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Chapter 18: The Diamond Ring

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Even with as much as Renald had stretched out the afternoon's negotiations with his endless demands, Eni and Tsar still returned to Rongen's tower far earlier than they had the previous night. Eni could hear the banging of tools coming from the racoon's workshop even before Tsar unlocked the gate, and was consequently unsurprised when it was there that her companion went first. Rongen's tail, legs, and feet were visible under the Vivianne, and he didn't notice their presence until Tsar spoke his name.

There was a loud thump as Rongen evidently tried and failed to sit up and Eni winced. It sounded as though he had struck his head extraordinarily hard against the unyielding bottom of the airship, and the stream of curses that Rongen let loose with could have stripped paint. After a moment, he pushed himself out and glared at Tsar, although the effect was somewhat ruined by the tears of pain that still filled his eyes. "Hello to you too, Gray," he snapped, "Still not familiar with knocking, I see."

Tsar shrugged. "You still would have hit your head," he said, his voice utterly devoid of sympathy.

Rongen's scowl deepened. "Maybe," he said, and when Tsar didn't look away, Rongen pulled off his thick spectacles and rubbed at his streaming eyes, falling flat on his back again.

"Probably," Rongen growled at last, "What do you want? The servants don't need my permission to make you dinner if it's food you're after."

Tsar gestured at Eni and she passed him the dagger Avamezin had given her. The wolf unsheathed it, and Rongen's eyes narrowed slightly. "Fancy," he said, "What's that on the blade?"

Before Tsar could answer, Rongen sighed. "You want me to tell you," he said, and Tsar nodded.

Rongen pushed himself to his feet, groaning slightly as he did. Something deep in his spine audibly popped as he got up, and he leaned heavily on his cane once he was standing again, reaching out with his other paw. "Fine, fine, but spare me the 'cloak' part of this cloak and dagger shit. Where'd you get this?"

Tsar simply looked to Eni, and she launched into an explanation of what had happened at the embassy. Considering his bluntness and his bluster, Rongen was a surprisingly good listener, not interrupting at all as Eni told the story. His expression did become grimmer and grimmer, though, and when she was done his brows had come together so severely that his eyes had become slits. "So you're wondering if your mage and your knife-throwing ibex are one and the same," Rongen said, but he didn't phrase it as a question.

Tsar simply looked back at Rongen, and whatever the raccoon read in the Slayer's face seemed to be enough. "I'll see what I can figure out," Rongen said, reaching out to take the blade.

The Slayer placed it back in its sheath and gave it over, and Rongen glared at it and then back at the wolf. "This would be a lot easier if you—" Rongen began, but Tsar cut him off.

"Not an option," he said, his voice quite firm.

Rongen sighed. "Then I'll do the best I can," he said, and then he turned to Eni and said in an extremely loud and perfectly enunciated stage whisper, "He's still refusing to do magic himself?"

"Y—Yes," Eni replied at normal volume, caught more than a little off guard; Tsar didn't seem to care about what Rongen had asked, his vision seeming to have turned inward.

Rongen grunted, shooting a look at Tsar, and then shrugged. "Must make it awfully hard for him to teach you," Rongen said, still talking to Eni as though Tsar wasn't present.

"Oh, well—" Eni began, fumbling over her words, but before she could finish the Slayer seemed to snap back to reality.

"We'll let you work," he said to Rongen, acting as though he hadn't simply drifted out of the conversation for nearly a minute, and then turned on his heel and started walking out of the workshop.

"Go on, then," Rongen said, making a shooing motion with his paws, "But before you do, Miss Siverets, one of my maids told me you were using my sewing room last night."

"I don't mind," the raccoon quickly added before Eni could even start an apology, "I'm not going to chew you out for actually taking some pride in your appearance."

That comment seemed rather pointedly directed at Tsar, but the wolf didn't acknowledge it whatsoever; his pace didn't lessen at all. "Just be careful, would you? I do most of my writing in there, and the desk is in a rather particular order—no matter how messy it might look."

"Of course," Eni said, although a stab of guilt shot through her gut, considering what she had just decided to do shortly before getting back to Rongen's tower.

