The spectacle was over, and yet it was practically seared into Eni's eyes as though she could still see the moment. The crowd started slowly dispersing, apparently content to let it go, but the coyote's last defiant words echoed in Eni's thoughts. She had known the executions were going to happen; the lurid details of the trial had dominated Ctesiphon's peril papers for the past week. And yet…
The coyote and her wolf companions should not have breathed their last for at least another month. There was supposed to be time for an appeal, no matter how obviously guilty a mammal was. The Slayer and the Judge and her favorite quote from that story sprang suddenly to mind: "The sword of justice is double-edged."
Somehow, it felt as though Ctesiphon was falling far short of that heroic example. Was it possible, as ghastly as it seemed, that the coyote had told the truth? Had Chief Magistrate Sulla moved up the hangings to cover her involvement in some horrible crime?
It seemed absurd to think that the city government could engage in something so monstrous, but in the past two weeks there had already been at least half a dozen decisions that would have been minor scandals at any other time. Chief Magistrate Sulla had granted several generous no-bid contracts for the city's security, but the guards appeared more poorly equipped and less numerous than ever. Garbage collection was woefully inconsistent, and Eni had heard rumors of customs inspectors lending out their signets to anyone who could pay off the books. It all pointed to the rule of law breaking down. Or no, that wasn't quite right. It all pointed to the rule of law being deliberately broken, and all for the benefit of those at the top. Then again, if Eni was honest with herself, seeing an execution was far more disturbing than reading about one.
She was shaken up, that was all; the executions had been moved up simply to give the citizens of Ctesiphon something to think of besides the Blight. It still spat in the face of the law that was supposed to impartially judge mammals, but it sounded plausible. Reasonable. Still, everything Eni had seen lately—from the Blight to the Slayer to the Zezernak—made it seem as though she wasn't living in a reasonable time.
But although her thoughts raced wildly, Eni tried focusing on the one fact that mattered most. She had the Slayer with her; he was just a few paces ahead of her calmly pushing his way toward the far end of the public square. Eni was absolutely certain that he would get to the bottom of all the rot that had gripped Ctesiphon. She allowed herself to relax a little as she kept following the tattered hem of his cloak, which was getting easier and easier to keep in sight as the crowd thinned.
For the first time since they had entered the square, there was enough of a gap that Eni could have stretched out her arms and not touched anyone, and that space only grew larger. Most mammals were moving toward the other sides of the square, where the streets that led to the middle-class neighborhoods started. One, though, was not.
A lamb who couldn't have been more than half Eni's height was desperately trying to talk to the mammals passing by, her voice high and plaintive. "Please, have you seen my brother? He looks like me, but he's taller and—"
The lamb broke off when the mammal she was trying to engage, a ponderously slow anteater, brushed past without even looking at her. "Please," the lamb begged, turning to a porcupine couple, "My brother's name is Loren and he's been missing for two weeks and—"
The porcupines ignored her just as the anteater had. The little lamb looked about woefully, but when she briefly locked eyes with a lumbering bison he snapped his head away and began walking much more rapidly. The Slayer walked past her without so much as a second glance, his focus unerringly toward their destination, but Eni couldn't bear to ignore the sheep. "Please, ma'am," the lamb begged her, tugging at the bottom of Eni's jacket, "My name is Mirim and my brother Loren didn't come back from the fields two weeks ago and he's thirteen years old and—"
Mirim paused only long enough to suck in a shaky gasp of air before continuing, her eyes welling with tears as she kept speaking. "And his markings look just like mine," she said, gesturing vaguely at how the mostly black fur of her face gave way to white before it all turned to snowy wool, "But he's taller and his face is more…"
The lamb's tears started flowing in earnest, and her words gave way to nothing more than a wail. Eni had knelt down at Mirim's tug, but as the lamb broke down she hastily placed a paw as delicately as she could on the back of the lamb's simple homespun dress. "It's alright," Eni said, feeling more than a little awkward; she had never had a younger brother or sister and her words sounded hollow to her own ears, "It's alright."
Eni couldn't remember having ever seen a sheep that matched the description Mirim had given, but it didn't feel like the right moment to say that. Mirim sniffled, her gratitude at finally finding someone willing to listen seeming to have overwhelmed her. "He's… He's…" the lamb began, but she never got the chance to finish.
"Mirim!" a voice that was roughened with age but still quite sharp interrupted, "What are you thinking!"
