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Chapter 21: The Malkin Dress

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Eni desperately tried to reject the terrible idea, but it was impossible. The voice was coming from the very foundation of Castle Titus itself; it multiplied as every single block added to the cry. No matter how she told herself, over and over, that it was her voice, that it was her desires, the words refused to be silenced. They echoed and overlapped like some awful chorus, and every bit of control Eni had was slipping.

Crush them, the stones demanded, Pull them under and crush them.

The tears welling up in Eni's eyes felt as hot and as thick as blood, and as her vision dimmed into an indecipherable mess a new image filled her mind. She saw, for one instant, what she could do if only she let her magic loose. The ground would do as she willed it, would split asunder and form yawning chasms to the tunnels she could suddenly feel deep beneath Tormurghast. Maybe they were forgotten mines or the remnants of the long-dead volcano at the heart of Mount Gwared. It didn't matter; they were cold and black and dank and deep, so far beneath the Castle that the fall would feel endless.

She could see them all, tumbling into the abyss as they shrieked for mercy, and the stones called out for her permission. The gnu who had groped her shoulder would cry out in despair, Eni was sure. He would tumble to his death and have enough time to reflect on what he had done to deserve such a punishment. She could see it happen, more vivid than reality, as though she was standing at the edge of a pit and watching it herself. The colors were too sharp, filled with an impossible richness in shades that couldn't possibly exist. The earth was not a dull gray or unremarkable brown; as it yielded to her will it would be alight in a nimbus that was red and green at the same time, shot through with flashes of breathtaking blue-orange.

By comparison, Avamezin's fur would seem positively unremarkable as he plummeted, and Eni jerked her head and tried to deny the possibility.

No! Eni cried in her mind, No, not Aza! He's my friend.

Your friend?

Her own voice was legion as the castle's foundation answered in a cruel and pitiless tone. Your friend?

Yes! Eni said, but the word felt weak compared to the awful crushing pressure of her magic.

Who do you think chose that dress? Do you really believe someone dared act against their Archduke's will? Of course not. He wanted everyone to see you how he's always seen you.

He's never— He'd never—

Eni's protests were becoming feebler, doubt clawing at her heart. She had utterly lost her sense of what was real; surely she was not really standing at the lip of a pitiless void that darkled, the center growing impossibly black even as the stone around what was left of the ballroom floor strobed in fantastic color.

But she couldn't tell.

There was no present but what she could see, no future but what her magic willed. Yes, her multitudinous voice crooned, Yes, let it happen.

"Stop it, Eni!"

A voice cut through the vision like a flaming sword. It was the Slayer, speaking in little more than a whisper, but it was enough. She was suddenly aware of his warmth and strength, shining so bright that the demands of her own magic felt faded and dimmed. He pulsed with life, positively burning with it, and Eni latched on. She gave her power a hard yank and the ballroom around her resolved back into reality.

Tsar was peering into her face, standing so close to her that his somber face filled her vision. One paw was raised, as if he had been about to cradle her jaw or slap her across the cheek. The tip of his muzzle was so close to her own nose that she could feel his breath ruffling the fur above her mouth and smell the lemony sweetness of the last dessert he had eaten. As Eni locked eyes with him he pulled himself away and lowered his paw, apparently satisfied that she was controlling herself again, and Eni blinked away the last traces of the tears that had threatened to overwhelm her.

But although there were no traces of massive pits in the floor or impossible colors swirling about, something seemed terribly off. "Did I scream?" Eni asked in a low and urgent whisper; she hoped she hadn't embarrassed herself but something had obviously happened.

The low murmur of pleasant conversation and idle chat had given way to something sharper and louder, with an edge of panic to it. There were shattered plates and glasses on the floor where partygoers must have dropped them, smears of food and puddles of wine showing where they had been stepped in. The bodyguards dispersed throughout the room had clustered so closely to their charges that it looked as though they were planning on hugging them and their faces were tight. Signa, looming above all the entire room, was scowling fiercely, one massive paw on his enormous sword, but there was no threat that Eni could see.

"No," Tsar said quietly, "You made the floor shake."

"I—" Eni began, gaping at him in disbelief, but before she could say anything more a voice interrupted.

"I'm sorry our evening was marred," Queen Marsenn said, her voice loud and perfectly pleasant.

Eni turned her eyes to the giraffe, who was smiling pleasantly down at her guests from where she stood at one end of the room without any apparent trace of concern. Everyone else was doing the same, the entire room turning and looking at the queen. "They happen every now and then in the Circle, but we've never gotten anything worse than the occasional tremor since my great-great-grandmother's time," Marsenn continued in the same friendly tone, "Our only casualties are these."

