The furnaces along the far wall were roaring, opened doors throwing skittering shadows across the huge foundry floor. Gouts of sparks flew as Rris with shriveled fur and decked out in heavy leather protective suits tipped crucibles of molten pig iron into clay molds. Steam whistled through vents as the last of the moisture was forcible expelled from the molds. Across the other side of the hall the test models of the converters were still in use, bellows being used to force air through the pig-iron, burning off impurities in a spectacular flare of liquid metal. A trio of Rris metalworkers used long handles to tip the waist-high crucible and pour the steel off into ingots.
As yet the full-scale one was untested; still waiting upon the engine for the compressor. There was no other way to generate enough pressure to pump air through 5 tons of molten metal. After that would come the open-hearth furnaces, but they'd require a better supply of pig iron and a new building in which to build them.
"Later this week, you think." The grizzled Rris with his face fur singed back into a curled stubble growled. "Burn you, Mikah. We heard that last week."
"You're hearing it again," I told him. "I can't make wheels turn any faster."
Khieschi snorted and scratched at himself under the leather apron. "A. I've told them you need more time here."
"I don't have more time," I sighed.
"I've noticed," His tail lashed and he waved a hand at the approaching guards. I glanced wearily at my watch. 22:00, and about time too. "Suppuration! We need longer," Khieschi appealed.
"My apologies sir," the guard said stiffly. "But we've got our orders."
The foreman snarled something, then turned away. "Get it out of here then."
The guards glanced at me and I shrugged, slung my jacket over my shoulder and followed them. As soon as I stepped into the gloom of the street outside the cool night wind blowing in across the city from the lake hit me, feeling like an arctic blast after the metal-tinged heat of the foundry. I took a deep breath, looking up at a solitary wispy cloud doing its best to obscure the full moon. A clear night, with the vault of the dark sky smeared with the glow of the Milky Way, a jagged skyline of steep rooftops and crooked chimneypots silhouetted against the stars. The carriages were waiting with oil lamps mounted in sconces above the cabs casting feeble glows that did little to help illuminate the area. Armed escorts were mounted on their souped-up llamas, weapons cradled across the saddles as their muzzles turned from side to side, scanning the streets and windows like turrets.
The carriage rocked on its springs as I climbed in and the green upholstery sighed when I sat. My two guards took their accustomed places opposite. At least now, aside from a few cursory glances, they no longer stared at me. As the carriage started of with a clatter of hooves and the protests of animals I leaned my head against the padded wall and dozed fitfully. Tired, visions of liquid metal and flame tangling with snow and gentle amber behind my eyes.
I never heard the first explosion. The window to my left bowed inwards, then imploded in a spray of bottle-green glass and the carriage jerked violently to the side under me, slamming me into the upholstered wall. The world spun and I found I was lying on the floor with a dazed guard sprawled across my legs, the whole cab tilting over to the left at a crazy angle. Smoke poured in through the broken window, along with a volley of dull retorts I recognized as gunfire and the vocal-chord tearing yowls of Rris screams. Another explosion sounded and my guards grabbed me and pressed me back down again while the carriage rocked and more shots sounds outside. Flames were licking at the upper window as one of the guards snarled something. I looked up as the other raised its head to look out the window, a double-barreled pistol in its hand. Barely got its head over the sill when it was kicked back with a peculiar yip and a crossbow quarrel buried up to the fletching in his muzzle. The other guard yowled in fury as the spasming body sprawled back and another volley of gunshots sounded; the carriage rocked again while splinters of wood and curls of upholstery stuffing flew from the wall beside the window and reddish firelight streamed through the jagged perforations. I tried to make myself one with the cramped floor, staring in shock at the body of the guard sprawled beside me. Then I winced when the other guard dug claws in.
"When I say run, you run," the Rris snarled in my ear over the howls and gunshots and now the sounds of metal clashing from outside. "Understand?"
"Yes," I choked out, the terror beginning to seep in over the confusion. A few seconds since the routine had been so drastically interrupted.
The guard rolled off me and I caught a glimpse as he. . . she? Yanked cords from a pair of small globes, one after the other, and hurled them through the window: Explosions like percussion caps in a dumpster and a pattering like hail on a tin roof against the side of the carriage.
"Go!" The guard screamed, forcing the door open, raising pistol and cutting loose with both barrels at something I couldn't see. "Go!" as claws pulled at my jacket.
