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Chapter 16: Curtailment

Updated: Jul 13, 2023





Eni awoke to the sound of a gentle knock at the door. "Miss Siverets?" a timid female voice called, "Will you be joining Master Rongen and Mister Gray for breakfast?"

Eni sat up and shook her head groggily. She had fallen asleep with one of her ears pinned under her back, and the unpleasant pins and needles tingling in its tip quickly forced her into full wakefulness as she got out of bed and began massaging it to get the blood flowing again. "Yes, I'll be right down!" Eni called through the door.

"I'll let them know," the voice on the other side of the door replied, and somehow Eni could hear the bow the speaker had made, followed by the sound of hooves clicking against tile as her visitor went away.

Her morning routine passed in record time as Eni quickly freshened up and got her belongings in order; the new outfit she was making for Tsar still wasn't much more than a mess of fabric pieces but she folded it all up neatly nonetheless. She thought she had made good progress with it, though, considering she hadn't wanted to work on it too long the previous night. She had still needed to make an entry in her journal, after all, covering everything she and the Slayer had done the previous day. Eni couldn't help but frown as she looked at the cover of her journal as she tucked it away; remembering the entry she had made the previous night only brought with it the memory of how she had been of no help to the wolf.

Eni did her best to brush the thought aside as she made her way down the stairs. Although the fact that she had been woken up by the voice of someone who was obviously a servant had been her first clue that Rongen's staff was back from their time off, the smell that she followed to the kitchen proved it beyond any doubt. The pleasant scent of cinnamon and sugar hung in the air, making Eni's mouth water; unlike the dubious porridge the raccoon had cooked up she couldn't wait to taste whatever his baker had made.

As she got closer, she could hear Rongen's and Tsar's voices in low conversation. "—but Mother knows you'll ignore me again," Rongen growled, and in response Tsar said, "It's safer."

Rongen grumbled unhappily in response before replying, "Fine, but don't say I didn't warn you."

As the old raccoon spoke, Eni entered the kitchen, despite the temptation to eavesdrop and try to figure out what the two were talking about; despite her curiosity it seemed far too rude. "Good morning, Miss Siverets," Rongen called as he spotted her.

He picked up that morning's peril paper and made a great show of folding it open, as though she might be fooled into believing that he had been reading it before her arrival. "Sleep well, I hope?" he continued, "I didn't. Fell asleep in my damn chair again."

He sighed dramatically as he stabbed at his plate with a fork. "Now that's a mystery," Rongen said, regarding the largest sweet roll Eni had ever seen, "How can something be so comfortable when you fall asleep and so miserable when you wake up?"

The raccoon grinned at Tsar, as though he was expecting a response of some kind, but the wolf remained silent, steadily eating his own sweet roll. The smile, which almost made Rongen look handsome, vanished just as quickly as it had appeared. "But never mind me," he said, "You probably want some breakfast, not to hear an old raccoon blather on."

"No, no," Eni insisted, although she did very much want to try one of the indulgent-looking pastries, "I'd love to hear your stories. You must have so many from traveling with Tsar."

She took a seat at the table across from the two and a servant in a dress with what appeared to be Rongen's personal sigil embroidered on the apron appeared instantly with a plate and a steaming mug of tea. The servant bowed low after presenting the food and left the room so quickly it seemed almost like a trick.

"Boring," Tsar grunted once the servant was gone, not even bothering to swallow the bite of sweet roll in his mouth, "Not much to tell."

"I think she was talking to me, thank you very much," Rongen snapped, but there was no genuine heat in his voice, "And that's just what you think. If I hadn't seen you spill so much of it myself, I'd say you must have ice instead of blood in your veins. Honestly, you think what happened in Eirden was boring? For fuck's sake, Gray, you nearly got your balls chopped off."

"What?" Eni said, the delicious-looking breakfast in front of her temporarily forgotten.

"A misunderstanding," Tsar said, his ears flicking back, "Got mistaken for a con artist who passed through Eirden a few months before we did and got some noble's daughter pregnant."

