Updated: Jun 29
"Tsar?" Eni asked, "What does it mean for a mage to be luminous?"
Eni had managed to hold her tongue when they had been hunting for traces of magic, but after Tsar had apparently found what he was searching for Eni couldn't hold the question in any longer. Tsar hadn't mentioned wanting to look at anything else or uttered a word of protest about heading to the embassy, and Eni hoped it meant that he would actually answer her question. He seemed to consider it as they kept walking, the wolf utterly silent for several blocks.
A group of children ran in front of them, squealing so loud it hurt Eni's ears; they seemed to be playing a game of Slayer and Monsters, a pudgy young hedgehog who barely came up to Eni's waist in the hero's role. Eni almost tripped in her haste to stop and avoid catching some quills in her leg, but the hedgehog didn't spare her so much as a backwards glance as he kept running with both paws outstretched. "You're dead! You're dead!" he cried in a high and thin voice.
One of the other children, playing the role of a monster, tumbled dramatically to her knees, letting out a keening wail as she toppled over to her side with her tongue lolling out. Both of them laughed as she dusted herself and got up and then went racing off again. The actual Slayer had neatly sidestepped all of the children at play, although his face had darkened in what looked like distaste as his ragged cloak spun around his gaunt frame. He spared a glance at their retreating backs before he kept walking, his features smoothing out as he did. Eni caught up with him after making sure there weren't any stragglers about to run full-tilt into her legs, and as she did the wolf seemed ready to speak.
"It's like…" Tsar began, and he paused for a moment before continuing, "You have two boxes. One this big and one this small."
As he spoke, the Slayer gestured vaguely in front of himself, first sketching out the dimensions of a cube about three feet on each side before drawing one perhaps three inches on each side.
"Alright," Eni said, nodding.
"Both sealed," he said, "Which one has more darkness in it?"
"Darkness isn't… Darkness doesn't work that way," Eni said hesitantly, wondering if it was supposed to be a riddle or a trick question, "If there's not a light in the box, there aren't any shadows either. They'd be the same."
"And if each box had a lit match placed in it?" Tsar asked.
"Well, the small box would be brighter," Eni said.
Tsar nodded. "But the lights can be brighter or dimmer, and the boxes can be bigger or smaller," he said.
The wolf seemed satisfied with his answer, and gave no sign that he intended to continue talking, but Eni was more confused than ever. "But what does that mean for a mage?" she asked.
"Mages are the light and the dark," he replied.
"So the brightness of the light in the box is a mage's strength?" Eni asked.
"No," Tsar said sharply, "You can burn down a forest with a match or a bonfire."
Eni considered his metaphor for a moment. "So it's a sort of balance," she said slowly, glancing at Tsar's face while she spoke to see if she was getting it right, "Like a mage's potential."
The wolf's tail swished from side to side as he cocked his head, seeming to consider her answer. "Everyone has a light inside them. It's lit when they're born and gets snuffed out when they die."
"Their soul?" Eni prompted.
"A soul?" Tsar repeated, seeming to taste the word, and then he shrugged his shoulders.
"Can call it that," he said, "The shape doesn't change."
That certainly sounded like a soul to Eni, like some kind of ineffable part of a life, but Tsar had sounded noticeably skeptical when he said the word. Instead of pressing him further, she asked, "What's the box, then?"
"Willpower," he said instantly.
Eni was surprised; she had expected to have to wait for several minutes before the wolf would respond, as usually happened when he was considering weighty matters. His eyes had taken on that peculiar inward look, though, as if he was seeing something visible to no one else. Revelers filled the street with laughter and cheer, packing the storefronts and forming queues in front of carts, but Tsar had the look of a mammal who was utterly alone. "Willpower," he said again softly, and then his expression hardened a degree and his focus returned to the street in front of them.
"The effort you put in can change the box's size," he continued, and Eni thought about what that implied.
"To make it smaller, you mean?" she asked, "That's what would happen, right?"
Tsar almost looked pleased as he nodded. "A mage might have a dim light," he said, "But with willpower the box it's in can be so small that there's no darkness. The light can reach through the box."
Eni turned his words over in her heads for a few blocks as they kept walking toward Titus Castle. "Tsar?" she asked, "What if the light is larger than the box it's in?"
She couldn't keep a note of anxiety out of her voice, because a terrible thought had struck her. Had she learned why her own magic was so difficult to control? What if the power within her exceeded her own ability to master it? The wolf appeared utterly oblivious to her thoughts, and he didn't speak until after they had crossed three intersections, throngs of mammals moving around them and chattering happily in blissful ignorance.
"Could you fit a bonfire in your pocket?" he asked.
A wave of relief came over Eni. "No," she said.
