Updated: Aug 10
"So'd he keep his word?" Rongen asked Eni.
It was the very first thing he had said that morning; the raccoon hadn't even bothered to say "good morning" or otherwise offer up any pleasantries. He offered Tsar a suspicious glare as he sat at the table, putting his steaming bowl of porridge down with a bit more force than necessary.
"Yes, he did," Eni said; Rongen was still looking at Tsar, but at Eni's words he gave her a quick and somewhat skeptical glance.
"Mmm," he muttered, looking her up and down, "Don't look like you slept well."
Rongen looked as though he knew what he was talking about; the fur atop his head stuck out at crazy angles and his watery eyes had large bags beneath them. "He keep you up late?" Rongen asked.
"No, no," Eni said hastily, waving her paws in the Slayer's defense, "Not at all. It was just my dreams; I just haven't dreamed like that since—"
Eni cut herself off and hoped desperately that the flushing of her ears wasn't too visible; the last thing she wanted to talk about with the Slayer around was the unseemly details of what her unconscious mind had conjured. "Since a long time ago," she finished awkwardly.
Rongen made a wordless sound again and Eni hoped he wouldn't press her for details, and while the raccoon seemed happy enough to let her comment pass unremarked Tsar said, "Dreams?"
He spoke the word quietly, looking up from the bowl of porridge he had been slowly eating. Tsar's eyes were intent and sharp, seeming to peer through her, and Eni swallowed hard. "What kind of dreams?" he asked.
Eni stared down into her own bowl of porridge, trying to come up with something to say. There had been no partner like in a tawdry penny-dreadful; her sleep had passed in a jumbled and confusing mess without any clear images or sounds. But as Eni stirred her porridge, groping for the right words, an answer suddenly came out of her mouth. "It was like the feeling I got trying to control the fire," she said, and even as she spoke the words she was amazed to realize that they were true.
Tsar cocked his head to the side, seeming to consider her answer, and Eni could feel Rongen's eyes on her as well. "You need to master your emotions," Tsar said.
"Or they'll master you," Rongen added, glancing at the wolf, "That's what you said when you explained it to me. The one law of magic."
The Slayer grunted; there had been a hard and definite edge to the raccoon's words, and Eni could tell that Rongen was trying to determine how good of a job Tsar had done teaching her the previous night. "No," Tsar said, looking to Rongen, "That's how you understood it. Trying to pin magic down into numbers like your airship, but it's more dangerous than your mathematics. That's what I explained."
It was in fact something that the Slayer had said the previous night, impressing on Eni the wild unpredictability of magic, and she nodded. "He did," she said; Tsar had seemed to be trying to impart great meaning into the words as he spoke them and a chill had run down her spine at the look in his eyes.
"Forgive me for being skeptical," Rongen said, his words carrying not the slightest trace of sincerity, "You deserved every word I said last night."
He gave the Slayer a scowl as he lifted a small and empty jar off the table. "And you ate all my honey again, you greedy fucking wolf."
Tsar shrugged and didn't speak, and Rongen's expression seemed to soften slightly. Eni felt a sudden and unexpected stab of envy; something wordless had passed between the two in that moment that she could only hope to one day have. Rongen's body language eased as well, and Eni thought she had seen the slightest glimpse of the rapport they must have built over the course of years together. "So how did your training go?" Rongen asked curiously, turning to Eni.
Eni paused, stealing a glance at Tsar before answering. The wolf's face was quite neutral; his attention was entirely on his own meal. "The best I ever did was five seconds," Eni admitted, which was more than a little frustrating considering how many attempts she had made.
Sometimes the fireball had been too small, fizzling out like a snuffed candle. Sometimes the fireball had grown too large, exploding with a soft noise like a pillow being dropped and threatening to singe Eni's shirt. But no matter what she tried, no matter how Eni tried to will her emotions to simply pass through her, she had failed.
Tsar had been surprisingly patient with her, making her try again and again until nearly two hours had passed and he announced that they were done for the day. It had been just as well; the room had swam around Eni as she stood up and she had been so tired that she had collapsed into bed without writing as much as a word in her journal.
"Well, I'm sure you'll get better with practice," Rongen said encouragingly, "And if you ever need some sense beaten into the Slayer's thick fucking skull, you know where I live."
The raccoon laughed at his own little joke and smiled at Eni. "So what do the two of you have planned for today?" he asked.
