Eni awoke to a canopy of leaves above her and shifted slightly, only to be met with the unexpected feeling of a soft mattress beneath her. She blinked, groggily shaking her head, and after a moment she remembered where she was. What she was looking up at was just the ceiling of a guest room in Rongen's tower, cunningly painted to look like the sky through the branches of a tree. She hadn't noticed the ceiling the previous night with the lights dim, but with the sun streaming through a set of enormous windows the effect was striking and extremely convincing.
Eni glanced at the nightstand to the side of the bed, reassured to see her journal and favorite pen sitting atop it. She had spent a few hours the previous night adding to her notes about the Slayer, and the last thing she would have wanted would have been to fall asleep mid-entry. Eni tucked both the little notebook and her delicate glass pen back into her satchel and then crossed the room to a door disguised as a tree trunk. Behind it was a combined lavatory and washroom with beautiful fixtures of etched glass she used to freshen up before leaving in search of Tsar.
His room had been right next door to hers, but when she peered in the only sign of his presence was that the sheets on the bed were rumpled and a slight depression had been left in the center of the mattress. Icy fingers grabbed at her heart, which started racing as she desperately scanned the room. The Slayer's bag and cloak were nowhere to be seen, and a horrifying possibility came suddenly to mind.
Had the Slayer brought her to Rongen just to abandon her?
Eni stood rooted in place as the awful thought washed over her, her vision pulsing in time with her heart. Murmurs clawed at her ears, too softly to make out individual words, but Eni knew that they were speaking in her own voice. She took a breath, trying to push the magic down, and then she heard something that hadn't come from inside her head.
"Dammit Gray, did you get sap in this?"
Rongen's irritable voice cut through the whispers, but they didn't go away until she heard Tsar make a wordless grunt of acknowledgement. Eni rushed down the hallway, her feet pounding as relief overwhelmed her, and took the stairs two at a time in her hurry to get to the ground floor. She nearly slipped on the polished marble floor as she turned a corner running nearly flat out, skidding as she came into a spacious kitchen she hadn't seen the night before.
What met her eyes was Tsar and Rongen sitting at a massive table, the Slayer's whip sword in pieces in front of the raccoon atop a few spread out peril papers. Rongen's face was twisted into a grimace of disgust as he held up a delicately machined cylinder that seemed to have come from within the hilt. "If I refill this fuel canister it's going to explode in your paw. It's a damn miracle you still have all your fingers," he said, and he turned his head as he noticed Eni entering the room.
"Oh, good morning Miss Siverets," he said, his tone significantly less frosty, "I was just telling Gray he needs to take better care of his equipment."
Rongen glared daggers at Tsar, who was slouching in his chair across from the tinkerer. The Slayer gave Eni a brief nod of acknowledgement, apparently as indifferent to how she was short of breath as he was to Rongen's displeasure. "You can help yourself to breakfast," Rongen added, looking back at Eni and nodding in the direction of the stove.
Eni willed her heart to slow down as she crossed the kitchen, which was large and airy. A massive oven with an equally large stove top filled one corner, an array of gleaming copper pots and pans hanging above it. Wooden cupboards, engraved with floral designs, stood nearby, and coming off the kitchen Eni saw a pantry filled nearly to bursting. Compared to the tidiness of the room and the quality of the cooking equipment, however, what sat atop the stove was about the most unappetizing meal Eni had ever seen.
A pot full of what seemed to be porridge bubbled away, but it looked weirdly lumpy and unnaturally gray. Eni shot a glance from the pot to Tsar and Rongen, and the raccoon caught her eye. "I gave my staff the week off for the Day of Description," Rongen said apologetically, "Sorry the food isn't better."
"No, no, it's fine," Eni lied, grabbing a bowl and gingerly ladling up some of the porridge. It had a sort of crust that audibly cracked as she pushed the ladle through it, but the center was far too runny for her tastes. Still, Rongen and Tsar had both apparently survived eating bowls of it, and she took hers over to where they were both sitting.
