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Chapter 25: Practice Wordplay

Updated: Sep 14, 2023



Once they were out of Aza's room, Tsar suddenly pulled Eni's satchel from beneath his voluminous and tattered cloak and shoved it into her paws without a word. She nodded gratefully but remained just as silent as him; even moving her head up and down had been enough to send a fresh stab of pain through her raw throat.

Eni followed the wolf as he purposefully strode through the confusing maze of hallways that made up Castle Titus; she had no idea how he knew where to go. Or even where he was planning on going, but instead of trying to ask and risk another coughing fit Eni took stock of her bag.

To her relief, she didn't seem to be missing anything besides Ceslaus's letter; although her journal looked far worse for the wear after its rough handling it hadn't been confiscated. Even the letter Aza had given her was still there, and Eni supposed the guard had ignored its Federation seal in his efforts to find something incriminating linking her to the Jaws.

Beyond her papers, though, someone who she strongly suspected had been Tsar had even carefully wrapped her favorite glass pen in a rag and placed it on top of everything else where it wouldn't get broken. Eni rummaged through her belongings for a bottle of ink and, with the ease of long practice, cradled it in the crook of her left elbow while supporting her journal with her left forearm.

It was a trick she had taught herself in university, and she was pleased to find that even her injured left paw didn't keep her from jotting a message down on the next blank page. Eni placed her pen in her mouth and then held up her journal for Tsar to read:

What leads do you have?

Tsar barely glanced at the page and grunted before turning his head away, and Eni repressed what she was sure would have been an extremely painful sigh. She supposed that was his way of telling her she'd have an answer soon enough, but she wished he spoke more.

She felt utterly useless. Or, if she was honest with herself, worse than useless. The wolf's pace had increased to the point she could barely keep up, and with each pained breath Eni desperately hoped that wherever he was going she could prove that she wasn't just a burden. And then, so suddenly that Eni nearly stepped on his tail, Tsar turned sharply toward a side corridor and a rather unremarkable looking door.

As they got closer, Eni could hear sharp noises coming from within the room. To her, it sounded almost as though weapons were being struck against each other, although the blows were oddly muted. Then she heard a muffled yelp of pain, recognizing the voice as Sabor's, and her heart began pounding rapidly in her chest. Tsar sped up, but if he was at all concerned that was the only sign. The wolf's face remained grimly set as he stared ahead, but Eni had sudden visions of stumbling onto an assassination attempt.

Tsar flung the door open without pausing, and as she hurried in after him Eni took in a sight that was not at all what she had expected. The room he had exposed was long and relatively narrow, a series of lines painted on its wooden floor. At the center of the room Sabor was holding a wooden sword in his good paw, the practice weapon raised in a guard position as the very last mammal Eni wanted to see lazily circled him.

Saber-General Astrasa.

Eni's heart began pounding even faster in her chest and her mouth went completely dry as she looked at the mammal who had very nearly killed her. The leopardess had a practice blade of her own in her left paw, the tip of it pointed toward Sabor's legs. At the sound of the door opening, Sabor began turning his head, and Astrasa immediately pounced on the opening.

When Tsar moved quickly, there was always an eerie and almost unnatural grace to him, and Eni saw the leopardess move in a similar fashion. She was so light on her feet that she seemed almost to glide rather than take a step, her entire body in perfect coordination as she drove the tip of her sword forward. Sabor tried repositioning his blade, but as fast as his reflexes had been he was still much too slow. Astrasa's blade caught his and knocked it aside before striking the tiger's leg with a meaty sound.

Although both predators wore simple garments of heavily quilted fabric rather than their usual cloaks and loincloths, the prince's face contorted in pain as he awkwardly stepped back, nearly stumbling off-balance as he did so. "Trying to lure your opponent into a mistake only works if you can move faster than them," the leopardess said in Jarku, "Leaving your legs open was a good attempt, though."

"I was distracted," Sabor protested in the same language, gesturing clumsily with his broken arm toward the open door, but his voice didn't sound sullen to Eni's ears.

If anything, he sounded upset. Not at the interruption, but at himself, and Astrasa laughed. "A battlefield is nothing but distractions," she said, "Focus, Prince, or it'll be your blood being spilled."

The leopardess hadn't even glanced in the direction of the doorway, her attention entirely on her student. "Yes, Saber-General," Sabor replied with an almost reverential air, and only then did Astrasa look at Tsar.

