to. They also were somewhat short-sighted when it came to details: I could pick out things at a distance that were invisible to Rris. Well, they made up for it in other ways.

None of that detracted from the work. Rather, it gave it all a noticeable flavor.

I'd taken out my laptop before I remembered my manners and asked my host if she minded if I took pictures. She looked startled and I had to rephrase that, then demonstrate. She took it surprisingly well and gave me leave to record what I wished.

Time literally flew. I never noticed midday come and go, or the several hours that passed after that. Through the whole time she didn't look the least impatient or anxious. She just let things go along at their own place, not watching the clock at all. I appreciated that.

"Thank you," I said to her later as we walked along corridors brilliant with hot sunlight flooding in through the windows.

"You enjoyed that?"

"Very much," I said.

"A? Good to hear," she smiled up at me.

"I suppose I should keep up my end of the deal now, a?"

"You feel up to that?"

I almost grinned, "I believe I feel quite... inspired."

Section 21

I'd never drawn a queen before.

A warm breeze insinuated itself through the open doors and windows, setting the gauze curtains to swaying and carrying the sounds of a chorus of summer insects. Sunlight spilled in, washing across the floor, the cushions and the figure reclining on them. Light diffused through her fur, haloing her in white and gold as she sprawled there, as languidly as any big cat.

She'd been panting slightly before shucking the tunic, dressing down to that small kilt. There's no way you can call a Rris naked. Unclothed, yes, but not naked. I could make out the compact musculature under her hide, the places where bones lay close to the surface, the twin columns of three dark nipples dotting her torso. But it wasn't like a human nude, not like a stark photo or painting that whispered 'this form; this intricately pure shape that your innermost animal knows; this food for the hunger inside; THIS is primal art'. What it was was a beautiful form: lithe and lean, silky and soft and yet full of the potential... the promise of danger.

"You know," that form said, "there are things I've been wanting to ask you."

"A?" I responded, more focused on my hands than my mouth.

I'd drawn Rris before. I'd done sketches of Rraerch; Chihirae had deigned to sit for me a few times, and there'd been that time with Mai what seemed like an age ago. I enjoyed it. It was a time when I could forget about the rest of the world and concentrate on something that'd always come naturally to me. I could just sink into the scene, absorbing the proportions and the relationship of light and dark.

"About those stories."

That got through. I saw my hand hesitate on the paper. "Stories?"

"A. I've been wondering if they've been exaggerated."

I had a horrible feeling I knew where this was leading. "I think stories tend to do that."

"Doubtless," she murmured and blinked lazily at me. "It's true though? You're from a land populated with... individuals like yourself?"

I blinked. "That story?"

She cocked her slightly and she was wearing that look again. "You were expecting something else?"

"Uh... I know there're lot of stories about me floating around out there," I said.

"A, indeed," she said. "Each more incredible than the last. And that one is true?"

"Oh, uh, yes. It's true."

Her ears twitched up. "A whole land? Across the seas?"

"I...umm. I don't think the concept translates very well. It's difficult to explain."

"Try me."

I paused and glanced up again. She was watching me, that stare again. "Alright, Ma'am," I took a breath and made some more strokes as I gathered my thoughts.

Warmups. Quick sketches without looking at my hand on the paper, drawing her form in under forty seconds. That was a way of forcing my senses to really see her proportions and not work to subconscious fancies. They also let my try and find those distinctive features.

"I don't know for certain myself. I can only guess. Perhaps it's as if every time a decision is made a... world. A...everything is created. Perhaps for every possible outcome; perhaps only for important ones. In one world, this one, Rris are the dominant people. In my world it's my kind. When I agreed to draw you, perhaps a world... an entire universe was created where I refused, or you never asked. Splitting off like branches on a tree. Any possibility. All possibilities."

Her ears wilted back. "This... is quite a remarkable concept."

"I don't know for certain," I said. "It's just a theory," I said and pulled the stretched paper down, putting another frame up.

"What was that like? Your home?"

I looked from the empty paper, that blank potential, to her. And those amber eyes watched me levelly. Home. Another world. Remembering that was getting to be like reviewing someone else's life.

Still, I told her. As I sketched I told her about my home and my work and the things I remembered and missed: my family and friends, the convenience, the cars and electronics, the foods and sights. And the people. I don't know how much she understood, but she sat quietly and listened and watched me.

There were more detailed drawings of her face, trying for the muscle, the bone structure, all buried under that complex fur that made it so difficult. Rris could recognize one another by subtle indicators in facial features and stature. I was only just beginning to learn how to do that and generally had to rely on cruder things, like their distinctive markings. It was something I was aware of, and was also quite aware I was more than capable of making a real fool of myself. If an inexperienced Rris artist were to draw a human woman he might give her a masculine square jaw, or an over-prominent adam's apple. I could quite easily make the same sort of mistake with my Rris portraits.

And those liquid amber eyes kept watching me.

The thing was, it wasn't a look I could categorize. It was interested, amused, alert... like the look a well fed cat might give an interesting small creature scurrying around: worth watching but not quite worth moving for. Part of me interpreted it as curiosity, another part as threat, a danger. And yet another part as sexual interest. I really tried to ignore that part.

The charcoal was dusty and dirty stuff. I had to keep wiping my hands to prevent errant fingerprints, but it had its uses. I could smear and scumble it, using it for shading and texturing. The soft stuff produced wonderfully dark lines and the harder sticks were almost H pencil quality. The chalk came into its own for highlights. I did my studies, covering several sheets of paper in sketches from various perspectives before starting on the final draft. Hard charcoal scratched against the paper in broad sweeps as I sketched in now-familiar lines.

It was taking shape. I stood back a few steps to consider it. The proportions felt right.

She yawned, flashing pink tongue and white teeth, licked her lips. "You have something?"

"I think so." I said. "Thank you, you can get up now. The form is there and I'm just working on detail."

"Ah," The Lady waved a graceful acknowledgment and flowed to her feet. Muscles stood out under her fur as she stretched, arching her back and tail, then one leg at a time before padding around behind me.

I sketched in the suggestion of the markings on her fur, trying to hint at the grain. There was a rustling as she picked up a paper from the table, one of the studies.

Finally: "These... I've never seen anything like this."

That could be diplospeak for 'utter crap'. "They are to your satisfaction?"

"A." She held it out at arms length, then drew it in close. "A, very much so. These are extremely good."

"Thank you."

"This is how you see us?"

"As best I can show on paper," I said, not entirely sure what to make of that. Did she like them for their artistic merit? Or their freakish quality?

More rustling as the paper was laid down and the others were inspected, from the simple speed sketches to the more detailed studies. "You really see these shapes? This sort of detail?"

"Yes. Not all in a glance. That's why those are called studies. They're all parts of the whole."

"But still, just comparing the difference between these and other portraits I've seen... My face looks wider."

"I think there are differences in our eyes."

"Really? Just the eyes."

"Also the way we... understand what we see," I said, concentrating more on what was on the easel in front of me. "You're very good at seeing movement, but..."

And something touched my hair.

Her hand lightly stroked my shoulder-length mane, brushing back and forth a few times and then gently hooked it and pulled it back to bare my neck. There was a presence of sun-warm fur at my shoulder, a sound of breathing as that leathery fingertip stroked across my cheek and beard, tracing down my neck. I heard her sniff, as if scenting me.

I'd frozen solid, motionless.

There was a touch on my ear; stroking around the outline, a finger tracing it curiously, then moving down to the bared skin of my neck. Gentle, just touching, but I couldn't help but picture claws scant millimeters away from my jugular. For a few seconds she touched, stroked with a feather-light touch. Perhaps then she noticed the slight trembling in my frozen hand.

"Ah," she said and paused. Then I felt and heard her draw back. "You're uncomfortable. I apologize."

I started breathing again. "Why... did you do that?"

"Curious," she explained simply. "I didn't realize it would upset you. Again, I apologize."

I closed my fist hard around the charcoal. It stopped the trembling, but there were now small smudges on the paper where my hand had twitched. I was quite aware of the Rris standing just behind me, watching me. "Ma'am, why did you ask me here?"

"Why?" She stalked around into my field of vision, to where she could watch my face. She was so much smaller than myself, her head barely up to my clavicle, her tufted ears just over my shoulders. She looked a little puzzled. "You were interested in the collection. And I did think it would be an opportunity to learn more about you."

"Uh... A?" I had a sinking feeling that I knew where this was heading.

"I did want to learn a little more about the veracity of those stories. About where you come from. Your home. There've been so many variants that all seem so hard to believe. I wanted to hear it from the source itself. I must confess, I found the idea of a world full of... individuals like yourself difficult to manage."

"Just those stories?"

"A," she scratched delicately at the side of her muzzle with a single claw. "That surprises you? I'd have thought a lot of people would ask you about that."

"Ah," I nodded slowly, forgetting my Rris etiquette.

"That wasn't the reason you were expecting?" those amber eyes were watching mine.

I met her stare. "I had wondered if you were trying to sexually proposition me."

There was a slight hiss of breath, then a pause, then she chittered... laughed out loud, her jaw spasming and then she stopped. Watching me and cocking her head. "That's not a joke, is it? May I ask why you wondered that?"

I set the charcoal down. "The way you were looking at me... Among my kind that sort of watching has... different sexual meanings. Especially between male and female. I don't know what it means for Rris."

"You might have asked."

"I did," I sighed. "I think someone might have had a little fun at my expense."

"Really?" she said, thoughtfully. "So, what would your answer be?"

"My answer?"

"If I were to sexually proposition you?" she said, looking absolutely serious.

I hesitated. I had a feeling that I'd been manipulated, but I wasn't exactly sure how. "I think I would be flattered, but I would have to decline."

"You don't find me attractive?"

I almost laughed. "Ma'am, I'm not going to play that game. I rather think I should ask you if you find me attractive. I know I'm not exactly the picture of the ideal male. If you hadn't noticed, I'm not even Rris."

Her ladyship's face pursed in amusement. "You have other worthy attributes," she said, studying the portrait on the easel. "I think others have seen something in you. I know the teacher does."

The sketch mirrored the features of the Rris queen in black and white, with that calm smile I just didn't understand. I replaced the charcoal in its tray and took up a cloth, wiping the carbon dust off my fingertips. She watched the action and looked up again when I asked, "Ma'am, may I ask you a question? About... her and I?"

"By all means."

I fidgeted. "Does it reflect badly on her? Our relationship?"

"Badly? In what way?"

The way she was taking this... just so calm and matter-of-fact. Christ, if this had happened back home, if our positions had been reversed, there wouldn't be a tabloid or legitimate paper not milking the scandal for all it was worth. "She's living with me. A... something non-Rris. It's not usual. It's not normal. There must be scandal, rumors, those who think it's wrong."

"Doubtless," she conceded. "I heard there were some circumstances involving her arrival. You're holding her forcibly? Against her will?"

I stared, then shook my head again. "No. No... at least I don't think so. There was a situation. She didn't come to Shattered Water entirely of her own will. That was resolved. She's quite free to do whatever she wishes." I'd made that clear to Chihirae as well as my erstwhile hosts.

The Rris queen's tail twitched and she waved a hand, tipping it in a Rris shrug. "Then I'd leave her to decide her own path. If she is choosing to stay, then there is something worth staying for. As for others' opinions... do you really want to live your life dictated by the likes and dislikes of individuals you don't know?"

"That's an interesting perspective coming from a political figure," I smiled and gave my own shrug. "But what about her? Is it going to hurt her? I mean... for instance, what do you think about us?"

"Hai," she flicked her ears and very deliberately looked me up and down. "Myself? Personally, I find it quite amusing."

I wasn't sure I'd heard right. "Amusing?"

"Oh yes, quite," she chittered. "Mikah, that's how most people will feel. The speculation is entertaining. Males won't have any interest beyond academic or amusement. Females... well, she's staying of her own will, so there's something she likes. Are those plays really indicative of why?"

So, she'd seen them. She was teasing me, I knew that. "They're... imaginative. Overly so."

"Ah, pity," she studied me again. "You would really say no to me?"

"With respect, Ma'am."

"Ah, that's all right then," she stepped back to look at the portrait again, cocking her head from one side to the other with those quick, precise, almost birdlike movements. "Gentle, polite, loyal, quite amusing and with unexpected talents. I believe that explains a lot about her choice of mates."

I stared. 'That female' had been dragged away from her home and her life with no say in the matter, taken halfway across the known world, then kidnapped and tortured. She'd been dragged into something she'd never asked for nor deserved. I didn't know why she'd decided to stay.

"You think so?" I asked.

"You can think of another reason?" she said and then her ears pricked up and she glanced at me, a calculating look. "You think perhaps your hosts may have influenced her decision?"

That was unexpected. She'd picked up on that already? "I've always thought that was... more likely."

"Huhn," the sound was a breathy exhalation. The Lady's eyes were back on the sketch. "Ah Chihiski denies it."

"You've actually asked him?"

"He seemed genuinely confused by it all as well. I took that to mean he was sincere. Is this completed?" she gestured at the portrait.

"No, I've still got some detail to finish," I said, surprised at my own calmness. Was she telling me the truth? Why would she lie? She'd have more to gain by telling me he had orchestrated something. "So she's choosing to stay with me?"

"It would look that way." Her gaze traveled past the easel, up to the windows and the pale gauze curtains wafting in the late afternoon breeze, the lowering sun an unbearable brilliance on the westward horizon. That light haloed her, highlighting her fur in an outline of white gold as she twitched her ears and said, "It's a cunning little game you're playing."

I tried to relate that statement to our conversation and failed. "What?"

"So many unknowns about you; so many rumors and stories." She said, almost purred, and an amber eye flashed in the afternoon light. "Stories about bedding with you, about some mysterious differences. Tantalizing glimpses of what you can offer, yet you tie yourself to one woman." There was a glimpse of teeth, just a wink of white. "You know what an exotic hunt that makes you, don't you."

I stared. "You... you think that's deliberate?!"

Lady H'risnth aesh Esrisa stared back at me, utterly solemn, then that composure fractured into a chitter of amusement. "Mikah, what I think is that you're right: You really can't hear the unspoken very well."

I didn't understand.

"You really were concerned Hirht had something to do with the teacher's affection for you. That is quite endearing, in a naive sort of way," she smiled in an amused sort of way.

She'd been screwing with me. And I hadn't been able to read that, hadn't been able to tell at all. Two years was not enough time to learn all the subtle communications nuances of an alien species.

I grinned.

She recoiled backwards, her amber eyes going wide and all that composed amusement vanishing. "You're angry?"

"Amused," I corrected, being very careful not to make any more moves she might consider threatening. "It works both ways, a?"

She exhaled, slowly, and reached up to smooth the fur on cheeks and neck that'd stood itself on end. For a few seconds she watched me. "That's a dangerous way of making your point."

"Apologies," I said. "It made it though, didn't it."

"A, that it did," she replied, then looked down at her hand and quickly lowered it, clenching it. "You go through this kind of thing a lot, don't you."

I waved the Rris gesture that was similar to a nod: almost automatic to me by then. "It makes life interesting."

"I imagine it would," she hissed softly, her ears twitching back for a second. 'That's caused you some trouble before."

"I'm getting better at it," I said. "I don't make that smiling mistake anymore. And - despite appearances - I am getting better at reading Rris. They tend to misunderstand me, though." I shrugged and looked back at the paper on the easel, then at the windows. Outside, the sun was getting lower. Still late afternoon, but the shadows were definitely getting long. "Perhaps I should finish this now, while there's still light."

"I thought it was looking very impressive."

"There're still a couple of bits I'd like to..."

"Sah!," she hissed dismissively and raked a hand toward the picture. "Just like any normal artist: never satisfied with perfection. Now," she fixed me with glittering eyes and licked her chops, "I would love to see more of those marvelous moving images you have."

Who am I to argue with a queen?

Section 22

We spent the remainder of that afternoon out on the terrace. The view was spectacular. Late sun bathed the world: the palace grounds, the hillside, the lands beyond stretching away to distant-hazed hills in gold and shadows. Beside me, the queen sat on one of a pair of white leather cushions as we watched movies on the laptop placed on the marble tabletop. Ancient black and white comedies with a little tramp amused her, more modern productions with glamour and pace and complex action and love scenes bemused her.

I spent time trying to explain things to her, offering her a somewhat distorted view of my world through that little sixteen inch window. While the Lady H'risnth was quite animated during those lighter films, she seemed quite subdued during the more recent ones.

"It's something to hear your people are more... knowledgable," she murmured. "It's something else again to witness it."

Onscreen, Keanu Reeves said, "Whoa."

The sun set. Servants lit lamps along the terrace's balustrade. Oil lamps - the residence didn't have a coal gas supply yet. Gradually, the salmon tint on the horizon faded to reds, to blues and then to velvet. I wondered if the Rris could see the colors in those final moments of light. However, her ladyship was oblivious to that side of the world. Her attention, along with that of more than a few buzzing and flitting insects, was focused on the small rectangle of flickering artificial light.

Time slipped by unnoticed. It was the batteries, or lack of, that curtailed her viewing pleasure. Litihium polymers were an improvement over older technology, and solid-state storage really dropped power requirements, but they still had their limits. Try explaining that to a regal alien feline who had no concept of batteries or even electricity.

"I'll have to see the rest of that some other time," she sighed and stretched. "For the better, perhaps. That seems to steal time, does it not? I was entirely forgetting evening meal. Of course you'll join me?"

It wasn't really a question.

I didn't see myself making it back to town that evening. The sun was gone and travelling country roads in the dark wasn't altogether safe. So her highness offered me accommodation for the night. Again, the suite was... extravagant. There was an enormous bedroom, an ensuite washroom glittering with pale tile and polished metal fixtures, a dressing room, reception area and drawing room. The subjects of some of the portraits on the walls looked vaguely familiar, but with only an hour until dinner, there wasn't time for another prolonged art appreciation session. There was time for a quick wash though, getting the worst of the day cleaned off, and when I emerged into the dressing room it was to find a change of clothes had been laid out for me: A pair of loose fitting subdued dark gray trousers and green tunic. They were comfortable, cool and they fit.

Thri'mir, the steward, appeared to escort me down for dinner. The dinning room was an imposing space, with an equally oversized table as the centerpiece. That table looked to be carved from a single huge piece of wood, polished to accentuate the grain, and big enough that halfway lines wouldn't have been out of place. The whole room was intended to be impressive and overpowering. Thankfully, we didn't eat in there.

Her Ladyship had her own dining room. It was a far less formal, far more personal affair. Just a more conventionally sized table that didn't have its own time zones, some comfortable cushions and lights. Bay windows were open to the warm night, gauze curtains keeping insects at bay. Servants quietly brought dishes, efficiently laying out dishes and removing old ones as we talked we ate. Someone had really done their homework on what I found palatable: rich venison and black bean stew with a strong undertone of wine, side dishes of salmon, smoked turkey, chunks of sweet potatoes, buffalo steaks actually well done, tomatoes and corn. Heavy on the meat while the vegetables had the feeling of a garnish, but that was only to be expected in a Rris meal.

Afterwards she sat back and lit a pipe, contentedly puffing it to life in a cloud of sweet smoke. I declined her offer to partake. To Rris, cannabis is a recreational drug on the same order of tobacco to humans and I didn't need to get high there and then. The last time it'd happened... It was some time ago but apparently I'd said some very impolitic things. As it was, the smoke from her pipe seemed quite thick enough.

Conversation was the same old same old. At least for me it was. The times I'd met with the Lady in the past had been either at formal affairs or in situations otherwise surrounded by other Rris distracting and vying for my attention. That night she had me to herself along with the opportunity to ask me all the questions she wanted to. So she did. Even if they tended to be a lot like the ones I'd answered dozens of times before, the whole atmosphere was laid back enough that it wasn't exactly unpleasant. Or perhaps it was the hash in the air.

That might have been the reason that when I returned to my room, hours later, I was feeling exhausted. Actually woozy. It had been a long day, long enough that I just remember laying back on cool cotton sheets and was distantly aware of the frescoed ceiling, sound of distant wind, Rris voices and...

Odd dreams. More voices. Shadowy Rris looming over me, touching, murmuring. I remember thinking I should wake up, but my eyes closed again.

Section 23

Neither Chaeitch nor R'raerch were too pleased with my unscheduled overnight visit. Apparently, my itinerary had allowed for me to spend the day at the residence and be back that evening, ready for an early start the next morning. My delayed departure had thrown a spanner into that schedule, setting it back by half a day.

I'd woken that morning with something that felt like a mild hangover. That'd faded over an early breakfast. After that, while the sun was still low, her Ladyship and I returned to Open Fields. I wasn't part of the meetings she had with my escorts from Shattered Water, but whatever transpired seemed to mollify them. Hell, she was the client, and if the client wanted to change the schedule at her own expense, then so be it.

So it was after midday before we got out to our first appointment. Originally, there'd been three tours of selected institutions about town scheduled for that day, but one would have to be postponed. In fact, in order to make the others on time, my briefing was given in the carriage on the way to our first meeting. Chaeitch sat opposite, telling me names and produce and volumes. A food storage warehouse. Fascinating.

The town was bustling. Our carriages took us along the outskirts of a square where a market had sprung to life. Caravans and stalls and tents and awnings and marquees of all descriptions filled the place. Clouds of cooking smoke rose from inside the maze of tents where furry bodies bustled about their business. An overwhelming medley of smells and noises assaulted the senses through the wooden fretwork grill of the window. A dealer with a makeshift coral of llamas shouted at his neighbour; cubs chased one another among the legs of their elders; hawkers carried samples of food and trinkets; a quad of black-clad mediators on elk back lurked in the background, looking our way as we passed; a gaudy green and gold striped wagon with a troupe of actors performing some skit for a raucous audience...

"...listening?!"

"Huh?" I looked over at Chaeitch siting opposite. He was staring back at me over pages of notes in his hands, his ears down.

"You weren't, were you," he hissed, exasperated, and let the sheaves of paper notes fall to his lap. "Rot, this is important."

"Sorry," I said.

He sighed and leafed quickly through the pages. "Hai, I suppose this is biting on rock. Expecting you to absorb this at this stage..." he laid the pages aside. "Ah, well. Did you enjoy yourself last night?"

"A," I smiled out at the sunny day. "I did. Nice place she's got there."

"You saw the Rei collection?"

"A."

"And added to it, I hear."

I almost laughed. "I wouldn't put myself in that league."

"You sell yourself short," he chittered back. "Just the uniqueness factor alone will place anything by you in collections like that."

I wasn't sure how to feel about that.

"And the sex was good?" his jaw dropped, his pink tongue lolling.

I shook my head. "Nothing happened."

"With your reputation..."

"Nothing happened," I repeated and frowned. "She... ventured, I think. I declined, I think."

"You?" His ears flicked. "Anytime, anywhere ape? Declined sex?"

"It's spring, isn't it?" I mused. "Shouldn't you be running around rutting with anything that moves?"

"And deny you the opportunity?" Chaeitch chittered. "Ah, well. You didn't like her?"

"Don't you start," I sighed.

"You didn't?"

I'd been through that before, that was what I meant. "Very nice female," I explained, "but I think it'd cause more problems than I need at the moment."

His muzzle wrinkled a bit in a pattern I recognized as puzzlement. "It would be trouble?"

I leaned back on the upholstered seat, sliding slightly as the carriage rounded a corner. "I'm still trying to sort out my current Rris relationships," I said. "More at this time... I don't need that."

"Mikah," he hissed softly, "she was after some entertainment. Why do you think sex has anything to do with relationships?"

We'd been through that before as well. I couldn't explain it. "A human thing."

And he'd heard that. He knew I didn't necessarily mean it was better. "It works?"

Outside, brick walls scrolled past the window. I caught a glimpse of a bronze plaque. "It can," I said as we drew up to our destination. "It does help if it's reciprocal."

Then it was time to go to work.

Section 24

Warehouses. We had a guided tour of a row of dockside warehouses. After the splendor of the Rei collection I got to look at floor-to-ceiling stacks of boxes and barrels. It wasn't the same.

From there it was out to the outskirts of town to the unbelievable heat and noise of yet another foundry, then on to an ironworks located a ridiculous distance away. I retired that night with a headache echoing with the ringing of iron on iron and wondering how the Rris workers handled it.

Next day was a exploration of Open Field's renowned glassworking industry. That entailed tours of everything from the barges bringing in the barrels of white quartz sand, potash, limestone and other kinds of flux to the glasshouses themselves. Those workshops were hot, reeking places. Poor ventilation meant there was more than a trace of chemical tang in the air. If I could smell it, then what was it like for the Rris workers?

Fine white sand and flux were melted in crucibles. Rris chemists adjusted the ratios and combinations of silica and fluxes of various kinds to produce different types of glass. The molten liquid was actually spun into its final shape by hand. A Rris craftsman with a hollow tube would actually load a dollop of molten glass onto the end of the tube, then spin the tube and blow through it. The glass would stretched out, taking on a final form like a frozen soap bubble. For window panes - the small, distorted type that seemed most prevalent in - the globule would be spun fast, centrifugal force producing a disk which would then have to be trimmed to shape. The more expensive panes were made from molten glass formed in moulds. The problem with that technique was that the surface that resulted was rough and dirty and required a lot of hand grinding and polishing before a usable product was available.

Glassware produced for every requirement, from elegant delicacies to windows to chemical retorts. None of it was mass-produced. There were no production lines, just artisans turning out their products as needed. Skilled work, techniques that required years of training and practice to perfects. But so slow. It explained why glazed windows were for the rich.

Nevertheless, the quality of the work was better than anything I'd seen back in Shattered Water. A combination of skill, experience and the quality of the quartz sand produced exceptional results.

"It could be very useful," I said as the carriage rattled out the Chartz glass works gates. An escort guard on llamaback watched as we passed and then fell in behind.

A low sun painted the rooftops and chimney stacks of Open Fields a warm orange while cool shadows crept through the streets. After the heat of the glassworks the cool of the evening was a welcome change, especially for my hairy companion. Opposite me, Chaeitch was panting noisily, ruffling his fingers through his chest fur to circulate some air. His ears flicked. "You think so?"

"You're interested in electric lights?" he could understand the word electric, even if he couldn't say it. "That'll need glass, very clear and precision manufactured."

Chaeitch's head tipped to one side, then to the other. "That's not possible in Shattered Water? We have glassblowers too."

"I know," I waved a shrug. "But the quality of the Chartz work and materials is extremely good."

"A," he acknowledged, albeit reluctantly.

"Why spend money on equipment and training to produce second rate material?" I asked. "Partnerships can be adventageous."

"A," he acknowledged again. He knew that, of course, it was just pride speaking. He twitched his ears. "You know something about glass making they don't?"

I smiled. "You think they'd like to know how to make glass that's more malleable? Or how about plate glass? Big sheets of glass, perfectly flat and clear that don't require polishing?"

He mused for a few theatrical seconds. "That could be... marketable."

"I'm sure something could be worked out," I grinned. It's a habit that incredibly hard to break.