Rongen was still fiddling with pieces of Nidhogg, keeping up a running stream of curses and complaints as he did so. Eni delicately scooped up a spoonful of the porridge, which while unpleasantly textured was at least mostly flavorless. "I'd offer you honey, but someone ate it all," Rongen said, not looking up from his work, "I never was much of a cook. I bet he hasn't gotten any better either, has he?"
The raccoon pointed a screwdriver at Tsar in a rather accusing fashion, and Eni chose her words carefully. "I never ate anything the Slayer made while you traveled with him," she said, "I wouldn't know."
"So still pretty awful then, huh?" Rongen said, chuckling to himself as he started assembling components, "I don't miss that one bit."
Eni glanced at Tsar, but he was simply staring at the stove. Eni turned her attention back to her breakfast, casting her mind around for a conversational topic before an obvious one occurred to her. "Mister Rongen?" she asked, and he acknowledged her with a grunt not unlike the ones Tsar made, his focus still on the tiny pieces of the weapon before him, "If you built this whip-sword, who designed the one the Slayer used during the Scourge? I mean, you're only as old as you look, right?"
Rongen peered up at her through his thick spectacles, which had slid down his muzzle. "I'd like to think I'm a bit older than I look, but I'm nowhere near a hundred," he said with a laugh, "And if you want to know who made the original, ask him."
Rongen nodded in Tsar's direction; while they had been speaking the wolf had gotten out of his chair and silently padded over to the stove. Eni thought he was going to get himself another bowl of the porridge, but instead he simply snuffed out the merrily dancing flames that had been beneath the pot and turned around. Tsar looked blandly back at both Eni and Rongen, and the raccoon added, "If you couldn't guess, I haven't got a clue. I designed and built this one from scratch."
There was more than a faint note of pride in the words, and Eni had to admit that the weapon really was impressive, especially when it was in pieces. She wouldn't have thought that its internals were so complex, but there were dozens of pieces and tools spread out across the table in front of her host. "It was a gift," Tsar said quietly as he walked back over to the table and took his seat again, "How much longer, Rongen?"
The raccoon glanced at him sourly. "Did you ever think I might have plans for the Day of Description?" he asked, and when Tsar's face didn't change whatsoever Rongen heaved a sigh.
"Fine, you got me. I don't. Another couple hours to fix it. At least five if you want me to make a replacement fuel canister and top off the spares," he said.
Tsar nodded minutely, and the raccoon's cheeks puffed out irritably. "Be nice if you could be as easy to please as my grandson," he muttered, his voice still loud enough to be easily heard, "Doesn't take much more than an empty box to make him happy when he visits."
"Your grandchildren aren't in the city?" Eni asked, remembering the chew toy Tsar had found the previous night.
"No, no, my daughter and her husband live in Adlivun," Rongen said, shaking his head, "They're both mining engineers. His family's all there, you see."
Eni wondered why Rongen didn't simply go to see them himself, but even as she was coming up with a tactful way of asking, he answered for her. "And my traveling days are all over," Rongen added, tapping at his right leg with one paw, "Word to the wise: try not to shatter your leg."
Eni winced sympathetically, and Rongen chuckled again. "Besides, I couldn't leave Vivianne," he said, his voice getting rougher.
"It looks nearly done," Eni said, recalling the airship and its mostly finished envelope, but Rongen shook his head.
"Not the Vivianne," Rongen said, and to Eni his watery eyes seemed to have gotten a touch more so, "Vivianne. My wife. I visit her every day."
Eni couldn't think of a good way to ask Rongen to clarify whether he meant his wife was sick or dead without being horribly insensitive, but she didn't have to. In his seat Tsar had suddenly gone still, and then he spoke. "She was quite the raccoon."
Rongen smiled fondly. "That she was," he said, "That she was."
He coughed and turned his attention back to his work. "So are you going to let me fix this, or are you going to stay in my fur all day?" he asked gruffly.
Eni looked up at Tsar; he hadn't discussed any specifics of what he wanted to do in Tormurghast once they arrived. "We'll look around," Tsar said, "See if there's anything out of place."