I went, out the door and into a confusion of acrid, reeking smoke and shadows turned to dancing blackness by the flaming wreck of the other carriage that was tipped on its side. Lamp oil had spilled, leaving blazing rivulets trickling across the cobbles and woodwork. Smoke billowed, stinking of gunpowder and making my eyes water and roiling around the panicking and downed animals and Rris guards laying in the street amongst rubble and spilled timbers from a shattered wall. Run? Run where? Another series of gunshots crashed, the sound echoing off the walls of the buildings and I ducked into a doorway, just about tripped over the body of a guard and something spanged! Off the stone above my head. High, I realized when I saw a tongue of fire spit from a window, lancing down into the street. Down the street there was a pair of answering gunshots, then a scream as another weapon fired from high up. I knelt and grabbed up the weapon from the dead trooper's hand: a heavy bulky thing like a sawn-off shotgun with four barrels and a wooden grip enveloping the lower two barrels. I didn't know how to use it, I didn't even know if the damn thing was loaded. The hammers were down, so it'd probably been fired. I hefted it by the barrel, finding the weight somewhat reassuring: at least it'd make a satisfactory club. Rris yowled in the darkness and I ran again, ducking into the first alley to find a flimsy gate blocking it. Locked. I stepped back and kicked as hard as I could and something splintered and it slammed open.
A clawed hand grabbed my arm and I spun, bringing the gun up at the face of the panting black powder-streaked Guard. "Sir! Rot it! I thought. . . !"
Howls rang out and through the swirling murk dark figures moved. The Guard took one look and yanked on my arm. "Run!"
I did, stumbling and tripping in the darkness with claws scrabbling on my jacket and the guard urgently hissing to 'hurry up'. I couldn't. Even in armor and near-pitch blackness Rris were faster than me. Another corner into a side street where the moonlight glittered on small barred windows and big wooden doors. My boots thumped against cobbles and breath rasped in my lungs as the guard tried one door, then another. Locked. A cry from behind and a Rris figure appeared in the street. The guard raised his gun and fired: a flare of fire and smoke and the distinctive ssspang! of a musket. Whoever that had been cried out and staggered even as we ran again.
The side street opened onto a view across the river: a dockside on the riverside, the northern side a wall of blank-faced boatsheds and warehouses. A few crates littered the wharf, a couple of frames with tangles of fishing net strung out to dry catching a latticework of moonlight and shadow. Further along the dock to the west a fishing boat was high and dry, its inverted hull resembling a beached sea leviathan. Beyond it lay another street: the only other way out of there.
"Come on!" The guard spat, tail bristling and fired his second barrel back the way we'd come, stuffed the spent pistol into his belt on the run and drew another, then yowled in dismay.
I'd seen them too; the dark and fast shapes that darted out onto the docks fifty meters ahead of us and raised what could only be weapons and those years of television violence paid off: I hit the ground at the same time as the guard while a sputter of gunfire rang out and shots whined past. I didn't even have time to thank god for the inaccuracy of those guns before the guard's hands were clutching at me again, his claws skidding on the puncture-proof synthetics of my jackets as he urged me toward the dubious protection of offered by nets hanging out to dry.
We dropped panting behind the folds of draped hemp, the river on one side and rolls of netting on the other. They reeked of fish and lakebeds, water and wet hemp, the cobbles of the dock were hard under my butt as I tried to find a place where rolled nets offered a bit more protection. To our southern flank the wharf dropped off to the dark lapping water of the river, and there wasn't a damned boat handy. The guard poked his head up and I winced, remembering my guard in the carriage. A shot rang out and he raised his pistol, returned fire with a gout of acrid smoke and ducked down again. "Sir? Are you all right?" Hard to understand him. He was panting hard, gasping air.
"Okay. . . yes," I said. "I. . . " another Rris appeared, in a dark outfit I didn't recognize. The gun in the hand was coming around and my arm was up and pulling the trigger before I realized what I was doing.
As it turned out, the gun was loaded and it was cocked.
A hammer snapped back. There was a fractional hesitation then a blaze of light and smoke and flame, a recoil that kicked my arm up and back and made the muscle in my shoulder burn in complaint and when the metallic smoke cleared there just wasn't a Rris there at all and my arm felt as if someone had put an electrical jolt through it. A damn shotgun.
"Not bad," the guard was staring at me, then hastily turned attention to where it was needed. "Surprised you didn't break your wrist."
With that recoil. . . a Rris's wrist wasn't a strong as mine, there was a good chance it would. "Last of our worries," I coughed, tasting sulfur and copper smoke. They were behind us and in front. "Doesn't look too good," I panted, a bit lightheaded, surprised at how calm I was feeling. Shock, I guessed.
The guard's ears flattened. "I can keep them occupied. You can run. . . "
"I can't outrun Rris," I told him. "Not even close."