An older sheep who looked as though she had to be Mirim's grandmother, as her own similar black and white markings had faded and dulled nearly completely to gray, suddenly swept the lamb out of Eni's clumsy embrace. "Wandering off like that… Talking to strangers… What's gotten into you?" the sheep said, but despite how harshly the words were spoken Eni noticed that the ewe was hugging Mirim so tightly to her chest that it was a wonder the lamb could breathe.
"But Loren!" Mirim wailed as her grandmother carried her off, trying to reach back toward Eni.
Eni hadn't even managed to get a word in edgewise and she watched as the pair headed in the other direction. Mirim's necklace, a tiny silver bell on a braided string, jangled musically with each step her grandmother took, and Eni could still hear it even after they had disappeared back into the crowd. The sound brought a memory back; Eni had owned a similar necklace when she was young that had once belonged to her mother. It seemed every generation considered such necklaces the height of fashion until they reached the age of nine, and Eni was struck with the uncomfortable reality that every mammal who had disappeared had been someone's son or daughter.
It wasn't as though she hadn't known that before; everyone had a mother and a father, after all. But somehow, reading the peril papers with half-interest as the gruesome details of the crimes the coyotes and the wolf had been executed for got published, the truth of what that had entailed hadn't really occurred to her. Eni remembered enough of the stories to know that a sheep named Loren hadn't been named as one of the victims, but that probably wasn't much comfort to his sister or grandmother. There were too many other mammals who had disappeared; had there been other criminals who simply hadn't been caught yet? The Slayer, surely, would uncover the truth.
Eni stood up and turned around at the thought. To her relief, the Slayer couldn't have gone much more than a pace or two after she had stopped to talk to Mirim; he stood with his back to her, still facing their destination. Eni quickly caught up to him and began speaking. "Did you hear that?" she asked, "After we see Ceslaus we need to—"
"No," he said.
He hadn't turned to face her, but his tone was foreboding. His body seemed tense under his cloak, his tail stiff. "There are mammals disappearing!" Eni protested, "And there might be—"
"You can stay and help if you want," he said.
"But— You're the Slayer!" Eni said, unable to understand, "Erstrim's widow? The missing maid of Solsten? Duke Ulfur's son? You found them!"
At that, he finally turned to look at Eni, and she almost took a step back. His features were no longer placid; his eyes positively blazed and his ears were flat back against his skull.
"I kill monsters," he said, speaking slowly and deliberately, "That's all."
A dozen counterpoints sprung to Eni's mind, but they all died in her mouth at the look on his face. "Time's too valuable to waste," he said, and his words had become somewhat gentler.
Not gentle, by any means, but gentler. Eni spared a glance back over her shoulder; Mirim and her grandmother had vanished into the swell of the crowd going the other direction, and if she thought she could still hear the bell around the lamb's neck it was surely nothing more than her imagination. "Coming or not?" the Slayer asked, and he turned with a swirl of his ragged cloak and deliberately set off again toward Celsaus's villa.
Eni stayed frozen only a moment before she hurried after him, but something bitter and sharp was welling up in her chest.
That was the only word for it. The Slayer had disappointed her.
More than anything about him—his tattered appearance, his rude manner of speaking, the way he seemed to barely tolerate her—his blunt refusal to help mammals in need had let her down. She followed him nearly in a daze, her heart feeling heavy in her chest as her disappointment turned inwards. It was her fault for building him up in her mind. Her fault for imagining that he had to be as wonderful as the stories said. Then again, another part of Eni reveled in uncovering the truth. If the Slayer was not what everyone saw him as, then she would show the world who he really was.
She stopped paying attention to where they were in the city, the streets and buildings that had once seemed so impressive passing by without her noticing them at all. And then she heard the jingling.
The sound was faint at first, and Eni looked up and around, half-thinking that perhaps Mirim had convinced her grandmother to come back and talk to her, but Eni couldn't see any other mammals on the streets. Eni told herself it had to be her imagination and shook her head to try clearing it, but the sound of a bell didn't go away. Eni looked up and around, as though the lamb could have somehow gotten above her. There was no sign of a sheep as Eni scanned the windows and balconies of the buildings nearby, although the sound of a bell did not diminish. But then, as she at last glanced straight up, there was something else.
Eni could suddenly hear the sun.
There was no other way to describe it; it was like a deep bass note from a pipe organ touching her to her very core. Eni looked around, but her eyes had gone blind to anything as mundane as a world of light and shadow. The vibrations of buildings plucked at her ears like a string being strummed; the world instantly alive with an unearthly music. Everything was sound, and for a moment she was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it, the gentle harmonic of the bell below it all.