Rongen laughed. "And little Lord… Fuck, what was it? Fattest sheep I've ever seen, and just look at me, I know what I'm saying when I call someone fat. What was his name? Renlas? Rorfas?" he said, looking to Tsar.

The Slayer shrugged, his attention on his plate and the delicate pastry rapidly disappearing into his mouth. "Well, whatever his name was, one wolf Aberrant was as good as another, so far as he could tell," Rongen continued, his eyes hazy with memory.

"What did you do?" Eni asked.

"I found the actual father and 'convinced' him to take responsibility," Rongen said, speaking in a way that made Eni feel that more than a friendly conversation had been involved, "I thought he was low as dirt at the time, but after my daughter was born… Well, I wouldn't have been so gentle with him."

The raccoon chuckled. "Still, it worked out well enough. Lord Whatsit's daughter learned to stand up to him a bit, a criminal wolf straightened out, and their kid was about the cutest thing you ever saw. They're still together, you know. Send me letters every year or so. Oh, and our friend here got to keep his balls."

Rongen gestured lazily at Tsar as he spoke, a smirk crossing his face.

"Her father also disowned her," Tsar said quietly, interjecting for the first time.

Rongen grimaced. "And if you had ever used those balls, you'd understand what having a kid means," he snapped back.

Tsar suddenly went very still, his tail going completely rigid and his eyes narrowing. His lips peeled away from his teeth as he glared at Rongen, and Eni felt something like a humid summer day the instant before a thunderstorm started pressing down on her. It was suddenly hard to breathe, the air thickening, and then Rongen glanced away from Tsar, abashed. "I'll never understand what that means," the Slayer said, speaking slowly and precisely.

"Gray…" Rongen began, but Tsar stood up abruptly, stuffing the rest of his sweet roll into his mouth and swallowing it in one massive bite.

"I'm going to practice," he announced, and without so much as a backwards glance he turned and stalked out of the room.

Rongen sighed and shook his head. "Touchy, isn't he?" he said after a moment, looking up at Eni.

There was no humor in his words, though, and Eni asked, "He can't have children?"

That was not something she had ever heard about the Slayer, and as an Aberrant he should have been more virile rather than less so. Indeed, the story Rongen had just told of a wolf Aberrant and a sheep having a child together was proof of that; Aberrants could reproduce outside their own species, as rare as that was. "Not can't," Rongen said, "Won't."

"Won't?" Eni echoed, "Do you know why?"

"He hunts mages," Rongen replied, as though that ought to have explained everything, and then he continued, seeming to notice Eni's confusion as she puzzled his meaning out, "If he had children, they might end up being mages. Very strong ones. It wouldn't work out well for all us little folk if they decided to carve out their own kingdoms."

How long until a greater temptress comes along? A sorceress's honeyed words pour into the ears of Aerodan's champion. The wolfram's empire rises amidst the deafened pleas.

Duke Yelsin's words from the play the previous night came unbidden into Eni's mind as Rongen finished speaking, and she repressed a shudder. The sweet roll on her plate seemed much less appetizing than it had been a few minutes ago, and Eni set her fork down. "But they could be good," Eni protested, and the raccoon shrugged.

"Most kids are brats," Rongen replied, chuckling, but when he saw the expression on her face he stopped with a sigh.

"Look," he said, "Gray's… Well, he's not the sort to take chances. When we were traveling together we must have gone to dozens of brothels and cheap taverns. He didn't care what I did, but I never saw him…" Rongen said, trailing off.

"I settled down a lot between meeting him and my wife," Rongen quickly added, his voice gruff, "But you know what I mean. Gray never touched anyone or let them touch him."

Eni was a bit surprised that her host had spared her his usual casual vulgarity, but she supposed it might just be a sign of how deadly serious he was being. "I didn't know," Eni said.

"He plays his cards close to the chest, that one," Rongen said, nodding, "But listen, this is very important. You have to follow the training he gives you to the letter. Everything he tells you to do, you have to do. Understand?"