"The rabbit's… bodyguard," she mused, still speaking Jarku and then she spared a glance at Eni.

She had to stop herself from taking a step backwards; Astrasa's eyes were cold and calculating, with an unpleasant sort of amusement in them. "And the rabbit. You don't need to thank me," Astrasa said, switching to Circi.

"Thank you?" Eni blurted incredulously, immediately regretting it; her voice came out incredibly raspy and her throat seemed to throb.

"You're welcome," Astrasa replied, a touch disdainfully, "I didn't need to—"

She abruptly cut herself off as Sabor took a swing at her; her wooden sword was nothing more than a blur as in a single smooth motion she blocked and parried the tiger's attack and knocked him to his knees. "—save you," the leopardess finished.

Astrasa turned to face Sabor again. "A good attempt, Prince," she said in Jarku, and then she looked back at Eni.

"Leave," she said in Circi, and although she spoke the word casually her face was anything but pleasant.

"Where are the guards?" Tsar asked quietly.

He was speaking Jarku with his strange accent again, and Astrasa gave him the same sort of calculating look she had turned on Eni. "I am protection enough for the prince and the archduchess," Astrasa said, and Eni realized for the first time that Kera was also in the room.

Aza's wife was sitting in one corner, watching the proceedings with mild interest; unlike her son and the Saber-General she was still wearing her usual rich clothing and was clearly not there to practice swordplay. "What has brought you here, Mister Tsar?" Kera asked as she unfolded herself from her chair and stood.

The tigress was tall and graceful, her eyes bright as she strode across the room to stand at the leopardess's side. Sabor had gotten to his feet and joined his mother and his instructor, the prince looking up at the wolf with obvious suspicion. "Training," Tsar said, and a smile flitted across Astrasa's face.

"With permission, Your Grace," the leopardess said, inclining her head in the tigress's direction.

Kera laughed gently. "Of course you may, Leya," she said, her voice a touch indulgent.

Up close, Eni could smell whatever fragrance Kera used; it was more spicy than it was floral and so richly complex that it almost seemed to shift scents as the tigress moved. Kera didn't appear worried that she would be unprotected while the Saber-General fought Tsar; on the contrary she seemed eager to observe the proceedings. "Watch carefully, Prince Sabor," Astrasa said, facing her student, and then she looked Tsar up and down.

"Need practice armor?" she asked, but the wolf didn't answer.

Instead, he simply unfastened his ragged cloak and allowed it to flutter to the ground. His shirt quickly followed and he was left standing bare-chested, his muscles taut under his fur. He unraveled his whip-sword from his waist, setting it down no more gently, and then he stood there impassively. Astrasa grinned, her expression eager. "Very well," she said, and she unfastened her own thick tunic and shook it off.

She was left just as exposed as Tsar, although if she had expected it to work as a distraction she must have been disappointed; the wolf seemed utterly disinterested in the leopardess's lithe and shapely chest. Sabor didn't say anything, but Eni saw the insides of his ears reddening and the prince briefly glanced away before the Saber-General's voice called his attention back. "This is how the females of the Elrim tribes fight, is it not?" she asked Tsar, gesturing down at herself, "I've never fought one."

Eni expected Tsar to remain silent; when Aza had inferred that the wolf had come from the far east tribes he had neither confirmed nor denied it. To her surprise, he answered the leopardess. "Some," Tsar replied, and Astrasa nodded.

She strode to one wall of the room, where there was a large rack full of wooden reproductions of everything from axes to scythes, and filled her arms. Astrasa tossed Tsar a pair of wooden swords, keeping two for herself. She crossed the blades over her chest and then held her arms out, seemingly leaving herself vulnerable to attack.

Tsar did nothing.

For a long moment he stood in place, his wooden blades held loosely in his paws. It certainly didn't look like any sort of guard position Eni had seen before, but the wolf's face was tranquil as he stared into Astrasa's eyes. The leopardess started slowly approaching him, beginning to move around him in the same way she had circled Sabor, but the wolf remained utterly motionless except for his ears.

They swiveled atop his head, remaining fixed on his opponent, even as his arms were slack and his tail simply curled up behind him. "You must always choose your opening wisely, Prince Sabor," Astrasa called, "The first blow may be struck only once."

