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Chapter 11: Prince of Predators

Updated: Jun 10, 2023

Eni cracked one of her eyes open to peek at Tsar, trying to push down the frustration that was threatening to overwhelm her. She was supposed to be meditating on containing her magic, the way that the Slayer made her do practically every waking minute they spent on the road. Two days had passed nearly in a haze as she did her best to focus while they walked, pushing down all of the questions she desperately wanted to ask. When they stopped for the nights, she pored over The Lamentations of Nergora, trying to work out whether the book was ciphered in code using those cryptic symbols or if it was truly written in a language she had never seen so much as a scrap of in old texts. But as she sat on the ground, her legs crossed with her paws on her knees, it occurred to Eni that both tasks that consumed her waking hours were similar in one way.

They had been utterly fruitless.

The Lamentations of Nergora was either written in the most elaborate code Eni had ever seen or in a language that shared absolutely nothing in common with any of the ones she was familiar with; she couldn't even tell how the tightly spaced characters broke down into words. Eni had told herself several times that she'd likely find something to help translate the book if only she could return to the university, but her own reassurances rang hollow in her head. The worst of it was that she knew exactly why her failure was so frustrating. She was trying to impress the Slayer, and she was certain that she had utterly failed to do so with her training, too.

Eni had done her best to follow his every instruction, but the guidance he had given her was impossibly imprecise. The way that she was sitting at the moment was only the most recent example; when he told her to sit she had asked what pose he wanted her in. He had just grunted, and Eni had simply tried something that felt vaguely meditative. Through her one open eye, Eni looked at what the wolf was doing, which was in itself disappointing. He was simply sitting on the ground himself, his long tail curled around his legs as he stared blankly up at the sky.

Eni closed her eye and resisted the urge to sigh, but Tsar must have been paying more attention than it appeared he was, because he spoke a single word. "Focus," he said.

"I'm trying," Eni protested, opening her eyes to look at him directly.

He was looking at her now, those vividly blue eyes locked onto her and once again seeming to look through her. He simply gazed at her for a moment, and then he spoke again. "Why can't you do it?" he asked.

His tone wasn't harsh or angry, which made it worse, since it was the exact question she had been asking herself. Tsar sounded mildly puzzled, if anything, as though he had only a polite interest in Eni's failure to handle the voices which spoke to her. "I just…" Eni began, trying to articulate her feelings into words, "It's like…"

He didn't speak, patiently watching her as a gentle breeze rustled his cloak. The Slayer had picked a good spot for them to stop for their midday break and for her to try focusing; they were in a copse of old and shady trees off the side of the path. The day was sunny and mild, and Tormurghast was just visible as a smudge on the horizon. Eni felt no appreciation for the beauty of the day, though, as she struggled to put into words what she felt. "It's like you're telling me to make my heart beat faster," Eni said at last, "I know what you want me to do but I don't know how to do it."

The Slayer cocked his head to the side and after a pause he nodded. He got up effortlessly, simply standing without using either his paws or his tail to help push himself upright, and then pointed at a pine tree that stood alone perhaps a half mile down the road. "Run to that tree and back," he said, "As fast as you can."

Eni looked at him and he added, in a voice no less mild than his previous words, "Now."

She pushed herself to her feet and bolted for the tree in a dead sprint, thankful that she had taken off her pack and her hood when they had stopped. Eni was determined to go as fast as she possibly could, her arms moving like pistons while her strides grew longer and longer until it felt as though she was barely touching the ground, her ears streaming behind her. Her breath was coming in enormous gulps, and her vision focused down until there was nothing more than the rapidly approaching tree.

Rather than simply turning around when she reached the pine, Eni shot out one paw and touched the trunk, spinning herself around the tree like a marble going down a funnel. The sticky sap and sharp needles pulled at her glove but she was beyond caring, locking her sight on the Slayer. With her destination in sight she held nothing back, feeling her feet tear up clods of dirt from the road as she raced toward him.

With one final burst of effort Eni came to a stop a few paces beyond him, having to take a few clumsy steps to come to a halt. She turned and faced him again, her chest heaving like bellows as she clutched at her sides. "How…" Eni managed, "Was that?"

The Slayer looked her up and down as she panted, her vision seeming to throb. "Your heart's going faster now," he said, "Isn't it?"

