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Chapter 23: All Flesh is Grass

Updated: Aug 31, 2023



"What the fuck do you mean?" Rongen asked before Eni had the chance to ask a similar question in a politer fashion.

The raccoon looked stunned, and Eni felt sure her expression was probably no different. Avamezin was her friend, and the idea of someone doing something to him with magic made her skin crawl under her fur. Horrible possibilities filled her mind; had the mage somehow bound Aza to their will, the way that Queen Aeliya was said to have held an entire kingdom and the Hydra of Sithis in her thrall? The idea of the tiger being forced to act against his will filled her with a powerful revulsion, and Eni looked to Tsar for an explanation.

"Faint," the wolf said after a moment's consideration, "But there. It was…"

He trailed off, seeming to carefully choose his next word. "Imperfect," he finished.

Rongen's surprise gave way to a more typical scowl. "Meaning?" he prompted.

"Like a painting," Tsar said, nodding in the direction of the enormous portrait of a much-younger Rongen that hung over the fireplace, "Spots the brush missed."

"Take a closer look and you'll see I didn't miss any," Rongen said, but from his tone Eni could see that he understood what Tsar was saying.

"And the bear is worse. Smells fake," the Slayer continued.

"Fake?" Eni echoed.

"Too perfect," Tsar said, "But the magic smells the same."

"So…" Eni said slowly, trying to wrap her head around what he was saying, "You think someone put some kind of… of spell on Avamezin and—"

"No such thing as a spell," Tsar interrupted, shaking his head.

His tone was almost harsh; apparently the distinction was critical in his mind. "Some kind of magic on Avamezin," Eni said, amending her words, and when the wolf didn't interrupt she finished with, "And you think Signa is a likely suspect because his scent doesn't seem natural and it's the same sort of magic."

Tsar nodded once. "Like… Like Signa put a geas on him?" Eni asked.

"Possibly," the Slayer replied.

Considering that he hadn't corrected her choice of phrasing, Eni wondered if that meant that the stories of Queen Aeliya really did get the truth of her power correct. She could feel a frown coming across her face and did nothing to stop it. "Or your mage got the tiger and his bodyguard," Rongen suggested, "Maybe did a better job against the Archduke. He's more important, I guess."

Tsar made a noise of agreement deep in his throat. "But you can't tell what was done?" Eni asked, and the Slayer shook his head.

"Ah, fuck," Rongen said, sighing, "So you haven't really narrowed it down any. I know when I'm out of my depths."

He got to his feet with the aid of his cane, groaning as he stood. "Well, as I can't really help with magic and it is very fucking late, it's time I go to bed," the raccoon said, and he bid them goodnight before shuffling slowly to the stairs.

Tsar barely acknowledged his former traveling partner as he left the sitting room; the Slayer seemed utterly focused upon his own thoughts. "So what do we need to do tomorrow?" Eni asked once they were alone, "How do we keep investigating?"

He shot a glance in her direction, as though he was surprised that she was still sitting there and hadn't given up for the night like their host. "We keep looking," he said simply, "And be careful around the tiger."

He unfolded himself out of his chair, standing up far more gracefully and effortlessly than Rongen had, and stood before Eni. "You need to practice more," he said, "Come on."

Without another word he turned and walked toward the stairs, and Eni pushed her tiredness aside and hurried up after him. Once they were back in her room he had her go through the same exercises they had the previous night, but Eni didn't seem to be able to marshal together the necessary concentration. Her thoughts kept drifting and with them her focus. Again and again, the little fireball she was desperately trying to keep steady fizzled out, but Tsar was as patient as a statue.

His expression remained utterly unreadable, his eyes flickering in the unsteady light of the flames that Eni was trying to control, until eventually he stopped her. "That's enough for today," he said at last.

Eni thought it had been at least an hour and a half, but she wasn't entirely sure; calling on her power seemed to utterly ruin her sense of the passage of time. But although she desperately wanted to continue and prove to him that she could in fact do it, she simply nodded. "Sleep," he commanded, and it was the last thing he said to her that night; when Eni told him to have a good night he left her room without any sort of acknowledgement.