Rongen made a wordless sound of acknowledgement and turned away, hobbling over to a workbench cluttered with a variety of delicate glass instruments and colored liquids. Eni turned and left; by the time she had returned to her guest room Tsar was already in his and the door was closed. A thin line of light came out from underneath it, but she couldn't hear anything that would give her a clue as to what he was doing. Only the steady beat of his heart and his slow breathing were audible, and after a moment Eni went to her own room. All of her belongings were just as she had left them, and Eni gathered up the beginnings of the outfit she was making Tsar. She wasn't sure she would actually be able to focus on her sewing, but at the very least it gave her a reason to be in a different part of the tower.

Eni didn't know exactly how long it was that she took, half-heartedly stitching pieces of fabric together as she waited for the rest of the tower to settle in for the night. Minutes dragged past like hours, and the desk shoved in one corner seemed almost to be mocking her, as though the stacks of papers and notebooks were taunting her. Despite it all, she persevered until a passing maid dimmed the lights in the hallway and continued on her rounds.

Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Eni carefully set down her sewing and crept over to the desk, taking each step with exquisite care. She brought a lantern over with equal care, delicately clearing off a corner of the desk piled with oddly-shaped bits of brass before setting it down. Rongen's papers did seem to have a rough sort of order; there were five major stacks, each at least two or three feet tall, and a couple shorter stacks that were far messier. As Eni prepared to start looking through the leftmost stack, however, a notebook untidily piled atop the middle stack caught her eye.

It was cheaply bound and an unremarkable shade of black, peeling slightly at the edges and corners from what must have been a lot of handling. A small white rectangle, faded to a dingy gray, had been painted on the front of the notebook, and in that rectangle there was a single line of text neatly printed in what Eni recognized as Rongen's writing:

03 Septim 1909 to

It was quite clearly a notebook he was still actively using, considering that there wasn't an end date yet, but more than that it was a notebook Eni recognized. It was the exact same notebook that Rongen had fallen asleep writing in the previous night, and Eni picked it up and began flipping through it. The raccoon's writing was dense and technical but oddly unfocused. Unlike her own journal, which Eni kept so well-organized even a stranger could have followed her investigation, Rongen seemed to write things down as they occurred to him. There were pages of calculations jumbled in with an odd assortment of other entries, from what appeared to be a running tally of the weather over the previous month to drawings of a graceful tower with an airship docked to its tip to what looked like shopping lists. Doodles swarmed in the margins of many of the pages and half-written sentences tangled their way between neat lines of text, each more inscrutable than the last.

But as Eni was almost at the end, a folded-up piece of paper fell out from between the pages. She picked it up and smoothed it out against an edge of the desk, and what met her wondering eyes was her own face.

Rongen had sketched her at the top of the page in incredible detail above a table filled with numbers and abbreviations that were meaningless to her. At the bottom of the page, though, the raccoon had written out a summary:

Subject is an Aberrant hare, twenty-four years of age, primarily white in coloration, eyes orange. Height is approximately five feet, nine inches and weight is estimated to be one hundred and seventy pounds. Subject demonstrates minimal control of her own magic, which outstrips my ability to quantify to an unknown degree unseen since testing of the Slayer was performed. Lacking his control, the subject is a highly unstable danger to herself and others. Accidental or deliberate self-termination is likely within the next five years.

There was more, but Eni's eyes lost focus on the page. Something very strange was going on inside her body; it felt as though all of her blood had turned to ice, and she could feel it sluggishly pulsing through her veins as her vision shook and trembled. The pit of her stomach fell away and the floor beneath her feet felt as unsteady as a ship at sea. A low and droning hum filled Eni's ears, and although the world had gone blurry and indistinct, the words on the page felt burned into her mind.

Accidental or deliberate self-termination is likely within the next five years.

Tsar had to know that. Eni was suddenly sure of it. It had to have been what he and Rongen had been discussing when she had walked, utterly oblivious, onto them at breakfast. What had they each recommended? She could almost hear Tsar's voice, cold and hard, echoing about in her head. "I'll kill her before she can hurt anyone," that terrible voice said, "I kill monsters."

Eni wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. Nothing felt right; the sewing room around her had melted away into nothingness, and what filled her senses instead was a crazed combination of smells and sounds that refused to make any sort of logical sense. Everything spun and twisted, but then a voice came to her from a glowing brilliant tone that must have been her lantern.

Kill him first, then, the voice whispered, high and eager, He'll not expect it. Prove him wrong.

The voice was awful, sibilant and rich, but what was worse than the words was that it was her own.

"No," Eni said, her voice sounding feeble and far away, "No, I won't. I won't."

You should.

"No!" Eni shouted the word, but it felt as though it was being swallowed by an infinite yawning void.