The raccoon's voice had become tight and urgent, and his eyes were solemn. Eni nodded; she was sure she understood exactly what the old raccoon meant, even the portion he wasn't saying. If the Slayer wouldn't have children because he was afraid they'd grow up to be irresponsible with their power, it only followed that he'd be keeping an extremely close eye on her and her progress. "I understand," Eni said, and Rongen seemed to hear everything she had thought expressed in those two simple words.

"Good," he said, "That's good. It'll probably take him a few hours practicing with that ridiculous whip-sword before he stops being so pissy. You might as well eat."

As he spoke, Rongen loaded another sweet roll onto his plate from a tray at the center of the table. Thin syrupy strands of caramelized sugar, smelling powerfully of cinnamon, stretched and eventually broke as it was separated from its fellows, and despite everything they had just spoken about Eni felt her own hunger return. For the next few minutes they ate in silence, Eni savoring the wonderfully sweet medley of flavors; it had been months since she had eaten anything so delicious.

"Rongen?" Eni asked, once she had eaten her fill and still had half a roll left on her plate, "There was something I was wondering."

"Then go ahead and ask," the raccoon replied, one of his nimble paws darting out to take another roll off the tray.

"Can you… Can you run that test you tried two nights ago again?" Eni asked, "I'd like to know what the result was."

Rongen's mouth was full, and he chewed slowly, considering her question. "Can't, I'm afraid," he said at last, but it seemed as though he was avoiding her eyes, "It's like I said the other night. I'm out of some of the reagents now and I'm not due for a delivery from Old Athel for another week. Sorry."

He did look at her as he apologized, and his voice certainly sounded sincere, so Eni tried to swallow her disappointment. "But I've got something you might find interesting," Rongen said, brightening, "Come on, take a look at this."

He stood up and shuffled off, leaning heavily on his cane as he led her to his workspace. To Eni, it looked as though his airship was a little more complete than it had been the last time she saw it, but that wasn't where he was going. Instead, he brought her to an overflowing desk buried under mountains of assorted papers which he began pawing through. He kicked up quite a dust cloud before emerging at last with a slim book handsomely bound in blue with a title carefully painted across the front in elegant script. It read, quite simply, "Travels with the Slayer."

"I never was much of a writer," Rongen said with a laugh as he presented the book to Eni, "Almost makes me glad Vivianne hid the letters I sent her so well I still haven't found all the damn things yet. But this is yours, if you want it."

Eni carefully flipped the book open; it had not been printed, but the writing was so neat and elegant that it almost looked as though it had. The first few pages were filled with column after column of dates and locations, followed by nearly a dozen pages of maps showing wandering dotted lines that traced huge swaths of the Cradle. The remaining pages were filled with illustrations so well done they took Eni's breath away.

There was a miniature painting of the Slayer, looking exactly the same as he did in the present, sitting alone at a table in a tavern that roared with life around him. Another showed Tsar wrestling a barbaric-looking lion who was naked to the waist and had teeth braided into his mane, twisting to the side as his opponent tried biting him. Each illustration had a small caption, and Eni realized exactly what she was looking at.

Rongen had mapped out and illustrated the years he had spent with the Slayer.

"This… This is amazing!" Eni said, staring down at the book, "This is everywhere the two of you went?"

As she spoke, she flipped to the very last page, which showed a much younger and thinner Rongen arm in arm with a pretty female raccoon, one of his legs immobilized by a splint. Both of them were waving as they beamed happily at the Slayer, who was just barely visible walking off into the horizon. "Everywhere," Rongen confirmed, "Gray told me you were a historian. Maybe I'll be worth a chapter when you write this all, eh?"

Eni gently brushed a finger across the journal as she carefully closed it. "I can't thank you enough for this," she said reverentially, "A primary source for some of the Slayer's lost years… But why didn't you write a book yourself?"

Rongen snorted as he heavily took a seat by the desk. "Besides the fact I can't string together a poetic turn of phrase to save my life?" he asked, and when Eni nodded he added, "Didn't see the point. No one would have believed me, anyhow, and the Slayer didn't care if anyone knew he was still alive. Better to leave him be."