Her heart slowed down and Eni realized with a start that it had been racing. She forced herself to take a deep breath, trying to make it as steady as possible, and tried to think of something else to talk about. Nearby, a kangaroo dressed as the Slayer was performing incredible feats of acrobatics; as Eni watched he went from balancing on an enormous metal hoop with a single toe to back-flipping and catching himself with one paw. The metal hoop wobbled and shook fractionally, the kangaroo's face screwed up with exertion, but he kept his balance before flipping again and taking a bow. The other mammals watching cheered and threw coins in a hat placed next to the hoop, and as Eni was about to say something to Tsar he spoke.
"I'm not an Elrim," he said, casting a side-long glance in Eni's direction.
"What?" Eni said.
His words were a complete non sequitur, but he plunged on. "You were going to ask me about that," he said.
It was true that Eni had meant to pry further into his origins, particularly after his demonstration of speaking Jarku with such a strange accent in Aza's carriage, but it was quite far from the question that had been on her mind. It did, however, seem a much more interesting topic than asking about the origins of the rumor in the south that he was a kangaroo, and she enthusiastically latched onto it.
"Aza seemed to recognize your accent," she said, and the wolf shrugged.
"You're not a Fanglands noble," he said, "But you speak Jarku like one."
"I— You mean you learned Jarku from an Elrim?" Eni asked eagerly.
The Slayer's origins were so shrouded in mystery that anything she could learn would end decades of debate. Tsar didn't share her excitement; he just grunted an acknowledgement, his eyes sliding back to the street before them. Even with a fair amount of their route left to go, Titus Castle loomed above everything else, brightly illuminated by countless torches that made its enormous white bulk all but glitter. "Is Jarku your first language?" she asked.
"Circi isn't yours," he said slowly, "You told the tiger you learned Nihu first."
"It's true," Eni began, "I—"
"Never been to Nihuron," he interrupted, "Siverets is there."
She wasn't quite sure if Tsar was making a statement or asking a question; his voice was so flat that he sounded entirely dispassionate. She wondered if he was making a point of some kind; from what he had demonstrated so far she had never noticed him display any sort of interest in her past. "It is," she said cautiously, still not understanding what he was getting at.
"Will you go back there?" he asked.
His voice was as disinterested as it had been before, as though they were simply discussing the weather, "Once you learn control."
"I—" Eni began, and she paused, licking at her lips, before the answer suddenly came out before she could think through the words.
"I don't know."
It wasn't that the question had never occurred to her; when she had been younger the idea of returning to her home village had always seemed like an inevitability. Not immediately, of course, not when the possibility of traveling with the Slayer and learning from him beckoned her onward, but at some point over the years Eni realized that she had stopped thinking about returning to Siverets. "There's nothing left for me there," she said quietly.
Tsar didn't say anything, but he was listening attentively. His ears had both flicked in her direction, even as his eyes kept roaming over the pedestrians that crowded the streets, and his face seemed different in a way Eni couldn't describe. They walked in silence, shuffling around a street vendor selling commemorative coins purportedly cast in pure silver, and then Tsar spoke. "You miss it."
Eni nodded. "The Day of Description was different, there," she said, "The way we celebrated, I mean."
Tsar tilted his head to the side, which Eni took as an invitation to continue. "Everyone wore masks. To show that the Slayer could come from anywhere and be anyone, you see. And there was a… a sort of shrine, I guess you'd call it, built around an old stele at the center of town."
Eni smiled, and she could almost see the slab before her, the characters carved into its pitted and corroded surface still faintly visible. "All things unjust broken, all things cruel slain, all things dark lit. Behold and rejoice, now all things are anew," Eni recited, translating the words into Modern Circi, "That's what was written on it. It's how Siverets got its name. It means 'Promise.'"
From the Slayer's lack of a reaction, she supposed he hadn't known the language. "Most mammals just touched it for luck," Eni continued, remembering the first time she had pressed a finger to the cool metal surface, "And there was a statue of the Slayer on a plinth nearby. We'd write our prayers for the year on little scrolls and burn them in a fire at the statue's feet."
After meeting Tsar, Eni knew that the statue hadn't been a particularly good representation of the Slayer even when it had been newly carved. With the passage of time, as the wood split and the paint started peeling off, it had given the wolf's visage a somehow tragic and melancholy look beyond what Eni supposed the sculptor had meant to depict.
The statue's faded blue eyes had seemed full of an infinite sorrow and wisdom, as though he had judged the entire world and found it wanting. The body had been a bit more fanciful, depicting the Slayer with scaled legs that ended in wicked talons and a serrated tail ending in a barbed spike, but it had been the very first representation of the wolf Eni had ever seen and it was one that she knew would always stick with her.
Eni remembered the last Day of Description she had ever spent in Siverets, when the prayer she had carefully written in beautiful Nihu characters caught fire. The scrap of paper had curled with the heat of the flames, peeling slightly open and letting her see the words as they burned. Let me find a teacher.