Outside, the receding light was just stroking the tops of chimneypots and motionless weathervanes. Higher overhead, a few tails of cloud burned gold against the dark sky. Rris were still going about their business. What they considered dim was near pitch blackness to me, so it'd still be some time before lights started to come on.

"A lot of Mediators around," I said.

Chaeitch made an interested noise and leaned forward. "There as well?"

There was another pair out his window: a pair of solemn looking Rris standing at an alleyway. Their leather kilts and vests matched the outfits of the other. Their weapons were just as visible. "I suppose you are something of interest," Chaeitch chittered.

Dim the light might have been, but I could certainly see where their gaze was going. "Then why do they seem more interested in each other?" I asked.

"Huhn?" he chirruped a curious interrogative and leaned forward to see, but the Mediators were behind us. "That many in one town's not usual."

"A convention?" I asked. I asked. I had a nagging uneasy feeling. "Is something going on?"

He blinked. His eyes were reflecting light from somewhere. In the gloom it was like a pair of small lights flashing. "Why'd you ask?"

"Just..." I hesitated, trying to put it into words, then shrugged it off. "I'm used to things getting unpleasant when they get unusual. I think I'm just twitchy."

"Forgivable," Chaeitch chittered and leaned back, glancing at the window. "I'll make some inquiries. There might be a guild assembly."

Oh, a union thing.

We rattled on through the darkening streets. Along avenues where trees spread their leaves against the evening sky, where flocks of birds trilled and fluttered in the branches as they settled in for the night. Here and there warm orange glows of lamps were springing to life in windows: patches of domesticity in the dark facades silhouetted against the skyline. Chaeitch and I were chatting, talking about the day and then off into tangents encompassing my family, his family, what was on TV when I left.

The carriage rattled to a halt. There were raised voices outside.

"What..." Chaeitch started to say and the right hand carriage door was pulled open from the outside. Three Rris were staring back up at us, one with his hand holding the door open. By their dress, all of them were Mediators. I peeked out through the ornate window grill on my side: there were more Mediators there. Armed. All heavily armed with firearms and blades.

"Out," the Rris at the door said to Chaeitch.

Chaeitch looked at me, "Wait," he said.

That bad feeling was back and stronger than ever. "Chaeitch..." I started to say.

"Just, wait," he said and stooped out the door. The carriage rocked as he stepped down. The Mediators stepped aside, then two of them climbed in and sat down. One opposite and one beside me. There were the usual nervous twitched, but both of them were big for Rris, and both of them armed. Their pistols were still in their bandoliers, but their hands were hovering near the grips. Chaeitch was exchanging low, urgent words with another Mediator outside.

"What's going on?" I asked.

Chaeitch turned back to me. His ears were down. "Mikah, go with them."

"What? What's happening?"

He wasn't meeting my eyes. I was having horrible flashbacks to another time in a dark alley when a friend had deserted me. "They want you to go with them. To the hall. They want to talk to you."

"Does her ladyship..."

"Mikah," he said. "They're Mediators." As if that explained anything. "Please, just behave?"

The other Mediator clambered in, sitting down in the opposite corner. I saw Chaeitch take a step and hesitate. He looked confused, distressed, annoyed and then the door was closed. A second later we jolted into motion.

The Mediators watched me. The last one in was leaning back, watching me through slitted eyes. He... I was pretty sure it was a he, appeared a lot more relaxed than the others. For a second I thought back to the insurance hidden back on the Ironheart and wished I'd had it with me. No, these were cops. I didn't need that sort of trouble.

"Are you going to tell me what's going on?"

A pause, then that calm one said, "Your friend told you."

"No, he told me what you told him. Did he mean the guild hall? Why? Why this way? Why not just ask? What's going on?"

He tipped his head slightly and those eyes watched me. I knew that stare. I'd seen it before, somewhere. That cool appraisal.

"You don't remember me?"

Did that mean I knew him? I blinked, then felt my jaw drop along with the penny. "Shyia?"

"Hello, Mikah."

Section 25

Two years ago I'd stumbled into this world and the Rris village of Westwater. Shortly thereafter I'd been accused of murder. The parochial locals had found themselves in over their heads and sent away to a nearby town for assistance. The law has sent Shyia. A mediator. A cop. Well, that was what I'd assumed.

Assumptions can be dangerous.

He'd stayed. He'd deemed me innocent and of considerable value. From there I'd been escorted away from Westwater and out into the Rris world at large, to eventually arrive at Shattered Water. He'd stayed for a while, as was his duty, but I'd never even known when he'd left to head back to his home.

So 'friend' might not be the best label. Though applying the human concept of friendship is always risky - as what happened with Chaeitch reminded me - Shyia had never been the open, friendly, caring and sharing type. He was a hardass, whatever the species.

But why was he there?

"Your presence is demanded by his Lordship. He felt I was the best to bring you."

"I mean, why are you in Open Fields? Long way from Lying Scales."

His cool stare never flinched. "Apparently I'm considered a guild expert on you," he said and I got the distinct impression that he wasn't amused by that. "His Lordship summoned me."

Second time he'd mentioned that. "His Lordship?"

"His Lordship Ah Richtkah. Guildmaster."

"Mediator Guild?" I asked, then answered my own question. "Of course."

He hissed softly and glanced out the window. His associates hadn't spoke. They also watched me, but they also watched the passing surrounds.

Shyia propped his chin on his hand, still gazing out the window. "I'm just to bring you before his Lordship. Then it is up to you."

I frowned. "Is this something I should be worried about?"

A snort. "I answered that back in Westwater."

What the hell did he mean by that? That was years ago. I'd been learning a lot back then, but he had told me a few things that'd stuck with me. Not necessarily the most optimistic things. That worried me.

So the gunshots took me completely by surprise.

Light strobed through the dark street. The tight volley reverberated between the walls on either side, the deep booms of muzzle loaders blurring into a sound that hit like solid blows. I grabbed for a handhold as the carriage lurched to the side and halted. Outside there were yowls and screeches and another volley of gunfire, much more ragged, which degenerated into individually distinct booms and cracks. Splinters flew as something punched its way through the wood of the ceiling. A fat slug of flattened lead rattled to the floor.

"On move, split!" Shyia snapped to the other two. "Distract. Move!"

In one move the two quiet ones had both doors open and blurred out into the darkness. I saw the indistinct form of one of them pause, raise a handgun and then my night vison was gone when the weapon discharged in a gout of sparks and light. I didn't see the target or if it was hit because Shyia had grabbed my arm and yanked me toward the other door. I yelped and had to move, fast: his claws were out and digging in. "Move," he snarled and I did, jumping out and almost stumbling on uneven cobbles that struck painfully against my mocassined feet

Anemic starlight filtered down into the narrow street from a rectangle of sky visible past dark rooftops, but otherwise it was pitch black. I could hear alien shouts and screams, the clash of metal weapons and the sounds of close combat. There were weapons discharges, filling the night with flashbulb bursts of light and an acrid blue-grey smoke that filled the narrow street with fog that reeked of rotten eggs. Figures milled around us but it was impossible for me to see who was who, which side was which.

The alien grip on my arm wasn't that tight, but the claws hurt as he pulled, leading me at a dead run through the bedlam and into pitch blackness. It was an entryway, an arched tunnel into the atrium of a Rris residence. Shyia snarled something I didn't catch and he turned, led me around a corner and I tripped on something - a step in the darkness - and yelled at the flash of pain as his claws tore.

"Come on!" he hissed and his grip closed again, feeling wet on my arm now as he helped me to my feet. We were on wooden flooring now, moving through spaces I more felt than saw. I stumbled against something else - furniture I think - and heard a rattle and door open and then Shyia yowled, "Look out!"

There was more movement all around. I heard claws on wooden floor and loud breathing and then snarls and vicious tearing sounds.

"Shyia!" I yelled.

"Mikah, Rot you. Run!"

He couldn't be serious. I couldn't see a thing. Whatever he said next was cut off with a grunt, then a yowl and there were more nasty sounds in the dark. Then I was too busy to care.

Something... someone grabbed at me. I swung, blind, and connected with furry flesh. There was a cough of air and something else caught at me from behind. I lashed out with elbows, kicked with feet and knees as clawed hands snatched at me. Sometimes I connected, more often not. A body landed on my back and an arm looped around my neck, cutting off my air. I staggered into something that felt like a table, pushed off to reel backwards until I hit a wall as hard as I could. The attacker on my back took the full force and I felt and smelled the breath knocked out past my ear and the arm around my neck loosened enough that I could gasp a breath of my own and jab an elbow backwards. My assailant fell away with a gagging noise.

There was another to take his place. I was blind, I was outnumbered, but I was also terrified and desperate. I fought with everything I had, struggling and kicking and headbutting in the blackness. The only sounds were my blood and breath pounding in my ears and the coarse rasping of my assailants' breathing, Hands trying to grab me slipped off skin made slick through sweat or blood. Fur rasped against my skin, choking me as they tried to pin me or hooked me in a stranglehold. A cloth wrapped around my face, pulling tight over my mouth and nose. I tried to claw at it and my assailants grabbed my arms, holding my down while the cloth tightened. It was wet and stung, burned against my skin. I involuntarily gasped a lungful of dizzying fumes and tried to shake my head free but the cloth was wrapped tight around my head and it only took a few lungfuls of the fumes and it was over.

I remember I wasn't out cold. Not completely unconscious. Rather it was as if the world were receding, like I was falling backwards slowly down an infinite tunnel. I think I tried to fight but I've no idea if I was even moving. But there was something going on that I was vaguely aware of: movement and dark and light and dark again..

My next coherent awareness was that movement was knocking my head against something hard. Opening my eyes made no difference, it was dark, but the nausea when I moved was unbearable. I puked my guts out until nothing else came and I just couldn't move. There were voices, but they went away along with everything else. It didn't matter. I couldn't care.

Section 26

There was light.

There was movement. Sharp, bumping and acutely uncomfortable movement.

Without opening my eyes I was aware of a light flashing across my face, bright even through my eyelids. Also of stuffy warmth; like the inside of an old canvass tent on a hot day. And there were noises: loudest were squeaking and rattling of metal and wood, then there were the distant sounds of wind in trees, the sounds and smells of animals.

Something was wrong. I'd been asleep, I realized that. But why was I laying on hard wood and not my bed? It took a second or so before other fragments of facts gravitated together and clicked into place. I remembered what'd happened.

When I opened my eyes it was to a blotched and weather stained arched canvass roof stretched over a wooden frame, lit from outside by bright sunlight. There was a small hole in it, way up near the apex. The sun was glinting through that hole, projecting a dime of gold that jittered across the floor, across my face, right into my eyes. It flashed in time with the familiar jarring and shaking of the hard wood I was laying on. A wagon on a rough road.

I lay still, just taking stock. I was thirsty. I was hungry. I ached and hurt. There was also the horrible taste of old puke in my mouth, a stinging sensation like nettle-burn on my face and down my throat with every breath. And when I raised my hands to rub my face I found I was also manacled.

All in all, I'd felt better

I was in the back of a covered wagon all right. It was constructed from rough planks, bleached almost white by weather and age. It smelled of wool and pine resin and wet Rris and rocked and rattled with the characteristic teeth-jarring movement of crude engineering meeting a rough track of some kind. Black iron manacles were locked tight around my wrists. There was a weight around my neck that could only be a collar. A heavy chain ran from that to a padlock fastened to an iron U bolt set in one of the boards comprising the side of the wagon. I'd been stripped of my clothes, of everything. Even my moccasins were gone. Down the other end of the wagon, by the tailgate, a Rris was sitting on a bedroll and watching me closely. A female. Not that it made any difference.

She stared at me. I sagged back and rasped, "Not again." My voice was a croak.

My watcher cocked her head. "There's water there," she said, nodding her chin.

I looked where she indicated. There was a green glass bottle within reach, stoppered with a wooden bung. The chain from the collar was joined to a big iron U bolt secured through one of the rough planks comprising the side of the wagon. It was heavy and just long enough to let me work myself into a sitting position against the other side. Splinters were a worry and the heavy iron manacles were tight, but at least they had enough flex to let me pick the bottle up and work the cork loose.

And my hesitation to drink didn't go unnoticed. "Just water," the guard said.

Well, they could probably get drugs into me other ways if they wanted to, and I was incredibly thirsty. I gulped, coughed, drank again. As she'd said: just water. She'd twitched the rear flap aside, gesturing to someone outside, then looked at me again.

"Would shouting for help do any good?" I asked, my voice still rasping.

"Very little," she said. I nodded, weighing her up. She looked stocky, tough, dressed in a well-worn padded leather vest and kilt accessorized by a pistol and something that looked too long to be a dagger but too short for a sword. Still looked sharp though.

Then the fact it was a uniform registered. "You're a Mediator."

"Yes," she said and glanced at my hand reaching for my collar. "You won't touch that."

I let my hand drop. Mediator... Shyia was a Mediator. We'd been attacked, I remembered that. Had I been rescued while I was out? Or were these imposters? Or was Shyia an imposter? I struggled to sit up, wincing at the aches. I was bruised, all over. The worst were a huge blue-green contusion on my right arm that I had no recollection of getting and some bright and angry clotted gouges on my left, where Shyia's claws had dug in. Elsewhere there were a few minor nicks. Otherwise... just the same collection of scars.

Which puzzled me.

I'd fought with Rris before and knew from experience what sort of damage their teeth and claws did. I also remembered the struggle in the darkness, the number of times they'd laid hands on me but hadn't used claws. If they'd been seriously trying to hold me they'd have been using claws and I'd have been as lacerated as if I'd taken a running dive into a briar patch. So they'd been almost fastidiously careful not to damage me even as I was bouncing them off the walls.

New sounds from outside drew my attention. There were voices. I couldn't make out what was being said, but the wagon slowed for a moment. Just long enough for another Rris to vault into the back with a move as smooth as oil on water. All I saw in the glimpse through the tail flap were trees. The newcomer squatted under the low overhead, hands dangling between legs. Male, I guessed, it was hard to tell. He was dressed as the female was, in leather armor, covered with dust, as were his furry calves. "It's awake then," he observed.

I didn't miss the 'it's'

"Yes, Sir," my guard said. "Seems lucid enough."

I shifted, aching, feeling my heart picking up, my lips drying out. "What's going on?" I asked, my voice almost catching. "Who are you?"

I'd been in a bad situation like that before. Back then, they really hadn't like me asking questions.

The newcomer's head cocked slightly and amber eyes regarded me, almost lazily. "Us? Mediator Guild, of course. And we just saved your hide."

I felt my mouth move as the right words didn't come. That made as much sense as everything else that'd happened. "Saved my hide?" I repeated. "From what?"

"You were to be executed."

That almost didn't register. "Executed?" I echoed again, knowing it made me sound like a clueless moron, but that was what I was feeling like.

"A," he said.

Confused, afraid, angry... "You... what are you talking about?! Where's Shyia? What'd you do with him?"

"Shyia ah Ehrasai?" Small creases marched up his muzzle, an expression I wasn't entirely sure about. "He slipped away. I'm surprised you're asking about him, after what he was going to do to you."

"He wouldn't harm me."

"No?" the Rris looked amused. "You think not? He was certainly delivering you for execution."

They were fucking with me, they had to be. "You expect me to believe they were going to kill me?"

A snort. "I don't care what you believe. My orders are to return you. Unharmed, preferably, but to return you. That's all I'm concerned about. Now, you be quiet and cooperate and we will be gracious hosts. Otherwise, we don't have to be so hospitable. One trail the same as the other to me, understand?"

The female was dangling a bunch of leather straps that looked like a device designed to wrap around a Rris muzzle from a finger, a calculating look on her face.

I almost said something smart, something that I'd probably have regretted. Far simpler to just play along. "I understand," I said.

Amber eyes studied me, the slit pupils like slivers of darkness in fire. After a few heartbeats his left ear twitched. "Huhn, intelligent enough," he growled, then waved the flap aside and was gone again. I was left staring at the guard. She stared back, still swinging the straps of the muzzle from her fingers.

I decided it was best not to say anything. She seemed satisfied with that.

Section 27

They didn’t go out of their way to be cruel. At least, they weren’t in the same league as other Rriss I’d encountered.

Not that anything about that journey was enjoyable. Not nearly. The wagon floor was hard and uncomfortable; the shackled weren't just locked, they were riveted on and were far too tight. But they didn’t deliberately harm me. They gave me water. Later that day there were some strips of dried meat that were more like leather than food, but they made me realize how hungry I was. Each bite had to be chewed for minutes before I could swallow it.

My guard looked amused.

They were taking me north, I could figure that out for myself. And judging by the dust that’d been coating that Rris’ legs and clothing, they were riding hard on open roads. How long had they been going? How fast? How far from Open Fields were we? Where were we headed? Was anyone chasing after us? I didn't have any answers and my guard wasn't offering to tell me. She sat at the other end of the wagon on a folded bedroll, leaning back against the sideboard with legs splayed and forearms resting on knees as she whittled away at a stick with a nasty little dirk, peeling away tiny curls of pale wood.

Thanks to my crash geography lessons I knew the names few towns up there, along the southern shores of what I'd known as Lake Huron; just a couple of the more important ones. But I'd no real idea exactly where we were heading. And I’d no idea of what was going on.

They were Mediators. Or they claimed to be Mediators. As did Shyia. Chaeitch had thought he was. Who was lying? Or were they both telling the truth?

"Why're you doing this?" I asked after hours of hearing nothing but the creaking of the wagon and the sounds of wilderness outside: birdsong, insect racket and the wind in trees.

My guard held up the trinket she was carving, the dirk flicking out of the way between her stubby fingers so she could use forefingers to manipulate the work. It looked like a rough figurine of a Rris. I couldn't tell for sure. She regarded me over the top of the piece with an amber stare and silence that if it was meant to be disconcerting, succeeded. But she didn't say anything.

I tried again. "This is right?"

Her head cocked slightly.

I continued. "You say you're mediators? You're supposed to be law. You're supposed to... to be right, to be truth. You're sure this is the right thing?"

Her eyes flicked, her face screwing up in an almost amused expression. "And you're sure it's not?" she rumbled.

"Until I know why, I can't say," I protested. "All I know is that you're kidnapping me for no reason. Why..."

"Because they're my orders," she interjected and flicked the knife back into her hands, resuming her slow carving.

"That's your excuse? Orders? You just follow them blindly?"

The knife paused again and the glance she favored me with then was less than amused. "Blindly?"

"If you don't know why you're doing this, then yes, blindly."

Her muzzle wrinkled back, flashing white teeth. "I think you should stop talking now."

"You..."

"I said," she growled, "You should stop talking. You want to try the muzzle for size?'

The straps were made for a Rris face, they wouldn't fit me. But if I pointed that fact out, my captors might try to get inventive. I shut up.

She went back to carving her stick.

Section 28

The caravan stopped for a short time later that evening, while the sun was a dying red glow on the horizon. I was allowed a toilet break, allowed outside the wagon. They didn't take any chances though: the chain leasing me to the wagon was unlocked, but the shackles stayed on and four guards hovered close. They watched, amused or just interested in the differences in plumbing. Trying to ignore them while I took a leak against a tree wasn't the easiest thing to do, but I've been through worse than that before.

Seeing the world outside the wagon didn't tell me a lot. Dusk was spilling across the world, and all that seemed to consist of was trees. A copse of birch or some such, not evergreens. And as the sun sunk, the shadows beneath them spread and melted together. Through the trunks I could see the brows of low hills, silhouetting more treetops against the sunset. A road led away through the trees and wilderness. It was just a rutted track, but probably constituted a main road. Otherwise there were no other signs of civilization: no signposts, buildings. Nothing but my captors' wagons and animals.

Mediators or not, there were a lot of them. I counted at least two-dozen Rris moving about in the evening gloom amongst four wagons and assorted draught animals. But they weren't lighting fires, so they weren't making camp. I weighed up my options. In order to make a break for it, I'd have to overcome four alert and armed guards while manacled and then outrun Rris through night and unknown terrain.

That didn't look like it was going to be an option. I'd have to wait for a chance.

It didn't look as if it was going to happen that night. The stop was brief, just fifteen minutes or so before the guards herded me back to the wagon. Inside, the gloom was almost pitch blackness. I couldn't see much at all, but my captors told me to sit, to keep my hands in sight. There were rattlings of metal, the click of a key in a lock, then furry hands grabbing my skin and bonds, just making sure they were secure. The wagon rocked slightly as the Rris moved and I saw the figures moving against the slightly lighter sky at the tailgate, muted voices growled and hissed, then the flap was closed.

Shortly there was a jolt as we started off again.

I waited. The hard floor rattled and bumped as we journeyed off into the night, further away from the world I knew. There wasn't a word from my guard who was just a darker shadow against the canvass. Presently, despite the cool air and hard floor, I slept. It was all I could do.

Section 29

Darkness

I remembered...something. There was something important.

Light shone through ill-fitting boards. Chinks of warmth shining out into the cold where I was. When I tried to see all I could make out were figures moving and the sound of laughter. I moved along the wall, looking.

There was a door. It opened. Inside was dark, empty. A space with a gritty floor and rows of seats in front of a piece of slate hanging on a wall.

I'd been here before.

"You're still chasing down trouble," Chihirae told me from her chair. Jackie was sitting beside her, watching me. She never said much anymore.

Writing curled on the slate. I couldn't read it, but I knew it was writing. When I touched it, the surface rippled, the distortions spreading away, lapping at the shore. I looked up from where I was kneeling by the dark water. The world had changed. Was deeper.

She was on the other side of the pool, watching me.

"You knew," I said.

She shook her head. "No. Not I."

"They're the same."

Her eyes didn't meet mine. "I can't say."

The pool was dark again and now there were walls all around, of dark stone.

"Mai?"

She wasn't there. Then there were Rris, one raising the whip and I screamed and struggled away...

Scrabbling on gritty wood, the echoes of rattling chains dying in my ears.

Cool darkness, jolting rocking motion. I heard my breathing, heard some muted Rris conversation back at the tailgate. An ever so faint glow filtered through the canvass roof, silhouetting a dark outline against slightly lighter darkness. There a furry shoulder limed against almost imperceptible moonglow; a sheen of armor; a feline profile. A tufted ear flickered slightly; otherwise it was perfectly still, but watching me.

I shuddered. The bottle was there when I groped after it, my hand closing around the cold glass in the night. The water was cool. I drank deeply, then slumped back. Sleep came again. Eventually.

Section 30

Birdsong heralded the morning. First light struck the canvass roof of the wagon, turning it incandescent. The temperature started to climb, turning from cool night air to a stuffy warmth.

That wasn't what'd woken me. The cessation of rattling and shaking had. I lifted my head from where I'd pillowed it on my arms, blinked into the diffuse glow flooding the interior of the wagon and winced. The first thing that struck me was that I ached even worse than before; my bruises from the previous day and the wooden floor having ganged up on my muscles. The other thing I saw was my guard, peering out through the back flap. She had her back to me.

Tempting, but again it wasn't the right time.

Moving hurt. I groaned, my stiff muscles complaining and my neck clicking like a castanet as I levered myself up into a sitting position. The guard flinched back toward me, letting the flap fall back into place. She watched as I awkwardly sat back, rolling my shoulders and rubbing my neck as best I could with the manacles, just trying to work some limberness back into them. I caught her look. "What?"

"You're a noisy sleeper."

I felt muscles in my jaw twitch. "The beds in this hotel really suck," was all I told her.

Her muzzle furrowed briefly but I wasn't about to explain it. The bottle of water was half full. I blinked at it, trying to remember something from the night, then proceeded to drink it all. I regarded the empty green glass container: now empty, or full of air.

She let me outside to take a leak, along with a heavy guard of course. That gave me a chance to see why they'd stopped while I relieved myself. The road ended at a river: a broad stretch of dark water slowly flowing between heavily wooded banks. Down by the waters edge were a small hut and a jetty, the building not much more than a shack really. A thread of smoke curled from the chimney. The jetty looked more solidly built, as did the raft moored to it.

No bridge. We were going to ferry across on that raft. I got a chance to study it as I stood at the roadside and emptied my bladder against a tree.

The ferry was a big raft of heavy planks, logs and caulking; big enough to take two wagons and their teams. A series of block and tackles the size of my head anchored it to a thick skein of rope that ran from a massive block onshore and dipped into river midstream before surfacing across the far side which must've been thirty or forty meters away. Not a huge river, but fast and deep enough that they couldn't ford it. Already a wagon and team were being loaded onto the ferry, a Rris who must've been the ferryman supervising the loading. The whole thing rocked as the animals boarded and balked. Ripples spread out across the water, setting reeds to rustling and slapping against the overgrown banks. I didn't have time for further sightseeing: as soon as I'd finished with my business my guards hustled me back to the wagon.

In the light I was able to see that after my collar had been locked, the guard in the wagon handed the key off to one of the others. So I couldn't jump her and take it. These bad guys weren't as dumb as the ones in the movies.

There was quite a wait before the wagon began to move. I felt the wheels rolling over packed earth, then over wood, then onto something that wasn't solid ground. We stopped but there was still a rocking sensation.

I just sat. My guard was whittling again.

There were voices outside, then a slight lurch and the rocking sensation increased, combined with a drifting movement. Outside there were load creaks, squeaks, water sounds.

"This is safe?" I asked my guard.

Her muzzle wrinkled again. "Nervous?" She looked a little amused. Fine by me.

"Ah... I have a thing about water. Far to go?"

She snorted and nudged the flap back with a finger to peek out. "Almost halfway."

Good enough. While she was distracted I looped the chain from my collar around my arm, braced my feet against the side boards below the u-bolt and hauled with everything I had.

Perhaps my workouts helped. Perhaps if they hadn't drilled through the plank to secure the bolt, the wood might have held. I hauled on the chain, feeling iron links digging into my skin. Straightening my legs, hauling with shoulder muscles, feeling aches twinging and stretching as the wood creaked and bowed.

The guard said, "What..."

Or perhaps the weather-bleached wood was weakened. Whatever the cause, the plank bowed, splintered and abruptly gave way. The u-bolt tore loose, whiplashing toward me. I slammed back into the other side of the wagon and the recoiling chain struck my arm. An inconsequential distraction. Ignoring it, I snatched up the water bottle by the neck, prayed, and knocked it hard against one of the side supports. Once and the bottle just bounced. Again, and this time it broke, just below the neck sending shards and spilled water flying and tinkling across the floor and leaving me with the neck and a small nub of glass: less than intimidating, but the sharp edge was all I needed.

The guard was drawing her own weapon, yowling an alarm. When I deliberately grinned she retreated back a step, her fur bottling. I raised the jagged shard of glass and slashed down, at the canvass covering. The glass knife ripped a hole, caught, then sliced a jagged tear through the weathered material, from above my head down to the sideboards. I grabbed the edges and yanked it wider, the heavy fabric parting along the tear with an angry ripping sound. Big enough. The guard was hesitating, obviously unsure as to what I was up to. She probably thought I didn't have any place to go.

Outside, other Rris were reacting. Weapons were out and they were skirting around the sides of the raft heading for the back of the wagon. I didn't bother climbing out the hole. I gathered the loose chain, took a deep breath and just dove through the tear, arching over the edge of the ferry and into liquid darkness.