Once he was gone, Eni sighed and flopped over on her back onto the soft mattress of her bed. It gently conformed itself to her body, and as she stared up at the ceiling, glumly considering her lack of progress, she told herself that she would record the day's events in her journal before calling it a night. There was so much that needed to be written down that she almost didn't know where to start, a dozen different possibilities jockeying for priority. The words seemed almost to dance in front of her, writing themselves in her voice and organizing into sentences. But it was hard to make out the paragraphs against the elaborately painted mural that covered the ceiling of the guest room, and she closed her eyes to blot out the distractions.

And then it was morning.

Eni woke with a start to a gentle knock on the door. "Good morning, Miss Siverets," the voice of one of Rongen's maids called, "Master Rongen is inviting you down for breakfast."

"I'll— I'll be right there," Eni replied, and she groggily staggered out of the bed.

She couldn't even remember falling asleep, although she obviously had, and the jumbled remains of her dreams pulled at her mind as she got ready as fast as she could. There was a sort of warmth in her core that felt almost as though there was a flame burning inside of her, but it faded like a snuffed candle as Eni tried remembering her dreams. She had the vague sense that they had been quite similar to those from the previous night, but the impression danced out of her grasp, slipping away the more she tried to hold onto it. It pulled at her mind, the images becoming ever hazier and indistinct until they were utterly meaningless and she almost gave up entirely. But as she stripped out of the previous day's clothes before getting into the shower, a memory came unbidden to her. "Take it off if it bothers you."

Eni frowned as she hastily washed herself, barely noticing the pleasantly hot spray of water. She supposed it was only natural that she had dreamed of the dress, but she tried her best to stop looking back and instead look ahead. There was, after all, a far more important matter to consider than her hurt feelings, and she was more than a little afraid that she might rattle her power loose again if she focused on her own embarrassment.

With that resolution in mind Eni dried herself off with a towel so luxuriously soft and absorbent she almost felt guilty using it and dressed for the day. Although she had done her best to get ready as fast as she possibly could, she was unsurprised to find the Slayer and Rongen already almost done with their breakfasts by the time she got down. The only acknowledgement Tsar gave her was a small flick of his ears, but Rongen folded up the peril paper he was leafing through and set it aside at her approach. "Good morning, Miss Siverets," he said, "Looks like you slept better last night."

Eni offered him a smile. Something about her dreams still nagged at her, but she pushed that inkling aside. "I guess I did," she said, and she was more than a little relieved to realize that the words were true.

"Good, because it sounds like you'll need your wits about you today," Rongen said, shaking his head as he sipped at a steaming cup of tea, "Makes me remember when it was me out there with Gray, running in circles and chasing our own damn tails."

His words were dark, and for a moment everyone was silent as they ate. After a few minutes had passed, Rongen suddenly chuckled. "You remember that time in Leriscora, Gray?" he said, and when the wolf didn't answer Rongen turned to Eni.

"Tiny little village," he said, smiling slightly, "Awful time getting there, too. That was the wettest and coldest fucking summer I can remember. Felt like my damn fur was always damp. Anyway, they had a rash of mammals getting sick and having all sorts of crazy delusions. Oh, and one or two had their arms and legs fucking rotting off. They were utterly convinced an evil mage had… How did that elder put it?"

Rongen looked at Tsar expectantly, and when he remained silent the raccoon rolled his eyes and answered for him. "'Had called a most vile and unholy pestilence upon my lands and my citizens' or something like that, I think. Sounded like he ate all of the worst fucking plays about the Slayer and vomited them up."

"I'm betting there wasn't a mage," Eni replied.

Rongen grinned. "And that's a bet you'd win, my dear."

The raccoon gave her the same sort of expectant look he had the previous night, and Eni realized he wanted to see if she could figure it out for herself based on what he had said. "Mmm…" she said, thinking the scant details over, "Ergot?"

Rongen thumped the table with one paw. "Exactly right!" he said, "They grew dark rye and didn't notice the fungus on their crops. But it took us almost a week to figure it out. Well, for me to figure it out. Our pudding-headed wolf was fucking clueless."