Eni blinked and the image disappeared. For a moment, it had been so vivid that it seemed to float in front of her as though she was in the Slayer's Shrine again with the cool sea breeze bringing with it the scent of an incense she had never smelled again in the Cradle. But she was just on one of the main streets of Tormurghast, approaching the looming bulk of the gate that surrounded Titus Castle.
Unlike the smooth blocks of the wall that surrounded Tormurghast as a whole, the wall surrounding the castle had been elegantly carved in elaborate detail. The carvings seemed almost to move in the flickering light of the nearby torches and lanterns, the depictions of long-dead members of the royal family eerily life-like. The image of Morvyn Titus himself spread across both of the massive copper doors that split the gate, the giraffe wielding a scepter in one hoof and a hammer in the other. Scenes from his life filled the rest of the door, showing the transformation of Tormurghast from a foundry into a true city.
The crowds had thinned out somewhat; the guards posted at regular intervals didn't allow any vendors to set up immediately outside the castle. A few mammals, bundled up so completely in the Ghabarahatan style that Eni couldn't even guess at their species, were eagerly discussing a scene of Domitia assuming the throne following her sister-in-law's untimely death, but there were few others. The massive wall surrounding the castle were apparently only of interest to tourists, but Eni could still feel the eyes of the guards on her and Tsar as they approached the titanic doors.
"Excuse me?" Eni said, as politely as she could manage, once she was standing before the guard who stood in front of where the two doors met.
Unlike the practical but still beautifully decorated armor that Sammar and the other guards at the entrance to the Circle itself had worn, Titus Castle guards wore quaintly old-fashioned uniforms of billowing and brilliantly-colored silk. They looked almost exactly like the guards engraved on the ancient doors behind them, but Eni could see the bright edges of scale armor at their cuffs and necklines beneath the gaudy fabric.
The guard Eni had spoken to, a massive gaur who towered over her and the Slayer, didn't speak, but his head inclined fractionally and his dark beady eyes met hers. "My name is Eni Siverets. Archduke Avamezin invited me to dinner at the embassy today."
A long moment passed as the guard stared her down, his eyes roaming up and down her body before flicking over to Tsar to do the same. The wolf gave no sign that the scrutiny bothered him, simply looking back at the gaur with a bland expression on his face.
At last, the gaur turned his head, pounded the end of his halberd against the ground, and bellowed, "Mind the gate!"
Eni could hear a series of sharp mechanical clicks emerge from the enormous copper doors as whoever was on the other side of the gate did as the gaur had ordered, and the guard turned back to face her. "Welcome to Titus Castle, Miss Siverets," he said, his words carefully enunciated and filled with deference, "You and your bodyguard may proceed. The guard inside the gate will escort you to the embassy."
The gaur lifted his halberd and at the exact moment he did so the doors began swinging outward. Although there was no mark upon the flagstones that Eni could see, he was perfectly positioned such that he was just outside the arc the doors made as they opened. The guard inclined his head and took a single neat step to one side. As Eni started walking into the castle grounds, she noticed that Tsar seemed to have fallen into the role of a bodyguard; he kept himself a pace behind her with his head bowed and the distance between them stayed exactly the same.
Some of the tourists outside the walls nudged each other and pointed at her and Tsar excitedly, and Eni could hear their whispers. "Is it time?" a moose asked his companion, but she just shook her head.
Tsar was apparently ignoring them, and Eni did her best to do the same. It wasn't very difficult; the grounds of Castle Titus beyond the walls were almost overwhelming. Every building that formed the complex soared to dizzying heights and loomed overhead; although the guard escorting them to the embassy was a bison nearly as tall as the gaur at the gate, even he was utterly dwarfed. It was like a city within the city, the path they were walking along as broad as a high street and lined with enormous trees that formed a green canopy overhead. The trunks of the trees had been twisted into graceful and delicate shapes, and a faintly honey-like scent filled the air.
Castle guards were everywhere, their brightly-colored uniforms making them stand out against the pure white stonework even in the relatively dim light of the setting sun, but Eni spotted a few guards in significantly more subdued uniforms and was sure there were many more hidden where the light didn't reach. She couldn't resist the urge to look around to take it all in, but neither Tsar nor their escort was inclined to make conversation; they were led across a stone bridge that formed a delicate arc over a burbling stream and to a building no less grand than any of the others they had previously passed. An enormous stained-glass window was set over the massive front doors depicting the emblem of the Circle using what must have been thousands of pieces of glass each no larger than a pebble.
As they approached, two guards standing on either side of the doorway snapped to attention and pulled the doors open. There didn't seem to be any of the elaborate mechanical locks that the gate into the castle grounds had used, but the carved mahogany doors were no less impressive for it. Welcoming light blazed out as they opened, and a pair of shadowy figures stood framed in sharp relief.