Cool water that hadn't had time to be warmed by the morning sun washed over me. I dove deep, down into a chill current, wafting waterweeds and natural debris. Sunlight filtered down, through tannin-tinted waters as I kicked out, aligning myself, following the flow downstream. The shackles and chain almost undid me. Unable to breast stroke I had to resort to an awkwardly modified dog-paddle and if it hadn't been for the current, I probably wouldn't have made it at all. The chain dragged me down, the shackles encumbered every stroke, but I kept going, past the clutching fractal fingers of sunken logs and trees, the skittering flashes of darting fish. For as long as my breath held.

I surfaced, gasping, about thirty meters downstream. There were distant shouts, but I was only up long enough to gasp a new lungful of air, then dove again. I'd been expecting a volley of gunfire or arrows. None came, but I wasn't going to tempt fate.

After another thirty meters I came up again and paused just long enough to tread water while tying the chain around my waist, as out of the way as I could get it. I was shaking wildly, the adrenaline rush and a flood of everything from sheer terror to pure exultation making my muscles fight each other. My fingers fumbled the iron links as I tried to stay afloat while

The ferry was still upstream, nearly all the way across the river and starting to vanish from sight around a bend in the river. They'd been smart enough to send riders across first and hold some back on the starting side so if something had happened they'd have personnel on both sides of the river. By now they'd be chasing me. But the undergrowth along the banks was thick enough that they must've been struggling through it and by then the current had me. I kicked along with it and with every second the ferry receded further and further until it was lost around the curve in the river.

Section 31

The river followed the soft land. Over the millennia it'd carved its way through the sedimentary savannah, through the soft loam of the rolling countryside, following the path of least resistance. Where it did meet it, it flowed around, describing a serpentine path across the landscape. There was a spur of land that was of some harder stuff: A deposit of some tougher geological outcropping the river had worked its way around.

I dragged myself through sodden marsh and water weed that sucked at my legs before I reached something like solid ground. It was a rock, a slab the size of a car. I just collapsed onto it, utterly exhausted, and lay there in the hot sunlight, coughing. My muscles felt like overcooked pasta.

In any movie involving river travel, there's a waterfall. Doesn't matter if it's in the middle of Iowa, there's a waterfall. It's one of those Hollywood rules.

Real life wasn't that melodramatic. The worst I had to deal with were rapids. They weren't white water, but they'd been bad enough. The river had seemed like a good idea. I'd managed to snag a waterlogged piece of wood that'd made an acceptable float to hang onto while the current carried me along. That'd worked... for a while. I'd been able to watch the passing landscape - hills, water meadows and lush forests - and try and figure out where the hell I was. Heading east, that was as best I could tell. If my captors had been taking me north, then by heading east I could hit anything from the shores of lake Huron on down. I'd passed a couple of smaller tributaries flowing into the river and that was good: it'd be something else to slow my pursuers down.

About eight kilometers downstream the riverbanks had gotten much closer and steeper, the river much faster and much deeper, all surprisingly quickly. Before I'd really known it, the still water turned turbulent enough to make things very difficult and my makeshift float wasn't helping very much. Normally, it wouldn't have been a problem, but with the shackles and chains it took everything I had just to stay afloat. When I finally drifted into that eddy at the bend in the river, I was more than ready to crawl out and collapse.

Sprawled on that sun-warmed rock I lost track of time. Exhausted, I just closed my eyes and let the world spin around me while I caught my breath and slowly warmed again. It was when I found myself starting to drift off that I work with a start. I couldn't wait around. I didn’t know how long I had, but they'd be after me, I didn't have any doubt about that.

I scrambled to the top of the riverbank and then struggled through tangled bush and scrub up the small rise to the crest of the hill on the river bend. It wasn't high, but offered a bit of a view. Facing south, with the river at my back, I could see hills rising all around. The river was in a small valley, stretching east to west, the sides green with forest and meadows. How far had I come? Perhaps ten kilometers? How far did I have to go? I didn't have the faintest idea. Perhaps from the valley edge I'd see some sign of civilization.

It was near noon on a clear and sunny day. A breeze rippled the grasses in hillside meadows. Choruses of hidden insects rasped, birds twittered and swooped. I was hungry, naked, chained and completely lost.

"...half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses," I muttered to the world in general. Then sighed and set off: south, toward the hills.

Section 32

And from up there on the lip of the valley I saw nothing but more nothing. More meadows dotted with bright spring flowers, more woods and swatches of forest: evergreen pines and oaks and beech and birch covering gentle hills. No houses, roads or even thread of smoke. Down behind me, the dark river flowed along in its little valley.

The land wasn't flat coastline plains; nor was it geography twisted and knurled by geology like paper crumpled up. It was scrub and meadows and forest clinging to rolling hills of loam and shale. Geography that'd been scoured and ground millennia ago by unimaginably huge sheets of ice that'd strolled south and incidentally rearranged the face of the planet.

I stood there in my shackles and bare skin and felt utterly vulnerable and more than a little concerned as I looked around from horizon to horizon. There were options. I could head back upstream where I'd be certain to meet my captors and that would at least ensure I wouldn't starve or freeze out in the wilderness. Or I could head south and hope to hit civilization... of some kind. Somewhere. Or I could go east, following the river, which was probably a tributary into the waterway between the lakes of Highchi's Grief and Season's Door. There'd be settlements there, lake traffic heading southwards. After weighing things, I deemed it a safer bet than simply aiming south.

So, east it was.

I started half jogging a few hundred meters, then walking. It was a pace I should have been able to keep up for hours. It was the way I'd started jogging at home. But that had been without a few kilos of iron weighing me down. With the shackles on I couldn't swing my arms in time properly; the collar moved at opposites to my motion and started chafing - uncomfortably at first, then painfully. I spent an hour or so trying to get the manacles off by hammering at the end of the hinge pin with a rock to try and shear it. After an hour all I ended up with was a pile of broken rocks and a bruised thumb. Whoever had designed them hadn't been an idiot. I'd need a key or proper tools.

Giving up on that - at least until I had a better idea - I kept going. I filled time by humming, simple little cadences while I jogged. The Proclaimers kept me amused for a while, then the Great Escape theme, then a host of other little ditties remembered from a world ago. The day was warm, which was a blessing. Lack of clothing was... annoying. Not so much in a moral sense anymore: Rris don't have so much of hangup about it and that attitude has had some time to rub off on me. The biggest drawback with nudity around Rris is the fact they tend to find anatomical differences amusing. But out there in the middle of nowhere, without shoes or shirt, it's not a matter of modesty or embarrassment, but of vulnerability. You tend to feel more than a little exposed to the elements. I especially missed shoes - stones and sticks and nettles hurt - and a pair of shorts wouldn't have been missed.

There were animals around, though I didn't have close encounters with anything more threatening than a pair of squirrels that chattered furiously at me from a tree trunk as I passed. Deer grazed the meadows. The beginnings of a beaver damn were starting to block one of the streams leading down to the river, making it spill its banks and turn the ground to marsh. I took that opportunity to drink before swimming across and pushing on. And on and on. Cresting one hill to see another, and then yet another stretching away before you can be demoralizing to say the least.

And if I'd been uncomfortable during the day, that night I really missed clothes.

When the sun sank behind the hills to the west, the temperature sank with it. Stars came out. Multitudes upon multitudes of them smeared across the heavens in a great pale wash. The crescent of the moon climbed above the horizon: a sliver of light that could hide behind the fingernail of my pinky. And it was dark. A pale glow came from the sky, from the stars and moon, but otherwise there was nothing. No lamps or fires visible, just dark and darkness. Meadows and open spaces were vague stretches of faint luminescence under the sky, trees and woods were swatches of impenetrable blackness. I was reduced to fumbling my way across ground I couldn't see, stumbling over stones and roots and fallen branches. And it was getting colder.

Shivering and mostly blind I hunted for shelter. Crawling under a low tree, I broke and tore leafy branches and laid them out in a makeshift mattress. The branches poked me, leaves scratched, but it was insulation against the cold ground. Not much, but a bit.

I huddled and shivered and felt bugs biting and yearned for a warm bed, tasting a banquet of hot meals in my mind. Some time later on the howl of a wolf rose in the distance. The howl that answered it was a lot closer.

I really didn't get a lot of sleep.

Section 33

I don't think I've ever been so glad to see a dawn before.

Birdsong greeted the brightening of the sky. A mackerel sky glowed pink across the heavens as the world spun to bring high clouds into the light, lower formations still grey shadow. I moved to rub my face and groaned: I was stiff and sore and covered in dew and freezing. There was nothing for me there, so as soon as I could see I started off again, limping and hobbling at first as I forced protesting muscles to just perform the simple act of walking.

When the sun rose high enough for me to get some direct sun, that was pure bliss. In that moment I could see why so many human cultures had worshipped the sun. The warmth, the light, the sheer feeling of relief after the chill and fear of the night, that was something you have to experience to understand. That was also a moment that helped solidify my belief that back-to-nature fanatics are a bunch of blithering cretins who should try experiencing real nature for a while.

I was getting quite enough of it.

For another day I walked. Through bush and scrub, pushing through the tangles of trees and undergrowth that clustered into woods and forests, across broad hillside meadows alive with grass and spectacular wildflowers and darting insects. I saw moose down at the river's edge, cropping placidly at water plants.

And my stomach reminded me it could do with some food.

I found berries of several kinds. Most of them were so bitter when I carefully tested them on my tongue that I had to spit them out. I did find some blueberries that were palatable, but only a small handful. They weren't very filling. Finding more would mean spending time and energy hunting them down. I could spend hours covering just a small area looking. I decided to press on, hoping I'd find more edibles enroute.

As the day went on I moved further downstream. If there'd been a road or a track it'd have been easy going. Pushing through the undergrowth both slowed me down and scratched the hell out of my hide. The only consolation was that if it was that tough for me, it'd be just as hard for my pursuers. Mounted, they couldn't get through that sort of undergrowth and on foot they couldn't keep up the pace I could.

But they probably had food.

I kept going, following that river.

Midday came and went. The sun wasn't as harsh as it'd been the previous day. In fact, I realized the clouds were building up. The wind was blowing in from the east, the patches of blue in the sky growing fewer and fewer as clouds scudded by overhead. Every so often the sun was lost behind cloud, the world suddenly becoming cooler. That wasn't such a concern: I was getting enough exercise to keep me quite warm.

As the hours went by the wind died and when it picked up again it'd changed direction, turning into a brisk and cool westerly. Trees rocked back and forth, their massed movements sounding like surf on a shingle beach. The cloud cover got heavier, turning the day gloomy. It looked like rain might be lurking around, but it was only when I crested a hill that gave me a view that I cursed out loud.

To the west and south the horizons were black with climbing thunderheads.

Perfect.

I tried to make better time, but didn't hold much hope. I didn't know where I was going, so hurrying just meant I was going nowhere faster. I just tried to pick up the pace. More hours and scenery passed while I watched the world change with a sort of resigned fascination. As the clouds built up, churning across the landscape like dark ink in water, the air changed, the wind bringing that scent of rain. Late afternoon light washed over meadows and met the banks of clouds to produce glorious and unnatural colors. Purple haze shrouded the horizon; patches of sun-gold grasses turned incandescent as spears of light reached through gaps in the bruise-colored thunderheads that banked and built, roiling in incredibly slow motion. Not really slow, just on a monumental scale. Slanting columns of darkness connected the clouds to the land, following them along. In those columns and clouds along the horizon were flickers of light. Not regular, but like staccato flashbulbs under the bulk of the growing storm.

It was going to be a bad one.

Sunlight was waxing and waning as clouds built. Gloom was interrupted by sparse moments of golden light as the building storm shifted restlessly, the sun finding fewer and fewer chinks in the overcast. I realized it was going to get dark prematurely that evening as I crossed a meadow, aiming for a dense-looking forest where I might have been able to find some sort of shelter. Then, in the middle of a field, I paused. I thought I'd seen something, to the south against the black of the storm. There was something there: a small orange dot diving and swooping against the oncoming wall of rain and thunder. It looked like... it couldn't be.

I swore it was. That was why I went south.

Section 34

I could hear it. I could smell it.

Thunder rolled across the world like God's own cannonfire. There was the back-of-the-throat tang of ozone underlying everything: the promise of rain.

That little speck or artificial color kept climbing and diving against the clouds. Soaring above the treetops, then spinning wildly and plummeting toward the ground again. There'd be a pause, and it'd do it all over again.

Years ago, when I was about eight years old, I'd built a kite. It'd been a simple red triangle with a stubby little tail, a copied from a picture I'd seen in a children's book. Hopelessly stereotypical and badly proportioned and designed, but I'd built it myself and against all probability it'd flown. Well, it'd flown just like that. Up, then plummet down to the ground again until the one time it'd gotten high enough that the downward plummet had snapped its back. But that was so long ago in another world.

I started running across the open grass, then through a grove of birch trees, dodging between white and black trunks. Overhead, the small leaves were alpha'd against a black sky, rattling in the growing wind. Through them I strained to catch a glimpse of the foreign object bobbing and weaving against the stormclouds. I scratched myself up pretty bad pushing through a thicket out into open again, at the top of a gently sloping meadow.

The kite was rising again, spinning wildly in the gusting wind. Probably because it didn't have a tail, I noted absently. There was a small figure at the other end of the meadow, holding the cable, running back and forth as the orange triangle rose higher against the oncoming blackness, diving and weaving with the gusts of wind.

Lightning marched across the skyline, actual jagged lines of light that left images on my retinas.

"Hai!" I yelled, waving my arms. It was too far, several hundred meters. The kite dove, spiraling against its cord before hitting the ground. The cub ran to collect it and tried again.

"Hey! Hai!" I shouted again, starting to run downhill. "Hey!"

The cub saw me. For a second there was hesitation, then it bolted. Released and forgotten, the kite swooped, then nosedived into the ground where the wind caught it again and sent it pinwheeling erratically toward me. The cub was hightailing it away toward the trees on the far side of the meadow, tail tucked.

"Wait!" I called after him, my voice stolen by the wind. "Please!"

Gone, fled into the trees.

I staggered to a stop. Of course the cub had run. Seeing a hulking, hairless thing charging out of the forest, I'd run too.

The kite skidded past me, gusts of wind tugging it across the grass. The reel bounced past, the unraveling string curling and brushing past my arm. Automatically, I snagged it, catching the spool. It was just a stick, a bit of branch with the string wound around it. And the whole string was made of fragments, bit of all sorts of materials tied together: Twine, leather cords of various kinds, unraveled rope and cloth. I reeled it in, the kite weaving and bobbing in ever tighter circles at the end of its leash until I was able to grab it, discovering it was an equally patchwork affair. A simple diamond made from scraps of orange cloth all carefully glued together. It looked like someone had spent a lot of time on it.

Thunderheads were spilling overhead, backlit by the setting sun. In the deeping gloom lighting strobed amongst the hills, then thunder grumbled. The haze below the clouds marched toward me, but the outriders of the storm were already there. Fat raindrops pattered against dusty ground, against grass and leaves.

I sighed, then set off in the direction the cub had gone.

As the sun set on my second day of freedom, the storm broke.

Section 35

The clouds closed in like a lid dropped over the world. I couldn't see a damn thing.

Rain hammered down out of the darkness in sheet after sheet. It poured off leaves and branches. It gathered in rivulets that merged and turned into small streams crisscrossing the ground. Gusts of wind drove the rain almost horizontally at times, nearly solid walls of water hailing in from the gloom. The indistinct shapes of trees bowed to and fro, shaking with the wind. Every so often a lightning strike would fill the world with a flare of light that froze flash-frames of wind-whipped trees and left afterimages floating in my vision for seconds afterwards. Thunder rumbled with an intensity I could feel.

I groped on through the darkness, slipping on mud and grass that seemed as slick as oil. Water ran in streams through my hair, down my face. That downpour was nothing like some warm spring shower, rather it was a deluge that felt ice cold. I held the kite up before me, not in a futile attempt to stay dry, but just to try and block the barrage of condensing atmosphere droplets the size of peas that came in like bullets out of the dark, bursting across my face and into my eyes. Ground that'd been dusty dry that morning turned to cold viscous ooze that squeezed through my toes. In that storm, in the wind and rain and darkness I could have stumbled past an entire village and missed it completely. Shivering and shaking, I just kept moving in the same direction, the direction the cub had ran.

When I ran into the log blocking my path I first thought it was a fallen tree. When I tried to go around I found it was attached to a post and there was another, then another. They were just rows of crudely cut rails stacked atop one another, but there wasn't much doubt it was a fence. Beyond...I squinted into the teeth of the storm and could make out the shapes of bison materialized from the sleeting rain. A clanking of cattle bells was audible over the noise of wind and rustling trees as the animals shied away from me. A farm. It was a farm. That meant food, warmth, shelter.

With a renewed sense of purpose I followed the fence.

It wasn't too far. I found a corner of the fence and a crude gate. The ground there was churned by milling animal hooves, the rain pooling and turning it to sludge. Through sheets of rain a faint light shone.

There was a farmhouse. A small single-story building and through the cracks in a shuttered window a light glowed: just a small lamp or candle.

Out in the storm I stared at it and dripped and shivered and yearned.

Yes, there'd be food, there'd be shelter, but there'd also be Rris. I turned the sodden fabric of the kite over in my hands. Lightning flashed, rippling across the sky. Suppose the mediators had been here? Suppose they thought they could turn me in? Or, more likely, they'd shoot first and asked questions later. That'd happened before.

So I stared longingly at the light in the window, weighing my choices. No, I'd come too far to risk it.

There was a barn, of sorts. It wasn't much more than a simple shelter with three walls of crooked half-rounds caulked with wattle and daub and a roof of more split logs, but it was a relief just to get out of the driving storm. Inside, it was divided into four stalls. Rain drummed on the roof and dribbled through cracks and holes to patter on the dirt floor. A pair of elk in the right hand stalls grunted and shifted uneasily when I entered, milling and moving away from me. The lefthand-most stall was filled with hay: animal feed or roofing material or something.

A few hours. Just a few hours out of rain and wind, and then I'd move on. That's what I told myself as I laid the kite aside and collapsed onto the hay rick. The straw itched, it jabbed and scratched at my skin, but after what I'd been through I hardly noticed. It was soft, and after I'd half-burrowed into it, it kept the wind off and actually started to feel warm. A flash of lightning lit the sky outside, stripes of light glaring through the cracks between the ill-fitting planks in the walls.

Hiding from the natives. Sleeping in a barn. Huh, I'd been there before. I thought back to those times and while I huddled there the kite was lit in another flash, just for a split second, and that was the last I remember of that night.

Section 36

I'm not sure what woke me. I was vaguely aware of voices and birdsong and bright light but was too tired and sore to really care. There was something important nagging at my consciousness. I was...

Late.

My heart lurched and I started awake, opening eyes to sunlight and the open side of the barn and a small figure staring at me, fur standing on end. I stared back, opened my mouth to say something and another Rris figure stepped in behind the cub. The newcomer was much larger. I saw grey and black stippled fur, a worn leather kilt and rows of dark nipples above that, and a broad face distorting in a snarl as she thrust the cub behind her.

"Get my sword!" she hissed to the cub and in the next split second grabbed for a two-tined pitchfork hanging on the wall of the shed, seizing it in a two-handed grip and lunging at me in a smooth, almost-balletic motion.

I only had time to open my mouth before I realized she was deadly serious. The twin tines were wood, but they were still sharp enough to skewer me and I only just managed to grab at them, my chains clattering as I was able to deflect the prongs into the wooden wall behind me and grab the shaft. "Hey!" I said, shocked at the vehemence of the attack.

She was trying to pull the implement back, hissing furiously.

"Will you..." I was speaking English. "No, please," I changed to Rris. "Please, don't."

She froze, then let go of the pitchfork like it'd become red hot and backpedaled into the morning sunlight. "What?" her eyes were wide and black. "What the suppuration is this?!"

"Apologies," I said, stiffly working myself out of the pile of hay and using the pitchfork as a stick to lever myself up. Muscles creaked. I ached, from my feet upwards. Especially my feet. "I didn't mean to frighten you."

Her mouth moved, as if she were trying different words for size. Nothing seemed to fit.

"I... I, uh," I glanced at the pitchfork, then carefully propped it up against the wall with an assortment of other basic tools and awkwardly dusted my hands. "I was just trying to get out of the storm. I'm not looking for trouble. Oh, and yes: I can talk."

Her fur bristled anew, "What are you?!"

"Just passing through," I said, truthfully enough. I just didn't know exactly where I was passing through. "I'm...Ah, where is this?"

"My farm," she snarled. "Why did you attack him?"

That got me. "What? Whom? I haven't attacked..."

"Rothi," she snarled a gape-toothed hiss. "My son! You chased him!"

The cub? Oh, damn. "Attacked? Ma'am, I was trying to stop him from becoming a scorch mark."

She bristled as if she were going to retort, then caught herself. Her muzzle tipped slightly.

"I saw him flying that... toy," I continued, gestured at the kite, "during a thunderstorm. You've seen what a lightning strike can do to a tall tree? His kite was the tallest tree around. I was trying to warn him. I think he misunderstood." I shrugged, my collar chain rattling. "It's happened before."

There was a brief flicker as her gaze went to the kite, then back to me. I couldn't read the exact expressions crossing her feline countenance, but I could see fear and suspicion and anger and uncertainty.

"I should go," I said and she backpedaled out of the way but otherwise didn't move to stop me as I limped past.

The world looked better that morning. It was still early, with birds still singing their morning chorus. Wisps of stormclouds - merest fragments of the continents that covered the world just a few hours ago - hung in the sky, glowing in the morning light. I looked around the farmyard. It was small, incredibly so, with just a little muddy yard drying in the morning sun and the tiny house and the toolshed excuse for a barn and something that was probably an outhouse. Bison browsed the glistening fields out beyond the house. Thin mist rose from the grass, insubstantial and pale in the still light of morning.

Just a farm. Just a farmer trying to scratch a living.

Halfway across the farmyard my stomach knotted up in a violent cramp, that and my light headedness reminding me of something. Hesitantly, I stopped and turned. I could at least ask... "Ma'am, you wouldn't have any food you could spare? Please?"

Slowly, she cocked her head, studying me as I studied her. She wasn't a large Rris, but she was well built. Stocky. All she was wearing was that slight leather kilt with a functional-looking belt. Her grey fur was dark across her shoulders, lighter down her belly where it vanished behind her belt and was speckled with black. An ear- the left one - had a ragged look to it. It'd been chopped off, losing the tufted tip and about half its length, leaving a scalloped edge. On her thigh, down below the line of the kilt there was a bare patch where the fur didn't grow properly, revealing grayish flesh and the puckered scar of a wound I was quite familiar with. "Who're you running from?" she demanded, her amber eyes fixed on my wrists.

I looked down at the black iron of my shackles. "I'm not sure. They said they were Mediators."

"Mediators?" Her ears went back, flat, and her muzzle wrinkled. "Get out of here, now!"

She looked scared of me again. "Please," I tried to explain, to calm her. "I don't know if they were Mediators."

The farmer hissed. "If they looked like Mediators, they were. Go!"

"Then why did they kidnap me from other Mediators?" I asked. "I was with Mediators in Open Fields. We were attacked and I was abducted."

At that she gave me a peculiar look.

"What are you talking about?"

"I don't know that they were really Mediators."

She snorted. "Nobody sane would impersonate a Mediator."

"Then they were insane, or they were Mediators fighting Mediators," I gestured helplessly. "I don't know what's happening. I'm trying to get back to Open Fields so I can find out."

"You come from Open Fields?" the tone of that was more incredulous than anything.

"I was visiting. A guest of her highness."

There was a reaction to that. She stiffened visibly, muscles tensing and relaxing in a stance I'd seen before. "Ah, then you've seen the palace doors. What kind of wood are they? What's carved on them?"

I smiled tiredly. "They're cast bronze, not wood. And the ceiling of the sky Chamber is tiny lights. And her Highness is twenty years of age, has a patch of light fur on her outer left thigh, and is partial to honeyed quail pasties."

She blinked for a few seconds, then: "What exactly are you? Where'd you come from?"

I had to struggle not to grin, "I could tell you my story, perhaps in exchange for some bread?"

Her eyes narrowed. The cub came pelting back across the farmyard, both hands clasping a wooden scabbard fully three quarters his height. The farmer took it from him and he ducked around behind her. A tail flicked out one side and a fuzzy head peeped around the other to stare at me with huge eyes.

The farmer partially drew the sword, letting the few centimeters of steel that peeked from the sheath gleam in the morning light. I sighed and turned away again.

"A moment," her voice rumbled from behind me. "You're as strong as you look?"

I stopped. "For the most part, yes."

"Huhn," she growled and paused for a bit. Then: "I might have some work for you. That and your story for a meal."

My stomach growled . It wasn't a good deal, but it was the only one I was likely to get. If I kept trying random homesteads, then somewhere someone would take a shot at me. "Deal," I said.

Section 37

The farmer had given me some bread. Not the meal she'd promised me, that would be payment for services rendered. I was to consider it a down-payment. It was a piece of a fresh-baked loaf that resembled a discus: small, with a thick, almost black crust, hard kernels and grit, still warm. I'd devoured it ravenously. When she'd asked how long it'd been since I'd last eaten, I had think for a while to recall when my last full meal had been. The berries and dried meat had barely been mouthfuls. It must've been about four days since I'd eaten properly.

Then all that morning I'd helped her with chores. It was a small farm, a small holding, just a few acres of fields up the hill beyond the house. She was working the land, just herself anf her young son. And she was struggling, even I could see that. It wasn't that there was a lack of land, it was just that by herself and with the cheap, wooden and labor-intensive tools at hand she could barely work what she had. And she couldn't afford to hire help.

So I worked for my food. She was wary, of course, but that was something I was accustomed to. She kept her distance and watched me carefully as she set me to carrying logs out to the back field. When I hefted a whole pine trunk onto my shoulders her expression looked decidedly uncertain, as I might if I were to be confronted with a three-hundred pound gorilla. Rris are strong for their size, but then they aren't really that big. With a bit of effort I was able to manhandle a log she'd have had to struggle to lift on her own. If I hadn't been wearing those shackles, I might have been able to handle two at a time.

Those irons were a problem. They restricted my movement, they got in the way and they were beginning to become painful. When I asked her if she had a hacksaw or something, she professed that she didn’t have any tools that were capable of cutting them, but she said she knew someone who might be able to help. He was supposed to be showing up sometime later that day.

Hell, for all I knew she wanted to turn me in for the reward and was just trying to keep me there until Mediators showed up. But it wasn't as if she could pick a phone and call them. Perhaps I should've just taken off, but there were the facts that I'd given my word, and I also really needed some help. Help to get out of those chains, to get food, clothes and directions. In some respects I'd lucked out: the reception I'd received could've been a lot worse. If I kept going I'd almost certainly run into Rris who's reactions would be a lot less... restrained than her's had been.