"I found the spores," Tsar said quietly, speaking up for the first time that morning.

Rongen waved a dismissive paw. "So maybe you helped a little," he said, shooting Eni a grin and a wink, and she smiled.

What he was doing felt almost painfully obvious to her; he was trying to prove to Tsar that she was valuable and useful as a traveling companion. She realized he had almost certainly been doing the same thing the previous night, and she felt a surge of gratitude. She had no idea if Rongen's input would actually sway Tsar to any meaningful extent, but she appreciated his efforts. "We ought to leave," Tsar said abruptly, pushing his chair away from the table and getting to his feet in one smooth action.

"I'm sure," Rongen replied, his words heavily inflected with sarcasm, "Mother knows I don't want to delay you."

Eni scooped up her last few bites of porridge, painfully gulping down the piping hot oats, and hurried after the wolf. He seemed to be in a particularly pensive mood; although he still navigated the throngs of pedestrians with the same graceful ease he had always displayed his face was especially somber and thoughtful, with a distant look in his eyes. Eni resisted the urge to ask him what was on his mind, instead spending their walk finishing what she had started before falling asleep by organizing her thoughts for updating her journal.

By the time they had passed through the security checkpoint at Castle Titus's gate, which was if anything even more stringent than it had been the day before, Eni was practically itching to write down her entry. Between when Rongen had sent a wake-up call and when Tsar had insisted on leaving the tower Eni should have had more than enough time to completely catch up with her writing before the day's negotiations began again.

The meeting room was nearly empty, except for a few scattered scribes and clerks from both sides, and what little conversation there was came from the far side of the room where mammals were getting pastries and hot tea from the long row of refreshments. Tsar wordlessly left Eni at her accustomed seat to get more food himself, and as he started filling a plate she pulled out her notebook and began writing.

Eni was nearly done with her fourth page of text and Tsar was on his sixth miniature scone when Avamezin entered the room, Signa just a step behind him at his shoulder as usual. Eni wondered if she had gotten too focused on her writing to notice the clock set into one of the towers of Castle Titus chiming the quarter-hour; by her reckoning the tiger was significantly early.

He must have noticed her surprise, because as he approached the chair reserved for him he did not sit down, instead offering her a small smile. "I'm glad you're early," he said quietly, his voice barely seeming to carry for the short distance between them, "Might I have a word alone?"

"Of course," Eni replied, and she hated the moment's hesitation she had felt in her heart even though her answer had been immediate.

Aza beckoned for her to accompany him, and then he shot Tsar a charming smile. "You're welcome to wait outside the door if you're worried about your mistress's safety in my paws," the tiger said.

Tsar simply nodded once and stood up, and Eni had to fight the urge to wince. She would never claim to be an expert on anything but history in general and antiques in particular, but she thought she comprehended Jaws culture well enough to know that the wolf had just gravely insulted the Archduke. The offer Aza had made, so far as Eni knew, was not intended to be taken; Tsar should have known that by making it Aza was binding Eni's safety directly to his honor. Without saying a word the Slayer had bluntly called the Archduke dishonorable, and she was relieved that Aza didn't seem to take it personally.

He led them out of the room in silence, and as he walked ahead Signa turned his massive head and looked down at Eni. She did her best to meet the bear's penetrating glare without withering under it, and after a moment the bodyguard made a low chuffing noise. Signa's mood was almost impossible to discern, and she wondered at what exactly Tsar was learning as she saw his nostrils flare. Eni couldn't smell anything unusual herself; although she had never met another polar bear the faint and vaguely clover-sweet smell she could just barely detect up close didn't strike her as odd. Certainly it didn't seem to have any hint of magic to it, although Eni admitted to herself that she really had no idea what that would have been like.

Avamezin also smelled to her exactly as he always did; his musk was somewhat pungent and unmistakably feline in character, quite different from that of the Slayer. But before she could think on it any more, Aza pushed aside a wall hanging and revealed a door hidden behind it, which he unlocked with a key he pulled from a pouch at his waist. Before he could open it, Signa did, poking his head through and blocking the entire doorway with his incredible bulk. After a moment he withdrew and gave Avamezin a crisp nod.