Although the contrast between the brightly-lit interior of the embassy and the coming night outside it was still too great to make out any features, Eni could tell exactly who they were; the shorter and thinner of the two could only be Aza, and the taller and broader was obviously his polar bear bodyguard.
"Eni!" Aza cried as he beckoned her in, "Perfect timing as always. Please, come in, come in!"
The bison who had escorted Eni and Tsar to the embassy gave a curt bow and came to an immediate stop, his job apparently over. "It's good to see you again, Aza," Eni said, a smile coming to her face as she entered the embassy.
"It's only been a day and that's already been too long," the tiger replied, a smile of his own coming across his face.
"It has," Eni agreed, giving him a formal Fanglands-style greeting as she brought her fists together.
He returned the gesture and beckoned her after him, ignoring Tsar completely in much the same fashion that Signa appeared oblivious to Eni herself, the massive bear's eyes suspiciously locked on to the Slayer. The bodyguard didn't say anything, though, and Eni looked around as she followed Aza to a side corridor.
Although the interior of the embassy showed off its origins as a product of Tormurghast architecture just as much as the exterior, with its clean lines and gleaming white stone construction, some care had apparently been taken to make the visiting Jaws delegates feel at home.
On one wall, opposite the giant stained-glass window in the shape of the Circle's sigil, hung two enormous banners at least twenty feet long. The one on the left was embroidered with the snarling jaws sigil that gave the Concurrence of the Carnars their common nickname, while the one on the right proudly displayed the far less menacing emblem of the Anteocularian Federation. A few antiques from both major powers had been set up at strategic intervals along the walls, each with a small brass plaque in front of them, and Eni took in the curios with a glance. Some of them were marginally interesting, like a nearly five-hundred-year-old memorial vase from the coronation of Caiser Svenkar and what appeared to be a genuine torc from the Suid Unitary, but there wasn't so much as a single book on display.
Guards were positioned along the left half of the entrance hallway, but they were clearly members of the Jaws military from their lightly-armored uniforms and the fact that they were, to a mammal, all predators. Each of them gave Avamezin the proper show of deference as they passed, the tiger somehow managing to acknowledge each without ever losing the thread of his words. "I'm afraid my eagle isn't quite fast enough to be back already," he said, still smiling, "Perhaps tomorrow, at the earliest. If you'll still be in town?"
"Yes," Eni said eagerly, and after she spoke looked to Tsar.
The wolf's face remained impassive, which Eni decided to take to mean that he had no immediate plans to leave. She wondered what the Archivist would have to say in response to her message, and in particular if he had any leads on The Lamentations of Nergora. "Wonderful," Aza all but beamed, "Now, I have a bit of a confession to make, Eni."
She thought that perhaps a bit of tension had come into Tsar's shoulders, as though he was expecting the tiger to attack them, but the wolf's face didn't show any emotion. "Oh?" Eni asked lightly, "What's that?"
"Queen Marsenn is putting on a… How do you say it in Circi? A big to-do?"
"You know it is," Eni said, "You're just stalling."
The tiger laughed. "Yes, yes, forgive my flair for the dramatic. A big to-do for the Circle's guests. Namely, myself as the representative of the Jaws and Renald as—"
"You're stalling again," Eni interrupted.
Aza chuckled. "It's not just dinner tonight," he said, his tone mildly apologetic, "There's going to be a production of The Sunset Story afterward."
Eni froze in her steps. "Are— Are you inviting me?" she managed to say.
She had read what felt like every play that had ever been put on about the Slayer, but in her entire life she had only ever managed to attend five, none of which had been in Tormurghast. Whether the city really did have the world's greatest productions or if it was just a common boast Eni didn't know, but she was eager to find out for herself. Aza stopped walking and his smile widened. "Of course I am!" he said, "I would have mentioned it earlier, but I didn't want you to feel pressured into staying if you had to be going," he said, and then he chuckled.
"The Archivist surely wouldn't approve if I urged you to shirk your duties," Aza said, with a faint smile.
"Probably not," Eni agreed, although she thought the old markhor would have relished the opportunity to catch up with one of the few Jaws nobles to attend Terregor's university, "But…"
Eni trailed off as a thought occurred to her and she looked down at herself. She didn't think that her clothes were shabby by any means, but they were strictly utilitarian, made out of durable and hard-wearing fabric without any sort of ornamentation. "But?" Aza prompted.
"I don't think I'm dressed for it," Eni said, and the tiger waved a paw airily.
"A problem I already considered and most easily remedied," he said, and he gestured at the door they were approaching, "Please, you can take fifteen minutes to freshen up before dinner. I made sure there's something suitable for you and for Mister Tsar to wear. One of Signa's mammals will be outside the door if you need anything."