Rongen snorted. "Ah, the thrills never stop when you travel the world with the Slayer. Walking around cities all day looking for Mother knows what… Sleeping on the hard ground… Shitting in holes you have to dig yourself. And I'm making it sound more glamorous than it was," he said, "Well, you two have fun."
"Anything you've noticed?" Tsar asked, speaking as though Rongen hadn't.
The raccoon scratched at his chin thoughtfully, leaving a smear of grease behind as he did. "Nah," he said at last, "City Guard's everywhere ever since the Jaws rolled into town. Probably be tighter than a mosquito's asshole once the Horns get here too."
He gestured vaguely at the old peril papers he had put down to protect the gleaming wood surface of his table. Although Eni couldn't read any of the articles due to how many parts covered the words, the headlines were clear enough. The queen of Tormurghast had apparently thrown a lavish welcome for Avamezin's delegation and the same seemed to be expected for King Renald.
Rongen shrugged. "Be easier if you told me what you were looking for," he said, "Unless it's another one of those things."
"I'll know it when I see it," Tsar replied, and Rongen sighed.
"So it is one of those things. I hate magic, you know," he said, shaking his head.
Tsar nodded absently and turned to Eni. "I'm going," he said, as blunt as ever.
"I'm ready," Eni replied, lifting her satchel by one strap to show it was the truth.
The Slayer turned and headed for the main entrance without a word or so much as a sign of acknowledgement. "Thank you for your hospitality, Mister Rongen," Eni said, and hurried after Tsar.
Rongen lifted one paw in acknowledgement and started re-assembling components with an incredible dexterity, still grumbling to himself. Eni caught up with the Slayer easily enough, and was only a step behind him as he left Rongen's tower.
Eni was immediately struck by how different the neighborhood looked compared to the previous night; in the light of day the colors of all the banners were so bright they almost hurt her eyes. They had multiplied, too; the mansion closest to Rongen's plot of land was so festooned with red, white, and gold pennants that it was impossible to tell anything more than its general shape.
More than the decorations, though, daylight had brought with it teeming throngs of mammals, many just as eye-catching as the decorations. Eni could see a few mammals wearing the fashion of one of the other sovereigns, like what she thought was a goat completely wrapped head to toe in the Ghabarahatan style, but most looked to be from Tormurghast. Since she had last passed through the city, cravats held together with jeweled pins had apparently come into fashion for males, and she spotted pretty dresses that seemed to have been made from surplus Tormurghast City Guard dress uniforms on a few females wandering through the crowd.
The shops had gone just as far with their decorations as most of the houses had; a nearby teahouse had transformed part of its outdoor seating area into an elaborate stage for a puppet show. Nearly a hundred children were staring with rapt attention as the little Slayer puppet, who was perhaps a foot and a half tall, did battle with the three-headed Hydra of Sithis. The carved wooden monster was nearly as large as Eni herself was, dozens of nearly invisible silk threads making it move so fluidly that it almost looked alive.
The young audience squealed with delight and awe as one of the Hydra's heads came off, trailing red fabric streamers of blood as the puppeteer made it bellow in agony. Eni glanced over at Tsar, but he seemed almost to be deliberately ignoring the spectacle. The wolf's head was moving back and forth as he scanned the other nearby storefronts, and while none of them had anything quite as impressive as the puppet show they were still dazzling.
A tailor's shop had spectacular costumes on display that could have made any wolf look like the Slayer even if they weren't an Aberrant. There were magnificent cloaks of dazzling white, embroidered with thread of pure gold and trimmed in red, fluttering in the breeze as they hung off of mannequins. Matching trousers and tunics completed the look, and there were even enameled armor pieces for the truly dedicated.
A bakery filled the air with the mouth-watering scents of cinnamon and sugar, and in the window Eni saw sweet rolls in the shape of a wolf's head. Children and adults alike packed the shop as a pair of frazzled-looking clerks tried to keep up.
