Storms over Open Fields

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Section 1

The sun was a white eye high in the vault of a perfect cobalt blue sky, watching down over a scorching spring day. Drifting pollen and the glittering specks of droning, darting insects filled air already shimmering with the ripples of heat distortion rising from the warm earth. Unseen choruses of cicadas rasped and sizzled away from the long sienna-gold grass of the lake meadow, their background noise punctuated by occasional birdsong chiming in from the stand of windbreak pines down near the lake.

Spring blossomed across this part of this world, washing away the last vestiges of winter for another year.

And I ran. Dry grass and packed earth pounded under my feet, puffs of warm dust coating my legs. The heat of day sucked rivulets of sweat from my bare skin, the moisture evaporating almost immediately in the warmth. I drew lungfuls of hot spring air, concentrating on breathing, trying to maintain the pace while coughing snarls sounded close on my heels. A quick glance back showed the big bipedal legged cat chasing close behind had gained a little again. 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 braced on wobbling knees as he wheezed and panted.

"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 sprawl out in the shade amongst the roots of the old pine. Collapsed 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 acquaintances 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 judgmental. 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 incident 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 crosshatched my hide. "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 chinups in a minute. No cars, electronic media, fast foods, elevators 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 beneficial for your health?"

"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 like a boiler. I can smell it from here."

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 one shoulder, then the other and winced slightly, then wiped sweat from my face and regarded the Rris. About five foot of bipedal feline topped by another several inches of tufted ears. That was slightly taller than average 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, and on that day his pink tongue was lolling over needle teeth. He'd stripped his expensive clothes off for that run. Right off. They don't have hang-ups with nudity, perhaps because even unclothed a Rris tends to be about as naked as an Eskimo in full winter garb. The males' penis is sheathed, the equipment tucked away close to the body, and both sexes' groins are covered in thicker fur continuing down from the belly. Physically, there's so little sexual dimorphism that telling the gender of a clothed Rris is tricky. At least for me it is. And even when they're unclothed it's not that obvious: 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 sweetly.

His lollling tongue flicked around his black lips and 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."

"And end up looking 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. "You know Kistrechiha sent me a tapestry?"

"I did not know that."

"Oh, yes. 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.

"How are those mills you're putting up going?" 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 three-quarters of 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 laughed at me and skipped a couple of stones while I pulled my footwear on again. "How are those paintings going?" he asked as we ambled off along the shore.

"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."

"Not as ridiculous as the pants thing, I hope," I said.

"Ah, they're quite practical actually. It could be worse, you know. Hai, and speaking of fads, there's another play at the Resound."

"Not... one of those?"

He grinned.

I rolled my eyes and sighed, "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, bemused 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 phones, cell phones, pagers, 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 actually 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 amidst broad meadows and sheltered 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 I'd grown up with. And it'd been built to accommodate Rris stature, which tended to the small side. I'd already got carpenters in to make modifications that included raising ceilings and doorways so I wouldn't concuss myself. With the aid of Chaeitch and his workshops 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 continual fire hazard, poor light, drifting ash covering everything and the smell of incompletely burnt paraffin.

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 absently 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 heat wave was another sort of trip. Cobbles rattled under the iron wheels as we skirted outlying fringes of the city, inward bound. We passed by clustered smaller buildings and houses with their blank facades and shadowy tunnels leading through to the central atrium. Passed by the cheaper districts where buildings huddled with crazily tilted walls propped against building on the opposite side of the narrow streets by ancient timbers. Peeling whitewash barely covered walls of wattle and daub and unglazed windows promising cold winters. Roofs were covered with tiles that were wood and bark and fragments of slate and stone rather than ceramic. Patches of grass - and in some cases small trees - grew 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 of the city the construction quality changed to reflect the fortunes of the inhabitants. Buildings were larger, some 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. Entranceways through to central atriums were gated with fanciful wrought iron or carved wood. Glass glittered in narrow windows and elegantly attired Rris went about their business. The narrow streets and alleys 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 up market 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 space on either side was a new addition, instituted following some security breaches not quite indirectly related to myself. 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 crafted wilderness 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 French.

The front façade was a barrage of glazed windows, 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 traders, merchants, 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, apparently, 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 massive 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 fixation on blousing and clashing 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, but for some reason most highborn Rris have issues with me wandering around their estates unattended.

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 and visiting dignitaries, 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 expressed claws ticked against the floor. At least while I was around they tended to. A nervous reaction.

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. I wasn't sure if it was a minimalist aesthetics thing or some obscure alien political statement. 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 and airy in summer, but in winter it was a well-lit icebox. 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 engaged, 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."

I gave it a second's thought. "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 in matters of commercial intercourse. 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 game of... cloak and dagger?"

"Interesting turn of phrase," he mused. "No. We're on very friendly terms."

He stood, rolled one shoulder and then the other and turned to gaze out a window at the palace grounds. There were fields of long grass out there, rippling in the breeze. "Still, you seem to have a knack for finding trouble, don't you. This has been noticed, but I don't think it'll be an issue here. 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 realizing 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 informed 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 other 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. So if the political 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. Your immersed in 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 crawling up the back of your neck 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 else is standing.

At least you could count on Rraerch having good alcohol handy. While their beers were terrible, 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 many days of slow, hot, dusty, 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 cool, grayish illumination 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 Ladyship's 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."

"Whatever's convenient," 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 and slapped the chair with a palm and sounded a mock snarl. "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 outer layers 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 right down to the nity-gritty of it, love is a cocktail of chemicals our brains and assorted glands 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 an unfamiliar town. 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 mused. "Well, I could always go and smile at them."

"Mikah..."

"A joke," 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 we have to live with."

"Hai, like you?" 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 finish this."

"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.

The dining room was another room with Rris furniture, in case I had to play host at some point. I hadn't considered it likely, but my sponsors had encouraged the move. It wasn't a small room and the centerpiece was a low, Rris-style table big and solid enough to land aircraft on. The cushions were leather, the engravings on them tooled 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 pretty 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 most certainly 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 stream helping to jolt me awake. I flipped the tap off and stepped out, wiping water from 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 her muzzle laid against my chest and the tops of her hears tickled my chin, but there was dense muscle under that hide and her kind were predators. "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 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, not like that. That could have been... uncomfortable. Perhaps risky. For both of us. She licked my neck, her tongue just touching. I shivered and 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 meant the act wasn't something that could just happen. We'd had some practice, made mistakes and learned lessons, but still we had to be careful. I had scars from... a painful memory.

The bedroom was dimly lit; it was warm and quiet and private. Chihirae found it a bit odd that I seemed to think it was the natural place for sex - Rris haven't sexualized the bed as much as my culture has - but the bed was comfortable. It was a place where we could go carefully, where I could be close to her. I know I enjoyed it, I knew that she got pleasure out of it, but it was not and could never be lovemaking for her. Not the same emotional trip I experienced.

And I knew that while we moved together, she wasn't feeling what I did; what a human did. I could look into the shimmering titanium brilliance of her eyes and what looked back wasn't something I could read. There was intelligence there; depth there, emotions and decisions I could never truly 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 like a film of grey paper, filtering it back to a blushing pale pink orb on the eastern horizon. The surface of the lake was rilled with wavelets that slapped in a staccato time against the breakwater. Inside that wall the harbor was molasses-smooth, stirring with the motion of the river's currents and the splash as an odd fish darted at something on the surface. 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 primitive 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?" I said, glancing back. Their ears had tipped down fractionally.

"You still can't tell?"

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

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 reassured her. "Hey, 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. It will be a surprise, a?"

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 types of engine design, new metallurgy techniques, revolutions in hull and prop construction. It was to the previous generation of Rris steamships what the Turbinia had been to its predecessors.

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 of a dozen new kind of ideas, and it showed.

Tawny bodies bustled around the ship and wharf: an organized 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!"

"Nah, you must've dreamed that while I was hard at work and..."

"Ai! Lies and more lies! I should shred your tongue you bald bedwarmer!"

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 in turn 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... well, out of friendship, I hoped. Or perhaps something else. 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, at best - but I knew it meant that if she wanted to leave, there was nothing holding her here; nothing emotional at any rate.

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 voluminous 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 or pier jutting from the shore, but otherwise untouched wilderness.

Marasitha spent a couple of hours doing last second updates to my briefings. He sat out on the deck in front of the wheelhouse, 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 highway. 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 criss-crossed it that made them lay their ears back.

Damn, was it really necessary that I cram all that information into my skull? 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 his amusement.

"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 down below. 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?"

"When you have 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.

I don't think anyone's ever said that 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. At that time of the year he wouldn't be thinking about their relationship in that way 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."

"Oh, did she?" I blinked out at the glare of sun on water. I was going to have words...

"A, she did. But I was wondering if the sex was like that for you. If it was the same sort of experience you got with your own kind."

"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 tipped his head.

"A, I've noticed that. Hard not to. 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's the same sort of act, 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 sometimes; confusing, frustrating, 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..."

"Too much information, 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 met his eyes and 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 looked at his suddenly worried eyes, 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. Actually, that would make it the fastest vessel in the world, with the Rris crew traveling faster than any of their kind had ever done in a powered vehicle. 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. The distant shore passed at a rate the Rris still weren't accustomed to.

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 known as Windswept. Back home the waterways 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 were well 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/FAB 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. I'd have been able to watch a movie or listen to a piece of music performed years ago and hundreds of kilometres away. 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 other great lakes. And there was a lot more traffic there where the waterways narrowed. Across the open water I could see several sails on ships under way, making for the western shore where city of Open Fields spread along the shoreline and spread up into the rolling hills, More vessels were moored on the open water in front of the city, 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 with a large bowl-shaped construct on top. Sparks flashed, then blossomed as the beacons were lit and flames - mere specters in the evening light - leapt up.

"About time those were replaced," Chaeitch idly 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. I could see fishers with drying nets strung out on booms and racks, fat traders offloading barrels and casks onto smaller tugs, a pair of chunky barges laden with what looked like chunks of rock. As we approached the docks 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; a far cry from the dumpy and use-stained shallowwater traders and fishers 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.

"That's the Ambassador," Rraerch whispered to me, nodding her muzzle toward an individual in that latter group. "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 ah Tr'hrichetfer, greeted us at the bottom of the gangplank. Waiting a few steps behind him was the bunch from the Cover-my-Tail government. 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 was asking. "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 was doing a pretty good job of it, it was his ears that gave his tension away. "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?"

"How can we refuse?" I shrugged.

"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' berthings 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 we 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 by them. The carriages waiting on the quayside were elegant affairs, as fitted royal transportation. Wooden panels weren't painted, but rather carved by Rris craftsmen with a skill and intricacy that made most human carving look like whittled corncobs. Trim on the carriages - 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 from Shattered Water 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. It wasn't difficult to see that he was disturbed: at me, or perhaps 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, hastily camouflaged by looking out the window as iron wheels rattled on cobbles and swung around out the gate.

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

Section 9

Open Fields was a well-planned city, intelligently laid out following a system based on those intrinsic Rris values. 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 right-angle 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. They weren't crowded; There was a surprising amount of open space and greenery that could have been considered wasteful in a human city; 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, but it was tolerable.

We traveled westwards down a dark boulevard. Boughs of huge old trees hung 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 gathering 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 own night vision and leave their faces in absolute blackness.

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

"Ai. 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 underlaid with the low creaking of timbers flexing. 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. Eisher House wasn't a house, it was a Palace, and it blazed like a fallen star.

The huge building was constructed along the lines of a distorted 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 oil 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 before the front steps. Footmen and stewards hustled forward to open the door, to put steps in place. Chriét disembarked first, and as he was stepping out the door, Rraerch put her hand on my leg again 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 right through an oak plank. 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 look casual and refrain 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. It was, after all, considered diplomatic baggage so 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 and made from bronze. Highly polished and elaborately-cast 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 tacked on later - each door looked like they'd been cast in one piece. I eyed one of the panels as we passed through. The craftwork was of a stunningly high standard. I had to wonder how much time and effort each one had cost. I also had to wonder how much they weighed and what the hinges were made from.

The vestibule beyond was roughly circular in plan, finished in white marble and 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, really old, split and gnarly looking things with barely discernable features.

Beyond that was a great hall, an atrium with another 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 scents faint ones of woods and spices, potpourri and the dusty scent of Rris and the underlying presence of chamberpots. Indoor plumbing was still a new idea. 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, sounding like a gust of wind through autumn branches, 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, many of whom 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, wondering why I'd stopped dead. 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 before us like the Red Sea. A moving cordon of guards kept the bystanders back, never touching their weapons but keeping the Rris crowd 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 paperwork 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. My briefings had had more than a bit on her, but we'd already met once before. 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 directly; that was my name using Rris conventions. "Please ma'am, just call me Michael," I said, then corrected: "Mikah. It's easier for everyone. 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.

Rris were waiting in there; A row of seven standing at nervous attention, but they weren't the military sort. 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 writing 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 wasn't exactly usual, not here. The Palace wasn't a new building and most of the sanitary facilities ranged from communal bathrooms to chamberpots, a personal bathroom was swanky indeed. The one adjoining that suite was new: all fine white and cream tile, green and gold 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.

"Sorry, relax," I sighed. "Really, 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, studying 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." I gestured and then shrugged. "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 preparations, 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.

The glass here was good. The multitude of diamond-shaped glass planes in the mullions that made the window were clear and free of blemishes so details of the world outside were discernable, rather than becoming kaleidoscopic smears of color as cheaper panes were wont to do. Still, I unlatched the windows and swung them wide. Out there, another fine day was simmering. The sun was low, burning 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 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 that was 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, 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 travel case 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 elegant halls of alien architecture 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, painted and papered with light colors: pale creams and white embossed wallpaper void of any pictures and coarse woven white rattan carpeting. A dozen white leather floor cushions with matching white-lacquered 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 slowly. "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 low table beside me, the mat black case of modern materials like a patch of night against the spotless white lacquer. 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.

"Your 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. All those Guildmasters 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 also 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 so while I might become accustomed to them, there was little chance they'd all grow used to 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, therefore so were transportation, coal and coke mines, refineries and techniques and products related to them, such as 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 central conversation which drifted back to technical talk interspersed with random questions about other subjects. Like the impromptu language lessons, a single topic of talk 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 tonnage from some years back, converted to something that made sense to the Rris. 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, lapping decorously 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, her face pursed in a smile and a slow blink.

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 turn on the AC or crack a window for a bit of ventilation, but an 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 few others 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 engine house where a feeble and unreliable primitive 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, ventilation systems and techniques, 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 spitting streams of molten metal were 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, unwieldy, hand-powered toothed rip saws powered by four Rris at each end. Each team could handle over a dozen logs, on a good day. Put a steam-driven engine in there and they could do a dozen an hour.

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 aqueduct 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 gears constructed from immense blocks of wood 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 ponderousness 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. Of course what they had here wasn't exactly like those products, but they were similar enough to require similar treatments. 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, and more efficiently. To feed a growing population and industrial base. And the Jones' had nice things, so 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 grain 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, hissing as it set trees swaying. Otherwise silence. No TVs, stereos, traffic, distant aircraft, just the breath of the world.

"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. Although I suppose he would be a hazard to shipping."

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. Not the way most Rris do."

"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 noticeably 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 and reminded him, "What about spring?"

"Only a few weeks. Not all year long," 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 in their duties. 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... you..." 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 and reluctantly left me to my devices.

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 or AC. It felt good to sluice that off, to sink down and dunk my head, washing away the grime of the day. IT was also good to be alone for a while, although 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 in force, armed with towels and businesslike attitudes. 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 either air-drying or dishcloth-like swatches of cloth and a great deal of patience. The palace, however, could afford extravagances like those towels and the attendants patted away 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 requiring formal garb before and I knew there'd be more in the future, so I'd wanted to get a proper suit tailored, something along the lines of a tuxedo. That idea, however, 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, they'd said. 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 might've been acceptable at a fancy-dress ball 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 a pretty fruitless exercise, as were attempting to trim and sharpen my claws, and sleeking back my beard in the style of Rris facial fur was just ridiculous. 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 was acceptable to 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: loose felt pleated 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.

"I feel like the very model of a modern major general. 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 couldn't see 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: A Land-of-Water honor guard 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 long-haired 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 pale 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 that filled the room yet thinned out dramatically in the area immediately around me. In that vacuum the occasional errant particle orbited uncertainly: approaching, curving away again, just watching. Lords and ladies, the wealthiest and most influential of guild houses and landowners and merchant families with their brushed fur and finery gleaming under the lights. All of them wanting to get in to try and secure an audience but not quite getting up the nerve to do it.

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 left by the sharks 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 and out of the technicolor crowd, occasionally 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 business. 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 finished wood, polished so the grain stood out like Jupiter's bands. 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 swallowed. "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."

Her attire was elegant, but light; in deference to the warm evening. Tan seemed to be her color, doing interesting things with her sandy and grey fur. 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 this time. But they were certainly watching her, and me.

"You might want to try these," Lady H'risnth suggested, indicating some small pastries. "Quail. 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.

"The stuffing is 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 and I wondered if that was actually what was really in it or if I'd become the butt of a joke. "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. Had they received invites or were they gate crashing?

"You're enjoying yourself?" she asked.

"Oh, yes," I said. Yeah, party hardy, dude.

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 hadn't realized 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, suicided 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 of reflected light 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 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 gladly 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 sounds 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 massive 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 darkened halls. There weren't a lot of lights, not nearly as many as a human residence would require, so we were walking through a Palace of shadows. Statues peered from black niches, doors and arches led into foreboding darkness. In another long hallway, moonlight seeped in through skylights to wash across the wooden paneled and white-plaster walls, turning Rris paintings and tapestries to monochromatic renditions of daylight scenes. The occasional lamp was a welcome pool of warmth and color.

"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 an informal study infused with a well-used air. There were books with creased spines on the shelves, spread paperwork and inkwells and grains of blotting sand on the low 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 at hand on the desk beside her was a tray with two glasses and two bottles: wine and water, or at least a clear fluid in the decanter. "Mikah, please, sit."

I folded myself down onto the cushion she indicated. Getting off my feet felt good but I was a little apprehensive. Even more so as the door closed behind us and we were alone. The atmosphere was... cosy. And isolated. 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, gently swirling dark red wine from the ornately blown dark green bottle into first one of the broad, shallow glasses and then the other. I took the offered glass, thanked her, and she watched as I sipped and then raised her own 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 realized 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. Although 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 you... working."

"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 when I want it to be. And you requested a chance to see some of our own galleries."

"That would be... greatly appreciated."

"Would the Estate collection interest you?"

It took me a moment to understand what she meant. I'd only heard mention of that in a text Rraerch had read for me. 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 frame, quite large; charcoal and chalk sticks of varying hardness, a small 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 a couple of hours, 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 slowly every so often.

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

A couple of hours 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. Out to the right I could see the side of a hill, trees, grass and wildflowers; on the left cornfields sloping gently 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 and green copper 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 servant, 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 translucent stone. Marble, which was damn expensive to import. 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. A couple of hours in a carriage on the unpaved roads that were common outside most 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. "Ah, my escort might appreciate something to drink as well."

"Of course, Sir. They will be looked after. And her Ladyship will be with you momentarily," she ducked her head and backed out, closing the doors behind her.

I was parched and my mouth tasted like road. 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. An easel with a frame and paper. Very good paper stock: rag mat soaked and dried on the frame. Back home that stuff was hand made and cost a lot more than the factory stuff. Here it's the only stuff available. On the trolley were other tools: an expensive-looking box of lacquered maple containing a range of black sticks: charcoal of various types and grades. Another similar case of some lighter wood 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 aerosols.

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

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 paisley that showed under certain angles of light. Very expensive stuff. 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.

She cocked her head and regarded the easel. "It's all to your satisfaction?"

"Ma'am?" I blinked and realised she was referring to the art supplies. "Ah. more than adequate. Thank you."

"Ah," she hissed softly and strolled over. She was alone, no guards. Likewise 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 and subject matters I found odd. But art isn't necessarily supposed to be beautiful. It's supposed to elicit an emotion response, positive or negative. And these certainly did that. 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. Which I gathered was a little unusual in itself. 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 regarding my attitudes.

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; there were depictions of 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; coopers and carpenters at work; others 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 seedy site or channel, not hanging in a national gallery. I knew they weren't there for titillation: it wasn't pornography - a little knowledge of Rris told me that - but just because that was a part of life. All those works had that in common: carrying a gritty depth, a solidity and attention to actual life that denied all romanticism that a lot of human works carried.

A prime example of that were the battle scenes hanging in their own section. The shots of triumph as well as defeat. There were scenes filled with victory and glory, but when you looked they were also filled with the other trappings of war. Banners and flashing swords and glorious assaults and last stands were there in abundance, but there was also mud and dirt and blood and spilling entrails and scenes of agony. As graphic as their sex scenes had been in their own way.

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 scarcely 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 absently, 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 on a clean cloth 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. From off to the side 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 closer, her head twitching as her amber eyes studied the paper. "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."

"Umm, 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 tickling on my ear; stroking around the outline, a furry fingertip 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 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. "I trespassed. I apologize."

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

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

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. "Your... Rris... unspoken meanings are different from my kinds. I find them confusing sometimes. 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 grabbed for words, feeling off-balance. I'd 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, I think. 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. Outside of spring 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 entertaining and with unexpected talents. I believe that explains a lot about her choice of mates."

I stared. 'That female' had been hauled 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. The sweetest meat is hardest won, as they say."

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. "That was a smile. 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 all evidence to the contrary - 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 estate 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... knowledgeable," 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. Lithium 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 night. The sun was gone and traveling 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's dusty ride 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 main 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, 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 platters and removing old ones as 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 that tobacco used to be to humans, but 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 neighbor; 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 sitting 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 just biting on rock, isn't it. 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 eyed him. "Nothing happened."

"With your reputation..."

"Nothing happened," I repeated and then frowned. "She... ventured, I think. And 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 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. More 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, bales and barrels. Somehow, it just 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 with their oversized ears handled it.

Next day was a exploration of Open Field's renowned glassworking industry. That entailed tours of everything from the sluggish and unwieldy vessels 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 moderately well-to-do homes and establishments – 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 technical tricks along with 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 advantageous."

"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 much stronger? How about plate glass? Big sheets of glass, perfectly flat and clear without 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 remarked.

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

Through his window I could see another pair: a solemn looking couple Rris standing in a building archway. 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 jokingly, but underneath 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 twitches, 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, feeling something tightening in my chest.

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 everything. "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. Those eyes that were a rare green.

"You don't remember me?"

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

"It's been a while hasn't it, 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 of the charges 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 town.

So 'friend' might not be the best label. Applying the human concept of friendship to someone or something with a completely different thought and decision-making process is always risky - as what happened with Chaeitch reminded me. And Shyia had never been the open, friendly, caring and sharing type. He was a hardass, whatever the species. But he'd stood up for me and he'd been the only familiar company for my long trek from Westwater to Shattered Water, so I'd thought of him as a friend.

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 an 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 Ah Ithisari. 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 kept an eye on 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 wall of 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 vision 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 moccasined 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 flame and spark-filled bursts of light and an acrid blue-grey smoke that spread and 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, once with a force that jolted up my arm and sent someone flying back, but 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. Jolting, bumping and acutely uncomfortable movement, rattling my skull against hard wood.

Without opening my eyes I was aware of a light flashing across my face. Bright, even through my closed 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 wooden planks 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 vomit 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. The wagon itself bed 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, unpaved 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 slumped 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."

Mediator Guild. "Why... am I here?"

"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 guard was dangling a bunch of leather straps from a finger, swinging them back and forth, 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 Rris I’d encountered.

Not that anything about that journey was enjoyable. Not nearly. The wagon floor was hard and uncomfortable; the shackles weren't just locked, they were riveted on and being designed for smaller Rris limbs 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. While I relieved myself I was able to see why we'd stopped. 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 studied it while I let my bladder empty.

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, launching myself out over the side of the wagon, over the token rope railings along the side of the ferry and diving into the river beyond.

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, splashing and gasping, some thirty meters downstream. There were distant shouts, but I was only up long enough to gasp a fresh 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 looping 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 wrapping the links around my waist where they wouldn't impede me.

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 had carved itself a shallow depression that wasn't really deep enough to call itself a 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 shallow 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 and not bears or something. 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 and - almost certainly – Mediators. 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 with running shoes and 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 proper tools to get the things off.

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 traveled. 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 many hang-ups about it and that attitude has had some time to rub off on me. The biggest drawback with nudity around Rris is the fact that they tend to find the anatomical differences more amusing and intriguing than a shock to socially-induced mores, which can lead to awkward questions. 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. It poked and scratched and the leaves leaked sap, 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 as the sun stroked the high clouds from beyond the horizon, 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 sunlight, 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 those back-to-nature fanatics back home were a bunch of blithering cretins who should try experiencing real nature for a while.

I was getting more than my fill 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. There were mushrooms that I broke apart and touched a bit to my tongue, and then spat at the bitter taste. 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 afternoon 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 towering 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. Amongst those columns and clouds and 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 and roiled across the sky. Gloom was interrupted by sparse moments of golden light as the building storm shifted restlessly, the setting 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 cannon fire. There was the back-of-the-throat tang of ozone underlying everything: the promise of wild rain.

That little speck or artificial color kept climbing and diving against the bruise-colored 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, orbiting wildly against the constraints of its string 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 strokes of jagged light that left images on my retinas.

"Hai!" I yelled, waving my arms as the thunder crashed over me. 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 fighting with the gusts of wind that filled the world with the hiss of swaying trees. "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 carefully 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 vaguely orange or reddish cloth all carefully glued and stitched together. It looked like someone with very limited resources had spent a lot of time and effort 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. The temperature plummeted.

Rain hammered down out of the darkness in sheet after clammy 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 pelting in from the gloom. The indistinct shapes of trees were barely visible through the driving water, thrashing 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 stumbled onwards through the gloom and sheets of rain, slipping on mud and grass that seemed to turn as slick as oil under the deluge. Water collected in my hair, my beard, and ran in streams through my hair, down my face. That downpour was nothing like some warm spring shower, rather it was a deluge that tried to suck the warmth from my body 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 with every step. In that storm, in the wind and rain and darkness I could have stumbled past an entire village and missed it completely. 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 continuous rattling of rain and 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 tiny single-story building with rain cascading off the shingle roof 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 throwing everything away on a stupid move like that.

There was a barn, of sorts. It wasn't much more than a glorified lean-to with three walls of crooked half-rounds caulked with daub and a roof of more overlapping split logs. Under that roof was dried and packed dirt and four stalls: nothing more than some spaces separated by poles, but it was shelter of sorts – a place where I could get out of the driving rain and cold. Rain clattered on the roof and dribbled in steady streams 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 agrarian.

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 diamond of orange against the ground 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 a rickety shack and a small figure gaping at me with fur already 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 furry face with grey tufts on the cheek and high ears. That face changed, the eyes flashing wide to show whites around the amber, the features contorting in shock, then distorting in a snarl as she grabbed the cub and hauled it away, interposing herself between us.

"Get my sword!" she hissed 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, stop. Stop."

She froze, then let go of the pitchfork like it'd become red hot and backpedaled several steps out into the morning sunlight. "What?" her eyes were wide, black with a ring of white around the edges. "What the suppuration is this?!"

I caught a gasping breath and tried to get my own breathing under control. "Apologies," I said from flat on my back in the pile of straw. Awkwardly I sat up. She retreated another step and stared as I stiffly worked myself out of the pile of hay, 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 in a pointless gesture: I was naked, covered with mud and dust and bits of straw. "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 higher than the tallest tree around. I was trying to warn him. I think he misunderstood." I shrugged, my collar chain rattling. "It's happened before. I returned the toy. It must be valuable to him."

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 possibly an outhouse. Maybe a smokeshed. 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. A tiny little holding. 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, feeling her staring at my back. I could at least ask... Slowly, I turned and asked, "Ma'am, you wouldn't have any food you could spare? Please?"

Just as warily 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 type of 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 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."

Her expression was still angry, still afraid, but something else was showing there. Confusion? "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 in the shape of a maple leaf, and she is partial to honeyed quail pasties."

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

Ah, that was a start. Curiosity and cats and all that... "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 polished 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 work done, after it'd been done. She'd given me a small piece from a fresh-baked loaf that resembled a discus: small, with a thick, almost black crust, hard kernels and grit, still warm. I was to consider it a down-payment. I'd devoured it ravenously, in one go. She'd blinked and 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 and 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 seriously 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. 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 lay along the edges of the tree line where they'd been felled, 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 rabbit carcasses 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 readily 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. Wielding a wooden mallet and awl, she was working her way along the fence line splitting the logs into rails. She'd drive iron 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 of swear words.

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 tasks 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, labored 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. I wasn't sure how clean that water was, but that was something else I didn't really care about at the time. 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 scraggly 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? Like those feet? Like only two nipples?"

"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 your manner of speech is obviously educated. And that," she pointed. "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 that as well. 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. In two years I've been through quite a lot. Much of it... inconsequential. But some of it... there are things I would rather not remember."

Ea'rest ruffled fingers through her chest fur, 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 herself, 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 smoked 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 taste buds. There were 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 startled awe and open 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.

"Truth," Ea'rest added from the sidelines. "He's always asking about things. Where does this come from; how does this work. He was asking what causes lightning."

Interesting wording. Causes lightning. By its structure the sentence precluded an action by an individual or an entity and intimated that the action was self-initiated. I scratched my chin, pondering how to best reply. "A simple answer would be that some of it is caused by small droplets in clouds rubbing together. It's like when you rub your fur on a dry day and then touch some metal, you feel a small bite? That's a tiny spark. Lightning is like that spark, only much, much bigger. Very dangerous if you're near something very tall or high. Lighting will prefer to go through that than just air to get to the ground."

He looked thoughtful. "How can clouds rub together?"

"They're just fog, only high up. You've been in fog? It's uncountable tiny drops of water. Hey, 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."

"Didn't work though," he sighed and his tail lashed. "It kept falling to the ground. Kept breaking."

"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 around and around like this and then hits the ground? A tail will help stop it spinning. Just don't try flying it in a storm."

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

"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 emphatic 'yes', and then took off in a blur of motion.

"It," she observed, not looking at me.

I shrugged. "Again. I'm not concerned."

"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 precisely. The human face has dozens of muscles, a huge number of which are only good for changing the contours of the facial features into thousands of different configurations. And the human brain devotes a considerable percentage of its processing capacity 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 not so much a loss of expression than a redistribution. 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 quickly added, "I'm probably completely wrong. And why should it be any of my business anyway?"

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 and mud, or tracking murderous bandits through freezing snow, 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. Waking and fighting the land and the animals and sleeping and then doing it over again."

"Perhaps, you could try your hand at 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. "There was time for that in the barracks at least. So perhaps I can become a cook for some high born milk cub."

"Ma'am, you can cook very well. Believe me: I think 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. Sell them the ideas, but try to make them think the ideas are theirs. "Offer service others don't. Good accommodation. Fast, clean and 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 some 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 that use that same look. 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 farmyard, at the sun-drenched hillside and the lonely little 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 shimmers of the afternoon heat. After a while she added, "And I don’t think a desperate criminal would be so considerate as to offer to work 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. And there are bears, wolves and bandits and worse. I wouldn't want to do it alone and unarmed."

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. I assured her I knew how to use it. She showed me the whetstone and then 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 and the movement aggravated already chafed skin. 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 liter. 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 punch in the guts. But the Rris wasn't dressed like a Mediator, and was alone. That was the next thing I noticed, 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 dangerously 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, which twitched involuntarily at the contact, "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, as was she, 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 it's 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.

"Heksi," Ea'rest said behind me, "we need to talk."

Section 40

The setting sun painted the sky in extravagant colors. Along the distant sunward horizon a wall of clouds climbed against the darkening blue sky, brilliant orange sunlight peeked through cracks. To the east, the rising banks of cumulous 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 lengthened and merged. 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 to the chopping block and leaned on the haft. The wood pile was greatly diminished, but there was still a bit more to go Unfortunately there wasn't much daylight left. It wasn't dark yet, just a grayish twilight, but that wasn't going to last long. I could feel trickles of perspiration - cooling in the evening air - tracing chilling little tickles down my skin, leaving pale little tracks through the grime on my skin as they went..

"Enough, I think," a Rris said.

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

"Thank you," I said wearily.

"You've earned that meal, I think," 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 does tend to happen around me," I said.

"A lot?"

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

"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 nodded and 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, a little more subdued.

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

"A. You're starting to look tasty," I said and then at the expression on her face hastily added, "Joke! That was a joke. Not a very good one. Sorry. Ummm." I looked down and turned my hand over, seing pale streaks visible 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, washing. You know: cleaning yourself? I do that," I said gently. "The river, it's over there?"

She squinted at me, then waved an affirmative. "A, just down 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 meadow of wild grass, the stalks 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 river bend 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 sand in the shallows was still warm; the deeps out where the current flowed were cool like the night air. I stepped in and gingerly began to 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 accidentally 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 discolored - 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 current of the river buoy 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, and then, gradually, like silt-clouded water clearing to reveal pebbles on a riverbed, a barely perceptible glimmer became an uncountable spread of points of light. And the harder you looked, the more there were. Nebula 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, and their voices are almost impossible. 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 some such."

Well, I'd been close. She led me a few bumbling meters 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... he wasn't a pleasant individual."

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 realized where that sentence was heading and trailed off, her ears flicked back again.

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

Section 42

That evening I got a good insight as to why farmers have a reputation for enjoying their food. After the day's work 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 sputtering oil lantern hanging from an iron stud hammered into one of the posts supporting the verandah roof. I sat in the feeble pool of light it cast over one end of the rough porch 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 at his 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 openly order 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 authority 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. Everyone does. As for the details of the Charter, I believe you'd need a savant to tell you details of 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 glue fur on..."

"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 and smelling animal smells. 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 and was glad of it. 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 another of those bad ones. 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 quieted 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. Noises from the animals in the stalls stilled. 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 her ribs 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."

"Yes."

She watched me, waiting for me to say more, and then huffed again: "Huhn, one of those times you said you didn't want to remember?" 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 I sent you, that he's to give you whatever you need. And 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 winter-bound 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 it's one of those details you didn't tell us 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 things that ... weren't common knowledge about her highness; things you'd need to know her personally to know." 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. That wasn't easy: he wasn't an outgoing character. 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. It wasn't a large, prosperous town and the range of job opportunities wasn't expansive.

He asked about me. I answered, and then asked in my turn and he reciprocated, 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 local 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. "Last years' crops failed. She's had to slaughter prime cattle just for food to see her through the winter. There was nothing to sell come market time."

"Oh."

"And she has her pride."

"Oh, that," 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. "You know, it's not the first time someone made a suggestion to her along those lines."

"Not surprising. She didn't listen, obviously. That pride again?"

"Obviously."

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 from dozens of chimneypots. A flock of large 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 straw covering was pulled away. "Into the workshop," Eksi hissed, gesturing. "Over there. 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 and arched gateway, 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 façade. Beneath the eaves protruded the ends of structural timbers, hung with what looked like the handles of various tools. The workshop he was referring to was a wooden building ahead of us that had probably been a barn at some time. When we got inside I saw it still was. There were stalls for animals. There was also a forge and an anvil and a considerable clutter of metal tools and scraps piled on workbenches, on the dirt 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. A couple of well-used axes hung from leather thongs beside a grindstone, probably waiting for sharpening.

"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 you don't know that well holds a heavy iron implement over you sometime. But the hammer struck and a few seconds later I was able to pry 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 realized 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 where you can get out of sight," 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 the workshop was a way to pass the time and was certainly more interesting than hiding in a haystack. Although basic, the imposing, sooty stone of the forge with its leather bellows and rusting hammered-brass hood and chimney dominated the barn. The floor was just dirt, but around the forge was 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 very little like the classic Acme product; this thing was a solid lump of cast iron on a stump of old oak, the flat top of the black metal block chipped and dinged 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. That lot would be worth a fortune here.

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. I'd been able to peek through the gaps in the barn walls: he'd been alone. "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, they seem to have a point."

"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 poked his head out and made sure that no-one would see us, I helped him carry them out the back of his shop.

I didn't have much of a chance to look around in his store, but what I saw was interesting. It was a dimly-lit and cluttered place. Sunlight refracted in through bullseye panes, the thick, bottle-green glass distorted and warped the world beyond into a psychedelic smear of colors and shapes. What light did get through exploded into patches of caustic brightness and tiny rainbows that crawled over walls and floors and furniture. Sample tables and shelves in the small front room carried stock: a mixture of iron and a few steel tools like axe and mattock heads, loops and rings for bridles and animal harnesses, knives and spare blades of various sizes, chains of assorted weights, pokers and coal scuttles, barrels of nails and metal spikes, barrel hoops, examples of wrought iron. What did surprise me was that as well as the utilitarian tools and equipment there was artwork: 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 and nodded 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 the same weight of nails that far."

Any smith worth his salt 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 lay under a pile of stifling dried grass as we clattered through streets for a while until Heksi told me it was clear. I sat up, sputtering and 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 tumbled 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 with locker space. 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 does get 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 well' 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 came about, taking a new line 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 nestled 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. Several times we passed by fortifications, arranged along both sides of the river. It was a border, after all, and the forts all overlooked the waterway from vantages where traffic would have to pass beneath their walls. Some of the larger ones were in the old style, towers nestling behind high stone walls. A couple of those were in disrepair, with tumbled walls and towers embraced by creepers. Newer fortifications were smaller and of different design. They huddled low, behind thick walls of banked earth where a few bored sentries watched the river traffic pass without paying it a lot of attention.

But, in between those odd instances, it was just more of the wilderness I'd spent days trying to escape.

