"I heard she's going to live," said the voice as I closed the door to my rooms behind me. I had a flash alarm before I recognized the figure sitting quietly in the window niche: Hirht. Huh, the guards hadn't told me he was waiting.
"Yes, sir," I said as I slowly limped across to my bed and sighed as I sat down, my back to him. I was feeling exhausted and I had a feeling I knew what was coming; I didn't need it.
"And what about you?"
"Me sir?" I sighed again and started to raise my hands to rake fingers through my hair. My hands ached, I let them fall to my lap. "I'm fine."
"Fine huhn? Look at yourself Mikah. You can hardly walk. You're shredded. You left a lot of blood out there; I'm told that the beach is red in places."
"Oh?" I heard him snort. "You're going to keep doing stupid things like that?"
I shuddered and didn't look up. "Sir, I really hope that's the last time I have to do anything like that."
"But why? You didn't have to risk your hide. The guards had matters in hand."
"No. They didn't. He would've gone and he would've tried again. And he may have succeeded. Your security sucks."
"But Cho'tai's dead. He wouldn't have any reason to."
"I think it was personal. Even though I only saw him that once. . ." I shook my head and had to ask, "Who is he?"
"'Who was he'," Hirht corrected quietly. "You killed him. You didn't know?"
I just shook my head again, too tired to fumble with Rris hand gestures. I could feel him staring at me and the sensation raised the hairs on the back of my neck. "Huhn," the Rris king growled eventually. "We don't know who he was. A hired blade of some description - someone hired to do dirty tasks. You risked your life for that."
I hissed through my teeth. "Do you think Marah would have hired some incompetent thug?"
Hirht didn't reply.
"He hated me," I said, remembering the venom in the Rris' eyes. "He would've tried again and again. He wouldn't have left me in peace. And he was good enough that Marah used him everywhere; good enough to get into the palace, good enough to walk past guards like he belonged. He would've gotten lucky at some point. Everyone around me would've been in danger."
"You believe that?"
"I don't know. I don't know that he wouldn't. Can you tell me for sure he wouldn't?"
A long hesitation before the voice behind me admitted, "No. I wish I could, but no."
I leaned my tired head into my hands. "How often? I mean. . . how many times will this happen? Would Rris try to kill me just for what I am?"
Another hesitation, then a gusting sigh. "You know, Mikah, a storm brings changes: It blows away the deadwood and dust of the past, but it also breaks things. People know that. There are those who'll feel threatened. How they'll react to that. . . I can't tell you.
"What I can tell you however, is that your impulsiveness hasn't helped anything. You killed someone, Mikah. Quite viciously. It's not the kind of thing that people forget. There are already rumors festering through the Palace, probably the town as well by now. You know that sort of reputation's not going to put people at ease around you."
"I suppose I'll just have to live with it."
"You don't regret it."
"No. I did what had to be done."
"A," I heard him murmur, then heard a rustle of cloth and fur shifting, then almost inaudible footfalls on carpet. When I glanced up his highness was standing over me.
I just shook my head. "And now what do you think of me?"
"I think I know you."
"Do you?" I said.
He cocked his head, then reached out a single hand and touched my hair. Two of us, each trying to prove something: him touching something that killed Rris, myself trying desperately not to flinch from those hands. Just a couple of strokes before he drew his hand away and looked thoughtfully at his fingertips as he rubbed them together. "Always wondered what that felt like," he mused and then fixed those unreadable eyes on me again.
"You don't think like us," he said quietly. "Odd sentiments in that head of yours. I don't pretend to understand them exactly, but you have your own way of caring for someone like that teacher. You won't run amok, you won't hurt people without cause. I can understand that."
"Thank you, sir."
"She is quite attractive though, I'll grant you that," he rumbled thoughtfully. "You've had sex with her?"
That straightforward question hit me where I wasn't expecting. I felt muscles ache when I looked up incredulously, started to tell him to **** off, then sighed. "No. No sir. She certainly doesn't feel that way about me."
"No? Huhn," he took a step back, tipping his head from one side to the other. "That upsets you?"
"That? No, not really. I mean it's her choice, her life. It's just knowing that even she's sometimes uncomfortable around me. . . " I trailed off and let him make what he would out of that.
"So even the ones you call friends are afraid of you sometimes," he stared, then his eyes flicked aside.