"Rot it. . ." another shot, then a fusillade that knocked wood splinters flying and cracked a wooden spar in half, a net tumbling into a heap. I ducked up and this time held the blunderbuss with both hands when I fired another barrel past the guard who ducked aside with flattened ears and a curse. The thing had a weird trigger mechanism and when I fired the hammers jerked back, yanking a thick string that flared into smoke with a sharp hiss, then the gun fired with a booming blast and cloud of smoke and sparks. A Rris along the dock howled in what sounded like pain. Two barrels left.
"How long help come here?" I garbled my Rris, getting panicky. No phone or radio. . . no fast vehicles. I knew the answer even as I asked the question.
"Too long," the guard grunted, working to reload his pistols. I watched his hands, tipping measured amounts of powder from a pewter horn, tapping in a ball and wad with a short ramrod. Fast, but I took the opportunity to fire another blast in the direction we'd come from. Figures who'd started to work their way around the corner ducked back. One barrel left.
"You're supposed to be the one with ideas," the guard growled. "You have any now?"
I looked around. No boats in the water, damn it. Okay. "Out. . .Get out of your armor."
"Not swim with it on."
The eyes went wide. "I can't swim with it off. You can't be. . . nobody can swim that far."
The far side of the river. . . maybe two hundred meters, probably a bit more. "I can. No problem."
"Then get going!"
"Get out of that armor. I can't manage you with it on."
"You don't mean. . . Rot it! Go!"
I ducked down as more shots whined overhead. The Guard produced one of those grenades, yanked the string violently and threw. There was a sharp bang and a few yelps. "GO!" the guard barked.
"I'm not leaving you."
"You have to!"
I sat down, making it quite obvious I wasn't moving. Two of my other guards were probably dead and I wasn't leaving this one to die. "Get that armor off."
Another fusillade of shots clipped nets and thumped into wood. A glass float shattered noisily and sent fragments tinkling across the cobbles. The Rris looked out at the darkness of the river, fired another unaimed shot at our assailants, then snarled something probably obscene and began yanking at the buckles of the armor.
I grinned and fired off the last round without any positive results then dropped the bulky gun and started stripping off my boots and socks, then my jacket and optimistically tucked them under a pile of rope, fervently hoping I'd be able to pick them up later. There was a clatter as armor and equipment hit the cobbles. Huhn, my guard was a he I saw, and he kept throwing glances at the river with ears flat against his skull. "Run and jump," I told him. "Don't breathe when your head is underwater, and watch your Damned claws!"
Then I didn't have time to lose any more clothes. He fired his last round as the dark-armored assailants ran forward, then howled something. I grabbed his arm and propelled him toward the water.
A three meter running drop. I lost my grip on him when we hit and surfaced to find him floundering desperately. There were shouts from above and I grabbed the mass of sodden fur, winced when he grabbed back at me. "Breathe!" I growled and heard him gasp air before dragging him under with me.
A leaden, soaked sack of fur; that's what it felt like I was towing. One that grabbed back with needled claws and struggled desperately as he started to need air. Nowhere near my limit. I surfaced and gunshots raged, the line of the docks enveloped in a moonlit grayish haze speckled with blasts of light and noise. White gouts of water kicked up and a few pellets skipped by with burring whines. A breath, a chance for the Rris in my arms to gulp air, then under again.
I could understand why they weren't good swimmers: He was a natural sinker. Like a furry, two-legged brick. I towed him with one arm and swam as best I could, but I had to surface twice more before we were out of range. Again I was grateful their guns were so inaccurate, but we were well out into the blackness of the river and the bank was a darkness against the skyline before I felt safe enough. The breeze blowing up from the lake was cold, but it helped balance the sluggish river current as I hooked one hand under the guard's chin and started kicking steadily for the far shore where lights burned.
"What's your name anyway," I asked when my mouth was clear of the water.
"Blunt, sir" he coughed the words. I could feel his pulse pounding in his throat. His feet were trying to kick, as if he was searching for something solid, but doing damn little to propel him along. It's strange how well designed for swimming humans are: hairless oiled skin and what hair there is is streamlined, eyes can focus underwater, slight webbing on fingers and feet, a nose that wasn't much good for anything else but was angled to keep water out and a reflex that lowered the heart rate whenever the face was submerged. Rris - by comparison - are furry bricks. Maybe their four-legged ancestors had been fair swimmers, but somewhere they traded buoyancy for leg power. Their fur will hold air for a while, enough for a short dog-paddle, but beyond that their compact musculature just weighs them down.
"Blunt?" I shut my mouth against a slap of water and tried not to think about what might've been dumped into the river further upstream. "Name or nature?"
"Huhn? Huh, nature. Blunt claws."
"They don't feel it."
"When I was a cub," he sputtered. "How. . . did you learn this. . ."
"Water cub," I said.
"I was born in water." I don't know. Ask my mother: it was a fad at the time.