So I carted cut and trimmed logs from where they were stacked off on one side of the courtyard out past the house, up the hill past the pasture where bison grazed to where a field of hay was being fenced off. Easier to let the animals roam and enclose the crops. For a couple of hours while the muddy ground steamed and dried and warmed I went back and forth, carrying the four meter long rounds up the hill and trudging back down for another load. The logs were hard pine, still leaking pine gum that adhered to my skin in a tacky film that smelled absurdly like cheap car air freshener and the coarse bark scraped my shoulder. Normally, it wouldn't have been such hard work, but it was made worse by my sore feet, the chains, and my stomach demanding more than the teaser it'd received.

Later in the morning I saw the cub coming back over the hill, headed back from the general direction of the river. He had a couple of dead rabbits and a few fish slung over his shoulder. His mother gave them a cursory inspection before sending him scurrying back down to the farmhouse. I couldn't help staring. Food. Was that going to be lunch?

She didn't miss my look.

When the last of the wood was delivered, I drove stakes. Back home, fences would have been kilometers of wire stapled to posts, but here wire wasn't cheap or available. The fence under construction was mostly interlocking rails stacked one atop another, held in place by pairs of stakes driven into the ground. She'd laid out logs along the path the fence was to take. I worked my way along those logs, hammering vertical stakes in at the junctions where the rails overlapped.

The farmer was busy splitting the wood I'd carried up. Wielding a hammer and awl, she was working her way along the fence line splitting the logs into rails. She'd drive wedges into the log in strategic spots and hammer then in until the wood split lengthwise. At least, she was trying to do that. Quite often she was spitting and snarling oaths at fractured and splintered wood. Once she was wringing her hand and contributing quite nicely to my vocabulary.

And as we worked, we talked. I told her my story. Well, most of it. There were some details I left out, quite a lot of details actually: the exact nature of where I'd come from, the murder accusations in Westwater, the suicide attempt, the exact nature of the work I'd done for Land of Water, my relationships with a couple of females, the times I'd fought and the times I'd had to kill. Even excluding those there was quite enough to tell. More than a few times she paused in her task to blink amber eyes at me in surprise or outright disbelief, but she didn't interrupt.

As the sun climbed the day got hotter and the maul seemed to get heavier. If I'd had clothes I'd have stripped down. As it was, I was streaming sweat and the Rris was panting like a dog. When Rothi, the cub, laboured up the hill with a wooden pitcher of water she took a break to lap water for a long time. She raised her head, water dripping from her chops and watched me for a while, then brought the water over.

"Water?" she offered the bucket to me.

"Thank you," I said, quite sincerely. She watched as I drank deeply, awkwardly, water dribbling down my chin.

"You're... leaking," she observed. She wasn't talking about my sloppy drinking.

"It's hot," I said, wiping sweat away. "I do that instead of panting."

"Huhn," she rumbled, eyeing me dubiously. I handed the water back.

"Thank you, Ma'am," I said.

"Ea'rest," she returned.

"Ma'am?"

"Not 'ma'am', Ea'rest. My name."

"Ah," I waved acknowledgement. "Ea'rest. Thank you," I said again, then ventured: "May I ask, do you have any spare clothing?"

"Huhn, clothing?" she rumbled thoughtfully and leaned on her axe, cocking her head. "So, you're so innocent yet they felt it necessary to shave you?"

"Shave me?" I echoed moronically and automatically touched my beard before I realized what she meant. "Ah, no. They didn't. I mean, I haven't been shaved," I looked down at myself and just made a helpless gesture. "This is normal for me."

She stared, her jaw hanging agape. Then she chittered out loud. For quite a while, her jaw twitching uncontrollably. Eventually she settled but still looked considerably amused as she shifted, slouching a little more on the axe. "Normal?"

"Uh, yes," I said, feeling more than a little embarrassed. "I suppose it's relative."

Her amber eyes blinked and she seemed a little taken aback. "Huhn, if nothing else, you talk educated. And that," she gestured. "Those are your genitals? Something is wrong with them?"

I sighed. "Yes, they are. And, no, nothing wrong. Just different."

"And those marks on your back?"

"No." That was something else I hadn't given specifics about. "Those aren't normal."

She waited for a few seconds, as if waiting for me to continue. Eventually she said, "They look newer than that wound on your shoulder. You said you got that when you... arrived here."

"A."

"Then, who flogged you? Why?"

I sighed. She'd picked up on that even thought it was something I hadn't gone into details about. Those memories were... unpleasant. "I'd been abducted. I made... trouble. They didn't like that."

"A. And your finger?"

She'd noticed. It was healing, but the scar tissue was obviously not old. "Same people, later."

"You didn't mention that." I caught the undertones in that.

"Ma'am...Ea'rest," I wiped sweat away again and squinted at the sun. Shadows were short, the sun a white haze too bright to look at. The golden field of the hay meadow stretched down the hill to the little house, a faint shimmer of heat rising. Insects, pollen, drifting seeds...tiny specks wafted and danced on the warm breeze that for a moment seemed quite chill, smelling of coal dust. "I've seen quite a lot. Much of it... inconsequential. Some of it... there are things I would rather not remember."

Ea'rest ruffled her furry chest, panting steadily as she regarded me. A tufted ear flicked as a fly buzzed it. "Huhn, that's an echo," she said thoughtfully. "Hai, very well."

And then she untied her belt and tossed her kilt over to me. I awkwardly snatched it, my chains clanking.

"Too hot anyway," she yawned, scratched, then took up her axe and went back to work.

I stood there stupidly, the leather and rope article dangling from my hand. "Thank you," I said belatedly, then awkwardly wrapped it around my waist. No buckle, just a knot through a leather strip. And it was too small. And it's incredible how just a small piece of clothing can help you feel like a normal human being again.

Section 38

Lunch was just after midday.

Ea'rest called the break and I laid my tools aside and followed her through the waves of grass down to the farm house. It was a small, built and used by people who spent most of their time outside and just needed a roof to sleep and shelter under. The walls were half-round logs, the roof split squares from some ancient trunk. From the eaves hung odds and ends: broken wooden tools, stocks for bison, buckets and a broken wagon wheel. A couple of pieces of rusty iron clanked gently in the breeze. Out front, in the shade of a rickety porch roof, there was a trio of three-legged stools, none of which looked sturdy enough to take my weight. So I just sat on the ground and leaned back against the wall, enjoying the shade after the heat.

Sun beat down, burning away the last of the puddles out in the yard. The air smelled of fading water, of hot dust and hay, of animals and wilderness and weather-bleached wood. Overhead the sky was a bottomless blue, the hidden sun washing out the zenith with a white glare that spilled past the silhouette of the roof. Drifting seeds glowed in the light. Cicadas rasped in the wilderness. Birds sang. The fact that I was a fugitive was almost forgotten.

And lunch was a surprise. I'd been expecting rabbit or fish. Instead Ea'rest produced strings of sausage and a pie that she can't possible have just had sitting in the fridge.

"I made it this morning," she explained, looking a little taken aback. As if she were explaining the obvious to an idiot. "Rothi set it cooking earlier."

"You were expecting me?"

She laughed at that. "Expecting company, yes. You picked a good day to show."

And if I'd been expecting bland subsistence, I was surprised again. It was damned good. The sausage was fresh and spicy; the pie packed with meat that tasted like smoked venison, but marinated in something that did glorious things to my tastebuds, yams, mushrooms, apple and a crust that was as good as the bread had been tough.

The Rris were watching me with expressions that verged somewhere between statlement and amusement.

"Oh," I looked at the piece I was holding. My second. I was hardly aware of the first touching the sides. "I'm sorry."

Ea'rest motioned a shrug. "You said you were hungry. I didn't know it was that serious."

I smiled sheepishly. "It has been a while. And this is very good."

Rothi looked from her to me, his own jaws champing industriously. "She makes the best pies," he pronounced through a spray of crumbs.

I nodded, "He's right, you know."

She looked taken aback, then amused. "Huhn, thank you."

"She learned in the west," Rothi said brightly. "Why do you eat so strangely?"

Ah... "I'm slightly different. My mouth is a different shape. Hadn't you noticed?"

"Then that's why you sound strange?" He cocked his head, ears pricked.

"Rothi!" Ea'rest cautioned.

"I'm used to it," I smiled carefully. "It's something I get a lot of."

"Why?" Rothi asked, oblivious to his mother's warning.

"Because a lot of the people like you I meet say the same thing."

"And why don't you have fur?"

"You always ask this many questions?"

"Yah," he smirked.

"I've got one for you: why were you flying your toy in the storm?"

His ears flagged at that, and he scratched at the dust with toe claws. "It keeps falling out of the sky. I thought more wind would make it stay up."

I had to stifle a grin. "Good theory. But a suggestion: try putting a tail on it."

"A tail?" There was bemusement there. "Like this?" He flicked his furry tufted limb around.

"Ah, sort of," I conceded. "Your toy, it spins and hits the ground? A tail will help stop it spinning."

Now his ears were pricked up. "Show me!"

"Perhaps later. After I've finished helping your mother... if it's all right by her."

"Mother?" Rothi turned to her, looking imploringly.

And Ea'rest had been watching the exchange with her ears flagging a sort of bewildered amusement. "A," she said, "Later, Rothi.. After your chores there'll be time. Why don't you go fetch water now."

"Saaa," he hissed.

"Rothi..." she cautioned.

"Saaa," he hissed again and bobbed his head from side to side. "Alright, but later it can show me?"

"We'll wait till then."

"A," he piped cheerfully, as if she'd given him an empahtic 'yes', and then took off in a blur of motion.

"You know about that toy?" Ea'rest asked after a pause. I noticed there was something about that pause.

"A," I waved a yes. "I played with the like when I was a child."

"Huhn," she rumbled and her amber eyes watched me. In a human I could have seen something in those eyes. Well, not in the eyes. The human face has dozens of muscles, a huge number of which are only good for changing the counters of the facial features into thousands of different configurations. And the human brain has a considerable percentage of its processing capacity dedicated to interpreting those contours. What we call expressions.

Rris have fewer facial muscles and therefore a more limited repertoire of facial expressions, but they combine what they have with movements of ears and body language, so there's no loss of expression. The problem is that none of those expressions fit into the templates hard-wired into my brain. I can't instinctively read their expressions, especially not subtle ones. It becomes an intellectual process, not an emotional one, so it's very easy to miss subtle clues. And the fact that they're lacking so many of those muscles around their orbital sockets can mean that those eyes can seem disturbingly inscrutable.

Looking at that alien female then I could tell she was thinking something, but beyond that... the waters were murky.

"So, how long have you been here?" I asked.

"Been here?" she seemed a bit taken aback at that. "What makes you think I've been elsewhere?"

"Ah, your sword. That... I don't think is standard farm equipment. And you seem to know more about her highness and the palace than I'd expect of a farmer way out here. And as for farming... I'm sorry, but I saw you trying to split those logs. You need a bit more practice. Oh, and Rothi said you'd learned to make these," I gestured with the remnants of my pie, "in the West."

Those eyes watched me again.

"Or..." I said quickly, "I'm probably completely wrong. And why should it be any of my business?"

Ea'rest snorted, then actually chittered, "You are a peculiarity, aren't you. No, you're right: This is a change for me."

'There was a reason?"

Again she regarded me, then cocked her head as if coming to a decision. "A. I was military, if you must know. Open Fields guard, attached to the palace. There were times while standing post in the pouring rain or freezing snow and mud or when you're trying to keep a sword from your gut that the life of a farmer looked very appealing."

"Nice and boring," I suggested.

"A," she smiled slightly, seeing something in her own head. "I was brought up around here. I thought it would be a good place to settle." She sighed again and scratched an ear, looking around the yard. "I think perhaps it had more appeal from the other side. From here it, after a while, it seems so...small."

"You could try something else," I suggested.

She snorted. I couldn't tell if that was disgust or something else. "I've been a soldier all my life. I can fight, that's about it."

I waved my hand in a shrug and offered, "You can cook. Very well."

Another snort. "So perhaps I can become a cook for some high born milk cub."

"Ma'am, you can cook very well. Believe me: my sense of taste is better than a Rris'. You don't have to work for someone else. Run your own business. Sell food."

She blinked. "Sell food? Is being a butcher or a fishmonger such a step up?"

I took another mouthful, my chains rattling as I moved my arm, and chewed thoughtfully. "Doesn't have to be that. Something like an... innkeeper? Meet people, travelers." I shrugged and added, "Could be more than just an innkeeper."

"A?" her expression was dubious but also curious.

"Depends what you do," I elaborated. It felt a little like back home, walking a client through a proposed campaign. "Offer service others don't. Fast, clean good food. Friendly service. Make sure people know about it. If people don't know about something, they can't buy it now, can they?"

"A? How?"

"Any way you can," I said, starting to think back to old skills I hadn't used for a long time. "Use imagination. Attract peoples' attention. Criers, bills and placards, posters. Give your business an identity, a feel or a look that people can recognize. As your business grows, you can expand to other areas, other towns. When people travel they'll see a familiar establishment where they can get familiar service, food. If the service is popular enough, you could charge individuals for the right to run a branch office. I think you..."

The farmer was staring at me, her jaw hanging open a bit and her expression most peculiar. I realized I'd been going off a little strong. "I think it could be quite successful," I finished a little lamely.

There was a little chuff of air from her, a nervous chitter. "You sound as if you've thought about it," she said eventually.

"I apologize," I said. "I didn't mean to be so... they are new ideas."

"A," she said, her ears still flagging uncertainty. "Surprisingly so. Where did you learn of them?"

"I had experience with people who worked with such," I said.

"Huhn," she gave a thoughtful rumble. "You never did say exactly where you came from."

"No." I couldn’t deny that.

"You've lied to me?"

"No! Ma'am...Ea'rest, no. I haven't lied."

"Then why won't you say?"

I sighed. "There are things I haven't told you because... quite frankly they would just lead you to more questions."

"Like your scars? Or are they just things you don't think I should know?"

"I... I'm sorry, but someone is pursuing me and I have to say I honestly haven’t got the faintest idea why. It might... it might be because of what I am or information I posses, I don't know. But the more I tell you, the more likely you could be implicated. I don't want that.”

She looked uncertain.

"Please," I tried again, "I've involved people who didn't deserve what happened to them before. I don't want to do that again." I looked down at the iron manacles around my wrist, horribly aware of how flimsy my reassurances must seem. I'd come into her life as an obvious fugitive, admitting I was running from what might have been the law.

"I'm not lying to you," I said and then hesitated, looking out at the bright world. "But I can't prove it. I can't prove any of it. And I can't ask you to trust me, I know that. After all I'm... you're Rris and I'm... not."

"Huhn," her muzzle turned to also gaze out over the farm, at the little sun-dried hillside and the rutted track wending down to the trees. Then she snorted. "The most unbelievable thing about your story is that I believe it."

"You do?"

"I think if you were lying you could have come up with a story that was less... incredible," she smiled a little, still not looking at me. Meadowlarks swooped and dove over the fields, chasing the insects swirling in the afternoon heat. After a while she added, "And I don’t think a desperate criminal would be so considerate as to ask for food when he’s got the opportunity to just take it. Still, an odd story from such an odd guest is fitting."

I smiled carefully and she stared away down the hillside for a bit longer before saying, "You'll be bound for Open Fields now?"

"A."

"How?"

I didn't know. Walking, I supposed.

"And you know the way?" she asked.

I had a vague idea.

She closed her eyes and I saw rather than heard her jaw spasm as she chattered quietly. "South," she echoed. "Just, 'south'. Bald one, on foot that's three days at best; if you know the way."

I waved affirmative. "I have... little choice."

She rumbled thoughtfully again. "Perhaps... Look, if you are willing to finish what you started today; to do a bit more work, I can offer you another meal and a roof for tonight and ...possibly another choice."

Section 39

Throughout that hot afternoon I dug more holes and drove more stakes. It was a pretty mindless job that I just methodically worked my way through. Following the zig-zag of stones that Ea'rest had laid down the field, digging a hole and then driving a post, one after another. It gave me time to think, to try and figure out just where the hell I was going next. Open Fields. I knew that. I was also realizing that the individuals after me would know that, after all there weren't many other choices. So, I had to try and formulate some sort of plan. I almost felt disappointed when I drove a stake and found I'd reached the end of the line. But there was still wood to chop; quite a pile of it.

Ea'rest had looked a little uneasy as she unwrapped an axe from an oilcloth. It was obviously a valuable possession, but I couldn't help wondering if she was concerned for the safety of the tool or by the fact she was giving a sharp implement to me. Whatever, she handed it over. I looked it over: it was pretty old and worn, but well honed. And like the one I'd used a long time ago in Westwater it was built for Rris so it felt a little lightweight for me, but I assured her I knew how to use it. She showed me the and she left me to it, although not without a few glances over her shoulder.

The wood wasn't in convenient rounds neatly trimmed by saw; it was just a pile of logs and branches that'd been picked up, dragged or cut by axe but weren't any size that could be put into a stove or fireplace. Some of them I was able to break into manageable lengths, others I had to axe. That was frustrating work; the chains of my shackles got in the way. What's more I knew a chainsaw or just a good ripsaw would be able to go through the firewood like butter, but of course there wasn't anything like that available so I had to do it the hard way.

So I chopped and cut and snapped wood while the day went on. The axe was sharp and effective at splitting the soft woods and the clean pine, but the knottier pieces and hardwoods were tough going. I kept at it, sweating furiously and knocking water back by the litre. Working away at the daunting pile of raw timber and carting armloads of cut firewood across to the house to stack under the eaves. The dusty ground covered with chips and splinters, the hot air filled with the smells of the wood: pine and oak and cedar.

About five o'clock, by my inexpert judging of the sun. I was carrying a double armload of wood back to the house and rounded the corner to find myself face to face with shaggy mountains of hair: a team of bison. Behind them... I looked past them to the wagon they were drawing and the shocked Rris sitting on the board there and I stopped on the spot.

They'd found me, that was the first thought that hit me like a bucket of cold water. But the Rris wasn't dressed like a Mediator, that was the next thing I notice. At about the same moment the Rris snatched and brought up a crossbow and for the second time in my life I was staring at a wavering loaded crossbow with a frightened Rris face behind it.

I froze, absolutely motionless with the armload of wood stacked up to my chin. My body remembered the results of last time in a twitching through the knot in my shoulder. I licked my lips and as calmly as I could said, "Please, don't. I'm not dangerous."

It was the Rris's turn to freeze. "What?" He squeaked after a few seconds.

"I said, please don't shoot me. I'm not dangerous," I repeated. I could feel my heart hammering.

Those eyes widened, then narrowed and the head tipped but the bow didn't waver. "You...What the mange are you!? What are you doing?"

"My name is Michael. I'm getting firewood."

There was a flash of fangs and he shook his head quickly: a sign of annoyance. "Where's Ea'rest?! Rothi?! What've you done..."

"Uh, excuse me," I ventured and he cut off in mid tirade, glaring. It was better than shooting. "Ea'rest is in the back field," I said. "And Rothi... is there."

Rothi had rounded the other side of the farmhouse and stopped. I saw him take in the tableau and his ears go flat. "Heksi!" he yelped, scampering forward. "Don't!"

"Rothi?" The newcomer blinked and the end of the crossbow swayed aside a bit, then came back. I stayed motionless. "Are you all right? Ea'rest? Where is she?"

"She was up back," the cub said, jerking a thumb that way. "I saw you come and told her. She's coming. Why're you pointing that at Mikah?"

"Mikah?" There was confusion now. "You mean this..."

"Heksi!" A voice yowled from behind me and second later Ea'rest belted up alongside, panting heavily. "Heksi, no! Shave you! Put that down! He's not dangerous."

"Not..." The tip of the crossbow and the quarrel nestled in the groove drooped along with the ears. "What is that thing?"

"This thing," Ea'rest actually laid a hand on my bare shoulder, "is Mikah. He was helping with some jobs around the place. I wish I could have given you some more warning, but he seems docile enough."

Heksi snorted something but lowered the bow, regarded me for a bit and then laid the bow aside. A male, I saw when he hopped down. The visitor Ea'rest had been expecting, was he a suitor? He looked young, or younger than her. Stocky, well built, like she was, with tan and grey fur, peppered with white and black. A basic satchel was slung over a shoulder and a simple front and back panel kilt was wrapped around his waist. He favored me with a calculating stare before going to lead the bison off to the water trough. Ea'rest's hand was still on my shoulder and she was also looking at me. "You're shaking."

I shrugged her off and went to finish what I'd started out to do. The wood fell onto the stack with a clatter and I rubbed my arms. I'd been holding the logs for long enough that the bark had left webs of red marks across my skin. It took a minute or so to stack them away neatly.

Ea'rest was in conversation with Heksi. Rothi scurried up with his kite, excitedly jumping up and down and interrupting. Heksi crouched to ruffle his cheek tufts and then examined the toy with him, turning it over in his furry digits. Ea'rest was chittering amusement. It looked as if they were enjoying themselves. When I headed back across the yard Heksi glanced up and his ears went back, then laid flat. Without the stack of timber in my arms the black shackles were clearly visible and it was those his eyes were locked on. "Ea'rest," he said quietly. "It's in chains."

"I know," she said and her ears flicked back. "Actually, I was thinking you might be able to help with that. You've got tools... you can get them off?"

I blinked. I'd never expected that and apparently, neither had he. He looked at her as if she'd gone mad. "What? Rot you, Ea'rest. You aided it and now you're looking for an accomplice?! I mean, if it's in chains then its probably dangerous. Who'd it escape from? A menagerie?"

"He said they looked like Mediators," Ea'rest said.

Heksi's jaws gaped like a goldfish and when he turned back to me his expression ... it was horror. "Mediators?" It came out as a squeak and spun back to her, his hands spread. "You want to get Mediators nipping at our tails?!"

"Please," I ventured and they both looked at me, "Ea'rest, I don't mean to cause problems for you. I should just leave now."

"No," she said and her tail lashed. "Mikah, I said I would offer you recompense for your work. I may not have much, but I will honor my word."

I hesitated. I had a feeling that she was trying to stall me for some reason. Why? Had she called the authorities? How? If she had, why had this Heksi shown up instead of a contingent of armed Mediators? And she'd already had more than enough chances to harm me. So unless she was trying to lull me and turn me over utterly unharmed and unsuspecting... I'd cross that bridge when I came to it. For now there was a chance of some help.

I nodded. "There's still plenty to do," I said and went back to work.

Section 40

The setting sun painted the sky in pastel. Along the sunward distant horizon a wall of clouds climbed against the blue sky, brilliant orange sunlight peeking through cracks. To the west the cumulous banked along the skyline glowed with an intensity that made them seem solid, like snowy peaks burning pink and gold. Beneath them, on the face of the world, shadows in the valleys and beneath the trees crawled and merged spreading grew. On the northern slopes of the hill where Ea'rest's little homestead was perched the fields colored amber, then red, faded to dull flat light as the last of the sun subsided over the horizon.

I lowered the axe head amongst the piles of wood chips and rested on the haft. I could feel trickles of perspiration, the sweat chill in the cooling evening air as it ran down my skin leaving pale marks. The wood pile was greatly diminished, but there was still more to go. It wasn't dark yet, just a grayish twilight, but that wasn't going to last long.

"Enough, I think," a Rris said.

I looked around at Ea'rest. She was standing behind me regarding the diminished wood pile. When she looked at me her ears flicked back, just momentarily. "That's... impressive work."

"Thank you," I said.

"I think you've earned that meal," Ea'rest said and was quiet for a few seconds. Her tail lashed, the tufted tip sweeping the ground.

"I've talked with Heksi," she eventually said. "He's calmed down. I think you were a bit of a shock to him."

"That tends to happen," I said.

"A lot?"

I shrugged, humanly: an automatic gesture she wouldn't understand. "Your reaction and his are not... uncommon."

"Huhn," her ears tipped back and she wrapped arms around herself, hooking a hand over each shoulder.

"But your willingness to give me a chance, that is," I added. "The last time something like this happened, I got this," I touched the knot of scar tissue on my shoulder. "By comparison your's was quite a warm welcome."

She chittered, then caught at her jaw, stroking the tufted fur there. "You're serious?"

I smiled, keeping my mouth closed. "A."

"Gah," she coughed and snapped her jaws shut. "One of those details you neglected to mention?"

"A," I said again.

"Huhn. Well, perhaps you can regale us with a few of those details over dinner. Food will be ready soon. You must be hungry."

"You're starting to look good," I said and then at the expression on her face hastily added, "That was a joke. Not a very good one. Sorry. Ummm." I looked down, at pale streaks through the grime. "I should probably wash: I'm not very pleasant dinner company at the moment. Do you mind?"

"Wash?" Now she seemed taken aback at that.

"Yes, wash. I do that," I said gently. "The river, it's over there?"

She squinted at me, then waved an affirmative. "A, just over the hill. There's a trail by the oak. Over there."

"Thank you," I said and started off in that direction before I remembered, halted, turned back and handed the axe over to her. She took it and automatically ran a leathery black thumb-pad along the cutting edge, then glanced up at me, "How long will you be?"

"Shouldn't be long," I replied and she just waved an acknowledgement and watched me head off.

It wasn't until later I realized she was probably wondering if I was coming back at all.

Section 41

Sure enough there was a path by the old oak. It lead off past an eroded bank matted with twisting roots from the tree above, down a hillside of wild grass motionless in the still evening air. It jinked through a stand of poplars where midges buzzed at my face in the growing shadows beneath the trees before reaching the riverbank. There was a little cove down there, an eddy in the riverbend where the water lapped at a sandy shore.

In the twilight the river water was black. I left the kilt Ea'rest had loaned me on the shore and gingerly waded in. The shallows were still warm, the deeps out where the current flowed cool like the night air. I waded into the shallows to gingerly wash.

I was filthy, bruised, sunburned, scratched and nicked in countless places where branches had caught me, itching from insect bites. My feet ached. Walking barefoot over stones and sticks had been like taking a tenderizer to them and dropping a log onto them hadn't helped. Sitting in the still-warm shallows I twisted my right foot around to inspect it and winced. The soles were actually black and blue in places. Not bleeding, thank god. Infection would be a nightmare. Perhaps I could beg some cloth from somewhere to wrap them in. Not the same as a good pair of shoes, but that'd stop stones digging it. Maybe. I gingerly stood again and waded deeper.

At least the grime and sweat washed away.

For a while I let the river bouy me up and just floated in the warm night, listening to the chorus of night insects gathering as the sky darkened and the stars winked into existence. One instance there was nothing, then a barely perceptible glimmer became an uncountable spread of points of light. And the harder you looked, the more there were. Nabula after constellation after cluster leading into infinity.

If it was infinity, was home out there somewhere? By definition it'd have to be I mused tiredly and splashed water. Ripples spread out, distorting reflected stars. I stared at the water for a while before I realized what I was looking at: The stars were out. I could see the milky way spilled across the black sky. Down the valley a three quarter moon was reflected in the dark water.

Damn.