"Sometimes." It was too easy to remember the times Chihirae or Chaeitch or Rraerch would look at me with trepidation or even fear in their eyes. "A, sometimes."
"Huhn," I heard him breath again. "That hurts you."
"A. Of course. But I think it's something I'm going to have to live with, isn't it."
"I think so. I'm sure it'll get easier with time. Speaking of which: the future. Which path do you want to take? What are your plans with the teacher?"
"Plans?" My mind was an exhausted blank. I closed my eyes and laid back, staring into the nothing which beckoned with promises of rest, but no answers were forthcoming.
"Mikah? You all right?"
"Just tired," I said to the aching darkness behind my eyelids. "The future. I hadn't even considered that."
"Give it some thought," I heard him say. "Now, I think you could do with some rest. You certainly look like you need it."
"Sir," I mumbled and there was a long pause before I heard the door close and I was able to lie back and just give in to the utter bone-numbing exhaustion.
A heavy, unchanging snow fell silently from the black of the night sky. Like magic, the flakes appearing from the darkness of the sky only to vanish once again when they merged with the drifts laying in the pools of light on the balcony outside. I exhaled, watching the ghostly clouds of my breath swirl among the flakes, not affecting them in the slightest. A few individual flakes landed on my sleeve. I held my arm up, watching the flecks linger for a few seconds before dissolving to a dark spot on the black fabric.
I brushed a few more flakes of snow away and stepped back into the room, closing the balcony doors then adjusting the sit of the Rris-tailored suit. The black pants and jacket over a plain white shirt were an acceptable addition to my wardrobe, even if they weren't quite the right proportions and the cut was decidedly peculiar.
"You look good in that," a cheerful voice offered.
I turned and then gave polite duck of my head to Chihirae leaning against the doorframe. "Thanks," I smiled carefully, "You're not so bad yourself."
She seemed to mull that over for a split second, then returned a Rris smirk. "That's a compliment, isn't it."
It was. The tunic, jerkin and pleated skirt she was wearing were in shades of red: from almost brownish ochre to bright red trim. It might sound garish, but on her it worked: Gold and red, amber eyes and muted rusts. And the collar hid the ragged fur and skin over those healing wounds from a couple of weeks ago.
"You're ready to go?" she asked.
"A," I waved an affirmative. "I hope this goes better than the last."
"Huhn," she huffed. "His highness said you've had a bad run with these affairs." She leaned against my chest and reached up to brush at my face, perhaps flicking some errant hair back. "We'll try to change that tonight, a?"
"You'll be all right?" I asked and couldn't stop my glance at the patch of ragged fur visible through her neckline. She noticed.
"I should be asking you that," she said, sounding a little reproachful. "I think my hide's a little tougher than yours."
She'd been shot. Yet now, scarcely two weeks later, her wounds were rough patches under scraggly fur while my scratches were still angry red and tender. I found it unnerving and a little unfair. She touched my hand where I'd been stroking the fur of her neck. "I think we'd better go now. Before they send someone for us."
Nevertheless, there were still a couple of guards tagging along behind.
Once again the palace was ablaze with lights of all descriptions. Servants hurried around, replacing candles and oil and wicks. From an inner hallway I could look out across the central courtyard where drifting snow filled the night and turned the windows on the far side into warm glows in the nothingness.
The lower halls were more alive, with Rris everywhere.
It was another diplomatic reception: a honorary celebration for the Bluebetter ambassador I was told. Apparently it was to commemorate the end of their southern border wars over forty years ago, an event which had caused ripples through all the known Rris lands and established the current border geometries.
It was a valid enough reason. I also suspected it was a chance to show the ambassadors of other lands that after the incidents and accidents of recent months, I was still intact. Nobody ever came out and said that to my face, but as we walked those last few corridors I felt sure that I was a showpiece of some kind. I was almost accustomed to the sight, sound and smell of a room of milling Rris, but Chihirae looked decidedly uneasy as we entered the ballroom
The diplomatic persons and embassy staff were present, as was the usual retinue of upper crust merchants and industry leaders. Again the tone of the room changed as I entered. There were those who just stopped what they were doing and stared; those who pointed and started to urgently chatter to their associates.
Chihirae glanced at me. I could see that movement out of the tail of my eye.
"Just relax," I whispered to her.