The Archduke walked into the room, beckoning Eni after him, and the instant she had crossed the threshold Signa closed the door behind her, leaving her alone with Aza. The room they were in was relatively small, at least by the standards of a castle, and quite plain. Eni supposed it would make it harder for a would-be assassin to conceal themselves; the stone walls were utterly bare except for a few old maps and the furniture consisted only of a few wooden chairs. Aza took one of the chairs and sat, then gestured for Eni to do the same.

He seemed more somber than usual, and the fact that he hadn't spoken a word on their walk over to the room was more than a little concerning. When Eni sat down, Aza sighed and looked her in the eye. "Circi is such an imprecise language," he said, "Like how it has 'mother' and 'Mother' instead of 'ushkaba' and 'Roren.'"

Aza offered Eni a slight smile. "Or how, instead of using a single word of Jarku, I must say that I had faith you would return yet feared you would not," he added.

His face was suddenly warm and apologetic, and he kept speaking. "I could offer my regrets for your humiliation until we both die of old age and not come close to expressing how sorry I am," he said, "And I'm very disappointed to tell you that I still have no idea who swapped the dresses."

"I understand," Eni said, "It's fine, really."

Avamezin smiled again, but it was the saddest smile Eni had ever seen. His perfect posture became ever so slightly less so; he was almost slumping in his chair. "You shouldn't have to say that," he said in a low voice, "Sometimes I think you ought to have been born a predator."

"Aza?" Eni asked, unsure of what he was getting at; she had never seen him so glum.

"You understand the petty honor and grudges of my kind better than most nobles in Carnaron. And that without ever setting foot there," the tiger continued, suddenly standing.

He began pacing the small room, his tail whipping back and forth as he did. Eni could tell her friend was working his way up to saying something, and she didn't interrupt, waiting patiently as he stopped suddenly before one of the maps that hung on the wall.

Although it was a masterful illustration of Aerodan, it was undeniably out of date, still showing Karanor as an independent nation and not a part of the League, and Aza sighed. "The borders change but the politics don't, not really," he mused, "You see it, don't you?"

"I see the world," Eni replied, willing to indulge him.

"And you see history," he said, "No nation wants to be hedged in, and yet look what's happened."

"Carnaron controls the Strait of Nahr now, and where does that leave everyone else? The Circle and the Vanward States are boxed in between the League and the Federation, and now the Federation has nowhere left to expand," Aza said, tracing the land beneath his fingers.

"The Federation is afraid we'll push our advantage, choke off their access to the rest of the world and then carve them up," he continued, "There are many in my father's court who want nothing more than for that to happen."

The tiger sighed deeply, looking at the map as though it was more than just ink and paper. "But Carnaron is stretched too thin," he said, "The Federation knows that; they outnumber us, and yet they don't act either. Why do you think that is, Eni?"

She thought for a moment; there were a dozen different answers she could give, but she said the one she thought Aza needed to hear. "They know their history as well as you do," she replied, "A single decisive battle is all it'd take, one way or the other, and no one wants to take that gamble."

He sighed again. "Not yet, at least," Aza said, "But how much longer will that stay true? How much longer can this balance last before someone tries tipping the scales?"

"Nothing is inevitable," Eni replied, and Aza laughed.

The sound was somehow sad, but there was still humor in his eyes. "The Archivist always did know what to say, didn't he?" Aza asked, "I remember how he'd warn us not to think things happened 'just so.' History is more complex than that."

He smiled, and it seemed quite genuine. "And so is the future," he said, "However much it must answer to the past."

His grin faded, and he took his seat once more. "And I do owe you answers there," he said.

"After what happened last night, I gathered every mammal in my delegation. Every single one, from the saber-general down to the lowliest clerk. And I asked—I demanded—that the guilty party reveal themselves. That they own up to their cruelty that had humiliated the friend of their Archduke, son of their Caiser, and in so doing humiliated their nation. Were you a predator, I would have received a confession. Honor would demand that even if they saw it as a prank, they would understand that they went much too far. But because you're a hare, you're automatically lesser in their eyes. Unworthy," he said, and he looked right into her eyes.