It all felt so incredibly slow. Part of me was still accustomed to seeing the world passing by at a hundred kilometers an hour. When that flashing succession of glimpses of parts of the world was reduced to a single slow panorama, it just felt wrong. Some tiny part inside screaming for the world to speed up. But that wasn't possible.

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 cattails and reeds. Our little boat cruised on through channels that Heksi seemed quite familiar with, the sail barely swelling in the slow evening. Lesser channels branched out all over the place, cutting the delta into a jigsaw of land and swampy water. Some patches of solid land 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, his ears flicking like the wings of some bizarre ornithopter . I pulled the tarpaulin around me to cover as much bare skin as I could and swatted what I couldn't.

Thank christ that whining torture eased as the marshes spread aside and the river delta gave 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 jet-black powder 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 lurked for a few seconds, watching, and then took a couple of deep breaths and dove.

Underwater was another world: silent, cold, dark. Flickers of light filtered down from above: the grey glow of the moon way over there, a couple of orange sparks from the lamps on the dock. Just flickers from beyond the surface; barely 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-borne 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 stealing across the deck and down the ladder.

Below decks was quiet and still. Behind me, the steps back to the engine room were black shadows. 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 fire starting 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 favor, 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 amour. I hoped they weren't going to risk it. "But I haven't really got time to stop and talk. 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 gunwales 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 stuck to the darkness and alleyways; 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 or viscous mud or worse. 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 garbage and bodily wastes - animal and otherwise. And through this tangle of alien architecture I fumbled along.

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. I knew 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 lantern's 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, but I didn't know who I could trust and ... 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 sitting, flickering 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, tracking me 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 fraction of a second ago. I turned back, in time to see him striding forward through the swirls of grey gunsmoke and briefly twirling firefly sparks of burning wadding. With a blur of movement the gun was tucked back into his waistband even as a knife glinted in his other hand. His eyes were pure black holes, as black as the bore of the gun.

"Chaetich!" I yelled and my own pistol 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 as he shifted to the side, crouching. "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 the back of my shoulder impacted 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.

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.

I stared, incredulous, not believing what'd just happened.

What lay before me was just a crumpled form: face down on the grimy floorboards, awkwardly twisted with tail 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 like they do in the movies. They wouldn't close.

There were noises outside. Subdued voices hissed and snarled.

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 the stink of gunpowder and blood and death.

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 blurred across the yard below. Several crouched to aim longarms and shots rang out, sparks and smoke flaring, but I was already jumping across the alleyway to the wall, then down onto lumber.

Then I wasn't thinking about anything but being away from that place where a body lay amidst smeared blood on the floor.

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 hope, 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 morning chores, I shook and cried.

Section 53

Where to from there? I didn't know. There was the Palace of course. Would the Shattered Water delegation still be there? Would they even want to have anything to do with me after... after what I'd done. Perhaps they'd been taken. Perhaps they were the leverage that'd set Chaeitch to try and kill me. My mind painted scenarios where Chaeitch was being threatened or blackmailed or coerced somehow; 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 the individuals who'd kidnapped Chihirae hadn't really understood just what lengths I'd go to in order to keep her safe. Thankfully they'd never realized what sort of leverage that could've given them over me. And anyway, if he'd killed me the Shattered Water government would doubtless kill him. There just didn't seem to be any reason he'd do something like that.

But that mental self-flagellation wouldn't get me answers to anything. Not without seeing, without asking someone who knew.

The palace lay cupped in the center of that broad vale, surrounded by those open 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.

And Eisher House 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.

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 back to the night I'd arrived here. I'd been an honored – if somewhat unusual - guest. Now I was a fugitive.

Thinking back to that reminded me 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. Oddly enough, that meant the same thing as it did at Buckingham Palace in England, back home. 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 ballet. 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 trekking 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 road we'd taken last time and the general direction we'd gone. 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 there was traffic or 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 might be 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 always 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 remembered Chaeitch's face and all that 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 was still 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 above which insects and birds darted in the hot afternoon air. 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 following paths through 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. Guards, of course, 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 shadow of a bush or a stump or a stone wall, or simply flattening out 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 just someone looking out a 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 something like 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. If their idea of groundskeeping had tended to the human norm, with lawns immaculately trimmed to a fingers length, then things would have been a great deal more difficult. 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 faced was rusticated: faced with large blocks of grey stone, set with inches between each piece of cladding. That gave me plenty of hand a footholds. My feet hurt like hell when I wedged them into the cracks in the stone, and if a guards had looked up at the wrong moment it'd have all been over. But there wasn't anything I could do about any of that save clamber up as fast as I could. 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-style 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. I'd done longer than that before, but not after a gun battle and then running a marathon.

Abruptly the voices from inside got louder as someone came toward the door. The latch rattled and my hand was inside my bag, grabbing the wood and metal of the pistol grip 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 dappled 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 and down her flanks 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 beside the door, frozen motionless, the gun clutched in my hand.

Those eyes, amber and black, stared. Just stared at me. For a split second something flickered across her face and was gone almost as soon as it'd appeared and her expression was almost reproachful. I sagged, sighed and let my hand drop. The gun drooped, the muzzle chinking against the balcony while I slumped back against the stone.

"Huhn," she vocalized, or something like. Then she twitched back to the doors and raised her voice. "Out. Everyone out. Now."

Queries sounded from others inside. Uncertainty.

She stalked back inside, her tail lashing, and I heard her. "Out. Everyone. Now! No, leave it, just go!"

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 from just inside the door. "Mikah, I think you'd better come in here."

My legs barely got me up off the gritty stone. They felt like half-cooked noodles as I stepped in through the doors onto deep carpet, stopped at the threshold to cautiously look, left and right. It was a bedroom in there; it must've been her ladyship's quarters. There were paintings on the walls, carvings and gilt and elegance, trappings of affluence... From a door to my left came the sound of running water. Off to my right was the expanse of a bed: a huge low platform with white linen sheets. Beyond that was an archway through to another room, a sunlit study or reception chamber perhaps. Lady H'risnth aesh Esrisa was at that archway, standing and watching me. Wearing nothing save her fur, 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.

"Answers, huh?" Her head tipped a little. "Do you have any idea what sort of problems 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. In my mind's eye I saw the agony and 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. Nothing else I could perceive, just confusion. "But I just spoke with him this morning. Perhaps ten hours ago."

"No. No you... No."

"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, where I understand there had been a bit of a disturbance. You know something about that, a? 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. "And he's certainly got appointments at the shipyards over the next few days."

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 quietly, "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 wouldn't forget the coloration of his fur, 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 with those markings I'd identified with Chaeitch, and I'd fallen for it hook, line, sinker and rod. I groaned and shook my head, then just sank to the floor with the bed against my back, feeling exhausted and bedraggled and battered and foolish. The gun hit the rug beside me with a dull thud.

"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 resignedly.

"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."

For a long time I stared and then I think I just breathed, "Thank god."

"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. And incidentally, it probably made me look like a complete idiot in her eyes.

"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 were 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 answered to the government. I found out differently, a? Nobody told me this."

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 sort of 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, "Routine questioning? That's what they told you? And they told you they were holding me here? In Open Fields?"

"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 certainly didn't seem like that to 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; I could see the tiny flecks of amber and orange and brown around the dark of her iris. "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, 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?" she prompted.

"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 while you still can." She sniffed delicately. "Which I really suggest you use."

Section 56

The bathroom was all pale stone and polished veined marble. It echoed with the sound of running water rebounding from wall to wall. Fixtures were elegant and expensive, with silver rails and shelves and narrow, high-set windows admitting gold sunlight, the light fracturing and splintering through the crude panes. Gleaming brass pipes carried hot water from a central boiler and the bath was the size of a small pool. Steaming hot water streamed out of a black marble sluice: a hot waterfall the width of the tub. Wisps of vapor curled from the surface, along with a subtle amalgamation of aromas from the scented oils swirling across the bath, mingling with grime floating there: dirt and grass and leaves, clean water turned grey and leaving a ring around the tub from the lampblack and dust.

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. The bottom of the tub was carved marble, contoured to alien shapes.

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 pale stone as I hauled myself out. A cut on my foot had opened a bit. It stung and I was leaving a faint trail of pink footprints on the floor tiles. There were towels: huge soft cotton things of immaculate white that also became smeared with more red. 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. As I turned her ears laid back, plastered flat against her skull. "I didn't realize..." 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. She was royalty, a queen. I was naked and dripping out of a bath. It really didn't matter. "No. They're clean. I think."

Toe claws clicked, the sound loud against the bathroom tiles, and then her fingertips touched my arm. As she circled 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 and clenched my teeth as numb tissue transmitted only the pressure of her finger. The sensation made my skin crawl.

"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?"

"With difficulty," I said and she glanced up, studying my face for a second before she just said, "A," once again. 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. Hastily I wrapped the towel around my waist. She looked slightly chagrined, or was it amused?

"Apologies. But 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, dripping, almost tartar; 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. Cluttered dishes bumping against the swanlike crystal decanters in the centerpiece and almost upset 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. Thank you."

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 when she pressed for more information.

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 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 aloud. "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?"

"No. 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 down into the little shot 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're 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." She clicked forefinger claws together a few times as she gathered her thoughts and then took a breath:

"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 apprentice. Early stories don't mention a Guild, just individuals; some achieving things that are perhaps just the other side of incredible, and thereby raising the esteem in which their work was held. As they grained in [face?], their scattered numbers coalesced and organized. The Guild formed from that and now 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. Things like disputes over rivers, crossings, open trade points, things like that. 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 grey 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, holding the shuttered lantern high.

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, pouring in like a palpable black wave with 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. A furry hand with leathery palm was pressed tight over my mouth, trying to stifle me while the other was trying to pin one of my arms. 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 disheveled fur was pressed against me it tickled, sticking to cooling sweat. I shuddered, then dropped back and she slowly drew her hand away from my mouth and I gasped air. 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 adjoining vestibule. I flinched violently, 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. "I had no idea I was such an uninteresting orator."

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? Something like that. What was it?"

"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. "Alarmed 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 extended hand. "Ma'am?"

"The bed's a stretch more comfortable than the floor. Come on."

Bed. A bed sounded very good. 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 what she'd meant. "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, although I hoped I'd be able to get them back.

She was right about the bed; it was 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 hovered as I settled on the other side and sank in: 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 all right? 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 bed shift as she settled, curling up. On the bed, but not too close.

"A," I laid 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."

"I thought you were tired."

"Yes, but... 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, sounding a little reproachful. "It was supposed to be mixed with water and citrus juice. What you drank would have laid a Rris out flat."

"Oh. That explain why I'm feeling a little... dizzy."

A soft sound of amusement. "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 line from an old play, 'with great power comes great responsibility'."

"Trite, but...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 dissolution of the Mediator Guild would mean, 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 tradition requires us to acquiesce to the guild, doesn't mean we have to do it blindly. Because I wanted to hear your side of the story; and the story you told is a whole lot more believable than the tapestry of discord I've been receiving from the Guild; and also because I like you."

"Oh. Thank you."

A soft chitter sounded in the evening. "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 wasn't sure if that 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 swallowed. "Yes, every day."

"Oh," the Lady said, and I thought there was a trace of disappointment there. Then she said, "Anything in particular? Can you tell me?"

"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, Dr. Pepper. God, I miss that. Proper beer. The latest films and music. To be able to be alone in a crowd; to be normal. To smile properly without frightening children. I miss women. I miss her. I miss my mate... the woman I was with before this all started."

She was quiet after that babble; most of it meaningless to her. Then her low voice said, "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. Was I drunk? I felt like I had a bit of a buzz on. 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 are quite... unique?"

"Huhn," I sighed. "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 oddly-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," she said and I'm sure she was amused. "But he was concerned for you. Worried. Don't blame him. But are they true?"

"What did he tell you?"

She told me. She told me in specific, unrelenting detail. And if I'd had ears like her's they would have laid back. As it was, I felt a glowing heat climbing there. Obviously Chihirae had filled Chaeitch in on more than just the broad picture. There were specifics. There were details. There were personal details.

I shouldn't have been surprised: they're far more open about bodily functions of all types and their idea of privacy is considerably different from mine, so Chihirae had probably never seen anything wrong with a bit of gossip. That material was embarrassing enough, but her ladyship obviously also had sources that were either not so reliable or were just a great deal more imaginative. A great deal of what she related there in the darkness was utterly... preposterous. But there were enough kernels of truth there to tell me someone had been quite a blabbermouth.

"You know," I said to the ceiling when she was done, "perhaps I will shoot him after all."

"Mikah? What?"

"That was a joke. Sort of. I am... annoyed. Stories like that complicate things."

"Then they're lies?"

"Ummm. Some of it... or exaggerations .... I wish it was true, but I think your sources are a bit fanciful. To say the least. I'm not... built like that. And that thing with the honey is... strange."

"Ah?" she laid a hand on me, fingers spread and laid splayed on my chest. I could feel the cool leathery pads of her palm and fingers pressed against me. One of the few patches of skin on her body touching mine and I knew she could feel my heartbeat drubbing with a rhythm that wasn't like her's. "All lies?"

I moved slowly to take her hand. She didn't pull back, letting me hold it, stroking and exploring it absently. The fur on the back of her hand and the fingers wasn't as dense as on the rest of the body but was still soft and the bone structure in there wasn't anything human. Short fingers, missing a joint by my standards. The claws partially expressed when I pressed the pad of a fingertip. "Not all. But they don't tell everything."

"Such as?"

I sighed. "Look, it's not sex. Not as you would know it, nor like I knew it with my kind. There are physical differences - not as extreme as they say, but they are there. It's like... it's like putting a glove on the wrong hand. And what's normal for one can be strange for the other. I think I'm learning what Rris women enjoy, what I can enjoy with them, but I can't treat them like a Rris male would and I can't treat them like a woman of my kind. That, I think, is not something they consider. And they tend to treat me like a Rris male. That can hurt. I mean physically."

Her ears tipped back. "Hurt badly?"

"I still have scars from... from the first time I had sex with a woman... a Rris. You tend to use claws and teeth. 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. Scars though. A lot of scars. And yet you persevere. Why?"

"Because it can be enjoyable," I said, and then for some reason added, "And because it means that for a while I can be close to someone who is willing to be that close. I don't know... do you know how rare moments like that can be?"

Her hand wandered across my chest and she watched intently as she toyed with and tugged at hairs here and there. She was sniffing the air and her ears twitched slightly, in time with my heartbeat I realized.

"Ma'am,” I ventured, "honestly, 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 what fur you have is quite exquisite. Your hide 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 were all iris, glimmering like light on oil, her breath washing against me; as harsh as a predator's. "Very much so. I like to think I'm a connoisseur. Of the rare, the exotic things in life. Sometimes that can be fine wine, or rare art, or perhaps an experience. And from all accounts, you can be quite an experience."

"You wouldn't just be happy with a signed picture?" I swallowed.

There came a soft chitter of amusement and then she said, "You don't consider this an honor? I am a Queen, you know."

"Yes, I... I know."

A pause, and then she said, "And I could call out, you know. That would be easy. There could be guards in here."

I felt a lurch inside; a clench and stutter of my heart. And with her hand on my chest she could probably feel it also. "Would you?" I asked

A hesitation as the thin ice creaked. "I could."

I met the abalone-shimmer of her night eyes and said, "It'd be a bit crowded. They'd have to wait their turn."

Another hesitation, and then she laughed again. "Amusing," she said and stroked my neck and chest, watching her hand pressing against my skin. "And you don't find me attractive? Perhaps in the same way I regard you, a?"

"Similar, I think," I said, still aware the subject could turn again. "You are quite... you are beautiful. But you aren't a woman... I mean, a woman of my kind."

"Huhn," she mused with a soft, meat-eater's growl. "I can't offer you bare skin. I can't offer you a woman of your kind. But perhaps I can offer you some time with someone who is willing to be that close to you, a?" She stroked my chest and shoulder gently, touching the smooth skin around the scar tissue there.

I was tired. I was nervous, but my body reacted to the touches. Alien hands were no longer so strange that the sensations were unbearably 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, as she hooked the blanket with a finger and slowly pulled it aside. Even in the dimness I saw her expression change as she froze.

"I said different," I said, a little defensively for some reason. She'd seen me in the bath earlier. What'd she expect?

"A," she replied quietly, her ears flickering as if they didn't know whether to flatten or not. "A. I hadn't thought... They said you were strangely endowed, but... I'd thought you might be more like a normal male when erect."

I almost laughed. "Me? Normal?"

She ducked her head, smothering a chitter. "It just looks... strange."

"I really can't help that," I said quietly.

For a second she drew back a bit, the alien profile of her head tipping as she regarded me.

Diaphanous curtains stirred in an errant draught, ghostly in pale moonlight. I'd half expected her to retreat then, to change her mind as the reality of what she'd be laying with sunk it. 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, flinching a little at touches and stroking, allowing inquisitiveness that infiltrated the defenses I usually kept up around Rris. And when she took my erection in her hand and hissed softly and regarded me in some emotion that in the dimness might have been surprise or amusement or apprehension, I tensed 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 she'd never truly grasped the implications when I'd said it was different. But I think she started to when I took her over onto her back and looked down on her looking up at me with uncertainty and less definable expressions flickering across her half-lit visage. She was pressed against me, pelt against bare skin prickling like a living bearskin rug. Through it her heartbeat was racing with a tempo I could feel through her ribs, her breath fast and short and her muzzle was like velvet under my fingertips as I stroked, whispered quiet reassurances. I think she realized when I pinioned her arms and hands and claws back against the mattress, as I had to. And I know she did when I adjusted myself and moved gently forward and her glittering eyes went wide.

Section 59

I was gone with the first morning light.

Meadow grass made slick and slippery with dew was cool against my feet and legs as I loped away across the open fields. To the eastward horizon a glimmer of sun painted 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 beading and sparkling on 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 pre-dawn 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. I had information that was going to stand me in good stead. 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 think to 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 I'd managed to survive the last night mostly intact. Perhaps that had something to do with it as well.

Short shadows on the ground signaled midday. Insects rasped in the undergrowth and a heat haze shimmered in the air, hazing the blue horizon. 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. Huh, must be the time of year for that sort of thing. I settled myself further back in the shade of a sycamore, amongst the roots and tumbled seed pods, 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. Quite hard.

I suppose that in a way it'd been my fault. I'd been careless, forgetting – somehow – that this was new to her. We'd been face to face, which isn't normal for Rris. It'd been dark and I'd been somewhat... preoccupied and she'd been tensing like an overstressed hawser and in the heat of the moment - so to speak - that tension had snapped and she'd just whipped her head up and sunk her teeth in. It'd been at a moment when other sensations were in the driver's seat, so it hadn't hurt at the time. Not... badly; I'd been more startled than hurt, 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 afterwards - 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.

In the warmth and dappled sunlight sifting through the leaves above I rubbed the bruise and grimaced, then looked at the water bottle I'd been holding for the past few minutes. Enough woolgathering. Down the hillside the farmhands were breaking for their own lunch, tawny bodies lost as they sprawled out in the golden grasses.

And why was I dwelling on the last night? Feeling guilty?

I was. Dammit, I was. Chihirae. Did I tell her?

I knew that for Chihirae it wouldn't matter. Their interpretation of monogamy was as an aberration; something that society eyed askance for reasons I wasn't sure of. Chihirae'd had trouble understanding why I'd been upset after finding her and Chaeitch together, but the fact remained that I had been upset about that. It'd felt like a betrayal.

And now I'd been the one to take another partner. I think the word that was nagging at me was hypocrite.

I'd thought I could try and reason my way through it; tell myself that I was reciprocating her hospitality. And, if I hadn't done it her Ladyship might have made things more difficult for me. All she'd have had to do would be to call out, to bring guards in there. She hadn't done that, but there'd been that mention of calling for guards – that mention that hadn't quite been a threat that we'd sidestepped away from. And when I played those arguments back in my minds, they just sounded more like excuses. Of course, would Rris care about that dalliance? Chihirae would probably just tease and ask for details, but I still felt twinges of remorse from that part of me that was human.

Did I tell her? Assuming I got the opportunity. Damn it.

And why had her Ladyship 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 women 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 a snapped piece of twine: 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. I had the small parts, thanks to her Ladyship. Only I didn't know if I had them all, or even what that final big picture looked like.

I'd have to find out.

So, I returned to Open Fields.

Section 60

As dusk crept over the city of Open Fields a thick fog drifted in from the lake. That sort of weather wasn't uncommon for a lakeside city, and for me it was a welcome stroke of fortune. Under the grey cover of the evening mist I left my position where I'd been waiting on the overlooking hill and headed down into town.

On a misty night back home that fog would be aglow. Reflected light from the city would diffuse through the mist, tinting it with a sodium glow visible from miles away. Here, it was dark. The only light came from the half moon riding across a clear sky.

Intangible pale clouds seeped through the city, insinuated themselves through the twilit streets. Up close it was just minute droplets of moisture in the air, but beyond fifty meters buildings vanished into drifting veils of white mist. Through the mist and darkness diffuse smears of orange light became visible as city servants went about their jobs of lighting streetlamps. Cut stone and black wrought metal glistened as moisture condensed on cool surfaces. A line of droplets beaded along the crosspieces of a cast-iron lamp post, quivering and shimmering like jewels as gaslight caught them.

She'd given me the key and directions, but the fog was making things a bit difficult. I didn't know my way around that well. What landmarks I could recognize were obscured by fog. Street signs were almost non-existent, a luxury I remembered from home that weren't that prevalent in this world. At least the directions I'd been given were clear enough.

I waited in the shadows of the alley as the wagon rattled by. Quietly I waited until it'd been swallowed by the fog, the echoes of its passing clattering from buildings. By the sign over the wrought iron gates the yard opposite was the Fehiserath Hold goods warehouse. That was good. That was in the directions she'd given me. From there it was to the north west, on the outskirts of the central district.

Take the southern road in. From the foundry head north to Ithri Cross. West to the warehouse. West of that is the Long Walk plaza. North from there to High road and the HighLand district. So west was... that way. I was pretty sure it was that way.

But meantime I had business elsewhere in town. It wasn't something I wanted to do. I'd been wanting an excuse to be able to put it off, but the fog and darkness offered an opportunity I couldn't ignore: the chance to be able to move through the town relatively incognito. I pulled the moisture-beaded hood of my rain cloak down a bit further to cover my face and set off into the mist.

Section 61

Despite the dark streets and the clammy night fog reducing visibility to a few meters, moving unobtrusively through the center of town was difficult. There were Rris out and about, even in that murk. I stuck to the shadows, kept away from lamps, but even so I knew I drew curious stares from the few who caught glimpses of me in the mist. The storm cloak may have covered a lot, but not my decidedly un-Rris gait. I hoped those who saw me might just think me a cripple to be walking that way.

Toward the center of town various shops and businesses were still open. I turned my cowled face to a wall as a nearby door opened and light, noise and Rris spilled out. A good half dozen of them, but they either ignored or most probably didn't notice me and set off down the street, yowling like a sack of cats, reeling and staggering on those weird Rris ankle joints. One tripped over his own legs and landed face first on the cobblestones of the street. His friends managed to haul him up and they tottered off into the fog, the yowls of their carousing audible even after they'd been lost to sight in the whiteout.

At best they'd probably attract guards. At worst... I hurried off down another alleyway.

Finding the place was taking longer than I liked. The town was still mostly unfamiliar. All I'd seen of it was what I'd been show on the tours. Of course, at those times I'd never thought my life might be depending on the fact that I memorize the town's layout. I had an idea of the general location of the place I was looking for, but not the exact address. The square with the four fountains and the store with the orange and green striped awning. It was central, on one of the boulevards leading to the palace in the northwest. I remembered that, but exactly where it was eluded me.

Cursing quietly to myself I stalked the dark alleyways, looking for a recognizable landmark. Those narrow, convoluted lanes were almost pitch black, and the fog didn't help any. A diffuse glow from the midnight moon overhead filtered though the mist. It was just enough to see by, also enough to throw shadows into sharp relief. And in one rotting crate-and-barrel-littered junction of several alleys a Rris voice hissed, "Spare some coin?"

I stopped, hesitated, and then looked toward the alleyway from where the voice had originated. There was a Rris figure there, indistinct in the gloom but I could see it was considerably smaller than adult, all gangly limbs and glistening fog-sodden fur. I had my hood up, my collar covering my lower face, but even so as I turned in its direction alien eyes flashed wide in the gloom and there was a mewling sound and the youngster scrambled away from me. An empty crate clattered as it was overturned and the teenager scrambled off down the alley, half-falling and skidding around a corner, grabbing at the crumbling plaster wall to steady itself. The urchin hesitated there, peeking around the corner, poised and ready for flight but still watching me.

For a second I stared back, then started off on my way and stopped. It wasn't a bad idea. At least, while I stood there and turned it over in my mind it didn't seem to be a bad idea. The cub flinched when I reached into a pocket and produced a single gold coin, tipping it back and forth. I saw the Rris teen's eyes glittering as the coin did the same in the moonlight. "I've got coin," I said quietly.

There was a visible flinch at that. The head came up, the ears back, but the Rris didn't run.

"In exchange for a service," I finished.

You could practically see the conflicting choices churning away behind the eyes. But in a couple of seconds, the greed - or perhaps necessity - won out. A pink tongue flashed and licked white teeth and the teen asked, "What you want?"

There was a strange lilt to the voice. A speech impediment? I wasn't in any position to criticize.

"Directions," I said. "Just directions."

"You're lost?"

Never admit to weakness or a need when negotiating, it was one of Hirht's lessons that'd stuck with me. "I just want a location."

"Coin first."

I snorted and the urchin flinched. "I don't think so," I said and clicked the gold piece down on a rotting wooden case. It was a lot of money, that one bit of gold. A helluva lot of money for that scraggly little shadow. "Tell me and this is yours."

"Where?"

"Five-Corner Square," I said and watched round two of greed vs. caution ensue. Greed took out caution with a chair to the back of the head and the urchin pointed to my two o'clock.

"That way. Two streets over. Off Stone Throw alley."

I stared for a second. There were white teeth glittering in those features. I picked up the coin again and set off.

"Hai, coin!"

"When I get there, it's yours," I said.

"Red tie you!" stormed from behind me along with a flood of Rris swearing that contributed to my limited vocabulary, then a resigned, "Hai, no! That way."

'That way' wasn't in the direction that'd originally been indicated. No great surprise. But it was closer to the direction I'd originally been headed, and that felt right. I just nodded and continued, aware of the swearing little shadow I'd picked up.

Five-Corner Square was just a bit off my original estimates, but not by much. From the concealment of an alleyway I surveyed the plaza. There were the shapes of the nearer of the fountains, like stone trees off in the mist. I could hear the water running. Over there were building fronts that looked familiar, which was saying something: sometimes the insular quality of Rris architecture doesn't lend itself to distinctive facades on most buildings, but businesses tended to want to be noticed. So there were carvings and painted hoardings and a manner of other basic types of advertising. All up, it told me that it was the place.

"Thanks, kid," I murmured and tossed the coin to a figure lurking behind me. The gold was snatched out of the air and the urchin was gone. I waited a bit to be sure, then nodded and leaned a shoulder against the damp brick wall, surveying the plaster and beam facade of the big building across the way. That was the place I was interested in. Chriét had pointed it out on one of my tours of the city, giving me a brief history that'd been lost in all the other information I'd been trying to process at the time and telling me I'd was supposed to attend a function held there. Looked like I was going to miss that party. Can't say I was sorry: I'd attended a similar one in Shattered Water and had found the whole thing quite embarrassing.

Now the big place was dark, save for a single lantern burning at a postern gate in the big wooden doors sealing the entryway. Banners hung limp from the second-story eaves, their colors washed out in the darkness. As usual, the only windows were the narrow slits up on the second floor. The place was closed and locked up, but there was always a way in.

I found it around the back in a narrow back street. Scaling a wall there let me into a small muddy area cluttered with debris. The doors there were closed, but it was easy to slip a sliver of wood in between the door and jamb and lift the basic latch. Inside it was pitch black and musty, with a lingering trace of the heat of the day. A short hall followed the outside wall for a few meters then opened into another dark area that simply felt big. Tangles of ropes and pulleys and other paraphernalia hung from dark heights. Beams and ladders and scaffolds rose and vanished back into those same heights. A few glimmers of moonlight found their way in and caught peeling gilt and gold and the air smelled of dust and paint and moldy canvass. An incredible jumble of stacked furniture, wheels, brooms, poles, statues and carvings, buckets and barrels, paintings, door frames... stacks of assorted junk of all description catching my shins while low overhead beams threatened to concuss me. I ducked my way through them, past hanging racks of painted canvasses, then up steps and into echoing open space.

Wan light peeped through dirty little windows spaced high around the circumference of the auditorium, illuminating everything in shades of grey and shadow. There was a framework overhead; from my perspective a flimsy construction of wood and canvass, with ropes and bits of furniture scattered here and there. Seen from another perspective, I knew it'd take on the semblance of a building - a cross section of house.

As quietly as I could I crossed the stage, pausing once to look out into the gloom of the theatre. Below the stage, the space was open flagstones. Further back were a few tiers of benches. Above that were the private balconies. I'd sat in a booth like that once, eating cheese and wine with a good friend while she laughed at my reaction to what was onstage. That had been for pleasure. This was business.

I shook my head and moved on across the stage, beneath the multistory framework of the set.

The theatre was dark and still, but doubtless it wasn't deserted. Rris couldn't commute so easily and in this society actors and performers aren't overly paid, so there would probably be at least a few living here. Probably upstairs, in the lofts and attics I guessed, up where it'd be warm and cheap. But there was at least one down in the flys, burning the midnight oil. Literally. A flicker of orange lamplight glimmered past a half-open door of heavy timber painted rust-red. There was a name scratched in chalk on a black slate alongside: Res'hat and something else indecipherable. And under that a Rris crosshatch that I worked out was telling people Quiet.

Inside was a small, cluttered room that stank of burnt lamp oil and other, stranger scents. A single lamp flickered, illuminating a wall that was a pantheon of garish colors and textures and staring eyes. I blinked and the jumble resolved into a wall of masks. Hundreds of masks, hanging in neat rows. The orange light glittered from slivers of polished metal and glass and tiny mirrors fashioned into caricatures of Rris and animals, staring at me. The overall effect was... creepy, to say the least.

There was a living creature in there as well. A Rris was seated on a cushion at a low desk, muzzle creased over papers that spread across the workspace. A charcoal stub clutched in stubby fingers was busy scratching characters, occasionally crossing them out and then trying again. The Rris didn't even glance up as I pushed the door open and stood in the doorway.

"Excuse me," I said. "I'd like to ask you some questions."

The Rris just glanced up for a split second before returning to work. That wasn't quite what I'd been expecting. "Rot you, Herth, take that rotted costume off or I'll shave you for real. But the voice is much better."

I blinked, somewhat taken aback. "Um, Herth couldn't be here tonight."

The pencil faltered, and then stopped. There was a quiet crack as the sharpened tip snapped and charcoal smeared across the paper, forgotten as the head slowly came up again. Ah, that was more like it.

"Hi," I grinned slowly and ducked my head to pass through the doorway. "As I said; I've a few questions I'd like to ask you."

"You're... you're really him, aren't you," the Rris stared, those tufted ears tipping back. I couldn't be sure of gender, a 'he'... possibly. Whatever, it was a scraggly Rris, with matted fur and a squint in those amber eyes.

"No, I'm his evil twin," I retorted, leaned against the wall in a handy position to block the door.

"Huhn...? I thought there was only one." The Rris just looked confused and worried. "Why're you here? What'd you want?"

I sighed. For the third time... "I'd like to ask you some questions, about Mediators. They were here the other night?"

Now the look was one of sudden panic. "Ai, they demanded we make those changes! Please, I'm sorry. I know it's not true but we don't have any choice!"

Changes? I wasn't about to blurt out that I didn't know what the hell that was supposed to mean. "Anything else they demanded?" I asked. "Anything that wasn't entirely... usual?"

Those eyes were rims of amber circumnavigating pools of black. A dirty hand scrubbed at a cheek tuft, smearing charcoal into the speckled grey fur. Male, I decided, though I still wasn't entirely sure. "They said I wasn't supposed to..."

He trailed off and watched as I crossed over to the wall of masks. I picked out an emerald green one, made of felt with hundreds of little beaten squares of polished green metal sewn to it. I held it up to my own face, but the eye holes were positioned for Rris eyes, with a flared space for the muzzle. No way it would fit me. "Weren't to tell anyone?" I suggested. "Mediators were playing with costuming and paints?"

He started, his ears pricked in surprise. "You know?"

"They required that someone be made up to look like someone else?" It was a guess, actually. She'd said the dye was expensive. And the mediators would want an expert to do a good job. A theatre with royal patronage would be the best choice, and there was only one of those. So it was a guess, but it seemed like it was a good guess. A bit of luck for once.

I saw his gaze flicker, perhaps looking for a way out. "A. It was Shirc. She was supposed to keep..." he faltered, his ears laying back.

I gazed down at the mask in my hand, turning it over and over. So, she was right. She was telling the truth. It hadn't been Chaeitch I'd killed. But it'd been someone who'd been intent on killing me.

"It's not true, is it?" the Rris at the desk ventured in a small voice.

"Hmm?" I looked up. "What isn't?"

He shrank back, his ears going down flat against his furry skull. "What they said about you. What they want me to say," he gestured vaguely at the papers on the desk. All things considered, he was taking this surprisingly well. He hadn't screeched for help or even made a break for the door. And he was obviously more concerned about those changes he'd mentioned than the Mediators' makeover party.

"And what's that?" I asked quietly.

He glanced at the door, then back to me. "That you're dangerous. Unpredictable." He ducked his head, "a 'vicious animal' they said. That you've killed people."

I stared, then slowly said, "Now, just pretend I haven't heard about this and tell me: what exactly do they want you to change to say that?"

He looked a little taken aback then touched the paper in front of him. "This! The whole script will have to be re-written," he snorted, then slapped a hand down on it. "But I've heard tell about you. There are descriptions, other writings that say while you look grotesque and fearsome..." he looked alarmed. "Ah, no offence."

"None taken," I shrugged.

There was another uncertain look, then he coughed and continued, "But they say you're also personable and intelligent; more like a normal person than you look." He picked up a sheet of paper and looked from it to me. "I don't understand why the Mediators now say you're dangerous."

I squatted at the low desk and picked up a page: the paper was the cheapest available, covered with errant inkblots and the perceptual cross-hatch that was closely-spaced Rris writing. That in turn had bits crossed out, notes in the margins, scrawls and addendums and amendments... And the handwriting itself was idiosyncratic, to say the least. I could only make out a few words. "This is a script?" I asked. "For a play?"

"A," he looked at me as if I were asking if water were wet.

"It's popular?"

"Quite." His ears pricked up a bit.

"Huhn," I let the paper float back down to the desk. It wasn't too difficult to see what the motive behind that move was. Propaganda. Making me seem to be a threat. But why? What would that do? Would Rris be more likely to go to the Mediators? Or would they just be more likely to go after me themselves. Either way, it'd make things difficult for me.

"You're going to do this?" I asked.

"Mediator decree," he said, as if that explained everything. And thinking back to what I'd heard the other night, perhaps it did. But it was an unusual move... I grimaced as I tried to figure out the ramifications of this.

"You're... angry?" he asked.

I sighed and shook my head. He just looked worried again. I amended the gesture to a Rris-style tip of my hand and then kicked a threadbare floor cushion over against the wall. He was watching as I sat and leant back.

"No, not angry," I said. "Not at you, anyway. These Mediators, who was in charge? Did he have a name?"

"Hai, no. I mean, they didn't introduce themselves. I heard the others though. They called him Shyia."

A leaden weight dropped into my guts. "Shyia," I echoed.

"A. I think..."

"Shit!" I thumped my fist against the wall, the boom reverberating through the building. He shut up, fast. Shyia. It would be him. Someone who knew me well enough to try a ploy like that disguise gambit. It'd never have worked on a Rris, but he knew me well enough to know I might make a mistake like that. And as for the propaganda he was having that Rris write...

The Rris in question was looking absolutely petrified, with those tufted ears flattened so they were practically molded to his skull. "And you're actually going to write that?" I asked.

His jaw chattered and muscles in his muzzle spasmed as he obviously tried not to bare teeth.

I sighed again. "I apologize. I didn't mean to scare you... Did you ever have one of those days? Sorry, I mean it's been a long and tiring day and that was a bit of bad news I wasn't expecting. He insisted you write that?"

He waved a cautious affirmative.

Shit. I slowly knocked my head back against the planks behind me. On the wall opposite, the masks stared mutely back. I had killed, several times. They'd been Rris. Back when I'd first arrived perhaps it hadn't been... No. That wasn't right. It'd been a big deal, it'd always been that, but perhaps there'd been the subconscious feeling that they weren't human, they aren't real people... That was two years ago. Now, of course that'd changed, but could a Rris look back on the last two years and determine I was a ruthless killer? Character assassination as well as physical. It'd mean I'd be a lot less likely to find help from the populace if they wanted to shoot first and ask questions later.

"What would it take for you not to?" I asked.

"Not to?" His ears flickered back again. "Going against the word of the Mediators?"

"A, how much?"

His expression would've probably been the same if I'd asked him to drink the ocean. "That's just... not possible," he choked.

I swore under my breath and slumped back. I could threaten him, but that would probably just compound my problems. If he thought I actually was a psychotic thug...

"But perhaps..." he ventured. That shocked expression had changed to something a little more calculating. It was an expression that made him vaguely resemble a scruffy, ink-stained weasel.