She seemed to be heeding her own advice; to Eni the leopardess looked no more willing to be the first to attack than did Tsar. While the two combatants remained locked in an apparent battle of wills, Kera returned to her seat, motioning first for Sabor and then for Eni to follow her. The tigress's son did so with obvious reluctance, making sure that his eyes didn't leave the scene, and Eni did the same.

Still, by the time they were seated nothing had happened, and just as Eni was beginning to think that nothing would, Astrasa suddenly exploded into action. The leopardess strode sinuously forward, twisting her body to the side as she lunged with one blade.

The tip should have struck Tsar dead center in his chest, but he had raised his right paw more quickly than Eni's eyes could follow. His swords were no longer loosely grasped; he held his right sword upside down, the blade running along his forearm, and the sword in his left paw was nothing more than a blur as it approached Astrasa's head.

The leopardess blocked the blow somehow, but her attempt at a counter was easily knocked aside as the wolf began pressing her backwards. "That's an unusual style," Astrasa observed, almost conversationally, as she dodged strikes, "This is why fighting is more than simply memorizing forms, Prince Sabor. You must be able to handle the unknown."



Her eyes were still locked on Tsar, but the leopardess still seemed to view the battle as a teaching moment. In that regard, at least, Eni supposed it was; it was fighting as Eni had never seen it, with Tsar's blows coming like those of some deadly machine. The wolf's every move was fast and precise, his arms and mock blades moving exactly as much as was necessary without any wasted effort. His advantage in height gave him an equal advantage in reach over Astrasa, but she made sure he wasn't able to capitalize on it.

The leopardess flowed like water, her balance shifting back and forth as she remained as weightless as a dancer. She was using both swords to attack and defend, moving between the two with fluid ease, whereas the wolf only tried striking with his left blade and only blocked with his right. The two opponents took on a deadly rhythm as they sped up, and it seemed impossible to Eni that neither one of them had even been touched by the other's blade.

"Mister Tsar is very good," Kera said suddenly, and Eni nearly jumped.

She had been so focused on watching the battle that she had been utterly ignoring the two predators sitting next to her, and she turned to look at the tigress and nodded. "I am seeing why you were hiring him," Kera observed as Tsar blocked a blow at the last possible instant and forced Astrasa to leap aside so his counterattack didn't strike her hip.

The tigress's Circi still had the slight accent and awkwardness of phrasing that it had held before; Eni supposed she didn't have as many opportunities to practice as Aza did. "And you are recovering?" she asked, "The neck, is it still being a bother?"

Eni nodded, ignoring the stab of pain it caused. Her throat hurt too much to try telling the tigress that she was being distracting, and she supposed it would have been incredibly rude even if she had been able to get the words out. She tried turning her attention back to the fight, where Astrasa had nearly managed to strike Tsar across the teeth, but Kera spoke again. "Poor dear," she said, "That is my loincloth you are wearing, I am seeing. My husband is the one giving it to you, yes? I know he is being very fond of you."

Eni stiffened slightly in her seat; the horrible possibility that Aza's wife might have gotten the wrong idea about her relationship with the tiger filled her mind. Sabor seemed to take interest in their conversation at last, and Eni could feel her skin getting warm under her fur as she inclined her head a bit too sharply. "Oh, do not be worried!" Kera said with a musical laugh.

She gave Eni a small smile. "I know you are to him a… I do not know the word in Circi," Kera said, a small frown marring her perfect features, "We say lubiyin in Jarku."

Eni fought the urge to frown herself; lubiyin literally meant "cherished one" in Jarku, and it could refer to a close friend.

But it usually meant "pet."

The tigress continued on so placidly that Eni had no idea whether she had meant it as an insult or not. "So I am glad Renald is a liar," Kera said, "Betrayal hurts very much."

Eni nodded again, more gingerly than she had the first time. It had been a very kind thing for Kera to say, and she wished she had been up to actually speaking her thanks. Kera's attention turned back to the duel, and she watched in silence as Tsar made a spectacular block that sent a painfully loud cracking noise through the room as two wooden swords collided. Neither Tsar nor Astrasa were holding anything back, their blows having the full weight of their crushing strength behind them. Eni was surprised neither one of them had shattered a practice sword yet, but even more remarkable than the power behind each predator was their stamina.

The two combatants were still breathing slowly and evenly despite how fiercely they tried hitting each other, and although Tsar remained grimly silent Astrasa continued talking. "Patterns are dangerous, Prince Sabor," the leopardess called out after Tsar tried a repeated series of overhead blows before suddenly thrusting one sword at Astrasa's legs, "Do not fall for them."