"I can't thank you enough, Aza," Eni said, and he smiled.
"Perhaps you can think about my job offer again, if the Archivist lets you stick around," he said slyly, and Eni laughed.
"You're as transparent as glass," she said, and he shrugged his shoulders in a surprisingly un-noble manner.
"What can I say?" the tiger asked, "I'll see you soon."
The door he had brought them to led to a room that was a small apartment only by the standards of an embassy. It still covered more floor space than some inns Eni had stayed in, and in addition to a large and cozy living room with a fully stocked bar and a number of comfortable chairs there were two enormous bedrooms. Neatly lettered cards had been placed on the doors to each, one of them reading "Miss Eni Siverets" in beautiful calligraphy and the other "Mister Tsar." Although he didn't say anything, Tsar must still not have quite trusted Aza because he followed Eni to the door of the bedroom labeled for her use and peered inside over the top of her head.
"It's fine, Tsar," Eni said as she took in the gorgeous bedroom, "You can change in the other room."
He simply grunted and left her alone as Eni let herself in. There were a few pieces of elegant furniture in the room, including a writing desk and a dresser with an elaborate and quietly ticking carriage clock atop it, but it was the bed that dominated the room. It was so large that an entire family could have slept in it, topped with an overstuffed mattress and comforter that looked soft as clouds. A package wrapped in clean white paper sat atop the comforter, which Eni picked up and carefully opened. What came out took her breath away; it was a vibrantly purple Nihuron-style robe complete with a sash in a delicate lilac color. Flowers had been printed on the silk in vivid shades of yellow and orange, spangling the bottom hem and the sleeves.
It had been years since Eni had seen any sort of clothing from the Nihuron Peninsula, and for a moment all she could do was hold it and take in the slippery feel of the silk in her paws. She smiled to herself as she carefully folded it back up and brought it with her to the en suite washroom, which was even larger and more elegant than the one in Rongen's tower, all of the fixtures made of white marble shot through with gold. At the center of the room was a bathtub Eni could have almost swum laps in, already half-full of steaming water perfumed with something exotically floral.
She wished she had more time to luxuriate in the water, which was as warm and soothing as it had looked, but Eni forced herself to bathe as quickly as possible before scrubbing herself dry with towels that looked and felt as though they cost more than her entire wardrobe. Despite how long it had been since she had worn the clothes of her youth, her paws seemed to unerringly remember how to fold the robe closed and tie up the sash. The mirror in the room did help somewhat in that regard, and when she was satisfied with how it looked she used a fine-toothed golden comb that had been left by the basin of the sink to tame the tuft of fur atop her head.
Holding her breath to keep her paws perfectly steady, Eni completed the outfit by carefully tucking the prongs of the headdress Aza had included in the bundle between her ears. The Edasu was just as finely made as the robe, formed of hollow white gold that delicately spiraled in twin tips that were vaguely antler-like. Eni took one final look at herself and smiled, shaking her head and then nodding in satisfaction when the Edasu didn't budge.
As Eni passed through the bedroom, she saw by the carriage clock that she had used nearly all the allotted time and hoped that Tsar was also ready. He was, and apparently had been for at least a few minutes judging by how he was slouching in one of the chairs, but Aza had obviously not procured a similar robe for him. He was instead dressed in an almost painfully nondescript set of clothes in the current Tormurghast fashion for males; he wore a high-collared black tunic over matching trousers, a plain white cravat around his neck and a cloak of gray felted wool covering the whole ensemble. The single splash of color was a small sapphire in the end of the silver stickpin that held the neckband together, but the overall look was entirely unassuming. Tsar could have been a moderately prosperous merchant or a noble on hard times, but he had the look of a mammal who would blend in almost anywhere.
Eni supposed that was the point for a discreet bodyguard, but Tsar openly stared at her far more exotic dress, his eyes lingering on the Edasu set atop her head before taking in her robe. "It's Nihian," she said, laughing as she spun in place, the feeling of the robe's movements against her comfortingly familiar, "What do you think?"
The Slayer grunted. "Stands out," he said simply, and without another word stood up and let his cloak drape around his body before heading for the door.
As Aza had promised, there was indeed a guard waiting outside for them. He was a wolf who must have been nearly half a foot taller than Tsar, his body much more solidly built, but he was dressed almost identically to the Slayer. The one difference, so far as Eni could see, was that the gem in the stickpin that kept his cravat together was a citrine, which matched his pale yellow eyes. The wolf pressed his fists together in a perfectly formal greeting, inclining his head.
"This way, please," he said in heavily accented Circi, gesturing for Eni to follow.
Their escort led them down a series of hallways, bringing them further into the embassy, before finally coming to a halt in front of a door with two guards on either side of it. Once they were finally admitted, it was to a room Eni immediately liked.