"That much?" I growled. At this rate of bribery the moderate fortune I as carrying would be gone in no time.

"Huhn," his ears flagged down and up again. "I have to do as they said. Ah, I will do that. But I might be able to do that in a way that profits the both of us?"

Now I stared. Surprised, and not more than a little suspicious. "How?"

"The stories I've heard... They've been very popular, but I must confess I don't know what is true and what isn't. Perhaps if you could tell me your story, I could do what the Mediators require and also tell your side of the tale. If you did these things they say you did, it would explain why. If you had a good reason for those acts, if they were justifiable, then how can they be wrong?"

I opened my mouth, then paused and closed it again and frowned. It was an... interesting proposition. "Not money," I prodded at the idea. "Just my story?"

"A."

"That would appease the mediators?"

"A."

"And you wouldn't portray me as... some sort of animal?"

There was a flicker of nervousness. "That... it depends on your account. It depends if it is true."

"How can you be sure what I tell you is the entire truth?"

"Stories are my business. I like to think I can tell when people are embellishing. It happens often enough."

Despite myself, I felt a wry smile twitch my face. "I think my story is probably a fair bit different from most of the ones you've heard. I think it's pretty hard to believe, even without... embellishment."

Carefully he inclined his head. "No doubt," he said and then his gaze flicked up, past me.

I twitched around and found my hand was already inside my rain cloak, touching the lethal assembly of wood and metal tucked into the bandolier there. There were Rris just outside the door, right on the edge of the shadows. Three of them I could see, three pairs of eyes shimmering with reflected candlelight. "We heard voices," one said uncertainly. "Res'hat, you're alright?"

They weren't Mediators, that was obvious. Two were undressed, their fur looking rumpled and matted from sleep, while the third was wearing a pair of paint-spattered breeches. That one was carrying a bit of wood, clutched like a cudgel. How long had they been there? How much had they heard?

"It's alright," the Rris I'd been talking to quickly said to them and me. "It's fine. I'm fine. They're friends. Not dangerous, right?"

"This," one of them gestured, "It's really him?"

"Come to complain about your costumes a, Shirc?" I caught the whispered aside from one of the newcomers to the one in the breeches. She glared back.

"He was about to tell me his story," Res'hat said. "I don't know if he's willing to do so before an audience," he said, cocking his head toward me.

I shrugged, then carefully tipped my hand in the corresponding Rris gesture. "I don't mind, but I don't have a lot of time. I have to be gone before light."

"A," Res'hat acknowledged and I looked from him to the others and took a breath:

"I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning, and I think that was a bit over two years ago, back where I come from. It was a place like this - a world like yours'. There are villages and towns and cities bigger than you can imagine. But there the people look like me.

"I don't really know what happened. It was in the countryside, far to the east of Shattered Water. One moment I was walking through familiar and safe land, the next there was a flash of light, like lightning all around me and a feeling... it was like... every part of me was falling into the universe, I suppose. It was like nothing else I can describe and then the next thing I know I woke up somewhere completely different. I'd been in the middle of a field; I woke up in a forest by a stream."

For a while Res'hat sat and listened with the others, his ears pricked up. Then he started scratching a few notes. Before long he was scribbling furiously as I talked and talked into the night.

Section 62

At four o'clock in the morning back home there was always noise of some description: the occasional car passing, sirens, distant aircraft. Here, in the Rris world, even in the middle of a city it's almost silent in the small hours. I slipped out the back of the theater into the strange silence of a sleeping city. Somewhere an owl hooted, but that was the only thing I could hear.

Overhead, the grey overcast had thickened and the mist turned to a thin but steady drizzle. What light there was gleamed off streets and roofs turned slick and wet. I climbed the wall, hesitating on the crest to make sure there wasn't anyone around before dropping down to the muddy street and hurrying off on my way.

There was only an hour or so till dawn and then the streets would get very busy, very quickly so I had to be out of sight before then. Well, that was arranged. I fingered the key in my pocket. I had a place I could stay, I just had to get across to the western side of the city.

There were still Rris out and about, even at that hour and in that weather. I stuck to the shadows, kept away from lamps and the open streets. The rain cloak may have covered a lot, but not even the dark and the hood would help if a Rris got a close look. And it didn't hide my gait. I hoped those who saw me might just think me a cripple to be walking that way. And as I headed further west away from the center of the city there was less foot traffic.

Not entirely deserted though. Even at that hour there were Rris with business to attend to. There were cartiers and couriers with early deliveries, workers from industries that never shut down, and others. Which I found as I ducked away from a rattling cart practically filling a narrow street. Yet another of those reeking little alleyways...

A scuffling in the dimness and an impression of a scraggly shape scuttling toward me, but the sharp line of reflected light that glinted in one hand was galvanizing enough. I was still reaching for my own gun when the figure abruptly drew up short. I slowly grinned and there was a mewling noise and a sudden flurry of motion and the alley was empty again.

Hmmm, after a shock like that he wouldn't be accosting strange figures in dark alleyways again any time soon. I slowly lowered the gun. None of that 'stand and deliver' shit. The ones here would just slit your throat and then help themselves. Sometimes it was easy to forget that despite everything that'd happened to me since my arrival, I'd ended up on the better side of the poverty line and some of the individuals on the other side were nasty and desperate.

And there was still a chance he might come back and bring friends. I hurried on my way.

That encounter made me a little jumpier, a little more paranoid. I was warier about those twisted little back ways and I kept looking back over my shoulder. That was probably the only reason I found I was being followed.

It wasn't an obvious shadow I'd picked up. In fact, it was hard to notice at first: quickly ducking out of sight whenever I stopped. At first I thought it was chance, but it happened again and again. I took a few random twists and turns through winding streets and thought I'd lost whoever it was, but then as I turned into the High Road caught another glimpse of the furtive shape nipping back into the shadows.

The High Road ran arrow-straight through the center of the Highland district, named not because of its topology, but because of its occupants in days gone. Back in wilder times when most of the populace had huddled within the city walls; back before the city began to demand the land, the district had been in the countryside outside the walls. Prestigious, isolated out-of-town houses for the lords and ladies and merchant leaders away from the crowding and reek inside the fortifications. Then the city had grown, exploded beyond the walls and enveloped these properties and they'd become town houses: places where the wealthy could stay when they were in the city. Now their country homes were way out in the hills and while these places weren't as big as those countryside holdings, it was still expensive land.

Tall hedgerows and ancient, huge and twisted oaks marched in twin rows down either side of the High Road. Water dripped from boughs arching overhead, pattering down through leaves and darkness, spattering from the hood of my rain cloak. The long grass of the verge was just as damp, soaking through my moccasins and leggings as I brushed through it, weaving in and out of the huge old oaks. To either side of the road lay the estates, insulated from the road by hedges, brick and high wrought iron, all ensuring that privacy that Rris architecture revolved around. I passed by gates, all closed and locked. Far beyond them, through mist and trees, in big houses up long drives, the warm glimmer of lights burned in the darkness. Otherwise, it was deserted.

Time to do something about that tail.

One of my weaves between the trees put the two meter-wide bole of a gnarled old oak between me and whoever was back there. Lower branches had been kept pruned back, but they provided handholds enough for me to haul myself up into the crotch and work my way a little higher. A couple of meters above head height I settled among black, mossy bark and pulled my rain cloak a little closer and rested my hand on the butt of my pistol.

Rain hissed and pattered through leaves for minutes.

A scrawny little figure came into view down below, moving cautiously along the route I'd taken. It rounded the trunk and hesitated looking confused. I blinked, surprised myself: That panhandling adolescent. What the hell was he doing sneaking around after me?

Nothing that boded well, I feared.

I landed behind him, close enough to grab a wiry arm, and then the other as he spun with claws slashing.

"Looking for someone?" I asked.

Like holding a damn pneumatic hose. The youngling squirmed and twisted and tried to bring toe claws into play. He might've been a kid, but I didn't have any illusions about the risk those claws posed: each one was like a miniature knife. Legs kicked out with claws extruded and teeth snapped. I managed to get twist an arm behind his back and grab his scruff and pin him up against the tree while he snarled and spat. He had the claws and wiry energy, but I was twice his size.

"Finished?" I asked when he finally wound down.

"Let me go!" he snarled. His chest was heaving as he panted fast, furiously, like a wounded animal.

"Why were you following me?"

"I wasn't!"

"Just out here for a walk, a? Just as you were walking behind me through town. Now, once again I'll be pleasant: why were you following me?"

A sullen hiss.

"Don't make me angry," I said quietly and then grinned quite slowly and deliberately. "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

Ears went flat.

I leaned down and hissed into one: "Tell me."

A strangled mewling sound worked out of chattering jaws. "To see..."

"See what?"

"Where you were going."

"You had a reason for this?"

"Because you... you killed them!" he spat out and then recoiled.

I flinched back. "What? Who? Killed whom?"

"At the theatre," he hissed, shaking like a leaf. It was the same one as before, with that same peculiar infliction in his speech. "You killed them."

I wasn't sure if that was an accusation or a question, but I was getting sick of everyone I met assuming I was a psycho. And now a kid, a goddamned kid just assumed... I pushed him away, up against the tree and he twisted as I took a couple of steps back. In that one movement there was a sliver of sharp metal in his hand: a bit of sharpened scrap metal tied to a makeshift handle. He snarled at me and I looked him up and down. Wiry, scrawny, bedraggled and scarred; dark lines were scored through the grubby fur across his features and one ear was already notched. This kid lived a life I'd never be able to experience or probably comprehend; that probably even kids back home who considered themselves streetkids had never dreamt of.

"Kid," I sighed. "I didn't kill anyone."

"You..."

"Look, you don't believe me, why don't you just go back there and ask Res'hat what happened, a?" I said and he just stared at me. Dammit, he was just a kid. He might've grown up in the rancid underbelly of a world where there was so much less material wealth to trickle down through the layers of society, where there were no social workers, where guns and shivs were almost a part of everyday attire and violence was a ready solution. But I'd still probably given him the fright of his life.

I cocked my head and regarded the scared youth. "What made you think that anyway?"

"You stole in there. Later you sneak out again. I thought you didn't like those stories of you."

Those stories. I almost laughed and choked it back before I scared him even more. "Those stories. You saw those, a?" I said and he twitched, his tail lashing. I'd be willing to lay money that he hadn't laid money to see those plays.

"They said you could get angry," he said and I wondered what else they said. Shyia knew more about those plays than I did and perhaps his little propaganda scheme would've caused more problems than I'd first thought.

"You shouldn't believe everything you see, you know. And there are some things you shouldn't poke your nose into. You know how much trouble you could be getting yourself into?"

"I can bite back," he hissed, his hand weaving the shiv in tight circles.

"I'm sure you can," I said, eyeing him thoughtfully. He'd noticed me, so had that mugger. For what I needed to do I'd have to be able to get around the city. Inconspicuously. Obviously, I'd have problems doing that, but perhaps someone who was more familiar with the city might do better.

"Tell me: are you interested in earning some more coin?" I asked. "Golds?"

At that his tail froze, and then just the tip twitched back and forth. A single gold coin would be more than he'd probably see in years; several in one night would be more than he'd have dreamt possible. Very cautiously he waved an affirmative.

"Then I might have some work for you," I said.

"Huhn. What would I have to do?"

"Just some errands," I said. "Nothing difficult. I give you some coin to buy some food. You bring it back and I'll pay you two golds."

Those cash registers went off again. "Two gold?"

"A."

The pupils contracted in sudden suspicion. "Why so much?"

"To ensure promptness and discretion," I said.

"You're hiding," he said. "From whom?"

"I'm not sure," I said. "That's what I want to find out. I require someone who knows the city. A guide who knows his way around? I would suppose you are somewhat of an expert in that regard?"

"I know the trails," he growled.

"Then would you be interested? Or should I look elsewhere?"

"Hai, I'll do it," he snapped.

"Then it's a deal," I said.

The pewter fingers I gave him were worth a fraction of the gold pieces, but they were far less likely to raise eyebrows when traded in. Although, they were still a sight more than he'd probably see in months. I told him what to get and then gave a second's thought as to where and when to deliver them. He took the coins and counted them, all five, painstakingly, with his tongue poking from his mouth as he did so, then made them vanish into a belt pouch.

"Two golds on delivery. And do a good job and there'll be more." Then I hesitated. "You got a name?"

"A," he hesitated before saying, "T'chier."

"I'm Michael."

"Mika... Mikal," he repeated and cocked his head. "Weird name," was all he said, then turned and pelted off down the road.

I watched after him until he was gone in the gloom and drizzle. It was only then that I frowned. "Wait a second. Did he..." I frowned, then shook my head and peered off down the avenue to make sure that he'd actually gone before I resumed my journey.

Trust him? No way. Her Ladyship had called me naive, and by the standards of their politcal players I was, but it didn't mean I had to go out of my way to be stupid. He could get it into his head that he could simply go to the Mediators and charge them some handsome sum in exchange for leading them to me.

That was assuming he knew they were after me. He hadn't said anything about it, but it would only be a matter of time before he found out

I kept going along between the rows of old, expensive estates and their old, expensive houses. Until the one gate that was flanked by a pair of statues: Rris holding bowls out before them. At one time those ceramic bowls would've been filled with oil lit as lamps. Now, they were dark, filling with pooling water. Beyond them the gates were black wrought iron twisted into forms that depicted curled branches. They were chained shut. There was a gatehouse; a porters lodge entangled in a burst of climbing ivy, the main gate nestled in an arched passage beneath it. It was mostly form over function, with plastered walls and ornately carved eaves. Small glazed windows watched down from the transverse over the gate. There were no lights, no sign of life.

That looked like the place she'd described.

I climbed the gate carefully. The spikes on top were decorative, but still sharp and I gingerly balanced myself on the top crosspiece of the rattling gate as I ducked between them and the roof of the tunnel, then dropped down onto damp flagstones. Damn. I winced at the pain that caused my moccasin-clad feet.

Limping slightly, I headed up the drive toward the dark house.

It was a big place. Compared with all the other properties around it was big. Comparing it with something I was familiar with, I'd have had to liken it to a classical Georgian style, with some gothic Adams Family touches in the gables and turrets. The timbers weren't painted, but were doubtless treated with something. Condensing mist beaded in droplets across the unruly lawn in front of the building and made the black slate roof glisten. Windows on the lower floors were shuttered; those few that weren't stared back with diamond lattice panes. The place had a certain Adam's Family air to it.

The front door was dark oak, with ornately cast brass crosspieces that were probably more ornamentation than reinforcement. Touches of tarnish fogged and pitted the metal. It was also locked. The key fitted neatly into the lock and turned. Stiffly, but it turned.

This house was property of Ladyship's family. Her mother's side, I think. I wasn't sure. It went back a long way, but wasn't used so often now they'd moved to properties in the country. There were periodic groundskeepers and guards, but she'd said their orders would be subtly amended. I'd have the place to myself.

Hinges squealed as the front door swung closed behind me and I stood in the dusty gloom of the main hall. It was high, a dark and dim place, paneled in dark wood, paved with grey and green checkered tiles. A musty smell hung in the air, stale: the smell of a place that hadn't been disturbed for some time. Opposite, a grand staircase climbed to a landing, a pair of smaller staircases branching up to the first floor. Above the landing a circular window: cut and shaped panes forming an intricate geometric pattern filtered anemic moonlight through a coating of grime. Not enough to light the place, but just enough to emphasize the shadows. And the cobwebs, and the dust. There was a lot of dust.

Cautiously I prowled from room to room. With the shutters drawn everything was pitch black. The pale needles of nightglow seeping in through chinks in the shutters provided scarcely enough light to make out empty spaces strewn with ghostly white shapes; furniture under dustcloths. Understairs was the same. The places where staff and servants had lived and worked were bare, dark and empty.

The stairs creaked as I went up, to more of the same. More light got in through the unshuttered windows on that floor, so I could actually see. Not that there was anything spectacular waiting, just more rooms of white-covered furniture. Still, I went through them one at a time, assuring myself that the place was deserted. Even though it felt empty.

In some ways it was like any large house you might've found back home. Form did follow function, after all. But there were differences in the Rris psyche that translated into the architecture. Bedrooms and bathrooms and water closets were clustered into private areas widely separated by halls and discreet doors, giving the occupants their personal space. The bedrooms were bare, with huddles of cloth-covered furniture. Some of the bathrooms still had tubs: huge things of old tiles that were built in, but no pipes or fixtures. They predated those modern innovations.

The house was deserted. Undoubtedly and uncomfortably so. I stopped at the doorway of one room and looked around. It'd been a bedroom once, perhaps even a room her Ladyship had called her own. Now there were just the empty box of a bed frame, few pieces of anonymous furniture in a corner, covered with dust cloths. A couple of slivers of moonlight peeked through slots in the window shutters, an eddy of dust swirled in a moonbeam. I shivered. I'd dreamt about rooms like this in dark houses before.

Just a quiet, empty building. Nothing more. A Rris would find my emotional associations peculiar and wonder why an empty house would produce feelings like that. I shook my head and retreated to one of the larger bedrooms. There'd been more furniture stored there, including a recliner-couch thing that would be more comfortable than the bare floorboards.

At least it was a roof over my head. Outside, beyond the window on the other side of the heavy drapes, the sky was brightening. There was no way I could show my face out there in daylight so I'd have to wait for night again. That was acceptable; I could do with a few hours rest. I lay in darkness and watched cobwebs up on the ceiling swaying in a draft. The next day was going to be... interesting. I just had to plan how I was going to do it. Of course I was all too aware of that old saw that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

Section 63

The stifling heat woke me.

Sunlight stabbed through pinholes in the old velvet drapes, specks of dust eddying in the threads of light sketched through the air. The room was hot and airless, heated to a blood-warm stuffiness from the sunlight behind the curtains. Choruses of insects rasped and ticked in the world outside. Afternoon already. Time to rise.

At a low side-table of garishly inlaid wood I breakfasted on coarse bread, jerked meat and water from my kit. There was enough there for a couple of days, if I rationed it. I could've carried more, but there was no way to keep it. As I sat and munched at my dry and somewhat gritty bread I poked at the meager rations in their vellum and paper wrappers and remembered things like Tupperware boxes and clingfilm. I hadn't included those in my reminiscing to her Ladyship. I guess it's the little things you really end up missing.

There was still more work for me to do. A primary ingredient in my working plan was still a wild card: That adolescent Rris. I didn't know if I could trust him. Actually, putting it bluntly, I didn't trust him. That'd have been crazy. If he did come back that night with what I'd asked for; if he came back without a contingent of Mediators in tow, then I'd trust him more. More, but not entirely.

Hopefully, he would prove trustworthy. If I was going to do what I was planning then there were going to be instances in which having a gofer like that would be very useful. Meantime, I'd need the time I had before I was due to meet him to write a few notes.

That took considerably longer than I'd intended. I had a stub of charcoal pencil and some scraps of cheap paper and a primary school grasp of the written language. There was nobody to ask for help with vocabulary, grammar or spelling tips. I also had to be somewhat exact in my wording. All that teamed up to mean it took a ridiculously long time just to write the notes. Long enough that the light outside was turning to orange and gold as the shadows lengthened.

Time to keep an appointment.

Section 64

From the vantage of a low roof I watched the kid come down the street toward the yard. He was walking quickly, a small sack slung over his shoulder. He looked nervous I noted as I leaned back, staying in the shadows of the building the shed abutted.

I'd ensured that I arrived at the appointed spot well ahead of time. Over an hour ahead of time. That'd let me get into the closed warehouse yard and get into place. I'd settled on the roof of a low shed adjoining a larger building, the eaves of that building overhanging enough to offer some nice shadows. I wasn't under any illusions that Rris couldn't see in that gloom, but their sight wasn't so good at discerning motionless detail. So I sat still and watched the street, looking for individuals who might also be lingering. As yet, I hadn't spotted anything out of the ordinary.

The night was clear, with a spill of bright stars smeared across the sky. A crescent moon hung low over rooftops and chimneys, turning dribbles of smoke into faint ghosts in the air. That was a mixed blessing: I could at least see to move, but it made the shadows seemed darker than ever. Away to the south an aqueduct loomed above the outlying town, streets and smaller building crammed in between the arched supports. I saw bats flitting and jinking around the old mossy stones, their dark forms eclipsing the slightly brighter night sky. Out the front of the yard a couple of gas lamps flickered feebly, more to light the signage on the place than illuminate the street.

The kid was on time. Well, as punctual as could be expected for someone who didn't have a watch and who lived in a town where the public clocks seemed to each run on their own little time zones that could be half an hour out of sync with others. He looked nervous; glancing around at corners and alleyways, which I figured was a good sign. If he'd been too cocky or fixated on not looking around I'd have suspected he'd brought backup of some kind and had been carefully coached on not looking at them.

He was waiting outside on the street, at the corner of the yard where an adjacent alleyway opened onto the main street. His ears flickered and then he whirled around as I dropped from the top of the brick wall around down into the alleyway. The only other people visible in the moonlight were a couple heading away from us further down the street, but I was still twitchy.

"On time," I said. "That's good."

"Coin," he said, fur bristling as he drew himself up to his full height; barely a meter tall. "You promised."

"On delivery of goods," I said and held up the lump of metal where he could see it. "Show me, first. I'm not paying for a bag of rocks or dead rats."

He grinned, then showed me the contents of his package: A small wheel of cheese in wax, smoked bison, bison jerky, bread and hard biscuits. All stuff that would keep. I nodded and flipped the coin to him and he handed the bag across then his eyes fixed on the new Gold I held up.

"You interested in another job?" I asked.

I saw his tongue flash out to lick his lips. "What?"

"This one's a bit more challenging," I said. "I need you to deliver a note to someone. Unobtrusively."

"What's that mean?"

That was a first: A Rris word I knew and a local didn't. "I mean quietly. Without anyone else knowing."

"Ah, who is for?"

"His name's Chaeitch ah Ties," I said. "And tomorrow his carriage will be at the shipyards..."

Section 65

Gas lamps were burning inside. The soft glow filtered out through a crack in the curtains, through the panes in the closed doors. The wedge of light spilled across the balcony and a corner of an ornamental planter, the leaves of the shrubbery growing within shifting in the warm night breeze. Overhead, the overhang of the eaves were a dark line across the faint glow of moonlit clouds. Back in the shadows, I leaned against the cool stone wall and listened to the voices emanating from inside and tried to ignore the mosquito whining around my head. I remember thinking how that'd felt familiar, how I'd done something similar not a few days before.

The voices were loud enough to be heard, not loud enough to be able to make out what was being said. They continued for a few minutes and then there was the sound of a door being closed, then silence. The mosquito whined and nocturnal insects buzzed in the grasses, then the line of light across the balcony abruptly widened as the drapes were pulled apart. The doors rattled and then swung out.

I just waited off to the side, in the gloom beyond the light cast from inside while a Rris shadow fell across the balcony and a hand raised to ruffle chest and shoulder fur. I heard a hiss, a sigh, and then the shadow shrank again as the Rris turned and went back inside. A few seconds later I moved quietly after.

The room was nice. Not as luxurious and elaborate as my suite had been, but still up to the standards accorded VIP guests. Green satin wallpaper in a paisley pattern and trimmed with gold foil. Plaster Rris and animal heads gazed down from the cornice. A couple of gas lamps flickered dimly, their copper pipes leading down into the floor on either side of the cotton-sheeted bed. He was alone, his back to me and tail lashing as he folded his tunic.

My hand felt for my bandolier and the reassuring weight of metal and wood tucked away there. Then I quietly asked, "Tough day?"

Chaeitch leapt and spun at the same time, his fur bottling and tunic falling forgotten. For a second he gaped, "Mikah?!"

It looked like him, but so had the other one. "Back in Shattered Water, what did you and Rraerch find out that day in your office; that I'd asked you not to tell."

"What..." he started to protest and then I saw his gaze lower and take in where my hand was resting. His ears went absolutely flat as he realized I was serious. "Your back. What that Maithris had done to it."

That was good enough. I sighed and used a finger to pull down the black mask covering the lower half of my face. I wasn't foolish enough to believe it did anything to disguise me, but it did make me harder to see at night.

"Rot you Mikah, what're you doing here?!" he hissed.

"I need to talk with you."

"But that note said the mill..." he blinked then shook his head as he caught on.

"Which is where most of the Mediators are camping out waiting for me," I said. "It was the only way to talk to you without them... interrupting."

"Shave you!" he hissed, stepped toward me. I retreated and he halted. "Stop this now," he growled urgently. "Give yourself up. They can help you."

"Help me?" I quietly asked. "Chaeitch, do you know what happened to me? After that Mediator took me away? Do you have any idea?!"

"They said you ran from them."

"Actually, I was kidnapped," I said, surprised at how level I was able to keep my tone. "Taken from them quite violently. I didn't have any choice in the matter. And then my captors said they saved my life; that I was originally to be executed."

"You..." he started to say.

"And," I continued, "you know what makes things really interesting? They were also Mediators."

He stared again. Then said, "What are you talking about?"

I sighed and glanced at the closed door. Were there guards? I didn't think so, but I kept my voice down. "Please, I'm not sure what's happening. I haven't been able to get any answers and I was hoping you could help. What have they been telling you?"

"That you escaped. That you've been hiding from them. You raided the Ironheart and left that note and they said that you resisted arrest then; that you killed a Mediator."

I sagged.

"Tell me you didn't do this," he said. His eyes flared as the light caught them.

"I killed someone," I said quietly. "I thought it was you. I mean... I was at the warehouse and someone came, I thought it was you. It looked like you. He just... he just shot at me, then tried to finish it with a knife. I... the gun went off. I thought I'd killed you."

"You thought it was me?" he said, incredulously.

"I... can't tell Rris apart very well," I confessed miserably. "Not properly. Not even you. Someone knew this. A Mediator was made up to look like you and sent to kill me. Not arrest... kill me. And yet other Mediators were trying to keep me alive."

The Rris was staring at me as if I was telling him that the sky was an interesting shade of plaid that night. Slowly, his ears laid back and then visibly struggled up again. "Mikah, please, you are not feeling well."

I had felt better, but I knew that wasn't what he meant. "I think I am as sane as I've ever been since I came here," I said. "The one who told you that, he wouldn't be called Shyia, by any chance?"

"You know him?" he said, then must've remembered. "A, of course you do."

"Oh, yeah, From a way back. And he told you I was... what? Ill? Mentally unstable? Insane?" I saw by the reaction that I wasn't hitting far from the mark. "Great. And he's in charge?"

"He's answering to the Guild Lord," Chaeitch said quietly.

"He told me he was taking me to... ah... ah Richtkah? The Guildmaster? But why is he suddenly doing this? He was surely informed of my visit here, why didn't he say something to Hirht, to her Ladyship..."

"No, Mikah," Cheaitch interjected. "He's not the local master, he's the Mediator Guild Lord. Shyia had documents... they were quite authentic. From the Guild Hall in Meetings, bestowing on him provisional authority. He said he had taken you into custody and was returning to the local Guild Hall when you ran from him, injuring several Mediators in the process. He asked for our help in finding you. For your own good."

"He said that? That I ran from him?"

"A."

I shook my head and eyed him. "You helped him with that note on the Ironheart," I said flatly. "Telling them where I'd be."

"A," he waved an affirmative. "They brought the note to me and asked where that location was. He said they didn't want you running around the city. There was danger. You could be injured, or someone could..." He trailed off with a hiss.

"Did he ever say just why I was to be taken into custody in the first place?"

"Said they had some questions for you," Cheaitch said, flicking an ear back and then rubbing it.

"They said," I noted. "You never saw those actual orders in writing?"

"No, not those," he said quietly. "Mikah, that night they took you, what happened? In your words?"

"I don't have much time."

"Then be quick. Sit, tell me."

We sat on basic leather cushions and I told him. I could see him struggling not to interject as I spoke, as I told him things that no doubt contradicted what the Mediators had told him. I told him what happened that night, after Shyia took me away, after the attack in that narrow street and my flight; then the unknown mediators who'd taken me and claimed to have saved my life. Then the long days following that. And again I omitted names and other details. I wanted to trust Chaeitch, I really wanted to, but after the notes, after the fact he'd helped the Mediators I just couldn't risk it. For the sakes of those who'd helped me.

I was angry at him. After what he'd done - the way he'd helped the Mediators. It felt like a betrayal. And that hit me where it hurt. But I was telling myself that it was through mistaken beliefs on his part, because of the misinformation he'd been fed. And there was something more than that. The Mediators seemed to have the same sort of effect on Rris that a charismatic leader does on humans: despite what common sense might dictate they can be led to do things that are just plain crazy.

So perhaps he'd never had any choice. Which might have removed the blame, but it also removed the reliability. I realized that I just couldn't trust him entirely, not where Mediators were involved.

When I was done he sat quietly, then said, "That can't be right."

I sighed. "It's... Look, I'm sorry but there isn't time. They'll be back soon." I looked around at the window but it was still quiet out there. "Everything I told you is the truth. It happened. I don't know why; I was hoping you'd have some idea. If you don't then... Chaeitch, be careful. They're trying to hide something. If they think you're not buying their story they might get nasty." I frowned and added, "And I don't think it would be a good idea to let them know I was here."

He laid his ears back, "Mikah, can you hear what you're saying?! They're Mediators, rot it!"

"Doesn't mean they're perfect. I know they're supposed to be, but... Fuck! They've lied. They've lied to me, they've lied to you. Just... be careful, a?"

Chaeitch hissed in exasperation and then snapped his teeth. "And if they find out you've been here and I didn't raise the alarm?"

I felt a surge of annoyance. He thought he had problems? "Then tell them I held you at gunpoint. You were afraid for your life. After all, I'm a dangerous killer, aren't I?" I turned back to the balcony.

"You're going?" he said.

"A, there's someone else I have to talk to," I said, and then hesitated in the doorway.

"One other thing," I said and turned, raising a finger, "don't leave on the Ironheart without me, a? That's quite important."

He looked puzzle but waved a hesitant affirmative.

I pulled my black scarf back up over my face, climbed over the parapet and dropped down into the darkness.

Getting away from the Palace was as tricky as getting in had been. I had to get across the moonlit meadows, staying low and making myself one with the dew-soaked grass when guards made their rounds. Beyond those fields lay the belt of the woods: a world of blackness and faint dapples of moonlight and strange noises in the gloom. I hurried through there as best I could, all the time expecting a yowl of alarm in the darkness.

That didn't come till I was over the fence. When I dropped from the top rail a quizzical vocalization called from some way behind. I went flat amongst bracken and leaves and fallen needles, facefirst into the earthy scent of the forest floor, letting the black of the rain cloak settle over me.

Voices coming closer:

"... thought I saw something."

"Where?"

"Right here."

A pause. I wasn't breathing, becoming one with ground.

"Nothing there now, a? Smell anything?"

"A." Another pause. "Odd scent."

"A. Not Rris though. Raccoon, probably. Rotted things after the midden heaps again."

"Huhn, a."

"Come on. Get this watch over with."

Voices fading.

I waited a while, then ran again.

Out of those woods and away up a hillside I stopped and turned, panting and dripping sweat as I gazed back down a the Palace. There were lights, but not nearly as many as that night I'd first seen it. There was however a column of torches crawling up the Palace drive: a large convoy of riders and carriages bound back to the palace at quite a clip. It didn't take too much to guess who that was.

I didn't hesitate to put more distance between myself and that place.

Section 66

In the stuffy heat of the loft I took another swig of lukewarm water from the wineskin and grimaced. The water was body temperature and tasted of leather, but it was still wet. I drank and then returned to the dazzling point of the peephole.

That loft was a tiny triangular spider-web and bird dropping littered wedge just below the wood-chip shingle roof of a shed abutting a store of some kind. I'd broken in by lifting some tiles and crawling down inside. It was cramped and hot and dusty and littered with the remains of nests and rodent and bird shit, but it overlooked the square. A crack served as a peephole where I could see the square and three sides.

It wasn't a busy place. Small enough that overhanging buildings blocked out the morning sunlight. Stonework on that side was patched and discolored with moss. In the center stood a fountain: a modestly sized bronze statue of a stunted tree atop a pile of rocks. The metal was green with age and quite a few branches were obviously broken off. Water dribbled down to four spouts on the short plinth, one on each side. The local water supply where periodically Rris would bring pitchers and jugs to fill.

It wasn't a prosperous part of town.

Down by the fountain were stone benches. On one of those benches a lone figure was sitting, right in the middle of the stone slab, tail twitching as he waited. His dark leather Mediator uniform kept others away, leaving him waiting quietly.

The note had been delivered to the Guild Hall a few hours earlier that morning by T'chier, probably by brick through a window. It'd requested that Shyia meet me at that appointed place at an appointed time. By the time he'd arrived I'd already been there for a couple of hours, time enough to see the two figures settle in at half-open windows, spot another lurking in the greenery beyond a wrought-iron gateway. They were all armed with long arms of some description. I was sure that some of the individuals who occasionally wandered through the square weren't all they appeared to be.

I wasn't surprised.

As minutes ticked by the lashing of Shyia's tail became more agitated, then eventually it simply froze motionless. That meant he was pissed. Good. I didn't want him thinking too clearly. Especially when a small figure appeared in front of him and hesitantly approached, then handed over a small piece of paper and hastily scampered off again.

Shyia opened the note and read it, then looked in the direction the cub had gone. I saw him snarl, then glance at the shadows and get up. On his way out of the square he paused by a nondescript female apparently carrying a load of laundry and muttered a few words to her, then hastened on his way.

I moved out as well, stretching as I climbed out of my hiding place and dropping down into one of the streets behind the square. He'd be taking the quickest way to where he thought the next meeting would be; where he'd just told his associates he'd be heading. He wasn't going to make it.

The back streets were the familiar mix of warrens of muddy, narrow, unpaved streets and fetid, dank little alleyways. But I already had my route through the city planned out. There were short cuts through back alleys, fences and walls to scale. Several times I came face to face with locals. They fled or cowered back with shocked expressions, but they didn't impede me and I didn't wait around. Perhaps they'd go to the Mediators or Guards. Perhaps. But I had no intention of being there by they time they returned.

The ruined barbican was a remaining part of old city walls, standing above the peaked roofs of the tenement districts like a rotting tooth. The crenellations were mostly gone. A jagged bite was missing out of the eastern tower, revealing tumbled floors inside. Narrow windows slits were stained white with bird droppings where they'd been used as a means of ingress. Now the whole structure squatted over a public street, the gateway below forming a dark tunnel through which traffic passed. Not a great deal; it was no longer one of the city's major thoroughfares.

It reeked in there. It reeked of animal and Rris wastes, of rotting things and dampness. The shattered side was gutted, the outer walls collapsed down to the first floor, the floors above that just rickety frameworks whitened with bird shit. Any loose stone or good wood had long ago been recycled into local buildings. Still, there were signs that the gutted shell of the gatehouse was being used: charcoal fire pits, scattered remains of food. Whoever that belonged to, there was no sign of them at that time.

In the gutted remains of one of the innermost broken rooms there was a small arched passageway, a doorway through the thick wall connecting to the tunnel through the barbican. Blocking that door was an ancient gate, a cross-hatch of rusting iron strips forming a grid, the holes little larger than my head offering metal-framed views of the dark stone of the gateway beyond. It was firmly rusted shut by years of neglect. That suited me fine.

I'd been expecting the ambush. Which was why the second note had told Shyia to go to another location. Fast. He'd have a limited time to get there. So he was hurrying on the most direct route there.

Pattering claws sounded in the gateway and when the panting figure passed by on the other side of the metal grill I called, "Shyia!"

The Rris spun, crouching and reaching in one movement. And then froze when he saw my gun already leveled.

"You're fast," I said, "but not that fast. I'll defend myself if I have to."

Shyia hesitated, then dropped his hand and straightened. Standing in cool dignity as he surveyed first the gate separating us, then me. I was meters beyond it, ready to duck away behind a wall. By the time he got around the outside of the tower I could be long gone. And if he drew I could either fire, or just leave.

"Mikah," he said, "stop this. Give yourself up. You're only making this worse."

"Worse?" I snorted. "That's lame. You've already tried to kill me, how can it possibly get worse?!"

"You're upset," he said. "We just want to help you."

"Like you did at the warehouse?" I said. "Like the shooters in the square back there? Don't give me that 'we want to help' shit."

"Then why are you here?" he asked in a horribly calm tone of voice, just loud enough for me to hear.

"I want to know why you want to kill me. I want to know why I was abducted and now why you're trying to kill me."

He stared, stonefaced. "You can't imagine?"

"I upset someone, but what did I do? I don't know!"

He didn't take his eyes off me. Standing motionless, hands clasped behind his back. "You exist. You're here."

I didn't really understand what I was hearing. Or perhaps I didn't want to hear it. "What are you talking about?"

"I believe I warned you," he replied quietly. "There is equilibrium to the peace. It wouldn't take much to tip that. His Lordship believes you are more than enough and he has sent his orders."

Again, it was one of those times when there were words I could understand, but not the real sentiment behind them. I heard him speak coolly and dispassionately and didn't feel anything but a growing anger.

"And you just follow them," I growled.

His face didn't flicker. "His lordship's orders will always be obeyed."

"I've heard this before," I said. "I don't have a say? I don't have chance to defend myself? In Westwater there was at least a trial."

"Things have changed since then."

"What about those others? The ones who attacked us that night? They were imposters? Impersonating Mediators?"

"Nobody would be that foolish."

"Then they were real Mediators?"

His expression never flickered. "They were misguided."

"Then Mediators are fighting Mediators."

"That doesn't happen."

"Ah, of course it doesn't," I said sarcastically. "Because Mediators wouldn't do that, do they? If people found out there was dissention in the Guild that would affect your authority, wouldn't it? And that would be bad for you, wouldn't it?"