Eni wondered how much longer they could keep going at it; even the choreographed duels from the play a few nights ago had not lasted so long, and despite their spectacular acrobatics the stage-fights utterly paled in comparison. She had never even dreamed of such a display of fighting prowess, and her heart seemed to stop in her chest every time the leopardess came close to landing a blow on the wolf. It never happened, though; no matter how close the wooden blade got Tsar always managed to block it or simply wasn't there to be hit.

The two fighters fell into a flurry of attacks before suddenly pulling apart, each sizing the other up for weakness, and it was while they were circling each other that Eni heard urgent footsteps approaching the door from the hallway. "Saber-General!" a voice cried loudly in Jarku, as a messenger burst inside, "I've got a top-priority—"

The messenger stumbled to a stop, a sealed scroll clutched in one paw, as he took in what he was seeing. Tsar's swords were instantly down at his sides, loosely gripped once again, and Astrasa scowled as she lowered her own weapons. "What is it?" she snapped, looking fiercely at the unfortunate mammal who had interrupted her.

He was a panther who couldn't have been more than five years older than Sabor, and he seemed to have a great deal of difficulty looking the Woemaker in the face. His eyes kept darting back down to her bare breasts, his mouth falling slack as he stumbled over his words. "Message," he managed at last, and Astrasa strode over to where he stood, ignoring the effect she was having on him, and pulled the scroll from his trembling paws.

Eni caught a glimpse of the distinctive gold and black seal of Carnaron's royal family before Astrasa wordlessly motioned for the panther to turn around and she broke open the scroll. It must have been a short message, because after only a few seconds the leopardess walked over to where Kera, Sabor, and Eni were seated. "My apologies," she said, inclining her head first to Kera and then to Sabor, "Archduchess. Prince. My presence is requested elsewhere; I'm to be off immediately."

"Why's Grandfather making you leave?" Sabor protested, and for a moment just how young he really was felt apparent to Eni, "You—"

"Are needed elsewhere," Astrasa interrupted.

Her voice was firm and yet surprisingly gentle. Kera didn't look as obviously disappointed as her son, but Eni could tell that the tigress regretted the leopardess's pending departure at least as much. "I am sorry to see you go, Leya," the archduchess said quietly, "But I understand the demands of duty. As my son does, too."

In Jarku, Kera's words were gentler and somehow richer, and Sabor bowed his head. "Yes, mother," he said solemnly, and Astrasa looked at him.

"I expect you to continue practicing, Prince Sabor," she said, giving him her wooden swords, and then she turned to Eni even before Sabor finished saying he would.

Eni wanted to know why the leopardess was leaving just as much as the prince did, but she didn't suppose that was what she intended to tell her. For a moment Astrasa simply looked her in the eye, but then she leaned in until their noses were less than an inch apart. Eni willed herself not to wilt under her passive stare even as the possibility that the leopardess intended to choke her again filled her mind. "He can do better," Astrasa abruptly said in Circi, and that was all.

She turned and walked away, and as she went past where Tsar still stood she said something in a voice so low that Eni doubted Sabor or Kera could hear. "Perhaps we'll finish this another time," she said, and then she languidly scooped her discarded practice tunic off the floor and carelessly started putting it back on even as she was leaving the room.

"Perhaps," Tsar replied, his voice just as low.

The messenger remained at the door, apparently waiting to be relieved by more guards, and Eni was left wondering what in the Mother's name Tsar had learned. He seemed neither pleased nor disappointed as he placed the fake blades he had used back in the weapons rack and then started putting his top back on. When the wolf was fully dressed again, he approached Kera and put his paws together and bowed his head. "Thank you for the opportunity to practice with your Saber-General," he said in Jarku, his strange accent giving the words a little more warmth than his usual unremarkable Circi.

"I am sure she enjoyed it as much as you did," Kera replied, smiling, "And I am sure my son found it instructional."

"You fought well, Mister Tsar," Sabor said, "I only regret that your duel with the Saber-General could not be concluded."

His words were stiffly formal and almost stuffy, but the prince did minutely incline his head in the wolf's direction. "We should leave you," Tsar said, still speaking Jarku, and he put his paws together then turned on his heel with a flap of his tattered cloak.