A bookstore had an enormous ninth-edition copy of The Seven Labors proudly open to display the chapter on the Slayer's battle with the Vycan, and while the much newer book wasn't as finely illustrated as the first-edition Eni had sent back to the university its ink seemed almost to shimmer in the sunlight.
Eni could have spent hours just taking in the atmosphere in the block surrounding Rongen's tower, but the Slayer didn't appear impressed by any of it. He wove his way through the crowds with an easy grace, and it was all Eni could do to keep up. She regretfully tore her eyes away from a glassblower's shop, where dangling bits of jewelry flashed and sparkled around magnificent miniature copies of the stained-glass windows in the Palace of Wordermund, and tried to pay attention to what Tsar was doing.
His head swiveled from side to side and up and down, his ears sometimes moving to face the same direction as his eyes and sometimes not. His tail twitched back and forth slowly, its tip curling and uncurling, and as they passed into a relatively wide gap in the teeming throngs Eni took the chance to walk by his side rather than a pace behind. "Is there anything I should be looking for?" Eni asked.
The Slayer didn't give her any indication that he had noticed her speak, and they passed several blocks in silence. "No," he said at last, "You don't know how."
"Then teach me how," Eni replied immediately, and the Slayer lapsed back into silence for several more blocks.
Eni waited as patiently as she could, telling herself that the wolf was simply being thoughtful, and did her best to examine the passersby as she did. Tsar was leading them away from the center of the city where Titus Castle loomed above all else and toward the outer wall, where the newer parts of Tormurghast stood. Although the city didn't become run-down by any means, the clothes of the mammals they passed started getting noticeably less elaborate and the decorations on the shops became plainer. They edged around another puppet show far less elaborate than the first one, the movements of the monster the Slayer fought significantly less fluid and more obviously artificial. The crowd of children watching wasn't any less enthralled, however, and they cheered loudly when the Slayer puppet raised its little arms in victory.
Eni also noticed that, while Rongen had been quite right about the presence of the City Guard, which seemed to be patrolling the streets in far greater numbers than she had ever seen while in Tormurghast previously, the number of guards thinned out significantly as she and the Slayer got farther away from Tormurghast's center. That wasn't to say they were completely absent, however; Eni saw a calf who couldn't have been more than fourteen or fifteen scrubbing graffiti off a wall under the watchful eyes of two City Guards. The shaky letters were each nearly a foot tall, and while the first few had become ghostly against the dark brick of the building they had been painted onto Eni had no trouble reading the message:
JAWS GO HOME
The young vandal looked rather sullen as he erased his work, which Eni guessed wasn't helped by the behavior of others who passed; a fair number pointed and laughed, and one wizened old pig loudly told the guards as he hobbled past that they ought to have whipped the calf for disrespecting Tormurghast's guests.
Tsar's eyes just slid right past the graffiti as he continued looking around, and Eni kept following the wolf and waiting for him to say something. After nearly fifteen minutes, when Eni was starting to believe that he was simply going to pointedly ignore her question entirely, they came to a charming little stone bridge that passed over one of the rigidly straight aqueducts that crisscrossed Tormurghast. When they were halfway across the Slayer stopped abruptly and pointed down. "Look at the water," he commanded.
Eni did as he said, watching the rushing flow passing below. The current was smooth and fast, the water filling the air with a fine mist. Tsar glanced around, and then turned his face back toward the aqueduct. "Watch," he said, and started prying a chunk of mortar loose.
"At the water, not me," he said, noticing Eni's eyes on him, and she turned away and looked back down.
As Eni stared at the water, Tsar threw the lump into it, making a splash and sending out ripples that vanished almost immediately as the water kept flowing. "That's what I'm looking for," he said, pointing down, "Magic is like that. It leaves traces, but they fade."
"The theurgy, you mean?" Eni asked.
Tsar nodded, looking down into the aqueduct at his hazy reflection. "But someone can make it disappear too quickly," Eni said, recalling what Tsar had said about the Zezernak.
He nodded again. Eni stared down at the water a little longer, thinking through what little she had learned, and a thought occurred to her. "Is it… Is it like the graffiti we passed?" Eni asked, "The calf was scrubbing the paint off the wall, but I could still read the message."