"That's. . . unusual," he said faintly. Then in a voice that was more of a low moan, "Ai, no. Rot me. No."
"A boat. They're following."
I stopped swimming and treaded water, Blunt's legs butting against mine as he tried to kick at the water. There was a shape back there: a darkness on the water, a rowboat with oars raising glitters of water and a Rris standing upright. "You sure?"
A flash of smoke and sparks under the moonlight and the sound of a gunshot rolled across the water. Yep, pretty sure.
"Swim," the guard barked, somewhat desperately. "Get out! Go!" He started trying to struggle out of my grasp.
"Hold on," I gasped. "Wait. . ."
Could I outswim them? I doubted it. They could get me without guns: just come close enough to whack me with the oars. Another gunshot kicked up a spout of water too close. I couldn't run. . . so. . .
"Here. . . " It took a couple of seconds to strip off my shirt. Made back home, its weave was a lot tighter than anything Rris made, so it held a bit of air. Hopefully, that bit would be enough. I bundled it into a sort of a float and pushed it into the guard's hands. "You'll have to try and keep yourself. Try float. Not long. I come back, yes?"
"I. . . "his sodden ears wilted. "Go. GO!" He floundered desperately when I let go, thrashing and tipping his head back. The makeshift float wasn't enough to hold his weight, but it helped: he was able to keep his head above water. There was another gunshot from the boat and I hyperventilated three times, ducked over and dived.
Black down there: a pale wavering disk above where the moonlight broke the surface but the rest was like swimming in cold ink, a bottomless vault of darkness below me. I dove, my jeans restricting my legs as I kicked in the direction of the boat. A muted thump ran through my body: another gunshot I realized as I twisted, rolled, trying to find the darker shape that was eclipsing the glow of the moon, leaving a water-bug trail of ripples as oars dipped in.
My lungs were starting to feel it, my heart racing as I kicked upwards as hard as I could, compensate for the distortion of the transition layer, hit the edge of the hull with my hands and pushed, feeling it yaw away as I surfaced. A slideshow of brief images and sensations: Night air was almost warm on my skin; my hands grabbing the side of the boat; a shocked Rris face turning my way with mouth opening; the Rris with a gun teetering as the boat tipped. The noises were cut like a film edit as I dove again, yanking the side of the boat with all my weight. It rocked back, tipped, hesitated a moment, then came all the way over. Heavy objects splashed into the water around me as I kicked away. A frantic something of metal and leather and fur brushed me and caught at me even as I twisted away: I almost inhaled water as a clawed hand caught my arm and claws raked across my skin, a Rris face flashed briefly in the murk: a horrific mask that was gone as soon as I'd seen it.
There were noises down there; muffled sounds I tried not to hear.
I wasn't exactly sure where I was when I surfaced. The inverted hull off the rowboat was a dark lump meters away, drifting downstream as it slowly settled beneath the water. Cries sounded out across the water, pleas sounding amid frantic thrashing and one by one they were cut off. There was a single figure clinging to the boat as it slowly sank and the panicked whimpers were audible from where I trod water.
"Blunt!" I yelled the name as best I could. And the sinking Rris started crying out, surrendering, begging, anything. . . and there wasn't anything I could do. I set my teeth against the pain in my arm and stroked away from the pleading, toward the sounds of distress a short distance in the other direction.
There were a pair of hands and a lot of thrashing and I caught him as he was literally going down for the third time, or he caught me. I cried out as more claws lacerated my skin and almost went under myself before I got my arm around his neck and hauled him to the surface. "Hey! Calm down! I. . . got you."
He coughed and sputtered and sucked air hungrily while I kicked out for shore again, doing my best to keep the two of us afloat. My left arm under his chin was aching badly where claws had gouged me and I knew I was losing blood. There wasn't a lot I could do about that. It was a minute later when the Blunt had his breath back again, he said. "What happened to them?"
"Hard to swim with armor," I panted and tried not to think about what I'd done. How many? And none of them could swim. They'd tried to kill me! They'd killed people around me! I tried to hold onto that thought and kindle some anger, but there was that Rris in my arms. In the water they'd been helpless. What I'd done. . .
I'd done what I had to. I tried to push the thought to the back of my mind and concentrated on swimming, but there was that image of a horrified face vanishing into those black depths. Ahead of us the lights of the far bank edged closer painfully slowly.
Fishing boats, ferries and runabouts, the larger bulks of traders all docked along the wharves: a forest of masts and rigging silhouetted against the night sky. The sounds of lapping water and gently creaking timbers carried across the river, underlying the hissing and cries of excited Rris voices. Lights burned along the riverside: both the warm glows in windows and doorways as well as the flicker of lanterns and torches out on the quayside. Rris figures moved about there, probably watching the clouds of flickering smoke rising from the fires that burned on the far shore.
