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Chapter 17: Statecraft

Updated: Jul 23, 2023

"This is absurd," Renald growled, crossing his arms across his massive chest, "You cannot honestly expect me to give you state secrets."

"I don't expect it, no," Aza replied calmly, "But it would be for our mutual benefit if you did. My would-be assassin was a member of your delegation. I'm sure you can understand my curiosity as to who arranged the attempt."

Renald's immediate response was a scowl, but he didn't say anything for a long moment. Following the failed attempt on Aza's life, Eni had thought that the negotiations might break for the day, or even end immediately, but Avamezin had insisted on continuing. The conference room was looking significantly worse for the wear, with the once pure white carpet soaked through and charred in places, but the tiger had completely regained his composure. Signa loomed behind him, the polar bear more alert than ever, and Tsar looked almost utterly insignificant next to him. Eni had a seat near Avamezin with a thick stack of blank paper in front of her as she furiously took notes.

Avamezin's delight at her agreeing to scribe for him had been noticeably muted, considering the circumstances under which she had agreed, but Eni could tell that the tiger deeply appreciated it. Although the Archivist's response had yet to arrive, Eni was sure that even if he did urge her back to Terregor as quickly as possible his answer would change once he learned of the assassination attempt. As the Archivist was fond of saying, most of history was completely lost because no one had bothered to write it down.

Eni already had half-a-dozen pages of painstaking notes, covering from the arrival of Queen Marsenn's forces and the ibex's corpse being taken away to Renald and Avamezin sitting back down at the table to continue talking. The very same cheetah who had commented about Eni in the theater sat at her side, an incredibly fake smile plastered on his face, and continually passed her fresh sheets of paper.

"I'm a reasonable mammal," Aza continued, pressing his point as his counterpart remained silent, "And the League's intelligence services are second to none. If there is something your own services… overlooked, perhaps my agents can find it."

"Your spies, you mean," Renald groused, and he made a show of looking around, "Where are those infamous foxes of yours?"

Aza smiled thinly. "We can't allow ourselves to be sidetracked," he said, ignoring the jibe, "King Renald, the facts are clear. Someone attempted to disrupt our talks. They may not have succeeded in killing me, but if we allow negotiations to end, it's a victory I'm sure our ibex's employer will accept. However, that does not mean that someone else won't try again. If I were to die, my father and brother—"

"Yes, what about your father and brother?" Renald interrupted, "You're the spare, not the heir, as the saying goes. Perhaps someone on your side is willing to sacrifice you to give them an excuse."

"My head of security is investigating all possibilities, no matter how unlikely," Aza replied firmly, "But I truly believe we can get to the bottom of this matter faster if we share information."

"Such as concerning the two newest members of your delegation?" Renald asked, his beady eyes passing first over Tsar and then Eni.

"Miss Siverets is my guest, as I told you last night, and Mister Tsar is her own bodyguard," Aza said.

Renald made a skeptical noise. "I saw the little trick the wolf did with that ridiculous flail," he said, glancing back to Tsar.

The Slayer didn't react, his expression remaining blandly neutral. "But what purpose does your rabbit serve? You can't expect me to believe she's actually capable of scribing."

Eni swallowed her irritation, doing her best to avoid letting it show on her face. She had seen Renald be casually rude to Avamezin from the moment they had first met, and the tiger seemed to believe he was simply prying for weakness. The rhinoceros was probably doing the same for her, and she concentrated on forming each character of her shorthand as precisely as possible.

"Miss Siverets, would you mind reading back the minutes from when you began scribing?" Aza said mildly.

Eni shuffled back to the first page. "Queen Marsenn's personal secretary, Domnes Kasher, relayed the following: 'I bring with me Queen Marsenn's deepest sympathies for the unfortunate—'"

"In Jarku, now," Avamezin interrupted.

"'—disruption to the negotiations between your two great nations. You may have her majesty's assurances that—'" Eni said, smoothly switching languages before Aza cut her off again.

"Classical Word now, if you don't mind."

"'—the Circle will investigate this incident thoroughly under her direct authority and—'" Eni continued, carefully enunciating her words in the dead language before the Archduke interrupted one final time.

"And now Nihu, please."

"'—security for the grounds of Castle Titus shall be significantly tightened,'" Eni finished in her first language.