Eni explained while Tsar remained silent, slowly eating his sweetened porridge as he let her speak. "Well don't let me stop you," Rongen said once she was done, "I won't expect you for dinner if you're going to some kind of fancy reception."
"Frankly, I'm glad I wasn't invited," Rongen added, "It's always such a fucking hassle when they trot me out at those damned things. The collars on those formal clothes are so stiff it feels like my head's going to pop off."
Eni laughed, although she found it difficult to imagine the cranky inventor stuffed into a formal outfit. Every time she had ever seen him there was an air of positive disarray to him that was eclipsed only by the Slayer's seemingly resolute shabbiness. She couldn't wait to surprise the wolf with the clothes she was making him; Eni was sure that he'd appreciate something both comfortable and practical.
Rongen interrupted her thoughts by sighing and shaking his head, apparently reminiscing about all the times he had been forced to dress up. "Give me my workshop any day," he said, and he pushed himself to his feet.
"Speaking of which, I've got a lot I'd like to get done," Rongen said, walking away as he leaned heavily on his cane, "Good luck finding this mage of yours."
At the same instant Eni thanked the raccoon and bid him goodbye, Tsar spoke.
"Wait," he said.
Rongen stopped where he was standing and turned around. "What do you want, Gray? More of my damn honey?" he asked, "I'll have my maid pick it up for your breakfast tomorrow."
"Good," Tsar replied, "Something else, though."
"That so?" the raccoon asked, but he seemed interested in what the wolf had to say.
Eni was too; the Slayer's face was as unreadable as it usually was, and he considered Rongen for a moment before he continued. "You made this," he said at last, hefting the hilt of his whip-sword as he unwrapped it from around his waist, "No magic, but it makes fire."
Rongen rolled his eyes. "Well that's selling it pretty fucking short," he said, "Do you have any idea how complex the—"
"Make a fireball," Tsar interrupted.
"Come again?" Rongen asked, but Eni realized where Tsar was going with his question.
"Make a fireball. No magic. Nothing that can't be hidden on a mammal your size. Something that could be added to those things that keep food warm."
"He means chafers," Eni jumped in eagerly, "Something that could be added to it to make those little warmers explode with fire for a moment and not leave a trace."
Rongen frowned, running one paw through his untidy fur. "But you felt another mage in there," he said, "Stands to reason they made the fireball, doesn't it?"
Tsar shook his head. "Taunting me," he said simply.
Rongen groaned. "Well, I guess there's no better way to make your magic untraceable than to not use magic. Clever fucking mage if you're right," the raccoon said, his tone almost admiring.
Tsar shot Rongen a look. "Fine, fine, you got my curiosity piqued," he said, "I can think of at least four or five different ways to do it, but you're going to want some demonstrations, aren't you?"
The Slayer nodded. "Ah, fuck," Rongen said, shaking his head, "There goes my day."
Despite his words, he sounded almost cheerful, and he walked away muttering under his breath. Eni could make out the words; rather than curses as she would have expected he was mumbling the names of different chemical compounds. As Rongen left the room, Tsar continued eating, apparently unperturbed, and Eni turned to him. "How likely do you think it is that the mage didn't make the fireball?" she asked.
The Slayer gave her a wordless shrug. "Depends," he said, and Eni could read a wealth of information into that single word.
She supposed that it really did depend on what the mage wanted and why they had wanted Tsar to know they were in the room. The only real way of knowing she could think of would be to find the mage and ask, but she imagined it would take more than a little persuasion. Before she could say anything else, though, Tsar ate the last bite of his porridge and set his spoon aside. "We should go now," he said.
The wolf waited for her to gather her belongings before they left Rongen's tower together, and although he remained silent Eni's head was positively abuzz with thoughts and questions. The Slayer had offered her the barest glimpse of what magic was and she was desperately eager to learn more. That alone would have been enough to have her talking for hours, but with the mystery they had found themselves caught up in she didn't know where to start.
It took her a few blocks to get her thoughts in order, and then she turned to Tsar and, after carefully looking up and down the street to make sure no one was paying any attention to them, asked a question. "Is it always going to be the same… emotion with fire?" she asked.
"For you," the wolf replied, "Different for every mage."
"What's it for you?" she asked; she hadn't quite dared to speak the question while he had been actively training her, half afraid he'd find it insulting and immediately stop, but it seemed like as good a time as any when they would shortly be within Castle Titus again and wouldn't have the chance to speak.