She held up her hooves, showing the glittering fragments of a plate and a glass. "I never did care for the pattern," she said with a sigh, "I confess, when I asked the Mother to give me an excuse to replace this particular set of dinnerware I didn't think she'd send an earthquake."

A polite laugh ran through the room and the tension eased a fraction. "But Tormurghast has many fine artisans," the giraffe continued, her smile growing a touch wider, "And the kitchens have spares."

Even as she spoke, a veritable army of servants was streaming into the room, holding aloft massive platters covered with fresh food and drink. "So please," Marsenn announced, holding out her arms, "Continue to enjoy yourselves."

She reached down to pluck an appetizer off a passing server and the room came alive again. Everyone seemed to be trying their hardest to show the other guests that they hadn't been afraid at all, and if the cheer was a bit forced Eni supposed it was better than the alternative. A nearby caracal started loudly boasting about how he had survived a much more dangerous quake, and the mammals around him took it as a challenge to top his story. Laughter and good-natured jokes and ribbing filled Eni's ears, but she could only numbly look around the room.

There were no cracks in the walls or other signs of damage to the building itself, but Eni wondered how close she had come to seriously injuring or even killing someone. "It's just a dress," Tsar said, apparently thinking that was still at the front of her mind.

"Just a dress," Eni repeated, and she was pleased at how steady she sounded.

"Take it off if it bothers you," he said, but he wasn't making eye contact; he was scanning the room as though looking for something.

Eni laughed; she couldn't help it. Considering how unconcerned the Slayer seemed with his own appearance, she supposed that probably struck him as a logical solution. "I don't think that'd do much for how everyone sees me," she said.

Tsar shrugged his shoulders slightly, the fabric of his fine tunic straining at the motion. "You are what you are," he said simply, "Doesn't change, no matter what anyone thinks."

"That's…" Eni began, trailing off as she thought through it more.

"Thank you," she finished, and he grunted an acknowledgement, his head and ears still turning about.

His words actually had made her feel a little better, and she set aside the question of who could have been so cruel to her. Cruelness had to be the only possibility; it felt utterly impossible for the dress to be an accident. Someone had deliberately wanted her to look bad, and Eni told herself that it couldn't have been Avamezin no matter how it seemed.

Eni instead tried to do as the Slayer was doing, and looked for anything of interest, but there was simply too much to focus on. Tsar was slowly walking around the room and Eni did her best to keep pace with him, listening as carefully as she could. All she saw, though, were the faces of partygoers, the division between predators and prey significantly eased compared to the negotiating table.

There were still pockets of prey mammals huddled together, forming circles that seemed resolutely designed to refuse admittance to a predator. But every carnivorous mammal she could see looked to be mingling quite well. Kera, standing next to the largest wolf Eni had ever seen, was conversing with Queen Marsenn nearby as they compared the techniques of their respective favorite glassblowers. Sabor was across the room, unenthusiastically picking at a dessert that didn't seem to be to his taste while a boar about his age bragged to him about his skill at Knavery. Even the cheetah who had insulted Eni in the theater was playing nice, discussing fencing techniques with a kangaroo who seemed to be making just as great an effort to remain polite.

But in one corner of the room there was a pocket of predators that seemed to exude a frosty and exclusionary air, no herbivores daring to get too close. Eni curiously drifted away from Tsar, making her way to the buffet table closest to the mammals and slowly piling a plate with sweets she had no intention of eating as she did her best to eavesdrop. She didn't recognize any of the faces from the negotiations, but to a mammal they all wore the unmistakable Oriental uniforms and sigils that marked them as members of Carnaron's military.

"Just like the Woemaker," one of them, a thickly-built mountain bear said in Jarku, his eyes flashing behind a pair of incongruously delicate spectacles as he shook his head, "The plant-eaters will never agree to anything with her around."

He was speaking so low that Eni could barely hear him; she doubted a normal hare would have been able to make out what he was saying even if they had understood Jarku. "Patience, Kumari," a lean female jaguar urged in the same language and just as quietly, "The Archduke is doing what he can."

A stocky wolf snorted. "While the Caiser and the Caiserevich tie his paws?" he asked, "Unlikely."

"And who do you think tried to assassinate him, eh?" the jaguar whispered, "Someone doesn't want the Legions to change."

"Don't be paranoid, Rellas," the wolf replied, but Eni thought she could hear a note of doubt in his voice.