"Easy to say," she returned as we moved into the throng. They parted around us. "How can you stand this?"
"Practice," I said, pursing my lips slightly in the best approximation of a Rris smile I could manage.
Perplexion creased her features: "What's that look?"
"Never mind," I sighed. Head and shoulders above most of the crowd I could already see figures I knew: a couple of ambassadors, lords and ladies, merchants and guildmasters and industrialists. Several working their way through the crowd in our direction. "Just. . . be calm. Relax. Be polite. That's all I can really say."
Her reply was interrupted when another voice cut in: "Mikah."
Kh'hitch was standing, waiting, his hefty bulk swathed in wraps that made him look like a parti-colored pillow. The guards flanking him were a lot more conservative, in polished steel armor and livery fluttering from their razor-edged halberds. "Glad you could join us, Mikah," the advisor said. "There are a lot of people who would like to talk to you."
"Why am I not surprised."
His thin black lips flicked to show teeth. "Don't. Mikah, don't. That attitude of yours causes trouble."
"Which he seems to be good at finding," another Rris voice offered. I knew him: K'hesh, the Broken Spine ambassador with the longer, lush fur of Northern Rris and clothing of expensive cut and garish color. "I'd wondered if we would be seeing you again," he said. "Your hosts have been exceedingly tight-jawed about you recently."
"Things have been busy recently," I said.
"A." He looked me up and down, then his gaze flicked to Chihirae and I got the feeling he was weighing her up. "There were a few stories circulating."
"As I think Mikah should," Kh'hitch interjected smoothly and quickly. "There are a lot of people who want to talk to you tonight."
"A," K'hesh said as Kh'hitch started us moving and moved to insinuate himself between myself and Chihirae.
"Hai," I snapped and took a single step closer to her and K'hesh recoiled violently. Rris flinched. Kh'hitch 's hand came up to forestall the guards. I ignored them. "Chihirae," I said.
She looked around at the Rris around, at their expressions, then she caught my hand in hers. "Still making people nervous, aren't you. You know, it might be for the best if I left you to settle your business."
"You're sure? You won't be out of place here?"
"You're asking me that?" she chittered slightly. "Don't worry, you furless giant, I've seen a couple of familiar faces." She patted my cheek and Rris watched her melt back into the crowd. I saw questioning glances as more than a few of the watching representatives doubtless tried to figure out what our relationship was. Let them wonder.
As the evening wore on I started to envy her choice. It was dull. It was dull, arduous and stressful as I made the rounds and talked with Rris after Rris. There were questions and requests; asking about my health, about my work, whether promised schedules would be kept. I answered what I could while often Kh'hitch would step in to field something he thought too delicate to leave to my judgment. There were several thinly veiled invitations to accept other kingdoms hospitality, a bribe, and also something I'm pretty sure was yet another sexual come-on from a female guildmaster. I skirted those as tactfully as I knew how.
After several hours of that my throat was decidedly raw and the feline features in the room were blending. So much so that when a Rris asked me if I could do with a drink I started to politely decline, then blinked several times before I recognized Hirht.
"Oh. Sir. Thank you, a drink would be welcome."
A couple of furrows wrinkled the fur at the bridge of his muzzle and he flicked a quick gesture at the nearby guards; they moved to keep orbiting petitioners at bay. "You're all right? You sound bad."
"Too much talking," I rasped.
"A," he flicked his ears and glanced at Kh'hitch. "I did warn you about that."
"Apologies, sir," Kh'hitch replied.
"Huhn," the King snorted as a servant bearing a drinks tray emerged from the throng. He picked a couple of crystal glasses of wine and handed one to me. The liquid was amber, steaming slightly. I sipped and found it tart, heated and spiced. A Coke would have gone down well about then, but what the hell: it was wet and it warmed me.
"You're improving," Hirht said and I fell into step beside him as he started strolling through the crowd. "So far nobody has shot, struck or even shouted at you."
"Imagine how happy that makes me," I said.
He gave me a sidelong look and snorted again. "And the teacher seems to be settling in well."
"See?" he nodded.
I looked toward the corner he indicated where Chihirae's red outfit stood out through the crowd, her figure sleek, groomed fur gleaming in the warm light from the chandeliers and she was talking with Chaeitch. I saw her laugh. I saw him touch her face and she leaned closer.