"He deserves—" Eni began, but the old raccoon cut her off.

"He thinks he's got exactly what he deserves," Rongen said, and bitter humor had come into his voice, "Or no, that's not true. He thinks he deserves less than a lonely life on the road."

"Then why do you want me to have this?" Eni asked, clutching at the book.

Rongen looked at her as though her question had been idiotic. "Because I think maybe someone else can beat some sense into that thick fucking head of his. Maybe it's you."

Eni nodded. "I'll try," she promised, and then something else occurred to her.

"He spoke with you about me?" she asked, wondering if she had been the subject of their conversation she had heard the end of.

Rongen chuckled. "Wouldn't call it a conversation," he said, "But yeah. Don't take it personally; he doesn't talk much even when he's in a good mood. And Mother knows those are rare."

With that pronouncement, Rongen stood up with a groan, bracing himself with the desk. "But now I ought to see to working on Vivianne rather than hanging around chattering my jaw off. I'd suggest you take a look through that book while you wait for the Slayer to cool off."

Eni knew she had been dismissed, and although she thanked Rongen again before leaving the raccoon barely seemed to hear her, humming to himself as he started sweeping up papers and carrying them over to where the incomplete airship stood. She watched for a moment before she turned and left, carrying the book back to her room in the tower.

 

Although Eni had tidied up the room before going down to breakfast, it showed the unmistakable signs of having been thoroughly cleaned in her absence; a vase of freshly cut flowers had appeared to lend the air some perfume and the sheets on the bed had been changed for a slightly different pattern. None of her belongings seemed to have been touched, however, and she pulled out her own journal and began cross-checking Rongen's entries.

Before she could do anything more than look at the first date, a loud thump came through the wall from Tsar's room next door. "Tsar?" she called; the door to his room had been tightly closed when she passed it, and it had seemed wiser not to prod.

There was no answer, but when she strained her ears she could just barely make out the sound of a slow and steady heartbeat. After listening for a few moments longer, Eni turned back to Rongen's journal and quickly lost herself in the unimaginable treasure that its entries represented.

Eni had focused most of her efforts on tracing the Slayer to relatively recent sightings, but the end of Rongen's entries overlapped by a few years with the beginning of her search. For every entry that matched, however, there were at least half a dozen that didn't. She wondered what would have happened if she had kept pursuing the leads that had seemed to be dead ends but Rongen's entries indicated were places the Slayer had passed through. Would she have found Tsar sooner if she had kept looking? Or maybe it would have taken her longer, initially rewarding her but ultimately not providing anything she could act on.

Eni sighed, her eyes coming unfocused as she stared down at the two books. The Archivist had always warned her that it didn't do to dwell on what might have been, but she almost envied the sort of relationship Rongen had developed with the Slayer. The raccoon showed no fear of upsetting the wolf by saying the wrong thing, and Eni tried to imagine what would happen if she spoke to Tsar so bluntly.

She couldn't.

Eni shook her head as she closed Rongen's journal, picking up her own and flipping to the end to add in her notes for the day. She wrote steadily until another thump, even louder than the first one, suddenly came from Tsar's room. Eni listened closely, trying to hear his pulse again, and when she couldn't make anything out it felt as though her own heart had stopped. But just as Eni was overcome by half-formed thoughts of something terrible happening while she was blissfully unaware next door, she heard the quiet padding of his feet. That almost impossibly light way he walked was unmistakable, and when it was followed by the hiss of running water she felt her heart slow.

The Slayer was apparently done whatever he had been practicing and was taking a shower, and Eni relaxed marginally as she kept writing. She had finished her updates and returned to paging through Rongen's illustrations when the door to her room suddenly opened. Tsar stood there, his mane slightly damp and not sticking out in all directions for once, and he regarded her with his usual blandness. "We need to go now," he said quietly, appearing unperturbed by how she had jumped in surprise at his unexpected entrance, "It's almost noon."