Kumari leaned in to his fellow military officers and Eni strained her ears even as she mindlessly added a lemon custard to her plate. "Just keep your eyes open, for Roren's sake," he said, "War's in no one's best interests."

Eni thought she caught the wolf looking at her, and as her plate couldn't possibly fit another sweet she grudgingly walked away, trying to show no sign that she had understood them. Still, it was encouraging, in a way, to hear what the lower-level commanders in the Jaws military were thinking. Or some of them, at least; Eni supposed there might have been a very good reason for the three predators to avoid discussing their concerns with any other members of Avamezin's delegation. The possibility that Avamezin's father and brother were behind the assassination attempt was one that had occurred to her, but hearing the whispered discussion had only increased her certainty of what it would mean.

The Jaws would utterly collapse into civil war if it was true.

Everything Eni had seen told her that Avamezin was too popular; killing him would utterly destroy his brother in the eyes of the Jaws. Buran was already the Caiserevich, poised to become Caiser upon his father's death, and Eni had never seen Aza show the slightest interest in usurping his older brother. But had her friend staged an assassination attempt against himself?

It should have felt ridiculous, but if Aza did want to become Caiser himself, framing his brother was perhaps the best way that Eni could think of. "Were the wolf's pockets not deep enough?" a voice interrupted Eni's thoughts, "Or did he realize he didn't need to pay someone to keep his bed warm?"

A dignified-looking badger perhaps as old as Rongen had put herself in Eni's path, but her voice wasn't nearly as sympathetic. There was a hard and cynical edge to her words as she offered Eni a lopsided smile and gestured at Tsar. The Slayer didn't seem to have noticed, but he had collected an orbit of admirers, all female and ranging quite widely in age. Evidently the spectacular nature of the wolf's rescue of the Archduke transcended national boundaries, because predator and prey alike, in the garb of the Circle, the Federation, and the League, were casting covetous glances in his direction.

"Just getting some desserts," Eni said, doing her best to appear as proper as the badger.

"Mmm," she replied, glancing down at Eni's rather overfull plate, "A word to the wise, dear: watch how many of those you eat. If you stop fitting in that dress, no one will give you a second glance."

The badger gave a haughty laugh as she walked away, but somehow the joke didn't sting quite as cruelly as it had upon Eni's initial realization. Tsar's words seemed to echo in her mind; it really was just a dress. It made her glad to be at his side again, and she ignored the glares that some of the mammals who had apparently been trying to pluck up the courage or the right words to say to him shot her. They all stormed off as Eni simply stared back at them, a hyena loudly speculating to her companion about the dexterity of Tsar's paws the last to flounce off, and Eni waited until she was alone with Tsar to speak.

"I heard something interesting," Eni said in a low voice as the Slayer helped himself to the treats she had brought, and as they continued walking the room she explained what the Jaws commanders had been discussing.

The Slayer considered her words carefully, delicately licking the filling out of a miniature profiterole as he did. "It sounds like they think someone on their side organized the assassination attempt," Eni concluded, "What do you think?"

Tsar's head cocked to the side. "Possible," he said at last, his tone quite thoughtful.

"Did you hear anything interesting?" Eni asked.

He shook his head so subtly Eni barely saw the movement. "Smelled magic," he said, his voice barely a whisper.

"When I— When I almost lost control?" she asked just as quietly, "Was it me?"

He locked eyes with her. "Yes. No," he said, "Not your smell. Different. It was…"

He trailed off, apparently searching for the right words, leaving Eni to wonder what her magic smelled like to the Slayer. She hoped it was something pleasant, maybe even something mildly poetic like the ocean at dawn on a crisp spring day when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. But she didn't want to distract him, and rather than asking waited patiently as he ate another profiterole.

"It was strong and weak," he said eventually.

"What do you mean?" Eni asked; it was not a very meaningful answer, so far as she was concerned.

The Slayer glanced around the ballroom for a moment, and then pointed with his chin. Eni looked where he had indicated and saw a richly dressed skunk discussing the weather with a very bored-looking stoat. "Have you ever smelled a skunk spray?" he asked.

Eni nodded, wrinkling her nose at the memory.

"It was like that, days after it had happened. A strong smell made weak," Tsar said.

"So…" she began, choosing her words carefully, "When I almost lost control, and made the floor shake, the mage stopped hiding their magic?"

The Slayer almost looked pleased. At the very least, he seemed ever so slightly less grim. "Exactly," he said, "They might have thought someone was attacking them with magic. They started calling on their own before forcing it back down."