Eni thought she saw surprise on Tsar's face, and maybe even something that might have been pleasure at the speed with which she had come to the conclusion. But then, perhaps she was just seeing what she hoped to see, because Tsar simply nodded, his face as difficult to read as it normally was. "Do you believe it's all connected?" Eni asked, "Ceslaus sending a message to someone in Tormurghast days before the talks between the Horns and the Jaws start here?"
"I don't believe in coincidences," Tsar said quietly.
He turned and continued across the bridge, Eni following him closely. "Listen carefully, rabbit," he said, "Maybe you'll hear something call out with magic."
Eni nodded eagerly; now that she had at least an idea of what Tsar himself was doing she wanted to help. "Don't answer if you do," the Slayer continued, a bit more sharply than he usually spoke, "Just tell me."
Eni nodded again, and she tried to keep his lessons in mind as they spent the rest of the day wandering the city. Hours passed without either one of them saying a word; sometimes Eni would see his nostrils flare and he would take a few experimental sniffs, but his expression never brightened or otherwise changed, and he continued leading her through the streets.
For her part, Eni had never been quite so mindful of just how much noise a city made during the Day of Description. There was the laughter of children as they darted about underfoot, clutching half-eaten pastries or little stuffed Slayer dolls. Even before noon, Eni could hear the clink of glasses and the sound of dozens of voices lifted in drinking songs coming from every tavern and pub they passed.
At lunchtime, they paused only long enough to purchase overstuffed sandwiches from one of the carts that had popped up like mushrooms to line virtually every avenue and alley, the vendors calling out their specialties and insulting the cuisine of their rivals. A minor scuffle broke out between a sheep selling honey bread filled with bean paste and a goat selling apple cider doughnuts, but it seemed to be for show as much as anything else; the fight ended the instant a member of the City Guard began wandering over.
Eni watched a muscular Aberrant wolf, who had made his fur black with what seemed to be a liberal application of oil in an attempt to more closely resemble the Slayer, dramatically sing for the benefit of a small crowd that had gathered around him.
Who stands tall with fur as black as night?
Yet with leaf-like patterns oh so white?
Who has eyes blue as the ocean?
The greatest of heroes, the Mother's chosen.
The Slayer! The Slayer!
His tail is long and oh so strong,
He fights for all and undoes every wrong.
The song continued, but Eni noticed the actual Slayer look away, a grimace contorting his face. "It's meant for children," Eni said.
"I know," Tsar replied, "Heard it before."
"He's singing it too slowly," Eni observed, "But it's supposed to be a compliment."
Tsar made a wordless sound of acknowledgement, and Eni wondered what it must be like for him to attend the Day of Description festivities. Although the celebration was meant partially as a thanks for everything he had done to slay monsters and end the Scourge, Eni had always been taught that the real point was to etch the Slayer into everyone's minds so they'd know him if he returned.
But after spending half a day in Tsar's company, apparently not a single mammal took notice of him, even with so many representations on display. Besides the wolf troubadour in front of them, the Slayer's face had looked at them from countless banners and statues and even sweet rolls and cookies. But none of them had been recognizable as the wolf at Eni's side.
The other Slayers they had seen were too tall, too muscular, too brash, and too well-dressed. They bore almost no resemblance to the slim, quiet, and travel-worn wolf Eni was coming to know, the wolf whose face seemed almost entirely devoid of strong emotion. "You're their hero," Eni said softly, and she hesitated, wondering if she ought to reach out and touch his arm.
Part of her thought that the Slayer needed some kind of comfort, but another part of her expected that he'd simply slap her paw away. Before she could choose, Tsar shook his head. "No," he said, pointing at the singing wolf, "That's their hero."
He stood up abruptly. "Going to keep searching," he said, and gobbled down the last few bites of his sandwich.