Cold, aching, and exhausted I swam in past the unscalable hulls of the ships toward the stone wall of the quay. It was damn hard keeping my own head above water, let alone the weight of the Rris guard. Shouts arose as we neared the dock, startled yowls sounding out and then the light of lanterns shining down as I reached the quay and a series of oddly shaped rusting iron rungs set into the stone. Then I didn't have the strength to do anything but hook my arm through a rung and hold on while I sucked air and my lungs ached. Damn, the water was like a heat-leech: I couldn't feel my feet, my hands, and there was a cold ache through my chest. Rris were shouting down at us. Something heavy splashed into the water nearby and Blunt snarled back, then wet fur nudged my arm, "Come on. Can you climb?"
I shook my head, not entirely sure my arms would hold out. "I. . . I'm not sure. I really hope so."
"All right. Hold on, here. . ." sodden fur brushed against bare skin as he got an arm around me. "Try," he urged. "I'll be here."
I fumbled for the rungs and began hauling myself up. My arm ached abominably: my muscles felt like spaghetti, but the Rris guard was close behind, close enough to take some of my weight and maybe even catch me if I fell.
There were Rris at the top, a semicircle that fell back in shocked silence when I hauled myself up and stood on trembling legs, gasping, dripping and shuddering. Blunt was right behind me, looking like a drowned rat with soaked fur plastered to his body. Damned weird. If I hadn't been so cold and exhausted I'd have laughed.
"What the rot is that?!" someone blurted and I glared that way but was too tired to make a reply.
"Is there a patrol near?" Blunt was demanding.
"And who're you?" a bulky Rris snapped back, a hefty black stick in his hand.
"King's guard," Blunt replied.
"Huhn? You look more navy to me." There was laughter and Blunt glared. "Right now, most of the patrols seem to be dealing with whatever's going on over there," the stick gestured at glow among the buildings on the far side of the river. "You know anything about that? Has that. . . whatever it is, got something to do with it?"
More Rris were gathering to rubberneck and Blunt was getting twitchy. If the situation turned ugly, neither of us were in any shape to do much. The breeze hadn't been that cold an hour or so earlier, but now it felt like an arctic wind straight off the ice. I was shivering violently and concentrating on staying upright. "He's King's business."
"Really? You think we should believe that?"
"That would be a good idea," another voice broke in and the crowd hastily parted to let a figure in a long dark leather coat pass through. Shyia? No, it wasn't a face I recognized. The Mediator looked me up and down, then turned to Blunt. "Guard? What command?"
"Blunt ah Chotemith. 3rd section, Royal Guard. Shahani Cove arm under Serit. We need help."
"Ah. I know them." The Mediator turned eyes back to me. "And I've heard of this creature of yours. You can talk, can't you? You can understand me?"
"Yes, sir," I said, trying to concentrate through the giddyness. "Just don't speak too fast."
Another uproar from the surrounding Rris, but the Mediator's ears just flicked slightly. "All right, the Redmale Bridge Guild house would be safest tonight."
"I don't think I can. . ." I took a step that seemed to stretch out forever and the world slowly tilted. Blunt barely caught me on my way to the cobbles. "Sir?" he cried out.
"Sorry," I mumbled. "Cold. . ."
"What? You're freezing. . . " he broke off and looked at my arm, then his hand; the blood that was almost indistinguishable against the pads and wet fur was quite visible against my skin. The cold had numbed it and probably minimised the bleeding, but it was still ugly. "Hai! Rot me, you're hurt." Turning to the Mediator. "He's not going to make it that far. He needs warmth, a doctor."
"The Thieving [Cormorant] Tavern's just there."
"A physician. . ."
"There's that Maithris," another voice suggested. "She's staying there."
"What? That [something]?"
"Just get her," the Mediator snarled as Blunt helped me limp through the gossiping crowd toward the haven of the tavern door with a stuffed cormorant holding a lantern in its claws hung over it.
The brightest light in the room came from the fire crackling to itself in the grate, casting a pool of warmth and light onto the hearth where four solid chairs were set in a semicircle. The wrought-iron rack over the fire was festooned with pots of all shapes and sizes simmering gently, filling the air with the aroma rich stew and other less-definable smells. A few small oil lamps were hung from rafters in strategic spots, casting lonesome pools of illumination to steal the gloom from the darkest corners. At one time the room had been several smaller rooms, before the walls between supporting wooden pillars had been knocked out to make this one larger area. Tables were scattered around that area: heavy things of solid planks with benches intended to be sturdy and durable rather than ornate. Booths set around the peripheries offered their occupants some privacy in the shadows.