I felt the smile crystallize on my face. "I see," I said as the crowd closed in front of them and I turned away.
Hirht's muzzle creased again as he looked from that scene to my expression and buried his reaction in a sip from his glass. "Huhn. She cares for you, you know that."
"A," I said as we walked again, out onto the terrace. The night was black, the moon and stars lost behind low clouds. Snow drifted from the arch of blackness down into the pools of light around lamp sconces along the balustrades. A myriad more lamps dotted the snow-bound meadows around the palace and in the forest beyond that; flickering like fireflies through the icy trees and bare branches. Frigid night air nipped at me with invisible teeth that stung against bare skin while Hirht's breath ghosted in the air before him.
"There've been a lot of people asking after you. It seems that there are more every day. Questions, requests, pleas, demands. . . you're a hot coal and juggling you's not an easy task."
"I can only do so much, sir," I said. "I was an artist, not an engineer or doctor or scholar. And there's only one of me."
"A," he acknowledged and leaned up against the balustrade, brushing snow from the beveled and carved marble so he could set his wineglass there. "Unfortunately."
I gave him a look: I bet they'd like a few more humans around. Actually, so would I. I sighed and he flicked his ears. "Don't worry, we understand you have your limits. There won't be a repeat of what happened."
"Anything you need, Mikah. Just ask."
I sighed and took the plunge:
"Sir," I said, glancing down into the dregs of my own glass. "What you asked me a while back. . . if I knew what I wanted to do with my life."
"Huhn, a." I saw the silhouette of his muzzle raise, as if looking into the clouds. "I recall."
"I think I know. I think I would need your permission and forbearance though."
"Anything you want. We'll do all we can."
So I told him. He listened quietly and attentively and seemed a bit surprised when I finished.
"That's it?" he asked.
"A. That's it."
"Huhnn," he scratched his muzzle gently. "That poses a few questions, but I'm sure something can be arranged. What about your teacher?"
My teacher. . . I took a deep freezing breath that I felt needling in my lungs, then exhaled a glittering cloud. What I'd seen. . . what'd I expect? She'd found someone she knew in a room full of strangers. Of course she was glad to see him.
"She. . . She's got her own life. I think you'll have to ask her what her choices are going to be."
Hirht stared out across the frozen landscape while the snow fell around us, stippling his fur. "A," he said after a time. "A. I'll ask her."
The early spring drizzle died away as the late afternoon sun peeked through the grey overcast covering the city, stroking the higher rooftops with a gold glow. Water and the occasional scab of ice or melting snow were falling from roofs and guttering. Rivulets ran down the streets, washing through the drifts and piles of frozen slush.
I sat back in the carriage, in the warmth of the little kerosene heater, and watched the city passing as we rattled through the streets. Shops and stalls were still open, a few damp Rris going about their business. It was a scene I'd seen before, a route I'd traveled many times and by now was normal, familiar. Enough so that I could relax and take some of the edge off the exhaustion accrued after a long day.
Northbound. Through the commercial districts up to the boulevards where the first green buds speckled the bare branches of the old trees. Up to the Rocks and then through familiar streets: homeward bound.
It was an estate on the shore. A wooden house overlooking the lake: huge and rambling, with dark slate roof and turrets and scrollwork on the eaves and mullioned windows. There were sprawling grounds running down to the water, with unkempt meadows and wooded with aged deciduous trees. No way I'd have been able to afford a place like that back home, but here it was well within my means.
There was work ongoing on the place. Doorways originally built for Rris were made taller. There was central heating with hot and cold running water. There was still a lot of work to be done, tasks which would have to wait until finer weather came around. Before next winter I wanted to get proper insulation installed in the walls. Bundles of Llama wool was an option I was looking at. And, hopefully, this summer we'd be able to install a couple of prototype wind turbines on the lakeshore and then there'd be electricity as well.
And there was the guardhouse.
Hirht had been surprisingly amenable to the idea of me moving away from the palace. There had been a few stipulations attached, one of those being the guards. That hadn't worked out as badly as I'd feared: they kept their distance, watched the perimeter of the grounds and mostly left me alone. Still, there was a small garrison of them barracked in the new guardhouse at the gate to the estate.