Tsar was still chewing as he began to walk away, and Eni hastily finished her own lunch as she hurried after him. There didn't seem to be any sort of rhyme or reason to the meandering path he took through Tormurghast besides the fact that they continued to travel outward toward the wall. The crowds thickened with the lunchtime rush, but even as the afternoon wore on they didn't die down; it felt as though everyone who lived in Tormurghast was going out to celebrate.
As they passed a somewhat seedy-looking hotel, someone seemed to take notice of them for the first time all day. A beaver, who was apparently the hotel's proprietor, was standing on its portico and urging passersby to take advantage of the hotel's well-stocked bar and comfortable rooms. When he saw Tsar, he called out, "You look like a traveler, friend. Why not spend your night in the hotel with the softest beds in Tormurghast, eh? Your lady friend will appreciate it!"
The beaver turned to Eni, his smile an unsettling leer. "And you'll show him your appreciation, won't you, my dear?"
Eni's ears burned beneath her hood. She bit back a retort and resolutely ignored the beaver and kept walking after Tsar, grateful that the Slayer had done the same. The hotel's proprietor seemed unfazed by his failure, cheerfully urging a skunk to check in without missing a beat, but Tsar came to a stop a few paces past the hotel's portico. For an instant Eni thought he might shout something back, but instead he simply sniffed at the air, wrapped his tattered cloak more tightly around his body, and then kept walking.
The clock tower at the center of Titus Castle chimed four times shortly after Eni and Tsar reached the outer wall; the distinctive ringing was faint at such a distance and with so much competing noise but Eni was sure she had heard it. "We ought to start heading for the embassy," Eni said, "Dinner for the royal family always starts at six."
Aza hadn't mentioned when dinner would be held when he had extended his invitation, but he hadn't needed to; Eni had traveled with him for long enough to learn that his meals were very strictly regimented. It was one of those quirks that had struck her as bizarre until he had eventually explained it, telling her that even as the Caiser's second son his schedule had a tendency to quickly fill. Setting aside a defined hour every single day for dinner was apparently his solution for ensuring that when he was home he had time for at least one meal a day with his son.
Tsar simply nodded absently at Eni's words, apparently not requiring her to explain why she knew when the dinner would start. He was still looking at the smoothly polished surface of the inside of the outer wall, brushing a few fingers across it with a surprising delicacy, and Eni wondered what had caught his interest. Up close, the outer wall wasn't the perfectly even shade of white it was from a distance; as Tormurghast had expanded and the wall had continually been moved outwards, new stone had needed to be quarried as the wall's total circumference increased. It gave the wall a somewhat mottled appearance where the stone had faded and been weathered to slightly different degrees, but Eni couldn't see anything remarkable about any of the massive stones.
"Scent is faint," he said at last.
"But there's something there?" Eni asked, looking more closely at the block Tsar had touched.
She strained her ears, trying to listen for anything that might have so much as a hint of magic to it, but everything was blotted out by nearby music and the laughter of a family of deer who had set up a picnic in the wide green space between where the last building ended and the outer wall began. The deer were playing a ring-toss game, none of them taking any notice of Eni or Tsar, and the Slayer ignored them in turn as he brushed the stone again.
"In Tormurghast," he said after a moment, "There is a mage here."
Tsar turned around without so much as a backward glance and began walking toward the center of Tormurghast, where Titus Castle and the embassy attached to it stood. Eni looked at the idyllic scene before her as she turned to follow him, taking in the citizens of the city enjoying the Day of Description.
A dance floor had been set up in the vast park that circled the city, dozens of mammals stamping their feet in time as a band played a traditional folk song. A weasel was fiddling madly, her frantic pace barely matched by a bull on a brass flute and a moose on a massive drum. Laughter and cheers filled the air as the revelers circled each other in syncopated rhythm, and the applause was thunderous when the last note split the air. Carts selling beer and wine near the dance floor had enormous happy crowds around them, and an Aberrant wolf dressed in imitation armor was juggling flaming pins with amazing skill before an awe-struck audience.
But as Eni followed Tsar, looking at all the blissful mammals, she suddenly wondered if Tormurghast was doomed to the same fate as Ctesiphon.