"Eni, nothing could be further than the truth, but that's the battle I'm fighting every day. There are too many in the League who feel the same about negotiating with prey as you would trying to negotiate with grass. To them the idea is absurd. Nonsensical. And so, when I demanded the truth, they stood before me… and no one confessed."

"But you're trying," Eni said, standing up and going to her friend.

She reached out, about to grab his paw and offer him the simple comfort of physical contact, but before her fingers could so much as brush his she heard a commotion from the door. "I have news for the Archduke," Eni heard a familiar voice say, speaking Jarku, "He'll want to see me at once."

She had never heard Saber-General Astrasa speak her native tongue before, but the leopardess's richly feminine voice was utterly unmistakable. Aza must have also heard her voice because he suddenly stiffened, the vulnerability vanishing from his face and his posture as he assumed his normal bearing once more. "Let her in, Signa," he spoke loudly, switching to Jarku.

Eni turned and faced the door and watched as it opened and the Saber-General strolled in. The leopardess was practically swaggering, exuding a haughty and chilly air as she stopped in the middle of the room and waited for the polar bear to close the door behind her. Astrasa was dressed in a formal Jaws military uniform, the many badges of her rank gleaming in the light of the lanterns lining the walls. Unlike at the gala, she was obviously armed; besides twin swords at her waist her right paw was encased in a brutal-looking steel gauntlet that ran almost to her elbow. Small spikes protruded from the knuckles, and when she spread her fingers wide Eni saw that each one ended in a wickedly sharp metal claw. It made her uncovered left paw look even more delicate, but there was so much confidence in the way the Saber-General stood that she looked anything but fragile.

"Not interrupting while you were in the middle of something, I hope," she drawled in Jarku, lazily eyeing Eni up and down before she continued speaking, "Did you have some other finery to dress your pet rabbit in? The Nihians are known for pearls, I believe. A necklace, perhaps?"

Aza's jaw momentarily stiffened, his posture becoming rigid as he looked back at the leopardess. Eni hadn't really noticed the previous night, but upon seeing the Saber-General again it struck her that Astrasa was remarkably short for her species; she was no more than an inch or two taller than Eni herself. Despite the considerable advantage that the tiger had over her, the Saber-General simply looked back at him fearlessly, crossing her arms and waiting for his answer. "You have news?" Avamezin asked in Jarku, his voice remarkably polite and his face incredibly mild as he answered Astrasa.

The Saber-General swept her cloak aside, revealing her toned and yet still curvy torso as she pulled a rolled-up scroll from a hidden pocket in her loincloth. She passed it to Aza, and Eni caught a glimpse of the seal that had been used to keep it closed; although the wax was broken there was no mistaking the horned sigil of the Federation. "A most interesting letter was among the possessions of Garent Jenarius. The ibex who tried slaying you, that is."

Avamezin frowned. "And has this been seen by Queen Marsenn's investigator?" he asked.

Astrasa shrugged carelessly, her eyes wickedly bright under her strikingly long and dark brow whiskers. "The agreement said nothing about sharing information found outside requests made by her security forces," the leopardess replied.

"We'll have to give it to them," Aza said, his frown deepening.

The tiger had not unrolled the letter and he looked at it distastefully. "It is yours to do with as you wish, Your Grace," the leopardess said smoothly and perhaps a touch insolently.

"And what of the dress?" Avamezin asked.

Both predators had spoken every word in Jarku, and Eni wondered if Astrasa actually knew that she could understand everything they were saying. If she did, the Saber-General gave no sign of it; she glanced at Eni dismissively before answering. "Nothing yet, but it seems a small matter."

"Do you know what that dress represented, Saber-General?" Avamezin asked, his tone perfectly polite.

"My understanding is that it means the mammal who wears it is a prostitute from a particular high-class brothel here in Tormurghast," the leopardess replied immediately and without any hesitation, "I've needed to keep an eye on the temptations the common soldiers indulge in."