There was enough light from the moon and stars to find the kilt on the beach. Finding the trail under the trees though, that wasn't as easy. I followed what I thought was the trail and after a few meters blundered into bracken and bushes and branches.

"Shit."

"Mikah?"

I jumped wildly, turning toward the sound and frantically trying to see something in the gloom. "Who? Who's that?"

"Mikah?" the voice said again, sounding puzzled. "What? It's me."

There was a shape there, a vaguely feline silhouette just visible against the lighter gaps in the trees. The voice didn't offer any clues: I have difficulties telling individual Rris apart when I can see them, their voices are more difficult still. But I could guess. "Ea'rest?" I ventured, knowing that if it wasn't I could be dropping her in it.

"A. You... can't tell?" There was a rustle of movement. "What's wrong?"

"I can't see," I said. "It's dark. I don't see very well."

Another pause. "I wondered why you were crashing around in the bushes."

I don't know if she could see the heat rising in my face. "I... uh...mislaid the trail."

There was a pause and I got an impression of movement, like something was passing near my face. I flinched slightly but nothing happened save that she said, "You really can't see, can you?"

I shrugged. "I meant to get back earlier. I left it a bit late."

There was a low sound, a hiss, then her voice growled, "All right. Come on, I'll show you. Before you stumble across a bear or somesuch."

Well, I'd been close. She led me a few bumbling metres through the blackness and the going got easier, then we were out onto a hillside lit by anemic light from the moon and stars. I could see Ea'rest now, her eyes glittering in the night. "Thank you," I said and fought down a wry smile, "again."

"Huhn," she snorted. "I'd wondered why you were traveling at day. It didn't seem the most sensible."

"Not much choice," I said, trying to be careful where I put my tender feet. "Why did you come after me?"

"Rothi was getting concerned," she said, then chattered. "He's worried that you might have run off without showing him how to fix his toy."

"Oh," I said, a bit taken aback. I hadn't thought of that. "Oh, yes. I did promise, didn't I."

"You hadn't forgotten such a monumental event, had you?" she chided me. "You know, he actually seems to like you."

"A real surprise," I said.

I the moonlight I saw the silhouette of her ears lay back. "I didn't mean... Actually, it is. He seems a good judge of character." She coughed and for a few seconds I could hear our feet brushing against grass and then she said, "I met a male, a while ago now. Before... Haii, from the start Rothi took a dislike to him. It seemed he had... unpleasant tastes."

I recognized thin ice when I saw it. "Oh."

She shook her head and I saw her eyes flash as she glanced at me. "Yet he likes you. I suppose, if a Rris can be a monster then a mons..." She trailed off and her ears flicked back again.

"I'll take that in the spirit it was intended," I said as we passed by the shadow of the old oak, heading for the glimmer of light in the little farmhouse.

Section 42

That evening I got a good insight as to why farmers have a reputation for enjoying their food. I was hungry enough to eat an elk. In fact, I probably was. The stew wasn't fancy, but it was thick, rich and filling.

Bugs batted against a small sputtering oil lantern hanging from a stud in the porch roof. I sat in the feeble pool of light it cast at one end of the rough planks and hungrily spooned stew from the wooden bowl. Further along the porch there was a lanky Rris cub engrossed with a patchwork kite, fastening a tail that was a ratty bit of string and scraps of cloth. Heksi sat beside him, offering the occasional snippet of advice. In the background Ea'rest was sitting lounging against one of the porch posts, idly picking glistening teeth with a bit of straw.

"Why?" Heksi was asking me. "That's....They'll be looking. And you don't exactly blend in."

"I don't really have anywhere else to go," I said. "That's where my friends were and it's the best chance I've got to find out what's going on."

"You're sure they'll be able to help?"

"They're emissaries from Land-of-Water. Surely that means something."

Both the adults blinked at me. "I doubt they'd be impressed," Ea'rest said.

Now I was a little confused. "But, they're guests of the government."

"A?" She cocked her head. "So?"

"But... but..." I tried again. "Mediators, they're like guards?"

She and Heksi exchanged glances again. "I suppose so," she conceded.

"Then they're answerable to the Palace," I said and got nothing but puzzled expressions. "Aren't they?"

Heksi waved a shrug. "I've seen a Mediator commandeer garrison troops and face down a lord."

"We always had to yield to Guild decisions," Ea'rest said, turning her muzzle up to the moon as she thoughtfully worried at an incisor. "There was an agreement. I think... it was a long time ago. Huhn, the... Reichis Charter. That was it. It gave the Mediator Guild rank over independent governments."

I heard myself say, "What?"

Still stargazing she mused, "I don't know the details. But they don't have to roll to government edicts or fear their proclamations."

That couldn't be right, I remember thinking over and over. It couldn't! It'd mean... Oh, god, I didn't want to think about that.

But it'd explain how Shyia was able to take me from a Royal escort. How they were able to get me out of town. Had anybody ever mentioned anything about Mediators' powers? I had a nagging feeling Chihirae had, a long time ago, but I couldn't recall any details.

And neither could Ea'rest. All she could do was wave a shrug. "All I know is we did what they told us. The details of the Charter, I think you'd need a savant to tell you that."

"Oh."

"This affects your plans?"

I nodded, turning the empty bowl around and around, the links of the shackles clanking slightly as they moved. "A. Doesn't change them though."

"You could stay here," Rothi chimed up.

The adults' ears twitched back and they both looked at me. I had to try and stifle a grin. "That might not be a good idea. Someone would hear about it, then Mediators would come. I would just get you in trouble, a?"

"Sah, Mother," he gave her an imploring look.

"He's right," she said, her ears coming up. "A pity. He would be useful around the farm, but he's a bit too noticeable."

"But we could..."

"Rothi, no," she said in final tones. I tried not to look too amused.

"Hai," He acknowledged, turning the kite over, his ears drooping.

"Indeed," she chittered and lazily stretched out a foot to affectionately ruffle the fur of his arm. "Don't look like that. He's doing what he wants to do. You should be pleased for him."

Rothi looked confused.

"Don't worry," she sighed and cuffed him lightly on the arm, reaching to smooth the fur after. "But he has to go. Heksi, you're willing?"

"You seem to think it's worth doing, so a," he said.

I looked from one furry face to the other. "I'm missing something here?" I asked

"Taking you to Open Fields," the male said. "She asked," he hissed softly and cast her a look. "I agreed."

"That's..." I hadn't been expecting that. "That's too generous. I can't ask you to do that."

She hissed and gave a chitter. He looked slightly abashed. "Ah... It's not that... It's market day, two days from now. I've got goods to sell there so I'm heading there as a matter of course. She seems to think I should take you along."

"He can get you there," Ea'rest said. "And he's got tools to get those things off."

I fingered the heavy shackle around my left wrist. It was where I used to wear my watch, before that became too much of a technological treasure to flaunt openly, but the iron bands and chains were tight, heavy and rubbing me raw. I was getting really tired of them. "You can do that?"

"I've got tools that should do it."

"Thank you," I said. "I'm afraid that's all I can do at the moment. If I could pay you... but I seem to have left my purse in my other pants."

They found that a bit amusing.

Section 43

True to her word, I had a roof over my head that night. The barn roof.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Sleeping in the same building with an unknown such as myself might have stretched even her charity so they'd let sleep out in the barn. I'd seen the door close, the feeble light in a window die without fuss. I'd have been willing to bet the door was securely locked. At least they'd given me a blanket. It was threadbare and smelt like wet dog, but it was a warm, still night, so things weren't that bad.

I lay there on the straw, listening to the sounds of the elks shifting restlessly in their stalls. A few days ago I'd been sleeping in satin and fine cotton and now... On the other hand, two nights ago I'd been sleeping on the bare ground and now at least I had a blanket. The shelter was absolutely black, but through the door the stars in the night sky were a paler wash in the darkness. I watched stars twinkling, the faint wash of galaxies like ghosts in my vision, the serried ranks of pines and evergreens with their spiky crowns silhouetted against the sky glow. And I lay there and worried.

Why were they helping me? Were they planning on turning me over to the authorities? Was there a reward and they just wanted to be sure they collected on it? Or was she concerned that if she turned me away I'd seek revenge? When she'd found me in the darkness at the river, had she been watching me? Why? Or... or was it as she'd said and she was genuinely trying to help. And that just took me back to: why?

Straws rustled and scratched and poked at me as I rolled over and pulled the blanket up. Paranoia kept spinning the same thoughts around in my head for what seemed the longest time, but eventually I must've dropped off.

And woke from a nightmare at some ungodly hour.

Waking in the dark, twisting away from the shadows in my head with a half-heard cry still ringing in my ears, breathing hard. The animals were making weird barking noises that didn't sound like anything that should be coming from Bambi's cousin, bumping against the sides of their flimsy stalls, distressed.

"I know how you feel," I muttered. It'd been a... it'd been a bad one. The one I'd had the other night hadn't been a one off. They were starting again, those nights of... of Rris; of horrors that'd happened and replayed over and over. Since things had quietened down, so had my nights. I no longer woke the house with my screaming and I'd been hoping I'd seen the last of them. Now, it looked like I hadn't.

Outside, in the quiet night, a cicada started rasping. The animals in the stalls quietened down again. I listened to the night sounds slowly starting up as my own pulse settled. No other sounds, no outcry from the house. At least I hadn't woken them.

Section 44

"You had a noisy night," she said.

I turned, squinting into the bright morning sun rising above the hills to the east. Final beads of dew glittered on the hillside, burning away in a faint mist that gathered in hollows and valleys. The morning air was still cool, but there was the feeling that promised another hot day. Heksi was occupied, hitching his wagon up to the ruminating bison, checking cinches and straps. Beside me, a fur-clad Ea'rest scratched herself and yawned widely, showing sharp white teeth in a pink maw.

"Oh," I said. "I hope I didn't disturb you."

"I think you woke half the valley," she replied. "What was it?"

"A bad dream."

"You dream?"

"Yes, I dream." It wasn't the first time I'd been asked that.

"Huhn, it sounded... unpleasant."

"It was."

"One of those times you were reluctant to talk about?" She asked and watched me not answering, delicately scratching at her chin with a thumb claw. "Ah, I've known people who walked ... risky paths. Some of them, they suffered from similar afflictions. But they were normal people... I mean, they were people... Rris." She coughed and flicked an ear. "I didn't mean it to sound... "

"It did," I said, "but don't worry about it."

She chittered briefly but looked uncertain. I had to wonder exactly what sort of business she'd been in that associates had had experiences that left marks like that. What did she think I'd done to have nightmares?

I sighed and raked hair back from my eyes. "Ma'am... Ear'rest, you've done so much for me and I'm more grateful than I can tell you, but some of my problems I think only I can deal with."

"A," she said and hesitated a second before gesturing assent. "I can only wish you the best."

"Thank you. I wish I could repay you," I said and just waved my hand helplessly. "You know, I was serious about your cooking. If you ever think about going into the food business, it could be worth it."

She chittered and I shrugged. "Hey, if you're ever in Shattered Water, you look me up."

"Look you..."

"I mean, visit me," I amended. "I'm not too difficult to find. Just ask after me."

"People know you?"

"I sort of stand out," I smiled, carefully. Then reality caught up. "Ma'am, if you do go there and I'm not around... for whatever reason, find Chaeitch ah Ties. He works for aesh Smither. Tell him... tell him he still owes me for the Swampy River bottle."

"That means something?"

"He'll understand," I said. "He can certainly help you."

"But I just have to jaunt off to Shattered Water?"

"Ummm, if I can, I'll do everything I can to make sure someone can do something to repay you for your troubles. If I can."

"I understand," she said and looked over at where Heksi was standing, waiting uncertainly. "Best of luck."

"Uhn," I ventured, glanced down and patted the kilt. "You're going to want this back?"

She chittered. "Keep it for now. Heksi will be able to find something he can loan you."

"Thanks."

And as the wagon rattled and jolted its way down the rutted track from the little farm I looked back up the hill at the shaggy figure watching us. For a second there was a flashback to a time when I'd watched a winterbound village receding into the whiteness behind another wagon. This time there was no snow, no cold, but nevertheless...

"Déjà vu," I sighed.

"Sa?" Heksi glanced around. "What was that?"

"Just thinking aloud."

"Ah," he sounded a little uncertain.

Silence for a while. The bison plodded stolidly along; the cart rattled; an ungreased axle squeaked like a live thing. I jounced around in the back of the wagon, trying to find some way to sit that didn't conduct every bump in the road directly to my butt. So I was able to see the red dot that lifted into the morning sky, tugging on an invisible line.

"It works," I laughed and when Heksi looked around I pointed. "The flying toy," I said. "It seems he got it working."

"Ah?" he twisted around the bench and squinted, tilting his head from side to side. "Where?"

"Right the..." I started to say. "Uh, oh. I guess you might have trouble seeing it. I seem to be able to see further than normal people."

"Really," he growled, his ears laying back.

"Really," I said. "I... never mind. Any way, it's flying. You helped him make that?"

"No," he said, unblinking amber eyes staring at me. Then he snorted and turned back to the road. "No, he did it by himself."

I blinked. "All of it? By himself?"

"He heard about a flying toy in Seas-of-Grass and wanted to build one. The storyteller wasn't able to provide many details."

"That's quite... remarkable," I said. And it was, when you consider that he didn't have a net or a handy library for reference.

"A," he said again and I heard him hiss softly before saying. "As is your story. How much of that is true?"

Ah. That was it. "I haven't lied to you," I said. "As I told Ea'rest, there are some details that I haven't told you: they're too inconsequential, unpleasant or they could cause problems for you. But I haven't lied."

His tail lashed. "I keep thinking that one of those details could cause problems."

"You're not happy about this," I said. "Why're you doing it?"

I saw his head half turn, profiling his muzzle against the morning sun. I couldn't see his expression. "Because she asked me to."

"You must respect her opinion."

"She said she... she believed you. She said you knew some thing that ... weren't common knowledge about her highness." I saw his hand wave a shrug. "And you most likely saved Rothi's life. She thought that if you were out for trouble, you wouldn't go out of your way to do something like that."

"Ah," I nodded. "She was a soldier?"

"She was in a personal guard," he said. "She never mentioned exactly what her duties were."

I remembered what she'd said about knowing people who suffered from the same kind of waking terrors I did and had to wonder.

Section 45

During the couple of hours we were on the road I got to learn a little more about him. He was a blacksmith - or rather the blacksmith - in the town of Rath's Holding. His mother had been a smith as had her father, so it was something of a family tradition that he'd continued. Not that there'd been much choice, I gathered.

He asked about me. I answered and he reciprocated when I asked more questions of him, slowly loosening up. He'd met with Ea'rest a couple of years ago when she'd come to town and they'd hit it off. She'd helped him with some problems that he was quite vague about and he'd helped her about the farm. They'd shared spring. He asked me about my home. I asked some more about her but he wasn't able to tell me much.

"She works hard at that farm," he said, "But..."

"But?"

He waved a hand in a shrug. "She's not a farmer. It shows."

"It's not that bad?"

"She's been there for several years," he said. "She's yet to make a profit."

"Oh."

"And she has her pride."

"Oh," I said again. "She is a good cook though."

"A," his hand waved agreement. Then a minute later he said, "What you told her, about opening an inn, you were serious about it?"

She'd told him? "A, quite."

"And you'd be able to assist?"

"If she were willing to make the effort, then absolutely."

"I mean, you can assist? You have the finances?"

I hesitated. "Before this incident I had not inconsiderable finances. Now... they are still there, but I don't know what ability I have to access them."

"Huhn," I heard him rumble thoughtfully.

An hour or so later I got my first glimpse of Rath's Holding. The castle.

At first there were just grey stone crenellated towers rising from behind the crests of green trees, jutting against a blue sky. Then the walls crept into view, clinging to a promontory at the confluence of the Lazy River - the one I'd been following - and Wideweather Way. The Way was the larger river, the marine thoroughfare between the lakes of Highchi's Grief and Season's Door. The castle commanded a position overlooking the juncture of both rivers. Heksi told me it'd been built over a hundred years ago by the original Lord Rath to impose tariffs on waterway traffic. His family had maintained their own little fiefdom by a subtle mixture of delicate politics and outright brutality until it was absorbed by cover-my-Tail.

We continued on our way. The forest gave way to well-tended farmland and the rutted track turned to something that could be mistaken for a road. Farms dotted the landscape, tucked away within hedgerows and windrows. I watched the towers on the skyline gradually drawing nearer. Strange to think that it was built only a hundred years ago. Back home the only castle I'd seen had been in pictures, and those had been several hundred years old. All those hundreds, thousands of old castles; all the time and effort and expense and suffering that'd gone into building them. And then a new technology goes and renders them obsolete in an historical eyeblink.

The wagon jolted its way over the crest of a final low hill and gave me a look at the town itself. It wasn't a big place. Farmland ran right up to the outskirts. There were town walls enclosing the heart of the town but they were in the same state that so much of Shattered Water's were: cannibalized over the years for building material. Inside the line delineated by those walls the buildings were crammed close together in a mess of steep rooftops and chimneypots; outside, they spread out, the streets becoming more spacious, the buildings a mixture of residential and industrial: affluent and ramshackle. Smoke trickled into the sky. A flock of birds of some kind launched into the sky and winged away across the river.

As we got closer to town there was more traffic on the roads. A couple of times I ducked down out of sight in the back as carts trundled by in the opposite direction. When we hit the outskirts I tucked down behind the drivers bench, between that and a bale of hay. As I pulled the improvised hay mat over myself I saw Heksi glance back and then all I could see was straw and faint slivers of sunlight. Dust tickled my nose: I sneezed, twice, then all I could do was lie and wait.

It was hot and stuffy and uncomfortable. Every bump in the road seemed to go straight through to my spine. I could hear the world around me, the sounds of Rris voices coming and going. Once I heard Eksi call out and I felt my heart lurch, but he was just greeting someone. Thank god his place was on the outskirts of town. I was only in that stifling cubby for about half an hour.

Eventually the cart stopped. I lay still and waited while dust trickled down on me. I felt it sway slightly as Eksi hopped off and there was a conversation at the edge of hearing. Another wait and then my heart pounded as the cart rocked again as someone climbed into the bed. A pause, then the stra covering was pulled away. "Into the workshop," Eksi hissed, gesturing. "Quickly."

We were in a small courtyard cluttered with debris of various kinds: broken wagon wheels, barrels, hoops of metal, a stack of cut timber posts the size of railway sleepers. Behind us was a brick wall, a slatted wooden gate pulled across the entrance. The wall off to the left was the front of a single-story pale stone building, small glazed windows in the unplastered facade, the ends of structural timbers protruding from beneath the roof hung with what looked like the handles of various tools. The workshop he was referring to was a wooden building that had probably been a barn at some time. It still was, I saw when I got inside. There were stalls for animals. There was also a forge, an anvil and worksurfaces and a clutter of metal tools and scraps piled on the workbenches, on the floor, hanging from the rafters and hooks on the walls. I watched as Eksi hurried to close the doors, swinging the rickety things shut on crooked hinges. The bump as they closed shook dust loose to drift down through the slats of light sifting through cracks in the wooden walls. It was the only light, crisscrossing the floor. When he moved back across the room he was just a stalking silhouette against vertical threads of daylight.

"Nice place you've got here," I said, looking around at stacks of wood and charcoal over by the forge, at a bevy of glassless lantern frames slung from a hook. Everything you

"You can wait here." Heksi said as went over to the workbench and sorted through tools. "I've got several thing to do before we leave. There're goods to load and... ah, here." He came up holding a hammer and sharp metal spike. "Come here."

I stared.

He looked at the tools, then at me. "See if I can get those chains off."

Oh. I felt a rush of heat to my face and shrugged. With a mixture of embarrassment and trepidation I laid the wrist shackles on the iron block of his anvil. He reached to touch, hesitated and looked at my face, then visibly braced himself and laid hands on me. For a second he stroked fingertips over my skin, then got down to business adjusting the shackles. Then took up the hammer and chisel, placed the spike against the hinge. The hammer rose then came down sharply and the end of the hinge pin was sheared away. With a few taps the whole pin came out and the shackle was off.

"Ai," he exclaimed.

My wrist was bruised, chafed red raw and scabbed and seeping blood in spots. I flexed my hand, grimacing as the circulation started up again. "Ah, the others?"

The other hand was just as simple. The collar... that was an experience: Try laying your head on an anvil while an alien holds an iron hammer over you sometime. But the hammer struck and a few seconds later I was able to prise the collar open and cast it aside.

"You should get those seen to," Eksi said, studying my neck.

I touched and winced. "That could be difficult."

"A," he agreed and gave a quick shake of his head, then went to put the tools away. "You'll have to wait here for a while. I've got several matters to take care of before we can leave. There's a loft up there," he pointed to a ladder leading up to an attic area under the peak of the roof. Great. More hay.

"I won't be long," he told me as he picked up a satchel from a hook and slung it over his shoulder. At the door he paused again. "And, by my mother's tail, stay out of sight. I don't want to be having to explain your presence. Understand?"

"Understand," I said.

"Huhn," he snorted and then shouldered the rickety door open and sidled through. The door rattled shut and his silhouette visible through the cracks hesitated, then was gone.

Section 46

I waited.

Poking around through the workshop was a way to pass the time. It was certainly more interesting than hiding in straw. The bulbous mound of the forge with its bellows and solid stone chimney dominated the barn. The floor was just dirt, but littered with small rust-colored beads that at first glance I took for pebbles. No, not pebbles: specks of metal that'd melted with the grit of the floor. There was the anvil, looking little like an Acme product; this was a solid lump of cast iron on a stump of old oak, the black metal burnished on top from heavy use. Over by the wall was a treadle-powered lathe and alongside that what looked like a potter's wheel. On the worktops were various hammers and tongs and neatly arranged in pegholes along the back of the bench a multitude of fine chisels and scrapers, delicate implements with hooks and needle tips that looked more like dental appliances than tools.

There were blocks of wax wrapped in chamois leathers, pouring pots and moulds; a barrel bound with iron hoops was half filled with a reddish clay. It took a while before I figured out it was everything you'd need for wax removal casting. Indeed, the place carried that same smell that'd permeated the foundries in Shattered Water. I'd spent so much time in them that in a way it was familiar.

That... that was almost funny: Waxing nostalgic over a hellishly hot room that'd reeked of metals and fluxes and scorched fur. I picked up the broken collar, twisting it as much as give would allow. I had other things to worry about besides sightseeing.

I was fairly certain Heksi was going to come back. If he'd wanted to turn me in, he could have simply taken me straight to the authorities and certainly wouldn't risk letting me out of his sight. So hopefully he'd keep his word and take me on to Open Fields. There was still the question of where I'd go from there. I had a few ideas, but they'd depend on how things went from here. If Heksi's usual routine worked, fine. Otherwise, things would have to be a bit different.

So, I sat on the anvil in that rickety barn, turning my broken shackles over and over, and waited and thought. There was plenty of time for that, and when given time, it's disturbing what sorts of nasty and paranoid possibilities you can come up with. Which was probably why, when I heard noise outside, I decided to make sure he was alone before showing myself.

The door rattled and squeaked open a couple of feet. Heksi slipped through the gap and used both hands to haul the door shut before turning around and heading for the ladder to the loft. "Mikah?" he stage whispered.

I dropped down behind him from the crossbeam. "A?"

He yowled and lifted off, four feet straight up, twisting and landing in a crouch with fur bottling and ears flat. "You... Rot, what're you doing?"

"Sorry," I shrugged. "Just making sure it was you."

"Huhn," he growled and scratched at the back of his neck, patting his fur down smooth again.

"How did it go?" I asked. "Any trouble?"

He glanced up from smoothing down the hide on his forearms. "Oh, no. No trouble. You were expecting some?"

"I don't know." I shook my head, "My friends say that trouble stalks me. Sometimes I think they're right."

"Huhn," he rumbled again and whisked his sideburns back. "Well, I haven't seen any sign of it yet and I'm glad of it. Now, perhaps you'd like to start moving so we can get there in time for market day?"

Section 47

There were a couple of heavy wooden, metal-bound chests to be loaded into the wagon. After he'd cautiously made sure that no-one would see us, I helped him carry them out from the shop.

I didn't have much of a chance to look around in his store, but what I saw was interesting: a mixture of iron and a few steel tools like axe and mattock heads, loops and rings for bridles and animal harnesses, knives and blades, chains of various weights, pokers and coal scuttles, barrels of nails and metal spikes, barrel hoops, examples of wrought iron. And there were also iron sculptures and statuettes: small figurines and busts of Rris, animals, intricate little replications of trees with interlaced metal branches and leaves. Some of the figurines looked a bit clumsy and out of proportion, but the plants in particular were extremely elegant. They reminded me a bit of English bronze sculptures from the 1800s.

"Your work?" I asked, nodding toward the table crowded with the art as I shouldered a chest.

Heksi blinked, looking distracted at the way I handled a load he would have strained at. "A," he said. "A. Not much demand for them here, but in Open Fields they're quite popular. Better money than hauling a load of nails that far."

Any smith could make nails, but what he had looked unique, at least as far as I'd seen. Those little sculptures probably would be worth a fair bit. Even more so if the upper classes came to consider them fashionable.

After loading the wagon up it was back to hiding in the hay. I hid in there as we clattered through streets for a while until Heksi told me it was clear. I sat up, pushing the straw aside. We were at the outskirts, at intersection on the edge of town. There was a ramshackle wall on one side, high hedgerow on the other. "That way," Heksi barely slowed the cart as he gestured to the bushes. "The river's there."

I nodded and vaulted out of the back, and landed clumsily on a stone. I swore and hurriedly limped into the hedgerows before someone else came along. The wagon rolled off along the road, Heksi's figure slouched on the drivers bench didn't turn. Myself... I turned and headed for the river.

Of course I couldn't just go along with Eksi. It wasn't as if I could ride into town with him, down to the waterfront and help him load his cargo. So we'd decided on another plan. He'd told me of a place where I could wait and he'd collect me in a short while.

Again there were misgivings, but he'd had opportunities enough to betray me already. I couldn't see why he'd do it now, but stranger things had happened. And the place he'd told me about was there all right. It was an old jetty lying forgotten on the riverward side of a copse of firs and bracken and a broken stone wall. Most of the jetty was gone, rotted away or recycled in some other construction. Weather-bleached wooden decking covered a couple of meters of the wharf out across river reeds but beyond that there were just rotting and drunkenly leaning wooden pylons. And beyond that the river glittered under the summer sky, broad and slow.

I sat down amongst tall grass and weeds, leaned back against the sun-warmed stones of the wall, and waited.

Leaves hung over the wall, glowing emerald green from the hot sunlight backlighting them. A cool breeze occasioned down the river, stirring branches. Insects buzzed, dipping and swirling amongst leaves and grasses, low over the gently swirling water. Birds flitted amongst the reeds, diving at bugs. Twice boats passed by on the river, bound downstream: Once a broad-beamed coaster with faded and patched sails moving slowly; another time a sleeker vessel moving at a faster clip. I sat still and unnoticed in the undergrowth, watching them pass with crews going about their business on deck.