Without waiting for a response he had turned and left, his usual ragged cloak swirling around him. Eni hurried to her feet and carefully stowed away the books in her satchel before chasing after Tsar, although he seemed to have actually waited for her by the front door to the tower. They set off in silence, Eni carefully regarding the Slayer as she wondered at his thoughts. He certainly didn't seem upset; his face was neutral once again and his eyes regarded the world with a nearly apathetic look as he searched their surroundings. Still, Eni thought it best to avoid bothering him and resisted the urge to try talking to him.

Most of the decorations were still up, some of them looking a bit worse for the wear, but Eni could spot the gaps where banners or statues had been taken down. As they crossed a street they passed a work crew sweeping up confetti that had been trampled under countless feet, loading up bins with the dirty bits of paper. The bars and taverns were not nearly as crowded as they had been the previous day, and the conversations of the patrons were much more muted. Tsar didn't seem to find any of it interesting, though, and when the wind blew his cloak back a little, Eni saw that his whip-sword was wrapped around his waist again. It looked noticeably shinier than when he had given it to Rongen for repair, but Tsar kept his paws away from the hilt, apparently not feeling as though they were in any immediate danger.

Although Tormurghast still had plenty of traffic even with the festival over, it was nowhere near as crowded as it had been before; Eni had no trouble keeping the Slayer in sight and no one jostled into her. It made it much easier to get to the gate of Castle Titus, and while the guards stationed there were a different pair than they had been the previous day they were no harder to get past.

Their escort to the embassy was a bull so thickly muscled that it almost looked like it'd be impossible for him to turn his head, but his voice was surprisingly mild and pleasant as he led them on, taking what Eni thought was a different route through the maze-like building complex and approaching the embassy from another side. Compared to the entrance they had used previously it was pretty obviously intended for servants considering its lack of decorative flourishes and narrowness, and the hallway beyond it was equally bland.

As they continued, though, it suddenly became much grander after they turned a sharp corner and passed from beneath a hanging tapestry to reveal an enormous ballroom a thousand giraffes could have danced in without bumping elbows. The ceiling was vaulted so high overhead that it would have likely vanished into darkness if only it had been solid, but it wasn't. Instead it was a massive dome made entirely of stained glass that filtered the sunlight into rainbows of color that made the space feel wonderfully airy. The carpet underfoot was incredibly plush and dazzlingly white, making it seem almost as though they were standing on a cloud.

The room's current purpose was made obvious by the enormous circular table that filled its center, which was surrounded by dozens of chairs, each with a plaque showing names in both Circi and Jarku script. No one was currently seated at the table; perhaps a hundred and fifty mammals were scattered about, either clustered into groups of three to five or congregating around a long table of refreshments against the far wall.

Aza's brilliantly red-orange fur should have made him easy to spot but the light through the stained glass filled the space with similarly colored splotches. There was, however, absolutely no mistaking the hulking form of Signa, even if the polar bear did look somewhat blue-green due to where he was standing. "Your guest, Archduke Avamezin," the bull said, making a surprisingly graceful Carnaron-style greeting before indicating Eni.

"Miss Siverets!" Avamezin cried, "It's wonderful to see you again."

Besides the seemingly ever-present Signa, none of the other members of the tiger's delegation were nearby. He had been speaking with a rather nervous looking deer who was obviously a member of Renald's delegation and seemed relieved at the interruption. "Baron Sigwalt and I were having a fascinating discussion about artifacts from the Age of Arms, you see. May I present to you Miss Eni Siverets, formerly of the Nihuron Peninsula and now of the University of Terregor?"

The baron awkwardly inclined his head, licking at his lips. "I— I'm pleased to meet you," he stammered, his eyes never quite meeting Eni's, "But I'm afraid of— I mean, I'm afraid I've— I've got to prepare my notes. Maybe I'll see you later Miss Enivets— I mean, Miss Siverets and we can talk more."

The deer spoke rapidly and anxiously, and before Eni had a chance to respond he had scurried off as quickly as his bulky formal clothes would let him. Aza chuckled as he watched the deer's retreating back. "Renald is still testing me," he observed, pitching his voice low, "Baron Sigwalt's a good actor, but he's not really afraid of me."