Although it was quite large, like every room in the embassy Eni had seen so far, the dining room was somehow almost cozy. The walls were covered with tapestries depicting Tormurghast's oldest buildings, with cheerfully colored flowers in copper pots interspersed throughout. An elaborate chandelier of cut crystal hung overhead, and a long wooden table filled the center of the room. Behind it, along the wall, Signa stood absolutely still, and at the table were seated three tigers. Eni recognized both Aza and Sabor immediately, and the one she didn't know by sight could only be the Archduchess Kera.
The tigress was pretty in a glamorously elegant way; her features were so finely formed she looked almost statuesque. Her eyes were the same golden color as her son's, and in seeing her Eni also noticed that Sabor seemed to have inherited the almost metallic coppery color of her fur. A slim golden circlet was atop her head, and beneath her cloak Kera's torso was almost as bare as her husband's. Straps of fine golden silk preserved her modesty, although Eni doubted any female mammal from the Circle would wear anything quite as revealing. The Archduchess smiled, raising her paws up under her chin before putting them together in an elegantly feminine version of the standard Carnaron greeting.
"Welcome, Miss Siverets," she said, "It is a pleasure all mine to at last be meeting you."
Her words were in Modern Circi with an accent slightly thicker than Aza's, her voice smooth and lilting. "Archduchess Kerakini Aleksalvyna Runa-Anhalta," Eni replied in Jarku as she returned the greeting, "I am honored to meet you."
Kera laughed warmly, covering her mouth with one paw as she did. "Oh my," she said in the same language, "Such a clever hare you are. I've never heard a prey mammal speak Jarku in so refined a manner."
"You see?" Aza asked, also speaking Jarku, "I did not exaggerate."
"You did not," Kera replied, switching back to Modern Circi and addressing Eni, "But we are to be using your tongue, I believe. Is for good practice."
"Of course," Eni said, and Aza gestured at the one empty seat at the table.
"Please, Miss Siverets, sit down. Your bodyguard can join mine."
He gestured lazily behind himself, where Signa stood. The massive polar bear glared down; unlike the other guards they had passed since leaving the small apartment, absolutely no effort had been made to make him look like a citizen of the Circle. Eni supposed there was little point in trying to make a polar bear blend in; it would have been obvious that Signa came from the frozen northern reaches of the Fanglands even if he hadn't been wearing a cloak clasped with a brooch in the shape of the Jaws sigil and clothes that left his powerfully muscled midriff bare.
Tsar walked over to the bear's side with what struck Eni as a very out-of-character deference, but she supposed the tigers didn't see anything more than a bodyguard acting with the proper respect for his master. Eni took the offered seat at the table, daintily sitting down and smoothing out her robe as she did so. "I have to thank you for the clothes, Archduke Avamezin," she said.
Something about the formality of a dinner somehow made it feel appropriate to be equally formal with her words, and Aza didn't object to Eni's use of his title. "I'm pleased you like them, Miss Siverets," he said, smiling slightly, "I'm told the tailor who made the robe is the finest on the Nihuron Peninsula. Of course, I imagine any tailor would tell me the same."
He chuckled, and Eni laughed politely with him at his little joke. "But I think it is time for dinner to be served," Aza said, clapping his paws twice.
Almost instantly, waiters appeared from doorways hidden behind the tapestries, bringing with them large silver platters heaped with a wide assortment of food. Most of them were set before the tigers, but a couple smaller ones were presented to Eni. "I thought it might be polite to eat before King Renald shows up," Aza commented as a silent waiter began carving enormous pieces of flaky flesh off a seared fish, "I'm told he takes offense at flesh of any kind."
"But you are not being bothered?" Kera asked Eni, mild interest passing across her features.
For a moment, Eni could taste the mutton Ceslaus had served her, but she pushed the memory down. "Fish doesn't bother me," she managed, and the tigress nodded.
"The taste is interesting," Kera commented as she took a delicate bite, "They are favoring spices more strongly in the Circle. But of course you have not been having the… how do you say… delicacies of the Concurrence?"
Eni shook her head as she looked down at her own plate. A waiter had served her a mixed salad in a light dressing, which she gratefully started eating even as she felt a pang of sympathy that Tsar could do nothing more than watch. The archduchess delicately dabbed at her lips with a napkin before taking a sip of her wine. "Forgive me if I am asking too many questions," the tigress said, "It is only you have traveled long with my husband and I am wishing to know his friend."
"Oh, I don't mind at all," Eni said, "He's always spoken very highly of you and Prince Sabor. It's a pleasure to meet both of you."
Kera's smile lit up her face. "Sabor is my pride," she said, and Aza added, "Our pride."