When the carriage had crunched to a halt on the gravel drive I stepped down into the bite of the evening air. Spring growth was budding on the shrubs around the front porch, the weather vane atop one of the turrets facing out to the lake. A warm glow shone from the front windows: the servants already had the lights on. They had adapted quite quickly to my tastes.
Tichirik opened the door for me. In the heirachy of the household staff she was ranking. Sort of analogous to a butler I suppose, and doubtless a spy for Hirht, but she was polite, professional and ran an efficient household. "Good evening, sir," she said, ducking her head.
"Evening, Tich," I smiled as I wiped my feet and stepped into the hall.
"We weren't expecting you so early, sir," she said. "I'm afraid your evening meal isn't prepared just yet."
"That's fine," I shrugged out of my coat and she neatly took it out of my hands. "I just want to sit for a while."
"Hard day, sir?" she inquired as she went to hang my coat up.
"Huhn," I chuckled as I headed for the living room. "Long day. Is Chihirae home yet?"
"Ah, sir!" Tichirik interjected as I opened the door. "Mistress is somewhat. . ."
Lamps were glowing softly, the fire blazing while on the hearth discarded clothes were strewn around the two furry figures wrapped together. Two forms moving like animals rutting: one kneeling, the other atop, fur locked in teeth and claws clutching at the rug. . . They jumped as I barged in and Chaeitch reared back in startlement, interrupted in his task and I learned more about aroused Rris male physiology in that second than I really needed to. Chihirae sat up on splayed knees, her eyes wide and dazed-looking.
". . . indisposed."
I stared at them, feeling my jaw drop and something else inside me plummeted. "Sorry," I said and turned and left them.
"Mikah?" a voice called from behind me.
"Sir?" Tichirik was looking aggrieved. "I was trying to tell you. . ."
I just took my coat from her unresisting hands and headed outside again. I really needed to be alone for a while.
The sky was grey. The lake was grey, with a cold wind urging rapid little grey waves against a grey stone shore. Broken ice floes jostled and cracked and shattered themselves along the waterline, melting back into the element they'd come from.
I sat on a weather-smoothed slab of boulder and stared out across drab world that matched my mood.
Chihirae had stayed with me. She found employment as a tutor for a merchant's cubs but she stayed with me and her companionship was welcome. In the evenings she gave me lessons to improve to help me understand the world I was in a little better: history, geography, lessons in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. And in the months we'd been living here I suppose I might have grown to take her for granted.
Of course it would happen. She was a Rris woman. An attractive one I'd been told. Of course she'd find a guy sometime. I just hadn't thought it'd be someone else I called a friend.
I looked down at my hands: worn, with calluses on the palms and scars along the knuckles. For a split second violence against Chaeitch flashed through my head, a thought of which I was instantly ashamed. That primal ape screeching in my mind again.
In hindsight it was pretty obvious: They got along well, they were both single. . . Perhaps I just hadn't wanted to see it. And I hadn't expected to find them like that. That'd been a shock. But they were of the same people, the same kind. Their relationship was right and could work. They could have offspring and understand one another's needs whereas I was an outsider and an alien. I understood. Up in my head I understood.
But those ape instincts still hurt.
"Mikah?" a soft voice spoke out over the lapping of the water. I twisted around to see Chihirae not quite hiding behind a pine trunk, nervously shifting her weight from foot to foot. "He's gone. He thought it'd be for the best. Are you all right?"
I nodded and she cocked her head, then came closer. Near freezing weather and she was just wearing a pair of rust-red breeches. As if of its own accord my gaze flickered from her worried eyes to her crotch before I looked away, embarrassed. "Mikah. . . that really upset you that much? I'm sorry. I never thought it would."
"No." I shook my head and rubbed at my face. "No. It's not you. It's me. I just. . . I'm not angry. You and Chaeitch, I can understand that. It's just. . . He is something I can never be; He has something I never can."
A silence. Then: "Mikah? You're jealous?"
The green-eyed monster. My amber-eyed friend. "I know it's absurd. I know it in my mind. I understand it. But my body, the rest of me feels. . . I feel like I've lost something. I suppose. . ." As I struggled for some way to phrase it in Rris terms, into something she could understand, something a dark figure had told me on a tragic night came back:
"She was right," I said, staring out across the water. "I need."