Eni was about to protest that the deer's terror had seemed completely genuine, and then she realized that she had heard his heart and it had been beating quite steadily. Aza seemed to have read her thoughts in her expression and he laughed. "Diplomacy is a wonderful thing," he said, "It makes me understand why some members of my own delegation would rather fight than talk."

His tone remained light, despite his grim words, and he smiled again. "And I'm afraid my news for you is no better," he added, "My messenger still hasn't returned with your answer."

Eni tried to keep the disappointment off her face, but from how Aza's face turned sympathetic she doubted she succeeded. "I do hope he'll be back soon," the tiger said, "No later than tomorrow, I'd think, if the weather stays clear."

Eni nodded. "I appreciate it," she said, "But I shouldn't waste any more of your time. There must be other members of Renald's delegation trying to figure you out."

She smiled as she spoke to emphasize the joke, and Aza laughed. "Doubtlessly there are," he said, "And I would hate to disappoint them. But could I have a word?"

Avamezin glanced at Tsar and added, "Alone?"

The Slayer regarded the tiger insolently, and Signa's permanent scowl somehow deepened, but neither of them spoke. "Of course," Eni said, and she let the tiger lead her away until they were in a corner of the room.

"Eni," he said quietly, "Are you satisfied with your bodyguard?"

Eni stared up at him; he seemed entirely serious but it was about the last thing she had expected him to want to discuss. "He looks more like an out of work actor doing a poor job of playing the Slayer than an actual warrior, let alone a true Elrim. And I saw he's even got a whip-sword now. A whip-sword, for Roren's sake! There's a reason no one actually uses those, you know," Aza continued, "I'd be happy to get you someone a little more… qualified."

As he spoke, he glanced back at Tsar, and Eni had to admit that the wolf wasn't cutting a very impressive figure. His ragged cloak made him look especially shabby in a room where even the waitstaff was better dressed, and particularly standing next to Signa his gauntness was greatly emphasized. It didn't help, either, that he seemed to be scenting the air again, his nose upturned and his eyes closed. "He's very good," Eni said firmly, "I've seen him fight."

Aza raised his paws in a gesture of defeat. "If you're confident in his abilities, that's enough for me," he said, "But I'll admit, I was a little worried that he might be extorting you. He's really quite impudent."

Eni laughed; she couldn't help it. "Nothing like that," she said, "And he's not just a bodyguard."

"Oh?" Aza asked, a slow smile crossing his face, "Is that so?"

"What?" Eni said, "No, no, we're not—"

"I didn't want to assume, but—"

"He's a subject for a research project," Eni interrupted, "I'm escorting him to the university."

It both was and was not true; the identification card she had forged for Tsar certainly claimed as much, but it was still technically a lie until she heard more from the Archivist. Still, it was true enough, and as much as Tsar had encouraged her to distrust Aza it seemed a reasonable amount of information to provide him. "Ah, I should have guessed that," Aza said, nodding his head as obvious relief came over him, "There aren't too many opportunities to learn from an Elrim. Still, I hope you'll forgive my concern."

"Of course," Eni said, waving his words away, and Aza beamed.

He led her back over to their waiting bodyguards, neither one of whom seemed to have tried speaking to the other. "You're welcome to stay for refreshments, if you'd like," Aza offered, gesturing over at the far side of the room, "We've still got most of the hour left before the talks start again."

"That's very kind of you," Eni began, "But—"

"We accept your hospitality," Tsar interrupted suddenly, speaking the words in his oddly accented Jarku as he put his paws together and then opened his fingers in a formal gesture of thanks.

"Of course," Aza said smoothly in the same language, although his face seemed rather non-plussed.

He caught Eni's eye, and she saw the unspoken question, which she answered simply by nodding. The Archduke drifted away, Signa only a step behind him, and Eni turned to look up at Tsar. "What were—" she began, but he didn't let her finish.

"Quiet," he said urgently, "Listen. Hard as you can."