The Slayer seemed to consider her question for a long moment, and Eni thought he wouldn't answer at first. But then, after nearly a minute had passed by, he spoke so softly it was barely audible over the sounds of other mammals going about their morning routines.
Eni wondered what the Slayer would be like truly enraged. She had read all the stories that spoke of his righteous fury when suitably roused, like the tale of the Red Claw Gang. The bandits were said to have traveled the Cradle and kidnapped mammals orphaned by monster attacks to serve as slave labor. Toward the end, or so the story went, they had even conquered the tiny kingdom of Corwen, roving the land and spreading misery and fear.
Then the Slayer had found them.
The precise number of slaves he had rescued was a subject of as much dispute as how many bandits he had slain, but even the lowest estimates put both well into the hundreds. Eni had always imagined the fight to have occurred the way it was depicted in The Slayer's Wrath, the enormous mural of the battle that was one of the most valuable works of art in the Library of Linrathrous, but after meeting the actual Slayer she was no longer quite so sure. In the painting, the Slayer was snarling ferociously, his whip-sword cutting through a dozen of bandits as scores of imprisoned children watched in awe and cheered him on.
Eni thought she had seen glimpses of the Slayer's temper, but his emotions seemed to mostly lurk deep beneath the surface, leaving him largely inscrutable. It made her feel that the artist had fallen far short of capturing what the wolf would really look like, but before she could think on it further Tsar surprised her.
"What's it for you?" he asked.
"Oh! Um… It's, uh…" Eni stammered for a moment as she kicked herself mentally; it should have been obvious that he would ask eventually no matter how taciturn he was.
"Love," she finished somewhat lamely.
It was sort of half-true, she supposed, but the actual answer felt more than a little embarrassing. The Slayer grunted a wordless acknowledgement and kept walking, but Eni wondered what her answer said about her. "Does that… mean anything?" Eni asked.
He gave her a half-shrug. "Different for every mage," he said, repeating himself.
"Are some emotions more dangerous?" she pressed.
The Slayer's head rolled slowly to the side in the way that Eni had come to associate with him thinking something through carefully. "No," he said at last, "Anger can burn down a kingdom. So can love. If it gets in your head… If you let it consume you… Doesn't matter what it is."
His words carried more than a note of warning at the danger that magic posed, but Eni found a certain comfort in them too. At the very least it meant that she was no more dangerous than he was. She walked alongside him in silence a while longer, dodging the pedestrians going the other way as they continued on their way to Castle Titus.
Eni wished there had been more time to talk, but the looming walls surrounding the castle were already in sight and she didn't want to be overheard. Instead, she remained as silent as the Slayer himself as he submitted himself to the increased security, speaking only when the guards asked questions and answering them precisely. It took much longer to get through than it had the previous day; the guards insisted on searching each of them for anything dangerous.
Eni herself was delicately patted down by a cheerful and almost apologetic ewe while Tsar was checked over by a hulking bull who only grudgingly returned Tsar's weapon after the ewe reminded him that the wolf was a bodyguard. "So you're the one who saved the archduke?" the bull asked Tsar, a strong skeptical note in his voice.
"I did," Tsar replied quietly but firmly, looking up into the eyes of the mammal questioning him.
The bull blinked and snorted. "You'll be escorted to the conference room. If you need to use the privy or leave for any other reason, there'll be someone outside the room waiting. That mammal stays with you at all times. If you're in the castle grounds and you don't have an escort, the guards who find you aren't going to be as friendly as my partner."
He gestured at the smiling ewe, gave Tsar a final appraising look, and then waved him and Eni on past the gate to the pair of mammals that were apparently their designated escorts. The pair, dressed in the spotless uniforms of the Tormurghast City Guard, led them to the very same ballroom the meeting had been in the previous day, where Eni was stunned by what she saw.
There was absolutely no sign that anything had happened.
The walls and carpet were as pristine-looking as they had been when she had first seen the room, only the extremely faint scent of paint betraying the fact that anything had been done. The light streamed in through the massive stained-glass windows exactly as it had before, and even the tables looked the same. The only change that Eni could see had nothing to do with the room's fixtures; there were many more guards positioned unobtrusively throughout the room, many of them wearing the colors of the Tormurghast City Guard with the sash that marked them as the elite Queensguard.