"I need," I repeated. "She told me. . . Mai told me. She said I need. That I bond to people in a way that isn't normal. Not for Rris. She was right. You're right. I'm jealous. . . and I hate that I'm jealous. And I'm afraid: I don't want to lose you."
Silence. I felt like I'd just made another terrible blunder. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" I felt a hand touch my shoulder, briefly. "Why?"
"I didn't mean to interrupt you and Chaeitch. I don't want to stand in your way. If you want him, then all I can do is wish you the best."
Water hissed on shale; a breeze stirred branches; somewhere an icicle cracked and fell. "Mikah, spring is nothing to apologize about."
"A. I know it can be awkward."
"Spring doesn't affect me," I said quietly and didn't have to look around to know she was wearing a startled expression. "I'm not like you. Spring doesn't mean the same thing. They didn't tell you."
"I. . . " she started to say, then in more subdued tones, "No. No, they didn't. I suppose I should have known, after Westwater, those mood swings of yours. You mean you … when is your season?"
"Oh," she said quietly and for a few seconds there was nothing but the sounds of the lakeshore.
"Spring all year," I finally heard her sigh. "I don't think I could take that."
"I don't think it's the same," I said.
"Huhn," she rumbled thoughtfully, then a hand touched my shoulder again. "Do you want to come back to the house? You must be cold."
"Not right now," I shook my head. "Just a bit longer. I'm trying to get my head around a few things."
The hand lingered. "You'll be all right?"
Why did they always ask me that? When I looked at her I could see moisture from the mist beading in her fur and she was watching me with concern foremost in her expression. "A. I just want to think."
A hesitation, then she gave my hair a stroke and gracefully rose to her feet and headed back toward the house. Not without a glance back over her shoulder and then she was a tawny gold figure vanishing into the colorless trees.
Silence. Solitude. I sat by the grey lake and watched the waves lap the shore; watched the cloud-occluded orb of the sun burn to umber red and then vanish beyond the horizon; watched for a long time as I tried to lay those disquieting emotions to rest. It wasn't easy. I can't say I entirely succeeded.
I made my way back through the cold and misty darkness, just following my nose and the welcoming glow of the house lights through the twilight. The french doors opening onto the meadow were hanging open, with lamplight spilling out across the verandah flagstones.
Tichirik was waiting for me inside. I don't know how she knew I was coming but she was there with a towel folded over her arm and a disapproving expression. "Sir," she said as she closed the doors behind me, "you know the cold isn't good for you."
"Thank you," I said, shrugging out of my coat and tossing it across the back of a rather expensive piece of furniture. "I'll remember that."
She handed me the towel and then followed as I started heading back toward my rooms, wiping away cold mist that'd beaded in my hair, my beard and across my face. "Sir, there's food if you'd like it. I can have some sent up."
I started to say I wasn't very hungry, then realized what a lie that'd be: there was a gnawing emptiness in my gut. "Yes, please."
"Very well." She stopped outside my door. "Will there be anything else?"
"No. Thank you."
"Sir? If I might be so bold?"
I hesitated with my hand on the knob. "A?"
"Sir, there are females who can provide sexual services. If you desire I can make some inquiries. . ."
"No," I said, perhaps a little too abruptly. "No. Thank you, but no. That didn't work out very well last time."
"I see. I'm sorry, sir. I'll see about your food."
I thanked her and watched her ramrod straight, so-proper figure stalk off down the hall and then sighed before retreating to my room. The central heating was doing its job well, if a bit noisily, especially in the other spare room down the hall, and the air was comfortable, warm. The spacious bed had been turned down, the lights were dim. Comfortable for diurnal ape eyes. I wearily stripped off and left my clothes strewn behind me as I headed for the bathroom.
Showers have never been de-rigueur in Rris homes. I'd had one specially installed in my ensuite and it was at times like that I was really glad I'd done so. I leaned against the tile walls and let the hot water hammer down, working the tension and stress and cold out of my shoulders. I stood like that for a long time while water sluiced over me and formed rivulets around scar tissue, splashing and washing down the drain.
Steam spilled out around me as I stepped from the bathroom to the bedroom, scrubbing at my hair with a towel. The clothes I'd strewn across the floor were gone, a robe was folded neatly on the end of the bed and there was a covered tray set on the desk: Some of the benefits of my position.