Eni tried to focus on her hearing, straining to hear every little noise. The result was almost immediately cacophonous, the sounds of dozens of conversations jumbling and overlapping each other until they became a dull roar like the waves crashing onto a beach. Smaller sounds jumped out at Eni; there was the metallic scrape of silverware against expensive ceramic, the whispering rustle of cloth as the guests moved, and the gentle hiss of small flames under the buffet-style spread of food keeping everything warm. Eni reached deeper and heard the rush and flow of blood through the veins of everyone in the room, more than a hundred distinct beats syncopating into a complex rhythm as beautiful as any music.

And then she heard it.

It was a sound that wasn't a sound, something sinister that pulsed like a plucked string. Eni tried to look around for something out of place but her vision had faded completely out, the world an overwhelming mess of sounds. High and low frequencies tore at her, and every conversation in the room was suddenly intelligible. Words flowed into her mind like trying to fill a thimble with a waterfall, the volume so overwhelming that she couldn't cope. A scream bubbled up in her throat that she desperately forced down even as her heart pounded, the sound of it only adding to the din.

But throughout it all, exquisitely sharp, was that sinister note.

"Mage," Tsar's voice came suddenly, sounding both very near and very far away, "They're here."

"I can feel it," Eni said, and she couldn't tell if she was shouting or whispering.

Everything was equally loud, even that impossible pulsing sound, and Eni couldn't tell where any of it was coming from. She had come adrift, feeling as though she was floating in a vast ocean of noise. "Focus," Tsar snapped, and Eni could make out the harmonious overtones of the word.

She groped for his voice, trying to feel her way back to a world that her senses could put in order, and imagined slamming a box around a candle. With a stomach-churning lurch reality reasserted itself, her ears ringing with how desperately quiet the world seemed when perceived in the normal fashion. Eni glanced around; she wasn't sure how much time had passed but it couldn't have been long. The guests seemed to have shuffled around a bit, the formerly small groups clumped up into larger ones. A crowd of ten or twelve mammals had gathered near one of the buffet tables to listen to Aza, who was telling a story about his older brother. Signa stood behind him, apparently paying no attention to the anecdote as he kept a fierce eye on the crowd, but the polar bear didn't seem to have spotted anything out of the ordinary.

Tsar was looking around with increasing urgency, apparently unable to locate the mage, and Eni did the same. The wolf drifted across the room, splitting the distance between Aza and Renald, who was only about forty feet away from the tiger and engaged in low conversation with some of his delegates. Eni desperately searched the faces in the crowd, looking for anyone who didn't seem to belong, but as far as she could tell everything looked normal.

But then the buffet table seemed almost to explode.

The chafers underneath the massive serving dishes burst with enormous gouts of flame that shot outwards and then rose into the air. Mammals shrieked and yelled in panic as they threw themselves away from the fire, but Signa didn't so much as flinch. The massive polar bear pushed Aza to the ground with a single paw and spun around to position himself between the fire and the Archduke. As he turned, with a speed that seemed as though it should have been impossible for a mammal so large, Signa struck out with his other paw toward the table. Ignoring the flames that still shot out from it, the bear reached under the table and heaved it upwards.

The table, which had to be at least twenty feet long and was heavily laden with food, stood no chance. It flipped, little sandwiches and fire flying wildly before raining back down. Signa's fur and cloak had caught fire, smoldering in little patches, but if the bear felt it he gave no sign. He stood over Aza, his face cold with fury as he watched for potential threats.

The massive fireball sputtered and died, but the rest of the room had descended into chaos; there were elegantly dressed mammals from both delegations tearing off their burning clothes or rolling on the carpet to try putting themselves out. Weapons were out and furious cries filled the air as mammals ran back and forth, some escorting delegates to safety and others organizing a bucket brigade to fight the fire.