And it was busy enough that night, probably more than a few there to see the extra attractions and the pretty lights still flickering across the river. Rris patrons kept their distance from the hearthside, leaving a deserted space around the fireplace and us. The Mediator had sent messengers off to guard stations and the local Mediator Guild Hall to fetch armed help, but that'd take a while to show up. Meantime, the Mediator had taken station off to one side, a hand on his pistol while he watched the room and everyone who entered.
Blunt was a shaggy figure sitting cross-legged and naked on the hearth while his bedraggled fur dried. Alongside, my jeans and shorts - my only clothes to survive the night's escapades - were hanging on a fireguard and steaming slightly in the heat He seemed pretty sure that our assailants wouldn't try again. He said they'd lost a lot of their force and wouldn't risk a frontal attack when reinforcements could show at any time. He watched carefully while the Rris doctor worked on my arm.
"Hold still," she growled.
I flinched again and she held my arm down to the table while she dabbed the cloth against the deep scratches along my upper left arm. She'd stanched the worst of the bleeding, now was trying to clean them. I'd balked at the use of her limited supply of Rris tinctures, so she'd resorted to sulfur. I awkwardly pulled the itchy woolen blanket around my shoulders and watched her, her head dipped in concentration over her work.
A strange sort, that doctor. I'd been curled up on one of the chairs drawn close to the fire, huddled down into the heavy woolen blanket while a mixture of water and blood dripped onto the floor when the Mediator stiffened and stalked off toward the front door. I looked around as she came in with a couple of locals. A scarred Rris gestured at me and I saw her amber-yellow eyes widen before the Mediator intercepted her, spoke with her for a while then brought her over: a young female with a heavily patched cowled cloak and a small bag that I assumed contained the tools of her trade. "She's a physician. She'll tend to your arm."
The Rris glanced at him, then at me. For a second she was expressionless, as if weighing me up. Then she shrugged out of her somewhat threadbare cowl and slung it over the back of the chair next to me, revealing a dusky-tawny fur peppered with patches of darker grey spots. Younger than I'd thought I realized after a second's contemplation. Maybe Rris males considered her attractive, maybe she was as ugly as they came, I didn't know. She's a doctor? But she sat herself down. "You can. . . speak?" she said, somewhat apprehensively.
"Yes," I said, then added, "And I won't hurt you."
She blinked, then chittered. "No. Of course you won't. Let me see your arm."
Now it was my turn to be taken aback, but I held out my arm and she took it with one hand, pushed the blanket out of the way. "Ah." A finger ran across my forearm, feeling the skin below the three furrows Rris claws had torn. Her fingerpad was like a cool piece of leather sliding over my skin. "Painful?"
"I've had worse," I grimaced.
She blinked at me again, then let me go and said to the Mediator. "Bring one of those small tables over here." He looked a bit affronted, but went to get it while she dove into her bag, pulling out odds and ends. "What are you, anyway?"
"Haa? I've seen pictures of something similar to you in books." The Mediator placed the table between us and she laid out an assortment of cloths, small bags and knives. I stared at those dubiously, then at her as she pulled out a small case, unfolded a pair of spectacles and hooked the stems around her ears. "Had a different name though. Put your arm here," she patted the table.
I did so and she looked at me over the spectacles: "H'an. . . What is that word?"
"Ah. Odd-sounding word. Where does it come from?"
"My own language."
She didn't look up from where she was dabbing away at clotting blood with an absorbent cloth. "Your own language? Huhnn, what's that sound like?"
"A hell of a lot easier to pronounce, doc," I said in English.
Now she glanced up and cocked her head. "Interesting sounds. Like water flowing." She turned her attention back to my arm. "Huhn, quite deep. Not bleeding too badly though. They look like claw marks."
"Who did this to you?"
"I don't know. Didn't seem to like me very much though."
She chittered and once again glanced up at me over her glasses, right at my face, at the scars there. "Not the only one apparently."
I winced when she touched a sore spot, not just emotionally. "Sorry," she said and glanced at my eyes again. "Where are you from?"
I watched her hands, carefully dabbing away the gore. The cloth was a reddened mess. "Difficult to explain. Another. . . place. Where there are many like myself."
"Africa?" she asked.
"No. Not like that," I hesitated. "All I know is I was home. . . then I was here." Why was I telling her this? I really wasn't sure. In this murky little bar with other Rris watching and listening she was asking and I was telling her. But nobody had talked to me this way since. . . Maybe that was it: She reminded me of Chihirae. Especially with those glasses.
"In the flick of a tail?" she asked.
That about summed it up. "Like that. Yes. I not know for sure for several days. Then I found a Rris town."
"Ah." She patted my arm, then stood and crossed to the fireplace where she poked around through the pots on the hearth, found something that obviously satisfied her, and hung the kettle over the flames. "Where was that?"