"I trust that was a sufficient demonstration?" Aza said, looking to Renald.

Renald scowled, but he gestured over his shoulder and a member of his delegation stood up and walked over to stand at the King's side. "Captain Botros will liaise with your security chief," he said, indicating the mammal without looking.

Captain Botros was a tall, thin antelope wearing a pair of spectacles that magnified her eyes and made her look perpetually surprised. Her bearing, however, was perfectly rigid and straight, and she nodded efficiently at her king's command.

"Lance Major Pyotr will bring her to my Saber-General," Aza said, nodding agreeably as he gestured further down the table on his side and then spoke the command in Jarku.

A middle-aged lynx stood up; he was short for his species and so bulky with muscle that he looked almost as wide as he was tall. The lance major pressed his paws together and nodded his head in Avamezin's direction before gesturing to Botros. Even as the lynx turned to leave, however, Renald spoke again. "Once we have agreed to terms of how information will be shared, of course," the rhinoceros said, looking into Avamezin's eyes.

The tiger didn't miss a beat; he set a folder in front of him aside and looked back at Renald. "Of course," he said, "Would you like to begin by outlining the terms you'd consider acceptable?"

Renald crossed his thick arms across his chest and his scowl seemed to lighten ever so slightly into a humorless smile. "Very well," he began, leaning back in his seat.

The next six hours reminded Eni of being in Professor Gulrisma's Philosophy of Mimesis class again, taking down notes as quickly as she could while the old opossum debated the students. With Renald's insistence on coming to agreeable terms for information sharing, the talks had turned to the sort of minutia that she supposed most mammals would have found excruciating; the king had taken nearly an hour to simply list his demands. Eni found it all fascinating, seeing how different the rhinoceros and the tiger were in their approaches, but she felt rather sorry for Tsar.

She, at least, had a job to focus on, and even writing in shorthand it was a constant struggle to keep up. The Slayer seemed to be doing nothing more than standing there like the other guards and poor Botros. Although Avamezin had eventually gestured for Pyotr to take a seat again, Renald had made no such move for the antelope, who remained rigidly at attention.

"Read that back," Renald demanded at long last, and a female deer sitting with his other scribes held up a piece of paper and began reading aloud.

"The Anteocularian Federation and the Concurrence of the Carnars," the scribe began; Renald had also insisted on his nation being listed first.

"Do hereby acknowledge on this, the first day of Oktow, one thousand nine hundred and nine years after the Hundred Kings Accords, that, to the mutual benefit of both nations and their host, the following agreement has been reached concerning an apparent assassination attempt targeting Archduke Avamezin of House Tainia."

Renald had also insisted on the use of the word "apparent," which like the order of their nations Avamezin had allowed to pass without comment. "Point the first," the other scribe continued, "The Anteocularian Federation condemns the act and formally denies responsibility."

That bit of language had been Avamezin's, and it had taken the better part of an hour to get Renald to agree to the wording. "Point the second," the doe said, "The Concurrence of the Carnars is withholding judgement as to responsibility for the apparent assassination attempt for a period of no less than seventy-two hours as to allow good faith efforts toward investigation."

It was amazing to Eni how blandly worded the statement was and how equally neutral the scribe's voice was as she read. Assassinating an archduke was as good as declaring war; the Concurrence had utterly conquered the Kingdom of Karanor following the death of Avamezin's uncle at their paws. But if the Horns weren't responsible for the attempt, the only other possibility Eni could think of was someone trying to frame them. The idea should have been almost unthinkable, but after the Blight in Ctesiphon Eni couldn't help but think that it seemed distinctly possible. Even worse, though, was that if the same mammal or organization was behind both efforts they might have grander and more terrible plans.

Unless, that was, Renald had been the mastermind, but if that was true he hid it well.

"Point the third," the scribe read, interrupting Eni's thoughts, "Oversight for the mutual investigation shall be led by Queen Marsenn of the Circle. The Anteocularian Federation and the Concurrence of the Carnars shall each designate a representative to provide material information requested by the queen's investigation. These representatives will wholly and truthfully answer all reasonable requests made. In the event that a representative chooses not to answer a request, a formal petition shall be made as to its necessity.

"Point the fourth: Formal petitions shall be reviewed directly by King Renald of the Anteocularian Federation or Archduke Avamezin of the Concurrence of the Carnars and a response documented in writing in no more than twenty-four hours after the petition is submitted."