If she hadn't already been gasping for breath, Eni thought that her jaw would have fallen open. "That…" Eni began, "I didn't…"

Words had failed her; he seemed to have completely missed the point she was trying to make. Tsar was utterly unperturbed, and he unfolded his arms from across his chest. "You have to push yourself to make your heart beat faster," he said, "But you can…"

He trailed off, seeming to gather his thoughts as Eni's wildly racing heart slowed and it got easier to breathe, "You can imagine running. You can picture it so clearly it feels like you're doing it."

The Slayer surprised Eni by grabbing one of her paws and bringing it to his own chest. "Feel," he said.

It was hard to focus while she was still so breathless, her fingers trembling and full of her own pulse. When she strained her ears, though, she could just barely hear his heart thumping over the wind sighing through the trees. "It's going so slow," she said.

His pulse barely seemed fast enough to keep a mammal alive, but Tsar simply looked down into her eyes. Eni realized it was the closest she had ever been to him face to face and she was helpless not to stare. His jawline was incredibly sharp beneath his fur, and his untidy mane seemed to have a faint iridescence to it when she was so near him. But beyond what she could see, Eni was close enough to smell him; he had a musk unlike anything else that somehow made her think of thunderstorms and the ocean. If the Slayer noticed her attention he didn't show it, closing his eyes and drawing in a deep breath.

Almost instantly, his heart began racing so quickly that only his paw holding hers in place prevented Eni from jerking back in surprise; she could barely distinguish separate beats. After a few seconds, the Slayer opened his eyes and let go of her paw, and Eni drew her fingers away. "Complete control," he said quietly, "Body and mind and magic. That's what you need."

"Is that why you've had me practice focusing while walking and sitting?" Eni asked.

The Slayer nodded. "And running now. You need to find a focus that centers yourself and refine it. Once you master yourself, you won't need the focus anymore."

Tsar turned away and began gathering up the detritus of their lunch, but even as she packed her own satchel Eni turned his words over in her mind as she considered the implication. When she got upset it was hard enough to reel in her magic even when she could pull herself away from the situation. But what Tsar had suggested meant he had utter control no matter what was going on, even if he was in the middle of a battle with a monster.

She couldn't help but envy him, and it only strengthened her resolve to do as he had. As the day dragged on and the sun eventually set, Eni didn't think she said so much as a single word as she practiced. Sometimes she'd close her eyes as they walked. Sometimes she'd sprint ahead of Tsar, her satchel painfully bouncing against the small of her back, and try to empty her mind. Eni told herself she had found the Slayer despite that seeming utterly impossible, and if she could do that she could learn to control her magic.

Trying to be optimistic didn't noticeably help, but it didn't seem to hurt, either. Eni was so focused on her practice that she barely noticed when their side road rejoined the Sovereign Highway. Nearly the instant that they did, though, Tsar came to a sudden halt and Eni did the same, gaping at the sight before them.

She was used to the majesty of the Sovereign Highway, with its elegant multilevel construction of polished white stone, the sinuously curved arches that supported the wide upper level seeming almost impossibly slim and airy. No matter how many times she traveled on it, it remained a marvel of engineering. In all the world only the Circle had such a highway, which remained glass-smooth unlike the rutted side road Eni and the Slayer had just traveled.

However, it wasn't the majesty of the Sovereign Highway that had given Eni pause, but the fact that she was being confronted with evidence that the Slayer had made the right choice to avoid it for as long as possible. Eni had never seen so much traffic before, both levels of the highway crammed with mammals and carriages. Although many of them had torches or lanterns, making them visible in the night, Eni could tell from the murmur of voices that there were far more mammals simply using the lights of others.

There had to be hundreds waiting to reach the gate of Tormurghast, which was just barely visible as an archway precisely the same width as the Sovereign Highway itself. The ancient copper doors themselves, which were a mellow verdigris, were still open as they always were, but the line of mammals waiting to get in didn't seem to be moving at all.

Eni shot a nervous glance at Tsar; from how impatient the wolf had been about getting into the Circle when they had still been in Ctesiphon she halfway expected him to get off the highway with plans of climbing over Tormurghast's outer wall. She didn't think it would be possible for a normal mammal, since the wall was more than a hundred feet tall and made of enormous stone blocks that fit together so tightly and had been polished so well that from a distance the wall appeared to be a single piece, but the Slayer was not a normal mammal.