Eni turned her head to where the Slayer must have been, and the music of reality itself exploded into a wall of noise. The ringing grew louder and louder, until it was suddenly as though she was standing right next to a bell larger than she was being rung. Her whole head seemed to reverberate with it, to the point even standing was a challenge, and then it got worse.
The gentle hum of the sun became a shrill death cry, choking out as it was eclipsed into a dead void. There was no silence, though; Eni was suddenly hearing every conversation in the city, all at once, and at such a painful volume that it was nothing but a cacophony. Fragments of words in ten thousand voices tore at her mind, none of them making any sense, and above it all, sending shocks through her entire body, was the ringing of the bell.
One voice cut through the din and Eni clung to it as though it was a piece of wood and she was a sailor tossed off a ship into a terrible storm.
The Slayer was standing in front of her, looking down into her eyes, and Eni realized that she could actually see again—and that she must have fallen to her knees. She didn't remember falling, or the Slayer stopping for her, but both events must have happened. The wolf's grip on her arm was tight and warm and somehow more real than the noise that had filled her head. Eni staggered to her feet, letting the Slayer help pull her up; it didn't seem to take him any kind of effort to do so even with only one arm.
"Emotions got the better of you," he said.
It wasn't a question; he made it a statement of fact. "I—" Eni began.
"Magic can reach inwards, not just outwards," he said, and those startlingly blue eyes were peering into hers, "What was it? Smell? Hearing?"
His eyes seemed to drift down her body before locking back onto hers. "Touch?"
"Hearing," Eni managed to say, "It was like I was listening to… everything. That's… It's never happened to me before."
The Slayer grunted and let go of her arm. "Try not to fall next time," he said, "Might draw attention."
With that, he kept walking. As she hurried after him, Eni realized that they were getting close to where Ceslaus's villa had to be. The street they were on was wide and pleasant, entirely free of garbage, and there wasn't as much as a single cobblestone out of place. The shops lining it were large and airy, with mullioned windows behind which were all sorts of goods Eni knew she couldn't afford. A glance at the nearest street sign told her they were on Rychaniye Boulevard, which Eni knew would eventually lead them to Ctesiphon's most exclusive homes.
"That's never happened to me before," Eni repeated, once she was by the wolf's side and feeling somewhat steadier on her feet.
He grunted again, which Eni decided to take as permission to continue talking. "Why'd it happen now?"
"You used some powerful magic last night," the Slayer said, "When you tried killing me."
Eni licked at her lips, but he had spoken about as blandly as ever and she plucked up her courage to ask the question she needed an answer to. "Can you teach me how to stop that from happening again?" she asked.
It was bad enough that the power inside her sometimes boiled out, but if one of her senses suddenly became hundreds or thousands of times more sensitive… Eni shuddered at the thought. It seemed enough to drive a mammal insane if it didn't stop. "I can teach you," the Slayer said, "Don't know if you can learn."
Eni chanced a look at his face. She wasn't quite sure what to read into his words and expression; had he been making a joke or just expressing the eternal frustration of a teacher? His features were unreadable again, seemingly devoid of emotion, and Eni wondered if he had ever tried teaching before. There were stories, of course, of mammals who had traveled with the Slayer for a time, but she had investigated every single lead there without success. Most of them seemed to be liars who hoped to raise their own standing, and the only story that had seemed halfway plausible—about a raccoon who had supposedly been the first to witness the Slayer's return—had proven impossible to link to an actual living mammal.
"I'll do my best," Eni promised, and the Slayer nodded gravely, but didn't speak again.
Eni caught the unspoken message that now, as they walked towards a mammal the Slayer suspected of being responsible for unleashing a monster, was not the time, and she tried turning her focus back toward what she should have been doing all along—getting a better sense of her traveling companion. He had blithely brushed off the danger that Ceslaus might pose before, and so far as Eni could tell his opinion hadn't changed. He was as purposeful as ever, and if he anticipated a battle seemed confident he could win it.
Eni realized she was staring and quickly looked away from him back ahead to the road before them, but he mercifully allowed it to go unremarked. She managed to keep to herself until they were at last in the neighborhood where she knew Ceslaus's villa must be, where she was relieved to discover that its exact location was even easier to find than she would have hoped. All of the houses were enormous, some of them looking about half the size of Siverets Village, and stood behind imposing walls and gates through which glimpses of sumptuous gardens could be seen. But although the mansions varied dramatically in style, from ones that were built in the Vornstrum Classical school of architecture to ones in Renaica Modern, and even a lone villa in Bovaic Revival, there was one commonality about their gates. Above or near each one a name was engraved, and five buildings down from the intersection they stood at Eni saw "SIR CESLAUS" in letters at least two feet tall.