But despite the increased security visible everywhere she looked, Aza gave no sign that his confidence had been shaken. As delegates began to trickle in he was having an earnest conversation in Jarku with his son, Signa standing so close he was practically touching the tigers. Avamezin broke off and greeted Eni warmly as she entered, beckoning some of his mammals over to assist her in setting up for a day of scribing. Before too long, Renald and his delegation entered the room and the second day of negotiations began.
Eni found the talks much more interesting than those the previous day; since they had managed to come to an agreement about how to investigate the assassination attempt they had actually moved on to discussing the topics that the talks had been set up for. Still, after almost ten hours of debate, it didn't feel as though they were anywhere near an agreement; Avamezin and Renald had wildly different philosophies about what it would mean to co-govern the border that their two powers shared.
Part of the problem, of course, was that the Horns and the Jaws didn't actually have a land border. In many places the rivers and gulfs separating the two were narrow enough that one side was perfectly visible from the other on a clear day, and each had built dozens of fortresses and watchtowers at the closest points. Renald was stubbornly insisting that the Federation be granted access to smugglers captured on the Jaws side while Avamezin pushed for formalizing fishing rights to prevent territorial disputes.
It was the kind of minutia that future historians would kill to have, and Eni did her best to ensure the record of the discussions were as full and complete as possible. Her unwilling assistant seemed no happier than he had the previous day, but the cheetah seemed painfully aware of the possibility for worse punishment if he slacked off and was overeager if anything. It meant that Eni had no trouble keeping up, and when both sides at last agreed to an end to the talks for the day she felt quite the air of accomplishment.
As mammals got up and stretched their legs and organized papers, Aza got up from his own seat and walked over to Eni. "Good work today, Miss Siverets," he said smiling, "I made arrangements for you and your bodyguard to have formalwear prepared. The queen's guards will see you to a room where you can change."
"Thank you, Aza," Eni replied, and his smile broadened.
"It seems like a small reward, considering the favor you're doing me," he said, glancing over his shoulder to see Signa nod in the direction of the door, "I'll see you once the gala starts."
He hurried toward the exit, the polar bear looming above him as the other guards from his delegation surrounded him and his family, but Eni and the Slayer didn't merit a similar escort. The same two guards who had escorted them to the ballroom led them through a maze of corridors to a small and rather plain suite of rooms that looked as though they were meant for extremely junior members of diplomatic delegations. There was a single and rather plainly furnished lavatory connected to a cramped common room empty except for a few desks, which in turn led to a pair of bedrooms full of bunk beds. A pair of chairs had been left in the middle of the common room, and two simple cloth garment bags had been hung from each. A slip of paper had been pinned to each bag; Eni took the one with her name and gave the other to Tsar. They each took one of the bedrooms to change in, and Eni carefully pulled the bag off a stunning dress.
She recognized it as the same style she had seen a few mammals wearing around Tormurghast; it was the kind that looked as though it was a surplus City Guard uniform that had been skillfully converted. It was a cheerful shade of red with deeply black accents, the ruffled skirts coming to just above her knees. Gleaming brass buttons and matching trim gave it a little flair, and Eni eagerly put it on.
It didn't fit quite as well as the Edasu Aza had previously given her; it was a bit tight in the hips, which made it a little difficult to walk, and similarly tight in the chest. Still, as she looked at herself in the tiny mirror mounted in the room, she supposed that it was quite possible that it was simply part of how the dress was supposed to fit. She hadn't actually seen anyone wearing the style up close, after all, and to her it did seem fairly flattering.
Eni was unsurprised to find that Tsar had already changed into his new outfit and was waiting for her in the little common room; his clothes looked practically the same as the last set that Avamezin had provided. The only real difference, besides the color, that Eni could see was that the collar of his tunic looked even higher and stiffer and there was metallic trim on his cuffs.
Rather than leave the room so they could be escorted to the reception, though, Eni took the opportunity she had been waiting for since the talks began and asked Tsar a question. "Any sign of the mage?" she asked in a low voice.
He shook his head grimly and Eni swallowed her disappointment. "Eyes open," Tsar warned, and she nodded.
She had the feeling that if something was going to happen, the reception would be the perfect opportunity, and she had no intention of missing anything. With that promise in her head, she knocked on the door to the hallway and pushed it open, signaling to their escorts that they were ready.
Despite her sense that something was going to happen, Eni hadn't spotted anything out of the ordinary once she had been led to a ballroom even grander than the one the talks had taken place in. Queen Marsenn had said a few words, thanking both the League and the Federation for attending and promising once more to do everything in her power to get to the truth behind the attempt on Avamezin's life, and then the gala had begun.