"You've been studying," Shyia said slowly. "You've been listening to people. And does that education tell you what your presence is doing?"

"It's telling me that if an institution can be upset as easily as that, then they shouldn't be looking outside their own ranks for the problem," I retorted. "Just what the fuck is going on? Why are you fighting? You want me dead, what does the other side want?"

"There is no..."

"Don't feed me that line!" I hissed. "You're trying to kill me. They're not. From my point of view, whom would you be inclined to trust?"

An ear twitched slightly, rotating to the side as if he'd heard something and then he said. "This is not the place to be discussing this. Mikah, stop this whole thing now."

Alarm bells went off in my head. That line felt... like he was performing for an audience. "I'll be in touch," I said angrily.

"Mikah!"

I ducked away through the ruins of the barbican, grimacing in fury and frustration as broken stones and assorted debris poked through the soft soles of my moccasins.

"Mikah!"

The yell was more distant, echoing through the ruins as I clambered out through the tumbled wall. A yowling cry that would doubtless be audible to any other nearby Mediators. I hastened into a nearby alleyway, slammed my fist against a wall and proceeded to try and get as far away from there as quickly as I could.

Section 67

I'd been hoping that something would come of that meeting; That there'd be some way to talk to him; that they'd offer terms or give me an explanation; that there'd be some sort of resolution.

It hadn't happened. I hadn't found out what the problem was. In fact, he'd denied there even was a problem.

In the dim and dusty stillness of her Ladyship's house, I sat on an obscure piece of furniture that probably had some name I hadn't learned yet and fumed and glumly ran over and over that short exchange in my head. He'd said he was going to kill me because I'd upset some sort of status quo... No, that wasn't right. That wasn't exactly what he'd said. He'd been ordered to kill me... No, that wasn't right either. He'd said his Lordship had sent those orders.

That was it. Those were the words he'd used. And it was odd wording. What did that mean?

Was all this because I knew that there was fighting within the Mediator Guild? It'd all started that night Shyia had picked me up. He'd said I was being taken to see the Guild Lord. If he'd wanted to kill me, then why hadn't he done it there? Too public? They certainly hadn't had any reservations with their other attempt. So, something had changed.

Those other Mediators had kidnapped me; they'd held me against my will, but they hadn't actually tried to kill me. They'd warned me that I was to be executed. Perhaps they knew something else as well? Perhaps they had some answers.

I chewed on day-old bread and brooded, watching dust motes swirling in the threads of sunlight sneaking past chinks in the drapes. Despite the stuffy heat in there I shivered. Now the fear was settling in. They were actually trying to kill me. I was an alien in city where I could never blend in and the law was hunting me. One miss-step and they'd be on me. And options were running thin. I could run. There was always that. It was something I'd considered before, but where to? Back to Shattered Water, which wouldn't get me away from the Mediator Guild. Or out into the wilderness.

They'd come after me. They'd hunt me and my life would simply become surviving from one day to the next. Running.

At least I'd be alive.

But, I'd been hunted by Rris before.

So, before it came to that I'd see what I could find out about those Mediators that Shyia so vehemently insisted didn't exist. And that meant that it looked like I'd have to grease some greedy little palms again.

Section 68

Ruddy evening sunlight slanted down through the broken remains of the roof, sifting through the bare and broken ribs of what remained of the rafters. Somewhere up there birds rustled and twittered as they settled in to roost for the night.

Once the ruin had been a small brick building on the outskirts of town, but at some point in the past a fire had gutted much of it. Half the building was soot-stained, collapsed ruin, the other half still capped by the remains of a clay tile roof. Charred wooden beams and joists were tumbled about gloomy interior while the unwanted rubble of collapsed stone walls were littered among weeds and dirt. Looking up through the gaping holes in the ceiling and roof, past the skeleton of the rafters, the evening sky was glowing red as the set sun set the clouds aglow.

A couple of rooms survived. One of them was a decent-sized room, in the center of which stood a several-foot wide columnar piece of timber that'd been a post going right up to the ridgeline. The fire had blackened and charred outer layers of wood, but the thing still seemed solid enough. I stayed back behind it, lurking in the shadows. It was a pastime I felt I was getting quite good at.

God, I was tired. Sleep had been rare over the past few days; nonexistent over the past forty-eight or so hours and I was really starting to feel it. I tried not to yawn, to pay attention while gazing out past piles of debris as the figure of the cub half-scrambled, half tumbled over a creeper-entangled low stone garden wall. As he hurried toward the house his legs were almost lost in the overgrown grass and undergrowth in what'd been a garden, or perhaps a small orchard with a half-dozen orange trees. Beyond were a few other small dwellings, a sliver of street visible. A cart slowly rumbled along that; some washing flapped on a line, but there was no sign of anyone else.

There was a gaping hole in the wall. It'd either collapsed or was in the process of being cannibalized by neighbors. He stopped at the jagged bite, peering inside. "Mikhal?"

"Here," I said and the backlit silhouette of the teen's ears flickered, twitching toward me. It really was quite remarkable. He could pronounce my name. He could actually say the letter 'l', which all other Rris had been utterly unable to articulate. And I wasn't in any position to investigate the matter further and find out if he was unique or if other Rris just hadn't been exposed to such sounds before. Like Japanese brought up without exposure to English.

T'chier clambered in through the broken wall. Debris clattered under his feet as he picked his way through the ruin.

"Good job today," I told him.

He looked up at me and hesitated as if thinking, and then thrust his hand out. I dropped the heavy lumpy coins into it and they promptly vanished in a blur of movement. "It was easy," he proclaimed.

"Easy, huh?" I rubbed my chin and the beard that was starting to get out of control. "Then something similar would be no problem?"

"You'll pay?"

"Same as last time," I said. "And that's being generous. Since it was so easy I should pay less, a?"

His tail lashed. "Ai! Not that easy. They could have caught me."

"True," I smiled carefully.

"And pay first," he demanded, holding his hand out again. I regarded it and then his eyes in the gloom. They were wide open, glittering in the growing darkness, his ears were still back. I nodded and weighed the coins in my hand; the soft metal cold and so battered that the things were no longer round. Pure gold, not some alloy or amalgam.

He took the coins in his hand and looked at them for a few seconds, then started moving away. Back toward the hole in the wall.

"You don't want to hear the details?" I said softly.

His ears laid back.

"They're out there, aren't they," I looked past him at the tumbled wall, and then back at him and the sudden fright on his face. "They paid you enough?"

He rallied, raising his head and turning that fear into a defiant look. "A lot."

"Uh-huh, I'd hope so." I nodded. "I wouldn't want to be sold cheaply."

He was staring at where my rain cloak hung open, at where the pistols in my hands would be visible. Those eyes were in shadow, but I could see the tension in his stance, the cant of his head as his gaze twitched up toward my face.

"You should leave now," I said and nodded toward the fallen wall.

"You're not angry?" he sounded uncertain.

"Disappointed," I said dryly. "I'm getting used to surprises like this. Now, get out of here before I change my mind."

His ears went absolutely flat and his muzzle fleered back from small, sharp teeth and then he coiled around and was gone in a flurry of movement and a clatter of tottering masonry.

I shook my head and exhaled, forcing myself to relax. My fists were clenched tight around the pistol grips, slick with sweat and my jaw was tight. It wasn't entirely a surprise. I'd been half-expecting something to go wrong, but another betrayal...

No, it wasn't entirely a surprise. He was a survivor. Surviving in the best way he knew. And he'd had the chance to make more money than he'd ever dreamed of and it was legal. Doubtless he'd backstabbed before and he'd probably do it again, unless someone did it to him first. Thinking of him as an innocent little street urchin with a heart of gold would've been a big mistake.

But I didn't have time to reflect on that. There'd be Mediators out there, probably using the time to make sure the place was surrounded. I had two six-shooters with a couple of reload packs so I could do a Butch Cassidy vs the Bolivian Army re-enactment. But that would have been suicidal, and there was another reason I'd picked that location for a meeting: there was more than one way out. One of those routes was something I'd hoped the Mediators wouldn't consider.

Charred wooden beams creaked and shifted and black charcoal dust covered on my hands. Collapsed beams and supports offered enough handholds as I scrambled up onto the treacherous flooring of what had been the attic. What remained of the roof was a hood of soot-caked red-clay tiles hanging out over the gutted end of the house below. At that broken end charred wood jutted out from beneath the tiles, the remains of the frame that'd supported the roof. When I peeked out through the struts I could see the overgrown garden and the scraggly trees Through gaps in the branches I saw the movement of black-clad figures in the street beyond as a line of them closed in.

A black bit of framework cracked aside as I pushed through and pottery clinked and clattered as I clambered around onto the tiles. The whole roof bowed, the wooden supports creaking and groaning as I shifted my weight, on all fours to keep my balance on the steep slope.

And sure enough there was a shout from behind me which was more than enough incentive to move faster. I scrambled. Tiles skidded out from under my feet, clattering away and I scrambled faster, causing more to shed in a clanking rain behind me. More shouts yowled and gunshots clapped out. Fast objects burred past me with a sound like furious bees and a tile beside my hand shattered with a sharp crack and a spray of chips that stung where they struck exposed skin. Clouds of dense grey smoke were swirling through the orchard, a skirmish line of Mediators pushing through and taking position.

I reached the ridgeline and then frantically ducked as more guns in the street on the other side of the building belched fire and smoke. Finger-sized slugs whirred past overhead and pulverized more tiles. Beneath me the roof sagged and there were audible snapping sounds from beneath and I just started sprinting from a crouch along the ridgeline that buckled beneath me with every step, collapsing in on itself behind me in a cascade of tiles and dust and splintering wood. But it held just long enough for me to reach the end and jump.

Damn rain cloak streamed out, dragging at me as I dropped and landed hard on the lower edge of the roof of the house opposite. That roof was intact, but I hadn't anticipated the tile shattering under my left foot and the edges were as sharp as glass as my leg went through the hole. I gasped and felt the material of my pants legs tearing as I yanked my foot out again and scrambled up the slope of that roof. Another volley barked out as I went over the ridgeline.

It's something I've experienced before. It's something I'll experience again. Being hunted. It's happened and perhaps I've become better at dealing with it, but it'll never become something that I'll become accustomed to. Heart pounding, gasping air into burning lungs, the fear building like a dark wave until it threatens to break and drown rational thought and reason.

I was learning I couldn't let that happen. This was their city, full of their kind. I couldn't escape by hiding in a dark corner somewhere or by simply fleeing like a mindless animal. I had to be able to think. I had to fight that paralyzing fear back and use what resources I had. At the moment the best I had was climbing ability. Rris are agile, their claws are helpful with bark, but when clambering over harder surfaces the contour-hugging human foot combined with a much better grip had the edge.

I used it. Over that roof and along the top of a wall, then onto another roof. That building was part of a row of closely packed buildings. They'd have to go around to catch up.

Despite the hour the street on the other side was still busy. Shop doors and windows were open, stalls lined the avenue with wares on display. Brightly colored banners and awnings showed names and icons of products for the illiterate. Which effectively included me. Fires and grills burned merrily in the twilight, the smell of cooking food filling the street. Crowds of Rris were there. If they'd been going about their business, that was forgotten. Groups of them were standing looking toward the sound of the gunfire. They saw me as I skidded down the incline of the roof along with a shower of tiles that fell to shatter on the cobbles. I could see the consternation spreading out as I dropped down, onto a lower awning, then to the street.

The crowd spilled away. Front rows backpedaled and wide eyes stared at me as I dropped down to land in a crouch on the cobbles, and then yelped as my leg buckled. I glanced down: my pant leg was sopping wet, that and the stuff dribbling onto the dusty street were black in the dim light. I grimaced and set off again, yelling, "Move!" at the staring Rris.

They did, parting before me as I ran as bet I could, trying to ignore the pain that was starting to cut through the adrenaline. Voices rose around me in consternation and surprise and I thought I heard some saying, "it's him," but didn't have time to stop and chat. Across the street was a wall between two buildings. I jumped and caught the top, hauling myself up. Crashes and more yells sounded behind me. The Mediators hadn't gone around the buildings, they'd just barged through. But it'd slowed them enough that I could flip over the wall.

The other side was a dusty little yard with scraggly bushes growing in planters and rows of grey sheets hanging from lines. They flapped over and around me as I pushed through. At the gateway on the far side I turned, my back slamming into the wobbling wooden fence there as I drew and fired into the air over the wall, once and then again. Not aiming, just keeping them back while I ran again.

Along the narrow path, the slats of the wooden fence whipping by as I ran. Hard right into another alley between two old buildings, the walls overhead leaning out so far that they were supporting one another and turning the path into a black tunnel. An ill-smelling gutter flowing down the middle splashed around my moccasins as I ran down that alley, half turning to fit through the gap. From there I turned onto another narrow street, headed downhill toward the port, the weathered cobbles terraced with low steps every few meters and obviously not intended for wheeled traffic. The buildings were blank-faced Rris constructions; facades of old wooden frame constructions with plaster peeling from the wattle and daub between the timbers. A constriction in the road was bridged by a stone archway atop which more recently dwellings perched. I remember seeing faces peering down in surprise as I pelted down the street. Yowls rose from somewhere in the sprawl of buildings behind me.

I cut into a courtyard of what looked like a local stable, intending to bolt through the stables themselves to throw off any keen-nosed trackers. The building was a wooden one, looking like a stereotypical barn with rough plank walls and double doors and for a second I flashed back to that building where I'd first encountered a Rris face to face. Stablehands yowled and jumped in shock as I ran past, darting in through the stable doors, into the lamplit interior. Then skidding to a halt on the slippery straw-covered earthen floor.

Stalls lined each side of the building, almost all occupied by animals. Oil lamps hanging from supports threw dim light and hard shadows around the interior. Another pair of doors down the far end were open. Between those doors and myself a trio of Rris garbed in those long Mediator roadcoats were gathered at a stall. They glanced around and their hands blurred as they immediately drew their own pistols, even as I drew one of my own revolvers, going into a crouch and leveling it at the closest target.

Standoff. Their eyes were black pinpoints in amber as they watched me just like a big cat watches its prey, ears pricked and tails motionless. I stared back, at the trio of gun muzzles pointed at me. Those guns wasn't accurate, but the range was short enough that a skilled marksman could handily hit a man-sized target with a slug of metal. I could fire first. My guns were more accurate, I could almost certainly take one out first. But the others would certainly shoot back and gambling on them missing or their weapons misfiring was a long shot. But they could have fired already. Why weren't they?

We held that tableau for many long seconds, then their ears twitched and then I heard it also: shouting from the street outside. I risked a glance back over my shoulder at the stable doors, just for a split second, then back at the Rris before me.

"They're after you, a? Getting closer?" the Mediator in the center said, and then lowered his pistol. At a quick gesture the others followed suit and the speaker cocked his head. "If you want to live, then you should come with us."

I didn't move, just looked from one to another. They stared back, looking just like Mediators; like the ones who were chasing me. "And I should trust you because...?"

"Because we didn't kill you on sight," he said.

"Valid point," I said, cautiously lowered my pistol and then stood. It wasn't an easy decision, but I didn't have much choice.

They didn't fire. The spokesman hissed something to his associates and then waved a curt gesture at me. "This way."

The two others stood aside as he led the way to the doors at the opposite end of the stables. I passed them with misgiving looks and they fell in behind. One of them, a female, seemed... familiar, but I had other things to concentrate on as the leader glanced out the doors, then led the way out into the street there. It was another cobbled lane, paralleling the other one. It was dark and looked deserted.

"Move," the Rris hissed, urging me along.

I hurried, limping as the burning in my leg got worse. When I looked back the other two were hustling from the stables. In the doorway behind them I saw the glow of flames rising. They hadn't...

"A few minutes delay," one of them growled as they caught up. "We need to move faster."

Clawed hands caught my arm, trying to urge me to go faster. I tried and my leg gave out on a corner. I staggered hard, my shoulder driving against a wall as my leg buckled and I went halfway to my knees, gritting my teeth at the pain in my leg.

"Now what?!"

"Rot, he's injured," one of the Mediators knelt and looked. "His leg, under the cloth."

"Bad?"

"Leaving a trail."

"Rot you...Can you move?"

"Yes," I said through gritted teeth. "Don't know about running though."

"Huhn, get a tie on it. Stop the bleeding. We don't have time for more."

There was a sound of tearing cloth and the kneeling Mediator was wrapping strips around my calf. I grimaced as it was cinched tight and we were running again.

Now it was truly night. The Mediators led the way through the darkness. Down pitch-black alleys and streets, through iron gateways that squealed as they swung on rusty hinges. We were headed southeast, I thought. Higher into the town, away from the lake, but I wasn't entirely sure. I struggled to keep pace while the Mediators urged and pulled me along. Nothing gentle about it, they were just trying to make me keep up.

Eventually we halted in a small, dark industrial yard. Some moonlight snuck over the brick wall, over the deep shadows where we rested behind a stack of barrels, throwing a pale wedge on the weatherboards of the ramshackle workshop opposite. It hadn't been that far, but still I was panting hard. My leg was throbbing, my calf feeling swollen and hot. It was too dark to see the extent of the wound, but my pants leg felt soaked with blood and I was dizzy, nauseous. The Mediators were talking in low voices:

"They'll be watching. We can't just take him in."

"...due back soon."

A glance my way.

"... be less conspicuous. Do it."

One of them hurried off and the other two melted back into the shadows. I could feel them watching me. I leaned back against the cool bricks and closed my eyes and held on, trying not to collapse. I was trembling. Shock? Or just exhaustion.

The angle of the moonlight on the wall opposite had shifted. A figure appeared in the gateway we'd come in through and beckoned. The two Mediators rematerialized from the shadows and grabbed my arm and hauled me over to the gate. A team of elk were headed down the street, a carriage in tow with its lamps glowing in the darkness. It slowed as it passed. Didn't stop, just slowed enough that when the door opened the Mediators could hustle me over and bundled me in. The black lacquered cab was riding high and unsprung on those delicate-looking wheels, high enough that the floor of the cab hit my thighs and hands inside caught my rain cloak and half-dragged me in. I gave a choked scream and almost blacked out when my wounded leg banged the lintel.

"Stay down," someone hissed, pressing me down to the carpeted floor that, although clean, smelled like wet dog. "Keep your head down."

I had to bend my legs up to fit into that space. A pair of Rris feet were planted right in front of my face, too dark for me to see if the claws were out but the wet fur reek was strong there as well. There was no conversation from those in the carriage. Save for the sounds of iron-rimmed wheels on the cobbles we traveled in silence.

It wasn't far. A couple of corners, the sound from the wheels changing from one kind of cobble to another and then passing lights flashing through the windows. We stopped, the steps folded down and door opened. The Rris stood and the carriage rocked as they climbed out. Not all; one of the remaining pair told me to, "wait."

I did, while the carriage moved again. Not nearly as far this time. It was literally just around the corner. When the door opened the next time the Rris grabbed me by my scruff and my arm and hauled, hustling me out of the carriage. I took the two foot drop to the ground and nearly fell again when my legged buckled and a flashbulb of pain went off behind my eyes. I gasped - something between a scream and a curse – staggered and Mediators grabbed my arms, threw them over their shoulders and dragged me along. I was aware of stalls and the smell of animals, the humpbacked forms of other coaches off in the shadows to the side. My escorts hurried me past them, through a colonnade of wooden posts and then out under the open night sky. I limped along, trying to keep up the pace across a flagstone courtyard toward a much larger brick building, a doorway in an archway where a lamp burned.

It was a backdoor. A servants' entrance. It led into a dim room that smelled of dampness and soap. Steam hung in the air, water condensing on the walls and pooling on a stone floor. Copper tubs sat over banked fires, articles of damp cloth hung from wranglers and lines. A laundry. And more Mediators were waiting, half a dozen of them in their quilted uniforms with weapons handy.

The two who'd half carried me stood aside to see if I could manage on my own. I could, although I had to favor my injured leg. One of the Mediators was standing in front of me, a hand outstretched. "Your weapons."

Behind the officer the others had their own weapons handy. I slowly produced my pistols, one at a time and held between two fingers. The officer took them, examining them with wrinkled muzzle and then tucking them away behind a broad black leather belt. I hesitated a second before handing over the knife and the Rris regarded me for a few seconds, as if expecting more, then just told me, "Follow."

From the laundry it was through a kitchen, then out to an entry hall that was two floors of grand staircase and marble floor and columns. A wrought iron balustrade on the staircase I noted absently as I limped up where the Mediators led, taking it one step at a time. They didn't hurry me, just kept me moving, watching me, quietly enough that I could hear the insectile clicking of foot claws on the floor. Otherwise they were silent, even the rattling of their metal buckles and equipment was muted.

A nondescript wooden door was opened and I was ushered in. It was a small room with shuttered windows in the far wall; a bare floor and a low pallet of a bed; a simple table and floor cushion. Not shabby, just austere. On the table a single candle burned, the flame streamed in the draught from the open door, doing more to emphasis the darkness than provide illumination for my eyes.

I stepped in, the smooth floor sliding under my moccasins, and stopped in the middle of the room. I sagged, feeling exhausted. I'd run, and this was where it'd taken me: right back to the ones I'd run from. I turned to look at them, the dark feline forms watching me from the door. Multiple pairs of eyes flared in the candlelight, burning back at me. Now a metal rattling and tinkling sounded and forms shifted, one coming forward carrying chains.

My heart lurched and I took a step away. The warning snarl that arose from the Mediators made the hair on the back of my neck stand right up, making my flesh freeze. A sound that reached below intelligence and yanked on that dark part of the ancient brain that screamed 'danger'. I was shaking again, wanting to pull away from those fetters but not daring to. I didn't want to wear those again. I really didn't.

"No," a voice interjected. The Mediators at the door stood aside to let another through. He came in and stopped, cocking his head to regard me and then the chains. "I don't think those will be necessary."

"Ma'am?" the officer said. "He's run once."

"But now I think he knows there's nowhere else to go, a?" Not male, female. Stocky. Not old, but the features were worn. Dressed in cutoff breeches, a tan quilted vest with overlapping thicker patches of tooled leather on the breast and a silver gorget around the neck. Her fur was salt and pepper, stippled grays and blacks and whites. That wasn't from age, it was natural coloration. Patches on the right side of her face and down her neck didn't grow straight, hinting at scars underneath.

"We thought that before, Ma'am."

She looked at me, seeming amused. I didn't move, not sure what was happening. "You created quite an embarrassment for him, you know."

I blinked and looked again. That was when it clicked and I realized the officer with the irons was one of my earlier abductors who'd been carting me north. I was back with them again. Right back where I'd started. And if she couldn't precisely identify my body language, she could see that I'd reacted to something. "Created problems all around, you did," she said. "But you won't be doing that again, a?"

I sagged. "As you said: where can I go?"

She stared for a second and then cocked her head to the other side. "Very good. If you cooperate with us, then we won't have to take precautions like... this." A hand gestured toward the chains.

"I understand," I said.

Her tufted ears flicked once and she turned to the other Mediators. "Get a fixer for that leg. Get him cleaned. I want to see him when you're done. Watch him, but treat him with courtesy."

"Yes, Ma'am," the officer said and stood aside as she turned and stalked out. Then, almost as one, their heads swung around to look at me.

Section 69

The medical type they produced was another Mediator. He took one look at me and started explaining to the others that he wasn't a vet. They told him to go to work anyway.

They took my clothes. All of them. Along with the last of my possessions. Mediators watched impassively as I stripped the remnants of my stained clothing and handed it over. They had to cut my pants away: clotting blood had glued the coarse material to my legs, matting in with leg hairs. One of them bundled the clothing up in the storm cloak and carted it away.

There wasn't just one cut: I had a good half-dozen vertical lacerations around my leg, some scratches, others deep gouges that'd bled freely. I sat on the low table, my bloody hairy leg stuck out as the twitchy medic cleaned the blood away and dusted sulfur powder into the wounds. That wasn't pleasant. I clenched eyes and teeth, hissing quick breaths to keep from yelling out loud as the doctor worked quickly and nervously. After that the applications of freshly boiled and steaming bandages was almost easy.

A porcelain bowl of hot water and a washcloth were provided and I was told to make myself presentable. I tried to ignore the stares as I washed dirt and grime and sweat away, surprised at just how cloudy the water became. I guess I had been letting myself go a bit, what with all the running for my life and everything.

The Mediator who'd taken my clothes away earlier returned and tossed another bundle onto the bed. I hesitated before unfolding it. There was just a plain shortsleeved tunic and a pair of breeches. Certainly nothing fancy, but it was clothing. That was a gesture I hadn't been expecting. Nothing like that had been offered last time they'd taken me.

Uncertainly, I stood in the candlelight, brushing the tunic down. It was plain, tight across the shoulder and chest and too short - tailored for a Rris, but it was clean. The pair of guards at the opened door shifted slightly and I looked around as the officer returned.

He looked me up and down and the fur of his muzzle twitched, wrinkling briefly before he said, "Come along. Follow."

I limped along, out into the hall. The four guards at the door fell in behind. I still had no idea where I was and the hallway didn't offer many answers. The Mediator Guild perhaps? Wherever it was, it was up-market. There were hints of that in the embroidered carpet on the wooden floor; in the watered glass oil lamps and the brass knobs on the closed doors down the length of the hall. Down the far end of the corridor was a window; shuttered and dark.

The officer halted at one particular door and scratched on the already-gouged announcement plate. For a few seconds he waited and stared at me with amber and black eyes, then an ear twitched to an acknowledgement I couldn't hear and he lifted the latch.

I was ushered in. Two of the guards followed, taking up station on either side behind me. The room was quite long, dimly lit and sparsely furnished: one wall paneled in dark wood, the others white plaster above carved wooden wainscoting. Opposite me was a window niche: blue-velvet curtains drawn across the glass. In front of that cupola was a low table - a low desk with a brass and milk-glass lamp casting a warm glow. And she was seated at the desk, that light turning her feline features into a study of light and dark as she studied the object in her hands - one of my pistols. There were cartridges neatly arrayed on the desk, standing on end like a line of little brass soldiers. Those shadows and highlights shifted, emphasizing the patches of scaring and where disheveled fur didn't lay smooth as she looked up and waved a dismissive gesture. Behind me, the officer stepped out, closing the door. The two guards stayed.

"Be seated," she said, nodding toward a white cushion on my side of the desk. It wasn't a request, but the opportunity to take some weight off wasn't one I was going to argue with.

"You're looking better," she said as I sat myself down and I saw her glance at the bandages. "Your leg has been attended to satisfactorily?"

"Yes, Ma'am," I said nervously. Always pays to be polite when there're armed guards right at your back.

"Good. You know who I am?"

"No, Ma'am."

Her ears twitched and then she blinked: a slow, lazy scrunching of her features that carried overtones of a sated predator watching prey. "I'm Jaesith aesh Raeshon, Guild Lord."

That... was news to me. Shyia and Chaeitch had both mentioned the Guild Lord's name, and that hadn't been it. Tired as I was, I didn't think it'd be a good idea to rock the boat. "Yes, Ma'am," was all I said.

An ear twitched again. "'Yes, Ma'am. No Ma'am'. I know your [repertoire] is more extensive than that."

"Apologies," I said quietly but didn't offer anything else. I still didn't know exactly what was happening, so playing dumb seemed to be a good idea. It'd worked for me in the past, and at that moment it wasn't all acting.

"Ah," she raised her muzzle a fraction. Her hands were still holding the pistol. Having been designed for my hands it was too large for her to grip comfortably, but she wasn't holding it like that; just cradling it in her hands. A single claw was tapping, clicking against the metal of the frame as she studied me.

"Quite grotesque, aren't you," she said finally. "I saw some sketches, but they never really did you justice. I'd thought perhaps you might really turn out to be a deformed Rris, or perhaps a trained animal, but you're something else. Really, quite intriguing."

I swallowed a retort and I think she saw that. An ear flickered.

"Hai, anyway, caused a lot of commotion, haven't you. Quite surprising really; something like you hiding from the Guild for so long, and in the middle of a city where one might have thought you'd be a little... conspicuous. It's quite remarkable. And quite a problem. I wasn't planning on traveling all the way to Open Fields and becoming involved like this, but you seem to have a way of changing plans. You were told we were trying to help you and you still ran. Why?"

I took a breath. "You... your people... abducted me. They didn't go out of their way to make me trust them."

She cocked her head. "You were mistreated?"

I held up my hands, moving carefully as I was all too aware of the armed guards at the door watching me intently. The marks around my wrists were livid and scabbed.

"Huhn," Jaesith mused, finger still stroking the dark metal. "They were a little over-zealous in their duties. They had their orders to make sure nothing happened to you. Those wounds... that was not intentional."

"And why did they take me in the first place?" I ventured.

The clicking of that tapping finger paused and I swallowed as she regarded me. I still wasn't sure exactly what capacity I was there under. A guest, as she said? Or was my attendance less than voluntary? If that was the case, then my asking questions wouldn't be welcome.

"Because," she said eventually and slowly, "they were trying to save your life. Events moved quickly and there wasn't much time to get updated orders, so they acted on their own discretion and removed you from the immediate danger. You chose to run straight back into the fire."

"Fire?"

A notched ear flickered back. "You do understand a figure of speech? A? You ran right back to the worst place you could. You know that they, the usurpers, will kill you on sight? They've been trying to."

"I know now."

"Huhn, without much success, fortunately. And now perhaps we can help each other."

"Ah," I said quietly. "And how can we do that?"

"We can help you stay alive. We can give you transportation out of Open Fields. We can provide you with Guild protection and patronage."

I hesitated a second and then carefully asked, "Who, exactly, is after me? They claimed to be Guild."

Jaesith hissed softly. "No. Not Guild. They're a group of renegades. Outcasts who've decided that you're too dangerous to live."

"Dangerous?" I protested. "I'm not dangerous. I don't want any trouble. I just want to live my life and they want me dead?!"

"A," Jaesith aesh Raeshon said, calmly regarding me through amber eyes in a scared face.

"But why?"

"You bring new ideas. Ideas that necessitate change. Those changes promise to be threatening. The Mediator charter is to maintain the law and maintain the peace, and some decided that could best be performed by simply... removing the source of those problems."

I stared.

"Foolish," she continued in the same conversational tone. "Wasteful foolishness. A great opportunity is placed in our grasp and discarding it in a fit of mindless fear at what might be is just foolishness. There will be change; there will be turmoil; there always is; that is a certainty, but that passes, as all things do. After the storm the air is always so fresh and clear, a? And there is so much you can do, so much you can tell us, so much we can learn from you."

The pistol was laid down on the polished wooden desk with a solid thud and she leaned forward, eyes glinting.

"With your assistance the Guild can finally fulfill its original charter. With your knowledge we can feed the populace; we can heal and treat disease; we can bring peace to the lands.. You will give us the means to bring the countries together under unified order."

"Ma'am?" I asked carefully, suddenly really not liking where this was going. But displaying that might not be such a good idea.

"This."

I glanced down at the desktop, at her finger claw tapping the pistol. When I looked up, her expression was one I'd seen on Chaeitch's face sometimes when he was intent on something: an intensity, a fervor. "The Mediator Guild was created to bring balance, to keep the peace. This we try to do, but at the moment it's like trying to sweep the tide out. Every country has its own plans, it's own disagreements and skirmishes. When we smooth the hides in one location, trouble flares elsewhere. The governments adhere to the wording of the charter, but they always find ways to undermine and worm around that wording."

She picked the gun up, hooked by a finger through the trigger guard so it dangled between us. Swinging back and forth between us. "You made this tool. I know you have knowledge of larger, more powerful devices. In the right hands these would produce a [force majeur] that none would even want to oppose. I know you have knowledge of other devices for communicating instantly over great distances, for transportation. They are the means for bringing the lands under singular control; they are the means for holding it."

Oh. Oh shit. I thought it, and was so careful not to express it.

"And the Guild can do that. We can end the squabbling and bickering over lands and borders. We can bring the countries together into one entity under the guidance of the Guild. Instead of being divided, we can become one. And as one, we become so much stronger than the sum of the parts."

"One people under Guild, a?" I ventured and regretted it instantly.

She blinked, slowly. "A. Quite. Interesting phrasing, but yes." Carefully she put the gun down on top of a pile of papers. "I've heard some of the stories about you; about where you come from. A land occupied solely by creatures like yourself, remarkable. And it's also said that that land is controlled by one body. One government."

"Yes," I slowly gestured affirmative. Someone had been talking. Again. And I didn't know how much they'd told her so I'd have to be very careful with my responses. If she caught a lie, that could go badly for me.

"Then you know that this is what must happen. This is the only way our people can grow."

And I didn't know what to say. Sure, the States were united, but the cost that'd been paid for that... It'd been a civil war! The country had been torn apart before it'd been rebuilt. And she was advocating...

"And you doubtless have other abilities and knowledge. Strategic and tactical suggestions. Medical assistance... we can certainly help each other. We can help you live. You can help us undertake this unification. Together we can repair this world."

I gaped helplessly.

Again she dipped her head slightly and said, "A big decision, I understand that. Perhaps a few hours to think on it, a?"

Cautiously I tipped my hand in an affirmative. "Thank you, Ma'am."

There was a gesture of dismissal and behind me the guards stirred. I looked at aesh Raeshon's cool gaze and then stiffly clambered back up to my feet. A guard opened the door and stepped aside, holding it open for me.

"A moment," aesh Raeshon's voice stopped me. "I've also heard that you can become quite... attached to people. There's someone in Shattered Water? A Chihirae? A teacher, I believe?"

The muscles in my face felt like glass as they froze.

"Yes, I heard you are quite fond of her. I'm sure we can find a way to take care of her as well," she said through that calm stare. "Depending on your cooperation, of course."

"Of course," I said, aware of how choked it sounded.

"Until later," she said and the door closed.

Section 70

Someone was shouting outside. The yowling drifted up through the stillness of the early morning, only slightly muffled by the shuttered window.

I sat on the stuffed ticking pad of the bed, leaning back against the wall and listened to the noises with a corner of my mind. With the rest I was worrying.

I'd found trouble again. More than I'd imagined. Two factions of Mediators and – putting it simply - the good guys wanted me dead and the bad guys wanted to save my life. And on top of that, the bad guy was as mad as a meataxe.

God, she made it sound so simple and sanitized, but no matter how she spun it, what she was advocating was fucking civil war. There was no way that it'd be as simple and as clean as she said. There wasn't anything I could give her that'd make nations simply bow to the will of a faction. There'd be fighting; there'd be upheaval and bloodshed. No matter what sort of weapons she had, people would fight. And before long, they'd have the same technology she did.

She was giving me time to think about it, so she said. Very generous. Of course there was that parting comment. The way she'd worded it, it hadn't sounded like a threat. I'm sure she'd say it was more like a promise. Something overly dramatic like that. Whatever she called it, I didn't have any doubt it was quite sincere and that Chihirae would be dragged into it if I didn't give her the answer she wanted.

Even if I did say yes she'd still be in danger. They'd want leverage, to make absolutely sure I co-operated. Or even just ensure that nobody else could use her against me.

Outside was quiet now. The shouting had stopped and the only sound I could hear was the occasional creak of floorboards as Rris guards moved in the corridor. For the next few hours I sat with that silence ringing in my ears and those thoughts churning relentlessly in my head.

Section 71

They came for me a lot earlier than I'd expected. I'd been hoping for a few more hours. Some time in which to plan and perhaps get some sleep, but they had other ideas. It was still early out there, maybe about 3AM, when there was a metallic rattling from the lock as a key was turned and then the door swung in. The pair of guards outside warily looked around the room before stepping inside and beckoning to me.

I stood. Slowly and stiffly. They watched, talking steps aside as I passed them and then falling into step behind me. Back to that room down the hall.

That proclaimed Mediator Lord Jaesith aesh Raeshon was still seated at her desk. The revolver was gone, the paperwork was still there. When I came in she didn't look up from the ratty piece of paper she was reading. A guard hooked one of my sleeves with a claw to stop me in the center of the room. I stood there, watching her as she finished. There was something amusing there because she chittered, laid the stained and creased parchment on the desk and looked up at me. "You really needed this?"

I looked again. It was that bit of paper that said I was actually a person, officially notarized and signed to prove it. I just waved an affirmative.

"And you managed to elude capture for so long? Without assistance? Remarkable," she mused. Then flicked her ears and gestured to the cushion. "Please, sit."

I did so, crossing my legs and putting hands on knees.

"You've had enough time to think about my offer," said Jaesith. "Your answer is?"

I slowly nodded, glanced at the paper on the desk and then met her steady gaze. "Count me in."

"That is yes?"

"A."

"Huhn, just like that?" If she'd been human, perhaps she'd have arched an eyebrow.

"Not that simple," I said. "It's not an easy choice, but on other hand, where else am I going to go? Those other want to kill me; the governments can't protect me. And your argument... is not without its merits."

"You think so?" she said, her tone inviting further explanation. She'd planned this, I knew. She'd given me enough time to think, but not enough time to really come up with a detailed plan. That'd been her intention, I suspected. Now, in the middle of the night, when the thoughts might be muddled and disorganized, she'd called me onto the floor to prod and see what my choice really was.

"You were right about my kind," I said slowly, carefully. "We did go through a similar time... when the country was divided into north and south and those two factions had to join. Now, my nation is among the most influential. Not the largest, but because we are united, we are more productive, stronger, and peaceful."

She rumbled; a low, thoughtful growl.

"I think that has to happen here," I said. "As small countries they can be only... fragments of what they could be. Just shards. And as time goes on joining them would only become more difficult. I think you were right: now is a time when they can be united with a... ah... not as much trouble, especially with what help I can offer."