Eni couldn't even guess how many guards patrolled the battlements atop the outer wall, and in a desperate attempt to distract Tsar she blurted out one of the many questions she had been dying to ask. "What have you been doing since the Scourge ended?" she said, the words out of her mouth before she could second guess them.

It was, perhaps, the ultimate question, the one that was the source of more disagreement among historians than any other. Some maintained that the Slayer, when faced with no more monsters to fight, had gone into a quiet and well-earned retirement in some sleepy little village, with significant arguments over where exactly that was. Others had claimed that the Slayer had fallen in battle before the Scourge ended, and the memory of him had inspired others to cover it up and finish his work. There were dozens of other theories, most of them fairly implausible, but Eni wanted to know for herself.

Tsar looked at Eni, his head cocked to the side, and she wondered if she had pressed too far. At least no one seemed to be paying attention to them; the group in front of them was a family of pigs sharing a late dinner. All of them, the father and mother and a little piglet who couldn't have been more than seven or eight, looked to have eyes only for their food.

The smacking of their lips and the sound of their teeth grinding together made a terrible backdrop as Tsar considered her question, and he at last answered in a low voice. "Hunting mages," he said, and a hardness had come into his features that made him almost look as though he had been carved of stone.

Eni remembered that he had strongly implied that to be the case, and she nodded, wincing internally. "Right," she said awkwardly.

A few more minutes passed as Eni worked out how to ask her next question. "Did you teach any of them the way you're teaching me?" she asked.

Tsar hadn't spoken so much as a single word about the slavers and the antelope after she had told her story, and she desperately wanted to know if it had changed how he saw her. It seemed safer, though, to see if she was in any way special compared to the others he had encountered. For all she knew, the Slayer had taught a dozen mages over his long life, but he just shook his head, and answered only, "Was too late for them."

Eni felt a chill travel down her spine as she considered his words. He had spoken gently, without the faintest hint of a threat, but his point was utterly clear. Eni wondered how close she herself was to being a lost cause. If it had taken her another year to find the Slayer, would it have been too late for her? Or perhaps it would only be a matter of weeks or months before her power slipped entirely out of her control. Her hearing sharpened, the world around her closing in as every sound felt magnified, and as Eni drew in a shaky breath a shrill voice suddenly interrupted her thoughts. "Mama, I want to meet the Slayer!" the piglet in front of them said, and Eni froze.

She stared down at the little mammal, who had blueberries smeared across her snout, and fumbled for something to say. Eni's mouth had instantly gone dry, and she looked to Tsar for guidance. He simply looked back at her, his expression neutral.

"And if you can wait quietly, dear, you will," the piglet's mother said soothingly as she wiped at her daughter's mouth with a wet rag.

The piglet squirmed as her mother cleaned the berries from her face. "But Mama!" she protested, "The line's so long! What if it takes days to get in? We're gonna miss the play."

"We won't," her father said reassuringly, "We'll be in Tormurghast before the feast starts tomorrow night."

"Do you promise?" the piglet asked, her voice both plaintive and hopeful.

"We promise," her mother replied, "We've got reservations at Borov's. Do you remember what 'reservation' means?"

The piglet's face screwed up in apparent concentration. "It means they gotta give us seats at the table," she said at last.

The two adult pigs both laughed, and the father rubbed his daughter's back. "That's exactly right, sweetie," he said, "They'll have pies and fruit punch and jugglers and tumblers. Your papa got the best seats for watching The Slayer's Triumph, too. And if you can be very, very quiet tonight for Mama and me, you'll get to meet him."

The piglet's eyes went as wide as saucers as she nodded eagerly, her mouth closed so firmly that her lips stuck out as though she was puckering up for a kiss. Her parents exchanged a glance and looked ahead at the wait before them, and it occurred to Eni with a jolt that the following day really was the thirtieth of Septim when the grand festivities for the Days of Description came to a climatic end. The celebrations in Ctesiphon on the twentieth had been rather muted, considering how the city was slowly falling apart, and Eni had been too busy traveling with the actual Slayer to even think about the festival devoted to him. The piglet's excitement for meeting one of the actors who inevitably played the part of the Slayer reminded Eni of her own youth, and she found a smile crossing her face.