"Town called Westwater."
"Haven't heard of it. Could they tell you what had happened?"
I stiffened a bit, remembering the figure in the doorway, the shots. "They. . . I couldn't speak Rris then. I watched. I learned."
"Why didn't you try to talk to them?"
I almost smiled. "You have a lot of questions, don't you. What is your name?"
She sat back a bit and pushed her glasses back up with a bloodied forefinger. "I? Maithris aesh Teremae, at your service." Her ears flickered. "And do you have a name?"
"Michael. Most Rris find it easier to call me Mikah. At your service."
Maithris chittered a bit. "Myach. . . Misak. . . Mikah. You're right: It is easier." She wadded up the soiled cloth and tucked it away, unfolded another. "You know," she smiled, "you never answered my question."
I sighed slightly. "Why I didn't talk to them?"
"They saw me. They shot at me. I had to run."
"Ah." She glanced up and for a few seconds was quiet. "Then how did you finally meet Rris? Why did you stop running?"
"They caught me," I said simply.
She must've felt the tremble in my arm: when she looked at me again her ears flattened. "Hurt you, didn't they? Ah. I see why you try to reassure people you're not dangerous. Sometime I would like to hear the whole story." Her furry hand laid the cloth aside and picked up a small corked vial
"Hey," I pulled my arm back. "No. No medicine. Please. Rris drugs are dangerous for me."
"What, this? It is harmless."
"No," I repeated adamantly. I'd had too many close calls with 'harmless' Rris products. "No medicine."
Maithris blinked, then twisted a hand in their equivalent of a shrug. "All right. If you insist. But that is dangerous. Can you understand infection?"
"Yes. I also understand poison. That is what some Rris medicine is to me."
Startlement. Blunt was sitting up now, watching carefully. "What? All dangerous?"
"I don't know. What have you got?"
She produced a small apothecary of drugs: vials and tubes and pots, pouches, rolls, twists. Pot, I recognized that. Also the tobacco, but the other stuff was meaningless to me: the painstakingly drawn labels meaning nothing and the various liquids and pastes even less. The simplest she had was the only one I was willing to try: powdered yellow sulfur.
"Hold still," she growled when I flinched, then bent closer, dabbing at the wounds with boiled water to clear the worst of the clotted blood, then sprinkling sulfur. The stuff stung slightly and my arm twitched.
"How long have you been here?"
Conversation took my mind off what she was doing. "Here? Since autumn the last year."
"And in Shattered Water?"
"I think. . . four months? Close to that."
"You've seen cities before?"
"Yes. My kind have some."
"Hmm?" She glanced up for a second. "Like this?"
"Same in some ways, different in others."
She chittered. "What do you think of Shattered Water?"
"I really haven't seen much of it."
"Huhn? After four months? Where are you staying?"
"At the Palace."
Now she looked startled. "That high? Sounds like your fortunes are changing. I hear the gardens there are beautiful, the Living Hall especially."
"I'm sorry. What is that?"
"You're staying there and you haven't seen the gardens?"
"I get a view of them from my window," I offered. "Some of them."
"The Resound Theater? Gold Row? The Freespan Bridges?" To all of these I had to answer no. "None of them?"
I gave a small shake of my head, a gesture she couldn't understand, then looked up. "Well, I did get a good look at the river."
Blunt snorted and hastily looked away. Maithris glanced at him then and picked up some clean cotton pads. "You haven't seen anything? Suppuration! Why?"
Breath gusted out of me in a sigh. "I don't get out much."
Maithris looked up, obviously confused. "You don't have any interest in seeing what's around you?"
I sagged. "It would be a great pleasure," I said quietly. "I've asked. Many times." I looked at Blunt who blinked back. "I suppose guest is only one word for it."
She stared at me: a curious look, as if she were trying to read me. Slowly she picked up another bundle of cloth and began unrolling it: strips of cotton. "Mikah. . . what do you do?"
"I. . . " I caught Blunt's warning glance, "I make suggestions. I can't really say."
She also glanced at Blunt. "All right. Now hold your arm out." I did so and she began bandaging me up. "Sometime, I really would like to hear your whole story."
"Maybe I could. . ." started to say and there was a commotion at the front door. Armed troopers pushed in: Royal Guards bulked out in full skirmish armor with flintlock rifles and bayonets held at the ready. There were shouts of alarm as customers were pushed out of the way.
Maithris also looked around in alarm at the clattering of armor and equipage and her ears went back at the sight of a squad of armed infantry making a beeline for us. I reached out and touched her hand lightly, drawing her attention back. "It's all right." I sighed then, "As I said. . . I don't get out very often."