There was more time to think. And to worry. But no Mediators materialized from the bushes. No soldiers popped out of the undergrowth. So I just leaned back and watched the river passing and sketched in the dirt. Not pictures: names and tables. What I could do, what would likely happen if I did that. Trying to figure out what steps to take into an uncertain future. But the more I turned the situation over, the more frustrated I got: I just didn't know enough. I didn't know who was after me, or why; I wasn't sure whom I could trust, where I could go... I just didn't have enough information as to what the hell was going on.

So, that was going to have to be my first step.

Another boat distracted me from my makeshift notes. This one was a small dingy way out in the middle of the broad river and headed downstream from the town at a good clip. A single lopsided sail of faded green canvas caught the wind, swinging around as the Rris at the tiller loosened ropes and turned the boat toward shore. The sharp prow parted the reeds smoothly; the sails were reefed with practiced motions and the boat glided to the end of the jetty. Heksi caught a pylon, stopping the boat with its unpainted hull bumping against wood. "Hai," he called over the sound of water and distant birds. "You coming or not?"

Old wood creaked under my feet as I cautiously worked my way out to the end of the jetty. The boat rocked as I clambered aboard, to the accompaniment of consternated advice and hisses from Heksi. I settled cautiously, near the mast. An inch or so of water slopped in the bottom. There was a distinct smell of fish. "This is... you're taking this all the way to Open Fields?" I asked, patting a gunwhale.

"A," he said, hauling the sail up again. "That's a problem?"

The sailboat was only about six meters long. Just about the size of a recreational dingy back home. It wasn't just an open hull: the neatly trimmed and recessed cockpit ran most of the length of the boat, up to the covered prow. The mast was mounted just forward of the cockpit, a single boom sweeping back to anchor the sail. Heksi was seated on a bench at the back, the tiller clamped under one arm while he tweaked ropes. I was a bit surprised to see he was wearing a vest of some kind, but was a bit busy getting seated without tipping us both into the drink. Two benches ran along the sides of the cockpit and I carefully settled myself onto the far one. There was just enough legroom that I didn't have to fold my legs up double to fit in there of worn planks set against opposite sides of the boat. The chests containing Heksi's trade goods were forward, stacked up against the cubby doors set in the prow.

While the vessel was well worn, scratched and aged, it was still sleek and seemed quite seaworthy. When Heksi got the sail up the whole boat responded quickly, catching the breeze and skittering out into the river. I looked over the side. The River here was wide and probably quite deep. And Rris have no love for open water.

While they can swim for short distances, they're not good at it. And most of them don't even have the inclination to learn to do that. They're natural sinkers. With their fur and muscular density they can struggle along for a while, but swimming doesn't come with anything like the ease it does for a human. And when their fur is waterlogged, it takes them one way: straight down. So, I suppose their unease around water is justifiable.

"Not a problem for me," I said. "I just thought... this boat's a bit small. It's a long journey."

He chittered and leaned back, resting an arm against the tiller. "I've done this often enough. And I can swim very well. How about you?"

"Well enough," I hung a hand over the side, trailing fingers through the water and didn't smile. His definition of 'very good' and mine doubtless differed.

He snorted and flicked ears, then patted the vest he was wearing. Not normal, I saw that at a second glance. "That's a lifevest? For floating?"

His ears twitched: back and down a fraction. I'd surprised him. "A, that's right," he admitted. "No spares, I'm afraid."

"Don't worry about it," I said. The river was wide, but the shores were quite reachable.

He waved a one-handed shrug and leaned back, looking up at the sail. "Head," he cautioned and I briefly wondered what he was on about, then hastily ducked as the boom squeaked and swung around, the dingy coming about and taking a new line, bound downstream.

About seventy kilometers. That was the distance from Rath's Holding to Open Fields, seventy kilometers. Well, that's the approximation at any rate. Rris have their own standards of measuring, but a centimeter is a centimeter whether you call it that or one quarter of a finger or a zigplif. It's the same distance. And it wasn't a distance we were going to be covering quickly. The boat did maybe five knots, at best, and it was the fastest ride around. So yet again it was a question of hurry up and wait; just sit while Heksi sailed us down the river to Open Fields.

Afternoon sunlight glared off the water, glittering from the gentle ripples and eddies in the dingy's wake. The riverbanks scrolled by for kilometer after kilometer. I trailed a hand in the cool water and saw wilderness, acres upon uncounted acres of wilderness: trees and hills and waterlogged meadows where moose chewed wet grasses and watched us pass. Occasionally there were buildings or a hint of civilization; a clutch of houses nestle in trees, a lone jetty poking out into the water, a trickle of smoke from over a hill. Once we sailed past the remains of an old water mill perched on a low rocky bluff right on the river's edge, a waterfall spilling down from under the rotting remnants of a water wheel. But, generally, it was just more of the wilderness I'd spent days trying to escape.

We did pass other vessels a couple of times. We overtook the slower boat I'd seen go by earlier and there were a couple of slow haulers going the other way. Each time I had to get out of sight and the only way to do that was to curl up in the bottom of the boat and pull that tarp over myself. Lying there in an inch of water, under a reeking tarp while the sun beat down, wasn't entirely pleasant. I could hear Heksi calling greetings and the yowling voices of distant Rris responding and I had to lie still until he let me know it was safe to throw off the stifling canvas.

For most of the trip I was almost able to relax. Heksi didn't seem to be about to betray me. He could have done so at Rath's Holding; he could have done so when a boat passed, but he didn't. Still, there was the possibility that he didn't want to do so too close to home, where Ea'rest or other associates might hear about the betrayal. So how would he do it? Send messages on ahead to Open Fields where we'd have a reception committee waiting? There'd been boats ahead of us, something could have gone on one of those. But that was so convoluted and unreliable... perhaps I was being too paranoid.

But I still didn't provide him with any exact details of my plans. Call me paranoid.

Section 48

The sun was laying low on the western horizon as the river opened out into a delta of marshes and fields of reeds. Our little boat cruised on through channels that Heksi seemed quite familiar with, the sail barely swelling in the still evening. Smaller channels branched out all over the place, cutting the land into islands. Some were just isolated clumps of trees and brush, others large enough for small settlements. Flocks of birds cruised overhead, flapping down into groves and thickets of trees to roost for the night. And there were mosquitoes everywhere. Swarms of the little beggars flocked in to form persistent and whining clouds around us. Heksi sneezed and snorted as they lit on his nose. I pulled the tarpaulin around me to cover as much bare skin as I could and swatted what I couldn't.

Thank christ that torture eased as the marshes spread aside, the river delta giving way to the lake of Seasons Door. Open water and clear breezes stretched away ahead of us, the wavelet rippled surface reflecting dark and twilight purple sky accented with touches of gold from the setting sun. The last time I'd sailed over this water had been on the Ironheart, most advanced vessel on the water, fresh from his majesty's shipyards, and I'd been looking forward to a busy if otherwise uneventful week. Now I was being smuggled in aboard a fishing boat which barely even classified as a dingy.

And I was damned lucky to have even that.

The river entered the lake at the north eastern side. Open Fields was over to the west. With that little craft it wasn't a matter of just cutting across the lake, we had to skirt around the shoreline in the growing darkness. That wasn't a problem for Heksi. Even with only the faint glow from the stars and rising moon he steered the dingy through delta channels and shallows with an ease and deftness borne from familiarity and a literally inhuman night vision.

By the time the firefly specks of the lighthouses marking the harbor entrance became visible in the distance, the day was long gone. Stars and the wisps of distant galaxies reflected in the black waters, the trees along the shoreline a deeper darkness off the other side of the boat. Not too far away, I judged. Time to get ready.

I rummaged around in the gloom in the bottom of the boat. It took a while before I found what I was looking for, and when I came up the silhouette of Heksi's head was facing me with ears pricked. "I was wondering why you needed that," he said.

The jar's stopper was stubborn. I fumbled with it for a while in the darkness before I realized it was a screw-top, of all things. Just a twist and the top came off. The contents were black as night, which was the general idea.

"Makes me a bit less noticeable," I said as I applied the lamp black.

I couldn't see his expression but I think it was dubious as he watched me smear lamp black across my face, across forehead and cheeks and the bridge of my nose. Places where highlights might stand out on my face, then down over the rest of my body. The stuff was essentially fine carbon dust, like a primitive toner. Heksi used it for blackening ironmongery, and it blackened quite admirably. Skin that'd been pale in the moonlight became... black. Essentially vanishing, to my eyes anyway.

"How's that look?" I asked.

"Bit less noticeable?" the shadow of Heksi hissed derisively. "I think that would scare off a bear!"

"Less visible though?"

"A," he conceded, "It is. If you stay still. Where did you learn that trick? Done it before?"

"It's..." I hesitated. "It's an old trick, where I come from. Done in stories."

"Huhn, and you're just going to walk the docks like that? It's a good trick, but not that good."

I paused in the application of the stuff and almost grinned. "Who said anything about walking?"

Section 49

Water sluiced quietly around the little boat's hull as it passed by the walls of the breakwater. From under the tarp, pressed against the wet boards of the hull, that sound was quite audible. I could hear the water, hear the sails creak and flutter as Heksi pulled them in. There was a distant call from another Rris, one of the sentries on the walls most likely.

"Not late," Heksi called back. "Plenty of time until sunrise."

I didn't hear the response. There was a short time when the boat rocked as Heksi reefed the sails, then a clatter as he unlimbered oars. Presently there was a creaking of oarlocks and a rocking motion as the boat sculled through the harbor and a while after that a foot prodded me.

"Anyone around?" I murmured.

"Unless they're under there with you, then no," he retorted.

I peeked. We were in the middle of the harbor. There were ships moored there, some with lights showing but most dark shapes with masts like spindly trees silhouetted against the stars. Nobody watching though. Over at the docks there were more lights burning, gas and oil flames reflecting across the dark waters. I nodded.

"Hai," he said, then as I rocked the boat, "What are you doing?"

"This is my stop," I said.

"We're in the middle of the harbor!"

"I did say I was a good swimmer," I returned and then said. "Thank you. For everything. And tell Ea'rest, I wish her the best. Oh, and this is hers."

He caught the kilt I tossed at him and looked at it as if he'd never seen the like before.

"Thank you," I said again, and then rolled over the side.

Underwater was quiet and suddenly very cool. I resurfaced a distance away, in the shadow of a sleek bow. I treaded water and saw a long figure in the small boat looking around, then leaning back to the oars. Slowly, the sailboat sculled off into the dark. I turned and struck out for the part of the docks where the light burned the brightest; where another sleek vessel was moored.

For a moment I reflected that it seemed that every town I visited I ended up going for a swim in the local harbor. It wasn't a habit I wanted to continue. The harbor wasn't full of diesel oil, illegally dumped waste tanks and other detritus of a technological age. But while the Rris cities might have been comparable to human cities of the eighteenth or nineteenth century, they had surprisingly good sewage and drainage systems. It was a shame those systems were only designed to shift the stuff, usually into the nearest body of water. I was quite aware of the outflows and sewer openings along and under the docks and was glad Rris won't put up with a population density that humans might tolerate. But I wasn't taking a midnight swim for the hell of it.

I worked my way toward the docks, moving slowly and trying not to splash or disturb the water too much. When I could I stayed near the hull of moored ships, diving under to swim from one to another. Occasionally I heard voices in the boats, once from the deck directly overhead and stayed close to the hull, treading water until the voices were gone.

Then there was a point beyond which there were no handy hulls for concealment. The water around the VIP docks was a black mirror, ripples of amber light reflecting from the few lamps burning on the shore. One of them blinked off for a second and then reappeared, momentarily eclipsed by a figure moving around on the dock. Guards, of course.

I watched for a few seconds, then took a deep breath, another, then dove.

Underwater was another world. Silent, cold, dark. There were flickers of light from above: the white glow of the moon way over there, a couple of orange sparks from the dock. Just glimmers from beyond the surface; just enough to navigate by. Everything else was black. Something small and silver flashed across in front of my face and was gone almost before I'd registered it. I kept going, glancing up occasionally to track the glimmers of orange light above creeping higher and higher until they vanished. A second later my hands met slimy wood: pilings of the pier.

I followed the piling upwards. My lungs were starting to ache, but I still forced myself to break the surface slowly, barely rippling the surface. Water-muffled sounds changed, clearing: a distant clatter of iron wheels on stone, faint shouts and other sounds of the city. Closer to hand was the slapping of liquid against solids and from overhead a murmur of voices. I looked up, at where threads of lamp light shone through the planks of the pier, but couldn't see the speakers. If they were the usual guards, they'd be stationed at the gangplank, and hopefully that was where they'd stay. I pushed off slowly through the black water, trying not to make a sound.

The ship was still the only vessel in the berth. Bow in toward the shore, the gangplank bridging the narrow gap between the hull and the pier. No lights burned on board, there were no sounds of conversation or sign of movement. The crew would be bunked down on shore, I hoped, or at least asleep. If I did run into someone... that I'd have to handle if it happened. Their reaction wasn't something I could predict. Better if no-one saw me at all. So the shadows were a place to hide as I slowly worked my way through the supports under the pier, then along the overhang of the ship's hull, back to the stern. If a Rris had looked my way the darkness might not have been as much of a cloak as I felt it was, but I was relying on their blind spot when it came to water. A human might place sentries against infiltration from the water: Rris might do the same and watch for boats, but a single swimmer? Underwater at that? It was outside their frame of reference; Rris couldn't do it so therefore it couldn't happen.

Very human, in a way.

There were handholds at the stern: ladder grips alongside the dingy slung there. I caught hold and drew myself out and then froze. Water sluiced off my skin, out of my hair, pattered back to the lake's surface. I froze, waiting for someone to investigate the slight noise, but nobody appeared, no alarm was sounded. Slowly, I started climbing again, wincing at every slight splash as I drew my blackened body out of the water, cautiously raising my head above the level of the deck.

The rear deck was deserted. The pilothouse stood empty, so did the companionway down to the cabin. Slowly I hauled myself onto deck, using the twin smokestacks for cover. Down on the dock I could see the figures of two guards, their backs to the vessel. One of them scratched at an itch and there was a muted exchange and quiet chitter. They were wearing Land of Water attire.

They didn't spot me steal across the deck and down the ladder.

Belowdecks was dark and still. Behind me, the steps back to the engine room were dark. Ahead, the narrow companionway was nearly as dark, illuminated by a mere glimmer of pale light spilling from the first cabin on the left. It was moonlight, finding its way in through the small porthole. Not bright enough to read by: just enough to let me see what I was doing without fumbling blindly.

From what I could see, my cabin was undisturbed. The tiny, foldout desk was still down and best of all, the clothing was still in the nook that passed for a cupboard. I hauled out pants, shirts, a pair of ragged moccasins and a storm-cloak. Then I turned to the box bed in its narrow nook and lifted the mattress, then the slats underneath.

The 'emergency kit' was still there. I silently thanked Chaeitch, then lifted out the bundles wrapped in their oilskins. There was the roll of gold coinage; the documents bearing the Land of Water Royal seal that stated I was an intelligent being and under the sponsorship and protection of their government; the knife modeled on a bowie knife with the firestarting kit in the handle; and of course, the guns.

The guns. I almost left those. The shotgun I picked up and laid aside, but the pistols... I picked one of the black steel revolvers pair up, feeling the solid weight, the wooden grips contouring to my hand. Those would be the most aesthetic part of the weapons. They weren't built to look good; all black iron and steel angles, the hexagonal barrels bearing none of the engraving I'd seen on the painstakingly crafted Rris flintlock handguns and muskets. Those things were an. . . unpleasantness that Chaeitch had produced, tailoring them for my hand. I had no idea if they were sanctioned by the Palace and wasn't entirely happy about them myself. He'd said their existence didn't necessitate their use; they were an insurance policy that'd I'd probably never have to use.

I weighed the pistol and my options. I'd been assaulted, kidnapped, my life had been threatened. Hurting people wasn't something I wanted to do, but obviously someone else didn't feel the same way about me. Didn't I have the right to try and defend myself? But if I were armed, then perhaps I'd become a legitimate target.

More so than I already appeared to be?

"Shit," I muttered and rewrapped the pistols along with the bandolier of cartridges in oilskins. Everything - the clothes, the gear from Chaeitch's little stash - I stowed in a leather carry bag and cinched it tight. The thing was supposed to be waterproof. Supposed to be. I looked at the Rris-manufactured leather and guessed I was going to find out just how true that was. After that there was a few minutes at the desk, cursing the bad light, the damned inconvenience of the separate inkwell and pen and my pre-school skills at the chicken-scratch Rris script.

Then I paid a quick trip to the darkness of the engine room. That took a bit longer, but I knew what I was looking for.

Up on deck the guards were still talking quietly. It'd be a boring duty, just standing for hours making sure nobody ran off with a seventy ton boat. I suppose in a way I did them a favour, livening up their evening when I picked up my end of the gangplank and dumped it overboard. The ridged planks swung down, clattered and splashed and banged as they were drawn up by the lined securing them to the pier. Both the guards lifted off. They both spun and crouched, hands going to weapons. In the faint light from the lantern hanging from a stanchion above them I could see the expressions on their faces, running the gamut of emotions as narrow lips pulled back and jaws dropped to bare teeth, the eyes going wide and black, ears twitching back and forth furiously. I suppose I must've been quite a shock; naked, smeared in black camouflage patterns, so it wasn't entirely unpredictable. So it took longer for them to recognize me than I'd expected.

"Hi, gu... ladies," I greeted them.

"Sir?" their hands moved away from the hilts of their pistols, their shock turning to incredulity. "Sir? What are you... you're..."

"Sorry," I interrupted. The gap where the gangplank had been wasn't that wide. They could probably jump it quite easily. But the water down there was dark and they were wearing armour. I hoped they weren't going to risk it. "But I haven't really got time to stop and chat. Please, tell Chaeitch I stopped by to get some stuff from my cabin. Got that?"

"Sir? I... yes, sir." The guard looked confused. The other one was eyeing the gap between dock and boat with a calculating eye.

"Good," I said and turned away, then back again and raised a finger. The guards flinched. "Oh, and one other thing; Tell him not to go anywhere without me. A? That's quite important."

One of the guards waved an uncertain acknowledgement. "Yes, sir."

"Thank you," I said and gave them a quick duck of my head before retreating back behind the wheelhouse.

"Sir!" I heard one of them call, but I already had my bag and was over the side, back down into the dark water.

By the time they got the gangplank hauled back up, I was lurking in the shadows under the dingy at the stern. When they clattered their way on board I went the other way, stroking away into the darkness among the piers and struts under the pier with my haul in tow.

It wasn't pleasant down there, but it wasn't something I was doing for fun. I worked my way along the dock, from pier to pier. After the government berth there was an area of open water, black like coffee on which the odd light rippled and reflected. Then there was the cover of commercial docks and the dozens, hundreds of small and medium and large sized vessels docked there. The abutted hulls providing a maze of tangled waterways for concealment. There was rubbish and detritus down there: scraps of nets and ropes, old bottles and jars and fishing floats, dead fish, leather and other unpleasant organic scraps. So getting out was a mixed blessing.

Down the far end of the docks, as far from the government berths as one could get, was a low, deserted jetty. The boats moored to the rickety planks there were little more than rowboats; some obviously rotting, one sunk to the gunwhales in the dark water. Nets were hung from frames to dry out, moonlight filtering through the links to paint tangled lines across the jetty. I lurked and watched, just long enough to be sure it was deserted, then heaved the leather bag up onto the boards and hauled myself out after it. Water dripped onto the bone-dry wood, creating dark splatters across the bleached surface and when I took a step the dock creaked ominously. Still, it held. I took a moment to dig into the bag and pull out the storm cloak, mildly surprised to find the contents a little damp, but not as soaking wet as I'd expected.

The night was warm. A rain cloak would be out of place, but not as out of place as I'd be without it. Perhaps in the darkness and at a distance I could pass as... well, not as not a Rris. I know if I noticed a figure skulking around in a cloak I might suspect they didn't want to be recognized, but I probably wouldn't suspect they were an alien. So I pulled the cloak around, raised the hood and moved gingerly along the pier, along to the solidity of steps cut out of the quayside. I touched time-worn steps, the flagstones still retaining a trace of daytime warmth as I couched to peek over the top. Back down the dock, way back at the beginning, there were lights shining.

So the alarm was out. I shrugged. They were a bit slower than I'd expected. And I really hoped those guards would give Chaeitch my message. He'd be the only one who could understand it properly. But, it did mean I'd have to get moving. I turned away from the scene, away from the waterfront and set off through the tangle of dockside huts, headed into the city.

Section 50

The night in the wilderness had been frightening. Night in a strange city was every bit as unnerving.

I stayed in the alleyways, in the backstreets and narrow throughways where walls of crude brick and wood and even wattle and daub pressed close. Underfoot were flagstones or rough cobbles or nothing but packed dirt. Eaves arched overhead, almost roofing the narrow streets. And the gaps where they didn't quite meet were filled with stars. The light that filtered down was a pale glimmer, not enough to read a book by, but just enough to let me find my way.

And I had a destination. I knew where I was going. It was simply a matter of getting there.

Those back ways were deserted. Mostly. The darkness that might have kept a human population inside huddling around their light sources and being afraid of the unseeable wasn't such an obstacle to Rris. I saw more than a few individuals going about their business. And a few of those saw me. Once a Rris figure rounded a corner right in front of me. All I saw was an abrupt silhouette and a flash of those multichromatic eyes meeting my own gaze, seeing under my cloak's hood and the smeared lamp black, and then those eyes went wider and there was a yowl and the figure was gone. Scurrying off into the night with a fading cry. A clatter as something was knocked over and then a yelp echoed along the alley it'd vanished down.

I hastened away before others turned up to investigate.

The alleyways twisted and turned, becoming blind ends and courtyards and occasionally opening onto broad thoroughfares that I had to avoid or hurry across. Like the Cracks in Shattered Water, this part of the city was old, dating from back when the city had huddled in its protective walls. It was a maze, a warren, a hodgepodge of ad hock housing that'd evolved spontaneously as the city grew. Buildings slotted in wherever there was room. Wood tacked onto brick and stone. Some walls were askew or downright bent, entire buildings leaning alarmingly. In some cases upper floors tipped far enough out over narrow alleys to butt into adjacent buildings, holding each other up and turning the way below into a black tunnel. Plants grew and flourished where they could, piggybacking on Rris architecture in cracks and drains and spouting, in between flagstones and cobblestones. Leaking and standing water turned patches of alleyway to trampled mud and muck and more than a few places reeked of bodily wastes, animal and otherwise. And through this tangle of alien architecture I made my way.

I knew where I wanted to go. I just wasn't exactly sure how to get there.

Of course everything was different at night. I just tried to keep going in the right direction, relying on the few landmarks I could identify, things I'd seen on my tours around the city. There was the graphically mutilated statue commemorating some ancient Rris battle; the smoking chimneys of the foundry I'd visited; the old west gate. All that remained of that old structure was half a tower rising like a broken tooth above the rooftops. The rest of it was low walls already being overgrown by newer buildings. It reminded me of Shattered Water, of the old walls there, a place I'd visited once. It was a cherished memory.

A faint light flickered in the darkness at the base of the ruins where a tiny fire guttered. I circled around.

Out on the western outskirts was one of the grain storehouses. I'd been there before, as part of the inspection of the granaries. The place was a storehouse, one of a row set aside as an overflow for the winter grain. It wasn't in use, wouldn't be until late summer and autumn, so it was dark and empty and deserted. Since there was nothing in it, the place was deserted. A guard went by every so often, but I didn't expect to be there long enough for that to matter.

The small door around the side was locked but the flimsy latch gave way after I rammed my shoulder against it a couple of times. Inside it was dark and quiet. There were a few barrels in the middle of the floor, in the huge open space where sacks of grain would eventually be stacked. A utilitarian staircase led up the right wall, up to a catwalk running around the second floor. In the shadows above that ropes and wooden pulleys hung from ceiling beams. More block and tackle equipment looped down from an overhead rail: equipment for hauling in the goods. Sheets of cobwebs shone ghostlike in moonlight, wafting in some breeze.

I nodded quietly. Okay. Now, there was just the waiting.

Section 51

The old lantern put out a feeble glow that set shadows to dancing on the walls, the light almost lost in the space of the store. There'd been a bit of oil in the lamp. Not much; just enough for something to fight the night back a bit.

I waited.

Draughts toyed with the flame, the shadows creeping in, then skipping back again as the single speck flickered at the end of the wick. A lone island of warm light in the middle of the storeroom. Outside, the cobbled courtyard out front was lit by moonlight, cool and pale. A single poplar tree threw black tessellated shadows across the street beyond. I tensed as a couple of Rris pedestrians passed on the far side, but they didn't even glance in my direction and kept going until they were out of sight. I let a breath out and shifted on the barrel I was using as a seat. It hadn't been the first time and each false alarm plucked at my already taut nerves; I had to force myself to relax. My fingers flexed on the butt of the revolver, then I angled for a better view out the dusty window. And waited.

Outside, the moon climbed higher. A cloud drifted in front of it, the world dimming even more. And out in the shadows of the poplar a single light flared as a lanterns storm shutters were opened. A single Rris stalked across the courtyard toward me. A familiar figure in familiar clothes. He stopped and looked up, his face in the light of his lantern as he looked over the facade of the storehouse and then headed toward the door. There was no sign that he'd been followed.

"Thank god," I hissed. The empty barrel rolled across the floor as I hastened back to the stairs, jamming the pistol into my pocket.

Chaeitch was closing the door behind him, looking slowly around the room. He saw me coming down the stairs and hesitated, his head tipping to the side. Then he started across the empty space toward me.

"Hey," I said, "Sorry about the note. I didn't know who I could... Everything is..." I hesitated. There was something odd about the way he was staring at me. "Chaeitch?"

He barely slowed to put his lantern alongside the one already flickering where it sat on one of the barrels in the middle of the room. And as he came around the barrels he was drawing a pistol of his own, an ornate flintlock, leveling it at me.

"Chae..." I froze.

Unflinching amber eyes gazed over the black bore of the muzzle which suddenly seemed huge.

"Chaeitch!" I yelled and the eyes didn't flicker but the gun moved as I moved, as I frantically dodged back and there was an explosion and something whipped past my head and knocked splinters from the staircase, where I'd been a second ago. I turned back, in time to see him striding forward out of the swirls of grey gunsmoke and briefly twirling firefly sparks of burning wadding. The gun was in the waistband, a knife glinted in his hand. His eyes were holes as black as the bore of the gun.

"Chaetich!" I yelled and my gun was in my hand, raised toward him. The eyes narrowed slightly, his stance shifting, the knife held in a grip that curled it back like a claw. "What're you doing?! Don't," I said, my hand shaking as I cocked the gun. "Chaeitch, please don't."

He kept coming. I retreated, backing away. He lunged and I jerked away and ran into something - one of the wooden columns supporting the catwalk I think, not that it really matters - and jolted and the gun in my hand cracked and kicked violently.