Her smile faded, though, as their wait continued and the line barely moved. Tsar was looking ahead to the wall surrounding Tormurghast with a thoughtful expression that she didn't care for. She didn't think she was being paranoid to imagine that he really was planning to climb it rather than wait in line, and she wondered at how good his sight was at night. The minutes dragged on as Eni tried coming up with something to say and rejected each in turn. The very last thing she wanted to do was irritate Tsar, but she had no idea what topics he might consider especially sensitive.

"Make way!" a booming voice called from ahead of Eni and Tsar suddenly called out, distracting her from her worries, "Make way!"

The mass of mammals ahead of them in the queue to pass through the gates of Tormurghast grumbled and muttered to themselves, but they did shuffle aside to let through a procession leaving the city. Although Tsar and Eni had been waiting their turn for at least half an hour, it was the first time anyone had been going the opposite direction, which would have been enough to catch Eni's interest even if the procession had been more modest.

Modest, however, was the last word Eni would use to describe the approaching cavalcade.

There was an almost deafening blare as a dozen horns called out five rising notes that echoed into the night sky. Before the sound had faded, four columns of soldiers holding aloft enormous banners with lanterns attached at the top came into view marching away from Tormurghast, but they weren't Circle soldiers. Unlike the fine armor that soldiers like Lieutenant Sammar wore, the marching mammals were dressed far more simply, male and female alike, in loincloths and cloaks of pure black trimmed in gold. The fanged sigil of the Concurrence of the Carnars was emblazoned across the banners they carried, the teeth seeming to snarl down at the crowd that eagerly shrunk away from the soldiers.

There had to be at least eighty soldiers, representing the vast array of predators unified into the League of Jaws; tigers and wolves and lions and leopards marched in perfect harmony, arranged from shortest up front to the tallest at the rear.

Once the soldiers had cleared a path, though, Eni saw what they had been escorting. She couldn't recall ever seeing a larger carriage, but beyond its size it was obvious exquisite care had gone into making it. Everything, from the wheels to the running boards to the graceful curves of the roof, was made entirely of polished ebony inlaid with gold which gleamed in the torchlight. More imposing than its opulence and more imposing than the honor guard that had preceded it, though, were the mammals who hauled it. Four enormous grizzly bears, who looked almost twice as tall as most of the mammals in the crowd they maneuvered through, pulled it in utterly perfect lockstep.

The same symbol on the banners was engraved across the massive doors, the gleaming teeth of the symbol each at least two inches long. Eni had barely enough time to see it, though, because as the carriage came to a stop immediately in front of her, a door swung open and a familiar voice called out. "Eni Siverets? By Roren, can that possibly be you?"

Eni couldn't help herself; a smile spread across her face. "Of course it is, Aza," she said, "You wouldn't have come if you didn't know I was here."

A pleasant laugh came from inside the carriage, and it shifted slightly on the massive leaf springs of its suspension as the mammal who had spoken moved to stand framed in the doorway. As Eni had known would be the case, Archduke Avamezin was beaming at her, the tall tiger looking down even more than he usually had to because of how high the carriage rode. He was muscular but not burly, and the richly embroidered cloak and loincloth he wore did little to cover him. The creamy white fur of his well-muscled chest was plainly visible and as meticulously groomed as the fur atop his head under his elegant golden circlet and his neatly trimmed whiskers. Even if he hadn't been smiling, the stripes on his handsome face would have made him look as though he was, and his green eyes positively sparkled with delight.

"Please," he said, beckoning to her, "When I heard you were coming I knew I'd have to offer you a ride past the gates. It'll take hours if you stay in this line."

Eni spared a glance at Tsar, but he was already behind her, clearly wanting to take advantage of the opportunity Avamezin had offered. "Thank you," Eni said, and accepted his paw as he helped her up past the tall first step.

"I'm afraid you've seen right through me, you clever little hare," Avamezin said as he stepped aside for Eni, "I have eyes in the sky watching the roads. I was hoping you'd pass this way."