She looked from me to the guards and back again. I had a feeling that she understood.
The Palace was in a worse state than Capitol Hill during a Congressional pay review. It was a small army that delivered me back there and as I stepped from the carriage I could see lights burning everywhere, squads of guards patrolling the grounds. This little incident had obviously put the wind up someone's back. My guards tried to hurry me along but I was too tired: I just limped my way across the drive, the borrowed cloak covering my arm in its sling. My pants hadn't had time to dry properly and clung uncomfortably.
Guards were everywhere throughout the Palace corridors. Occasionally I saw terse-looking nobles with their household guard in tow stalking the halls as my own escort rushed me through. The hall to my own quarters had a dozen guards stationed along its length. Feline eyes watched me intently and locks on my door rattled as it was opened, then rattled again as it closed behind me.
My rooms. Quiet. Dim light from that ridiculous lamp; Clean clothes folded on the bed and a faint potpourri scent from the cushion at the desk. I crossed to the drapes and opened them, looking out through glass and bars onto the moonlit gardens.
Living Hall? What was that?
I let the drapes fall back again and sat myself on the edge of the bed. Were my boots still there? I wondered as I looked at my feet. Someone had tried to kill me and I was worried about my boots. I almost laughed at that, but all that came out was a small strangled noise and I ran my good hand through my damp hair. Shit. How often? I'd thought this was behind me, now death followed me even here. How often was this going to happen?
I didn't have those answers.
I hadn't heard the door and Kh'hitch's bulk was surprisingly stealthy. "I'm glad to see you're in one piece. They did say you're hurt. Is it serious?"
I shook my head, quietly said, "No. "
"Some good news." He wandered over to the desk, looked down at the dark laptop. "I have to say, we apologize for what happened. The guards will be reprimanded."
That rankled. "There was nothing they could do."
He growled something then asked, "And you risked your life to save one?"
"I was supposed to leave him to die?"
"That was his job, Mikah." Kh'hitch's ears tipped sideways and he sighed, like a gust of wind. "Still, I think there might have been trouble if you'd tried to walk around town by yourself."
There probably would have been. I hadn't thought of that, and now. . . god, I was tired. Shaken. "Where's Shyia?" I asked.
"The Mediator. The one who brought me here."
"Huhn, him. He went back to Lying Scales some time ago."
"He. . ." I blinked. A second shock that night. When he'd said good-bye, that was for good? "He left?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?" He was looking at me curiously.
"Oh. No reason." I was feeling numb.
The Advisor studied me thoughtfully. "I think it would be a good idea if a doctor looked at you."
"I saw a. . ."
"Yes. I know about that. I think it would be better if someone. . . qualified did it."
In my books, there weren't many Rris doctors who could be called qualified. Certainly not by the standards set back home. However, I kept that thought to myself.
"You'll cooperate, won't you," Kh'hitch said. It wasn't a question.
"Yes," I sighed.
He ducked his head and padded over to the door, knocking to be let out. I watched him leave. Shyia. . . I thought he would. . .
I suppose that was selfish: I couldn't expect him to stay here, but still. . . that was one of the only Rris in this world I'd even remotely considered a friend. Now he'd left. . . I felt as if I'd been cast adrift. I sat there for a long time, staring at the pictures. Who'd they been? Were they still alive?
The doctor stopped by a bit later. A male who gave a perfunctory once-over, hissed at the bandages: "Cheap." Then replaced them with a gauze and left me alone.
It was a bad night: once again the guards woke me out of a nightmare in the early hours of the morning. A single guard watched me while I lay alone, breathing heavily, my legs tangled in clammy sheets while I stared up into the darkness.
Who was responsible? Well, there were suspects. Over a dozen of them.
And they were untouchable.
The other kingdoms had been refused access to me. Hirht had provided them with some information, but they were convinced - probably rightly so - that he was still holding out on them. He'd been wanting to try and keep me as a Land-of-Water resource and someone hadn't been about to stand for that.
Even if the assassination attempt had failed, the point had been made.
And thinking back on it, maybe it'd been supposed to fail. There'd been chances for the assassins to kill me but they'd never taken them. In the darkness and confusion they might have simply missed me, but somehow. . . I still have my doubts. Still, the message was clear enough: If the other realms couldn't have me, then nobody was going to have me. There was no way that Hirht could hope to protect me: If someone really wanted me dead it was going to happen.
On top of that night came renewed demands from the ambassadors, along with new promises of sanctions, blockades and increased tariffs on all trade goods. I wasn't party to the discussions. I got most of my news second-hand through various Advisors, but it was enough for me to get a handle on what was going on. It didn't sound as if it was going to turn out to my advantage. Still, a bit of good news: they found my boots and jacket.