The doe put the page down and primly folded her hooves over it. Avamezin turned to Eni and she gave him a slight nod; the words the deer had read exactly matched what Avamezin and Renald had agreed to. "I'm very happy we were able to come to an arrangement," Avamezin said, although none of the other mammals in the room looked particularly happy, "As I said, I'm sure that together we can determine the truth."

Renald nodded brusquely. "Then I motion that we conclude talks for the day after we sign," he said.

"Absolutely," Aza replied, but it still took another hour for the scribes on each side and each leader to review the final copy before it was at last approved.

It was hard to believe that nearly seven hours of negotiation had yielded nothing more than an agreement less than a page long to simply begin investigating, but Eni could think of at least a dozen more contentious sessions throughout history that had progressed even more slowly. The Eighth Concordance, for instance, was said to have taken five months to simply agree on the seating arrangements after spending twice as long to choose the meeting location. In comparison to that disaster of a conference, Avamezin and Renald had been remarkably swift.

But as Eni followed Avamezin and his entourage out of the negotiating room, she wondered how optimistic she ought to be. Aza was swarmed almost immediately by pages, each jockeying to formally present correspondences that had arrived during the long negotiating sessions, but there was one who stood out from the sea of young predators.

An enormous golden eagle, his yellow eyes focused on Eni and his Avian expression unreadable, easily waded through the crowd to her with a few flaps of his massive wings, which made the pages clutch their own messages tightly to prevent them from being blown away. Outstretched, his wings spread wider than Eni was tall and seemed to fill the corridor, showing off his speckled plumage.

But what caught Eni's eye was the seal on the message tube the eagle held out with one wicked talon; it had the blue wax seal of the University of Terregor's history department. Eni eagerly grabbed it, tripping over her words in her rush to thank the eagle. His beak made it equally impossible for him to smile or frown, but his voice was noticeably sour as he snapped in heavily and exotically accented Jarku, "Tell your recipient to write faster next time."

"I— I will," Eni called after the eagle in the same tongue; he was already heading the other way down the corridor and didn't acknowledge her words.

"Don't mind Fidelius," Avamezin said as Eni clutched the Archivist's response close to her chest.

He had moved to stand at Eni's side, watching the pages race away as he himself had one paw full of letters and scrolls with a variety of seals. "He just knows his next flight will be all the way back to Carnaron. My father will expect a report," the tiger said with a sigh, "He's not normally so grumpy."

"Your father or Fidelius?" Eni asked, trying to lighten the moment.

Avamezin laughed more than her weak joke deserved and continued down the hall. Signa was looming so closely behind him that the polar bear was nearly brushing up against Eni, and Tsar was once more practically impossible to spot at the much larger mammal's elbow. "My father will need some reassurances, yes," Avamezin said, "His reservations are likely to be more significant now that something's happened."

Eni nodded. "But speaking of reservations, what did the Archivist have to say?" Avamezin asked, gesturing at the message tube Eni held.

"Let me see," Eni said, and she broke the wax seal at one end and slid the message out of the cold metal tube that had protected it in transit.

It was quite short, each word written in the Archivist's perfect script.

Dearest Eni,

Let me begin with my apologies for any delay that you may have experienced in receiving this message. I'm afraid that age makes fools of us all, and just like Lammas Switas before me my writing is fading and is not what it once was. I am otherwise in good health and eager to see you again, though I understand you may yet be weeks or months away from returning to Terregor. It may even be to your benefit to make your trip a lengthy one, as our fair city is in the process of installing a new Chief Bureaucrat and it may be best to arrive after the ceremonies are complete.

I would therefore encourage you to spend as long as you can in Tormurghast with your remarkable new friend to get the shape of him. There are, I am sure, many incredible stories you can coax from your latest research subject, and you will doubtlessly do your best to keep an open and yet skeptical mind. Remarkable claims, after all, require remarkable proof, and the truth of history is more subjective than many mammals believe. It's also an unfortunate fact of our line of work that there are those who stand to profit from fraudulent claims of veracity, and many of them are clever indeed. But then, I don't need to tell you this! Forgive an old markhor for rambling; I am afraid it is the propensity of a teacher to always view their student as such instead of acknowledging the extent of their mastery.