His tone was light and teasing, as it almost always was, and he didn't seem to pay any attention to the Slayer as the wolf climbed into the carriage after Eni. The same wasn't true, however, of the other two occupants. One of them, a young tiger, simply looked from Eni to Tsar with what seemed to her to be very mild interest, but the other was far more hostile.

Eni had thought the grizzly bears pulling the carriage were large, but she had never in her life seen a mammal as vast as the polar bear that sat in one corner. He seemed to fill all of the available space, an enormous great sword longer than Eni was tall and broader than her palm resting in the crook of one massive shoulder. His cloak, far plainer than Avamezin's, strained at his bulk, which from the look of the exposed part of his abdomen was pure muscle. The parts of his thighs Eni could see below his armored kilt looked as big around as her waist, and even sitting he loomed over Avamezin. His features were rounded, nearly to the point of softness, but the scowl that came across his massive muzzle as he glared at Eni almost made her take a step back. From the casual way the polar bear placed a paw on the hilt of his sword, Eni felt a twinge of concern; the bear looked capable of tearing her in half even without a weapon.

"It's alright, Signa," Avamezin said, seeming to at last take notice of Tsar and still seeming unperturbed, "Any friend of Eni's is a friend of mine."

The bear's scowl only deepened at that, his lips pressing into a thin line, but he gently eased his paw off the hilt of the sword. "Eni, may I introduce you to Signa of Clan Orsolo?" Avamezin said, gesturing with an easy grace at the bear, "Signa is my bodyguard."

The bear gave Eni a brusque nod, his eyes never leaving her. Avamezin chuckled and rotated his right arm, rubbing at his shoulder with his left while he winced. "And my sparring partner, although I'm afraid it's more work for me than it is for him."

Signa blew air through his nose and glowered down at Eni, as though daring her to make fun of Avamezin's fighting prowess. Considering that Eni knew that the twin swords Avamezin had sheathed on his left hip weren't just for show, she couldn't imagine how good of a warrior the bear was. "I've heard stories of the bears of the north," Eni said, as respectfully as she could, and while Signa didn't react Avamezin laughed.

"No matter what you've heard, the truth is more impressive," he said, smiling again, "You should have seen Signa when we first met. The first time I saw him fight, I knew I needed to have him as my personal guard."

Signa uttered a growl so low that Eni felt it more than heard it, and Avamezin clapped his paws together. "But what am I doing, rehashing old history?" he said cheerfully, "I'm being dreadfully rude."

Eni had a feeling that the reason the tiger had seen Signa fight was probably a fascinating story in its own right, but probably not one considered appropriate for the ears of an outsider. The Concurrence of the Carnars was famously tight-lipped about what went on inside their own borders; all of their peril papers had the distinctly bland feeling of having been run through a government censor. As the saying went, the Jaws might bite but they didn't flap.

"Please," Avamezin said, interrupting Eni's thoughts, "Allow me to introduce you at last to my son."

The tiger looked prouder in that moment than Eni had ever seen him as he gestured to the young tiger sitting on the side of the carriage opposite Signa. Although Eni had never seen him in the flesh, Avamezin had shown her several portraits of the young tiger, including one cunningly hidden in the elaborate brooch that held Avamezin's cloak together.

"Prince Sabor Havetski Avamezin Tainia," Eni said, speaking each of his names slowly and carefully as she put her fists together in a formal Fanglands-style greeting and bowed her head, "It is a great pleasure to meet you."

The distinct pattern of Sabor's stripes, which seemed to take after his mother more so than his father, hadn't changed much since those old portraits had been commissioned, but he was definitely no longer the pudgy little cub Eni had seen in miniature paintings and Aza had spoken of a decade ago. Sabor had grown tall and slim; even though Eni knew he was only twelve he had to be within an inch or two of her height. The prince had always been adorable in portrait form, and to Eni it didn't look as though the painter had exaggerated anything; he was well on his way to becoming as strikingly handsome as his father.

The young tiger regarded Eni coolly, his eyes, which were the same color as burnished gold coins, meeting hers. "Good evening, Mrs. Eni Siverets," he replied, and when he returned her gesture and his own cloak opened slightly Eni saw that his right arm was encased in an elaborate cast.

