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Chapter 24: Hammer of the Witches

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Aza held up a single paw with an almost casual air, but it was enough. To a mammal, everyone on the Jaws side of the table fell silent and still, their fingers coming away from their weapons but their eyes still distrustfully fixed on Renald. Eni was furiously writing, trying to keep her minutes up to date, but at least half the other scribes on both sides were simply watching with their pens forgotten.

"I'm disappointed, Renald," Avamezin said, his voice remarkably steady and his face utterly neutral, "You mention our agreement and yet immediately violate it. This is not how we determined disputes would be resolved."

The massive rhinoceros turned his head to the side and spat. "Rather than address the charges you cower behind words," he sneered.

"On the contrary, I reject your accusations in whole," Aza replied, "They're entirely baseless."

Renald chuckled; the sound was like two massive rocks being ground against each other. "Then explain this away," he said, and made a quick motion with one meaty hoof.

A sharply-dressed goat seated a few places down from the rhinoceros nodded and rose, pulling a scroll out from his tunic and walking toward Queen Marsenn. From where she was watching, all Eni could tell about the scroll was that the broken black wax seal dangling from it was on the gold ribbon that marked it as having come from a member of the Carnaron royal family.

Queen Marsenn looked utterly stunned, the dignified giraffe entirely at a loss for words, but when one of her personal guards stopped the goat before he got too close she snapped out of her reverie. "The Archduke is correct, King Renald," she said, and there was a slight edge to her words, "This is entirely irregular. I will not tolerate unsubstantiated accusations within my city."

Renald inclined his head ever so slightly, the gesture not quite deep enough to show the queen the respect one of her subjects would have given her. "Read for yourself," he said, and almost as an afterthought added, "Your majesty."

Marsenn nodded to her guard and the mammal let the goat give her the scroll. As Eni watched the queen read it, she wished she could have it for herself; all she could see was the giraffe's face going rapidly from puzzlement to surprise. It felt as though minutes dragged past as the queen considered the letter, Avamezin looking unperturbed as he waited. "Archduke Avamezin," the queen said at last, "This is a letter that was encoded with what I believe is called a cipher engine and bears your personal seal."

At Marsenn's words, Eni felt her ears perk up but was powerless to stop them; she wished she had worn her hood as they briefly sprang completely upright before she could will them back down. Whether or not Aza had actually written the letter that Renald claimed he had, she didn't think it was likely a coincidence that Ceslaus had also held a letter encrypted in the same manner. The wolf illusionist's message had instructed him to reply to Tormurghast only, and Eni was convinced that the two must have some kind of connection.

"I've never used a cipher engine in my life," Aza replied; to Eni he sounded perfectly sincere, "And what is being claimed in my name?"

Queen Marsenn read aloud while Renald looked on, a touch smugly. "'The asset will be in position. The sovereign will fall. Sequence two five seven seven eight.'"

Avamezin frowned, and Eni could feel her heart beating more and more rapidly in her chest and sending pulses up the tips of her ears. The sequence number at the end of the message was one before Ceslaus's letter; any doubts of a linkage were utterly obliterated in Eni's mind. "A peculiar message, and certainly a suspicious one," Aza admitted after a moment, "But even if I had written it—and on my honor I swear I did not—I fail to see how it establishes culpability. Where did you procure this letter from?"

"You thought you were very clever, using a different bird instead of that eagle of yours," Renald said, and Eni could hear genuine pleasure in his voice, "I suppose you thought a sparrow was less likely to draw attention."

"And then why would I use my personal seal?" Avamezin countered, "Surely if I was engaged in some sort of clandestine… skullduggery, I believe is the word in Circi, I would not have overlooked such an obvious and attention-grabbing detail."

The tiger gave Queen Marsenn his most charming smile. "King Renald is grasping at straws, as they say in the Westerlands," he said, his tone perfectly balanced between contempt and amusement, "This is evidence of nothing. It's simply a feeble attempt to frame me."

"Hardly," Renald replied, "I can lay out everything."

Aza gestured lazily for the rhinoceros to continue, and while Renald scowled briefly he began bluntly plowing through his story. "The dagger that was to be used in the attempt to assassinate me, before Garent Jenarius turned it upon his blackmailer—"

"A claim you have yet to substantiate in any way," Avamezin interrupted, and Eni heard a few muted laughs coming from the members of his delegation that spoke Circi.

She chanced a glance at Tsar, but his face remained neutral and he seemed to be paying rapt attention to the tiger. "This isn't a court of law," Queen Marsenn said, "But I will give both of you the chance to present your version of events. And I expect you to respect the other while he's doing so."