Aza offered her a warm smile, but his voice was harder and with an icier edge to it than Eni had ever heard when he spoke again. "That's not what I meant," he said, taking a step toward Astrasa, "It represents a failure, does it not? It is not the dress I chose. It is not the dress I asked be delivered. And what if there had been more to it than simply a humiliating design? What if whoever laid paws on the dress Miss Siverets should have received instead hid in it a dozen needles all tipped in the same poison the ibex had on his blade? What that dress means, Saber-General, is that someone got past our security measures. Security measures that you were responsible for. It is a failure no more or less grave than that which allowed this Garent Jenarius to come so close to stabbing me."

He was standing less than a foot in front of her, staring down into her eyes. Neither one of the two felines blinked, and then Astrasa lowered her head. "The investigation shall continue," she said, but she didn't sound at all chastised.

"Then you had better see to it," Avamezin said, and the Saber-General seemed to wisely take it as the dismissal he clearly meant it to be.

Astrasa nodded once and turned on her heel, brushing past Eni on her way out. As the leopardess passed, her shoulder touched against Eni's and her tail snaked past her leg. Eni's skin crawled at the contact and she saw a smile form on the leopardess's face. It did nothing to light up her chilly beauty; if anything she seemed haughtier than ever.

But then she was gone and Eni was left looking at the closed door. "A case in point, I'm afraid," Avamezin's voice came from behind Eni; he had reverted back to speaking Circi.

He sighed as she turned to look at him. "That's exactly the sort of attitude I wish was less common," he added, and he sank back into a chair.

"Saber-General Astrasa has… quite the reputation," Eni replied, trying to do her best to put a positive spin on the words.

She didn't think she had come even close to succeeding, but Aza rewarded her with a weak chuckle. "And while I'm wishing, it'd be nice if I had made Kera choose someone else as Sabor's maidmother. But it was the only honor Leya would accept and my father insisted," he said, shaking his head.

Eni found it almost impossible to imagine the leopardess displaying anything like a maternal air if something happened to Avamezin's wife, but she supposed that for nobles naming a maidmother was more of a political choice than a practical one. That, at least, made it easy to understand why the Caiser wanted his most famous and successful general to serve such a role for his only grandchild. "Prince Sabor seems very fond of her," Eni offered, and Avamezin gave her a rueful smile.

"He certainly is," he replied, but as he unrolled the scroll and spread it across his lap, his expression froze.

"Eni," he said, sounding almost dazed, "Read this."

He thrust the scroll in her direction and Eni took it, looking down at the smooth surface of the high-quality paper. The message was written in Circi and was exceptionally short, but Eni read it twice in quick succession to make sure she didn't miss anything.

Jackknife—

Arrangements are made. Your pen will be waiting and what you write with it will strike like a blow to the teeth. The snakes must be expelled from the walled garden if we are to plant flowers.

—Cornet

"It's not much of a code," Eni said after a moment's consideration, "The 'pen' is the dagger and it uses 'teeth' instead of 'Jaws', 'walled garden' instead of 'the Circle', and—"

"Not that," Aza said, shaking his head, "The writing. The writing! Hold on just a second."

He reached into his cloak and pulled forth a bundle of correspondences, which he began flipping through rapidly. Eni caught glimpses of terse instructions in Jarku before Avamezin seized upon a letter written in Circi, which he thrust into her paws. "It's the same, isn't it?" he demanded.

Eni compared the two letters side by side; the neatly formed symbols in Jenarius's letter looked identical to the ones in the second, which seemed to be a formal acknowledgement of having received an invitation. The message Aza had given her was blandly written and not particularly interesting, but when she looked down at the title under the signature her blood ran cold.

Renald I, the Unicorn King, Protector of the Anteocularian Federation

"If—" Eni began, her voice coming out as little more than a croak.

She swallowed hard, feeling as though there was a rock in her throat, and tried again. "If this isn't a forgery…" she said, "If there's proof Renald ordered the ibex to assassinate you…"

"My father will tolerate no response other than war," the tiger finished for her, his accent thicker than usual, "His honor will demand it. Our citizens will demand it. They'll be calling for the Legions to spill an ocean of Federation blood to repay the insult."