Despite his arm being immobilized, there wasn't a hint of awkwardness to how smoothly his knuckles came together, but he didn't incline his head by so much as a fraction of an inch. Eni knew better than to feel offended; Sabor was royalty, after all. "Miss Siverets," Avamezin corrected gently, "Not Mrs. Siverets. In Modern Circi, 'miss' is the proper address for an unwed doe."

"I apologize for the error," Sabor replied, his words stiffly precise.

Unlike his father, who spoke Circi with a mild Jarku accent, Sabor sounded as though he could have come from Vornstrom; his vowels were perfectly short and clipped. Eni waved the apology away. "It's an easy mistake to make. And most does my age are married," Eni admitted, favoring Sabor with a smile, and Avamezin chuckled.

"But not you, Eni. I've always said the bucks ought to be throwing themselves at you, haven't I?" he said, smiling once again, "I'll admit, I don't understand their tastes."

Eni laughed, his words calling back a memory from shortly after she had met Avamezin while she had been on the road. "I seem to remember you asking a rabbit buck why he thought he was too good for me," she said, smiling as she recalled the timid little jeweler.

Avamezin laughed with her, the sound as mellow and as rich as his voice. "In my defense, that was before I learned the difference between rabbits and hares," he said, "You know, I used to think all hares were as tall as you are."

"Just me, I'm afraid," Eni said, and although she smiled it was the truth.

"If it's any consolation, I think you're the finest antiquarian in all the Cradle," he said, "Aberrant hare or not."

Eni chuckled politely; she had never met another hare who was an antiquarian before, let alone one who was also an Aberrant. Avamezin smiled again and gestured at Eni, speaking to his son. "She really is the finest antiquarian in all the Cradle," he said, "Do you remember those twin poignards from the Age of Attainment your uncle Buran is so proud of? Eni's the one who verified that they're real."

"My father has always spoken highly of your skills," Sabor said, his words just as formal as before.

"And your father never stopped speaking about you," Eni said, a smile coming to her face as she remembered how indulgently proud Avamezin had always been, "He's very proud."

Sabor accepted the compliment with nothing more than a feline twitch of his ears, but Avamezin threw an arm around his son's shoulders as he took a seat at his side. "The finest gift Kera's ever given me," he said, squeezing Sabor gently.

Kera was Avamezin's wife, but despite traveling with the tiger for months Eni had never met her. The Archduke had always claimed that she preferred the courts of Carnaron to the open road, which Eni didn't find hard to believe. As much as she herself had grown to love traveling, there was something to be said for always having hot water and a soft bed. "Well, except for finally allowing him to come along on one of my trips," Avamezin said, "But please, Eni, take a seat and I'll have you through the gate in a few minutes."

The inside of the carriage looked about as large as a cottage, but with a degree of luxury that if anything surpassed the exterior. The windows were covered with velvet curtains that were as purple and deep as the sky at twilight, but a number of crystal lamps made the interior anything but gloomy. Two large and overstuffed benches that looked plusher than any chair Eni had ever sat in before lined either side of the carriage, the space between them taken up by a low table with a map of the Cradle worked into its surface in precious stones.

Avamezin gestured for Eni to sit at his left, and with the bench on one side of the carriage taken up by Sabor, Avamezin, and Eni, Tsar had to sit at Signa's right on the opposite end. The polar bear gave him a coldly appraising look before seeming to determine he wasn't an immediate threat; although Signa's attention remained on Avamezin Eni could see his eyes continuously creeping back to the wolf. Tsar didn't acknowledge the bear's wariness; he took his seat and stared blankly ahead at the engravings that lined the top of the carriage.

Once they were all seated, Avamezin rapped firmly on one of the walls and they began moving so smoothly Eni barely felt it. Sabor rocked slightly, but when Signa reached out to steady him the young tiger scowled at the bear, proudly leaning back to maintain his balance unaided. "And who's your talkative friend?" Avamezin asked before the moment could grow awkward, turning to look at Tsar with open curiosity, "Have you started traveling with a bodyguard of your own in these dangerous times?"

The tiger's tone was light, as it inevitably was, but Eni thought she heard genuine concern behind the surface. "That's exactly it," Eni replied, and Avamezin nodded, obvious relief spreading across his face.

"This is Tsar," Eni added, gesturing at the Slayer.