Tichirik knew me well. The meal was light: a marinated venison cutlet with potato slices and a single glass of wine. Not a lot of a meal, but it was hot and it was all I really felt like. And afterwards I stood at the windows and sipped the remains of the wine. There was a moon out there now, just peeking through broken clouds.
It was her life. It was her world. I couldn't interfere. To make her suffer for my wants, that was just selfish.
Then the glass was empty. I studied the cut crystal, sighed and laid it aside with the ruins of the meal. The gas lamp hissed softly when I turned it down: the mantle faded from white to orange, dimming to red before it died with a faint pop. In the darkness I returned to the big bed and slipped between cool sheets. The pillows were something else I'd missed.
And couldn't sleep. I just lay there in night and shadow with dark thoughts churning in my head.
There was a noise in the night; like a door being quietly closed. I opened my eyes to silence and dark. There was grey moonlight coming in, lighting a patch of floor just in front of the window but leaving the rest of the room in blackness. A darkness that didn't feel empty and something that wasn't a shadow moved.
"Who's that," I croaked as I felt my heart start to pound furiously; as I scrambled backwards, trying to buy a little more time to defend myself. "Who's there?"
"It's all right," a voice hastily replied and I tried to find the spot of night it'd come from. "It's me. Oh, rot. It's Chihirae. Mikah?"
"A." The mattress moved as another weight settled on the edge. "It's only me."
"Oh, christ." I closed my eyes and leaned back against the headboard and pillows. "Chihirae, don't do that. Please."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you." I jumped as a furry hand touched my arm, the old knot of scar tissue on my shoulder, then laid gently on my chest. I knew those cool pads on her fingertips could feel my heart still racing. "I frightened you. I didn't mean. . . rot. I'm sorry."
I still couldn't see her face, but her hand was a dark spider on the pale skin of my chest. Her touch was warm as she lay down alongside me. Like those nights so long ago in Westwater. "What were you doing?"
"I just wanted to look at you. To see if you were sleeping all right." There was a movement in the darkness, as if she were gesturing. "After today, you seemed upset. I wasn't sure how you were doing."
I touched her hand, feeling the softness thickness of her winter pelt, the underlying strictures of muscles and tendons and bones. All alive. So like mine. So different. "I'm all right."
"You got your head around those things?"
"I think so."
A pause. "Can I ask what they were?"
I bit my lip. "There's such a difference between knowing and feeling. I never understood that before. I'm not sure I do now." I sighed and felt her fingers under my own, the hard little crescents embedded in their tips. "Perhaps it'll get easier with time."
"A," she rumbled quietly, almost sadly. Her hand twisted in mine and I felt her touching my skin and gingerly exploring that place where my little finger had once been. "Not Rris," she said in those same tones, then asked, "You're really envious of Chaeitch?"
"How could I not be," I said to the darkness. She squeezed my hand a little.
"Mikah, there is one thing I think you might be forgetting. I'm not like you."
"I had noticed."
The hand squeezed again. "I mean, I'm Rris. We don't 'need' like you do. Chaeitch and I. . . it's just spring. It's just sex." I felt her roll over and her hot breath washed over my bare shoulder. "I'm not going away with him. I'm not going anywhere."
And I. . . and I felt like a complete fool. Aware of our differences and yet I still persisted on thinking like the human ape; of thinking of her as human on a level I wasn't even aware of.
"Mikah?" she sounded concerned again.
"I. . . I never thought of that," I said in a small voice.
Chihirae's hand stroked my arm. "I'd noticed," She chittered very softly and I felt the heat of her breath on my shoulder, then the tip of her tongue touching my skin where a crossbow quarrel had once stuck me. "Water. Salt and ash. Moss, that's the other scent. I'd never been able to place it. Moss after rain."
"Chihirae," I said, increasingly aware of her hands touching me, the kisses of her tongue. "Chihirae. You know. . . what you're doing. . . I mean it's. . . arousing."
"Huhn," she rumbled and nuzzled at my neck. "Is it?"
And I knew what was happening, what she was doing. "But, you said you didn't want. . . that."
"Maybe I changed my mind."
And I was responding to her and I didn't want go over that final line, yet I still didn't want the sensations to stop, but. . . I swallowed hard and said, "Chihirae. . . Chihirae, hold. Please."
I stroked her hand again, aware that my own was trembling ever so slightly. "Please, you're a little distracted at the moment. Is it you talking or the season? I don't want to be part of something you're going to regret later."