Eni wanted to speak immediately, but their slow circuit of the room had taken them near King Renald. Queen Marsenn's Lord of the Treasury was at his side once more, the armadillo droning on about anti-counterfeiting measures he wanted their two powers to take, and the rhinoceros actually seemed to be listening intently. At the very least, his normal scowl had relaxed marginally, and once Eni was sure they were out of earshot she pressed Tsar for more details.

"And they're a strong mage?" Eni asked.

The Slayer nodded. "You didn't happen to recognize their magical scent, did you?" Eni asked, trying to make her words as light as possible despite the fear that was pressing into her belly.

It was bad enough to know that there was a mage present, lurking about the party, but hearing that it was a strong mage made her more than a little uneasy, and that unease only grew as seconds passed and Tsar remained silent. "No," he said at last.

He fell silent again after that, apparently still trying in vain to find any hint of the mysterious mage he had already detected but could apparently not identify. As Eni looked around, a thought occurred to her and she asked, "If you could… 'smell' the mage, does that mean they could tell that I have magic too?"

It had struck her that it might be like kits playing with lanterns in an empty field on a moonless night. When they lit their own lamps, they could see the others, but their light was itself a beacon. It seemed quite likely to her that magic would be the same way, and as she had expected Tsar nodded once. "But they may not know it's you," he said, his tone almost encouraging, "You lost control for less than five seconds."

"Five seconds," Eni repeated wonderingly; it had not yet ceased to amaze her that time could seem to pass at such a wildly different rate when magic was involved, and she was not sure it ever would.

"Do you think that was long enough for them to spot me?" she asked.

"Would have been for me," he replied, and Eni swallowed hard.

Despite his dark words, though, Tsar appeared utterly unbothered, and he continued to eat the desserts off her plate until it was empty, wiping at his mouth with a handkerchief and a fastidious air quite unlike his usual behavior. Eni tried to stay calm, but the idea of a powerful mage knowing exactly who she was and seeing her as a threat made it more than a little difficult to enjoy the party. She nearly jumped when a sheep who had evidently had too much to drink dropped his wineglass and it shattered, and it took her heart a long time to slow back down afterwards.

Still, absolutely nothing of any interest happened for nearly another ten minutes, and then she heard Aza's voice calling her name. "Eni!" he said, and she turned to face him as he hurried across the ballroom, Signa less than a pace behind him.

His face was apologetic in a way Eni had never before seen; he looked appalled and embarrassed, his eyes slightly widened and his ears tucked back while his tail twitched back and forth behind him. "I just heard— I never thought— I never would have—" he stammered, in a way quite unlike how he normally spoke.

He fumbled with the enormous golden broach keeping his magnificent cloak together, almost tearing the fabric as he pulled it off. Aza swept his cloak off his shoulders in a single smooth motion, leaving his toned chest completely exposed, and draped it around Eni. The cloak fit poorly; although the tiger wasn't all that much broader across the shoulders he was significantly taller, and the hem dragged on the floor as he fussed with the broach to secure it. "Aza—" Eni began, but he cut her off.

"I'm so sorry," he said at a normal volume, apparently unaware of all the eyes that had suddenly gone to him as he covered her up, "I'm so sorry. I didn't know. That dress is— Well, mammals from a certain brothel here in Tormurghast wear them."

His face folded in on itself as he cringed at the word "brothel," but behind him his polar bear bodyguard showed no emotion. "That's not the dress I picked, Eni," Aza said, his words continuing to fall out of his mouth, "I promise you, it's not. I don't know who switched it, but I will have them found and punished. I promise."

He took his paws away from the broach awkwardly, looking at Eni with a pleading air. She could hear mutterings from the partygoers around them as they caught each other up, the ones who knew what the dress meant explaining it to the ones who didn't. "It's just a dress, Aza," Eni said, offering him a smile, "I know you never would have wanted this to happen."

"Absolutely," he said fervently, "Of course. I can get you a different one right now."

"I think this is fine," Eni said, offering him a small smile as she held up part of his cloak; it utterly obscured the dress and the broach that was large on the tiger was almost comically so on her.

"Good," he replied, relief crossing his face, "That's good. I'm glad you believe me."

Eni reassured him, and he certainly seemed sincere enough. He promised her, again and again, that he would find whoever had thought to play such a cruel prank. His face was the perfect picture of honesty, the way he stumbled over his words a bit exactly what would be expected of someone who had found themselves thrust into the awkward position of having a close friend embarrassed by someone who must have been just as close to him.

But as he made his promises and apologies Eni found that the niggling sliver of doubt in her heart refused to go away.

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