Eni croaked out a goodbye she regretted instantly and then did her best to hurry after him as he walked past the messenger without a second look and started heading down the hallway in the direction they had come from. There were two mammals approaching that Eni recognized; she didn't know their names but knew the enormous female wolf was Kera's personal guard and the cheetah was Sabor's. Even once the two bodyguards were past, having only spared them a single curious glance but nothing more, Tsar remained silent.

Eni had thought he might stay quiet, and so she had made sure before leaving the training room that she had her journal, ink pot, and pen ready to go. She crossed out her first question and then wrote another immediately beneath it:

Why did you want to do that? What did you learn?

As much as she tried cudgeling her brains for anything new they had learned as a result of the encounter, she came up utterly short. She supposed that it was possible that Tsar really had been simply looking for mammals to train with, but she was going to be more than a little disappointed if that was the case. Eni nudged the wolf and showed him her latest message, and he stopped suddenly in his tracks.

"I… can't read that," Tsar said quietly, not meeting Eni's eyes.

For the first time since Astrasa had strangled her, Eni was suddenly glad that it hurt too much to talk. The words she would have said were lost in a harsh coughing fit, but from the way that Tsar's ears drooped back and his gaze shifted to the side she felt immediately guilty. Her incredulity must have been plainly written across her face even though she hadn't said anything, and she immediately wrote the same message but in Jarku instead of Circi before holding it up again.

"I can't read, rabbit," Tsar said, his voice exposing more than a little irritation, and Eni realized the truth.

The wolf was illiterate.

Although Eni had encountered plenty of mammals who were either entirely or mostly illiterate over the course of her travels, it had never occurred to her that the Slayer might be one of them. The possibility had simply never come up in her mind, not even when she had been acting as a scrivener for the lowest of nobles who didn't know written numbers past a hundred or how to read anything but the most common of words.

But as she thought back, it occurred to her that she should have known. Tsar had given her plenty of signs that he couldn't read; she supposed that when he had held The Lamentations of Nergora upside down it hadn't been because he was looking for a hidden message but because he couldn't tell which side was the top. As she thought back on it, Eni felt foolish for not realizing it sooner, as that had been far from the only time.

Eni swallowed hard despite the pain, trying to clear her throat. "I teach," she said, forcing the words out as she patted his arm.

"Elrim don't read or write," he said sharply, turning to face ahead and continuing to walk down the hallway.

Eni's ears sank; for a moment she had allowed herself to entertain the idea of tutoring him in something she knew and he didn't. They continued in silence as he made turn after turn, and then he spoke abruptly, still looking ahead instead of at Eni. "I'm… of no tribe," he said, so softly that his voice barely carried to her ears, "You'll teach me to read?"

There was something almost heartbreakingly childish about how he asked the question, and Eni nodded eagerly without any regard for how it burned. He nodded once, but his face had smoothed over again, any emotion vanishing. "We need to see Renald's perfumer," he said, his voice bland as he changed topics instantly.

Eni felt her eyebrows rise. Getting around the portion of the castle reserved for the League's delegation was easy enough, but she strongly suspected that would change the instant they went into any of the common areas or to the suite of rooms reserved for Renald and his mammals. Even if Queen Marsenn's guards didn't object, she suspected that the paranoid rhinoceros's soldiers would, and trying to sneak around sounded supremely dangerous.

But Tsar seemed unperturbed by the obstacles, and Eni did her best to mimic his calm as he led them to a hallway that would have been utterly unremarkable except for the fact that half a dozen mammals in Tormurghast City Guard uniforms and an equal number in the uniforms of the Federation Antrustions stood watch halfway down it. The two sets of soldiers eyed Eni and Tsar suspiciously as they approached, and Eni hoped that the wolf wasn't about to try taking them all on in a fight. To her surprise, though, as they got closer Tsar's body language changed entirely.

He took on a swaggering sort of walk, confidence seeming to ooze out of him, and for a moment Eni couldn't figure out who he reminded her of. And then, when they were no more than six feet in front of the guards, it struck her. He was mimicking the Saber-General.

Eni almost laughed, but she was glad she didn't because she doubted the guards would have found it amusing if she appeared as though she wasn't taking them seriously. "That's far enough, pup," one of the mammals in an Antrustion uniform growled.