She sounded more like she was addressing naughty calves than two of the most powerful mammals in the Cradle, but Aza gave her a gesture of respect and Renald curtly nodded his head. "Which includes," she added, staring directly at Renald, "Not making any claims without evidence."

"The dagger that Garent Jenarius held," Renald said, starting over, "Was coated in a complex poison. We have all seen the analysis."

Queen Marsenn and Aza both nodded their agreement, and Eni supposed that it meant the queen's investigators had come to the same conclusion with their dagger that Rongen had come to with its twin. "Such a poison is difficult to make, but the tiger has the means. A perfumer is part of his delegation."

"Is this true?" Marsenn asked Aza.

"The same is true of King Renald," he replied, nodding his head, "If you believe a perfumer crafted the poison, either one of us could have ordered it created."

"But only one of us has eyewitnesses who will give sworn testimony in the Mother's name that they saw the tiger's intermediary taking the poison from his perfumer and giving it to Jenarius along with a threat as to the consequences of failure," Renald said, and Aza crossed his arms across his chest.

"And who are they?" the Archduke asked, "Name your witnesses and this alleged go-between."

"I—" Renald began, but he paused, his face twisting suddenly with loathing.

Eni had heard the sound of a door opening, but had been much too focused on the rhinoceros's testimony and trying to record everything to bother turning around. At the look on his face, though, she did, and saw Saber-General Astrasa strolling into the room with the same easy arrogance she had exhibited earlier.

"I apologize for the interruption," Astrasa said, although her tone was anything but sorry, "One of our pages only just found me and told me what's going on. As I'm the head of security for the League delegation, it seems as though I ought to be present, does it not?"

Astrasa slinked into the nearest empty seat on the Jaws side of the table, passing so close to Eni that one of the leopardess's long brow whiskers was practically in her face. Renald scowled but didn't dispute her right to be there as the leopardess settled in. Eni took a quick glance in the Saber-General's direction, and she didn't care for the chilly smile on her face. Renald apparently didn't either, but he quickly regained the thread of his thoughts. "I will name three mammals," the rhinoceros said, "For the safety of the eyewitnesses, they will remain unnamed for now. And the intermediary's name would sound ridiculous if I said it now without explanation."

No one challenged his statement, although Eni heard some scattered muttering; she wondered herself who Renald could possibly claim had forced the ibex to act on Avamezin's behalf. "First," Renald said, his voice rumbling, "The fireball that was meant as a distraction. Queen Marsenn's own investigation team has agreed with the conclusion of my staff that a mage was the likely source."

At that, the voices of other mammals in the room rose far above a whisper; representatives on both sides were commenting to their fellows at nearly normal volume. Eni wondered if she should have mentioned Rongen's demonstration, but before she had the chance to do much more than consider the possibility Renald spoke again. "Though the League delegation disagrees," he continued, raising his voice ever so slightly as he glared at Astrasa.

"Mages are too rare to be worth considering," the leopardess countered calmly.

"Then how do you explain that the earthquake last night was limited in its entirety to Castle Titus?" Renald asked bluntly, "That is not normal."

Eni hoped that her face wasn't looking too guilty as she swallowed hard and did her best not to show any emotion. It seemed as though Renald had accidentally stumbled upon the right answer to something utterly unrelated to the assassination attempt and Eni wondered who he was blaming for the tremors she had caused. Aza spread his paws at the same moment Astrasa shrugged lazily. "It is unusual, but not impossible," Aza said, and the Saber-General nodded.

Renald snorted. "It was hardly a coincidence it happened during the gala. It was another assassination attempt. A more direct one. My lead investigator believes the mage was simply too weak to make the floor collapse under me as they had intended to do," the rhinoceros said.

"Which is, again, supposition," Aza said firmly.

Renald's beady eyes nearly vanished beneath his heavy brow, but he gave no other sign of his irritation, his voice remaining ponderous and gravelly. "What is not supposition is that there is another mammal who received a similarly encrypted letter," Renald said, "This mammal is the mage and the one my eye witness saw act on orders from the tiger himself to force Jenarius to cooperate. This mammal is devious and ruthless and unquestionably guilty."

It seemed as though every eye in the room had slid to Saber-General Astrasa, but the leopardess appeared entirely unconcerned. She was levelly looking back at Renald, a somewhat coy smile on her face. "And you can produce this letter?" Aza asked, skepticism obvious in his voice.