It largely reminded Eni of the parties that the university had put on, albeit on a much grander scale; the Archivist never would have authorized a thirty-piece orchestra to play slow and sweet melodies while the guests mingled in the cavernous room.
"I see one of my aides must have changed dresses at the last minute," Avamezin remarked, "I suppose requesting an Oriental dress to be tailored to a hare was a bit of an ask."
The Archduke had found her almost immediately, Signa a step behind him as always. Avamezin had changed into an outfit that hid even less of his body than normal, while the polar bear had dressed in what looked like his usual style but in gleaming white that matched his fur and made him stand out like a misprinted page with a blank spot among the text.
"Oh, you didn't need to go to that much trouble," Eni replied, but Aza laughed.
"I'm an Archduke," he said, smiling, "Going to too much trouble is half my job. And that's the fun half."
He laughed again, and Eni laughed with him. "It is nice though, isn't it?" Eni said, looking to Tsar as she spread the skirts a little.
"It is," Tsar replied quietly, which was surprising enough, but what surprised Eni even more was that Signa suddenly spoke.
"Pretty dress," he said, gesturing at Eni.
The polar bear's Circi was as thickly accented as it had been the previous times Eni had heard him speak, but there was a surprising gentleness to his deep voice. "Looks good on you," he added.
"Thank you," Eni replied, "It's the fashion in Tormurghast now, I think."
She was more than a little amazed that the bear had spoken, but she supposed some of Signa's gratitude toward Tsar might have rubbed off on her by association. For his part, Aza looked delighted that his bodyguard had spoken up, but Eni guessed that the talkative tiger probably found his guard's usual dour silence disappointing. "It's very different from any of the Carnaron styles," Aza agreed, "Perhaps Signa is imagining a pretty she-bear in such a dress?"
The insides of the hulking bear's ears flushed ever so slightly as his features twisted into a frown, apparently embarrassed at his master's teasing. Eni thought it was likely that the bear had gone a very long time without seeing any other polar bears so far away from the frozen north, and she hadn't noticed any of the signs that would show he was married or betrothed himself. Aza smiled sympathetically. "There's no shame in knowing what you want," he said kindly, "And if a pretty dress for a beautiful she-bear is all my most loyal bodyguard wants, I can certainly make that happen."
As Avamezin and his guard drifted away, Eni was struck once more by the power of Aza's charm; he had taken a moment where so many mammals might have leaned too hard into mocking a servant and used it to demonstrate how deeply he valued Signa. It seemed like little wonder that the bear was so loyal, considering that Aza seemed to be very nearly magnetic.
Eni didn't have very much time to reflect on it, though, because almost the instant that Aza had walked away a tall and well-muscled gnu who must have been a member of Renald's delegation approached.
"What're your plans after this little party ends?" he asked cockily, casually placing one hoof on Eni's shoulder and leering down the neckline of her dress.
Eni was too shocked to react immediately, but even as she jerked away from his clammy touch Tsar had caught the gnu's arm in his paw. "I was just—" the gnu began to say, but Tsar cut him off.
"Leaving ," he said, staring right into the slightly shorter mammal's eyes.
The Slayer appeared utterly calm, his head tilted at an imperious angle and his face devoid of anger. His grip must have been like a vice, though, because the gnu suddenly winced and let out a yelp of pain. Tsar released the gnu's arm but didn't drop eye contact until Eni's accoster mumbled an excuse and hurried away at an undignified pace.
"Thanks," Eni said to Tsar, a frown crossing her face as she rubbed her shoulder, "That was rude of him."
Tsar cut a surprisingly elegant bow. "A lady's honor is worthy of appreciation," he said smoothly, and Eni simply stared at him.
Of all the things he could have possibly said, the very last thing that she would have expected would have been for him to quote the play they had just watched. "Did you—" Eni began, but she was interrupted by a nearby deer, who started applauding softly.
"How very gallant!" he cried, "And in defense of one such as her."
The deer offered Tsar a smile and then returned to his conversation with a huddle of other delegates, but Eni was left to simply stare at him. She supposed that the representatives of Renald's delegation resented a prey mammal serving as a scribe for Avamezin, but that didn't excuse such cutting remarks. Tsar simply guided her away from the gaggle of mammals, and as he did Eni asked the rest of the question she had started. "Did you mean to quote The Sunset Story?" she asked.