He was a massive gaur with a neck so thick that Eni could have worn his cravat as a belt, and he pounded a halberd against the floor in a supremely menacing fashion. Rather than stopping immediately, Tsar kept walking even as Eni froze in place, and all of the guards bristled with their weapons. Only when he was within three feet of the gaur did Tsar stop, and he looked insolently up at the hulking mammal, his face utterly fearless. "Unless you got a message, turn around," the gaur said, obviously not intimidated by the much shorter mammal, "And if you do got one, give it over and then turn around."

Tsar spat between the gaur's hooves, and the soldier's face twisted into a deeper scowl. "Do you have anything but pudding between those horns?" the wolf asked, his voice almost conversational but with a dark undertone, "Renald falsely accused my mistress of being a witch."

He jerked his thumb in Eni's direction even as all of the Federation soldiers muttered at his casual disrespect toward their king. "And maybe he wasn't the one who choked her out. But the way I see it, that's only because the Woemaker has more balls than his entire family," Tsar continued.

Eni had never heard him speak in such an aggressively disrespectful manner, or even string together such long sentences so smoothly. But much as when he had put on displays of proper behavior for the Jaws, he was utterly convincing. When she looked at Tsar, all she saw was a fearless and casually arrogant wolf, one who felt he had been wronged and would do whatever he thought he needed to in retribution. He didn't have his paws on his weapon, but somehow that only made him appear more threatening, as though he felt the guards were utterly beneath his concern.

After how he had fought the Saber-General to a virtual stalemate, she thought he was right, and it seemed as though the guards were beginning to pick up on the air that radiated off him like heat from a furnace. "Listen," one of the members of the Tormurghast City Guard began to say, his voice even and almost gentle, "Unless—"

"My mistress requires an apology from Renald himself," Tsar interrupted, locking eyes with the gaur, "Run along and tell him."

"You—" the gaur began, his tone dangerous as he pointed a finger at the wolf.

"The fucking Woemaker apologized before your little king," Tsar said, talking over him, "Isn't that right?"

He directed that last question at Eni and she nodded, because it was in fact the truth so far as she knew. The guards began shifting awkwardly and the gaur's anger suddenly seemed mixed with embarrassment. There was a long moment where Eni thought that they would be sent away after all, but then the gaur relented, pointing at one of the other members of the Federation delegation. "Go," he said quietly, his voice seething with barely repressed rage.

The guards from the Circle seemed almost amused, and Eni supposed that she couldn't blame them; she guessed that their job was probably nothing but mindless tedium, and if nothing else it had to be interesting for them to see such a disagreement between the guests sharing their castle. Tsar took a step back as the guard ran off, standing at Eni's side and crossing his arms over his chest as he apparently prepared to wait.

It took more than half an hour for anything to happen; while she waited Eni got her journal out and began updating it. Impressively, Tsar didn't move a muscle, standing as still as a statue as he continued to look up at the gaur. Even his expression didn't change, his eyes remaining hard and cold, and Eni wondered which of the sides of him she had seen was the real one. If he really was the Slayer, was the disdainful arrogance he had shown the guard how he had actually carried himself at the peak of the Scourge? Was that a role that he played, or was it his reserved and brusque nature that was an act?

She couldn't tell.

But as the words unspooled from her pen, Eni supposed that he had tried to do exactly what he had done to the guard to her, just in a slightly different fashion. He had attempted to scare her off not long after they had met, and Eni was glad she had seen through it. As she lost herself in her writing the pain in her throat seemed more far away and less immediate, and she barely heard the approaching footsteps of the guard who had been sent off returning.

The guard, a stockily built llama, gave the gaur who seemed to be in charge of the Federation guards a look that Eni couldn't read. "King Renald will see Miss Siverets now," he said, giving Eni a sharp nod of his shaggy head, and then he looked to Tsar.

"And only Miss Siverets," he added.

The gaur grinned savagely, apparently satisfied. "Come on, then, little one," he said, gesturing to Eni.

Tsar began to say something, but Eni touched his arm and shook her head. From everything she had seen so far, the rhinoceros loathed carnivores and she doubted he'd be very cooperative if the wolf was present. Probably even less so if Tsar treated him the same way he had treated the guards, but Eni thought that Renald might very well underestimate her. If he had any kind of empathy for other herbivores in his heart, all he'd see was a cruelly injured hare too weakened to even speak in full sentences. Perhaps he'd feel sympathy, or maybe even guilt.