The Slayer didn't seem to have spotted it as quickly as her, or he was still sizing up the neighborhood, but when Eni nudged him and pointed it out he nodded brusquely. He set off for the villa immediately, his strides lengthening, and Eni had to hurry to keep up with him. "How are you going to approach, Master Slayer?" she asked as they came to the elegantly twisted bars of the wrought iron gate.
Before he could answer, however, the massive front door of the villa opened and a mammal appeared at the threshold, seeming small only by comparison to the doorway. It was, unmistakably, Ceslaus, and he cheerfully beckoned toward himself. "Miss Siverets!" he called across the good hundred or so feet that separated them, "I'm glad to see you survived the night; I hope you'll forgive me for seeing to my own safety first."
Eni wasn't quite sure what she had been honestly expecting, but it certainly wasn't for Ceslaus to greet her and the Slayer like friends he hadn't seen for years. "I do still very much want to speak with you," he continued, "Please, you and your, ah, bodyguard must join me for breakfast."
At the word "bodyguard" the Slayer had inclined his head slightly, which Ceslaus seemed to take as a sign that he had correctly guessed the relationship between him and Eni. The tall leonine Aberrant positively beamed as he gestured again. "Please, come in," he called, "The gate's unlocked."
And so it was. The gate opened noiselessly at the Slayer's touch, and the view of Ceslaus's villa was even more impressive without anything blocking it. It was built in what Eni recognized as the Old Rushaya style, somehow managing to be both imposing and low as all the best buildings of that lost city were in illustrations. The Slayer, however, was acting as though it was no more impressive than the simplest of family dwellings in one of Ctesiphon's poorer districts, his face utterly unawed.
As Eni followed him up a carefully tended gravel path that wound its way through a yard of perfectly manicured trees just starting to change color, she tried judging what Ceslaus was thinking as they drew closer. His happiness at seeing her alive and well didn't strike Eni as feigned; he positively beamed at her as they drew closer. "When I saw you approaching, I can't tell you how relieved it made me," he said, "And now I see why you ran off! Clearly to collect your formidable bodyguard. I must admit, I barely noticed him sitting alone. And from the way he let me handle that deer, I wouldn't have guessed he was with you."
Ceslaus's eyes ran up and down the Slayer as he spoke, but he didn't seem particularly intimidated. From a purely physical perspective, Eni supposed that made sense; Ceslaus had not only at least three inches in height on the Slayer but was far broader and more powerfully built. The Slayer looked shabbier than ever in comparison to Ceslaus, who had changed out of what he had worn the previous night and into a similar but somewhat less elaborate robe over a finely made shirt and trousers. "I'm Fletcher Ceslaus," he said, "Although I'm sure Miss Siverets has already mentioned my name, of course. And you are…?"
He stretched out one ring-adorned paw, but the Slayer didn't reach out to shake it. The Slayer simply stared at him impassively, his arms hidden under his voluminous cloak, until Ceslaus chuckled and pulled back his own arm, saying, "He's not mute, is he?"
"No, no, he just isn't very talkative," Eni said, which was true enough.
"Ah," Ceslaus said, nodding his huge and elegantly maned head, "A valuable trait in an employee, I think."
Without commenting on the Slayer's rudeness, their host turned his back to them as he walked deeper into his own house, his massive paws visible as he crossed them above his tail. "If you've brought any weapons, you may by all means keep yourselves armed," he said, and Eni thought she could hear a smile in the words, "We're living in dangerous times, after all."
Eni's companion made a sound that might have meant agreement or simple acknowledgement. "Rest assured, I mean no harm to your mistress, Sir Bodyguard," Ceslaus said, with a sort of playful formality to the words, "But please, I always find matters of importance are best discussed over a meal."