"Of course," Renald said, "My investigator made a copy of it, but the mage is arrogant enough to still carry the original on her."

The tension in the room was building; even as Eni was frantically taking notes she could see members on the League side of the room reaching for their weapons again, their fingers tightening around hilts as their body language became defiant. Even Aza looked concerned, and of all the predators present only two seemed unaffected. Astrasa looked positively amused by the attention she was getting, and Tsar was as unreadable as ever, his attention totally focused on Renald.

Renald pointed one finger toward where Astrasa sat at Eni's side. "The mage is the rabbit," he said.

Eni's pen skittered to a sudden stop as she realized what she had just written. "What?" she said, sure she must have heard him wrong.

Her breach of decorum went absolutely unheard; it sounded as though everyone present had just spoken at once. Mammals from both groups jumped to their feet, pointing and shouting. Many of the predators, after evidently having Renald's announcement translated for them, broke out into jeering laughter that only riled up the Federation delegates further.

Voices were painfully overlapping, but Renald raised his voice and it cut through everyone else's. "The rabbit joined the League delegation far too late to be vetted as we examined every other delegate. She does whatever the tiger asks, without question. He even dressed her as his whore to draw attention away from her, but my witness saw her act. Her guilt has been written across her face this entire time and the other encoded letter is in her possession. Confess your crimes, rabbit!"

"This is outrageous!" Aza said; his voice firm, but Eni was almost too numb to appreciate his defense.

The only possible solution she could think of was that the mage had utterly outwitted her. "Search her bag!" Renald roared, pointing at Eni, "You'll find the letter there!"

"You cannot—" Aza began, but he was cut off by another voice.

"Enough!" Queen Marsenn bellowed, "All of you, stop!"

Her voice was sharp and loud, but her face betrayed very little emotion as she stared down at Eni.

"You have made your first accusation, King Renald," the giraffe said calmly, "My guards will check it."

"She—" Aza started to say, but Marsenn spoke over him.

"It is my right as host," she said firmly, and she gestured two of her guards forward.

Eni felt as though she had to be dreaming as the burly mammals grabbed her satchel and began carelessly rifling through it; she could hear pages of her personal journal tearing as they were roughly flipped and a surge of helpless anger started burning in her belly. She had no idea what to do, and no one was coming to her defense; Aza had fallen silent, a concerned frown crossing his muzzle, and Tsar was so still he might as well have been one of the statues from the Day of Description. She wanted to grab the Slayer and demand to know how he could sit by and do nothing. She wanted him to burst to his feet, draw his whip, and strike down the guards. She wanted something to happen so she could do more than helplessly watch as one of the guards emerged triumphant with the letter she had recovered from Ceslaus's villa.

"It does look the same," Marsenn said once it was in her hooves.

Eni didn't like the suspicious look the giraffe gave her. "I— I didn't do it," Eni said.

Her voice sounded strange and otherworldly to her own ears, as though she had become disconnected from herself. The room erupted again, and no matter where Eni looked there was not a single sympathetic face. "Then present your own version of events," Renald said, and although the mammals quieted there was a hungry sort of feeling in the air.

Eni could practically hear it on the air's current; it was the barely restrained desire for violence. The mammals on Renald's side of the room, she realized, believed their king's words utterly and without question, and they wanted to see her dead. On Aza's side, all they seemed to care about was that the tiger himself hadn't been involved. No one cared about her; she was just a target. Every breath Eni took seemed tinged with the metallic taste of blood, and Eni realized what she was doing a moment too late.

The voice of the wind came to her, so quiet that she could barely hear it but it was there. Eni's breaths came quicker as her fear built, but that only made it worse, the crooning voice urging her to defend herself. Let me take care of them, the wind whispered, and Eni desperately tried forcing down the horrible memory of the slavers choking.

"I— " Eni began, "I—"

She might have been crying, but she couldn't tell. Her awareness was being entirely consumed by the air and the demands it made of her, and the actual mammals in the room seemed utterly unimportant. "She was framed, obviously," an unexpected voice said.

Eni tried clinging to the words, trying to focus on them over the louder and louder voice of the wind, and it took her a moment to realize that the one speaking them had been Astrasa. "Someone planted the letter in her bag," the leopardess continued.

She had risen to her feet and spread her paws wide as she began walking, stopping when she was in front of Eni. She was looking right into Eni's eyes, her back pointedly turned in Renald's direction. "It's a ridiculous story. A rabbit being a mage? Nonsense. And I can prove it."