The wolf nodded curtly in Avamezin's direction, apparently entirely unperturbed that he was sitting in the presence of royalty. "Have you been keeping up with your Jarku?" Avamezin asked abruptly, shifting into his native language as he turned his attention back to Eni.

Unlike his Modern Circi, which betrayed the fact that it wasn't his first language, Avamezin's Jarku was textbook perfect, each guttural sound exquisitely formed and vocalized in precisely the way a noble was supposed to speak the language. "As best as I can," Eni replied in Jarku, "It can be difficult to find someone to practice with in the Circle."

Avamezin chuckled to himself. "Always so modest, Eni," he replied, still speaking Jarku, "You speak my tongue like a native. But I must admit, the reason I ask isn't just to see if you've been keeping up with what I've taught you."

"Oh?" Eni replied.

"My brother and father saw fit to send me here with quite the entourage. Half of them don't speak a word of Circi, and most of the rest act like speaking to a prey mammal will make their balls fall off," Avamezin said.

Tsar's lips twitched in a way that was still far short of a smile as if the wolf had been amused by Avamezin's rather crude comparison; Eni had to admit that hearing such words spoken with such a posh inflection was more than a little funny. "I could use another scribe," the tiger continued, "Someone who understands both languages. What do you say? I could offer you at least four weeks of pay at a very generous rate. Plus meals and lodgings, of course."

At almost any other time, Eni would have leaped at the opportunity. Four weeks of pay as a scribe to the Archduke would likely be almost as much as she made in half a year, but it wasn't just the money. Avamezin was a friend, and a good one at that; she hated to let him down. "Or two scribes," he said when her answer wasn't immediate, "Since your bodyguard seems to understand Jarku. You speak my language, don't you?"

He had directed his last question to Tsar, still in Jarku, and the wolf simply nodded. "And where do you hail from, my friend?" Avamezin asked.

"East," the Slayer replied.

Unlike the Slayer's utterly flat Modern Circi, he spoke Jarku with a peculiar and notably strong accent unlike any Eni had ever heard before.

"An Elrim?" Avamezin replied, surprise evident in his voice, "My, I'm sure you have quite the story to tell."

Eni was surprised herself; the word "Elrim" didn't have an exact translation from Jarku to Modern Circi. The closest equivalent would be a barbarian, but there was a certain layer of meaning that was lost with so simple a word. Elrim lived beyond the borders of the League of Jaws, refusing to be annexed as the Kingdom of Karanor had been in the west, but Elrim weren't defined solely by their origin. Being an Elrim was a philosophy as much as it was a nationality, and while they had been wiped out several times throughout history they kept stubbornly returning.

The Slayer simply shrugged. "There's work here," he said, lapsing back into Circi.

"There is indeed," Avamezin said with a sigh, speaking once more in Circi, "So what do you say, Eni? Does four weeks of good food, good company, and good pay sound tempting?"

"I'm really sorry, Aza," Eni said, "But I've got to send a message to the Archivist. I might not be in Tormurghast very long."

That wasn't quite true, as how long she stayed in Tormurghast would depend on how long she and the Slayer needed with his mysterious acquaintance, but it was close enough and it was a good excuse. Avamezin didn't hide his disappointment, but he spread his paws ruefully. "Ah, well," he said cheerfully, "I'd offer to write to the old markhor myself to beg him to let you stay, but he always found you more charming, I think. I can at the very least offer you the services of my personal messenger eagle. He's much faster than any bird you can hire from an office postal."

"You mean a post office," Eni corrected, although she strongly suspected the tiger had made the error on purpose for her benefit, "And that's very kind of you."

"You see why I'll miss your presence?" Avamezin asked, offering her a charming smile, "But think nothing of it. I don't suppose you happen to have your letter already written?"

Eni did; she had squeezed in a few minutes on the road here and there to write her report on finding the Slayer and to ask her boss to begin making inquiries about The Lamentations of Nergora. She could have sent a letter alongside the copy of The Seven Labors she had mailed her office, but Eni had wanted to be able to provide the Archivist with as much detail as possible before reporting her discovery. That, and she had wanted to be as certain as possible that he really was the Slayer, but everything she had seen so far only supported that conclusion.