For his part, the young prince squirmed, looking somewhat embarrassed by the attention, but he didn't say anything. With his broken arm he seemed to be having some difficulty feeding himself, awkwardly doing everything with one paw, but no one had offered to help him and Eni got the feeling he would have refused assistance just as he had in the carriage.
"It is only a shame that until his arm is healed he cannot demonstrate what he's learned," Kera observed, reaching over with one paw and fondly stroking the top of Sabor's head, "Leya says he is being one of the finest students of the swords she has ever seen."
Eni had no idea who the Archduchess was talking about, but she supposed that anyone good enough with a pair of swords to be selected to teach the prince of the Jaws must have been a terror with blades. "The Saber-General is the finest teacher I could ask for," Sabor said, speaking at last.
Sabor spoke quietly, but his tone was very nearly reverential. "Perhaps King Renald will allow her to… demonstrate her talents," Kera said.
She was smiling, but it didn't seem to touch her eyes. Aza's ears flicked ever so slightly and a frown creased his face. "Hopefully it won't come to that," he said mildly before taking another bite of his fish.
"He will not be tempted tonight, at least," Kera observed, swirling her wineglass delicately, "But I can think of no one better than Leya to oversee the security arrangements. Meaning no offense, Signa."
The polar bear seemed utterly unfazed by what could have been taken as a minor insult, simply dipping his head respectfully. "I know where your talents lie," Kera continued, "But tussling one-on-one is not the same as guarding an entire compound."
"Is King Renald arriving soon, then?" Eni asked.
Aza nodded. "We're both to be guests of honor at the play," he said, sipping at his wine, "I dare say we'll know when he's about to make his entrance."
He smiled, looking down at the meal before him. "But I think we have enough time for a story or two. Eni, you wouldn't mind telling the one about Wordermund's dagger, would you? I'm afraid I can't do it justice myself."
Eni laughed, a bit surprised that he had brought it up. "Only if you'll help me," she said, smiling, "You always remember the details I don't."
"So modest!" Aza said, laughing himself, "Please, do go on."
It was a story Eni had told many times of how an antiquities dealer had tried cheating Archduke Avamezin with a spectacularly dishonest story involving a rusty old knife that had supposedly been one of the eleven blades used to slay Wordermund himself, not knowing who the tiger was. Aza knew exactly how to embellish it, exaggerating the claims the old ferret had made, and when he imitated the merchant's wheezy voice Eni nearly choked on her drink. Kera and Sabor both laughed at the right parts, and Eni swore she might have seen Signa's impassive muzzle curl up slightly into what might have been a tiny smile. Tsar's face remained stony, and Eni wondered if there was anything that could actually make the grim wolf laugh.
"Then he pulled out a pouch this big," Aza said, holding his fingers about two inches apart, "And do you know what he said?"
Sabor shook his head, appearing to be very nearly on the edge of his seat to hear what happened next. "Go on, Miss Siverets, tell him."
"He said…" Eni began, trying to fight the urge to laugh, "He said… 'Well, maybe it's not Wordermund's dagger. But… But…'"
She couldn't manage to finish, and Avamezin took over for her, once again imitating the ferret's voice. "'But this was his codpiece, I swears by the Mother!'"
Everyone except Tsar actually laughed at that, and Eni dabbed at her eyes with her napkin. Kera's delicately musical laugh was nearly drowned out by Signa's chuckling, which was just as deep as Eni would have guessed by the bear's massive size. "I wonder if he ever actually fooled someone," Aza said, smiling to himself, "But you understand why I need an expert in antiquities. Otherwise, who's to say what I might fall for?"
Eni smiled. "You're smarter than you give yourself credit for," she said, and Aza accepted the compliment gracefully.
"Now, as much as I'd love to regale my family with stories of our school days, there's a somewhat grimmer topic I think it'd be prudent to discuss," the tiger said, "But I don't suppose you'd mind telling us about the Blight? I have to wonder what didn't make it into the peril papers. Particularly about the supposed monster."
"Well, there's really not much to tell," Eni said slowly, taking a sip of her drink to buy herself a little time.
Carnaron wine was unpleasantly bitter, as all their drinks tended to be, but it kept her paws busy and her mouth momentarily full as she carefully chose her words. "It's—" Eni began, but she never got the chance to finish.
There was a blaring blast of a horn, but it wasn't the unsettling mixture of reverberating bass with a shrill overtone of a monster alarm. It was grand, brassy and triumphant, and Aza sat back in his chair. "Perhaps at intermission, then," he said, smiling to himself, "Renald is here."
He wiped at his mouth with his napkin and stood up even as his family and Eni hastened to do the same. From the same hidden doors that waiters had appeared from, Jaws soldiers entered the room, forming an honor guard around the royal family. Signa took his place a stride behind the archduke, and the guards left a gap apparently intended for Eni and Tsar that they quickly took.