But Eni doubted she would find anything but anger in him if she brought a wolf along.

Eni turned to Tsar and mouthed the words she would have whispered if she could. What should I be looking for?

He leaned in so close that she could smell the lemony scent of the scones he had eaten and uttered three words in her ear so softly that they tickled. "Touch the perfumer."

That was it. He stood back up, his face unreadable even as Eni gaped at him in confusion. "I'll wait here," he said, giving the gaur an insolent look.

Eni did her best to make her face as blank as Tsar's as she turned around and bowed to the guards politely before boldly stepping forward. The llama led her through a series of hallways that looked virtually identical to the ones in the section of the castle reserved for the Jaws delegates, although it seemed as though the lanterns lining the walls had been set to glow a little more brightly. The llama didn't say anything, which Eni was grateful for; she didn't feel as though she was in any kind of shape to indulge in small talk. At last she was brought to a massive door, flanked on either side by four of the largest prey mammals Eni had ever seen, and the llama knocked a sharp tattoo against the sturdy wooden planks that sounded like a signal to Eni.

There was a moment's pause, and then Renald's gravelly voice emerged from behind the door. "Send her in," he said, and the guards stationed outside the door immediately sprang into action even as the llama hurried off without so much as a backwards glance.

Eni tried calling on Tsar's habitually indifferent air as she stepped through the doorway, but her confidence was pathetically shaky and weak. It didn't help that the doorway was so tall that Eni felt like a kit walking through it, or that it closed behind her with a smooth click that somehow seemed utterly final. To banish that cheerless thought, Eni glanced around the room that must have been Renald's office, which had apparently been set up to the rhinoceros's liking.

The flagstone floor didn't have so much as a rug to give the room color, and indeed there were no decorations of any sort, the walls utterly bare. A single massive desk dominated the floor, its polished wooden surface piled high with a dazzling array of paperwork. Unrolled scrolls, their broken wax seals hanging limply, seemed to form the majority, but unlabeled ledgers and loose paper formed stacks that would have reached Eni's waist had they been on the floor. Most mammals would have been blocked from view, but even seated Renald towered over Eni, an incongruously delicate-looking set of wire-rimmed spectacles perched atop his massive muzzle. He stared at Eni through them for a moment before he plucked them off and set them carefully atop one of the few bare spots on his desk.

"Miss Siverets," he said, his face utterly neutral as he stared down at her, "As Unicorn King and the Anteocularian Federation's delegate, I apologize for accusing you of witchcraft."

He was silent a moment, and then he put his spectacles back on. "My purser will see to your compensation. You may go now," he added, and his face disappeared behind a piece of paper.

Eni looked back at him in disbelief, but he was ignoring her entirely. Pushing aside how much it hurt, Eni forced out a single word.

"No."

It came out quieter than Eni would have liked, and was still horribly scratchy, but it caught the rhinoceros's attention nonetheless. "No?" he repeated, his beady eyes flashing dangerously.

For the first time, Eni noticed that his enormous war hammer was leaning against the wall behind his chair, but she didn't care. "That was not a request, rabbit," Renald said, his voice low and menacing, "You might not be a sorceress but you're still the tiger's whore."

His face twisted with disgust. "Collect your gold and go," he said, "Leave the city if you have any sense. You disgrace these proceedings and the Federation with your mere presence. Go."

At any other time in her life, Eni might have found the massive rhinoceros intimidating. He was so enormous that his head alone seemed the size of her body, and his blunt fingers looked as thick as ax handles. But Eni had stared down a Zezernak with nothing more than a rusty pitchfork, and even if Tsar had been the one to slay it he had reinforced a lesson that countless stories about the Slayer had driven home.

Even the largest and strongest of opponents had a weakness.

"You're the disgrace," Eni rasped, and as much as the words hurt to say she felt a fierce pleasure in standing up to the rhinoceros, "You knew I wasn't the mage."

It was only a little short of a wild guess, but from how Renald's surprisingly small eyes widened she saw she had hit the mark. Eni nodded, fierce pleasure filling her chest. She still didn't have all the details, but she thought she had figured out why he had made his accusation without presenting any evidence. "Stalling," Eni croaked, "That's why, isn't it? To give the killer another chance at Aza."

Renald chuckled, and it was an unpleasant sound. "Unlike the Jaws, the Federation does not employ assassins," he said, and Eni shook her head.