There were too many mammals too close together and in the confusion, Eni didn't notice the ibex at first. He was perhaps twenty-five and unremarkably dressed in a loose Rhinelands-style suit; he could have been a clerk or a secretary or some other minor functionary of Renald's delegation. But as he started walking from one end of the long line of refreshment tables toward Aza, his face was not screwed up in fear or panic like most of the mammals present. His calmness might have marked him as a bodyguard except for his apparent lack of urgency as he kept moving, ignoring everyone around him as he casually reached into one pocket when he was perhaps ten feet from the Archduke.



Eni grabbed at Tsar to point the mammal out, but she didn't need to. Tsar had already thrown his cloak aside, his whip-sword instantly in his paw, but he was too late. The ibex had already drawn and thrown a small dagger right at Aza's head, but then two things happened so quickly that they seemed almost instantaneous.

Even flat on the ground, letting Signa protect him, Aza had seen the danger coming because he threw an elegant table knife at the ibex a heartbeat after the assassin had made his own throw. The silver blade struck the ibex dead center in his throat, the tip passing through the other side of his neck, and the mammal clutched at the handle as he made a horrible gurgling death rattle before collapsing to the carpet.

Aza's throw had been a remarkable display of reflexes and accuracy, but it utterly paled in comparison to what Tsar had done.

The ibex's aim seemed to have been just as good as Aza's, but the little dagger hadn't even managed to cover more than half the distance separating the would-be assassin from his target. The Slayer's whip-sword had lashed out with a furious crack, catching it mid-air and bringing it to the ground. With a practiced flick of his wrist, Tsar's weapon rolled back up and he caught the ibex's blade neatly in his other paw. Eni saw a thin coating of something viscous and purple on the captured dagger's edge, and the Slayer delicately held it away from his body by the hilt.

"Poison," Tsar said, as blandly as if he saw assassination attempts every day, and he turned to face Aza and Signa.

Aza had gotten to his feet, although Signa loomed so close behind him it looked almost as though he was trying to hug the tiger. As the massive bear looked down at Tsar, Eni noticed that his scowl had actually vanished; his fierce features were surprisingly handsome and fine when set into a look of gratitude. Tsar wordlessly presented the dagger to Signa and then, before the bear or the tiger could say anything, immediately bent down and began rummaging through the dead ibex's clothes.

He emerged a moment later with another dagger, identical to the one that the assassin had thrown but concealed in a slim metal sheath. "It looks as though we both owe you our lives, Mister Tsar," Aza said, "Signa would have taken the first blade for me, but…"

The tiger didn't finish, but he didn't have to. From how gingerly Tsar had held both daggers, Eni strongly suspected that the poison coating the blades would have been enough to kill even a polar bear. "You have done me a great service," Aza said in Jarku, and while his voice was steady his paws trembled ever so slightly as he made a formal gesture of thanks.

To Eni's surprise, the Slayer didn't ignore Avamezin or simply grunt in response. "Service is my highest honor," Tsar replied in the same language, dipping his head and placing his paws together.

Aza smiled at that, looking about the room. There were still small fires blazing here and there, but the bucket brigades seemed to be working and soldiers from both the Jaws and the Horns had poured in to assist. "Quite the start to negotiations, wouldn't you say?" he said, looking to Eni.

He might have said more, but at that moment his wife and son came rushing over. Kera's elegant cloak was spotted with soot, but otherwise she and Sabor looked no worse for the wear. Sabor forced himself between his father and Signa, awkwardly embracing Aza despite how difficult having one arm in a cast made it. Other members of the Jaws military started approaching, and Eni took a few steps back to leave them alone.

"We're staying," Eni said firmly, turning to Tsar, "This is where we need to be looking."

She had made it a command rather than a request, but she had nearly watched her oldest friend die and the assassin was either the mage they were looking for or that mage's partner. As Tsar remained quiet Eni desperately hoped that he wouldn't contradict her, considering that it seemed impossible to come up with anything more to convince him than what they had just witnessed, but she didn't have to.

The Slayer slowly nodded. "I'm not scribing," he said flatly, and Eni laughed.

He might not have meant it as a joke, but Eni couldn't help but find the humor in the idea. "I'm sure they'll appreciate having another bodyguard," she replied, and he grunted in response.
















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