The rhinoceros scowled back at the Saber-General, and Eni had to strain to catch his words over her inner turmoil. "I have evidence she's a mage," he said, "How can you possibly think you can prove she isn't?"

Astrasa smiled horribly. "The same way inquisitors did, of course," she said.

What happened next took place so quickly that it barely seemed possible. With the paw not encased in a gauntlet, the leopardess delivered a devastating punch to Eni's gut. Eni choked out all the air in her lungs with a terrible wheeze, but before the pain could even touch her Astrasa's gauntlet-wrapped paw was around her neck and squeezing hard.

Eni flailed awkwardly, kicking her chair over, but the Saber-General lifted her as though she weighed no more than a kit, applying crushing force to her throat as she did. Eni's lungs were in agony; it felt as though they were entirely empty and collapsing in on themselves, and spots flickered at the edges of her vision. She was beyond the ability to think; all Eni knew was that she needed to breathe but could not. "A simple test," the leopardess said coldly.

Eni scrabbled desperately for Astrasa's paw, but the metal surrounding it made it like a vice. She cut a finger on one of the spiked knuckle protrusions and felt it only dimly as blood sluggishly welled up. Everything seemed far-away; Eni thought that other mammals were talking but all she could hear was the Saber-General's voice.

And the voice of the wind.

It spoke to Eni in her own voice, high with panic and edged keenly with roiling fear. But even as her actual thoughts faded toward blackness like her vision, Eni knew on some basic level that she couldn't. Any sign of magic would only make Renald seem entirely correct and Eni desperately tried to ignore the voice as she tried to free herself.

Kill her before she kills you! Save yourself! Let me kill her! Let me force the lungs out of her mouth!

"Stop me and I'll snap her neck," Astrasa said remorselessly, watching Eni's struggle with dispassionate interest.

You're dying! She's killing you! Don't just accept it! Let me stop her!

It was agony unlike anything Eni had ever felt, like drowning on dry land while the voice in her head urged her to make it stop. "If she is a mage, she'd save herself. Her magic wouldn't let me kill her," Astrasa continued in the same icy tone.

Eni's power screamed for release. The pressure kept building until her entire body burned with it. Somehow it wasn't bursting out, though, even as her fingers grew heavy and weak and all sensations faltered. All Eni could see was the leopardess's pitiless eyes, their vivid gold graying as the darkness spread. Everything was fading, and the last thing Eni heard before oblivion claimed her was Astrasa's voice.

"See? Just a rabbit after all."


Eni woke up to the worst pain she had ever felt in her life. Her head was positively throbbing with a headache that made her thoughts feel sluggish and weak, but even that was nothing compared to her neck. Every single breath she took was like scouring her insides with a red-hot wire brush, and when she swallowed it only got worse. It wasn't just in her neck, either; she was horribly aware of where Astrasa had punched her and felt as though she couldn't possibly manage to inhale fully. "She's waking up," Aza's voice said suddenly, seeming to come from very far away, and the world around her began to swim into focus.

"How do you feel?" Aza asked.

She blinked, her mind slowly putting together where she was. She was looking up at the bland whiteness of a plain ceiling, but her head was resting on a downy pillow and her body was covered with something warm and equally soft. Her eyes felt heavy as she tried looking around, but she could see Aza and Tsar sitting in elaborate wooden chairs, Signa standing behind them, and a few pieces of furniture almost hidden by the hulking bear.

It was one of the rooms in Castle Titus, she realized. Not the one she had changed in the other night, but a much nicer one, with only a single enormous bed and elegantly carved dressers. Eni licked at her lips and tried speaking, but it came out as nothing more than a harsh croak that sent her into a coughing fit.

"Here," Tsar said bluntly.

Eni hadn't noticed it before, but the wolf was holding a large ceramic bowl filled with chipped ice and honeyed mint leaves. He removed one dripping piece and held it in front of her mouth until she stopped coughing and could suck on it. The feel of the ice was instantly soothing; the combination of the coldness and the taste of the sweetened mint made her raw throat seem a little less flayed.

She let her head fall back against the pillow, feeling terribly weak, and a long moment passed before she dared another attempt at talking. "What happened?" she managed at last.

Her voice sounded harsh and barely understandable to her own ears, but Aza seemed to get her meaning well enough. "The Saber-General choked you until you passed out," he said, "I'm… I'm so sorry, Eni. I…"

His face was the perfect picture of being apologetic and his words were warm and sincere. "I never thought she'd do something like that."

"Said… she'd kill me."