He didn't answer.
Still, as he carefully piled a plate with an incredible assortment of tiny sweets from one of the many tables lining the room, it occurred to her that his entire demeanor was much different than it usually was. His posture was never poor, exactly, and yet he still somehow seemed to be standing taller and prouder than he usually did. When he had spoken, there had been an air of quiet dignity to his words usually not present.
Between his fine borrowed clothes and his newly adopted behavior, he blended in with the crowd so well that he seemed nearly unremarkable. There were mammals far more finely dressed, and Eni had even caught a glimpse of brilliantly golden fur that must have belonged to another and much flashier Aberrant. Eni was struck with the realization that when he didn't look shabby Tsar simply looked like a handsome wolf. She spotted a few mammals wearing dresses like hers making their way through the crowd, all of them stunningly pretty, and she hoped that she wasn't suddenly the shabby-looking one by comparison.
Eni picked a few pieces of fruit for her own plate and nibbled at them while Tsar did the same with his desserts, eating miniature cakes no bigger than his fingers in four delicate bites. Even his manners were suddenly impeccable, and she felt compelled to ask him about it. "Have you been to many parties like this?" she asked.
"Yes," he said, his eyes roaming the room, "Rongen's right."
Eni recalled the words that the raccoon had spoken that morning about his distaste for fancy gatherings and equally fancy clothes and nodded. She looked about the room, and while there was no obvious sign of a mage there were still plenty of interesting things to see. On the other side of the room Queen Marsenn's Lord of the Treasury was offering King Renald a glass of wine, the rhinoceros as dour as ever. Halfway across the room from where she and Tsar stood, Avamezin's wife was having a somewhat stilted-looking conversation with one of Renald's generals, the pair ringed by guards. The general seemed to make a joke, laughing at his own wit, and Kera smiled politely in a way that didn't touch her eyes; for a moment the tigress almost looked sad.
Eni wondered what the mammal from the Federation had said, but she hadn't been able to hear their conversation over a much closer one. Just further down the line of tables piled with food, where more savory dishes rested atop elegant platters, a rhinoceros much shorter than Renald was questioning Sabor so loudly it almost felt as though he wanted to be overheard. "So you're saying bandits aren't running unchecked in the Fanglands?" he asked, "My, my, is this the first time they've let you out of that gaudy monstrosity your kind calls a palace, princeling?"
Even though the rhinoceros was much more compactly built than Renald himself, he still towered over the young tiger; Sabor's entire body seemed slimmer around than his questioner's legs. "Why, Lord Herston, I'm surprised to hear you dignify such outlandish rumors by speaking them," Sabor replied in his perfect Circi.
Although he was facing away from Eni, from his voice and his posture he seemed utterly unintimidated. The rhinoceros grinned, exposing a mouthful of blunt teeth, and he leaned down closer to Sabor's face. "Oh, I wouldn't call them outlandish. I've heard from a number of sources that there's a fire-breathing lizard terrorizing your countryside."
"Is your wine too strong, Lord Herston? The Slayer killed the last wyvern a century ago," Sabor said, scorn evident in his voice, "Perhaps he'll be coming back too? At the head of Roren's own Valkyries, I expect."
The prince laughed, and as he turned his head to the side briefly caught Eni's eye. "Blackfang is just a rumor, then?" the rhinoceros pressed, "There's no bear the size of a house running amok with a taste for flesh?"
"You're not swaying on your feet, so I suppose it isn't the wine," Sabor replied, "I would suggest you stop frequenting pigeon posts and allowing yourself to be swayed by bored messengers. Excuse me, Lord Herston, I must see to other guests."
The young tiger didn't even wait for a response before he turned and walked away from the lord, and he offered Eni a smile that seemed a touch short of being genuine. "Miss Siverets," he said imperiously, inclining his head ever so slightly, "You do an excellent job selecting bodyguards."
If Aza had said the same words, he would have struck the perfect balance between spontaneity and teasing, but Sabor's words had the overly perfect air of having been something he had come up with well in advance and then rehearsed. He didn't have his father's easy charm; even accounting for his arm in its elaborate cast his movements were just a little too stiff and formal. Still, Eni could hardly fault him for that, and she smiled politely at his little joke as manners demanded she did. "The Mother has blessed me," she said, putting her paws together in the Fanglands style.