There was an indeterminably short space of time that seemed to last forever where I didn't realize what'd happened. The gun was a metal weight in my hand. Acrid smoke hazed the air, slowly clearing and Chaeitch grimaced and then crumpled forward, his knees buckling abruptly and he just folded facefirst to the floor. The knife clattered against crude floorboards.

"God," I breathed. "No."

Just a crumpled form. Face down with rear in the air, one leg tucked, the other trailing behind. Nothing dignified or noble about it. And when I reached his side his breath was rasping, making fluid noises. Dark stains were spreading from beneath his chin, dribbling from his mouth. I caught his shoulders and when I turned him he made painful mewling sounds. Blood was colored black in the dim light as it bubbled in a nostril, from a hole dead in the middle of his chest, his jaw spasming while his eyes focused on something that wasn't in the room. I stared in shock, not knowing what to do.

"Chaeitch?" I choked out and just touched his face, stroking his cheek tufts.

And he trembled violently and then his eyes locked on me, the pupils absolutely black. Then his head lolled, searching for something. I followed his gaze, to where his hand was spasming, desperately clutching for the knife. I just recoiled, scrambling away and staring in utter incomprehension as he clawed for the blade. I could only watch in a disconnected horror as he convulsed again and coughed a spray of blood across the floor and died.

I sat and stared at the body and just couldn't feel anything. I just didn't understand. He hadn't said a word. He'd come, to where the note I'd left in that hidden cubby under the bunk had said, and he hadn't said a word and he'd just tried to kill me. Trying until his last breath.

I crawled closer and stopped. Didn't quite believe it. But he was utterly still when I touched him. Didn't move when I tried to close those staring eyes. They wouldn't close.

Noises outside. Voices.

All I could think of was that they'd done it. They'd tricked him; they'd forced him. Somehow, I didn't know how. But it was their fault. It wasn't logic doing the thinking, it was just sheer shock, disbelief, confusion and fear and anger. So when the door was thrown open I just fired. Screamed a string of abuse incoherent in any tongue and just unloaded the other five rounds in the revolver one after another as fast as I could cock the hammer. Black-clad figures in the doorway vanished in a blur of movement. The gun clicked on empty and I found myself standing amongst a stink of gunpowder and blood,

And then I ran.

A reason I'd chosen that place was that I'd seen out the back on the previous tour, the high wall there, the way one could climb out an upstairs window, onto a roof, then cross that wall into a lumber yard. After that... there were alleys and streets, branching from those more alleyways and places where one might lose oneself. In one direction the city, the other way the farms and countryside. I'd never expected what had just transpired to happen, but I'd thought he might be followed and I might need a quick way out.

The bag was propping the window open. I grabbed it automatically and clambered through the small frame. Tiles clattered and cracked under my moccasins as I ran across the roof, not really watching where I stepped. It was probably just sheer chance that I didn't crash right on through. Shouts yowled out and dark-clad figures dashed across the yard below, but I was already jumping across the alleyway to the wall, then down onto lumber.

Then I wasn't thinking about anything but running.

Section 52

Dawn brushed the sky in the east. Stars faded as the black lightened to golds, to blues, high clouds glowing with the first touches of light. Dew glittered on the fields, on the trees, on the leaves of the hedgerow I huddled beneath.

I watched the sun rising without really seeing it. I was still seeing Chaeitch die.

It just... it just didn't make any sense. None of it. He hadn't spoke a word, just come straight at me with one purpose. The Mediators... they must've done it. Somehow. How? Lied to him? Told him something, but what? What could have bred such an overwhelming hatred? I thought we were... I mean we'd worked together, we'd shared drinks and stories. We'd been friends. Hadn't we? Or was it another case of me totally misreading alien body language? The blackening on my face, that'd scared him? He'd seen the gun and was trying to defend himself?

No. No and no. It just didn't make sense. I rocked back and turned my face to the rising sun. The morning sky fragmented, tears blurring the world and my hands made helpless fists; clenching and unclenching. In the dawning light I looked at them. There was dirt there and grime and smeared lamp black. Somewhere I'd touched wet paint, something that stained my fingers muddy brown. And they reeked of gunpowder and were tacky with drying blood.

Everything gone in one horrible night. The help I'd been banking on; someone else I'd thought a friend, gone in one unbelievable incident. And with that went the plans and the embers of optimism that'd started to smolder somewhere inside.

Once again I was utterly adrift and without a clue what to do next. And my friend was dead.

While the dew burned off the fields, the wisps of evaporating moisture retreated before the growing warmth of day; while on the hillsides the farmers went about their tasks, I grieved.

Section 53

Where to from there? I didn't know. There was the Palace of course. Would the Shattered Water delegation still be there? Perhaps they'd been taken. Perhaps they were the leverage that'd set Chaeitch to try and kill me. My mind painted scenarios where Rraerch was a hostage and Chaeitch had been told to kill me or she would die.

But would he do that? Rris don't form such strong emotional bonds as humans. Would such a threat be enough? I recalled that individuals who'd kidnapped Chihirae hadn't really understood just what lengths I'd go to in order to keep her safe. And anyway, if he killed me the Shattered Water government would doubtless kill him. At best.

But I couldn't be sure. Not without seeing, without asking someone who knew.

And the Palace was guarded by Mediators.

I could see them from the hilltops, from the cover of trees that were beyond unaided Rris visual range. They'd need a spyglass to see what my unaided eyes could see, and I could see the figures who weren't guards and who walked in that way that said they owned the place. They weren't obtrusive in their presence, but it was there.

The palace lay cupped in the center of that broad vale, surrounded by those broad meadows. Hillsides of summer gold grasses rippled in the breeze. Carefully tended paths spread out from the Palace, wending in geometric patterns through gardens and hedgerows and shade trees. Rris went about their businesses; gardeners, stable hands, groundskeepers, window cleaners and of course the guards and Mediators. A regular trickle of vehicles trundled in and out along the access roads; goods and passenger wagons and coaches. All very picturesque.

It made me want to scream in frustration. Just what was happening?! What had made me kill my friend?! Made him try to kill me?! The answers were... they were down there, but if I showed myself would I even get a chance to ask?

More questions. And everywhere I turned there was someone blocking me.

So, then, where? Somewhere they wouldn't think. Someone who would know.

I sat on that hillside and watched the Palace and tried to think. While my stomach growled and exhaustion clouded judgment and images of the previous night kept scrabbling in the recesses of my brain. Away down there, the distant figures of Rris came and went about their business. Sunlight flared off the sculptured bronze of the front door, glaring like a giant mirror. I remembered the night I'd arrived here. I'd been an honored - if somewhat unusual - guest. Now I was a fugitive.

And that reminded me of something else. To be more precise, the lack of something else. That night I'd arrived, the Queen's colors had been flying from the flagpole on the roof high above the main doors. Now that flagpole was bare, the royal colors absent. So her highness wasn't in residence at the time.

That meant... there was somewhere else to go. It was stupid and risky and a long shot, but hopefully it was so stupid and out of bounds that whoever was on the other side of the board wouldn't think of it. Hell, it couldn't be any dumber than hanging around a city where I'd stand out like a bear in a boutique. And it wasn't like I had much choice.

Section 54

Traveling by carriage had been slow, dusty and uncomfortable, but it'd been a ride. Making the same journey on foot was only marginally slower, but it meant treking across miles of countryside. At any other time it might have been a pleasant stroll in the country. At any other time.

While I didn't know the exact way I could remember the direction I'd gone the last time, the road we'd taken. I headed south from the Palace and found that road, and then I followed it. Using the road itself wasn't a good idea. There was traffic - not heavy, but regular. It'd have been all too easy to round a corner and run into a group of easily-alarmed farmers. So I stuck to the fields and woods alongside the road and when traffic went by I'd take cover. Sometimes just ducking behind a hedgerow, sometimes laying facedown in leaves in a ditch or behind long grass while Rris - mounted or on foot - passed or a farmer driving a loaded wagon drawn by a dusty bison creaked by.

And I couldn't just follow the road. There were times when I had to detour miles out of my way: whenever I had to pass fields where farmhands were working at ploughing and tilling; when there were homesteads with Rris moving around. Once I almost blundered into a bunch of cubs playing in a small pine copse. I got out of there as fast as I could before they saw me. Frightened children would be more than enough to get an angry posse out hunting for what might've threatened them.

So while the road wound its way across the countryside, I cut back and forth across it. Detouring, circling around and sometimes doubling back. I tried to move at a steady jog which covered ground at almost the same rate as a carriage, but the need for caution tended to slow that pace.

There was one fork in the road I didn't remember. Of course I took the wrong one and lost an hour or two discovering my mistake and retracing my steps. It was hot, it was dusty and dry. A few times I found water in streams or even animal watering troughs, but since I didn't have any means of carrying it with me, I got thirsty. And hungry. Oh, yeah, hungry: my stomach felt like it was knotting around my backbone

I tried to ignore it. There wasn't a lot more I could do. Just ignore it and hope there was some relief somewhere in the future. Otherwise it'd be back to a life of stealing odds and ends from farms. And when it felt like it was getting too much, I saw Chaeitch's face and the blood and the anger helped a little.

Everything considered, I made pretty good time. And it was only mid afternoon when I crested a hill and saw the copper rooftops gleaming over the trees ahead. Another hill, just another hill and I'd be there. That knowledge helped fuel the anger, helped push the exhaustion and pain from my feet back a bit, enough to keep me going.

Section 55

The manor house perched atop the hill, no different from the last time I'd been here. The hillsides were green and gold and verdant under blue skies and summer sun. Gardens and wild meadows abutted the manor, the wild grasses growing up to the chateaux in that style I was becoming accustomed to. Wildflowers were in bloom, transforming squares of meadows to pointillated cacophonies of color where insects and birds darted. Further away were cultivated fields of corn, maize, potatoes, barely and wheat; buffalo grazing in pastures behind stone and wood fences.

I'd circled around. It hadn't been difficult to get past the wrought iron fence that surrounded the grounds, and the woods beyond had been quiet. The fields around the manor, however, were patrolled. The guards were discreet, but they were there. From the woods on the next hill I watched armed figures patrolling the fields. Guards, pairs of royal guards in their gaudy uniforms standing out with polished metal glaring in the sun. No sign of Mediators.

From behind grass and bushes I watched the figures stalking along the paths. There were guards, but there didn't seem to be that many of them. Back home a place like this would have dozens of guards out around the perimeter, along with all sorts of electronic surveillance. But I supposed the Rris weren't so concerned about trying to cover outlying areas. Since they didn't have toys like long range sniper rifles, any intruder bent on mischief would have to get in close. And without radios it'd be more efficient to place more guards at the house itself where they could respond faster. If there were more sentries up there, I couldn't see them.

But I was able to see the patrolling guards well enough to learn their movements. Their rounds were spaced out far enough apart that there were intervals between them. Not enough time to get all the way up the hillside to the Manor, but enough time to get part of the way. So I'd have to take it slow.

More hours.

Hours of moving forward and then lying flat in the show of a bush or a stump or a stone wall or simply in the long grass while guards passed near by. Sometimes close enough for me to hear their equipment rattling. Once laying flat in a riot of wildflowers, close enough that one of a pair of guards hesitated and sniffed the air a few times, looked puzzled, then shook it off and went on his way. When they'd passed I'd wait, then grab my bag and move forward, to the next piece of available cover, all the time expecting a cry to go up. If there'd been sentries on the roof or looking out the window, I felt sure they'd see me. The shirt I'd grabbed from the Ironheart boat was an grey-dyed expensive cotton while the pants were tan linen, with blue trim; not too conspicuous against the summer-dry grass, but I fervently wished I'd had time to make up a ghillie cloak, something that'd let me blend in a little better. Every time I raised my head to move a little further up the hillside I half-expected to see Rris boiling out the doors towards me.

So when I reached the stone walls of the manor it was with a mixture of relief, exhaustion and more than a bit of disbelief. I tucked into a corner provided by an external buttress. Directly above overhead was the balcony I wanted, two stories up.

Compared with what I'd just done, that climb was pretty easy. The facing was that light grey stone, set with inches between each piece of cladding, and on the corner of that buttress that gave me ample hand holds. My feet hurt like hell when I caught foothold, but I ignored them and went up as fast as I could, lest a guard happen to glance up at that particular window at that particular time. I banged a knee and scraped my suddenly-sweaty hands clinging to rock, but I made it to the balustrade and hauled myself over, half tumbling to the balcony and scrambling to tuck down into the corner, clutching my gear. The doors were to my right: big, expensive french doors with lots of glass panes, and they were closed. When I moved a bit closer I could hear faint voices from inside, too quiet to make out what they were saying. I withdrew and huddled in the corner made by the balustrade and the cool stone wall, catching my breath.

I was thirsty, incredibly so. My stomach groaned and tied itself in empty knots and I felt giddy when I closed my eyes. Over in the west the sun was getting lower. About four o'clock I guessed. That meant it'd been... it'd been over thirty hours since I'd last eaten, since I'd last slept.

Then the voices from inside got louder as someone came toward the door. The latch rattled and my hand was inside my bag, feeling for wood and metal and the doors swung open. Escaping Rris voices were abruptly clearer; chittering laughter and fragments of conversation from inside.

The Lady Lady H'risnth stalked out onto the balcony, wearing only fur which rippled in the breeze like the grass in the fields. She laid hands on the balustrade and stretched, mouth slightly open as she sniffed the air. I could see muscles rippling across her back as she rolled her shoulder, her tail curling from side to side. Someone called something from inside and she chittered, scratched at the back of her neck and called back, "Ah, the green one, I believe."

Then she turned and saw me. Crouching, frozen with the gun in my hand.

Those eyes, amber and orange, stared. Just stared at me. And for a split second something else flickered across her face. And I sagged and lowered the gun. Slumped back against the stone.

"Huhn," she vocalised, or something like. Then she twitched back to the doors and raised her voice. "Out. Everyone out. Now."

Queries sounded. Uncertainty.

She stalked back inside, her tail lashing, and I heard her. "Out. Everyone. Now!"

Distant doors slamming.

I was shaking wildly, the gun in my hand feeling like a lead weight as the seconds ticked by. Finally her voice drifted out. "I think you'd better come in here."

My legs barely got me up off the gritty stone. They trembled as I stepped in through the doors, stopped at the threshold. It was a bedroom in there; her ladyship's quarters. There were paintings, carvings, affluence... From a door to my left came the sound of running water. To my right the expanse of a bed: a huge low platform with white linen sheets. Beyond that was an archway through to another room, a reception chamber perhaps. Lady H'risnth aesh Esrisa was at that archway. Standing and watching me, wearing nothing save her fur, but standing with a poise, carrying a bearing and dignity that somehow overwhelmed everything else and made her nudity utterly incidental. She regarded me, almost warily, her eyes flashing in the light spilling in behind me. Then she heaved a sigh that flexed ribs under her hide. "Mikah, what the rot did you come here for?"

Even though it felt as if it weighed a ton I was still holding the pistol. I think I was too scared, too angry and frustrated to drop it. "Answers, Ma'am," I croaked.

Her head tipped a little. "Do you have any idea what sort of problem this could cause?"

"No," I shook my head. She might not understand the gesture: I didn't care. "No. Ma'am, I don't understand. You ask me question like that as though it's remarkable. But... I'm not Rris; all of this is different to me. I don't know what's going on. I don't know what's happening. I want some answers! Goddamit, I killed him last night. You understand that? I shot him. He was my friend and I shot him, I watched him die and I don't know why!"

Her ears went back. "What's this?"

"Ma'am," the exhaustion kept sweeping back in waves, eroding the anger that was keeping me going. I saw the blood again and flexed my fingers on the wooden butt. "No games. Please."

"Games?" She regarded me and there was nothing but confusion there. "Mikah, I don't understand. What do you mean? Who did you kill?"

"Chaeitch!" I exploded. "Ah Ties! Godamn it! You know that! You must know!"

Her gaze went down to the gun, then back up to meet my eyes. I saw puzzlement. "But I just spoke with him this morning. Maybe ten hours ago."

"No. No you didn't."

"I assure you, it's true. He was concerned for you, but he was quite well."

I stared.

"Mediators came last night," she said. "He was taken to the docks. For what, he didn't say. But he returned to his quarters at the Palace last night. Of that I'm certain."

She couldn't...

"My agents are quite thorough in their reports," she said, looking slightly abashed.

Was she lying? Why? She had to be. "I saw him die," I said again.

"Mikah, I don't know what to say. I know he's alive. You don't want to go to the Palace to see for yourself? No." She hissed softly, "I don't know what you saw... It cannot possibly have been him."

"It was..."

"Mikah," she interjected gently, "you told me yourself you have trouble with peoples' faces. Your own art, the features are... unusual. Perhaps you were... mistaken?"

But it had been him. It had been. I remembered the color, the blaize on his left ear, the... the utter blankness of that stare. Like someone else staring out through his eyes. But it hadn't been a mask. It hadn't been...

Oh. Oh, no. There was a sinking feeling as bits clicked into place. I held up my left hand and looked at it. Under the dirt and grime my fingers were still stained with that paint. They couldn't have... they wouldn't have...

I didn't know how to feel. It meant Chaeitch could be alive. I wanted to believe that, but that would make me such a damned fool. Makeup. They'd just painted someone's face and I'd fallen for it hook, line, sinker and rod. I groaned and shook my head, then just sank to the floor, sitting on the carpet with the bed against my back. The gun hit the rug beside me with a thump.

"Mikah?" Her Ladyship was crouching in front of me, her face level with mine. I held out my hand and she hesitated, then took it. I could feel the pads on her palm, her finger pressing against my flesh as she turned my hand, looking puzzled, then dipped her head to sniff my fingers. She inhaled then pulled back. "Ah," she said

"Paint?" I asked.

"Dye," she corrected. "Actors use the like. To color fur. Expensive stuff though."

I wasn't sure how to feel. I'd been completely fooled, but... "Then, he is still alive?"

"Most assuredly."

"Thank god," I breathed.

"What?"

"I am... relieved," I said faintly. That was an understatement. He was alive. I'd thought he'd gone mad, I'd thought I'd killed him, now she was telling me that no, he was fine. And I'd been taken in by some makeup. I wanted to believe it, but at the same time it seemed too preposterous to be true.

"A," the Lady acknowledged, looking me up and down. Her muzzle creased and she leaned forward, then in a blink her hand was at my chin, gently tipping my head back, and I heard a hiss of breath. Then she was pushing the cuff of my sleeve back a bit: the bruises and scabs on my wrist quite lurid. She let me go and sat back, rearranging herself so she was kneeling, sitting back on her ankles, hands on knees and staring at me. "Mikah, what's happened to you? Who did this?"

I pulled the cuff back down over the marks, flexing my hand and rasped: "Your Mediators."

"My... No," she said. "Not mine. You know..."

"I don't know," I interrupted quietly, as levelly as I could. That took an effort. "I don't. I thought I did. I thought Mediators were guards, were guards of the law. I thought they were like the law in my world. I thought they answer to the government."

She blinked. "No. Mikah. No. How can they be law if the Government could control them?"

"Then... then they can do whatever they want?"

The Lady's muzzle wrinkled again and when she spoke it was gently, like a teacher I'd known might speak to a cub. "Again, no. They are the law. They are bound by it. There are conventions they must follow or the law is void."

I ran permutations of that sentence through in my head. God, I was so tired the words didn't make sense. Rather, in Rris they worked, but when I thought of them in English the concept melted through my metaphorical fingers. I started to form a reply, then sagged, "Ma'am, I just don't understand. Then why did they take me?"

"For routine questioning, they said," she replied. "There were things they wished to ask you. That's why they were holding you. Tell me: why'd you run from them? Why did you come here?"

And I looked at her. "They..." I croaked, "That was what they told you?"

"A," the Lady replied and then slowly cocked her head. I saw muscles under her fur set in place. Her tail had frozen, motionless. "You wish to say otherwise."

"Milady..." I started to say, searching for words. Words that would stand up to Mediators'. "Ma'am, I suppose they may have taken me for questioning; that may be true. Initially. But... I was told otherwise. And it didn't seem like that. I didn't know who had taken me; I was afraid for my life. That's why I ran."

"You didn't know they were Mediators?"

"Would Mediators abduct me from Mediators?"

She flinched visibly and her ears twitched as though a fly had buzzed into them. For a long second she was motionless, and then she leaned forward to look me right in the eyes. "Mikah, I think it might be best if you tell me what happened to you, from that night they took you."

"Yes, Ma'am." I nodded and took a breath. "Chaeitch and I were returning to the Palace, after attending to business at the Chartz works... the glassworks." She just waved acknowledgement.

"On the way back to the Palace we were stopped. Mediators stopped us. One of them I knew, from years ago. Shyia. He was the Mediator sent to Westwater to... investigate me when I first arrived here. He brought me to Shattered Water. He said that I had to go with him to the Guild Hall. Chaeitch looked concerned, but told me I should go. I did so.

"I asked Shyia why I was going with them. He never really answered me. And before we got to the hall we were attacked. Mediators were fighting in the dark; I couldn't see with whom at the time, and Shyia just made me run. We were caught. I tried fighting... they beat the... they beat me badly. The next thing I really remember I was chained in the back of a wagon outside the city, heading somewhere. North; I don't know where exactly. They were Mediators as well, they said. They said they'd saved me from being executed.

"I don't know if that was true. I don't know if they were Mediators. They dressed like it; they acted like it, but I'm not so familiar with such things. I could be wrong."

Lady H'risnth hadn't taken her eyes from me while I told my tale. I'd watched them as I talked, seeing her pupils contracting and dilating; flicking from flecks of jade in that glowing amber to pools of black. Kneeling there, just an arms length away with. The waning afternoon sunlight spilling in through the balcony doors behind washed across a marble wall; across a small landscape painting bringing out brilliant colors; haloed her Ladyship in a soft nimbus of white.

"That's all true?" she finally asked.

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Huhn," she mused. "Mikah, you know, I pride myself on being able to read people. You... you're an exception. I just can't be sure. As you said before, it does work both ways, and sometime not for the best."

"Ma'am, it is the truth. That's all I can say."

"You have witnesses?"

I opened my mouth, closed it again. "Ma'am, I don't want to get anybody else in trouble."

"I'll take that as a yes then," she said, and huffed air. "I think you should tell me again. This time, everything. Including how you ended up here."

"Yes, ma'am," I said. "But..."

"Yes?"

"Do you have any food?" I ventured. "It's been... a couple of days since I ate. I'm quite hungry."

"A. Of course," she said, then hesitated and asked, "and how long since you last slept? About the same?"

I did some rough calculations, then tipped my hand in an affirmative. She hissed and rubbed at her cheek, ruffling the previously immaculately groomed fur there. "Huhn, rot. It shows. Look, I can't protect you here, understand that? Mediators will come and I cannot stop them. And my staff will soon know that something unusual is going on here. They are loyal, but I would not expect them to lie to Mediators.

"But we have some time to use." She glanced over her shoulder at the light, then back to me. "You can stay the night, that should be safe enough."

I was too tired to rein in my human smile. "Thank you Ma'am."

"A. And there are plenty of questions for you. I want to hear what's happened to you. Every detail."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Now, I'm sure there's food you can eat. I'll have something brought. And while we're doing that, through there is the bath, which I suggest you use before you fall on your face." She sniffed delicately. "Which I really suggest you use."

Section 56

The bathroom was white stone and marble, gleaming brass pipes, polished brass and silver fittings, and the bath was the size of a small pool.

Steaming hot water streamed out of the black marble sluice, a hot waterfall the width of the tub. Wisps of vapor curled from the surface, along with a delicate tapestry of aromas from the scented oils swirling across the bath. Grime floated there as well: dirt and grass and leaves, clean water turned grey from the lampblack and dust. The bottom of the tub was carved marble, contoured to alien shapes.

I could've cared less. The soaps and oils stung on my wounds, but the warmth sank in, easing the aches in tired muscles. Exhaustion sung in my head, like a single high-pitched note, twitching on my nerves. I lay back against blood-warm stone, watching the ceiling, listening to water reverberating from marble and tiles.

Could I trust her? I didn't know. Was she involved? I didn't know. What would she have to gain from involvement?

Me?

Create dispute. Make me conveniently disappear with plausible deniability. Keep me where they could extract what they wanted later, at their leisure. It was possible. But how possible? Would she do that?

I didn't know. It didn't feel right. And why would she go so far as to hide me and not just call the guards. I felt as if I could trust her, but then my feelings had been wrong before. Damn, I was too tired to think.

Water splashed across the white tiled floor as I hauled myself out. I left faint pink footprints on the tiles: a cut on my foot had opened a bit. There were towels: huge soft cotton things of immaculate white that also became smeared with pink. Blood was seeping from the abrasion on my neck where a scab had pulled away. I patted at it carefully, drying it as best I could. At least I was feeling clean again, and there was the smell of food from the next room.

"How are you doing?"

Her Ladyship was standing in the doorway, watching me with her ears plastered flat against her skull. "I didn't realise..." she said, and gestured distractedly toward her own neck and torso, then just clenched her hand. "Do you need a doctor?"

I shook my head and returned to drying myself, too tired to care that she was a queen and I was just out of the bath. "No. They're clean. I think."

Toe claws clicked against the bathroom tiles and then she touched my arm, turning me. She looked me up and down, at the greenish-back bruises, the cuts and lacerations, the sunburn. And I flinched, then stood rigid as a finger touched my back, running over the corrugations of the scar tissue there. The sensations were... I shivered as numb tissue transmitted only the pressure of her finger.

"This, what did this?"

"Rris," I said quietly.

She said something, quietly; I couldn't quite make out. Claws ticked on the tiles again as she stalked around and looked at my neck, then took my hands one at a time and inspected the damage there carefully.

"Shackles?" she asked.

"A."

"How'd you get rid of them?"

"I cut them off," I said and she glanced up, studying my face for a second before she just said, "A." Then she moved her attention back to my arm, up to the biceps, then she gently took arm and raised it slightly to see my side. The bruises I'd acquired from my abduction were fading, but the baton marks were still garish green-purple against my hide. "Those... is anything broken?"

"No. I don't think so."

"Is there anything you need?"

"Just to rest for a while. Please."

Her ladyship stepped back, looking me up and then down again. Despite everything I felt a flush crawl up my neck and wrapped the towel around my waist. She looked slightly chagrined, or was it amused?

"Apologies. For a thinking mind to inhabit such a frame... it is remarkable."

"So I've been told."

She chuffed air, then patted my arm; like one might pat a skittish horse. "When you're ready, there's food."

Section 57

The meat was Rris rare, the bread a little stale. I couldn't care less. I went through the meats and breads, the stew and pastries like they weren't there. And when I came up for air, Lady H'risnth was looking a little startled as she surveyed the debris littering the low coffee table sitting between us in her study.

"Is that sufficient?" she asked, perhaps with a little sarcastic tint.

When I put the remains of the drumstick down on the dish with the rest of the ex-wood pigeon silverware clinked, the cluttered dishes bumping against the swanlike crystal decanters in the centerpiece, almost upsetting it. I sat back on the cushion, a little embarrassed. I'd been starving, but I'd been surprised at how ravenous I'd been. "Yes, Ma'am. Most."