Every word had cost her a great deal of effort and her voice wasn't much more than a whisper, but Aza nodded solemnly. "Your bodyguard had one of her own swords to her neck almost the instant after she had her paw around yours," he said, his eyes shamefully downcast.

Eni glanced at Tsar, but he gave no reaction, simply looking back at her. She hadn't been able to pay attention to anything but Astrasa in the moment, but she supposed it explained the leopardess's warning. Still, for the Saber-General to face down the Slayer himself the blood in her veins must have been colder than the ice in the bowl Tsar still held.

If he even was the Slayer.

In a story, he would have broken the leopardess's grasp or cleaved off her head too quickly for the eye to follow; certainly he wouldn't have stood by while she was strangled almost to death. Eni resisted the urge to shake her head and told herself she wasn't being fair. If anything, he had tried to act and only stopped because he didn't feel certain he could save her before Astrasa broke her neck. Maybe he would have done something if the leopardess had gotten closer to the point of no return.

"I… I've given her a formal censure. But…" Aza said.

He sighed heavily. "It did work," the tiger continued, "I don't think even his own delegates believe his story about you being a mage anymore. How could they? There certainly wasn't anything magical happening."

Aza shuddered, and when he looked into Eni's eyes she saw nothing but concern written on his face. "That was one of the most terrible things I've ever seen," he said, "I told Astrasa to let you go and she ignored me. I thought… I thought she really did kill you when she finally dropped you."

"And now?" Eni wheezed.

It was so painful to speak that Eni tried using only the words she actually needed to convey her meaning, and Aza nodded. "I called a recess," he said, "That was about forty minutes ago. Queen Marsenn insisted it last the rest of the day to give everyone a chance to cool off."

For the first time since she had woken up, the tiger smiled. It was much weaker than usual, but it was there. "I don't think she's very pleased with Renald or me," he said, and then his face grew serious again.

"The Saber-General's actions reflect on me," he said, "And they reflect very poorly on me indeed. I know there's nothing I can do to make it up to you, but this room is yours for as long as you need it."

He gestured to take it in. "It's the one the queen set aside for Kera and I, so you can rest assured there's no nicer place for you to recover. Anything—and I do mean anything—at all you need, I'll… I'll make sure it's seen to. I had my own physician see to you but I can… I can get you any physician you wish to see," he finished.

Eni forced herself into a sitting position, but the effort made her head swim and she felt as though she would pass out again. As she shifted, she realized something and blurted out a question without a thought for how much it would hurt to speak. "Where are my trousers?" Eni asked.

For the first time since waking up, it had occurred to her that she was utterly bare from the waist down, and she was suddenly grateful that the thick blanket covering her hadn't fallen out of place when she sat up.

"You, ah, wet yourself when you passed out," Aza said, sounding as embarrassed as Eni felt.

Eni hadn't thought that she could have possibly suffered any more humiliations in Tormurghast after the dress and being choked out before an audience, but apparently she had been wrong. She could feel her ears flushing as she wondered who had removed her clothes, and Avamezin seemed to realize the direction her thoughts were going because he quickly added, "I'm not the one who took them off."

The tiger's ears had fallen back and his tail twitched from side to side. "I didn't… I didn't peep or peek," he said, fumbling with his paws, "Signa cleaned you up after carrying you here."

Eni looked up at the massive bear, who simply inclined his head slightly. She wasn't sure being stripped and washed like a kit by the hulking bodyguard was much better than being seen so intimately by her friend, but she supposed it could have been worse. How hadn't quite occurred to her, but she was at least trying to be optimistic. "Thanks," Eni said, and the room fell silent.

After a moment, Avamezin cleared his throat awkwardly. "I also understand if you're done helping me out and wish to be on your way again," he said, "I certainly don't expect you to continue scribing tomorrow. You'll be paid in full, though, and the room is yours if you need a few days before going back on the road."

Eni shook her head, and Aza nodded sympathetically, apparently misunderstanding her intentions.

"I really am sorry, Eni," he added, "Truly."

"Staying," she said, forcing the word out.

"Staying?" he repeated, sounding utterly incredulous.

"Help," she said, "Friend."

Despite the sweet piece of minty ice she was sucking on it felt as though every word made the next one harder to say, but it was too important not to bear the pain. There was still something going on, and the message Renald had presented only proved that there was a connection to what had happened in Ctesiphon. She still didn't know what that connection was or who was responsible; the possibilities felt overwhelming. Perhaps Renald had been speaking nothing but lies and had never believed for an instant that Eni was a mage. Perhaps someone had deliberately misled him. But she had no intention of giving up.