Eni tried everything Tsar had taught her, trying to grab and tear at her magic as though it were something she could touch. The fire popped and crackled in a mocking imitation of laughter, but Eni forced it out of her head with every fiber of her being until color swam back into the room and she could see again. She couldn't remember falling out of the chair in front of the desk and to the floor, but her tail ached and she was on her side.

"I told you to be careful. I never said you couldn't look," Rongen's voice came suddenly.

Eni looked up at him in surprise; for an instant the grin on his face made him look like a much younger mammal.

But then the moment was gone as his smile faded into nothing and his weathered face turned grave and serious. "I was hoping you would, actually. I don't actually do much writing in here; I just organize things. But Gray has a habit of ignoring conversations that don't concern or interest him."

"I— I see," Eni said slowly, and she suddenly realized that Rongen had wanted her to read the notebook and deliberately left it where she would see it.

She had no idea what that could possibly mean, though. Why had he wanted her to know something so terrible? A glimmer of hope filled her; perhaps it wasn't too late to do something about his terrible prediction. Rongen looked at her paws, which were still tightly grasping the sheet of paper, and offered her a sympathetic smile. "But where are my manners; you're obviously shaken. Why don't you take a walk with me to steady the nerves?" he asked, "As a historian, I'm sure you can appreciate there's more to most topics than can fit into anything we can write."

Eni slowly pushed herself to her feet, her limbs feeling leaden, and placed the paper back on the desk with trembling paws. "Come on," Rongen said, "So long as I'm paying a gardener, might as well enjoy the grounds."

He stumped out of the room and down the stairs, apparently carefree about having his back to her, and Eni was amazed that she hadn't noticed his approach in her fugue. His cane clicked sharply with every step he took, and the scratch of his nails against the railing he gripped in his free paw seemed almost deafening against the stillness of the night. But even as they approached the ground floor, Eni couldn't hear anything but breathing and the steady pulse of the Slayer's heart coming from his room, and she followed Rongen to the impressive landscaping behind his tower.

Her own mind was a blur of thoughts, as though her brain had been replaced with a rushing river, and she couldn't focus on anything long enough to articulate it into a question. Rongen himself didn't speak until once they were outside, and then he asked her a question. "Nice, isn't it?" Rongen said, gesturing around himself.

"It's amazing," Eni said, her voice sounding a little croaky to her ears, and it was the truth.

At night, lit only by the faint light of the stars and the dim glow of the surrounding city, the flowers were muted and silvery, but the incredible variety told Eni that the garden must have been a riot of color by day. A carefully raked gravel path led a winding course around a small pond with four gently burbling fountains at its center. Rongen pointed at the fountains, which were each complexly interwoven geometric figures of various metals. "I built those myself," he said, "Testing different techniques for joining alloys together."

For a moment he squinted at them, and then he sighed. "But we're not here to talk about my fountains," he said, his tone heavy.

Eni struggled to find the right words, but she still had no idea what to say. Before she could say anything, Rongen lifted one finger. "Listen, would you?" he asked, but his tone was surprisingly gentle.

Eni nodded and closed her mouth, her heart pounding in her ears. "I met Gray—or Tsar, if you prefer—almost twenty-four years ago," Rongen began, speaking slowly and his eyes seemed unfocused as he gazed out over his pond, "I was different then, so full of piss and vinegar I could hardly sit still. Now look at me."

He pounded on his gut with one paw. "Now I can hardly get my fat ass out of a chair," he said, his tone still light, "Gray's changed too, you know. Oh, he looks the same, but…"

Rongen lapsed into silence as they kept walking, seeming to be choosing his words carefully. "How did you find him, Miss Siverets?" he asked at last.

That, at least, was a question Eni could answer, and for a moment her scattered thoughts all coalesced. "Years of research," she said, "I tracked decades of rumors about the Slayer appearing, and in the end I guess… I guess I got lucky."

Considering what she had just read, Eni didn't think she had ever felt less lucky in her entire life, but if Rongen noticed her hesitation he let it pass unremarked. "It wasn't like that for me," he said, "Or no, that's not right. Research is what brought me to him, but… it wasn't him I was looking for. I was…"

The raccoon laughed. "I wasn't respectable," he said at last, "I chose the surname 'Rongen' because it sounded a damn sight better than 'Whoreson,' which was the truth."

"Oh," Eni said, not sure what she should say.