"And you would be willing to do that?"

I shrugged. "My options would be... what? I don't think I have anywhere else to go."

Jaesith aesh Raeshon studied me quietly for a few seconds, her black pupils catching the lamplight and glittering like bronze mirrors. Then she tipped her head, just slightly. "Not entirely altruistic motives then. I think I would be surprised if they were."

"None of us are perfect," I said quietly.

"No," she said and hissed softly. "Very well, then I think the next step is going to be to get you out of Open fields."

"Will that be a problem?"

"Oh, I don't believe so."

"The gates are being watched, aren't they?" I asked. "I'll be hiding under hay or something?"

"I thought the water route would be faster," she replied."

"But the Ironheart can catch anything else on the water..." I started to say and then trailed off, catching her confidently expectant expression. I felt my jaw drop and gasped, "You're not..."

Her tufted ears flickered. "As you said, the Ironheart is fast."

"It needs a crew. And the guards..." I protested and shook my head. "That can't possibly work."

"I think it has an excellent chance of success," she said. "The guards are not a problem, and as for the crew... we are prepared for that as well. Once out on the lake I believe that vessel can outrun anything else."

"To where?"

"North. There are safe harbors for us there. Places where we can consolidate our position. Where we can muster our forces. Where you can help us prepare for what is to come."

To prepare for war. She didn't say it. Was she living in her own little happy place to think that wouldn't happen? I looked at her and tried to read something in the metal shimmers of her eyes; to find something in her expression, but it was a futile as it'd been with so many of the other noble Rris I'd encountered. Important Rris who played important games and had experience hiding their cards. Was she really as mad as I thought? Or was she fully aware of what would ensue and just didn't care?

She must've noticed my stare. She bared teeth, just a small flash of white behind thin black lips and stone-textured fur. "You will be ready? We leave just before dawn."

Section 72

Dawn proved to be a couple of away hours at the most. Before then we were moving out.

The coach was rattling its way through the brick-arch of the gateway as the stars began to dim. We weren't alone: other coaches had gone before us and there was another pulling out behind us; Mediator cavalry on elk and llamas were clattering out into the waking streets, all of them spreading out and scattering to all points of the compass. Our carriage was bound for the docks.

Through a gap in the drawn curtains I got a glimpse out over the city as we turned a hilltop corner: a sky of fading stars above while below stood serried rows of dark rooftops, chimney tops and weather vanes silhouetted against a sprawling swathe of rippling dimness. That was the lake, stretching away to a distant shore and reflecting the brightening heavens and horizon; the streamers of cloud turning to gold under the touch of the rising sun. Two dim red pinpoints were the signal towers at the harbor entrance, their light soon to be eclipsed by the coming morning.

Iron rimmed wheels hammered on the cobblestones. Every bump was transmitted straight through the axles to the cab. The jolting was alleviated a little by the upholstered seats, but the bumps still rattled my teeth as the carriage took the hill at what seemed like a risky pace. Brakes squealed gratingly as the driver applied them liberally to prevent the carriage overrunning the team drawing it.

I caught a handhold as the carriage swayed and jolted around a corner. It smelled of musky, hairy bodies in there, a smell that permeated the interior padding and wasn't helped any by the other Rris in there. Jaesith aesh Raeshon and the armed Mediator officer beside her were holding onto loops of velvet cord hanging from the ceiling to brace themselves against the swaying and were watching me steadily. When I tried to nudge the curtains aside to see outside again she said, "Don't. We don't need someone seeing you before time. We'll be cutting things close as it is."

I sat back while we clattered along our way and they watched me. If they were wondering if I was thinking about making a break for it they'd be disappointed. I didn't have any intention of running. Not just then. I had... something in mind, but I couldn’t be sure of just how successful it might be.

"You understand that this is just temporary," aesh Raeshon said.

"Ma'am?" I blinked.

"This... skulking about," she elaborated with a fluid little gesture that managed to encompassed the cab and the city outside. "It won't last. You're our guest. Once established you will be able to whatever you need, whatever you want. You help us, and we can help you."

"That would be... nice," I said, carefully.

"Huhn." Tendons under her fur flexed visibly when she tightened her grip on the handhold as the carriage rounded another corner and she cocked her head. "It would be. I would like to do that. But there is just the possibility that perhaps you're not being entirely honest with me," she said with those amber eyes scrutinizing my face. "For you I suppose it would be tempting to simply wait. To say what you think I want to hear. Do you think that's an unreasonable supposition?"

My heart lurched, hammering through my exhaustion. I'm not sure how well I hid that, but how well could she read expressions that'd have to be alien to her? And what could she misconstrue, to my disadvantage? I just tried to hide it as best I could and go on the offensive. "No, ma'am. But would it be unreasonable for me to not be sure whom to place my trust in? Rris... People I thought were my friends have been trying to kill me. I've been running for my life."

"And we gave it to you. That counts for nothing?"

"It counts for a great deal," I said. "I'm afraid I find all this very confusing. And frightening. Your world is quite different from mine and it seems like every day I find something I'd... taken as normal isn't normal here. And the other way around also."

Her ears twitched and then the carriage was passing through another gateway, this one familiar to me.

"Almost there," she smiled serenely at me. It may have been completely fake: I couldn't tell. "We'll just have to find a way to persuade you, a? Huhn," she mused and then my heart lurched anew when she said, "I think we will collect that teacher. I've heard she has been a good influence on you."

The coach drew to a halt. "Ma'am, I would prefer that she were left alone," I tried to sound calm.

A Mediator outside opened the door and held it. Jaesith aesh Raeshon stood, bending under the overhead. "No, I don't think so," she said as she dropped out of the car. I followed, wincing as my battered feet landed on rough cobbles. The docks; the V.I.P section where the Ironheart was berthed. There were Mediators where the guards should be, all heavily armed. I gawked for a second, then hurried after their commander as she strode toward that one particular berth.

"Ma'am, she isn't involved..." I said to her back as she stalked ahead. Her officer was behind me, more Mediators falling in behind him.

She didn't look around. "I think she became involved when she met you," Jaesith replied. "You have an affection for her that's goes beyond the normal, that is a fact that is known. To myself and others. And given the chance they will use this fact against you. I don't want to have you worrying about her. Perhaps someone would seize her and threaten to harm her, just to keep you under their control. Safer to have her where you can see her, a?"

I swallowed hard, choking back a protest. She wasn't threatening; she was telling me how it could be, but she wasn't threatening. That would probably come later.

So I followed her, from the old cobbles of the quayside to the newer flagstones of the wharf. The officer was right behind me and behind him Mediators fell in at a respectful distance, but also blocked any retreat back onto the quayside. There was a guardhouse further along, at a point where a spiky-toped iron fence crossed the wharf. Beyond that lay the Ironheart, looking so out of place amongst the forests of masts and tangled webworks of rigging prevalent on the masted vessels in the harbor. Dark curls of smoke rose from the twin stacks into the still morning air.

"You have the engines started," I noted.

"A. As I said, we have experts in such matters," she said.

Whatever I was going to say next was forgotten. Near the gangplank stood a stack of crates and barrels and assorted baggage waiting to be loaded. A pair of furry feet were jutting from behind one of them. They belonged to the two guards who'd been assigned to me back in Shattered Water. They were laying there, just pulled out of the way like castoff garbage; laying there staring up at the dawning sky with gore-besotted fur and slashed throats and horrible expressions. I swallowed hard and then turned back at the Mediator lord waiting on the gangplank. She just looked slightly puzzled.

"That... was not necessary," I choked, staring down at the surprised-looking faces again.

"Yes, it was," she said and made a curt gesture to the Mediators behind me. "Get him on board. We don't have time to play around."

I counted over a dozen Mediators loaded on board the Ironheart. I stayed at the stern, waiting uneasily behind the wheelhouse as the guards from the dock hurriedly untied the mooring lines. I could see into the cockpit from there and watched as another Mediator carefully went over the valves and gauges and engine room signaling tabs with a checklist. From below my feet came the pervasive thump of the idling engine as it stood ready.

"We're ready," Jaesith said as she stepped up behind the pilot. "Everything's working?"

"Ma'am," the other acknowledged. "Although...the pressure in the boiler seems high."

She turned around to look at me. "He's the expert. Is that normal?"

I shrugged. "Yes, ma'am. It should be. That's why the engine works well. Hot and high pressure. If it cools too much you will have less power and use more fuel."

"And we can tell if that is going to happen?"

"That tube," I said, pointing to a slim vertical glass window dotted with condensation. "If the water level falls there, you lose pressure."

Jaesith looked at the pilot who in turn glanced at his notes. "That is accurate," he said.

She snorted and wrinkled her muzzle. "Then we go," she said.

Mooring lines were cast off, the big hemp ropes splashing down into the water. In the wheelhouse the pilot shifted the throttle indicator and the throbbing beneath the deck picked up the pace slightly. The light of the direct morning sun was only just beginning to flow over the highest hilltop chimney and roofs as the Ironheart pulled away from the berth and out into the millpond mirror of the harbor. Moving slowly and cautiously at first the pilot brought the ship around to point the sharp end toward the harbor mouth. Water beneath the stern roiled as the throttle was opened another notch and the propellers pushed the mass of the ship toward the open lakes.

Jaesith stood beside me to watch the docks falling away. There were armed guards and other Rris racing onto the waterfront. I didn't have to guess who they'd be. They were too late anyway.

"A lot more convenient than sails," Jaesith mused. "I could get used to this."

"You need more than just ships," I said. "You need a whole system to maintain and supply them."

"Which is what you are going to assist in providing," she said and cocked her head as the pace of the engine picked up again. Then I flinched as she cuffed my arm, just hard enough for me to feel the scrape of claws against my skin. "I'm sure you're going to enjoy your stay with us."

I closed my eyes for a second and around me the world seemed to reel: a combination of the movement of the ship and the waves of exhaustion that were becoming harder to ignore. How long now? Three days since I'd slept? At least that. I grinned while cool morning air and the smell of coal smoke brushed past, then blinked myself awake again. Twin walls of stone drifted past on either side as the ship drove its way out between the twin towers at the harbor mouth.

"That look is... amusement?" she said.

"Sometimes," I said and looked at her. Something must've alerted her because she stepped back, unfortunately. Just out of reach. And there were too many guards around... I grinned again, this time completely humorlessly. "Those guards... you really shouldn't have done that."

Then I dove over the stern railing. Cries from behind me were cut off as I hit and cool water closed over me. For a second I was surrounded by roiling bubbles from the wake and the pervasive thump of the Ironheart's engine and then twisted and got myself oriented and started swimming. The deep thump of the engine sound pulled away toward the lake as I struck out in an underwater breaststroke and I remember thinking that if I never saw another city from underwater again it would be too soon.

It wasn't far before my hands hit stone. That would be the tower on the right hand side of the harbor mouth. I surfaced for a gasping breath and then followed the curve of wet stone. Around the back, in the lee of the tower and the lake wall, was a little stone jetty. It wasn't much more than a ledge with a rusty mooring ring where a rowboat might tie up. Water streamed from my hair and my clothes as I hauled myself onto the lichen-coated stones, still chill from the night before. It'd be some time before the sun came around to warm them up.

A narrow staircase climbed up the stone face from the dock, doglegging back on itself a half dozen times before reaching the top of the harbor wall. I limped hurriedly up the worn steps, my feet slapping against the cold stone. At the top I crouched to check out the length of the battlements. They were wider than I'd expected and at intervals along their length semicircular towers protruded lakeward. The brutal metallic logs of canon were arrayed along the battlement, their covered muzzles nuzzling at the crenelles. Further clusters of cannons were arranged on those semicircular parapet towers, splayed out so the cannons were able to come to bear along the wall as well as on targets out on the water.

Closer to hand on my other side, to my right, the signal tower rose another couple of floors higher still. The door from my level was wood and iron and closed fast. Higher up on that tower smoke was still rising from the guttering navigation beacon.

Carefully, my wet feet slapping and leaving prints on the flagstones, I started off along the parapet. Once I paused at one of those wedge-shaped openings cut into the top of the wall to provided the big cast cannon there with a wide arc of fire. That wall was over a meter thick, built to withstand fire from other weapons like that. Through that embrasure I could see a rectangle of lake and in that frame the shape of the Ironheart, idling. As I watched it started moving again, swinging around to point south. I felt my stomach clench in anxiety. Was it the right thing to do? Would this work? They'd go after Chihirae now, there wasn't much doubt about that. If I had to, could I catch them? That vessel was the fastest thing around and I'd jumped off.

It'd seemed like a good idea at the time. Like the only way. But that was before, and now there suddenly seemed like so many things could go wrong. So while I furtively made my way along that wall toward the next tower I couldn't help but worry. I stayed close to the parapet, also aware that it was only a matter of time before...

I'd cut it too close. Half way along the wall there was a shout from someone on the signal tower behind me. Then a yowl. Then the frantic hammering of a bell pealed out across the water.

I started to run. My bare feet slapped against the stones of the walkway as I half ran-half limped along, then staggered to a stop as the door in the tower ahead of me was slammed open and Rris spilled out. Again there was shouting, guns being raised. I dodged sideways onto the semicircular tower of one of the projecting buttress towers. A shot was fired. Chips of stone sprayed from the corner of the crenel as I ducked around. The top of the tower was an arc about ten meters in diameter with four cannon aimed out through their ports in the wall. And of course it was a dead end. Only one way to go then and that was over the parapet. The lake was right below and it should be deep enough, that was all I could hope as I ran for the wall.

I took a running jump up onto the unmoving cold metal mass of one of the old muzzle-loading cannon. Still running I balanced along the top, to the meter-deep embrasure and then stopped in my tracks, throwing up my arm against the rising sun shining into my eyes.

It wasn't. The wall was a sheer drop that flared out at the bottom into rocks and water. And it wasn't deep enough. I could see driftwood piled up along the craggy shoreline, and more rocks lurking just beneath the surface of the water. From that height there was no way it was deep enough to dive into. Not and survive.

Panting, still dripping wet, I turned to face Mediators. My black shadow was thrown across the flagstones of the tower to where a cordon of them were blocking any hope of escape that way. Pistols and long arms were raised, aiming at me up on top of the wall. Shyia was in front, leveling a pistol. I could look down the bore of the muzzle, could see the hammer was cocked and at that range even those weapon were unlikely to miss.

Then, as one, all their ears pricked up and they looked out beyond me. From behind me, from out on the lake, a peal of thunder rolled in across the water. I automatically twisted around to see what the noise had been and found myself looking at... at where the Ironheart had been.

Out in the water an expanding white cloud was climbing crookedly into the sky from the epicenter of a spreading ring of concentric ripples, marking the spot where the ship had been. Smoking streamers of debris arced like spider-legs from that cloud, spattering into the water for a hundred meters around that blast. High over head, trailing a fading contrail of steam, a bulky shape climbed improbably high before curving back toward the lake. Slowly, while bits of the ship pattered back to stipple the surface of the lake, the cloud quietly dispersed. Someone said, "Oh." I realized it was me.

"Mikah!"a voice from behind me growled.

Slowly, carefully, I turned around again to stare down a semi-circle of dark muzzles. Guns held by Mediators were aimed at me, more than I wanted to count. More Rris - city guards – were in the background. Keeping their distance but watching. Shyia still had his pistol raised, still had his finger on the trigger, but was watching me with an expressionless mask.

"She was on that?" he rumbled.

I just nodded. The fur between on the bridge of his muzzle creased momentarily while those unblinking amber eyes studied me, then he jerked his muzzle at the parapet and said, "Come here. Now."

I hesitated momentarily but really didn't have much choice. There was nowhere else to go. Besides, I'd been expecting to be shot; any alternative was preferable to that. I slowly made my way back along the cannon, carefully stepped down onto the carriage, then down onto the flagstones, grimacing as my feet ached and my leg twinged.

Shyia huffed and then snapped to the others, "Secure him. Bring him."

It was an improvement over being shot, although at the time it didn't feel like one. The Mediators who grabbed me weren't careful with their claws. I didn't resist, but they still caught my arms with claws extruded and I flinched as the damn things lacerated me. And once again the irons they clamped around my wrists and ankles were too small.

They took me down the narrow, winding staircase in the tower. Down through cramped stone corridors and tiny rooms with solid timber doors that were holdovers from the days before the guns came. Always with the chains rattling and Mediators in front and behind, their toe claws tick-ticking on the rock. It didn't take very long, but by the time we emerged from a small gateway I was limping. My leg was throbbing, my hands were shaking and there was only so much adrenaline could do. I was exhausted.

We were back on the Open Fields waterfront again. A quayside busy with fishing vessels and traders to my left side, warehouses and storerooms on the other. Mediators and Cover-My-Tail troops, their animals and their vehicles, were everywhere, with more arriving from streets along the dockside. Closest to hand, the Mediators were a lose crowd; the Rris spread out with plenty of room between individuals. City troops clustered in little knots on the periphery, looking like spectators at someone else's game. My escort marched me through them all, the ranks of Mediators parting before us. Until we met one Rris who didn't move; who just stood in our path and that was enough to bring my escort to a halt.

A tall Rris, dressed in functional grey tunic and well worn leather kilt and a vest that bore scars from what might have been knife slashes. Male, I was pretty sure, with one ear notched so bad it was more like confetti. And where most Rris I knew had greyish pelts, there was a distinctly russet tinge to that one's. That individual just favored me with a brief glance. "This is it."

"Yes, Sir," Shyia stepped forward.

"There were orders. It was to be disposed of."

"Sir," Shyia acknowledged. "There have been extenuating circumstances. There was an incident with the steam vessel, the boiler [something], I believe. The vessel was completely destroyed. Raeshon was aboard. I sent another ship to examine the wreckage, but the presence of survivors seems doubtful."

"You believe that changes my orders?"

"Sir, I believe it changes the situation enough that following those instructions would be premature. We would lose more than we gain."

"Mediator, the problem still exists so the orders stand," the other said quietly and flexed his hand, flexing his fingers to extrude claws. "You can do it, or I can do it myself. Your response?"

"Then it would have to be tribunal, Sir."

If that meant nothing to me, it meant something to the Mediators around us. There was a reaction. Nothing major, just a rustling as bodies took more attentive stances, but it was a reaction.

"Huhn," I heard the other rumble and go stock-still for a few heartbeats. "You are serious?"

"Quite, Sir."

"You have seconds who think the situation qualifies that?"

Several of the Rris around Shyia stepped forward, inclining their heads. The russet-furred Rris looked from one to another and then back to Shyia. "We will finish this at the hall. Finish your business and report there."

"Yes, Sir," Shyia said again and turned back to me and my guard. "Take him," he said and then stepped up to me. "And you behave yourself," he said, and when I opened my mouth he interrupted with a snarl and told the guard, "If he causes problems, shoot him."

"Sir," a Mediator said and tugged my arm to get me moving again, on to the coaches. They weren't the fancy conveyances I'd been shuttled about in as a guest of the government. These were utilitarian boxes, designed to move people around while still offering some shelter: just unadorned wood and black iron. Getting in with the leg irons on was awkward. Then I was sat down upon a hard rear-facing bench in a creaky cab that smelled of wet fur. Two armed Mediators sprang in and sat opposite with loaded firearms on their laps and then the door was slammed and locked from the outside. Wooden slats on the windows let light in but I couldn't see anything outside.

"Can you tell me what's going on?" I asked the Mediators opposite as the carriage lurched into motion.

There was a harsh metallic clack as one of them cocked the lock on a flintlock.

"I guess that's 'no'," I sighed, grimaced and glanced at the lacerations on my arms, then looked back to the window. Those wooden slats wouldn't be too hard to break. I could distract the guards and...

What the hell was I thinking? What was the point in that? I just closed my eyes. I was exhausted. I wanted to sleep, but I was too scared, too uncertain, too keyed. The jolting of the wagon continually threw me off balance and I kept snapping back to awareness, staring into the muzzles of the Mediators' weapons.

A half hour or so later we stopped. The door was opened. I climbed out.

There was only a second to take in my surroundings. There were high brick walls around a cobbled courtyard. Four old, gnarled oak trees pushed up through the cobblestones, forming their own shaded square where older Rris were supervising youngsters who were busy sparring with wooden blades. Clacks of wood striking wood snapped loudly over the background hum of the city. Large, multi-story buildings faced the square, some of old stone construction roofed with copper, others of newer and cheaper brick. White-painted windows looked down on the court and sunlight glinted from glass lurking behind ornate iron grillwork. I saw figures watching from the windows before the Mediators led me away.

It wasn't a residential building they took me to. I knew that as soon as they stopped in the building's entry passage and turned off into a narrow arched tunnel blocked by a solid black-iron grill. That was opened and they took me down a narrow staircase into gloom and shadows. In a guard room they cut my clothes away with knives. I stood stock-still, trying not to shiver as the lines of metal pressed against my skin as they sliced the tunic and pants away. They searched me, impassively and embarrassingly thoroughly. Even the bandage over my gashed leg was cut away and inspected. Of course, they found nothing, except that my injury was genuine and I wasn't built quite the same as their usual prisoners.

One of them took a lantern and lit the wick from one of the lamps in the room. Then the guards told me to move. Naked, I was taken down another narrow, turning staircase. Down far enough that we had to be deep underground when we emerged into a dark, brick-lined corridor. That hall was lined with heavy iron doors on either side. A set of iron keys opened one.

I saw a black hole. No windows, not a glimmer of light, just earthen darkness and the reek of ammonia and other less definable things. "You're kidding," I choked.

Ears went back and weapons came up and I didn't have any choice. I had to duck my head to enter and once I was in the door swung shut, the wedge of light from the guard's lamp shrunk and then was gone as the iron door clunked shut and metal rasped as the bolt was thrown. Then the splinters of light from around the door faded as the Mediators left and then all the light was gone.

Groping in the darkness I could feel out dimensions of a cell that wasn't large enough to stretch out in. A hard clay floor with a reeking hole down the back, brick walls and a low, arched ceiling. It smelt of alien piss and dankness and earth and in that stygian blackness there wasn't a single glimmer of light. I fumbled after the clammy metal of the door and the iron felt as yielding as the walls. Once again, all I could do was hunker myself down on the cold floor and wait.

Section 73

After days on the run I was exhausted, but my mind was spinning through questions that I really wasn't sure I wanted answered. What was going to happen next? What were they going to do with me? Were they just going to leave me there?

I don't know if I slept or not.

In the darkness it was difficult to tell, but I think I closed my eyes. There was movement I couldn't define in the tail of my vision, skittering and scratching noises that I wasn't sure were in the darkness or in my head. I kept finding myself flinching wildly, staring into blackness with my heart pounding.

Waiting for a dark forever. Until metal scraped on metal as a key slid into the lock. Tumblers turned and then hinged rasped. I blinked, turning my head away from a flare of lamplight. It was just a candle, but it was the brightest thing my eyes had seen for... hour. Figures moved into the cells narrow doorway, momentarily eclipsing the light and then being backlit by it.

"You. Get out," a voice growled.

That cell was a reeking hole, but I actually hesitated. Squinting at the silhouetted Rris figure and feeling my heart start to hammer.

"Now," the Mediator growled.

I struggled to my feet, bending under the low overhead and grimacing as stiff and aching muscles protested. The Mediators didn't care, and when I cautiously emerged from the cell I heard the skittering patter of claws on stone as they just moved to surround me in the dark. I was bigger than they were. Head and shoulders taller and heavier and stronger, but I was naked and manacled and exhausted and in the darkness around me there were silken hisses of sharp metal being drawn and someone growled for me to move.

My hair was still damp and clammy from my swim. It just hadn't dried in that hole. The dankness had set me shivering and felt like it'd sunk in to the bone, making those hours feel like forever. Upstairs, just in the guard room, it was noticeably warmer, which came as a welcome relief. And when they took me from there up to the entranceway I automatically raised my hands at the glare spilling into either end of the tunnel from the scorching afternoon sun. Mediators ears flinched at the rattle of chains but they didn't overreact.

I was led through the atrium, through a small, cloistered garden where water trickled from a fountain and blooming flowers filled the air with scent and color. A pair of green bronze doors led into a main hall that was all pale stone and double rows of fluted black iron columns. Then it was upstairs to the first floor where Mediators were standing sentry at a wing. They looked me up and down and one of my escort handed over a piece of paper that was examined closely before we were passed through the door.

Light spilled in through the hundreds of small laded panes in the tall windows down the right hand side of the hallway beyond. Green and yellow paisley patterned carpet damped the sound of padding claws so the only noise was the clinking of my chains as I was led down the hall. It all seemed surreal, numb, all save the pounding of my own heart that increased as we approached the far end and the single door there, the surface inlaid with hundreds of sliver-thin wedges of individually toned wood sanded and polished to a liquid sheen. There the Mediators halted at the door and the lead one looked me up and down before hooking a claw under the latch. When a claw jabbed me to get me moving again two mediators followed me in, staying close behind.

An office. A decent sized one. Scents of wood and oil and warm dust hung in the air, along with the musk of Rris. The walls were lined with bookshelves, all well-stocked with leather bound books, their spines in all shapes and sizes and colors. Scrolls stood in neat racks and I even saw what looked like a couple of stone tablets on displayed on stands and chiseled with indistinct characters. A few framed maps hung on the walls where pictures might have been. Unlit copper braziers stood near the shelves - curved metal uprights on three splayed feet polished to a gleaming mirror finish. A window consisting of a lattice of smaller diamond-shaped panes filled the left wall, facing south and looking out over the cobbled court and front gate. There was a desk in front of that, a Rris seated cross-legged behind it with golden afternoon sunlight streaming over his shoulder. It was that Mediator from the docks, the russet one with the ragged ear whom Shyia had called sir. The one who had said I was to be... disposed of. The Mediator Guild Lord. Whatshisname... Richtkah, that was what I'd been told.

Other Mediators were sitting off to the side of that desk. Three of them sitting in their amour cross-legged on white leather cushions. They watched me as I came, their expressions studies of careful neutrality.

And opposite them - off on the other side of the desk – cross-legged on another cushion was another mediator. Shyia. Also watching me intently.

Hands laid on my shoulder and I yelped aloud as claws were used and something struck the back of my legs. Hard. They buckled and with a clattering of irons and a gasp I went to my knees on the rug before the desk, kneeling naked before the watching aliens. Clawed hands pressing on my shoulders made sure I didn't get up.

The Mediator Lord there cocked his head then waved a hand toward the guards behind me, "Thank you, First. Leave us, please. Wait outside."

They released me and stepped away, then equipment rattled quietly as the guards shifted and filed out. Suddenly the room was a lot emptier and it was quiet while the one behind the desk studied me. No guards, but they were all Mediators. They outnumbered me and I didn't doubt that they were all quite capable of taking care of themselves. I could feel my heart drubbing like an engine; my mouth was dry, palms slick; I was sweating. If they were going to kill me, would they do it on an expensive rug?

Finally there was a flick of that ragged ear and he glanced toward Shyia. "This is what's responsible for all this trouble. You're familiar with it?"

"We have met before. A while ago. I was familiar with him then."

"It's changed since then?"

"There seem to be many scars that weren't present the last time we met, sir."

"Huhn, and you would do this thing just for this... hairless ape?"

Shyia inclined his head slightly. "Sir, no. Not for him. For us."

"You're quite determined to follow that trail, a? After everything you've seen."

"A, sir."

The other huffed air, clicked claws on the ochre and gold parquet-inlaid desktop in a staccato ticking, and then addressed me directly. "You have a name. Micah?"

I looked down at the black iron manacles on my wrist and nodded. "Yes."

"Ahhh," ah Richtkah tipped his head slightly and asked, "Why did you come here?"

Was that a trick question? Here? Because they'd brought me? Because Hirht sent me? I guess my confusion must've manifested in some way obvious enough to someone who knew me.

"Why did you come here, to our lands," Shyia elaborated with a quiet growl. "From your own."

"That?" I turned, looking from one of the impassive Rris to the other. "I've told you. I don't know. I was home, and then I was here. I can't explain it. I don't understand how it happened."

"A," the Mediator Lord acknowledged. "I was told strange things about you. Extraordinary things about you; that you claim to be from another world. That it is a world where... beings such as yourself – hairless apes – live in the place of Rris. This is true?"

He'd been told this, but he was asking me. I was too tired for these games. "Yes."

"Huhn? A simpler explanation might be that you are from somewhere closer, from a land we haven't discovered yet."

I almost laughed. "I would like that to be true."

"A? Why is that?"

"Because then I might have a hope of getting home."

"You would if possible?"

I hesitated, not sure where these questions were leading. "Do you really think I want to be here? I don't have much choice."

"Or you're here for a reason?"

"A reason?"

"That you're here to watch us, to scout the way for others."

It took a second before that made sense to me. "You think I'm a spy?" I said duly. "Is that what this is about?"

"I do find that the simplest explanations are usually the correct ones," he said. Then lowered his muzzle as he added, "However, I have been informed that in your case this does seem unlikely. And there is this."

My laptop. He produced it from a drawer, placed it on the desk and fumbled with the latch that would've been quite unfamiliar to him. "Both Commissioner ah Charis and Mediator ah Ehrasai said this was what helped persuade them. They say it showed views of your world. It does not seem to do that anymore," he said as he opened the screen and turned it toward me. The password prompt was blinking quietly.

"It's... locked."

"Locked?" his ears pricked up. "You did this for a reason?"

I looked around to find the other Rris in the room were all staring at me. All of them watching intently. And Shyia tipped his head in a very slightly nod.

"Rris were ... taking information. Knowledge. About dangerous things that could hurt others."

"You're referring to weapons," the Mediator Lord said.

"Mostly."

"Mostly," he repeated, then clicked claws on the table and pushed the laptop over. "Unlock this."

It wasn't a request, but I looked at the keyboard and then back at his face and drew myself up as best I could. "Why should I?"

The room was abruptly silent. Even more so, if that was possible. A soundless, tense, expectation. And he tipped his head slightly and slowly bared teeth in something which was far from a smile. "Because the Guild demands it," he said quietly.

I swallowed and met those slitted eyes are steadily as I could. "The Mediator Guild?"

"Of course."

"The last Mediator I met, she said she wanted that information for the Guild," said a voice that was too level to be mine. "She said she was going to use it to bring peace by starting a war. That was... insane. It was something I wanted no part of. I should believe you're different?"

Hisses of breath sounded from points around the room. Richtkah's ears went down. "You should. What happened with aesh Raeshon was unpleasant and unfortunate. However, the unexpected resolution to that issue has changed many things"

"I had noticed you've been trying to kill me, and now you've got a perfect opportunity, you don't use it. Perhaps it's because of something I've got?"

"Presumptuous," the Mediator Lord growled. "Because of what you've got, it would be better for all if you were dead. Sparks set another house afire and that's why you're still alive."

I flinched back in shock. "Hey, I didn't start any fires..."

"Figure of speech," Shyia interrupted quietly.

"Oh."

Richtkah gave Shyia a cool glance, then swung back to me. "We brought you here alive for a reason. Judgment has been questioned. Tribunal has been called. Guild Masters have gathered. There will be a decision, arm and hand and the claw. And the balance is in the evidence; for yourself as much as for us."

"I don't understand. Tribunal? I know the word but... what do you mean? Am I on trial?"

"No. I am."

I stared, then screwed my eyes shut and shook my head, trying to clear it. When I looked around again at the other Rris in the room, the Mediators were watching me without showing any outward emotion. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what they wanted. If I keyed my password, would they just kill me once they thought they'd gotten access? What did he mean he was on trial? He was the Guild Lord. Shyia had said something...

He was sitting calmly, patiently at ease. And he tipped his head again, ever so slightly.

When I tried typing my password my hands were so unsteady I could hardly hit the keys. My fingers just didn't want to go where I wanted them to. Chains rattled as I laboriously entered my passphrase and got it right on the second go...

My voice is my passport. Verify me.

The laptop chimed and flicked to desktop and a shot of earth, of the blue and green of the east coast of the US from space. Deskstat also said the batteries were at sixty percent and there'd been seventy two attempted logins. I leaned back, steadying myself.

Richtkah beckoned Shyia forward and he knelt by the desk to take the laptop. His expression was almost comical: ears tipped, brow creased, tongue peeking from his muzzle as he hunted and pecked over the keyboard and screen. Then he turned the screen toward the Mediator Lord and I heard the music start. It was the same clip I'd first shown him all that time ago: that montage of video clips of scenes from another world.

"Hai," the Mediator Lord exclaimed, then leaned forward to peer intently at the screen. I could see his pupils dilate, then contract, his head moving in rapid little twitched as he scanned the display in front of him. The strains of Vanessa Mae pulsed from the laptop screen speaker, anachronistic in those surrounds. He pulled his head back and reach forward to poke at the screen, then reached behind it and touched the plastic there. His ears flicked back and the other Mediators in the room looked uncertain or curious or a mixture of both.

When the clip was done and the music had faded, Richtkah sat back on his cushion and cocked his head at the screen. "This is all?"

"No Sir, there is a lot more," Shyia said. "Moving pictures like that, pictures and writing. Several libraries worth of books."

"In this little box?" Richtkah's ears laid back. "That's not possible."

"I assure you, Sir, it is."

"Huh," he coughed and tapped at the laptop's casing with a claw. "Do you know how it's done?"

"Mikah has attempted to explain it. I'm not sure I understand."

"And this has persuaded you his story is true?"

"Sir, there are pictures on there that show places that seem familiar, yet are completely different. There are maps that show his world in intricate detail. That very image there, he says it is a picture of his world from so high that the land lies like a map. Certainly, you can see the shoreline there."

"That... the eastern shore? Bluebetter?"

"Yes, sir. What you saw, those are moving pictures of his world. There are hundreds like that, and they all show a society that is aggressive and expansionist and more knowledgeable and powerful than any country I know of. I think if they could have been here by now, they would have. It is probably more desirable that they are on another world than simply on another continent."

The Mediator Lord turned to the other side, to the other three Rris who'd been sitting quietly, patiently. "Ah Charis, you support the Mediator's assessment?"

"Yes, sir," said one of those, a grizzled individual with fur that had been dark once and now was shot through with white swathes. Was he familiar? I wasn't sure.

"And you're willing to second him on this action."

"Yes sir, I am. He's always proven to be accurate and precise in his judgments. This time... it's exceptional and I believe his actions are in accordance with the [something] of the situation."

The Lord looked at the laptop again and flicked his ears. "Very well. And the images on this show more of this creature's home?"

"Yes, sir?"

"And you don't believe they're biased?"

"No."

"I will want to see these."

"Yes, sir."

"And I want that examined." A hand flicked toward me. "Life-studiers, physiologers, doctors... the best available to tell us what it is. If there are any previous records or accounts of deformed apes."

"Sir."

"Excuse me," I ventured.

Amber eyes locked on me. I saw nostrils flaring in hissing intakes of breath, but Richtkah growled, "Speak."

"Can someone tell me what is going on? I don't understand."

Now he looked a little puzzled and gestured toward Shyia. "Mediator."

"Sir, there's a surprising amount of which he's completely ignorant. Mikah, do you know tribunal?"

I tried to think back through all the lessons that'd been bounced off me over the past couple of years but it was a foggy molasses. I just couldn't think. "I know word... the word, but I don't know what means here."

"Mediator," Richtkah said, "I suggest you find time at some point to further its... his education."

"Yes, sir."

"For now, remove him to holding," he said, flicking a hand in dismissal. "Show me what else is on this device," he said to Shyia, as if I were already gone.

Guards returned and furry hands with leathery palms caught my arm. I quickly tried to get up, to prevent those hands using claws to goad me along, and the room seemed to float away to the side and then spun. I staggered, chains clattered and I was kneeling again, on hands and knees, eyes closed and trying not to throw up as waves of giddiness and prickling heat washed over me. Lines on my arms burned and someone was saying my name.

"Mikah!"

That was Shyia. I gasped air and tried to pull myself together, shaking. "I'm... all right," I managed to say as I got up again, taking it one stage at a time.

"Is he ill?" Richtkah inquired.

Guards grabbed my arms and held tight this time as they half-hauled me to my feet. I must've been a weight for them, but they managed it. My legs... held, but my muscles were telling me they'd reached their limits. "Just tired."

"Mikah," Shyia's eyes narowed. "When was the last time you slept? Ate?"

I started to answer and then realized I had no idea. "I think... three days? I don't know."

"Huhn," Shyia growled and looked to Richtkah, "Sir, with your permission?"

A wave of the hand and Shyia flowed to his feet, snapped another gesture to the guards. Moving my feet helped get the blood flowing again, but I was still staggering as they half-carried me out the door. Out in the hallway Shyia spoke in low tones with one of the guards. What he was saying I really didn't hear or care about. The guards let go of me and I saw their hands were smeared in blood. So were my arms. When I'd collapsed they'd grabbed at me, adding to my collection of scratches. Now I bore matching red sets of slashes on both arms, stinging and seeping blood. Which were the least of my concerns.

Shyia and the other Mediator finished their quiet conversation. The guard ducked his head in acknowledgement and Shyia didn't give me a second look as he returned to the office. The arabesque mosaic of a door swung closed behind him and the guards led me away.

That hole. I was dreading returning to that pit, but I didn't have much of a choice. The guards weren't dragging me. In fact, their hands helped steady me as I took the stairs one stone step at a time, a guard in front and behind and to either side. As we crossed through the foyer a trio of younger-looking Mediators stood aside and watched, staring at me as I passed by. Outside in the atrium, sunlight cut across the upper floors, lighting and warming the tiled roofs but leaving the lower garden in cool shade. There were more Mediators there: sitting on a stone bench eating something from a basket; reading quietly; playing a board game of some kind. More eyes tracked us as we passed on through. Not, however, the way they'd brought me in.