They were led out of the room through one of the hidden corridors, which seemed as though it might make it possible to go to any point in the embassy without using a main hallway. They took lefts and rights as they came, even as the sounds of horns and drums grew ever louder.
At last there was a curtain ahead of them, and when they passed through it Eni found herself in the grandest theater she had ever seen. It was enormous, easily capable of seating at least two thousand mammals, and every seat in the main area seemed to be taken. The private booth they had arrived in was larger and better equipped than the sumptuous carriage Eni had ridden in with Avamezin. There were nearly a dozen chairs, all of them well-stuffed and with an excellent view of the stage that was at the front of the cavernous space. An enormous curtain of blue crushed velvet was currently lowered, but a dazzling limelight was focused on a tall podium that stood in front of it.
Although the lighting in the theater was otherwise dim, Eni could see the carved marble that surrounded the stage. The images of dozens of different species had been worked in bas-relief, and the pillars that supported the massively vaulted ceiling were just as elaborately engraved. The ceiling itself was so high that it was invisible, but the acoustics were incredible; as the music got closer and closer it somehow grew richer without echoing or becoming distorted. Doors opposite the stage, which had been barely visible before, opened into a tall slice of light that must have been at least fifty feet tall and yet had still perfectly sealed without so much as a crack of illumination when closed.
Through the doorway came a procession that struck Eni as at least the equal of the one accompanying Avamezin's carriage. Dozens of massive mammals in the crisp uniforms of the Federation's Antrustions marched in perfect lockstep even as they played horns and drums to a complex rhythm. Eni had never seen so many enormous prey mammals in the same place at once; there were camels and moose in the lead followed by hippopotamuses and bison and gaurs. Their music only got louder and louder as they marched further into the theater, but the central aisle leading to the stage was so long that the procession didn't fill it. Following the band were dozens more members of the Federation military with spears, the shortest of them easily a foot taller than Tsar, and then came a mammal who could only be King Renald of the House of Hurn.
He was a rhinoceros just as large and burly as any of his honor guard, but instead of a Federation uniform he wore a baggy pair of trousers under a long silk coat embroidered with abstract geometric figures. A number of blades, the smallest of which was perhaps a dagger by his standards but would have been a machete by Eni's, were tucked into a wide belt, but it wasn't those weapons that drew her eyes.
Slung over his back was a war hammer so enormous that it looked all but impossible to lift, each of its blunt faces larger than Eni's head. King Renald seemed absolutely unburdened by it, walking with his back rigidly straight. He had the same military precision as his soldiers, and Eni could see his small black eyes rolling back and forth as he took in the theater. A dully purposeful steel crown was set around the smaller of his two horns and extended it so much that it looked like the end of a harpoon; the crown's tip looked just as wickedly sharp.
As the front of the procession reached the stage, it came to a halt and the music stopped. The Antrustions stood at rigid attention, and then Eni heard the click of hooves as a mammal approached the curtains from behind and then passed through where they met. In the brilliant limelight focused on the podium, the mammal was almost impossible to look at; she was a giraffe with fur that was seemingly pure white, which matched her elegant dress and gave her a dreamlike ethereal quality. There was, however, nothing dreamlike about her voice; when she spoke it was crisp and clear and seemed to fill the theater. "Greetings, honored guests!" the giraffe said, "I am Queen Liviana Marsenn of House Carva, monarch of Tormurghast, and it is my great pleasure to welcome you to my city. King Renald of the Anteocularian Federation, you honor us with your presence."
Queen Marsenn dipped her long neck in an elegant nod, the diamonds set into her crown sending off rainbows of light. "I hope you will enjoy the entertainment I have arranged for the benefit of you and our other guest, Archduke Terrinar Avamezin Mordu-Tainia of the Concurrence of the Carnars."
As she spoke, another limelight suddenly flared to life and illuminated the private booth Eni was standing in at Avamezin's side. The tiger pressed his paws together in a formal greeting, humbly lowering his head for a moment. "I am honored to be present, Queen Marsenn," Avamezin said, speaking loudly but not shouting.
King Renald curtly nodded his head without speaking, but the queen smiled beatifically. "Then allow the citizens of Tormurghast, including myself, and our guests from throughout the Circle and from around the world to welcome you," she said, and began applauding.
The instant she started, every other mammal in the theater followed, until the sound of clapping was nearly deafening. Queen Marsenn exited the stage gracefully, descending a series of stairs and shaking hooves with King Renald. She said something to him Eni couldn't hear over the applause, gesturing in the direction opposite Avamezin's private booth, and the rhino nodded brusquely.
The Federation entourage slowly dispersed as the king and what must have been his top guards took places in their booth, and after a few minutes the applause slowly died down. As it did, the few remaining lights in the theater faded, the podium being carried away under cover of darkness.
The curtains went up, and Eni let out a gasp of awe.