"Hai," I felt the mattress shift and her low voice burred almost in my ear. "You think we lose our minds in spring? I've just been doing some thinking of my own."
"Your own?" I murmured, thinking of what Tich had said earlier.
A pause as she digested that. Then: "A. My own. The palace had nothing to do with it. I thought, that after all we've been through. . . In a way I suppose we are bonded. And after seeing you today, I thought you might want the company tonight."
I held her hand in both of mine, clasping the warmth. A moment I'd thought about, wondered about, dreamed about. Now it was here and I felt that same trepidation that Mai had stirred: questions, concerns. . .
A moment too long.
"You don't want to?" she asked quietly and I couldn't read anything in those tones. I wished I could see her face. I the darkness I fumbled and touched coarser and longer fur. Her chest ruff. Then felt my way up to a throat pulsing with breath and blood, up to a velveteen cheek and muzzle.
"I think. . ." I started to say with a voice that caught in my throat. "I think. . ." Then sighed. "I think too much, a? Yes. Chihirae. I want to. I want to very much."
I could feel her smile. Then feel and hear the movement of sheets as she came closer and fur pressed against me as she lay beside me. A leg rubbed against mine, her hand explored further.
"I thought that happened in the mornings," she whispered, touching gently.
I shivered. "It can make exceptions."
She chittered softly and I scratched at her ribs; gently, the way Mai had shown me.
And that night I taught my teacher. I taught her what Mai had shown me and what I'd shown her. I knew the Rris female body better now, but Chihrae still had to learn about me. I taught her, I loved her; and when she yowled and shredded my best pillow at her height I finally knew that the nights with another woman hadn't been entirely lies.
Spooned together in the night, in the heat and the scent of the afterwards. A small body embraced in my arms, tight muscles quivering as two different hearts raced and breathing slowly returned to normal. A blissful eternity before a small voice said:
"Chaeitch told me . . . he said he'd heard it was different with you."
"It was all right?"
"All right?" A quick chitter, almost dazed sounding. "A. All right. Very all right. Like my whole body sneezed."
"I think that's good."
Another chitter. A hesitation, then a gentle rasp of a tongue against my arm. "Again?" she murmured.
So there were a few other things I had to explain. But there was time enough. For recuperation, for talk and play, for love and rest.
And much later I lay in the silence, listening to the breath of sleep from the figure against me. She stirred slightly when I disentangled myself and swung out of bed to pad across to the window. Beyond, the grey light was coming and going as clouds chased each other across the face of the moon. The trees stirred and rustled in the darkness.
And I stood there and took stock of my life: Where I'd come from, where I might go. And when I'd summed it up I touched the glass and thought of someone far from here.
"I forgive you," I whispered in Rris and turned back to the bed.
The breathing had changed from the rhythm of sleep yet there wasn't a word as I laid back down again. But as I closed my eyes a warm body snugged up to my back, an arm looped over my side and warm breath stirred the hairs on the back of my neck. I closed my eyes and welcomed sleep, knowing that for the time all was right with this world.
The end? No.
Just the beginning. Of that part of my life at least.
And as lives go, it's been a pretty unique one. I've been from one side of this world to the other. I've seen things no human ever dreamed of; lived through hell and high water, despair and the highest hopes. I've seen friends come and go. Seen life and death of all description, acts of horror and humanity from a people who aren't human.
But they're my people now.
I've tried to chronicle my life as best I can. I began where I thought best: where an old life ended and a new one began. I've tried to be accurate; I've told it as best my memory allows and if there're any mistakes or inconsistencies they're mine and mine alone. Time has passed and it has the habit of stealing the details, but there have always been things that stayed with me, and it's those facets of my life I've tried to imprint on these pages.
I hope I succeeded.
I know I won't be here forever. And whatever happened to me all those decades ago is, to the best of my knowledge, unique. As is my life that followed those hot summer days in the hills. Maybe these volumes will help somebody understand what happened. Maybe they'll be able to unlock those doors between worlds.
So many maybes. For now, I've lived my life. It's been longer and fuller than I'd ever imagined and there's so much more to be told.
"And the questions there were many,
Like how can you survive?
When it's the moment you've been waiting for,
This is the moment of your life."
And the Band Played On