Off to the left this time, to another wing. The corridor in that part of the building was whitewashed, with a ceiling of grey wood and a floor of clay-red glazed tiles with lighter grouting. Heavy black doors lined the right wall, each one spaced a few meters apart. My guards stopped at an open one and it was obvious where I was supposed to go. Hesitantly, I approached the threshold and stopped there. I'd seen a room like this before; I'd been in a room like this before: A compact cell with neatly tiled floor, white walls, a pallet of straw ticking, a small desk and chair, a narrow window high up in the wall admitting a slant of warm sunlight. There was a scent of soap, of lemons. It was a cell, but it was a far cry from that black pit under the ground.

I stepped in, then stopped and nervously looked back. A guard was standing in the door behind me. "The commander said that there would be food brought to you," the Mediator said. I just nodded and was rewarded with a puzzled look, then the guard stepped back and the heavy black door swung closed with a very final sound.

For a few seconds I stared at the solid planks, and then turned back to the mattress. Slowly, carefully, I sat myself down on the thin ticking and leaned back against the wall. I should think about what happened, I remember telling myself. I just didn't have time to rest. Nevertheless, I don't remember my head hitting the mattress, just oblivion coming down like a theatre curtain.

Section 74

Dreaming of a huge, shadowy expanse of a room, dining table scattered like islands of white linen and gleaming silverware in an ocean of dark. I looked around at the other diners at my table. They were bright figures, dressed in brilliant colors and masks laughing and joking as they tore into the plentiful foodstuffs that stacked their plates high.

My own plate was empty.

Then, when their own meals were reduced to racks of gnawed bones and empty platters, their eyes turned to me. Amber and ivory flared in the darkness and I recoiled away from the knives, scrambling across the floor...

"Hai! Mikah!" I heard. The half-lit Rris figure crouching over me drew back a bit. Light from a small lamp threw shadows across the anonymous individual and set a thread of orange glinting on the edge of the knife. I recoiled violently, back into the corner between the mattress and the wall.

"Calm down," the Rris was saying. "What is..." then it glanced down toward the knife and I heard, "Ah. I was trying to trim the dressing." A hand shifted, pointing.

I looked: one arm had already been dressed, as had my leg. A clean white bandage held a poultice over the throbbing gouge on my calf. I'd slept through that? The gauze on my other arm was in disarray, the bandage unraveling and the dressing fallen to the mattress, which was liberally smeared with dark, congealing stains. So, she was being honest, but my heart was still hammering.

"You understand me?" the Rris asked carefully. "Mikah?"

I nodded slowly, not even thinking that that gestured wouldn't be understood. "Who are you?"

"It has been a while, but I'm surprised you don't remember me."

"I can't see you."

"Hai, this is too dark? Ah, well, but I can see you're growing your fur long again. Looking very inelegant as well, after all that work I did on it." A hand lifted into the lamplight and there was a slim bracelet around the wrist, woven from some pale fibers that looked very familiar. I looked up at the features that were shadow and fur.

"Esseri?" I ventured.

"Escheri," she corrected. "Hai, you see? You do remember."

Escheri. A Mediator. The last time I'd met her had been in Lying Scales, the town to which Shyia had taken me after my time in Westwater. She'd been assigned as a steward to help me in my brief time there. She'd been friendly toward me; she'd helped me make myself presentable for Shyia's immediate superior. And she'd kept some of the hair she'd cut, to make that bracelet. Said it'd be unique.

"What're you doing here?"

"The same thing as the others - trying to stop those ripples of yours drowning someone."

Manacles and chains clinked as I worked myself upright, sitting on the mattress with my back to the wall. I had to lift both my manacled hands to brush tangled hair out of my eyes. Night outside, that was why it was so dark. There were distant sounds drifting in from outside: a owl hooting, far-off Rris voices, the sounds of night sneaking in along with a ghost of moonlight mixing with the glow of the small oil lantern sitting on the table. She was kneeling, watching me with her head tipped to one side. On the floor at her side a small bag was open and some pots, vials, and gauze strips were spread out on a white cloth. That much I could see. And behind her the door was securely closed.

"There are guards outside," she told me, matter-of-factly.

"Ah, good. That makes me feel much safer."

I saw her head tip the other way and then she coughed a laugh. "That was a joke, a? That means you're feeling better?"

"Better?"

"They told me you collapsed. Upstairs. You could barely walk."

"I was... tired."

"Tired enough to sleep through my [something]," Escheri said. "Most of it."

"A," I reached up to rub my eyes and the chains clattered again. "Could you take these off?" I asked.

She tipped her hand. "Sorry. Orders."

"Of course," I sighed.

"Then do mind if I finish up?"

I nodded. Her muzzle wrinkled, but she knew enough about me to know what that meant. She gestured for my arm. I slowly raised it and her coarse fur and leathery finger pads pressed against my flesh as she worked at retying the loosened bandage. "Just claw scratches, but they seem bad on you. Thin skin, a?"

"I've noticed."

"Huhn!" she grunted and used the back of a claw to trace a scar running up my arm. "You've picked up a few more scratches since I last saw you. Rotted patchwork quilt now, aren't you? Your leg there. And your back... rot me, how did that happen?'

I felt the flinches run up my spine. That was something I didn't want to talk about, but I wasn't sure of where I stood. Could I refuse to answer? And that indecision stretched the moment out until she filled it by saying, "That bad, a? I won't chase it."

"Thank you."

"Others might," she said as she took up the little scalpel again and sliced off the excess gauze. "Hai, there," she laid the blade down and rolled the remaining bandage. "Done and done," she told me as she packed the gauze away and then reached down to my feet. I flinched and she gave me a reproachful look. I sighed and let her lift one foot and then the other, examining them like a pack animal's hooves.

"The soles shouldn't be that color, I think," she noted, poking carefully. "Bruising, a?"

"A."

"Huh. Unpleasant, but they are healing. No infection. Your leg... how does that feel?"

"Sore," I said. It was, aching.

"Huhn, watch it. It looks inflamed. I cleaned it and applied a [something], but it could be better. Watch out for it."

I snorted. "So it'll be good and healthy when you execute me?"

"Don't be like that. Shyia is trying to take things by the throat."

And what did that mean? "Shyia?" I half-laughed, "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

Her ears went back. "You know he's been trying to help you."

"To what? Make my life a living... a nightmare come true? He's been very successful at that."

Those ears stayed back. "He's kept your ragged hide intact," she said. "You have no idea what he's done for you."

"No, I don't." I leaned back against the wall and regarded the half-lit shadow of the Rris kneeling opposite. "What has he done for me? What is going on? What is going to happen? People are saying tribunal... I don't know what that is. I thought I was on trail, but his Lordship said he was the one being judged. Can you tell me?"

Her hands moved. Glass and metal clinked as she tidied her kit away but otherwise there was silence.

"Will you?" I ventured.

There was a low exhalation. A sigh or a hiss, I wasn't sure, but she looked at me. "Listen, there are things I can't tell you..."

"Can't as in don't know or are not allowed to."

An irritated twitch. "Not everything is clear water. Now, listen: I can tell you that tribunal is used for Guild affairs. If a decision is made by a Guild Lord that is deemed... inappropriate, it can be challenged. Another Mediator can call tribunal."

"Just like that?"

"Not just like that. He needs seconds... he needs other Mediators to support the claims; reputable officers who'll sponsor his challenge. If those are forthcoming, the tribunal is formed from representatives of the Guild, of other guilds, of city lords. They weigh and decide."

"And Shyia's doing this," I said.

"A," Escheri said, taking her kit and seeming to flow to her feet with that grace inherent in her species.

"Why?"

Her eyes flashed as she looked at me. "What do you mean?"

"Chasing me, trying to kill me, then this... it wasn't leading up to this?"

Ears twitched. "Mikha, I can't tell you too much. It could unduly influence things," she said and scratched at the door. Bolts on the other side rattled and she took her lantern.

"You don't think he's just doing this to increase his standing in the guild? Get rid of the current lord? Make room at the top?"

The heavy white-painted wood of the door swung open, silent on well-oiled hinges. In the doorway, a shadow behind the light of the lantern, Escheri turned and her ears were flat against her skull, "Mikah," she almost hissed, "understand this: the one who calls tribunal can never – never - rise to high rank in the guild. Now, good night. Sleep. You'll need it."

The door swung closed with a dull thud and the lantern light was gone. In the feeble glimmer of moonlight seeping through the slit of a window high in the wall I leaned back and sighed. What she'd said, that changed things yet again.

Section 75

The cell was lit by the rising sun streaming in through the small window, casting an incandescent rectangle on the wall opposite. I woke squinting into that glare and then at the faces of the Mediators in the open door. None of them were familiar; all looking as though they'd had their sense of humor forcibly removed.

They had some breakfast for me. It was a simple meal of bread and meat and water, but the bread was fresh and the meat had been cooked to something I could eat and the water seemed clean. They gave me five or so minutes to eat and after that I was taken upstairs again, to a room paneled with maple and shelves and fronted with tall latticed windows. It was a classroom of a sort I was getting to be quite familiar with. Low stools – square cushions upholstered in emerald green squatting on stubby curved legs of dark oak - were arranged in a gentle arc before a single cushion, a low desk and black slate hung on a wall. The expressionless guards told me to sit myself on the cushion and wait, and then they took positions by the door. I wondered just what exactly I was waiting for.

It turned out to be that examination the Mediator Lord had called for. They hadn't wasted any time. The Mediators had gathered biologists of sorts: Mediator medics and physicians, life studiers and naturalists from the university, even a local merchant whose interest turned out – to my disconcertion – to be taxidermy, over a dozen individuals. They'd all been gathered there at his Lordship's request, solely for the purpose of finding out just what I was. Apparently my explanation hadn't satisfied him.

At least it wasn't an open forum. They were brought in one at a time. Some of them had seen me before – we'd been introduced before, under less extraordinary conditions, but there were more than a few for whom I was a new experience and they gawped and stared and poked and prodded and when I tried to protest the Mediator stepped in and insisted I comply. So when a studier from the local university wanted samples, to compare with other beasts', I was forced to relent to giving blood, dripped from a needle prick into a glass vial and used for god-knew-what. And I started getting really scared at what sort of medieval torture of a medical procedure they might insist on next.

That turned out to be wanting more samples: urine, bile and semen, nail and hair clippings. Things that made me, things that really weren't that important but in which the fledgling Rris sciences placed stock, even though they'd be of very limited use to them. And that time the Rris wasn't interesting in hearing what other techniques I might be able to offer, he was only interested in sticking a tube down my throat to harvest bile. So I was uncommonly relieved when Escheri chose that time to appear in the doorway, pausing to mutter to the guards and then exchanging words with the Rris scholar. He protested. Her ears laid flat.

"No," the resulting exchange boiled down to her telling him, "You were asked what else he could be. Whether you knew of others like him, if your studies had any records of such. We weren't granting you leave to add to your samples. Simply do as we require."

And that was that.

I submitted to more poking and prodding while academics pondered whether or not I might be some freakish sort of bear. An ape of some sort, perhaps. I'd been through this sort of thing before, all with various levels of lack of success. So I'd resigned myself to listening to them talk and speculate and ultimately come up with nothing. Until one, a raffishly-attired academic on a visit from the southern country of Bluebetter, was ushered into the room, took a look at me and his ears came up; "A, I've seen the like before."

Other ears went up and Escheri looked from him to me and back again. "You're sure?"

"A. Quite," he said, stalking over to peer at me through spectacles that looked oddly familiar.

"You've seen people like me before?" I said and he recoiled two steps.

"It talks!" I felt somewhat affronted.

"You were told," Escheri said.

"Indeed, but being told it... I imagined noises like a [something] bird. Hearing it is something else altogether," he said, adjusting his spectacles and staring again.

"You said you'd seen his kind before."

"Huhn? Oh, ah. A, that's right. There are several specimens in his lordship's menagerie back in Red Rocks. Although they don't talk. Not that I've heard." He scratched at his chin. "It's dangerous?"

"I don't believe you're in any danger," Escheri said quietly.

"But... you said you've seen more of my kind?" I had to say again. Was he telling the truth? It was incredible that someone could walk into a room and just say, 'oh, one of those,' if he hadn't seen other people. My kind of people. And that one little concern suddenly eclipsed all my other worries. "Have you? Like me?"

"Mikah," Escheri cautioned me with a glare and I subsided, reluctantly. With her tail still lashing, she turned back to the life studier. "Now, you say that ah Thes'ita actually has some of this kind in captivity?"

"A," he said, walking around me and leaning in to squint through the glasses, to sniff, to cock his head. "Although, they did seem... darker. And there was more hair. And their scent was different, I recall."

"Where did they come from?" Escheri asked. "Do you know that?"

"Oh, Africa," he said. "A, they were brought back by an expedition."

"Apes," I slumped.

"A. Like yourself, no?"

"No," I sighed. "No. Not quite."

"No? I must say there is a remarkable resemblance. Perhaps a freak specimen?"

I started to offer a retort to that and caught Escheri's look. I shut up. She nodded her muzzle just once and turned back to the biologist. "We want to consider all possibilities. Your suggestions will be noted."

'Will be noted...' I shuddered and gritted my teeth. Would they really listen to something as preposterous as that? It was ridiculous. It was as bad as... as saying I was something from a parallel reality. From another world. What was more believable? What was the court more likely to believe?

So while the biologists and learned scholars came and went and poked and prodded, I had enough time to worry away at those questions. I just did as they asked: turned this way, raised this or that limb, answered questions that I'd been asked so many times that they'd become rote while I churned my own problems over in my head. And the answers I kept coming up with didn't do anything to reassure me.

So, some time later it was a while before I realized that the last quack physician had just left and nobody else had come in. The room was empty, save for the guards and Escheri. Tipping her head as she regarded me sitting on that cushion, as she probably had been for the past minute or so. Outside the windows over her shoulder I could see the day had turned dark. Fleeting sunbeams peeked through scudding purple clouds. "I said, 'we're done'," she told me.

"Oh," I said, then nodded. "That's all?"

"For now," she said and tipped her head the other way. "You seem... preoccupied."

I think I managed a grimace of a smile. "I've got a lot to think about."

"Perhaps you might be better concentrating on matters at hand?" she suggested.

"A," I nodded resignedly.

She sighed and scratched her jaw, "Just as I remembered you: flippant, but still so nervous."

My jaw twitched. "You think I haven't got reason?"

"Huhn," she huffed and stalked around, circling around behind me. "I think you've got excellent reason." I half turned my head and froze when a hand ruffled my hair; claws curling through overgrown strands. "But perhaps..."

"Perhaps?"

Another soft snort and the hand patted my head. "Mikah, just do as you're told. That's all I can tell you."

"I'm trying," I shuddered and Escheri stroked my neck. "Dammit! I'm trying. But it's just... It just feels like I'm running out over a cliff." I twisted around, looking up at her as she pulled her hand back. "Nobody is telling me anything. I'm not on trial, but you keep me here. In chains. What am I supposed to do? How can I..."

Her hand moved again and I stopped talking. A finger was under my jaw, a single claw digging in just behind my chin. "Enough," she said quietly and slowly she crouched, to squat in front of me, those amber eyes regarding me dispassionately.

With a human it's the muscles around the eyes that offer the emotion clues: fractional flickers of features that we're programmed to read from birth. All our lives, all our history, we're exposed to those cues and learn them at a level that must rival the instinctual. Look into the eyes of something not human and those cues aren't there. They're completely absent; or they're replaced by movements that might be tantalizingly familiar but mean something utterly different.

And that's what I found myself facing: lambent orange, slit-pupil eyes set in a face that was never designed as the signaling device that the human face is. There were emotions there that I could read: wariness, concern, perhaps annoyance... and certainly many other nuances that I couldn't.

"Just calm down, a?" the Mediator growled softly. "I told you, there are things I can't say."

I swallowed, then carefully waved an affirmative. The point pressing into my skin pulled back slightly, then slowly slid down my throat, tickling as it traced my skin. She watched, her fingertip and my eyes. Thunder rumbled somewhere in the distance. When she pulled her hand away I swallowed, then carefully said, "I'm supposed to be a... a witness?"

"A witness," she echoed and cocked her head as if mulling something over in her head. Then her ears flicked. "No. Not a witness. I think a better word would be evidence."

"Evidence?! What the hell does that..." I squeaked, cut off as she raised her finger again.

"A," she said. "An important piece, mind you. That is why we are taking all this... care with you."

"I'm truly touched," I forced out from between clenched teeth and carefully rubbed my throat, my manacles rattling.

She blinked, "Just be calm, be good. And behave, A?"

I tried not to look at the guards behind her as I just nodded, "A."

"Good," she said and her furry hand came up for a quick bat at my cheek with claws not quite entirely pulled. "Then I think we're done here."

Section 76

It was raining outside. Thunder rolled in from off across the lake. Through the slit of a window in my cell I could smell the tang of ozone; could hear the hiss of a steady downpour sheeting straight down onto bricks outside. As it'd been doing all night long.

Waiting. That was the worst bit. I waited on the little cot, finding myself shivering uncontrollably even though the night wasn't that cold. Jangling nerves and numbing boredom kept see-sawing. Tedium dragged the hours out and I slept fitfully, snapped wide awake every time there was a noise. A couple of times it'd been guards bringing me food or just checking on me. They didn't speak, didn't offer any information or respond to questions, they just carried out their duties with impersonal Mediator efficiency.

I'd been on trial before. Once. When I'd first come here. Out in that little town of Westwater the locals and a Mediator tried me for murder. It'd been a confused affair that hadn't gone well. The verdict had been not guilty, but it'd been a nightmare for me. I dreaded it happening again.

Idle time gave other concerns time to boil and fester. Chihirae, what about her? Was she all right? There were no immediate communications between Shattered Water and Open Fields, so unless a courier had specifically informed her she probably had no idea what was going on, so she wouldn't be worrying. Thank god she wasn't here, but that wasn't any guarantee that she wouldn't be dragged down into this whole morass. Shyia knew I was... fond of her. He had once warned me about that; that there were those individuals who might use that sort of attachment against me. Now, he was in a position where he might be one of those individuals.

At some time before dawn I woke blinking into the glow of a lantern one more time. This time there were more Rris figures behind the light. One stepped forward, eclipsing the light and becoming an unearthly silhouette haloed in a fringe of backlit fur. Metal glittered.

"Come on," Escheri said, fiddling with her grooming kit as she stepped forward. "They'll be ready soon. We have to make you look civilized."

"What time is it?"

"Almost too late. Rot, you do look a mess. Well, we'll see what we can do with that fur of yours," she said as she knelt beside me and pulled a metal comb from her kit. Mediators at the door watched on, their eyes looking like discs of copper in the light.

"Now you're worried about my hair?"

"It might help if you look like an intelligent being, not some animal dragged in from a field somewhere. Rot, grooming is important if you want to be taken seriously. Now hold still."

I winced as she raked the comb through knots, ripping a few out by the roots. "Don't you take care of this?" she grumbled.

"Sorry, but my groomer had another appointment today," I growled and flinched again as Escheri flicked me with a claw.

"Don't do that," she chided and I gritted my teeth, my whole head being yanked to and fro as she raked at my hair.

There was movement in the doorway as another Mediator entered and laid cloth down on the table. I recognized the material.

"A," Escheri must've caught my glance. "Your clothing. Shyia wants you to wear it."

"And that's all you're telling me? He wants me to wear clothes. Anything else you'd like me to do? Perhaps balance a ball on my nose? Ow!"

"I warned you. Rot it, Mikah, I can't tell you any more. If you said the wrong thing at the wrong time then perhaps our decision could have charges of [bias? Corruption?] lowered against it. Not likely, but this... this is serious. He's being careful. He's juggling gunpowder and torches," she said simply. "I really think you have no idea."

"Don't worry," I grumbled. "I don't."

A soft snort escaped Escheri and she set to working at my hair again. "You've been on trial before, I know that. This shouldn't be entirely new to you."

I stiffened. "It will be like that?"

"It will be a Tribunal," she huffed. "Not a backwoods court. A position will be defended and assailed. It will be civilized. There will be no physical assaults this time."

Slowly, I nodded. "Ah, that kind of civilized. Ah!"

After a while she'd yanked the worst of the birds' nests out and it wasn't an uncontrolled mat anymore. The comb was running smoothly and she sat back, proclaiming it, "Better. Like I remembered. A little more civilized, a? Now, we just have to get you dressed. I'm going to remove those manacles. You will behave?"

Uh-oh. I grimaced and then slowly held out my hands. She produced a clunky key and barely just touched them to the locks and the black iron manacles fell open, clattering to the floor. She flinched, stared at them and then her muzzle snapped up as she glared at me. I could only shrug, "I was bored."

"Those locks..."

"...aren't very good," I shrugged again.

She grinned at me, an expression that bared only needle teeth and exasperation. I quickly ducked my head and she cuffed me with claws not quite pulled. "Get dressed, rot you."

They'd bought me my jeans, my Eldritch t-shirt, one halfway-respectable button shirt, boots and a single sock. Escheri and the other Mediators watched as I dressed, pulling on the jeans and t-shirt. She turned one of my boots over and over, stretching out the ankle support and watching it snap back again.

"How does it do that?"

They didn't have elastic. They didn't have rubber or spidersilk or even common silk. I smiled thinly, "It's simple when you know how."

She snorted and held the boot out. "You need this?"

"Ah, I'd prefer not to. My feet... I think they're still too swollen."

"A," she said simply and watched as I also took the other shirt. I could always lose it if needed.

"Done?" Escheri asked. "Then we'd best go."

"Hai," she observed as we left, "you're limping. Your feet or your leg?"

"Leg," I said.

"I'll have to look at that," she said. "Later, though. Now, come along."

I didn't know what time it was. It was still dark out, still drizzling hard enough to set my escorts' ears twitching as our way took us outside across that courtyard. I had a chance to look up, past dark windows. Overhead, the cloud cover was a lid over the city that blotted out any sight of the sky. Back home the underbelly of that cloud would be glowing sodium red, lit from below by city lights. Here, in this world, those city lights were too few and too feeble. The night remained black and wet.

The building they took me to was one of the older ones, constructed from blocks of pale stone that must've been shipped in from a long ways off. The halls were big and dark and echoing. There was a dreamlike feel to the whole experience as we moved along in the small pools of light cast by my escort's lamps. That light didn't reach the upper reaches of the corridors and was barely enough to let me see where I was going. With their night vision I knew the Rris didn't really need them at all, so I supposed they'd only brought them along for my sake. Thoughtful of them. They could've taken the shackles off; the chafing was getting painful.

And through those halls I didn't see a single ornamental embellishment. There were no statues, no extraneous paintings or decoration, just clean functionality rendered in proportions that were decorative in their own alien intricacies. There were undertones of power and authority that came through beneath even that starkness, like something sleek and deadly coursing beneath smooth water. It didn't feel anything like the authority totems such as ornate materials and decorations and oversized spaces that were so prevalent back home - it was after all aimed at a different psyche - but I was still able to notice it. I wondered if it was supposed to intimidate me.

In truth, it did.

Rris were moving around those dark corridors. There were Mediators as well as others. We passed a corridor where I saw what looked like troops in the uniforms of Royal Guards standing at a door. Further along a group of civilians were talking in hushed voices. They looked up as we passed and their ears went flat. I could feel their eyes on me as we passed.

When we halted it was at a door that literally glowed in the light of the lamps. It wasn't big - no larger than normal - but the entire surface was hammered copper. It hadn't been planished; it'd been polished, but not smooth, keeping every hammer bowl intact. Those metal dimples glowed in my escorts' lamp light, blurrily reflecting us in a galaxy of tiny beaten dishes. I was a pale form, flanked by shorter blurs. One of them stepped up to my side.

"Here," Escheri said, "We'll take you in. You sit where we tell you. You know what to do."

I stared down at her, my heart hammering. "Escheri, I... I haven't got the faintest idea."

Her tufted ears laid back. "Look, be quiet. Just answer direct questions and that's all. Be respectful; be honest," the Mediator muttered and patted at my shirt, trying to straighten the alien garb out a little. "You're shivering. You're still cold?"

"I don't know," I said. "I can't help it. Nervous."

"Huh, do your best, a?" she said and patted my arm, then – fleetingly – reached up to stroke my cheek. "Good fortune."

One of the other Mediators flicked an ear, but swung that copper door open on a lot of darkness.

Two of the others closed up behind me, not quite pushing but making it clear that I was to move.

I stepped through.

My imagination had been presenting me with something like a courtroom I was familiar with from back home: a large room with lots of polished wood, a judges bench and jurors stand. Of course the reality was different.

There was polished wood. There was a great deal of that - it was a big room; a basilica of sorts. I was at one end, standing on the fringes of a broad semi-circular apse. Two stories overhead the ceiling was in darkness, but just below it a faint glow that might have been wan morning light seeped through a row of dirty windows circumnavigating the white plaster walls of room. Underfoot the floor was darker-than-blood red wood, a circular stage polished to a nearly mirror finish embraced by the arc of the apse. Oil lamps hung from polished silver stands guttered, turned low, their wicks a feeble glow that was just enough to bring shadows out to play. Just enough for Rris vision: Not enough for me to make out the faces of the Rris seated around the periphery of that semi circle, sitting cross-legged on cushions set on the floor with low desks placed in front of them.

And that light didn't reach the ceiling high above where rain still thrummed on the roof. Nor did it reach the depths at the other end of the room where the floor rose into gradual tiers of steps. There were Rris seated on those steps, rows and rows of ill-defined feline forms. As I moved into view those figures stirred, a susurrus of movement and conversation drifted across the hall and their eyes caught the light.

Like two hundred discs of molten aluminum flaring in the darkness. A sight that made something in my hindbrain scream and my hackles stand up. I should've been used to it after the time I'd spent at the front of lecture halls at the university in Shattered Water, but I guess it was still a shock. I stopped dead, like a deer in headlights.

One of my escorts prodded me in the back and I flinched. Someone had said something and I'd missed it. Panicked, I looked around and from nearby a Rris voice growled, "Sit down."

There was one cushion set apart from the others, out in the middle of the floor. I had a pretty good idea who that was for. My Mediator escort stayed close while I sat myself down. My gashed leg ached enough that I couldn't sit cross-legged, instead having to adopt a less dignified posture with that leg straightened. That put the studio audience at my back and the semi-circle of Rris before me. My escort melted back into the shadows.

There was a pattern in there in the way the Rris around me were seated. They were grouped. Facing me at the rear of the apse was an arc of five Rris cross-legged at their black lacquered desks, all of them Mediators as best I could tell. Older Rris, I thought, from the hint of grey fur, although that wasn't a reliable indicator – more than a few younger ones I'd met had salt n pepper fur. One of them was wearing glasses, I could see that much: a set of small wireframe spectacles. The others wore somber tones, but nothing like a uniform.

There were other two smaller groups: three individuals seated to my left and three more to my right.

"He's certainly more than I'd expected," one of the five Rris directly before me said eventually. "Mikah aesh Riehee, it was?"

That question wasn't addressed to me. "Yes, Ma'am," one of the group over to my left responded.

"Mikah," the other said, "You can speak? You can understand us?"

I waved a careful affirmative. "Yes. I can speak. I am still learning... much, but I can speak."

"Huhn, and do you understand why you're here?"

"Not really, no." I glanced around for Escheri, for anybody I could recognize. They were all anonymous shadows in the gloom. "Nobody has told me anything."

I thought I saw several pairs of ears flicker at that. The one who'd spoken looked down at a sheet of paper. Lightning flared outside, strobed through that row of high windows. Spectacles caught light and flared briefly in the shadows. "We tell you now that you've been summoned before this Tribunal today in response to several charges. There is a considerable list of broaches here: I see instances of evading arrest, assaulting Mediators, disobeying a Mediator's direct orders, the murder of a Mediator, arson and property damage... you deny these?"

I felt the weight of all those eyes on my back and swallowed, "Except for the arson and murder of a Mediator, no."

"Huhn. It was reported you set a fire to evade pursuit. There was extensive damage."

I shook my head. "No. Not me. Some of your Mediators."

The circles of the spectacles glowed silver. "You did kill a Mediator."

I stared back. "No. Not a Mediator. He looked like... I thought it was a Rris I knew. He was... painted to look like someone I knew, to get close to me. He shot at me then attacked me with a knife. I defended myself."

"Knife range, yet you still couldn't see it was a Mediator? You can see us all right though?"

I suppose that remark was intended to be humorous. I shrugged. There might have been a hint of morning light on the high windows, but that was all. Just the grey touch of first light filtering through the rain clouds. "No. I can't."

"He's half blind in poor light," came a calm voice from the Mediators seated to my left.

"But that would be Shyia," I sighed.

There were sounds of amusement. One of the Rris in front of me made a gesture and guards shifted around the periphery of the room, turning the wicks on the oil lamps up. Light flickered and things became a bit more defined. I could see who my audience was. It was Shyia to my left, flanked by two others seated behind a trio of little black lacquered tables. To my right aesh Richtkah and a pair of flunkies were similarly ensconced behind identical desks.

"That's better?"

"Yes, sir," I said.

Ears flicked back and then erect again. "Ma'am," the Rris replied calmly. "It's 'Ma'am'."

"Oh, sorry," I said. I think Shyia briefly closed his eyes.

"You really can't tell, can you?" one of the ones before me said.

I swallowed. "Apologies. I'm still not... I haven't spent my life amongst Rris. I didn't grow up with your kind. I thought I was getting better, but I'm... I'm still learning. I think you'd have problems telling my kind apart."

"Huh, yes, your kind. There are others like you?"

"A."

"Where?"

Surely they'd been briefed on that? Was there a reason they were bringing it up? I carefully waved a shrug. "I'm not sure. I'm not sure how I came to your world."

"Our world. What does that mean? That you're from the moon? One of those other planets."

I glanced at Shyia. "I'm... not sure it's like that."

"Explain."

"Ma'am, there was a theory amongst savants of my kind that I know of. I don't know the particulars, I am just aware of it."

"Tell us."

"It basically says there isn't just one universe, there is an... an unlimited number of them. Every possible alternative... every decision made at every tiniest moment of time creates a new universe. A universe where this earth never formed; a universe where it was made but life never evolved; a universe where your kind grew to dominance; one where my kind did; a world where I never arrived, one where I... every possibility in between. They called them, ah, parallel worlds. That comes close in Rris words."

Heads turned as the members of the tribunal exchanged looks. "Other worlds? I've never heard of such a thing."

"Quite a stretch of the imagination, a," another murmured.

One of them leaned forward, toward me. "Your kind actually has savants? Scholars and the such?"

"A."

"Did they perhaps mention how would one get from one of these universes to another?"

There'd been theories relating to the composition of the universe; all of what we thought of as reality, as solid matter, was a foam of sub-atomic knurls of space-time, a multi-dimensional matrix in which all of existence was suspended like insects in amber. As countless blades of grass seen from a distance might blur into a single field, those distortions made a reality. And every one of those elemental tangles of nothing all potentially portals to otherwheres.

Try explaining that in an alien tongue in which you're still not fluent. I felt my brain cringing as I tried to parse the idea and had to tip my hand in a Rris shrug again. "I really... don't know."

Ears flickered. "You don't know?"

"I said that was a theory. I don't know exactly how I came here. I was walking and something happened. I don't know what. I remember there was a flash of light and the next thing I was waking up in a place that was nothing like where I'd been. I don't know exactly what happened. Perhaps I died and this is what happens then."

That might not have been the wisest choice of words. It rewarded me with a few odd looks from various Rris.

The spokeswoman coughed quietly. "Huhn, this does seem quite remarkable," she said. "You are aware that other claims have been made that while still... extraordinary, are more... plausible?"

"That I'm from somewhere over the sea? That I might be a spy?" I sighed and glanced at the Mediator Guild Lord. "I've heard that before."

"You do refute it."

"Of course I do. I always have."

"And your own claims, can you support them?"

"Prove them?" I asked, not quite sure if I were hearing correctly. The Mediators around the rotunda all watched me, their expressions unreadable as I looked from one to another. "I... suppose the obvious way would be to send a ship to sail around until they don't find them."

Stony silence.

"That... is your best suggestion, is it," said the spokeswoman eventually.

"Hey, I'm sorry, but what would be proof to you? All I have is what I brought with me. I'd have thought some of that would be proof enough. If my people were on this world, you would have heard from them before now."

"Why would that be? I understand the world is a big place. There are still many places we haven't explored."

"But there aren't many we haven't," I sighed. "Look, I've dealt with this with Shyia before. My kind... We are more knowledgeable than Rris in many areas. We have traveled everywhere on our world. Everywhere. The continents, the oceans and skies... the oceans are no barrier to us. If my kind were here, you would certainly have encountered them before."

"So advanced?" one of the others asked, sounding more than a little dubious. "You aren't just bragging?"

"Perhaps all those people wanted to talk to me because of my sparkling personality," I retorted and out of the corner of my eye saw Shyia go absolutely motionless. From the audience behind me I heard a couple of stifled snorts.

The Tribunal members regarded me. "Unlikely," the spokeswoman said eventually. "But it is a valid point. Ah Ehrasai?"

"Ma'am," Shyia ducked his head.

"You've had experience with this one's possessions. I've heard that they're quite complex. Remarkably so?"

"Some of them, yes, Ma'am. Some of the items are ingeniously simple in design, but made of materials I've never seen before. Others... they could be duplicated, but not fashioned so easily that they are cheap and readily available to all, as Mikah claims them to be. And other devices... the best craftsmen and [mechanicalists] are unable to see how they even work, let alone how they could reproduce them."

"There are others who can verify this?"

"Yes, Ma'am. Many individuals and businesses who've dealt with Mikah recently will."

"A," she picked up a sheaf of paper. "I see you've already provided a list."

He inclined his head. "A list of [something], Ma'am."

"Of course," she said, laying the document back down. "They're willing to testify?"

"On issues regarding Mikah, yes."

The spokeswoman leaned to murmur into the ear of the Rris beside her. That one waved an affirmative gesture and scribbled a note down with a fountain pen while the spokeswoman turned back to me.

"A question: You came here accidentally; you were in need of help. Then why didn't you ask for it? By all accounts, you lurked on the outskirts of a town and by your own admission, spied upon the occupants. Why didn't you approach them?"

I'd have thought that was obvious. "Because I had no idea of what was going on. Ma'am, with all respect, Rris look as peculiar to me as I do to them. Especially back then. I didn't know what they were."

"You never tried to just talk with the people there?"

"I did try. It was never as easy as that," I said.

"Explain."

I glanced at Shyia and he looked back impassively. Surely he'd already related my story. So was there a reason he wanted me to explain it personally? "The first Rris who saw me were... criminals, I understand. They spread stories about me to cover their own activities. They called me a dangerous animal. Whenever others saw me, they treated me like one. Every time someone saw me, they ran or shot at me.

"I couldn't speak Rris, so I couldn't talk to anyone to tell them otherwise. All I could do was to keep my distance and try and learn your speech by watching. There was a winter school where I could watch the classes and learn some words. I thought I might be able to figure out where I was, what had happened to me; at the least learn enough so I could ask for help without being shot. If that's spying, then I guess I'm guilty."

"Huhn," a tribunal member snorted. They didn't look impressed.

Another said, "Ah Ehrasai, this is all on record, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir. The particulars of that case have also been submitted."

"His claims are...?"

"Accurate, sir. It is as he claims: there were smugglers using a property in Westwater as a transit house. They did see him. They used him as a scapegoat to cover the murder of one of their own couriers. The locals did come to believe he was dangerous and did react in what they thought was self defense. They tried to kill him. If he hadn't learned what he had, they most probably would have succeeded."

"Fortunate for him."

"Yes, sir."

"And you found his tale about his origins believable?"

"A."

"Your reason?"

"Its sheer [preposterousness] was one reason. I'm sure a spy could come up with a more plausible story. Also, doctors and life studiers have examined him and found no [something] with anything they've had experience with. They don't know what he is exactly, or where he comes from. They do agree that there is some superficial similarity with apes from Africa. But they bear as much relationship to him as we do to those [jungle] predators.

"His possessions were a more compelling reason. They told of a people who are... very advanced, with knowledge and abilities far exceeding our own. There is also evidence that they are quite obviously aggressive and expansionist. I have no doubt that if they could be here, they would be."

"A bluff?"

"Ma'am, our best craftsmen can't even guess at how some of those devices work. If it's a hoax, it's one we couldn't perpetrate. And I would question why anyone would willingly give away samples of their technology."

"Huhhn," the chairman rumbled, watching me thoughtfully over a lowered muzzle. "And aesh Richtkah; Sir, you refuted this claim quite vehemently. Now I understand you've dropped charges?"

"Amended," the Clan Lord replied. "Based on the more recent evidence constable Ehrasai has produced, I've conceded that he is most likely correct: our visitor here is an unlikely spy."

"What swayed your decision?"

"The constable had an item he said belonged to our absconded guest. It was a library, he claimed, an entire library in a device not much larger than this." His hands described a small rectangle. "However, he was unable to operate the device. Apparently, it required our visitor to... unlock it. Those claims and the subsequent [somethings] did make me [dubious]."

Overhead, the drumming of the rain had abated. Sunlight – proper daylight - was striking the high windows. The anemic light filtering through dusty glass grew brighter, the dull tones brightening. What'd been dull suggestions of color bloomed as stained glass was illuminated from behind, shining brighter and brighter as the late morning sun climbed. Reds and golds and greens spilled across the room. The Mediators ignored it.

"When the device was unlocked it did turn out to be a library. It contains texts and images, many of them, including moving pictures. While that in itself was remarkable enough, the actual subject of the contents did go a long way to verifying his tale of being a castaway. However, it also reinforces the other charges."