For you are a master antiquarian, do not ever doubt this. Indeed, I have myself no knowledge of the artifact you inquired about, though I have begun searching the archives that give me my title, and I am sure we will spend many a pleasant hour theorizing and conjecturing upon your return. Please hold your questions and comments until that day, as I am afraid our discussions shall be too long to be adequately conveyed on the page. Your new friend may be able to join us, as if he is truly the master of antiquated skill you believe him to be he will have much to teach us both. I am sure you will do your best to learn everything you can from him until we are reunited. Remember—and forgive me truly for saying that which you already know—the smallest of details may be of the greatest significance.

Yours faithfully,

Kurlan Arctus

Archivist of the University of Terregor and the Library of Linrathrous

Eni knew that she should have been happy that the Archivist had given her as much time as she needed to spend in Tormurghast, but a deeply uneasy feeling had worked its way down into the pit of her stomach as she read. The words were, she was certain, the Archivist's own; the letter was perfectly in character to his usual avuncular cheer.

But neither one of them knew a Lammas Switas.

She had read the name twice, just to make sure she wasn't misinterpreting the Archivist's neat writing, but it was beyond a doubt what he had put on the page. It had been the first sign that there was a second meaning to the letter, and everything she read past it only reinforced it. Everything about the letter, from how he had carefully avoided directly referring to the Slayer or The Lamentations of Nergora told her that he meant his words for her eyes only but wasn't sure if someone else would read it.

Eni was aware of Avamezin's expectant gaze upon her, though, and she plastered a grin onto her face as she rolled the letter back up. "He says I can spend as much time here as I want to," Eni said, and Aza's answering smile seemed utterly genuine.

"I'm glad to hear that," he said, his voice quite warm, "I'm not sure what I'd do without you; I'm sure you noticed for yourself how little Modern Circi my entourage speaks."

Eni had indeed noticed that surprisingly few of Avamezin's fellow carnivores had reacted to the worst of Renald's sniping verbal jabs throughout the long hours of negotiation, and she was sure it wasn't simply because they had been the mammals best at hiding their feelings. From the occasional low mutter in Jarku she had heard, they had been unable to keep up with the discussion. "It's nice to be able to help you," Eni said, "After everything you've done for me."

Aza waved the compliment away with the paw not holding his messages. "What are friends for?" he asked, "It has always been my pleasure."

They walked along together for a moment longer as Aza shuffled through his messages, breaking open seals with a single claw and scanning through each before shuffling them back together again. Eni's thoughts had turned back to the Archivist's letter until Aza's words interrupted her. "I'm going to have a busy night," he said with a rueful chuckle as he stuffed the bundle into his cloak, glancing over his shoulder at Signa, "I'll need a few hours with no disruptions to get through all my responses."

The polar bear gave his employer a single brusque nod, and Eni imagined that there would be very few mammals brave or foolish enough to try interrupting Aza while Signa guarded his door. They had reached the part of the embassy that housed the Jaws delegation, but when Aza spoke again it wasn't to bid her a goodnight.

"I have something else for you, Eni," Avamezin said, "Somewhat less pleasant than a letter, I'm afraid."

He pulled the dagger that Tsar had snagged out of the air from within his cloak and unsheathed it, eyeing the viscous purple liquid on the blade's edge. The Slayer tensed up marginally at Eni's side, as though he somehow expected Aza to try stabbing him, but the tiger wasn't even holding the blade in his direction. "Shouldn't the investigation team have that?" Eni asked, "It seems like it'd help."

"It was a matched set and they already have one," Aza replied, seeming to study the way the light reflected off the polished blade, "I think you might make better use of it than they do. As a, shall we say, interested third party."

He didn't have to directly say that he thought Eni was going to investigate on her own, but Eni nodded to let him know she understood the unspoken message. He had, after all, rather carefully negotiated only the terms of a mutual investigation, not the sole investigation. "I'll see if I can find anything," Eni promised, and held out her palm.

"It's curious, isn't it?" Aza said, not immediately giving the weapon over to her, "If the assassin had succeeded, this would be a priceless artifact. The blade that killed Archduke Avamezin and triggered a war the likes of which hasn't been seen since long before the last Scourge. But instead…"

The tiger carefully sheathed the poisoned blade and presented it to Eni. "It's just a dagger," he said.