"I suppose she has," Sabor replied, "And as your bodyguard saved my father's life, you've saved me from a boring conversation."
Once again, his words just didn't sound quite natural, but Eni gave him an encouraging little laugh. "We're glad to help, aren't we, Tsar?" she said.
The wolf had given the tiger a perfectly performed gesture of greeting just as Eni had done her own, and his faultless manners continued. "As you say," he replied, nodding his head in a manner that was almost submissive.
"Then I hope you've been enjoying yourself?" Sabor asked, more than a touch stuffily.
"Yes, absolutely," Eni replied, pushing aside thoughts of how she had been approached and gesturing with her arm to take in the ballroom, "Everything's been lovely."
"You're looking very lovely yourself, by the way. That dress suits you," Sabor added, and for the first time that night his words actually sounded truly genuine, "Have you met Prorex Kounel? He's a rabbit in King Renald's delegation and I'm sure he'd be charmed to meet you. I could introduce the two of you; he's just over there."
The young prince gestured with the glass he held in his good arm across the room, and Eni spotted the mammal he was referencing. The Prorex was actually a hare, not a rabbit, and he had soft brown fur and dewy eyes that were nearly the same color set in a handsome face beneath elegantly long ears. His formal clothes were far less elaborately patterned than Renald's, but they suited his build, which was tall and sturdily built for a buck.
But he wasn't an Aberrant, and that meant he was barely more than half Eni's height.
"Some other time, perhaps," Eni said, hiding a smile at the idea of someone as young as Sabor attempting to play matchmaker.
From how he spoke and carried himself, it was easy to forget how young he was, and she supposed that Avamezin had probably chosen not to tell his son much about her history with suitors. "Perhaps," Sabor agreed, "Excuse me, please."
He drifted away with far less dignity than his father had managed; the tiger seemed to be painfully aware of eyes on him as he made his way across the room and struck up a conversation with an antelope from the Circle.
Another twenty minutes passed as Eni continued making her way around the room, but it seemed as though the delegates from the Circle disapproved of her scribing for Avamezin as much as those from Renald's group. She felt more than a few mammals actively leering at her, and a ram had crudely asked her how much it'd cost for a night with her before she sent him scurrying away.
As uncomfortable as it was, it would have been worse had Tsar not been a constant fixture at her side; she overheard a few mammals muttering to each other about how they would have approached her if "the wolf" hadn't been there. She wasn't particularly worried for her safety, but it was still disheartening to realize that so many mammals thought that simply serving as a scribe for her friend was some kind of act of disloyalty.
"How dare you!"
An unfamiliar voice suddenly bellowed loudly from across the room, and Eni's heart leaped in her chest as she turned to face the outburst, desperately trying to see any sign of magic. Instead, though, all she saw was a widening circle forming as mammals pushed away from two mammals. The music stopped, and even if it hadn't Eni would have had no problem overhearing what was going on.
One of the mammals, a tall and shaggy mountain goat, was furiously yelling at the other, a strikingly colored leopardess. She was the flash of gold Eni had seen earlier among the crowd; she had an uncommon metallic brilliance that marked her as an Aberrant as much as the whiskers coming from her brows, which were incredibly long and unusually dark. Otherwise, except for her delicate five-fingered paws, she looked like a normal leopard, but Eni had never seen anyone carry themselves with such incredible poise except perhaps for Tsar himself.
The goat was screaming himself hoarse, but the leopard didn't seem to notice as he gesticulated wildly and pointed at her, instead simply sipping at her wine. "You dare show your face here, Woemaker?" he demanded, "The Butcher of Karanor dares bring her blood-soaked paws to the negotiating table?"
The goat turned his head and spat at her feet. "Your Archduke has no honor! No dignity! No—"
A pair of Tormurghast City Guards bodily lifted him and started carrying him away, but his tirade did not end. "You call this negotiating in good faith?" he raved, "You slaughtered my family, Woemaker! You cowardly murderer! Say something!"
"Enough!" a booming voice called, so loudly that the entire room seemed to shake.
"You embarrass yourself, Lord Othis," Renald continued, slightly emphasizing the lesser title.
For so large and heavy a mammal, the rhinoceros had appeared at the center of the disturbance with surprising speed, and his voice was firm and loud as he spoke to the lord. But compared to his normal sour expression, Renald didn't seem angry. If anything, he appeared almost amused, no matter how serious his voice was. "You've had enough to drink tonight. Our host's guards will kindly see you to your bed," he finished, his tone clearly indicating that it wasn't a suggestion.