Aza's voice was just ever so slightly unsteady, and Eni felt monstrous for the tiny seed of doubt that was still in her heart about her friend. "But it still doesn't make sense," Eni protested, "Jenarius was a member of his delegation. Renald must know everyone is suspecting him. I don't understand how he'd think this would get the Circle to ally with the Horns against the Jaws."

"We're peering through a keyhole at a mural," Aza replied, a note of frustration evident in his voice, "There's more to this we aren't seeing yet."

His expression was grim as he put his other correspondences back into his cloak, but he left the ones he had given Eni in her paws. "I don't dare let anyone else see that letter," Aza said, "Not until I know whether or not it's real. But I trust you, Eni."

His eyes peered into hers, and his voice was warm and sincere. "If there was ever a time an expert was needed to tell apart a forgery from a genuine article, that time is now," he said, "And I can think of no one better for the job."

"I'll do my best," Eni promised, although she felt the weight of the responsibility Aza was asking her to bear; the wrong call would be disastrous for the entire Cradle.

"But I'll need as many samples as you can give me," she said, trying to walk through the steps in her mind the same way she would if the letter was simply a rare book of questionable providence, "Of Renald's writing and of the paper that his correspondences are sent on."

She held both messages up to the light, looking at how the light played through them. "The watermarks aren't as sharp as they would be if the paper was made in the Circle," she said, casting a critical eye on both; the seal of the Federation at the center of the pages was slightly blurred around its edges on each, "That makes it easier to falsify documents from the Federation. And the colored threads are—"

Eni cut herself off. "I'm sorry," she said, realizing she was going into more technical detail than the Archduke knew or probably cared to understand, "You don't need me rambling on."

He simply chuckled as he stood up, and his expression almost seemed normal. "You have nothing to apologize for," he said, "I'm sure now more than ever that you're the right mammal for the job."

Aza walked for the door and Eni followed. "I'll get you as many samples as I can," he promised as Eni carefully rolled up both messages and tucked them away into her clothes.

"And I'll get you an answer as fast as I can," Eni replied, thinking through the next series of examinations she wanted to do.

She was so focused that she barely spared a glance at Signa and Tsar as she left the room and the bodyguards took their positions, the polar bear a step behind Aza and the wolf just behind her. Eni got the feeling the two hadn't spoken a word to each other while she had been talking with Avamezin. If anything had happened between the pair, neither seemed to give any sign of it; their faces were equally unreadable.

Renald and his entire entourage were waiting in the meeting room when they returned to it. As his eyes traced over her, Eni thought she caught a glimpse of a cruel sort of amusement in the rhinoceros's eyes. Whether or not he had known what the red dress meant, she suspected that at the very least the story of what had happened had made it to his ears. Queen Marsenn and her personal bodyguards were also seated, at a new table that had been set up a short distance from the main negotiation table, and she seemed to be watching the proceedings with keen interest.

"Archduke Avamezin," Renald boomed as the tiger took his seat, "How kind of you to join us."

"Of course, King Renald," Avamezin replied, his normal pleasant smile upon his face; Eni had to admire how well the Archduke hid his suspicions and hoped she wasn't giving anything away herself.

"It was a rather… illuminating gala last night," Renald continued, "I wished to extend my thanks to our host."

He inclined his massive head in a way that was respectful but still far short of a bow and gestured to where the giraffe sat. "And I would be honored to do the same," Avamezin said, formally putting his paws together.

"And per our agreement, I also wanted her here for what I have to say," Renald said, almost speaking over the tiger, and then he pointed one blunt finger in his direction.

"I have proof that you personally attempted to blackmail Garent Jenarius into assassinating me. He died a hero, trying to end your cowardly life," Renald said, his voice full of barely restrained fury.

The effect on the room was immediate. Mammals on both sides of the table jumped to their feet, and while no one drew a weapon it seemed as though every single mammal with one held their paw to it, glaring at their counterparts. Whispers filled the room with an angry buzz, but Renald's words cut through everything else, loud and impossible to ignore.

"How do you plead, kitten?" he snarled, fixing Avamezin within his sights.













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