Eni accepted it, feeling the cold metal of its hilt against her paws. It seemed heavier than so small an object should be, and Eni placed it in her pocket once she was sure that the sheath was secure and wouldn't pop off. Avamezin nodded with an uncharacteristic solemnness as he watched her put it away. A chill crept up Eni's spine, but she didn't say anything, and for a long moment the Archduke simply stared down at her.

And then Aza's face brightened so quickly it was as though he had put a mask on. "I'll have some proper clothes prepared for the two of you tomorrow," he said, smiling slightly, "There's another reception after the talks and I'm afraid you'll have to look the part."

Eni almost laughed; the idea of worrying about something as trivial as clothing should have been absurd. But she supposed that, in the absence of anything else, it was at least something that Avamezin could control and make sure went smoothly. "We appreciate it," Eni replied, folding her paws into a formal Fanglands-style gesture of thanks.

Tsar didn't say anything, but he did the same thing at her side, appearing every inch the respectful bodyguard. "Father?" Sabor's voice suddenly came.

Eni nearly jumped at the interruption; she had been too focused on the conversation to notice the young tiger's approach. "The Saber-General wishes to speak with you," Sabor said.

Avamezin sighed. "I ought to go see what Leya wants," he said, pulling the thin circlet off his head with one paw and smoothing back the fur underneath with the other before replacing it.

"Perhaps she's already found something," Eni offered, and Aza gave her a warm smile.

"Goodnight, Miss Siverets," he said, and then the Archduke allowed his son to lead him away.

Eni turned to Tsar as he wordlessly walked toward the building's exit. "You haven't said much," Eni said; she didn't need to check her notes to be sure that he hadn't spoken since saving Avamezin's life.

The Slayer nodded. "Listening," he said.

As he spoke, Eni's eyes passed over the Tormurghast City Guards posted at the exit. There were six mammals scrutinizing her and Tsar as they left, and Eni stayed silent until they were out of the castle grounds and away from prying ears. "Did you hear anything?" Eni asked once she thought it was safe to do so.

"Magic stopped when the ibex died," Tsar replied, but there was a strange note to his voice.

"You don't think he made the fireball, though," Eni guessed, and the wolf grunted a wordless negative.

"It's really peculiar, isn't it?" Eni asked, but that seemed like a woefully inadequate way of summing up what had happened.

The Slayer didn't answer, his gaze far off and his expression grim. "Speaking of peculiar, though, I got a strange message from the Archivist. My boss at the university, I mean," Eni said, and she offered the letter to Tsar, "Would you like to read it?"

Tsar shook his head, his eyes roving the street and the mammals passing nearby. "You know him. I don't," he said, "If there's something off, you're the one who can spot it."

Eni reluctantly accepted his answer, and as she followed the Slayer back to Rongen's tower she ran the Archivist's words through her mind over and over again. And then, as they walked past a used bookstore with a battered display of old textbooks covering everything from mathematics to history, one of the pieces suddenly clicked into place. Lammas Switas wasn't a name; it was a reference to how two of the massive shelves in the university's restricted collection were organized: LAM to MAS and SWI to TAS. Eni could practically see the library in her head and she imagined the secure vault with some of its most precious books.

If the library did have a copy of The Lamentations of Nergora, it would be filed on that first shelf. She had no idea what book could possibly be on the second, but perhaps it wasn't a book at all. After all, if someone wished to hide something, there were few better places to do so than a library with nearly endless shelves. The Archivist had given her a message, Eni was suddenly sure, and all the layers of obfuscation were to avoid making it plain.

There was something going on in Terregor, something that the Archivist was afraid to say directly. Something had made him encourage her to stay away from the city for some time, but it had also made him leave her a clue for her eventual return. And as Eni kept following Tsar, she realized that there was something else, too. The Archivist had wanted her to learn all she could from the Slayer, if he really was who Eni thought he was. The Archivist hadn't come out and directly said it, his message being far too cryptically coded for it, but if she tried to be as skeptical as possible it was indeed quite the coincidence to meet the Slayer in the midst of the holiday that celebrated him. Still, she had seen far too much that the Archivist had not, and Eni realized there was something else she knew she had to look into.

No matter what Rongen had said about her test results, his workstations were too cluttered with papers for him to simply discard them. He was an engineer and a hoarder of data, and that meant all she had to do was find the record.

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