"Didn't say you did," she managed, "You don't care who's after him as long as he dies."

The rhinoceros shrugged his vast shoulders. "Short-sighted," Eni spat, the feebleness of her voice robbing the word of some of its power, "They got someone in your delegation. You look guilty."

"Do I?" Renald asked, his frown lessening somewhat in intensity, "I made a very understandable accusation based on the knowledge I had. The kitten's maniac is the one who strangled you. Which reaction sounds more reasonable to you?"

He paused to allow his words to sink in. "And as for poor Garent Jenarius, he was a part of my delegation. He also had dealings with half the nobles in the Circle. They don't want anyone to dig too deep into his business affairs. Who knows what might turn up? It's easier for everyone if he acted without the knowledge of the Federation or the Circle," the rhinoceros continued, his tone utterly cynical.

"He wasn't alone," Eni countered.

"My eyewitnesses, you mean?" Renald asked, and an unsettling smile crossed his face, "Let us examine the facts. One was Querys Aytolus, Queen Marsenn's own Lord of the Treasury, who swore that he saw a white Aberrant hare passing Jenarius a vial before the assassination attempt."

"That wasn't me," Eni protested hoarsely, "A mage."

It was the only possible explanation short of an outright lie, and Renald nodded, drumming his thick fingers against his desk. "I've come to accept that possibility now, yes," he said, and Eni tried leaping at the opportunity.

"Then how can you trust your other witness?" she demanded.

Eni wanted to say more, but she knew the rhinoceros was clever enough to see where she was going. If a mage had attempted to frame her by copying her appearance with an illusion, it called into question anything a witness might have seen, no matter how damning.

Renald, however, was unperturbed. "Did the tiger not tell you?" he asked, "It was a member of his own delegation."

Eni tried not to let her surprise show, but she doubted she succeeded. Her mind whirled through the possibilities as she tried to figure out what could have possibly happened. "Oh yes," Renald said, nodding his vast head, "A minor functionary, connected to no one with any sort of power. He committed suicide not long after the Woemaker strangled you. Couldn't bear the shame of a plot to foment war between our powers failing, or so I hear."

"How?" Eni asked in a low voice.

"Poison, of course," Renald said.

The pieces began to fit together in Eni's mind, and she realized the conclusion the rhinoceros was leading toward. When presented with all the facts, the Circle would likely choose to interpret them in the way that was least embarrassing.

Although the Lord of the Treasury must have been fooled by an illusion, the only part of his testimony that was untrustworthy was the identity of the mammal who had assisted Jenarius in his conspiracy. However much Astrasa had denied the presence of a mage, Eni was sure that everyone else would see it differently; the earthquake she herself had caused alone was enough to make the idea of a mammal cloaked in an illusion perfectly plausible.

Everyone in the Circle who mattered would publicly support the idea that the predator in Aza's delegation had blackmailed Jenarius into an assassination attempt, particularly with a conspirator conveniently deceased and unable to give any further testimony. They would even lend credence to Renald's story that the rhinoceros himself had been the true target and the ibex had turned on the tiger in a desperate attempt to foil his blackmailer. And while Renald's public accusations would appear mildly foolish, no one would remember them in the face of the hated Woemaker going to the brutal lengths she was known for on the Circle's soil.

Eni could practically hear the stories that would come out of it. The Jaws would be seen as dishonest savages, and even if no evidence of a linkage between the predator who had committed suicide and the royal family could be found, everyone would assume it existed. The rhinoceros seemed to be truly innocent of attempting to kill Avamezin, but that didn't matter. Renald's smile remained fixed across his face as he gave a satisfied nod, apparently seeing Eni reach the ultimate conclusion of where her thoughts led. Renald had utterly won.

Because of her.

But even as she felt a flash of anger at being used as part of his scheming, Eni knew there was one thing he hadn't taken into account. "What happens when everyone knows the Jaws didn't do it?" she asked.

Renald gave a low and rumbling chuckle. "Of course they did," he said, "The tiger's father or brother obviously wants him gone."

Eni smiled as she stood up and walked to Renald's desk. The rhinoceros had been clever, but for as much as he had manipulated events to his own liking he obviously didn't see the full picture. Eni leaned against the desk fearlessly staring Renald in the eye. "I can prove they didn't," she said.

Renald's features reset themselves into their usual scowl, and he glared back at her before folding his arms across his chest.

"I'm listening," he said.












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