Lord Othis slumped in the arms of the guards carrying him, appearing to realize better than to argue with his king, but even as he offered no resistance to being pulled out of the room muttered conversations began to fill it as the music started again. "Bringing the Woemaker was quite the provocation," Renald said, his voice not as loud as before but still carrying significantly.
He directed his words in Avamezin's direction; the tiger had apparently needed to cross the room and was left standing at the leopardess's side. "Saber-General Astrasa meant no such thing," Aza said firmly, and Eni realized that the Woemaker had been a part of his delegation all along.
It had simply not occurred to her that the Saber-General he had mentioned, or the mammal he had called Leya, must have been Lieren Astrasa, the League's most infamous military commander. She was more than a little surprised that he had included her at all; the goat who had insulted her certainly wasn't the only mammal who loathed her and her actions.
That opinion didn't quite seem to be universally shared, however. The members of Avamezin's delegation had circled around the Saber-General with an almost protective air, every one of them scowling at how she had been insulted, and even among the members of the Circle's delegation Eni could hear some voicing support rather than muttering condemnations. "That fool's lucky the Dragon of Karanor was feeling merciful," a squat pig richly dressed in the Tormurghast style told his companion.
"I've only ever done what must be done," the Saber-General said in slightly accented Circi, looking about with a rather unconcerned air at the unfriendly faces, "Call me what you must, but my every action was in proportion to the insults Karanor delivered to the League."
For a mammal with such a brutal reputation, her voice was surprisingly mellow and feminine; she sounded as though she would have been at home in an opera house. More muttering met her words, but she seemed as unconcerned as ever, simply looking at her empty wine glass. "I would like another drink," she said, ignoring Avamezin and simply walking past him and toward the refreshments. Eni could hear Avamezin speaking again, his voice rising and falling as he tried to get the room's attention away from Lieren, but Eni was too busy thinking about what had just happened to really pay any attention to his words.
It seemed as though Renald could have easily engineered the confrontation, and considering the effect of Lieren's presence being noticed it was easy to assume that he had. That didn't answer the obvious question, though: why had Lieren been a member of Avamezin's delegation in the first place? There were far too many mammals who would see her presence as an insult for it to be a good idea, and Eni wondered if Avamezin's father or brother had insisted that she go along in a deliberate attempt to sabotage the talks. Eni frowned; she knew she'd have to talk to the tiger about it as soon as she could.
"So," a voice came from behind her, and Eni nearly jumped in surprise; she had been too focused on her own thoughts to hear anyone approach.
She turned to see Lieren standing there, a fresh glass of wine in one paw. The leopardess looked at her with a rather regal air; she was incredibly toned and fit, her Fanglands-style formal wear hiding very little. "A pair of Aberrants," she mused, "Quite rare."
Lieren's eyes were as striking as her golden fur, almost seeming to glow green like twin coins held up to the sun. They ran up and down Tsar first, seeming to consider the wolf carefully. "You're not quite what I expected of the mammal who saved the Archduke's life," she said at last, "But appearances can be deceiving."
"They can," Tsar replied, looking back at Lieren in a rather calculating fashion.
"Indeed," the Saber-General replied, "Like your companion."
Her eyes turned to Eni, running up and down her lazily. "A rabbit, but so bold as to try climbing the ladder of power with the tools Roren gave her."
"I'm not a rabbit, and I'm not trying to do anything," Eni protested, "I'm just helping the Archduke as a friend."
"A friend?" Lieren echoed, "You mean you're not a whore?"
"A— A what?" Eni stammered.
Her ears felt as though they must have turned scarlet, but the leopardess continued as though she hadn't noticed Eni's reaction. "My apologies, then," Lieren replied, although she seemed unperturbed, "You are simply dressed like a harlot. Everyone else wearing that dress is from one of Tormurghast's most popular bordellos."
On that note, the leopardess simply walked away while Eni felt as though every eye in the room was on her. Her entire body felt like it was flushing with embarrassment beneath her fur, her mouth suddenly utterly dry even as her tongue felt thick and heavy. Helpless tears of humiliation welled in her eyes, blurring the room, and her heart was pounding so loudly that she could hear nothing else.
And then a voice came. A voice that was horribly familiar because it was her own.
Make them pay for laughing at you, it whispered, and Eni could feel her magic trying to pull loose.