One of the Tribunal tipped his head and asked, "Our visitor here did in fact open this device?"

"A, Sir."

"Huhn," the female said. "We're going to want to see this object."

"Understandable. That might take some time however."

"Why?"

"Apparently it has to... eat?"

Shyia spoke up: "In some regards it's like a water clock. It has to be refilled periodically."

"With what?"

"Sunlight, apparently," he replied and looked at me. "I never received a suitable explanation as to exactly what it was."

"You never asked?"

"He did ask," I impulsively spoke up and inwardly flinched at how out of place my awkward accent sounded in that echoing room. Eyes turned to me. "He did ask. He just couldn't understand my answer. And I lacked the... vocabulary to perhaps make it easier to understand."

"Ah. And you could tell us now?"

"I could... I don't know that it would make any sense. There are... Saying it is like a water clock is... simplistic, but accurate in some ways. To go into more detail means I would have to teach you about many other things just to describe them. There are words you just don't have. So, it is easier to say it does have to be refilled with sunlight."

That didn't exactly elicit a favorable response. I saw some shifting, slight changes of expression and posture that I couldn't interpret precisely, but Richtkah's ears pricked up a little. I felt that couldn't be a good thing.

"Is there anyone you've discussed this with?" the Tribunal asked. "Any Rris who might be able to understand it?"

"There's Ah Ties," I said. "He has quite a lot to learn. But he is... very good at things like that."

"Huh, ah Ties. He is one of the witnesses, I see. You have a reason to recommend him?"

I shrugged. "He's an engineer. He's better with that sort of thing than I am. I... where I come from I was an artists of sorts. I used machines; I didn't make them."

"All right," the female tribunal member blinked at me and then leaned over to mutter something to the Rris sitting at her left hand. He scratched down some notes while she looked back at me. "Claimants, this evidence is important to your cases?"

They both replied, "A."

"Ah Ehrasai, how long until we can see it?"

"I believe five hours is the correct length of time," Shyia said.

She looked at me. "Would this be right?"

I gave a small shrug: a habitual twitch of my shoulders. "If there is plenty of bright sunlight, then yes."

Rris eyes watched me dubiously. Then the tribunal chairwoman slowly closed her hand in an affirmative and looked around at the others to her left and right. When she spoke she raised her voice for the assembly behind us, "Very well. Five hours. This tribunal will reconvene in five hours. We will expect this evidence to be ready then." Then she gestured to the guards waiting in the wings:

"Now, please remove that one to holding. Treat him as a secure witness. Very secure."

A susurrus of Rris voices arose from the gallery. Not loud, but like the sound of the sea. Around the colonnaded peripheries of the basilica Mediators began to approach me. Rather than be hauled out of there I struggled to my feet myself, wincing as blood flowed back to limbs and bruises. My escort didn't actually touch me, but they closed around and made sure I headed off in the right direction. I could feel all those eyes watching as I limped out of the pool of sunlight that'd formed in the center of that chamber, a dusty sunbeam spotlighting the cushion where I'd been sitting.

Section 77

Secure witness. I sat slumped on the edge of my low cot, my face in my hands. A witness to what? And why did it still feel as if I were a prisoner? This whole thing had something to do with Shyia and the Clan Lord. They were taking opposing sides, that meant that Shyia was disputing something the Lord had done. Something he's said. And I'd been told that the Mediator's charter, their authority, depended upon their being concise and accurate. So if one of them were wrong, that could topple an entire career. But where did I fit into that?

A hand patted my hair. Startled, I looked up at Escheri's inquisitive features, "Hai, did you hear a word I've been saying?"

"What? Oh, sorry. I was... thinking."

"Ah, that blocks your ears, does it?" she smiled quickly and gestured to the table. There was a covered tray there. "I brought you some food. You should probably eat. I'm not sure when you next chance will be. That was good, this morning though. You were calm and sensible, for the most part. Those remarks you made though...perhaps a bit more respect wouldn't go amiss. Otherwise, that was a good start.

From where I was sitting slumped on the edge of the low cot I looked at the tray and then at her. "What's next?"

She huffed and then stepped over and patted my head, just like she was patting a dog, then crouched in front of me. "Don't worry. Just cooperate. It will work out."

"Work out. I've heard that before," I said. "This disagreement between Shyia and his Lordship, that's why I'm here? I'm supposed to be a witness? To what?"

Her ears flicked back a bit. "It's just a few questions."

"Uh, huh," I nodded and met her amber eye. "It's not just something on the laptop they're after. You're keeping me around and not telling me everything, so I'm assuming that there's a possibility this could go very badly for me. How badly?"

Her expression changed, turning to that stone mask that seemed to be a Mediator speciality.

"That badly?" I leaned back and looked at her staring at me. There was a look in those amber eyes. A wariness as if she'd realized that she was alone in a room with a dangerous animal, but the mask remained. She wasn't going to tell me anything more about that. If knew that if I pressed, I'd just be stonewalled.

Sigh.

"So, how did you become a Mediator?" I asked, trying a different tack.

That got a flicker. A brief flash of uncertainty. "How?"

"Yes, how? You know: when did you decide you'd become a Mediator? Why'd you decide to do it rather than becoming perhaps an interior decorator?"

She stared, then that facade shattered into chitters. "Decide? Mikah, nobody decides to become a Mediator. We've always been Mediators."

"Always?"

"You really don't know, do you," she said, sounding and looking incredulous. "Since I was a child. Mikah, it's not uncommon for mothers to leave their cubs with the Guild."

"They leave them?"

"You are surprised? If times are difficult; if she can't feed them or take care of them, then she might choose to leave them with the Guild. It's certainly better than the alternatives. The Guild will look after them and teach them what they need. Some of them will decide they do not desire that life; other will be found to be unsuitable. They leave before [something] day and take up apprenticeships elsewhere, some others who are deemed to have aptitude are chosen to apprentice with the Guild."

"How old were you?"

She waved a shrug. "I don't remember exactly."

"You've spent... all your life in the Guild? Do you know your mother? Your family?!"

"No." She tipped her head as she regarded me. "Is that important?"

I blinked at her, at a loss for words, and then lowered my head, shaking it and raking fingers across my face and through my hair. "I guess it's another human thing."

"Ah," I heard her cough, as if she'd remembered something . "You build close emotional ties with individuals, don't you. I heard mention of that in Shyia's briefings. It's the same with your families?"

"A," I nodded. "Rris do seem to be more... independent than my kind. It takes some getting used to."

"Huhn, you're managing?"

"Look at me," I half-grinned mirthlessly. "Fitting right in, a?"

"But you've found a woman willing to engage you as a sexual partner. You've formed an emotional attachment to her, haven't you."

That got me in my gut. "Where... Shyia told you that as well, did he?"

"A, at the..."

"...briefing," I finished with her and glared sidelong at her. "Anything else in my personal life he might have missed?"

Her ears went back. "It's not like that, you hairless fool. If we're to do our duty, we have to know all we can."

"Then I hope it was very useful."

"You are protective, aren't you."

When I glanced down I saw my fists were clenched. I took a breath, trying to relax. "And that's the way you've always done your duty? Hunting people down, spreading stories about them, trying to kill them?"

She actually bristled. "Mikah, the Guild has functioned this way for a long time. It has functioned smoothly and efficiently. It's kept the charter and maintained the balance for centuries until....until..."

And then her jaws shut with a sharp clop and her ears flicked back before her features set back to stone again.

"Until I arrived, a?" I flashed her a quick grin and leaned back. She hadn't said that much, but it was enough.

"How's this for a guess?" I continued. "I'm here. I exist. That's your problem, isn't it? I upset that balance you keep on about. I caused ripples in the pond. I fractured the Guild: Some wanted to use me for their own ends and split from the rest of the Guild. You're trying to cover that to hide the fact that there can be... arguing within the Guild. You're trying to decide how to do that?"

She stared and after a few moments there was a flicker of emotion on her face. It... wasn't what I'd expected.

"Mikah," she said and then reached over to lay her hand on the back of mine. "Mikah, don't. Please, just... don't."

I just started to respond, had scarcely opened my lips when her hand twitched, claws pricked the skin on the back of my hand hard enough to make me gasp.

"No, listen," she hissed. "You are the issue. That is true, but you're also unique and what you know are only splinters of the whole." Her eyes were black pits circumnavigated by a thread of lambent amber that made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. "Mikah, that's why you're still alive. There's a fine balance going on here, and if you poke at it, you're going to tip it. Just... give Shyia your trust, a?"

I felt muscles in my jaw twitch. "I think he lost that a long time ago."

"Then what about myself? Would you trust me?"

"Escheri... can you give me a reason why I should trust any Mediator?"

Her muzzle dropped a couple of degrees, as did the temperature of her gaze. I swallowed. "Mediators have abducted me and told me... opposite stories. You've said yourself you won't tell me everything. You tell me that and now ask that I should trust you? Would you?!"

For a few seconds she stared, then snorted, "Huhn, he was right: you don't think like us. Well, then, would you do it for her? For your teacher?"

Now I froze; my heart lurched.

"Rot, think: if something happens to you, she'll be [something]... ah, not required. She'll be simply discarded. Without sponsorship in a strange city, no way to return home... you know what that's like, a? "

"No," I shook my head. "No, leave her out of this."

"Understand, you're the reason she's in Shattered Water, a? She's there as a tutor for you," Escheri ticked points off with claw tips: "A tutor, a guide, a companion and a sexual partner, a? But if something were to happen to you then you can be sure she'd be out on the street."

She sighed and cocked her head, then scratched at a cheek tuft with that single clawtip, "Mikah, rot it, this isn't not a threat. We have no intention of harming her. That would be pretty foolish of us, a? She'd only be in trouble if you went and caused problems, in which case you'd also most likely be dead so threatening her would be pointless. If you could just do what I'm asking, then there'd be no problems."

I was clenching and unclenching my fist as I studied her, trying to read something there. God dammit, was she being sincere? Was it a veiled threat against Chihirae? It didn't feel like one, but I didn't have a great deal of confidence in my abilities to judge that.

"Mikah?" she ventured.

"You... can I have your word that she will not be harmed?"

Her eyes closed for a second and she sighed again, "I can give you a written [something] if you would like. She will not be harmed."

I hesitated, trying to think. "I really don't have much choice."

"You can cause problems and harm yourself and her, or you can cooperate and we can resolve this. Mikah, he's done what he can to keep you alive." Her eyes He had orders that he couldn't go against, not directly, but he did what he could. And he got you put in here. Better than downstairs, a?"

Despite myself, I shuddered, then gritted my teeth and nodded.

"That head bob, that's a yes?"

"Yes," I sighed. "What're you going to want me to do?"

"Just cooperate," she said. "Tell the truth. If you're told to do something, do it. Don't ask questions."

"Just be quiet and behave," I said.

Thankfully, she didn't catch the sarcasm. "Exactly."

I closed my eyes and swallowed hard. There were things I didn't want to tell them; things I couldn't tell them. Implicate those few Rris who'd been willing to trust and help me was something I just couldn't do. No matter what I told her.

"You will?" she asked.

I nodded.

"Good," she said, those amber-rimmed eyes concentrating on my face. Then those inhuman fingers came up to pat the side of my face, "Good. Now, you should eat something. They'll want to see you again in a few hours."

Section 78

There were fewer spectators in that hall the next time round. Not many though: those tiers of seats were still filled with ranks of Rris in dark Mediator leathers. Afternoon sunlight filtered in through those high and dusty windows, the stained glass casting prismatic smears of color across upper walls and columns around the basilica. I limped my way across the expanse of polished wood, a Mediator guard at either elbow as we headed toward the single cushion placed out in the center of the basilica. I flexed my fingers, aware of how clammy my palms were. In fact, I was scared. I was sweating. felt a tickle of sweat running down my ribcage under my shirt and my heart was hammering loud enough that they could surely hear it. In fact, several times I'd caught one or another of the guards glancing at me and I could see their nostrils twitch: if they didn't hear my nervousness, they could surely smell it.

Those two Mediators stayed at my side as I limped across the floor and awkwardly sat myself down on the cushion. Around the periphery of the basilica, Rris eyes were watching me from the low desks; Shyia and his associates on the left, aesh Richtkah on the right. Low whispers from elsewhere in the room hissed across the edge of hearing.

The Mediator guards retreated back to the edges of the room, their feet padding silently on the gleaming lacquered surface. I saw them return to Escheri, standing back against a wall and watching me carefully. One of them whispered something to her and she responded with the barest inclination of her head, never taking her eyes off me. Turning away, I shivered and rubbed my arm, wondering why it was suddenly so cold in there as I faced the tribunal.

My laptop was sitting on the tribunal bench, the slim charcoal case sitting on the black lacquered desktop in front of the chairwoman. The screen was open, facing her. Whatever was on it at the time was animated, casting a pale flickering glow up to brush the underside of her features, which seemed decidedly nervous. She hesitantly clicked something on the keyboard and flinched as the flickering light stopped, then she set her hands on her knees and cocked her head as she regarded me and then addressed the Mediators at the desks to either side:

"We've had the opportunity to review this evidence that both parties claim is so decisive to their cases. I feel that we can proceed with this judgment." Her ears twitched back momentarily and she continued, "In the Guild records there are only four recorded instances of Tribunal being called under these circumstances. It is not something to be undertaken lightly. You know that; you all know the consequences and why these proceedings are not to be discussed outside the Guild."

She looked directly at me. "There are differences in this case, however. This is the first time it has been so necessary to have an outsider present at [something] Guild proceedings, and the first time that outsider has also been vital evidence. Allowances have also been made on account of the fact that the outsider is a neutral party with no known affiliation and that his discretion has been assured. This is correct?"

That was addressed at me and it wasn't a question. I shakily gestured and answered, "Yes, Ma'am."

She blinked, slowly and deliberately and said, "Then we proceed. Ah Richtkah, you've made the decision to prosecute your case. You claim threat to peace and the common good and are determined to stand to that decision. That is so?"

"It is so," the Guild lord responded.

"Ah Ehrasai, you challenge that decision on the grounds that the chosen solution itself will breach the common good and the Guild charter itself. You called tribunal to challenge this decision. You are fully aware that this decision means that you will never be allowed to attain a position above district administrator and you are willing to continue with this challenge?"

"I am," Shyia responded.

"Your acceptance is noted in the record," she said. "You will each have the opportunity to state your case before the tribunal, but let this be known:

"This tribunal is set and [something] to uphold the good of the many and the Guild. These members have been chosen and so swear that that they hold no favor or preference for either party. We meet to bear witness to the grievances of both parties, to hear their claims and to make a decision that will benefit the people we are sworn to protect and the guild itself. We will make this decision without preference of [something], and that decision will be held as word and law."

She looked down and slid a paper aside, then turned to the Guild Lord, "Ah Richtkah, you may begin. Please state your case before the assembly."

"Ma'am," he acknowledged with a duck of his head and then looked at me. I listened to every word, my heart hammering and my mouth dry as he continued. "The situation began as one of the most unusual I've encountered and seemed to grow more complex from there.

"The Guild hall in Meetings had received reports of a strange creature that'd been found in the Land-of-Water town of Westwater and then transported to Lying Scales. Initial reports were of something that wasn't Rris, but it wasn't an animal either. Detail was lacking, citing a desire for more information. They were labeled a curiosity at best.

"Over the next three seasons those reports continued and they started to give more information. They detailed a creature that was intelligent, that hailed from unknown origins, and was in possession of incredible information. In fact, the reports claimed it carried an entire library from an alien civilization; that it had knowledge and skills and information beyond anything in any Rris land.

"Some questions arose regarding the sanity of those making those reports. However, reports kept coming, and we received new information from sources in Shattered Water, then in Bluebetter and Cover-my-Tail. On the basis of those we had no choice but to take the reports more seriously. More details about the outsider arrived, making it clear that this creature was in no way a Rris, nor was it any known animal. It was a complete unknown, as were its intentions and motives. However, more details about its activities also arrived and the picture they painted was at first difficult to believe, and then increasingly disturbing.

"It had been stated that the creature had access to knowledge and technology that Rris didn't have. We didn't fully comprehend what this entailed, but we were hearing that it was providing this information to Land-of-Water, aiding them in the development of new steam engines. At first glance this didn't seem like a serious issue, but shortly thereafter the ripples started up.

"Other countries were responding in much the same way we were. At first they were disbelieving, then interested but not overly alarmed. Then various agents started submitting their own reports which pricked up ears across the world. A slew of new innovation coming from Land-of-water: printing techniques, glassmaking, metallurgy, and news that they had developed a steam engine using unheard of principles. Shortly thereafter a vessel was tested that was similarly unique; proving faster and far more economical than anything else on the water. As we investigated this further we learned that the process for developing that ship meant that vessel itself was merely the peak of a mountain of new knowledge and sciences: mining and refining techniques, metallurgy and manufacturing, transportation, construction and design techniques. A few months had wrought more changes than any time in Guild memory.

"This certainly hadn't gone unnoticed. Other countries were starting to respond to what they perceived as a hoarding of a valued resource, petitioning Shattered Water with requests for access to the outsider. The Land-of-Water government handled these by deferring as best it could and then reluctantly granting audiences. There was an incident at a function; an attempted poisoning by first accounts, after which Shattered Water rescinded invitations and secluded the outsider."

I listened, somewhat incredulously. Being referred to as 'outsider' was something I wasn't enthusiastic about, but more importantly, what was being talked about here was stuff I'd never been told; had never heard about from my hosts. How much of it was true? Mediators were supposed to be interested in the raw truth, but how empirical were they in reality?

The Mediator lord was continuing. "The result was that tensions between countries grew taut. Shattered Water continued to refuse access or to share information despite growing pressure. We heard mutterings of this, but the reports were too scanty and slow at arriving for us to make use of the information.

"Finally, there was an open attempt on the outsider. A party of well armed mercenaries assaulted a convoy, causing casualties. We are not sure that their objective was to kill or abduct the outsider, it's more likely that the attempt was a message in itself, showing Land-of-Water that they could cooperate with other lands or have nothing. The assailants were well equipped and briefed, but attempts to track their sponsor led to multiple dead ends. Involvement by a neighboring government is almost certain, but none have been implicated.

"After that incident, Land-of-Water did grant the representatives of other countries greater access to the outsider. Foreign representatives were allowed audiences with him. Various items of knowledge and technology were distributed for their appraisal: machines for harvesting in one hour what would normal take a farmer a week to collect; new types of medical information; manufacturing machinery and metallurgical techniques.

"Of course there was intense diplomatic shuffling as delegates tried to ascertain what information other nations had received. There was trading between some of the delegates; between some of the others there was suspicions and accusations were made. Relations between more than a few lands became strained as bribes and espionage attempts were made. The most alarming incident, however, was the appearance of weapons."

I felt the blood drain from my face and frantically looked around, on the verge of protesting, of saying how that information had been stolen from me without my knowledge. Rris I knew were all staring back at me. Shyia's head moved, slightly, fractionally, in a scarcely discernable shake and I froze and then choked the words back down. I'd promised. It might've been a stupid thing to do, but I'd done it. Now I was going to see if it was a dumb a move as it'd seemed.

"With the gift of [hindsight] we can suppose it was inevitable, but at the time events were unfolding so fast that we couldn't maintain a grasp on them. By the time we'd received reports of an incident, they were already obsolete. This has been a problem before, but never like this. Never have we had so many influential developments appearing so quickly, one after another. By the time we started investigating the ramifications of one, more were already being [something] and the news of the appearance of new weapons came from an unexpected quarter.

"The Guild hall in Red Leaves sent an urgent missive reporting that local government facilities had been attacked by extremists using new sorts of weapons: firearms that were repeating and highly accurate. There were casualties. The Bluebetter government kept these facts hidden from other lands for a while; calling on confidential Mediator aid from the Guild while they carried out their own investigations.

"We honored their request and kept our investigations discreet. Mediator agents tracked the source to a smuggling operation that we'd been unaware of. Not on that level at any rate. They'd become aware of the Outsider after the affair at Westwater. They'd used high-level sources in Shattered Water, at great expense, in order to acquire weapons that'd been developed from knowledge the Outsider had brought.

"This organization was infiltrated and undone, but other lands were learning what had happened. The ramifications of that are still unfolding, but there have been accusations and allegations leveled, threatened boycotts, sanctions and embargoes against and by Land of Water and others. Guild halls are reporting concern over the changes in mood and uneasiness everywhere, especially with the developments that continue in Shattered Water.

"More weapons are being produced, that is common knowledge. All lands know that Land of Water military forces are being equipped with new, highly accurate longarms and other kinds of equipment. We've been informed of talk in Shattered Water of forming a standing army, as opposed to the current guard. There are also changes in tactics and doctrine being undertaken, with new training and organizational reshuffles throughout the military. These are certainly matters of concern, but I believe that their disruption is insignificant compared with the potential [something] this outsider can bring."

I looked around the rotunda, from one impassive feline countenance to the next, trying to find some flicker of emotion or feeling that I could use to judge their reaction to this. But they were all like nightmarish masks, regarding me calmly while at the same time they accused me. What he was telling them was heading uncomfortably in the direction of what Jaesith had told me, of what I'd started to piece together by myself. It was looking more and more like I might've been right on the money.

And the worst of it was, those accusations, the way he was telling it, were true. It wasn't fabricated; it wasn't taken out of context; it had happened like that, only I hadn't had a great deal of say about it. Not had I .

"Most disturbing," he was saying, "is the fact that people will not only accept these changes, they will actively want them; these new innovations that promise wealth, convenience, faster and easier ways. It's already begun with the engines and tools and implements introduced in Shattered Water. There are governments and companies and Guilds and individuals scrabbling over one another to acquire these advantages. The ramifications are not something they wish to dwell on.

"These changes will [something] themselves every corner of industry and civilian life; A flood of new ideas which will seep in and edge out current skills and lives. Lifestyles and livelihoods that've existed for as long as can be remember will be rendered redundant as crafts are replaced by factories, workers by machines.

"Already in Shattered Water there are small cooperatives and individuals – craftsmen, laborers, workers - finding that their skills are becoming surplus to requirements. We heard that there are workshops being established that produce nothing but fine mugs and plates, all identical, in huge numbers and selling them at preposterously cheap prices. Craftsmen who spend hours producing one are incapable of matching the prices and their products are simply not selling. They're struggling to feed themselves. There are the machines for milling and weaving; machines that can reap entire harvests, doing work that would usually take dozens of laborers weeks in a matter of days. What then happens to those workers? To the holdings and small towns that rely upon that seasonal work for their very existence?

"The steam vessel that was destroyed in the lake exemplifies our concerns. It's fast, propelled by machinery with a crew of fewer than a dozen. It's not reliant upon the weather; it doesn't require favorable winds to move. It also doesn't require the crew and their skills, nor the sailmakers, nor the rope mills, provisioners or all the attendant industries that support them. Existing sail lines will have to adopt this new technology and only the largest will be able to do this: all the smaller cooperatives and single-hold vessels will be driven to ruin.

"Proposed rail links with new engines will do the same to land transport. Carters and various transport guilds may be initiating these experiments, but we expect further problems when they discover that the new routes will make their old one, and the people who ply them, obsolete."

He paused then, looking down at the notes on his desk before continuing. He never raised his voice, just kept going in that same clear, matter-of-fact way.

"We foresee this dissatisfaction building upon itself. To date there has been only vocal dissatisfaction, but this will build to active sabotage attempts and violence and from there to civil unrest. There will be swings in the balances and relationships between nations. Trade patterns will be disrupted as new farming ideas produce surpluses appear in districts where previously food was imported. New weapons will put excessive power into the hands of individuals and small groups. Old disputes might be rekindled as those involved feel they have a new way to resolve them."

Now he ducked his head again, just momentarily.

"Outright war is not unlikely," he said quietly. "And the continued existence of the Guild itself will certainly come into question, especially if the events of the past few days are made publicly known."

Scattered rays of light streamed down from the windows high above, tinted and filtered from passing through the panes and slivers of stained glass. Specks of dust drifted randomly in those rays, flitting in invisible draughts and air currents. Below, the semicircle of Rris sat like motionless furry Buddhas in random patches of light, regarding the Mediator Lord without visible emotion. I imagine I was looking just as emotionless, but for other reasons: I was feeling utterly numb as I listened to the mediator lord listing his case before the Tribunal.

"This outsider did what hasn't been done in living memory: it fractured the Guild. A woman whom I held in high esteem found [temptation] enough in his presence to break oaths. She believed that what she was doing was the right course; she believed strongly it was a course that had to be taken if the Guild was to survive. It was not the right course. It was something of which I could never approve, and she knew that. She knew that and would never have attempted such a maneuver if she hadn't seen an option that had never been available before. The repercussions of those actions are still [something] through the Guild; a disruption that could shatter the charter and the Guild's very reason for existence.

"If a Mediator with a lifetime of steadfast service could be led onto such a course by the mere appearance of such a creature, then one has to ask oneself how will those of less sturdy character fare? How will those of a more ruthless and greedy disposition fare? She was capable; she was respected and competent, and yet her actions cleaved the very heart of this Guild."

He paused for a few breaths, looking at me again before resuming.

"Finally, there is an aspect to his presence that has not been explored or, I believe, even seriously considered. That is the effect of people knowing that everything they strive to learn has already been done, that the answers are already there for them. This could lead them to a decline in the efforts of our own scholars. They may see it as easier to acquire the work done by another creature instead of seeking for the answers themselves. It could reduce us to expecting hand downs from another race, and then when they can no longer provide for us, we will find ourselves unable to stand on our own."

He turned to the tribunal. "Weighers," he said and looked around the space, from Shyia and his associates to the spectators, "Honored folk, I tell you all that this outsider is not something we can suffer in our house. It is a disruption, a force that can do nothing but cause harm. It may seem benign; it may seem hapless and even [something] at times, but it is dangerous. It is a threat to everything we are. I urge that it be destroyed. If not executed then rendered to a state where it cannot cause harm."

"What?!" I blurted, loud enough in my shock to raise echoes from the ends of the hall.

"Mikah!"

"You..." I turned from one desk to another. I was shaking, trembling hard enough that I had to clench my hands into fists, "You are serious about this?!"

"Mikah!" Shyia was baring teeth slightly and over to the side the guards were stepping forward. Escheri hurried ahead, her tail lashing. "Mikah, you promised."

"But..."

"Mikah!" she snarled with bared teeth and flattened ears and I recoiled, just as shocked.

"You assured us it would behave," one of the five Tribunal members said to Shyia.

"Apologies, sir" Escheri interjected hastily while the guards loomed behind her. "He's quite ignorant of some things."

"Huhn, after what Ah Richtkah just told us, that is remarkable," one of the others said, loudly enough for me to hear. There were twitched from a couple of the others but the chairwoman threw him a cold look and he waved a shrug. She glared back at me. "Will he be quiet?"

Escheri glanced at me and I hung my head. "He will," she said.

"Ah Richtkah," do you wish to continue?"

"I was nearly done, and I think that my point about its disruptive abilities was borne out," he observed. "I do have to reiterate that it will do that. It's been made abundantly clear that it doesn't think normally or perhaps even sanely; it won't do what's considered normal or proper and will – perhaps inadvertently – spill the kettle. It's simply a matter of time. I stand by my urgent recommendation. That is all."

"Thank you, sir," the spokeswoman said as he seated himself on his cushion again. And then she looked around the tables and at me. "We'll take this opportunity to recess for two hours and then continue with the prosecution's case. Constable, you might want to control your charge a little better or he will be spending the rest of the proceedings in the holding cells."

"Yes, Ma'am," Escheri replied, and then as the other Mediators filed out, she glared at me.

Section 79

In the small, stone antechamber I sat myself down where they told me: on a worn and stuffing-leaking cushion in a corner. On the other side of the room, lit by a slant of light from a narrow window, Escheri busied herself at a sideboard whose shelves were well stocked with bottles: red and greens and blue glass bottles ranked alongside clay and metal containers of varying shapes and sizes. Metal and glass clinked and rattled. The guards stood at the door, watching me.

Liquid gurgled for a second, then stopped. Glass clinked as a stopper was put back into a bottle. Finally Escheri said, "That was not good."

I didn't answer. I was still shaking.

"You had a reason for that outburst?"

I raised my head. She was standing, regarding me, holding a broad goblet before her in both hands. "That outburst," she repeated. "Why'd you do it? You said you'd behave."

I swallowed back a retort and sighed. "He was talking abut executing me for something I... I don't think I've done anything wrong. And what did he mean about that... that rendering me to a state where I can't do any harm?"

Escheri's tail lashed. "Blinding you. Muting you. Something along those lines."

I felt the blood drain from my face again. "You're not fucking serious," I choked.

"Quite serious," she said.

Once again I found myself struggling for words. A couple of years just didn't give me the breadth and depth of immersion in the language to absorb all the nuances. "Do I... do I get a chance to defend myself? To say my own words?"

She tipped her ears quizzically. "Whatever for?"

"Wha... To... defend myself. To say my side of the story, of course."

Escheri's muzzle wrinkled. "Of course your opinion would be biased. Why would anyone put stock in what you say?"

"But, haven't I got the right to..." I stopped, mentally backpedaling. "I don't have any rights?"

"The right to be defended by a Mediator other Mediators know they can trust," she said.

"But what if they have... other ideas. Other... what is the word... plans?"

"Then they wouldn't be Mediators?" she replied and then her ears laid back. "You don't have Mediators where you come from, a? Accused individuals, you let them defend themselves?"

I almost answered that before I realized I was staring down the barrel of a loaded question. It sounded innocuous enough, but there were hidden depths there. It didn't take a genius to realize that telling someone that their profession could be disposed of wasn't a good way of endearing themselves to that organization.

"It... depends," I sighed, thinking back to the highly specialized litigating machines that were lawyers, "on a lot of things. But where I was from people didn't usually defend themselves, but they could. And they certainly were allowed to speak if they chose."

She snorted and flashed teeth for a second. "Red tie me, pure chaos. Well, here, it is considered [decorous?] to keep your silence before the tribunal unless you are asked a direct question."

"Even when they threaten to tear your tongue out?"

"I'd have thought especially when they threaten to tear your tongue out," she replied.

I eyed her dubiously. "Was... that a joke?"

"Apparently not," Escheri said with another twitch of her ears, then huffed a hard exhalation and came over to thrust the goblet at me. "You should drink this."

She must've seen the trembling as I took it, holding it in both hands. The vessel was broader than any human cup, designed to allow a Rris to lap from it. What it contained wasn't water but rather wine. That's not all that surprising in a culture primitive enough that the local well water might not be the cleanest, but I wasn't expecting Mediators to make that consideration for me. Trying to be careful not to slop the stuff over myself I took a sip and realized they hadn't; the stuff was pretty close to vinegar. What was that? Mint in the wine?

"Drink it," she said. "You need something to calm you down."

Actually, I needed a stiff drink. And the alcohol content was about all that sorry excuse for wine had going for it. I took a sip from the goblet, made a face, took a stronger belt and felt that alcohol content burning the back of my throat. Escheri clicked back across the stone floor to the sideboard leant back against the cabinet.

"That's satisfactory?" she asked.

"It's terrible," I said dully.

"A. It is. Strong enough to take the edge off though, huh?"

I grimaced again and turned the cup in my fingers, watching the liquid swirl in dark waves.

"You have an hour," she said presently. "Use it. Calm down. Eat something."

"Eat something," I echoed. "I'm really not feeling very hungry right now."

"You're still upset."

I felt my jaw gape, then I coughed a disbelieving laugh that wasn't from humor: it was just a spasm of sheer disbelief. "You know, I think I might be. I find out that the people who're supposed to be the good guys want to kill me. . . or at best cut parts of me off. Yes, I might be upset! And you know what the worst thing is? I was right, about all this I was right and nobody would tell me!"

"No, we couldn't."

"Couldn't? Why? God damn it! I'm trying to understand your way of doing things. I really am, but things like this make no sense to me!"

She hung her head for just a second, the fur on the bridge of her muzzle wrinkling momentarily as she clenched her eyes shut and then looked at me again. "I can't tell you."

It was my turn to stare. "You can't tell me why you can't tell me."

An ear flicked back as she parsed that. "A."

I felt a ruined muscle in my torn cheek twitch. "So, I suppose asking why wouldn't be the best question, would it."

She cocked her head, stared again, then snorted. "No, probably not."

"Then this is just a fancy way of getting rid of me? Making it look like a trial? His lordship wants to be rid of me, so he just throws a mock trial to make it look... correct."

She actually looked shocked.

"Mikah, understand, this isn't usual, nothing about this situation is." She scratched at a cheek tuft with a single claw tip, her lips twitching over sharp teeth. "But whatever is happening, it's not a personal vendetta. Red tie you, this is the Mediator Guild. You are not being persecuted - you are being judged. And if you are worthy, you will be found so. Your honesty and cooperation will have a bearing on that."

I hid behind the wine again, regarding her with some disbelief over the edge of the goblet. Talk about ego... did she really believe the guild was that infallible? "Really? This always works? You deal with criminals, all those cheats and liars and every decision you make is the right one?"

Escheri waved a 'no'. "Common criminals... that's magistrate, governments law business. The Guild, in its official capacity, deals with other matters. The serious matters. The instances that could cause disruptions for more than just individuals."

"And you're always right?" I asked again

"Our history is a long one," she replied, as if that answered everything.

"And we all know who writes the history books, don't we," I muttered.

"Huhn?" amber eyes blinked at me and I shook my head:

"Nothing. Thinking aloud."

"You find something odd about our ways?"

Another loaded question. "Escheri," I said, "in the past couple of years I've seen things that are odder than I'd ever imagined. Your Guild is only one."

"Your kind really doesn't have anything like it?"

"We have law enforcement," I said.

"From what you've told me, that's merely a profession. Like a butcher or baker," she replied, watching me. "That is...odd. Such a [cavalier] attitude to something that is so vital to a society. I don't think I would trust anyone like that."

"And you've been entirely honest with me," I retorted.

"Ah," she cocked her head again, "that is a point. If you feel that way, perhaps there is something you should know."

"What?"

"That wine," she nodded her chin.

"What about it?" I looked down at the dregs in the goblet and the penny dropped, along with my heart. "Oh, you didn't..."

"Sorry," she said calmly.

Section 80

My guards assisted me back to the hall. They had to: everything felt remote. Numb. That included my legs. When I tried to walk myself I found the walls veering into me. I should have felt annoyed. Hell, I should have felt furious, but in truth I wasn't feeling very much at all. My feet still hurt, but it didn't seem to matter.

"Don't look like that," Escheri'd told me when what she'd said had sunk in. "It's just something to calm you down. You need it. Really, you need it."

I'd been annoyed, putting it mildly. I'd been scared and furious. I'd started shouting at her while she and guards just watched me in a frustratingly calm manner. At least, I remember I'd started shouting and then somehow I'd found a hand was shaking my shoulder and an out-of-focus voice was saying, "It's time, Mikah."

They'd helped me, holding my arms to steady me while the hallways reeled around me. Somehow, I once again found myself crossing an echoing stage while shadowy figures circled around. That hit close to a place deep inside, a place where old nightmares hid. When they let me fold down onto that cushion I closed my eyes and shuddered while the talking started. I heard it, but it was if I were under anesthetic: I heard it and felt like I could respond, but I simply didn't want to.

Something seized my shoulder and shook me, rattling my teeth, "Hai, can you understand?" a hairy face was growling at me. Escheri was kneeling down in front of me. Her hands were on my shoulders and she was staring intently at me.

I blinked, looked past her at other faces staring. "A," I mumbled.

"How many fingers?'

Again I blinked, "Four."

Escheri patted my shoulder and carefully stood, backing away before turning to address the audience who'd witnessed all this. "Pardons, Ma'am," she said. "Medications can have unpredictable results on him but he is [something]."

"It was necessary? He is supposed to be non-violent."

"Yes ma'am, violence on his side wasn't a concern. But he is anxious enough that we may have more of those outbursts and perhaps influence the Tribunal's decision. This was just to calm him. He is rational."

"Very well," the spokesperson's growl echoed through the forum, the sibilants raising sounds like distant surf from the farthest walls. "All present at this time, note that we reconvene this Tribunal, witnessing this challenge of Lord Heschier aesh Richtkah's judgement by constable ah Ehrasai of Lying Scales."

"This tribunal is convened and [promise/oath/something?] to uphold the good of the many and the Guild. These members have been chosen and so swear that that they hold no favor or preference for either party. We meet to bear witness to the grievances of all, to hear their claims and to make a decision that will benefit the people we are sworn to protect and the guild itself. We will make this decision without preference of [something], and that decision will be held as word and law. We are ready to proceed?"

Sounds of assent.

"Very good. Ah Ehrasai, we will now hear your deposition."

Ah Ehrasai. Shyia. That's who they were talking about. I should be listening to this, a part of me knew, but the rest of me was just... numb.

"Ma'am, I respect his Lordship's position, but this course must not continue. This visitor is an unprecedented opportunity. Nothing like this has ever happened before. It is impossible to believe that it could happen again.

"The reasons cited for the removal of this outsider sound valid, but they are mere supposition. Facts have been misinterpreted or misrepresented. Not through malice or [incompetence?], but as a result of that lack of information that his Lordship so lamented. I was either present at the unfolding of many of these early events or had the opportunity to speak firsthand with those who were, and the evidence I collected [something] many of those [something] theories.

"In late autumn the Guild hall in Lying Scales heard of an appeal for assistance from a small outlaying town of Westwater to the local government requesting assistance. They had been troubled by some sort of unknown animal. There were claims it had killed a farmer and had been further troubling the community. It was not deemed to be a Guild matter and was left to the local guard.