"My mother died when I was young, but the others in her brothel sort of took it in turns to raise me. They did pretty well, all things considered. Not the sort of place a cub ought to be, especially a curious one, but they made sure I never bought into the same glamour their clients did. It was like I had six mothers, in a way. They even scraped together a little cash for me. Enough for a good apprenticeship with a printer, at least, and I was always clever. They all cried when I left. Fuck, so did I, if I'm being honest. I could have lived a comfortable life, supported them in their old age, and still be able to get up in the middle of the night to piss without my damn leg complaining about every step."

"What happened?" Eni asked.

Rongen swallowed heavily. "A monster murdered them," he said flatly.

"Not a monster like that one you saw Gray kill in Ctesiphon, mind you, but a monster anyway. A mammal who got the idea in his head that killing whores was what the Mother wanted him to do with his life."

"I'm sorry," Eni said, almost reflexively, but the words seemed woefully inadequate.

Rongen nodded, wordlessly accepting her sympathy, and then continued. "I quit my apprenticeship the day I learned about it. I wanted revenge more badly than I had ever wanted anything, and the sick fucker who killed my mothers didn't stop at one brothel. He was having himself a merry adventure, inside the Circle and out, and no one seemed to see the big picture. But I did. I was obsessive, piecing together every little scrap across every peril paper I could lay my paws on. I visited cities and towns, talked to anyone who seemed like they might have half an idea, and still I found nothing. My money was gone and my clothes were falling apart, and I had gotten the idiot idea into my head to try crossing Gwared Mountain alone even though it was cold as a witch's teat."

The raccoon was silent for a few steps, the only sound the splashing of water from the fountains and the cool night breeze. "There had been a lunar eclipse the previous night," Rongen said, and Eni's heart started to pound in her chest, "I remember thinking it felt like a sign. The Mother telling me I was on the right trail. It was arrogance, of course, but…"

Rongen paused and glanced at Eni's face. "We'll get back to the eclipse," he said mildly, "Let me finish, first."

Eni could only nod, trying to force the words that desperately wanted to burst out of her mouth from coming free. "But I stumbled upon a wolf in even worse shape than I was, just staggering along the path," Rongen said, "Dressed in rotting rags with a gray cloak that was more holes than fabric. So skinny it should have seemed like the breeze would knock him over, but even then there was a… a strength to him. It was like the feeling you get on a dry day when a doorknob's about to give you a shock. But it was pouring off him in a way I can't even describe.

"I remember the way he looked at me. Gray could have torn me apart without trying, even like that, but it was like he was… Afraid. Not of me, but of what he might do to me. When I shared the last of my food with him, he took it from my paws like I was made of glass. He was less talkative than he is now, if you can believe that. Took him nearly four days to say anything, but he followed me like a lost kit. I did enough talking for the both of us, and when he didn't answer my questions I just told him about me. My life. What I was trying to do. I told him about every lead. Every dead end. Every theory, no matter how wild. And only then, when I had finally told him everything I knew, did he actually speak. Three words, like he was reminding himself of something.

"'I kill monsters.'"

Eni's fur stood on end as a chill washed over her. She could imagine Tsar, even weakened by whatever had happened to him in the decades following his disappearance, speaking to Rongen with an air of utter finality. "He wouldn't give me a name. I'm not sure he remembers it, actually, so I named him Gray after that cloak. It took us nearly three months, but we found the killer and put him in a shallow grave. Even that was too good for the bastard, if you ask me. And maybe after that I should have felt… I don't know, closure. Or accomplishment. Some damn thing, even if it was only guilt. But I just felt hollow. I think he did, too. So we kept traveling together. We found some monsters a lot worse than a jackal with a knife, I can tell you that much. Things I never even dreamed were possible."

Rongen took off his spectacles and started rubbing them with his handkerchief, his eyes a bit more watery than usual. "That was my life for the next twelve or so years," Rongen said at last, "He's better now than he was when I found him. In those days, he'd sometimes go days or weeks without a word. Always seemed lost in his own head, that one. But he opened up, little by little. I had my suspicions from about the instant I met him, but he didn't actually tell me he was the Slayer until we'd been traveling together about a year. And he told me his birthday, once, when I celebrated mine. Which brings us back to the eclipse, Miss Siverets."

The raccoon looked at her, his expression more serious than Eni had ever seen it. "The Slayer was born on the first of Junia, one hundred and sixty-five years ago," Rongen said.

"Sine Solis," Eni said, her eyes widening, "The Day Without Sun."