"Thank you, Eni," Aza said, "You're a better friend than I deserve."

His eyes hadn't teared up but they seemed brighter for a moment as he stood. "But is there anything I can have brought for you first?" he asked.

"Clothes," Eni replied without hesitation.

He chuckled, the sound warm and rich. "I'm having one of the servants wash your trousers and undergarments," he said, "But until they're ready…"

Aza walked over to one of the dressers and pulled it open, shuffling through it with his back to Eni before he emerged with something and turned around. "One of Kera's loincloths ought to fit you well enough in the meantime," he said, holding up the garment for her inspection.

The combination of her Terregor-style jacket with a bottom that was probably the height of fashion in New Rushaya would almost certainly strike anyone who saw it as bizarre, but Eni didn't care. The loincloth was a pretty shade of blue slightly darker than the trousers she had been wearing, embroidered with a subtle pattern in a color-matched thread, and it would serve to cover her well enough.

Eni nodded, and the tiger left it at the end of the bed, which was so long that it was nearly four feet away from the ends of her toes. "I hope you'll feel better soon," Aza said, "I can't thank you enough."

The tiger clearly meant to leave as he had promised, but Tsar surprised them both by speaking. "When did you and your bodyguard spar last?" he asked quietly.

Avamezin seemed a bit thrown by the non sequitur, but after a moment's confusion he answered. "This morning, before negotiations started," he answered, "Like we do every morning. Is there a reason you ask?"

Tsar was quiet a moment, but then turned to Signa. "We could spar sometime," he said, and the bear regarded him without any change to his stern expression for so long Eni thought there would be no answer.

"No whip-sword," Signa replied in thickly accented Modern Circi, and a small smile lit up his face.

Aza chuckled. "That means he'd love to," the tiger said, "If you can fight with a blunted practice sword, of course."

Tsar made a wordless sound of acknowledgement and then apparently lost interest in talking, his focus turning inward again. The tiger shot him a curious glance and then turned away when Tsar didn't react, seemingly satisfied that the wolf really was just looking for a training partner. Aza apologized once more before saying goodbye, and then he left the room, Signa closing the door and leaving Eni alone with Tsar.

"Turn," Eni told the wolf, and he did so, standing up and facing the door.

Getting out of bed was harder than Eni thought it would be, and she hadn't thought it would be easy. She still felt incredibly weak, and at first her feet didn't want to support her. Eni nearly tumbled to the floor and only didn't because she managed to grab the bed itself until a wave of vertigo passed and she felt a little steadier. "You did well," Tsar said; since his back was to her it was impossible to read his expression, "The leopard was right. On the brink of death, most mages can't keep their power in. I've seen it."

Perhaps Eni was just imagining it, with nothing but his voice to go on, but she thought he almost sounded proud. She was quiet a moment as she grabbed the loincloth and put it on, fumbling to adjust the belt. Her left paw was bandaged where she had sliced it open on Astrasa's gauntlet and her fingers were consequently clumsy, but at last she got them to work. The fit was far from perfect; since Kera was so much taller than Eni it went well past her knees, and because Eni's hips were wider than the tigress's it left a lot of her thighs exposed. But after Eni managed to force her fluffy stub of a tail through the appropriate slit it did at least completely cover her front and back, and that was all that mattered.

Eni swallowed the chip of ice in her mouth, relishing the cool sensation of it traveling down her throat, and considered what she wanted to say carefully as she fished another out of the bowl, which Tsar had left on his seat. "Not sure I did," she said, "Felt…"

She trailed off, groping for the right words to express what it had been like. "Like I had help," she finished.

Tsar turned around, fixing her with a penetrating stare. His gaze was as sharp as she had ever felt it to be, almost as though he was pushing against her. "I only felt your magic," he said, "You did it."

Eni wondered if he was telling her the truth or just a comforting lie, but the words filled her with warmth nonetheless. "I'm going," Tsar said, "Are you coming?"

Eni didn't say a word, simply nodding and then gesturing at the loincloth she was wearing to indicate that continuing to search for the truth was the reason she had insisted on having something to wear. The wolf made an approving grunt and started for the door, patiently waiting at it as he watched her slow progress. Eni walked after him, and each step she took away from the bed was easier than the one before it. She felt terrible, but the look in Tsar's eyes told her that he had no intentions of stopping until they found the mammal they were looking for. And she hoped, as he looked back at her, that he saw the same thing.

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