"In winter we heard further news of this creature, this time in the form of a direct appeal to the Guild. The creature had been apprehended, the missive claimed, however it also stated that the thing was not a Rris, nor did it seem to be a dumb animal and the mayor was requesting Guild assistance for a trial. This request was quite unusual and the information supplied was meager, but Westwater had to date been a quiet settlement, without a history of fraudulent claims. So I was dispatched to Westwater to assess and assist if required.

"What I found when I arrived was not what I'd expected. I was told that the creature had been apprehended, being grievously wounded in the process. I was introduced to the winter teacher hired by the community for the season. She was the one who'd injured it, then captured it and finally was the one who defending it and sheltering it at her own hearth. This I did find unusual.

"The creature was like nothing I'd seen or heard of before. Despite the cautions, seeing it for the first time was somewhat of a shock. Even more so to find that it could actually speak. Granted, it's capability was very limited – like a cub learning to speak – but the fact it could carry on a conversation was startling. As was the fact it was unrestrained and loose inside the teacher's dwelling. It was seriously injured, and while she was the one who'd caused the injury, it didn't seem to harbor any ill-will toward her. It had chances enough to harm her, but it didn't.

"At the time I was unable to determine just what it was or where it came from. Its grasp on talking was still extremely rudimentary. It could tell us its name, but it was incapable of telling us much more. Stranger still were the devices it carried with it. Its clothing was utterly outlandish. There were materials that were lighter and with a finer weave than anything I'd ever seen; devices that produced light without oil or fire; things that made noise or lit up in peculiar ways. And there was that picture box. That started more questions.

"That was a problem. Its inability to speak meant it could not communicate very well. There was also the problem that it was not Rris: It didn't react as a person should. In many ways our training and skills are useless when it comes to dealing with him simply because none of the normal telltales were applicable. It has no tail; Its ears aren't mobile. That's not to say the giveaways aren't there. They're present, but they are very different. It becomes a matter of relearning those signals, and that takes time and continual exposure, which I didn't have.

"The charges against this stranger were serious: murder and theft. They'd initially been laid by a farmer who claimed her partner was ruthlessly killed by it. She'd been a [proponent] of the hunting of the thing when it'd been found to be lurking in the vicinity. Her description of the creature was accurate, but there were too many inconsistencies. Even superficial inspection produced too many more questions. And she seemed to be very perturbed of the fact that it could speak. It didn't come as a great surprise to find its account of events differed substantially from hers.

"A trial was held, as demanded by the townsfolk. The results of that weren't entirely decisive. While the creature's tale was consistent and fit the facts, the accuser played on the facts he wasn't a Rris and was of dubious civility and integrity. I could not read him like a Rris; Drugs that usually worked on Rris were quite ineffective, meaning his word could not be used. Verdict was inconclusive: he was found innocent of the murder charges. However, while the accuser's story had several glaring inconsistencies, there was also no direct evidence against her. It was decided that the outsider would be removed to Lying Scales and the matter further investigated there."

A distant part of me knew this was important, but things still seemed to drift in and out of focus and the urgency came and went with it. I managed to catch myself nodding off, before I fell on my face, starting awake again with a gasp. I saw Rris heads turn and that voice paused for a breath before resuming:

"Before that could be done there was an attempt on his life by a group of armed individuals. He sustained serious injuries protecting a group of cubs who would have been caught up in the attempt. During that time he killed two of the Rris who attacked them, but from what I saw his efforts were more through desperation and sheer size than any particular skill. During that fight he suffered grievous injuries: bites, claw and sword cuts. Serious infection was a real risk. The local physician used medication he said the creature had supplied and it proved astoundingly effective."

There was nothing there I didn't know. I listened through the drug-induced haze as he continued, regaling the crowd with events I'd lived through: how he'd taken me to the town of Lying Scales where the local Guild Master had taken one look at what his subordinate had dredged up and thrown the issue further up the line, sending me on to Shattered Water with Shyia along as chaperone. He told of our long, slow trip from Lying Scales, across the winter countryside. I clutched at the cushion and tried to keep breathing steadily as the room spun nauseatingly.

"What I found interesting," he was saying, "was that he could understand everything around him. Even when we entered the capital, he was never completely at a loss. I've seen country (somethings) who've never seen a town before who couldn't stop gawking at every small detail. Not him. He was never overwhelmed by the streets and buildings. It was the people he was gaping at, but not the buildings. He knew cities. He understood everything he saw, no matter how advanced we would believe it was, he'd seen it before. That made his tale about cities of his own kind more believable."

"Initially his appearance didn't have much of an impact, in either the Guild or the Palace. There was curiosity about my report, but little more. Not until what he carried with him become known. Then attitudes changed most abruptly. Very soon Hirht himself was demanding to see the visitor and after that a continual procession of scholars and specialists were studying him.

"The palace was most careful to keep him close. While the Guild dispatched reports to the hall in Endless Circle and waited for responses from distant individuals who had no idea what was really happening, the government of Shattered Water was busy reaping a bountiful harvest. They had the creature confer with their craftsmen and artificers and found that its knowledge, if not its skill, outstripped their own. Using that knowledge they changed and improved existing machine; they built new ones; gained new understandings and ideas in everything from medicine to agriculture and architecture. Of course neighboring countries witnessed these changes and they clamored for this knowledge. The problem was that this resource was limited and it had frailties of its own."

The voice stopped and there was a silence. A very pointed silence. It was enough to jolt me awake again, snapping my drooping head upright with a sharp intake of breath to find the Rris all staring at me. The Tribunal members eyed me for a bit longer before the chair told Shyia, "Please, continue."

"Ma'am," Shyia acknowledged. For a split second I think I saw his gaze flicker past me before returning. "Ma'am, one of the things that made this creature so very difficult to read and to predict was that he doesn’t act or think in that same way we do. There are things he does that would simply not be considered...normal by a Rris. I was aware of this. I'd had experience with it, but I hadn't been able to convey this concern to Shattered Water.

"Presently after delivering the outsider to Shattered Water - after the government had had some dealing with him and realized what they had - I found that I was being increasingly distanced from his handling. It was not overt, but it was there, a gradual separating of us. And with that, there came a steadily increasing demand on his time and services from more and more guilds and governments. He was treated as...a commodity, and I could see it was having a detrimental effect on him. That was worrying. I made my concerns known; I related what he'd done in the past while under duress but received no concrete response. It didn't take much to see that the government was trying to [something] their grip on the outsider without openly rejecting Guild involvement.

"A matter of months later I received Guild orders that I was to return to Lying Scales - an order that had been initiated at the request of the Palace. I lodged a protest with the Guild; and again my protests were forwarded to Endless Circle. Shortly thereafter I departed Shattered Water and returned to Lying Scales. However, I did take the precaution of requesting some contacts I'd cultivated to keep me appraised of happenings back in the capitol. Which is why I was informed that a while after my departure, the outsider attempted to kill himself, as I'd warned them he might do.

"It was about that time that the Guild finally started to stir. Queries for elaboration on the happenings at Westwater arrived from both the halls at Shattered Water and Endless Circle. A few at first, then more and more. The Guild was starting to pay attention, but it was too slow.

"It transpired that I hadn't been alone with my concerns. A doctor had also submitted similar concerns to the Palace after an incident when she'd encountered the outsider. She'd spoken with him for only a short time, yet in that brief period she'd realized he didn't think normally and might do something unpredictable. Almost immediately following his attempt on his own life she was brought in by the Palace as an advisor."

Maithris, I realized. He was talking about Mai.

"The position changed. She insisted on tending to him herself and it was found that the outsider fixated upon her. She had speculated that he required companionship and the isolation was what he found difficult, so she herself offered it and in turn had a chance to study him. That speculation turned out to be quite accurate, and he became extremely attached to her, to the point they engaged in sexual relations."

Through the fog I knew I wanted to feel angry, but the spark just flared and died in the waves of lassitude. Where was he going with this?

"She stayed with him for some time. She provided company for him, probably keeping him sane, and all the while she reported to Shattered Water, relating what she'd learned. In turn, he trusted her to such an extent that when she betrayed him he never saw it coming.

"She was an agent, a [something] planted in Shattered Water. Neighboring kingdoms had had troubles with internal factions, including some who were receiving aid from external sources trying to exploit the new knowledge in Shattered Water for personal and political gain. Agents in Shattered Water were attempting to track the suppliers and it was nothing but chance that she'd first encountered the outsider, but she'd played that opportunity for everything it was worth and successfully ridden every possibility from there. She was quite competent. Perhaps one of their best."

I tried to stare at him. My eyes wouldn't focus.

"The outsider was bait. It was taken. The leak in Shattered Water was sealed and the smuggler trail uncovered and traced and the doctor vanished back into the undergrowth. Tracing her would be interesting, but it isn't a priority.

"What was of more concern was the outsider's reaction. He'd be seriously injured, but also nobody was entirely sure of what would happen after her... departure. She'd arranged for notes to be delivered after she was gone and those contained information nobody was sure was accurate or even possible. She'd also arranged for the teacher the outsider had first met in Westwater to be transported to Shattered Water. When this individual went missing, the subject went to what could be called insane efforts to try and recover her.

"That matter was somewhat overshadowed by something that caused a great deal more ripples. In an instance that drew the Guild's full attention, a well-armed vessel was destroyed by a smaller craft armed with only a single weapon created with the new technologies Land-of-Water had acquired. The incident had not been intended: it was a desperate attempt to save the outsider, but it did reveal to the world in a most emphatic manner just what an entity possessing this resource could achieve. This was a fact not lost on the Guild.

"The ripples from this entire incident reached at least as far as Lying Scales. A matter of days after I received reports from my sources, both myself and my master received a summons to the hall in Endless Circle. We were to report there as soon as was possible. We complied, taking courier transportation where possible and making good time over the water route. There was nothing out of the ordinary until we reached Saisa's End.

"That was a small town, but it was impossible not to notice the disproportionate Mediator presence. Stable were full, as were many lodgings. There were ships in the port that would not have normally called at such a destination. And there were Guild members everywhere.

"Almost as soon as we entered town we were approached, our presence demanded before another Guild Master, Jaesith aesh Raeshon. She explained Lord Ah Richtkah's plans. She explained her own ideas, how the outsider was too important to all Rris to eliminate and I was vital a source of information about it. We talked for some time. I listened. Her ideas... they were not without merit in some regards. Enough that there were those willing to follow. I told her what she wanted to hear. She requested I bring the creature to her and told us to go.

"From Saisa's End we crossed Lake Endless to Endless Circle. At the Guild Hall there Lord Ah Richtkah interviewed me, requesting everything I knew about the outsider. I gave it. The information was deliberated upon for a single day before he put forward the suggestion that the creature was to destabilizing to be allowed to live freely. I protested this, with the backing of my Master. We maintained that it was too valuable to simply kill; that there would be problems, but there are always problems. That is why the Guild exists. To destroy something because it simply inconveniences you is to break the ice you stand on.

"It was maintained that the Guild charter wasn't to repair problems, it was to avoid them. The creature went beyond an inconvenience: It was entire unpredictable, perhaps insane, perhaps an agent of some kind. Its mere presence had already cause disruption and bickering and nearly outright war between the nations; even the Guild was roiling. They were aware of aesh Raeshon's activities, but could take no outright action. The smoothest action would be to remove the source of the problem."

I'd heard that. Why was he saying it again? Something was important. And something else inside me was screaming. The anxiety percolated through the fog hanging over everything else and I struggled to focus. Just lifting my head made me giddy, but I could see the faces regarding me, watching Shyia. And Shyia was staring at me without a flicker of emotion.

"He was correct. At the time that was the clearest path. But now the situation has changed. Stabilized. What happened to aesh Raeshon's demise was a [something] disaster, but her faction has dissolved. My Lord, you have control of the situation and the outsider, but you have refused to change your decree. You claim that the outsider might be an agent, or a spy. This possibility is remote at the best. You claim it is unpredictable. It is, in some ways, but in others it is like anyone else. It has leverage points. It has attachments to individuals. He nearly killed himself to save the teacher from the town, so there are sensitive areas there..."

Chihirae. Now he was talking about her. About things I done and emotions he'd never had any experience with and how they could be...

"A control," he was saying. Words to that effect. Words like 'leverage' and 'trained'.

The rage returned in a red surge that drove me to my feet and

I was laid out flat on something that swayed and creaked with movement. There was the clinking of metallic accoutrements. I opened my eyes to see an dim island of lamplit whitewashed ceiling scroll by overhead. The back of a Rris looming over me. Down there was another, watching and making a quick sound but otherwise not changing its grip on the stretcher handles. Another Rris face appeared from the gloom and said something that echoed through my muzzy senses. I blinked in confusion and tried to move but wasn't sure anything happened.

Something patted my face and I feebly batted at the hand. The face leaned closer and as if through a kilometer of cotton wool I heard someone say something about dosages and mistakes.

I closed my eyes again. That was a mistake: the movement of the stretcher made me feel ill. When it stopped, hands grabbed me and hauled me upright and once again everything spun and turned and when it stabilized I found I was looking at another ceiling, that of a small cell lit by a splash of light that had a feel of sunset about it. The cat face with those tall, twitching ears and intense eyes returned to hang over me, staring down with a quizzical expression as if there were something it wasn't sure about. There was a low voice and something stroked though my beard and my hair, over and over again.

Section 81

"Wake! Get up."

The voice hadn't woken me, it was the shaking that'd done that. I shifted away and opened my eyes and got an impression of hasty movement. "Get up," the voice repeated.

I wasn't sure what was happening or where I was. For a second I was sprawled on the stage in front of the Tribunal and Shyia was saying... things. And then reality washed over memory. It was a cell, in a Mediator Guild hall. It was night, dark. A sliver of moonlight slipped in through the window and there was the glimmer of a lamp out in the corridor beyond the doorway, but it wasn't enough to see details. So the figures in the cell were just shapes, outlined in chiaroscuro where the light glowed through fur. Where it struck the metal of weapons or the oiled leather of Mediator armor it gleamed like something alive.

It wasn't the Tribunal hall, but what had been said there was real enough. With a bit of a struggle I propped myself up on my elbows. My shirt was gone, but I was still wearing my jeans.

"Come on," the figure closest to me jerked its head. The others were eyeing me like I was something that might just put up an interesting fight.

"Where?" I asked and for a few seconds didn't think I was going to get an answer, but eventually the Mediator relented.

"The Tribunal sent for you," was all I was told.

There were more than enough to drag me along if I didn't cooperate, so I'd end up in the same place only even more scratched up. Not a great deal of choice. Besides, I had some questions of my own. I moved again, grimaced and clambered the rest of the way to my feet in a series of semi-coordinated lurches, bracing against the wall on the way up. Once standing I had to lean against it for another couple of seconds, catching my equilibrium. The dizziness wasn't nearly as bad as it'd been earlier. Mediators watched and actually gave me a moment, then that closest one said, "Come along," again and stood aside for me.

They weren't hauling me away in chains at least. That seemed a change for the better. The armed silhouettes watched intently and silently as I limped out the door and stopped in the corridor. One of the Mediators waiting there was holding a glass-enclosed lantern by a looped handle, the low orange flame sputtering and throwing jittering shadows on the walls and floor. A hand waved in a come-along gesture and the shadows whirled as the Rris turned and led the way.

The guards took me from the cells, out into that atrium and cool night air. When I looked up I could see a handkerchief of velvet sky, a spill of stars washing across the patch of night that was visible just above the rooftops and chimneypots, just for a minute before we headed indoors again. It was the same building I'd been taken to days ago; where I'd first been taken before Ah Richtkah and the insanity had gone right off the scale. This time the guards escorted me back up the sweeping main staircase, but at the top they turned me another way.

Few lights were burning indoors, and those few that were lit corridors of age and use polished red wood with a bloody, fitful glow. There were no paintings, no carvings or rugs or other embellishments, just timber that'd probably seen many more years than I had. As we passed by a row of tall windows the night behind them turned the panes into mirrors, the glass flaring and reflecting the Rris as they stalked by. Otherwise, our little group was the only sign of movement in the place.

Until we turned into a last corridor. Away down its length a fan of light spread out across the floor, across the ceiling and the opposite wall as a door was opened. A pair of Rris stepped out, lit in chiaroscuro by the glow from the room and in that moment. One of them was holding the door open for the other. As that Rris passed through and jus as the door swung closed and the wedge of light pinched out I saw the one closing the door was Escheri. The other...

"Chaeitch!"

My yell raised echoes down the corridor and I took a single step forward. That was all before a furry hand latched around my arm and the pressure of claws brought me up short. Down the hall the figures' heads twitched around, their eyes flaring molten silver in the gloom. Chaeitch raised a hand in a half-wave a hand of acknowledgement before Escheri touched his arm and leaned in to murmur something. His body sagged slightly, then she turned him and led him off in the other direction. At the far corner she glanced back, then they were gone.

My escorts were glowering at me. The lead's muzzle twitched in the direction they'd gone and I was told, "Move."

Just along the way they stopped me at the door that the other pair had just exited. It didn't look any different from any of the others we'd passed by, but a fan of light was shining through the crack underneath it. From inside I could hear faint music. Not Rris instruments, but my kind of music. Human music. One of my escort scratched at the plate and then pressed the latch and swung the door open. The music was clearer: the Indiana Jones theme.

My escort stood aside and twitched his or her muzzle in the direction of the door, indicating I should enter. I hesitated, then stepped inside

It was a well-lit room. Well, well-lit to Rris eyes, but still certainly an improvement over the gloom of the hallways. Milky-white glass flues covering oil lamps hanging from wheel-shaped chandeliers glowed steadily, lighting the room with a warm orange glow. Candles were less efficient, the rows of dribbling sticks in their candelabras dancing and swaying as the door was opened. Rugs woven in geometric curlicues of tans and creams and yellows and greens were spread over a polished wooden floor, well worn with scratches from foot claws. Walls were white plaster and pale wood, shelves on one side held a collection of various trinkets: from where I was standing I could see things that looked like coral, sticks, stones and crystals, small devices of copper and brass... dozens of little curious. Opposite those shelves stood a bookcase, that holding a spattering of books and scrolls. Across the far side of the room a desk stood in front of drapes colored and patterned like the rugs.

I counted five mediators waiting there, all seated cross-legged, upright and alert on floor cushions spread out around a small, round table made of a wood as pale as the rest of the trim in the room. That table held a tray stocked with a trio of decanters filled with amber fluid, a few glasses, and my laptop. On-screen Indiana Jones was behind the wheel of a truck, running a car full of Nazis off the road. The guard who'd led me in stared at the images flickering across the screen, and then kept staring as if mesmerized.

"Thank you, constable," one of the tribunal said and the guard flinched, then ducked and retreated. The door was closed behind me and I stood, feeling my muscles tensing and twitching as the Mediators regarded me. All of them had at least a few grey whiskers; some of them more than others. None of them wore a uniform, their clothing ranged from a simple short polished-leather kilt to more elegant breeches and open tunic. One wore a pair of spectacles; sort of like Rris versions of John Lennon specs with a wire frame, wide nosepiece and small lenses that flared opaque when the light caught them. All of them were watching me with expressions that also varied from studied impassiveness to something that I read as wariness.

"Sit," one of them said, not making it sound like anything else was an option. That was the female on the Tribunal? The chairperson? She reached over to the notebook and carefully touched the space bar, pausing the video and then indicated a cushion. The whole lot of them watched as I achingly lowered myself to sit cross-legged, then adjusted my wounded leg to stick out in front of me. Even seated I was still a full head taller than any of them, but if that disconcerted them they didn't show it. Closest to me, the chairwoman's tail was sweeping back and forth with a languid fluidity.

"You're in pain?" she asked.

"A little," I confessed.

"You recognize us?" that person asked again.

"I think so, ah... Ma'am? You are the Tribunal?"

"Correct. This time," she said and that had to be a pointed reference to my previous gaff. Was that intended to be humorous?

"And are you coherent this time?" another asked.

"As long as nobody tries to drug me again I will be."

Those words came out by themselves. One of those moments you wish you could take back a split second after it happens. Still, the only reaction that elicited from the Mediators was that a couple of them tipped their heads.

"Will it be necessary?" one of them asked.

"I hope not," the chairperson said, tipping her head slightly. "That was rather inconvenient timing, wasn't it, Mikah?"

I looked from one face to another. Not sure what exactly she was talking about. "Was it?"

"You did miss the conclusion to the constable's testimony," one of them said.

"Oh," I said uncertainly, but I remembered what he'd been talking about and I felt my heart clench. My palms felt clammy. I clenched them, relaxed them, hoped the mediators didn't notice.

"Huhn, do you have any idea why he gave that to you?"

"She... Escheri said that it was just something to calm me down."

"It seemed to do more than that."

"Some of your medicines don't have the same effect on me as they do on you," I said, then had to wonder: Why the hell was I defending what they'd done to me? "All she said was that it was to help me stay calm."

The room of felines just watched me with those impassive visages. "Huhn," the chairwoman coughed. "Nothing more than that?"

I blinked and looked around at the tribunal. "That's... all they said. There was some other reason?"

"Do you know what the rest of the constable's testimony entailed?" she asked calmly, with no particular inflection. As if she was enquiring about the weather.

"Not the exact details, no," I said and then swallowed and asked, "Did he... did he speak more about the teacher?"

"Ah," she inclined her head and I knew then that'd I told them something, whether I meant to or not. But they didn't give me anything in return.

"He did, didn't he," I said, tension almost making me squeak.

"How much of what he said was true?" one of them asked.

"Ma'am, please," I swallowed and looked around at the faces. "Please, don't involve her. She's done nothing but help others; she doesn't deserve to be dragged into anything like this."

"She has been quite involved with you," another said thoughfully. "She knows you as well as any. A lot of people might be wondering just what she knows. Perhaps something overheard."

"Perhaps something told in confidence," another offered.

"Just pebbles of knowledge that might not seem important to you."

Involuntarily my mind flashed back to those little lessons I'd been giving her; those English words I'd taught her; demonstrating how to use the encyclopedia and search functions on the notebook as I showed her glimpses of my world. There was a whole beach of pebbles there and it was all I could do not to let anything show in my expression.

The chairwoman inclined her head, just a little. Her eyes were amber and black, glittering in the lamplight, and her expression was as completely opaque as I'd hoped mine had been. Her tail was sweeping slowly from side to side with a metronomic regularity. "Those are things we would like to know more about," she said. "Those, and other issues that have been raised. You know what they are?"

"That I'm a spy?" I ventured.

A couple of ears twitched. The chairwoman, however, didn't flinch. "That was one of the considerations," she said. "That issue, however, does seem rather unlikely. The concept of you as a spy is, quite frankly preposterous. Some may say that is what makes it so likely that you are an agent, but really that is just tying logic in knots. There are far more... subtle ways to go about intelligence gathering. And has been pointed out, spies don't usually try and kill themselves due to emotional instabilities. It rather negates their purpose.

"No, we don't believe you are a spy. Exactly what you are though, that remains to be seen."

"I've never claimed to be anything other than what I've said I am."

"We understand that. We don't think you know what else you are." She scratched at her jaw delicately with a single clawtip and then gestured toward the laptop. "How much of what that shows is true?"

I glanced. "What you are seeing there is an entertainment. Like a play. Not true; it never pretended to be true."

Ears flicked back and she blinked at the frozen screen. Indiana Jones was clambering over the back of an old truck. "All of that, an entertainment?"

"It is a big business."

"And things like that... that vehicle. That and the flying machines, they're also fictions?"

"No. They exist. Existed. They're quite old. They're simply... props in the story being told."

"Huhn, and all the other plays and images on this box, how many of them are also fictions?"

"There is a mixture. That machine was a tool for my work so there is research material, but there is also entertainment: books, plays, music. There is quite a great deal stored on there."

Another hiss of air and she tipped her head the other way. "Books and plays and music. Being able to capture a song to listen to over and over again. You see, that is part of the issue."

"You're with the RIAA?" I muttered under my breath.

"Was that remark relevant?" she all but snarled, her ears back, teeth bared and even her tail interrupted its smooth side to side sweeping.

"No, Ma'am," I swallowed. Like all Rris she was so much smaller than me, but when they looked like that it just flipped a primal switch somewhere deep inside that was connected to some part of the hindbrain that remembered being hunted by things like that.

"Do you realize how serious all this is? How much trouble you have caused and are in? You are trying to make things worse?"

"Ma'am," I ducked my head once, then met her eyes again. I saw her bristle, her jaw muscles twitch at the presumption. "Ma'am, I'm still wondering if I'm to be maimed or executed. There is a punishment worse than that?"

Her nostrils flared and for a few silent seconds her tail was motionless. "That is an interesting question," she said quietly, in matter-of-fact tones. "If you keep along those trails you may just find out."

"And that isn't helping," I said, then added, "Ma'am."

Another second, and then her tail lashed again and she snorted. "I can see what the constable meant when he referred to your attitude. You can be your own worst enemy, you know that? Yet you have people – good people - standing for you. Strange that."

"Perhaps they're also good judges of character?"

One of the other tribunal members made an amused noise. The chairwoman's ears twitched back a notch. "Usually, they are. So is his lordship. However, neither your personality nor intentions are issues at this moment. We don't care what you think or what you fear, we only care about what you are. Do you know what that is?"

"A threat to your Guild?"

None of them flinched, and that in itself was a sign. I'd touched something there.

"Can you explain that?" she asked.

I swallowed and thought back to things I'd been told and things I hadn't. "Your Guild charter, your authority and existence, it all relies on your reliability. The idea that the guild might... fracture would not be a popular one."

"The Guild has no fractures," another of them stated, making it a fact. "That isn't an issue."

Anymore, I thought to myself, but out loud I just said, "Of course not," quietly.

No, that wasn't a problem for them, not any more. Not since... Something prodded at the back of my mind, but I didn't have an opportunity to figure out just what it was. The spokeswoman's eyes narrowed a little, looking at me as if she was working out just how much I did know. "No, not the Guild," she said. "The greater peace. The effect your presence will have upon the balance between the countries, that's what his lordship referred to.

"Since your arrival there have been...changes. We saw them, but didn't notice just what was happening. Everyone was so focused on you, that not a great deal was paid to what was happening around you. Now we look at Shattered Water and we see things that didn't exist only a couple of years ago. There are engines that power entire manufactories. There are new metals, new vessels on the lakes, new ideas circulating among scholars. Metal trails for steam carriages are being laid between cities; reaping machines are drawing huge harvests, doing the work of dozens in mere days and rendering the autumn laborers superfluous.

"And what's to come? What you show us on that machine... that's what offered, and what would it do to our world. Being able to carry a song with you, what does that do to minstrels? The playhouses... how would they cope with people having their works available at any time. The transport Guild would rage over private vehicles like those. And of course we're not the only ones seeing this."

One of the others - the one with the glasses - said, "The kingdoms aren't blind. It's difficult for them to miss this. And what they see makes them... envious."

"And nervous," another Mediator added. "They see a neighbor with whom they have had past altercations arming themselves with new weapons. Do they trust in their goodwill? Do they arm themselves? Do they strike before the neighbor fully avails themselves of the new tools?"

The chairwoman spread both hands out before her. "In the past we've been able to gaze down a road and see where it might be taking us. These new ideas open so many trails that it's impossible to see where they may go. Perhaps it is better for us to lean with favourable winds."

I swallowed, "Ma'am, that means you want to go with popular opinion?" I ventured.

"A," she said.

"And that would be to... get rid of me?"

"To do something about you," she amended. "And disposing of you is a popular option. Trite as it may sound, we've found many times that the popular option is not always the best. Although, there are times when it can seem an expedient technique."

I bit my lip. Was she getting political? "You're saying... his lordship may be playing to popular opinion?"

"I said no such thing," she replied.

"No," I said. "Of course you didn't."

She held up a finger. "Now, disposing of you would solve a whole handful of problems. Some Guilds would clamour for a time, but after the fact there wouldn't be a great deal they could do. There also wouldn't be anything left that might make entities do things they wouldn't normally do. However, we haven't ever encountered a situation where removing the immediate source of trouble may potentially cause more and quite unforseen difficulties in the long run. There are simply no precedents for such a situation."

"Are you..." I ventured and looked from one face to another to see if there any signs that I was reading the situation correctly, "are you asking my advice?!"

"Not advice, no," she said. "Your opinion. Can you tell us if, in your opinion, his lordship is correct in his assessment?"

I swallowed. I could tell them I was indispensable, I knew that. I could tell them they needed me and to kill me would be foolishness of the highest order. I knew that. But as I gazed around at all those impassive alien faces watching me with amber eyes, I knew that would be a lie. And I had a feeling that such a lie would be a fatal mistake

"His lordship," I began and choked off. My hands spasmed, clenching and unclenching involuntarily. Taking a deep breath, I tried to compose myself.

"You said you haven't had a... precedent for this," I said, trying again.

"That's correct."

"My kind have. Of a sort," I sighed and closed my eyes for a second, trying to get my train of thought in motion. When I opened my eyes again they were still there, still watching and waiting for me.

"My kind is spread all over the planet. We have been, for centuries. From before history was recorded. For all that time these various peoples were scattered. Civilizations on different continents grew and died without ever knowing of each others existence. They developed at their own paces, but of course some developed faster. They learned things that other peoples never did. They made discoveries and built and explored.

"And of course, inevitably, these cultures met... collided with one another. There came days when big ships of wood and metal, armed with big guns appeared off the coasts of lands whose occupants possessed only swords and stone walls. People who knew without a doubt that they were the greatest power in the world were visited by others whose empires spanned continents. In many instances there was fighting; in other cases trade was opened, but always when different ways of life came into contact with one another there could only be change.

"There were peoples who were devastated by that. Sometimes their world... beliefs were proven to be mistaken or outright lies by the outsiders. Sometimes the newcomers forced their way of life onto others who'd lived quite contentedly for a long time and would try to exploit them or even enslave them. Sometimes locals would try to grab what they thought they wanted from the newcomers, trying to use new knowledge to consolidate their own little power bases in their little corners of the world. Other times the locals would... go overboard? Would adopt too much of the newcomers way of life, drowning and forgetting their own world beliefs and ways of life.

"Those sorts of encounters would tend to result in nothing but grief. Especially for the locals. If there were difficulties, the newcomers could leave. The locals had to live with the results, but so often just the knowledge that there was more to the world than they'd believed meant they couldn't go back.

"There were people, however, who struck a balance. They accepted the new knowledge. They used it as a resource, as one might use an iron seam. They used it, but they kept their own... identity. They didn't allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the new concepts. In some regards their society had to change, it was inevitable, but for the most part they kept their ways and... wove them in with the new ways to become even stronger. Some of those people are amongst the most powerful and successful nations in my world."

"Huhn," one of the Mediators mused. "It's that simple?"

I blinked before I realized he was probably being sarcastic. "Ah... no. I think... ah, for an example, one of these nations had a very rigid and warlike internal structure. They were strong enough that they kept the initial contact at arms length. They took what they thought they needed and changed their nation. They become powerful, but they kept their old... ah... the way they thought didn't change. They used this new knowledge as their ancestors might have, as a weapon to try and claim more and more. A great war was the result, greater and worse than you have ever seen. They were beaten back, their armies and navies destroyed, cities utterly flattened. They rebuilt and they changed their... focus. They are now one of the five greatest economies on my world. What they couldn't take by force, they bought.

"It's not simple. I never said it could be. I'm not sure I'm capable of thinking out all the complexities."

There was another silence and they were all staring at me in a most disconcerting manner. Distaste or evaluation, I wasn't sure. Another spoke up to ask, "You think that we are likely to be unable to handle the sort of knowledge you have?"

"I don't know," I replied honestly. "Your kind thinks differently to mine. In some ways... you may be more resilient. I'm not sure that what applies to my kind applies to yours."

"Thinks differently? In what ways?"

I hesitated. "Ummm, it is difficult to explain. I think... when something happens you ask yourselves 'why did that happen?'. My kind tends to ask 'who did that?'."

Muzzles furrowed. "That doesn't make a lot of sense."

"I'm not sure I can explain it," I ventured, dreading the idea of delving into things like religion. Humans descended from prey creatures: we fear the boogeyman in the dark. Rris descended from predators: they were the boogeyman outside the light of the fire. It does something to the mindset. "It confuses me, but I know you are different up here," I tapped my forehead. "I can't see exactly what will happen."

"But you don't deny that there could be incidents. That there could be upsets and accidents."

I carefully tipped my hand. "No. I don't deny that. I'm certain there would be. Just as I know there would be upsets and accidents even if I weren't here. There are always floods, fires and famine, disease and illness. I don't want to cause any of that, but what I know might help prevent it. "

"Huhn," one of them grunted and looked askance at the one with the glasses. He tipped his head:

"A virulent illness is sweeping through a town, causing many deaths. The [something] smell is heavy in several streets and even though the buildings are cleared and opened to blow the [miasma] away, the deaths continue. Your solution?"

I bit my lip. In these societies I guessed water-borne diseases would be the largest threat, but how could I give a definite answer? Did they have cholera? Didn't that come from India? What was their equivalent? "It is difficult to say without seeing, but illnesses are not usually borne by bad smell. Poisoning perhaps, but not illness. Look for something else first. There are sewers or drains?"

"Sewers. There are new sewers underground."

"Look for a leak. Is there a fountain or a public water place nearby or on the water route? Did the ill get water from one of those? I would investigate that first. You would be amazed what lives in a drop of water. Otherwise vermin such as rats: their fleas can carry disease."

He ducked his muzzle and there were some sidelong looks. The spokeswoman's muzzle twitched, then she told me, "All those who died had visited a series of fountains fed by a single waterway. It was discovered that sewers had broken and seeped into that water channel, poisoning it."

"Oh," I said. If they'd known... "How many..."

"Seventy four," she said flatly. "Including a visiting lord. Accusations were made. It could have been prevented? Cured?"

I nodded before remembering myself and cupping my hand. "Yes."

Another spoke up: "A storm blows a convoy of ships onto shoals and destroys them. Lives and property are lost. Could they have been saved?"

Of course I hesitated, wondering both what these questions were about and how to answer it. "Ah, weather is difficult, but there's a good chance the storm could have been...predicted in the first place," I replied. "There are some simple tools that can do that. Not perfectly, but they can be pretty accurate."

"Could the cargo be recovered? It is non-perishable."

"It is... possible," I waved a shrug. "It depends how deep, but... there are devices that can make it possible."

I couldn't tell what they were thinking, but that studied motionless in their ears and body language made it obvious they were thinking something. A couple of them flashed glances between themselves, then one of them waved an affirmative in an exchange that meant nothing to me.

The chairwoman let this little byplay go on while she sat back. Her fingers were laced, one claw tapping on the knuckles of her other hand. That was unusual: a Mediator with a tic. Was that agitation? Or she was so unconcerned as to not care. But she sat quietly while one after the other they went around the room with their questions. More questions about situations and problems and issues that were possibly hypothetical, but probably not: queries covering the gamut from hardware and physical products to things that were less tangible.

I answered where I could as best I could. To a certain extent they were predictable. These Mediators were intelligent individuals and by their standards they were well educated, but they were fixated on what they could comprehend and I could see they were trying to foresee the future by just expanding on what they were familiar with. Much like humans they weren't comfortable at including things beyond their experience and on some level didn't want to think about what they didn't know. In the same way that eighteenth and nineteenth century human visionaries foretold a future filled with amazing steam-propelled conveyances and personal dirigibles, they tended to miss the fact that the future contains things that are just unexpected.

However, they weren't so foolish as to look at only toys and gimmicks.

"And how does your knowledge work when applied to fields that aren't so... concrete?" one of them – the one with glasses - asked. "If we were to ask you about [something], or [something], perhaps political theory, then what would you tell us? Would you tell us our ways are wrong? The monarchs should be removed and the lands managed in some other fashion?"

"I think I would say I don't enough of your language to tell you," I said. "Those are... delicate areas. I don't know if my vocabulary is... bendable? enough. Ideas like that can be inflammable. I don't know how Rris deal with that sort of thing, but my kind have had wars over smaller things, and I am certainly not proficient enough with your language to try and relate those ideas."

"You suggest there are better ways of government than the [something] kingdom?"

"There was a word there I don't understand," I said. "But there are other ways. Not necessarily better, but other ways. I really can't say how they would apply to your kind. Systems that work for us might be simply impossible here."

"Why is that?"

"I said before, your kind doesn't think like mine. I'm not saying we are better – in some regards I believe the opposite, but just... different. You see the world through different eyes, hear through different ears. All that influences the way you think. The way I think. We can talk with one another, but sometimes it's obvious we don't mean the same thing." I sighed and waved a hand. "It's a complicated issue."

"And a matter to be explored some other time, if possible," the chairwoman interjected and then leaned forward a bit.

"Do you think," she asked me directly, meeting my eyes with an amber stare that meant challenge and authority, "that what you are is worth it? Can what you offer us be better than the problems it may cause?"

I shrugged, human style. Let them make what they wanted of that. "I can tell you things. I can help with some problems such as illness and such. Perhaps make suggestions and give you ideas. How you use them, well, that will always be up to you. As you just said, they may cause problems. And then again, they may not. For what it's worth, I wouldn't get rid of me. But then again," I felt my face twitch in a quick uncontrollable grin that was three parts nerves and one part humor, "I'm biased."

She huffed a quick exhalation and said, "Really? Then in that regard perhaps we do share the same thoughts."

I think transient smiles flicked across a couple of visages, but she just leveled that feline stare at me. "For now, though, I think we're done with you. Constable!"

The guard opened the door and stood waiting.

"We'll be sending for you again," she told me. "Don't do anything... unpredictable. Now, please return him to holding. Make sure he's comfortable, but keep a watch on him. That will be all."