"You know your history," Rongen replied, nodding, "And unless I very much miss my guess, you were born under a total lunar eclipse twenty-four years ago."

"I was," Eni replied, her voice so quiet it was barely more than a whisper.

All the air seemed to have left her; her heart was beating faster than ever and it almost felt as though the garden was spinning around her. It had been a common point of speculation in the historian community for decades that the Slayer's birth had aligned with a rare solar eclipse, and Rongen had just casually confirmed that theory. That alone should have been exciting, but it seemed utterly trivial next to the questions that suddenly poured out of her. "But what does that mean?" Eni begged, her voice cracking, "Do you really think I'll end up—end up killing myself? Or that Tsar will have to kill me? Is there any way you can stop that and—and make me normal?"

Helpless tears had filled her eyes, and as she gestured beseechingly at Rongen the ripples in the pond all started flowing in his direction too, the path of the water streaming from the fountains bending toward him as though in a powerful wind. He backed up a step, but it wasn't fear in his eyes. A kindly light had entered them, and he offered Eni his handkerchief.

"I'm sorry," he said, "It was cruel, the way I told you. I didn't want to do it like that."

Eni dabbed at her eyes, trying to keep her chest from heaving, and nodded wordlessly. "I wanted to tell you outright but Gray didn't think it was a good idea. He's… got experience with what happens when a mage goes mad with power. Which most of them do, I admit, and that's with a fraction of what the two of you have."

"Tsar's in control," Eni protested weakly.

"Not as much as you might think," Rongen said, a surprising darkness filling his voice, "He doesn't talk about it, but… Well, there are things he regrets. Things he feels he can't take back."

His face had gone grave again, but his eyes still held a sympathy that somehow almost felt terrible to Eni, as though she didn't deserve it. "And magic is one of those things," he said, "You can't get rid of it. But if the Mother had a plan for Gray, when she made him and that eclipse, well, stands to reason she ought to have a plan for you too."

"You really think so?" Eni asked, unable to keep her voice from lilting hopefully at the end.

"I told you," Rongen said, "I've seen things I could have never even dreamed of. And now that includes meeting two mammals with so much magic that they make mages look as powerless as me."

He offered her a self-deprecating smile, and Eni managed to force a weak chuckle. "I'll be the first to admit it," Rongen said, "Gray has a big advantage over you. Someone taught him magic from about the day he was born, the lucky bastard. I don't know who, but he had a teacher, and he turned out, well, let's call it in the general vicinity of 'fine.'"

The raccoon rendered the last word with a cheerfully sarcastic air, but his face grew serious again. "And you've got me in your corner, Miss Siverets. Gray acts like he doesn't give a damn, but he's teaching you. That alone means he hasn't given up on you, because otherwise you'd be, well…"

Rongen trailed off, seeming slightly abashed. "In a shallow grave?" Eni ventured, and Rongen laughed until Eni began laughing with him.

Her voice was high and unnatural at first, sounding to herself as though she was on the verge of hysteria, but it eventually began to sound natural and they both tapered off. "Sure," Rongen said, smiling at her, "That's as good a way as any to put it."

He had stopped walking, and for a moment they were both silent, looking out over the fountains. "I'm sorry if I'm prying, Miss Siverets," he said at last, "But I'm curious, and I have to ask someone who can actually string together sentences with more than four words. What's your magic like?"

Eni shuffled her feet awkwardly, trying to find the right words to describe her own disastrous lack of control, and he must have noticed her expression because he hastily continued. "Gray told me how he set his paws on fire when he started learning. You're not looking crispy, but considering how strong your 'light' is, it must have been quite a challenge for you too. What's the longest you've been able to keep a flame steady so far?"

"What do you mean?"

"You know, the Mildeus Technique?"

"The— The what?" Eni asked blankly, looking down at the raccoon in utter puzzlement; what he had asked sounded nothing like anything Tsar had taught her.

To her surprise, Rongen's face changed in an instant, his brows furrowing and his lips peeling back from his muzzle to expose gleaming teeth. Pure rage seemed to boil off him, his fingers clenching around the top of his cane. "That cowardly fucking wolf!" Rongen shouted, and he reached out with his free paw and grabbed Eni's wrist with surprising strength.

"What?" Eni protested as he began to pull her arm as he stormed off back toward the tower.

"We are about to have some words with Gray," Rongen said darkly, practically snarling each word, "And we're going to have them right fucking now."

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