Eni pulled the letter from her satchel, neatly sealed with the blue wax and the signet that marked her department with the university, and gave it to Avamezin. He accepted it and carefully stowed it inside his cloak. "However, perhaps there is a favor I can ask you," he said, "Well, two, if I allow myself to be greedy."

Eni smiled. "What do you have in mind, Aza?" she said.

"This hasn't been nearly enough time to catch up," he said, peeling back one curtain and peering through the window, "We're almost at the gate. Would you care to join me, my wife, and my son for dinner tomorrow? I must admit, I am interested as much in current events as in what you've been up to since we last saw each other. There are many rumors about the Blight in Ctesiphon, but…"

He spread his paws wide. "But your perspective is likely to be the most informative, I think," he finished.

"Absolutely," Eni said, although she privately hoped she wasn't making a promise she wouldn't be able to keep, "It'd be my pleasure."

She chanced a glance at the Slayer, but he hadn't reacted at all, seeming utterly bored by the conversation unfolding around him. "We shall look forward to seeing you, won't we Sabor?" Avamezin said.

His son nodded imperiously, his expression almost ridiculously somber for one so young. "And what's the other favor you wanted to ask?" Eni asked.

"I'm afraid that Sabor hasn't had many opportunities to speak Circi with someone who knows it as a first language," Avamezin said, "Would you mind practicing with him a bit until we're through the gate?"

"Circi is actually my second language," Eni said, "I learned Nihu first. But it'd be my pleasure."

"Why don't you tell Eni the story of how you broke your arm?" Avamezin said, "King Renald may find it an amusing anecdote."

"The Saber-General says King Renald finds it funny when predators are hurt," Sabor replied, "She says he doesn't have much of a sense of humor otherwise."

Avamezin sighed. Eni knew exactly who they both meant by King Renald, although she had naturally never met the rhino herself. Considering his reputation, she didn't particularly want to, either. "Perhaps she is right, in which case he will find it funny indeed," Avamezin replied, "Or perhaps she is wrong and he will find it only mildly amusing. But it is worth practicing, I think."

Sabor bowed his head. "Of course, father," he said, his tone one of absolute respect.

The younger tiger paused for a moment, seeming to gather his thoughts, and then began speaking again. "I was learning how to ride a horse," he said at last, "It did not go well, and I landed on my arm."

Eni took another look at his cast, which was quite large relative to his slim frame. She had never heard of any horses living in the Fanglands, and wondered at what sort of horse would choose to spend time with the League's nobility. "We can work on how you tell it," Avamezin said, "There's a skill to telling stories, after all, and practice is the key. But his Circi was excellent, was it not?"

He had directed his last question to Eni, and she nodded. "Your grammar and pronunciation are excellent, Prince Sabor," she said, and he accepted the compliment with regal good grace.

Avamezin, by contrast, positively swelled with pride. "I'm glad you were able to meet him, Eni," he said, "Kera wanted him to stay behind and recover, you know."

The Archduke shrugged with an easy grace. "But you wouldn't have wanted to miss this trip, would you?" he asked his son, and before Sabor could answer he turned to Eni and added, "He even insisted on coming along for this little carriage ride, you see."

"The Saber-General said I should see more of the city," Sabor said, and Avamezin nodded.

"She's absolutely right about that," he said, and as he spoke the carriage came to a stop so gently that Eni had to marvel at how imperceptible it was.

"And this must be where we part ways," Avamezin said, "I'll look forward to seeing you tomorrow, Eni."

Signa stood up for the first time, and Eni saw the bear was even taller than she had guessed; when he opened the door and peered outward, assessing their surroundings, he absolutely filled the doorframe. He turned and gave the Archduke a curt nod before stepping aside to let Eni and Tsar pass. "I'm staying in the embassy," Avamezin said, "I'll make sure they know you're coming."

"Thanks again for the ride, Aza," Eni said, and the tiger pressed his fists together in a formal farewell.

"Safe travels, Eni," he replied as she returned the gesture and stepped out of the carriage.

Tsar was only a step behind her, and the instant they were both clear the door to the carriage closed and it was in motion once more. Tsar looked around for a moment, seeming to orient himself, and Eni wondered who they were going to meet. More than that, though, she wondered how Tsar would act around them. He seemed as utterly occupied by his own thoughts as he had been in the carriage, and once he had picked a direction he simply started walking.

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