Ceslaus strode off across his foyer toward another door, his footsteps echoing slightly. The room itself was quite impressive, all rose-colored marble shot through with veins of deepest black and pure gold. The furnishings were simple but elegantly made, quite in keeping with the style of the mansion itself, which ensured that they didn't distract from the centerpiece of the room. In place of pride, dominating one wall, was a massive triptych, each of the panels twice as tall as Eni was and at least five feet wide. The leftmost panel showed Caiser Alson strapping on his sword shortly before his heroic death in battle, stoically receiving last-minute counsel from the Whisperer as hazy smoke drifted across the scene. The rightmost panel was devoted to what Eni supposed was the construction of New Rushaya; although she had never visited the city herself the architectural style looked familiar. The center panel, though, was what arrested Eni's attention; it depicted the Slayer in action against the Qurutzalcar, his burning whip sword wrapping around the enormous and terrible serpent's feathered neck. The Slayer's handsome features, which seemed more noble and refined than the actual mammal, were set in an expression of grim defiance as he howled a battle cry.
Eni couldn't resist taking a moment and admire the intricately detailed artwork as they passed, although the Slayer seemed unimpressed, his attention not wandering away from Ceslaus for an instant. Eni gave one last look at the words in Jarku that stretched across the frames that held all three panels together—"All is Assured"—before hurrying along after her host.
He pushed open a door and held it open for them, smiling as he indicated with his free arm for Eni and the Slayer to enter. The Slayer went first, and if he was afraid that Ceslaus might stab him in the back while it was turned he showed no sign of it. It was, Eni supposed, a sign of confidence that Ceslaus himself had made when he turned his back to the Slayer. It wasn't necessarily a matter of trust, but rather a subtle way of saying that they didn't think the other mammal was a real threat. Eni tried to match it, but she still stiffened slightly at the click of the door as Ceslaus shut it behind them.
They were in what was clearly a purpose-built dining room, albeit the largest such room Eni had ever seen outside of a castle. Against the far wall was a massive fireplace filled with a merrily crackling fire that didn't seem quite able to entirely banish the slight chill of early morning from the huge room. Perhaps it would simply be a matter of waiting for the sun to be higher in the sky, because one of the walls was a series of windows with impressively large pieces of high-quality glass in them, offering an undistorted view of the villa's grounds. The floor was composed of huge marble flagstones, partially hidden beneath a beautifully woven rug larger than Eni's entire apartment back in Terregor. Standing on that rug was a table set for three that could have easily sat a dozen mammals, and Ceslaus offered Eni a smile as he walked past her to take his place at the head of the table, which was on the short side facing the fireplace.
Placed atop an embroidered and spotlessly white tablecloth so as to be in easy reach of all three place settings was a silver platter. Atop it, finely etched crystal glasses stood around a matching carafe, which was sweating slightly with condensation and full of ice water with a few pieces of cucumber floating in it. At each place setting, elegantly engraved silver cloches covered the plates, hiding whatever Ceslaus had ordered prepared. Or, it occurred to Eni as she walked to one of the two remaining prepared seats, had prepared himself. It struck her as a bit unusual that, in so large and grand a mansion, they hadn't seen a single servant.
"I do hope you brought your appetite," Ceslaus said as he sat down and gestured for Eni and the Slayer to do the same, smartly unfolding a pure white napkin in a single motion and spreading it across his lap, "I made everything myself."
He lifted the cloche from his own plate and set it aside on a doily that seemed to have been prepared for that express purpose. Eni started doing the same, but she immediately froze as she saw what was on her plate and let the cloche fall to the floor out of her suddenly nerveless paw with a clatter.
There were a few predators who worked at the Library of Linrathrous, or who were patrons of the university, and Eni had occasionally dined with them when she had happened to be in the city for galas. She had even spent some time traveling with a tiger and spent nearly every meal with him. She knew what meat was supposed to look like, from the pale color that cooked fish and poultry and frogs all shared to their distinctive shapes. Eni had even seen the meat of somnolent rodents on a few occasions, and while that was far more bloody-looking than any of the other meats the actual portions were quite small. What she was looking down at on her plate, however, was a thick cut of red meat that had clearly come off of something far larger than a rodent. No, Eni thought numbly, not something.
It was the flesh of a mammal who must have been larger than Eni herself, reduced to nothing more than a vaguely triangular piece of meat, somewhat charred whitish bone still attached. It was bleeding its juices onto a side of seasoned and fried potatoes and another of boiled turnip, which only made it all the more nightmarish by comparison. The stench of cooked flesh filled Eni's nose and she looked up in mute horror, completely unable to speak. She found herself staring into Ceslaus's face, which still bore a charming smile.
The wolf had cut off a piece of his own slab of meat and as she watched delicately bit it off his fork, chewing it with obvious relish.
"Please eat, Miss Siverets," he said once he had swallowed, and he gestured with his knife at her plate, "Mutton is a rare treat and you're letting it go cold."