Then it was time to retell my story. Every little detail this time. From the time we'd left the palace that morning, the tour through the glassworks, when Shyia and the other Mediators had stopped us. I recounted it as best I could, elaborating as best I could when she asked.

Outside the shadows were growing longer, denser, as the sun sank low. I told her about the city, about my abduction, about their treatment of me and described my captors as best I could. She was interested in hearing about the ferry and wanted details about that, about the number of Mediators who'd been there, if I'd heard any names or places mentioned. I related all I could.

But not everything.

There were things that were better not said. Some details, like the names of the Rris who'd helped me I... edited. I thought it best. And it couldn't hurt to keep them anonymous.

My escape, I told her about that. My escape and then the days slogging lost through the wilderness. There wasn't a lot to say about that: there were a lot of trees and they all looked pretty much the same. Then there was the farm, the Rris who'd... no, they hadn't taken me in, but they'd believed me. And there was Heksi and his help, which had been far more generous than I'd expected. Their names became the names of some of the Rris carpenters who'd worked on the house back in Shattered Water. If her Ladyship were on the level, nobody would ever find out. And if they did find out, well, then I was being only as honest as she was.

She seemed a little surprised that someone had given me a lift back to Open Fields. I caught a slight shift in her posture when I simply told her I managed to get a ride back in a boat. She'd have known that no Rris would just offer me a ride so there had to be something more to my story. In other words, she knew I was lying and being deliberately vague, but she didn't interrupt or try to pry more information out of me.

The sequence of events that'd taken place since I'd returned to Open Fields were still fresh in my mind. Some were crystal clear snapshots Chaeitch's features... what I'd thought were Chaeitch's features contorted in agony and fury... while others were blurs careering through a maze of unknown streets in the night . But I told her what I could as best I remembered. From the swim across the harbor to the moment she'd found me on the balcony.

When I finished her Ladyship sat and stared at me for a while. "You know," she said eventually. "You're luckier than anyone has a right to be."

I almost laughed out loud. "And what sort of luck would that be?" I asked, "because it didn't feel like the good kind."

"Hai," she flicked her ears. "If half of what you've said is true, then... You've told this story to anyone else?"

"Why?"

"Because the repercussions of this are likely to be extreme," she said quietly.

I stared back at her unblinking gaze, then gestured to the decanter and glasses on the tray vying for table space with the remains of my meal. "Is that alcohol?"

She gestured an affirmative and I just un-stoppered the crystal and poured a generous shot glass.

"You're supposed to..." she started to say but I tossed my head back and downed it in one hit. Damn, the stuff went down easy, then snuck up again and punched me behind the eyes. I coughed and wiped sudden tears away. She snorted and waved a dismissive gesture. "Mikah, do you understand? Did you speak to anyone?"

I gazed into the little glass. "No. I don't understand. This is to do with the Mediators? Why? I always thought they were police. They help to enforce the law. You said they answer to no government. I don't understand how that can be."

A soft exhalation of breath. "Your kind, you don't have Mediators?"

I toyed with the glass, turning it between my fingers. "We have something I thought was the same. The governments dictate the law and these departments of the government enforce that. I believed that was what the Mediators were."

"It sounds... corruptible," she ventured.

"But if you can't control the Guild, then who does? They are all-powerful?"

"Yes, and no," she leaned forward.

"Can you please give me a straight answer? I'm sorry Ma'am, but I'm very tired. I've heard they have authority over government troops; I've heard they have influence in the highest government; I've heard about the... Reshara Charter, but I don't know what any of it means."

"The Reichis Charter," she corrected me. "Interesting you should bring that up. Perhaps a good place to begin.

"Mediators have always been with us. As far back as telling goes there've always been facilitators; individuals to whom people would go to for a resolution to problems or disputes. If there was a murderer to be brought to trial or just a squabble over cattle or boundaries, they would look to a Mediator. Their decisions were generally fair and respected.

"They've always looked after their own, training and teaching from master to student. Early stories don't mention a Guild, just individuals. Some achieving things that are perhaps just the other side of incredible. But the Guild is here now, and takes in and looks after its own.

"The Reichis Charter came about hundreds of years ago. I don't think the original parchments still exist, but there are copies of essential [tenets?] in all Guild halls and Royal archives. It essentially ratified what had been custom for a long time: the Guild had authority over Governments where matters of Guild business were involved. Guild business was law, the law is the maintenance of the peace and justice. The greater the [instability?] the greater their authority. You understand this?"

I blinked, then rubbed my eyes. "The words, make sense but the idea behind it... "

"You don't understand?"

"Ma'am, I think that I don't think the same way Rris do. It's to do with the way my kind grew. Something that might see quite normal to you can be quite unusual to me. This is one of those things."

"That sounds unusual in itself. But what you told me about your methods... that does not make sense."

"I should tell you about the Roman Catholic Church sometime," I sighed as I refilled the glass. I took another shot, grimaced, then raised my hand to ward off her question. "Don't ask. Perhaps... is there some history behind this agreement?" That might help me put things into perspective and perhaps get some grasp on why they did it.

"A," she said and rocked back on her cushion, tipping her head back to regard the ceiling. "Alright. Mediators have intervened in politics, where the disputes were seen to have wider ranging implications, especially threatening common ground. I suppose the earliest documented intercession was during the Swampy River wars, long before the Charter. The skirmishing was disrupting travel on the river, at a vital fork. The trade embargoes were hurting the participants and starting to draw neighbors into the dispute. The Mediators interceded during the Battle of Three Sides. They appeared on the field with forces that outnumbered the combatants. Thrisi aesh Cho and Eshe ah Feta were brought to a [parley table] where the Mediators dictated terms.

"Then there were instances at Mishi Sounds and The Ford of Broken Legs and the siege of Sharsi Says. All historical conflicts where Mediators intervened in one way or another. Sometimes requested, other times not. Sceri ah Nhires [something] Es'erithri aseh Re'aeth's claim to the Wandering titles. A Mediator tribunal was requested by Guild houses and found that neither was the legitimate title-bearer. There were..."

She went on. I just closed my eyes for a second.

Section 58

The branches were brambles that tore at me as I ran through a maze of stark trees. Branches and darkness, that's all there was, until the first door of weather-split planks. The latch turned, but the further I opened it the more it pushed back, until I managed to squeeze through.

"You're still running?" Mai asked.

There was nothing behind me. No way back.

"Where can I go?"

"Follow me," she chittered and turned her back, flicking her tail as she ran up the hill. I chased her, but I was so slow and she was now just a glimmer in the darkness ahead. When I reached it, that glimmer was a lamp, hanging above another door, plated with battered tin sheeting like a service entrance in an alleyway.

I was in the old classroom, sunlight streaming in through the tall windows. Jackie was there, sitting in the back. Her ears twitched and her muzzle pursed in amusement.

"This isn't right," I said.

"How can you tell?" Chihirae asked and turned from the chalkboard, colored dust coating her hands.

"She's not here."

"Of course not," Jackie said and she wasn't there. Just a Rris.

"See?" Chihirae said and then smiled whitely. "How's your history, ape?"

"I'm not an ape."

Chaeitch walked across the front of the room and put his arms around her and grinned at me, then they kissed and then he starting tearing at her blouse, tearing at her hide, biting into her.

I shouted. When his face came up it was a bloodied, vacant mask. Snarling as he lunged.

And then I shot him.

I saw him die again; saw the blood spattering on dusty floorboards. Saw the body twitching and then saw the face that'd betrayed me.

"Mai!"

It was dark. I was standing in an island of light. Shapes rose into the heights, into the darkness, slender columns supporting crowns of gargoyle figures watching me with stone eyes over snarling muzzles. Huge flagstones lay beneath my feet, the cold granite etched with words I couldn't read. The grey light was filtering through high windows that might've been stained glass once, now they were just monochromatic slivers forming a pattern that refused to resolve into a coherent shape. And out there beyond the light were shapes, tiers of benches rising up to cathedral heights where indistinct forms watched, and from those heights the darkness closed in, uncountable black wings whirling around and clutching and tearing and bearing me down. Then the figure was over me and the whip was coming down again and again and I tried to get away but the inhuman figures were pinning me and there were lines of fire searing across my back and white teeth lunged at my face....

"Mikah!"

There was still a fanged face over me. Clawed hands were grasping at me; one hand struggling with my flailing arms and a leathery palm clasped over my mouth. I went rigid, about to thrash wildly before realization sunk in.

Oh. God. My heart was still racing furiously; I was shaking. Her hand was clamped over my open mouth. Where her fur was pressed against me it was sticking to cooling sweat. I shuddered, then dropped back and she slowly drew her hand away from my mouth. Pillows, and carpet. Lady H'risnth. Her study. It was dark out, real night, and the light was from a little oil lamp flickering on her desk. There was a noise from elsewhere in her apartments and her head went around, ears pricking. With a curse she flowed to her feet and vanished across the room.

Sounds of a door opening in an adjacent vestibule. I flinched, looking around at flickering lamp light casting moving shadows on a wall in the next room. There were low voices, then a louder one issuing curt orders and then the door was slammed. I heaved a sigh, closing my eyes. When I opened them her Ladyship was kneeling in front of me, panting gently, watching.

"What... happened?" I croaked.

The light behind her was enough to let me see her cock her head but not enough to make out her expression. "You fell asleep," she said. "When I was giving you some history lessons."

I swallowed on a raw throat, feeling my heart settling again. "Sorry, Ma'am."

"I didn't want to wake you. But later you... You were making a lot of noise. Screaming? Thrashing around wildly. What was that?"

"They were... dreams," I said, looking down at my hands. Muscles on my back around the scars flinched.

"Rotted sight more than that from the sounds of it," she huffed. The cushions were strewn left and right. There'd been a blanket, now it was twisted and tangled. "Woke the staff. They won't ask questions though."

"Sorry," I rubbed at my face. "They've been... I thought they were done with."

"Apparently not," she noted. "You've had them before?"

"A." I shuddered.

There was a pause, as if she were expecting me to elaborate on that. I didn't. Eventually she stood and just said, "Come on."

I looked at the offered hand. "Ma'am?"

"The bed's a stretch more comfortable than the floor. Come on."

I was aching, in my shoulder and in the scar across my cheek and I staggered when she hauled me up. So did she, just about coming down. "Hai, you're a weight," she growled and then touched my back, just guiding me as the room slowly steadied. That drink? What'd been in it? "Here. Come along."

And we were at the door before I realized where we were going. "Ma'am? That's your bed."

"More than big enough for two," she said.

And we were a bit further before I realized the blanket was on the floor back there somewhere. Hell with it.

Moonlight filtered through the windows, through the balcony doors I'd entered through. I saw my bag and my gun were gone. Couldn't expect them to be left lying around though.

She was right about the bed; it was far more than queen sized. A small patch of sheets away on the far side were already rumpled around a depression where a body had been laying. She helped me settle on the other side. Whatever the mattress was stuffed with, it was deep and soft. The sheets were cool cotton. After a week sleeping under trees and in barns it felt strange.

Her ladyship stepped back. "Are you alright? Do you need more blankets?"

"This is... comfortable," I said.

"Better than the floor," I heard, her voice moving around the room. There was a movement through the moonlight, then I felt the mattress shift as she settled, curling up.

"A," I lay back, trying to relax again. There was plenty of room, but of course no pillows. I lay under the crisp sheet and stared up at the ceiling, the shadows and darkness. The bed smelt of dry grass; of potpourri; of musty Rris. Outside, in the fields and grasses, choruses of insects buzzed and chirruped; wind blew, the moonlight changing as clouds crossed the night and the drapes stirred gently. Adrenaline was still twitching nerves, singing in my head.

It'd been a dream; a nightmare. Chihirae wasn't here and Chaeitch was alive. It hadn't been him who'd died, but was my subconscious going to insist it was and keep dredging that up? She'd told me that it wasn't him, and I wanted to believe that.

What she'd said... I remembered what she'd been talking about, back before I'd just flaked out. And in the darkness in the middle of the night it made some weird sort of sense, for a species that seemed so much more... pragmatic than human. I'd mentioned the Church, and in a way the Mediators were the church; a concept that would be as strange to Rris as their system seemed to me. An institution that people followed because it was there; it provided security and explanations and thinking.

Was that what Mediators were? No. Saying they were the same thing, that wasn't correct, and was a risky way of thinking. It was an analogy, that was all. But the Rris seemed to believe in them, enough to give them jurisdiction over their own government in matters of law. Was that like the human faith in the church? But faith is simply unwavering trust. Following blindly in other words. I couldn't see Rris doing that, not without a good reason.

Was that the problem? There was a reason they wanted to follow the Guild? Or had to?

And I'd seen Mediators fighting Mediators. What did that herald? A schism in the Guild? How would Rris governments react if their overseers were bickering amongst themselves? What effect would dissention in the church have?

Ask the Irish. The English. Ask most of the Human race.

I sighed. Quietly, I thought, but there came the rustling grass-quiet sound of fur brushing on cloth beside me and then an alien voice in the dark: "Mikah? You're still awake?"

"A."

"Still can't sleep?"

"I was thinking about what you said, about the Mediators."

"Huhn, that put you to sleep before. Not this time?"

I smiled. "I'm sorry. I think I was more tired than I thought."

"That and you put away enough Haisa for four on an empty stomach," she said. "It was supposed to be mixed with water and citrus juice."

"Oh." Did that explain the light-headedness?

A soft chitter. "But what were you thinking about."

"I think perhaps I understand now. I think..." I tried to articulate the tenuous connection I'd made. "They have authority over even governments, but the price of that power is their credibility. If that credibility were to be brought into doubt, so is their authority."

"A," she murmured. "That is the essence, in a way."

"But, it would have such an effect?"

A sigh. "I could tell you the terms of the charter and what a dissolution of the Mediator Guild might do, but it might send you to sleep again."

I felt my face heating. "Apologies, Ma'am."

"That was a joke, Mikah," she said and I felt the bed shift. She was propped up on one elbow, watching me. Her face was in shadow but highlights glittered on the sheen of her eyes. She'd helped me; broken Mediator law, deceived her staff... why?

"Why're you doing this?" I asked. "Why didn't you just turn me in?"

Her ears flicked. "Just because international law requires us to acquiesce to the guild, doesn't mean we have to like it. Because I wanted to hear your side of the story; and the tapestry you spun is a whole lot more believable than the tales I heard from the Guild; and also because I like you."

"Thank you."

A soft chitter. "And you might have such advanced knowledge, but I think when it comes to matters of politics you are actually quite naive. Honesty can be a rare trait. It's quite endearing."

"Oh," I said. I wasn't sure if it was entirely flattering. "I don't know how I can repay this."

There was another movement, another stirring of the bed, and then she said, "Well, there are a few more questions I would like to ask you."

I hesitated. "Is that a good idea? His lordship might be upset if I tried offering deals outside the specified trade parameters. Going behind his back..."

"Not that sort of question," she quietly interjected. "No, there are some other things I was wondering about."

"Umm... you asked me last time."

Another muted chitter of laughter and the bed moved. "No, Mikah. No. I couldn't. Not then. It was business. No, you showed me pictures of your world. From your home. I never had the chance to ask you: do you miss it?"

I lay still, feeling the cool sheets against skin, hearing her breathe.

"Mikah?"

"Yes, Ma'am, " I said. "Yes, every day."

"Oh," the Lady said, and I thought there was a trace of disappointment there. Then she said, "Can you tell me? What do you miss?"

"Miss?" I stared up at the ceiling for a while, gathering my thoughts. Images - memories - flickered. "So much," I murmured. "My family, my friends. The comforts and convenience. The city at night, the lights and sound. Central heating in winter. Pizza and bad movies. Fast cars. Fast food. Coffee, tea, coke. God, I miss coke. Proper beer. The latest films and music. To be able to be alone in a crowd. To smile normally without frightening children. My mate, the female I was with. I miss her. I miss women."

Her voice was low. "I know a few women."

"Women," I said. "My kind of women. Not so much fur and claws and teeth. Softer. More... " I grinned in the darkness and lifted my hands, describing an hourglass figure. I was slightly drunk, I realized. Not much, just enough. "I miss breasts," I sighed.

"Breasts?"

"A. Breasts." No, Jackie hadn't been overly endowed. But perhaps my imagination overcompensated sometimes.

A pause. "Pregnant females?" the voice in the darkness sounded puzzled. "Their breasts are quite prominent."

"It's different," I said.

"Ah. Mating habits."

"Yes."

"That different?"

"In some respects, yes. Very."

Another silence, then she said. "You know, there have been some very interesting rumors lurking in the undergrowth regarding that."

"Oh, really."

Another chitter. A hand touched my shoulder, just patting gently. "I was wondering just how much is true. Suggestions that sex with you is a very interesting experience indeed. Stories that you can do things that are quite... unique?"

"Oh," I said again. "Those stories."

"Huhn?" she made a little querying noise. "You know them?"

"'of them'," I corrected. "I've heard of them. Where did you hear these?"

"Ah... sources," she chittered gently.

I guessed what that meant. "How drunk did you have to get him?" I asked dryly.

"Ah," her hand touched again, the familiar sensation of a leathery fingerpad stroking my shoulder: touching, pressing gently, stroking as she watched the skin distorting; the clawtip just tickling slightly. "Not just him. But he was concerned for you," she said. "Worried. Don't blame him. But are they true?"

"What did he tell you?"

She told me. She told me in great detail. And if I'd had ears like her's they would have laid back. As it was, I felt a heat there. Obviously Chihirae had filled Chaeitch in on more than just the broad details. There were specifics. I shouldn't have been surprised: they were far more open about bodily functions of all types. But her ladyship also had sources that weren't so accurate. So of what she murmured was utterly... preposterous.

"You know," I said to the ceiling when she was done, "perhaps I will shoot him after all."

"Mikah?"

"That was a joke. Sort of."

"Then they're lies?"

"Yes. Some of that... or exaggerations .... I wish it was true, but I think your sources are a bit fanciful. To say the least. All night long... that is a little much. And that thing with the honey is... strange."

"Ah?" she reached out and her hand brushed over my shoulder, laid splayed on my chest. I could feel the cool pads of her palm and fingers, the fur in between tickling slightly. "All lies?"

I moved, caught her hand. She didn't pull back, letting me hold it, stroking it absently. The bone structure in there wasn't anything human. "Not all. But they don't tell everything."

"Such as?"

"It's not sex. Not as Rris know it, or like I knew it with my kind. There are physical differences. What is normal for one can be strange for the other. And... we can hurt each other. We have to be careful."

Her ears tipped back. "Hurt badly?"

"I still have scars from the first time I was with a Rris. Your term 'scruff biting', that can't really apply."

"Huhn," she leaned in, a bit closer still. "I think I can understand that. Your skin is quite delicate, isn't it." Her hand moved again, stroking again. "Soft, smooth. Like vellum."

"Ma'am, do you find me attractive? Attractive in the same way as a you might find a Rris male?"

A pause. "You have startling eyes... and beautiful fur, what there is, and bare skin is intriguing, but otherwise no; not like that."

"Then why are you doing... this?"

"Curious," she said quietly, the mattress dimpling beneath her weight as she leaned over. Her eyes glimmered like light on black water, her breath washing against me. "Very much so."

"You couldn't just ask?" I tried to joke.

She made a low sound and her head tipped. "Huhn... ah, parts of you aren't so reluctant."

I was tired. I was nervous, but my body reacted to the touches. Alien hands were no longer so strange that the sensations were eerie. There'd been time for me to learn them, for sensations to become interpreted as sexual. And the dim moonlight and lightweight sheets weren't enough to hide it.

She was amused, I could see that. Then she hooked the blanket with a finger and slowly pulled it aside and then she hesitated.

"I said different," I murmured. She'd seen me in the bath earlier. What'd she expect?

"A," she replied quietly. "A."

Diaphanous curtains stirred in an errant draught, glowing in pale moonlight. I'd half expected her to retreat then, but after a few heartbeats there was a touch on my sternum and leathery fingertips stroked over my skin. I let her explore some more, shuddered at touches and stroking, allowing inquisitiveness that infiltrated the defenses I usually kept up around Rris. And when she took me in her hands me and chittered bemusement and surprise I gasped and my own hands clenched in her fur. I knew where this was leading, of course. I understood that. And even through the fog of arousal I thought I could see what she was doing, and why. And her assumptions were almost funny. But at that moment it didn't really matter to me.

I'd told her. And she'd heard but perhaps never truly grasped what it meant when I said it was different. But I think she started to when I moved over her looked down on her looking back up at me with uncertainty seeping into her dimly lit expression. Her heartbeat was thumping against her ribs, her breath fast, and her muzzle was like velvet under my fingertips as I stroked, whispered quiet reassurances. I think she realized when I pinioned her arms back against the mattress, as I had to. And I know she did when I moved gently forward and her amber eyes went wide.

Section 59

When the morning arrived, I was gone.

I loped across fields still wet with dew. Early sun diffused into the clouds on the eastward horizon, painting the morning sky in golds and reds. Higher, the arching vault of the sky was crisp and clear. A flight of ducks or geese... some kind of bird flew high enough to catch the sunlight, flaring into a V of brilliant white specks against the blue. Poplars and oak stood still in the cool air, moisture still dripping from leaves.

There were no sentries. Her Ladyship had called an early inspection of the outlying guards. Unusual, but her prerogative. Bells had pealed out across the morning fields and the guards had trooped back up the hillside. I'd watched, from the balcony windows of her bedroom as the figures congregated toward the front of the manor. And when there were no more to be seen, I'd gone out the way I'd come in.

My pack was weighted with fresh food, with fresh water. There was Open Fields coinage, a lot of it. I had a map of the local area. Crude, local handiwork, but it was better than dead reckoning. And Lady H'risnth had given me something else as well.

Before she'd left me to go and keep the staff busy she'd taken my wrist in one hand and with the other pressed something into my palm. It was a key. An old, iron key: bulky, with an intricately wrought curlicue at the end. By the rust oxidizing along the length it hadn't been used for some time. A place to stay, she'd told me. Perhaps somewhere the Mediators wouldn't go.

The morning seemed brighter than the previous day had been. I had a destination. I had the beginnings of a plan. And Chaeitch was alive - or rather I'd been told he was alive and the evidence seemed to support that claim. And there'd been the sex last night. Perhaps that had something to do with it as well.

Midday I stopped under trees atop a hill and watched farmers in the valley below laboring away behind ploughs and barrows. Building a wall, it looked like. Replacing the zig-zag lines of an old wooden fence with something a little more robust. I settled myself further back in the shade of a sycamore, amongst the roots and fallen seed pods, leaned back against the bole and dipped into the provisions I'd been given. There was bread with a crust the consistency of granite; the Rris versions of spring rolls with their suspicious meat fillings; and plain slivers of smoked turkey. While I ate I took the opportunity to pull my right sleeve up and inspect my upper arm and the crescent of bruises and small punctures there.

She'd bitten me last night. It'd been dark and I'd been somewhat... preoccupied and in the heat of the moment, so to speak, she'd just whipped her head up and sunk her teeth in. It'd been at a moment when other sensations were in the drivers seat, so it hadn't hurt. Not... badly. But I'd seen reactions like that before. Was it something hardwired into Rris females? A reflex to extend claws, to bite and claw? Or was it just a reaction to something they hadn't experienced before. Chihirae still had a tendency to do it, so it seemed to be something as reflexive as a sneeze.

Oh, her Ladyship had been apologetic about it - almost mortified - but reflexes like that were one of the reasons that casual sex here was so risky. Protection? You'd be talking about a full suit of plate armor.

And I still didn't have a good idea why... it happened. I don't know if it's really orgasm or just something analogous, I just know that the Rris knew virtually nothing about it. The first Rris woman I'd slept with had been a doctor, or she'd claimed to be a doctor, but she'd never heard of it. Since then, in my time with Chihirae, there'd been time to talk and I'd had more, ah... hands on experience, but it was new to her as well. Granted, I'd never gone to the university archives and asked about it, but it was looking more and more like it was something they'd never learned about themselves. Still, wasn't the human female orgasm considered a myth for a long time?

From those experiences some things had become apparent. There were physical departures from human equipment in males and females; physical constraints especially in the male that limited them to mating front to back, with the male mounting from behind. That coupled with the male hair trigger limited them to small portions, but a lot of them.

And the females... From my experiences I could liken the sensations to putting a shoe on the wrong foot. It worked, but it just wasn't quite right. There were odd angles and muscles and textures. And things I'd expected weren't where I expected: sensitive flesh buried deep inside instead of closer to hand, as it were. Our joining worked, rubbing her the right way with results that could leave claw marks in my hide. But other options...

Perhaps that was a reason. Chihirae knew humans could masturbate, and she found it hilarious. Also bewildering. I guess short fingers and claws didn't lend themselves to manual stimulation, but there was also a mental attitude. When I'd asked her about... other options; perhaps toys or some other alternative, she'd been quite unable to see the point. Inanimate objects... it seemed to be about as appealing to her as a gyno exam is to most human women.

"Might as well couple with a corpse," she'd said as we laid together; talking, learning.

In the warmth and dappled sunlight sifting through the leaves above I shuddered, then looked at the water bottle I'd been holding for the past few minutes while woolgathering and took a swig. Down the hillside the farmhands were breaking for their own lunch, tawny bodies lost as they sprawled out in the golden grasses.

Feeling guilty? After last night?

I was. I didn't want to, but I was. I knew that for Chihirae it wouldn't matter. She'd had trouble understanding why I was upset after finding her and Chaeitch together, so she'd probably just tease and ask for details. But her attitude didn't translate so easily from my side. I'd thought I could try and reason my way through it; tell myself that I was reciprocating her hospitality; that if I hadn't done it her Ladyship might have made things more difficult for me, but those arguments didn't entirely help. I still felt twinges of remorse from that part of me that was human.

Damn it.

And why'd she done it? Curiosity she'd said. Hmmm, yeah. Perhaps. Or perhaps there was another logic working there. From their point of view I formed unusually strong attachments with individuals. And it seemed to be getting around that I was inordinately - by their standards - attached to the females I'd slept with. Perhaps she'd concluded that that was usual for me, that I bonded with whomever I slept with. So therefore she was thinking that if she seduced me I would become attached to her. Why? I didn't know. Perhaps...

Perhaps I was being too paranoid and thinking myself into a corner. I snorted and grabbed my gear, rewrapping the food and throwing it back into my bag. What'd happened was in the past now and the future was still coming on, looming ahead like a storm cloud. There wasn't a lot to do but whatever I could.

I looked down at the meadow below, at the line of the unfinished wall, the part under construction reminding me vaguely of an unraveled string: the thread of the existing wall and the multitude of stone and rocks scattered at the working end waiting to be slotted into place. Like a jigsaw: Take the small parts, work to fit them into the final picture.

Which was what I was going to have to do. Only I didn't know what that big picture looked like.

I'd have to find out.

So, I returned to Open Fields.