Updated: 2 days ago
"How could the League have possibly blackmailed Jenarius?" Eni asked.
Renald grimaced, and it occurred to Eni that the rhinoceros might not appreciate being brought to a conclusion the same way the Archivist had preferred to teach her. Despite his wealth of knowledge, the old markhor seemed happiest when his students figured something out for themselves instead of simply being told. Making the logical and deductive connections between disparate facts was, as the Archivist had been fond of saying, what made a historian a historian.
But Renald wasn't a historian, and his tone simmered with contempt as he answered. "During one of his business dealings, no doubt," he answered, "As I already said."
Eni swallowed hard, pushing aside the pain in her throat as she did. She wished she still had the bowl of honeyed ice chips, but there was nothing more she could do than simply plunge ahead. "You said he had dealings with half the nobles in the Circle," Eni replied, "But the vast majority of them are prey. And he never would have been chosen for your delegation if he was too close to a predator. Every single one of his deals was with a prey mammal, wasn't it?"
Eni's question was just short of being wild, but from how Renald's scowl deepened she saw she had been correct. "It could have been a partner of a partner," the rhinoceros countered, but Eni shook her head.
"What's the alternative, then?" Renald asked, his voice dropping to a dangerous growl, "Say it, rabbit."
He settled himself into his seat, glaring at her, and Eni realized what he was doing. She didn't think he was being needlessly antagonistic; there had to be a conclusion he had already considered and rejected. Eni thought as quickly as she could, trying to come up with something that fit, and then it appeared.
"It's not a nation," Eni said slowly, and from her satchel she pulled out the letter that Aza had given her and slid it across Renald's desk.
From his reaction as he read it, Eni knew that she had made the right choice. The rhinoceros's beady eyes widened in shock, and he squeezed the page so hard that it crumpled between his enormous fingers.
Renald carefully set the forgery aside and leaned forward. "You're asking me to believe in Archons," he said, speaking in barely more than a whisper.
The word didn't mean anything in particular to Eni. As far as she knew, it was an archaic term for a knight, last used thousands of years ago shortly after Wordermund's empire had collapsed upon his death. The Archons had been one of the many forces fighting to restore order and the rule of law in the chaos that followed, but to Eni they were nothing more than a historical footnote.
From how Renald said the word, however, Eni got the feeling that it meant much more to him. His tone wasn't quite reverent, but it wasn't dismissive, either. Eni looked into the rhinoceros's eyes and nodded. He sighed, and for a moment he seemed almost to deflate. For an instant, Eni thought she could see the horrible burden that the king struggled under, the enormous weight of being responsible for so many mammals that each one was nothing more than a number. But then he seemed to catch himself, his massive fingers pushing against the surface of his desk so hard that Eni could hear it creak in protest.
"Archons should be nothing more than some imagined cabal," Renald said, speaking slowly, "The idea is absurd."
He grimaced. "When I became the Unicorn King, there was no one waiting at my coronation to induct me into a secret order," he said, his words betraying a harsh sort of amusement, "If there was an organization pulling the strings of power, I'd be a clear target. I chair the High Table. My word is law to a dozen kings and half as many queens, to say nothing of the millions of lives I'm personally responsible for in Rannor. But no one's ever tried getting to me."
"But?" Eni prompted, even as a growing fascination filled her.
"Things happen," he said shortly, "Odd things. Not often, but enough that it makes me wonder. I choose someone to become a duke, but he passes in his sleep before it can be announced, leaving me with a lesser pick. A ship sinks with no survivors on a clear day."
Renald gave Eni an appraising look. "A carnivore betrays his own kind to feed me information… and now this," he concluded, gesturing to the forged letter on his desk, and Eni knew he meant whoever Jenarius's unfortunate partner had been.
"So…" he said, drawing out the word as his eyes bored into Eni's, "You ask me to believe it's more than the kitten's damnable foxes sabotaging my nation."
"Yes," Eni said, and Renald held her in his gaze for a long and wordless moment.
"Then I ask again: what's your proof?" he said, but his words were gentler than she had ever heard.
Eni cleared her throat, which gave a twinge of protest as she did so. "I need to see your perfumer," she said, and when she saw Renald's face twist in irritation she quickly added, "I know that was already part of the joint investigation. But I can prove whether or not he is an Archon."
Renald's scowl crossed his face again. "Don't think that it hasn't occurred to me that this might not be some elaborate ruse the tiger put you up to," he said, "But very well. On one condition."
He held up a single finger, and then pointed it at Eni's heart. "If I have an Archon in my delegation, they're mine to handle. Not Queen Marsenn's. Not the kitten's. Mine."
"I accept," Eni said, thrusting out her paw.
She wasn't sure it was a good idea; if Renald was actually an Archon himself she would probably never leave his study. Even if he wasn't an Archon, perhaps he was simply shrewdly manipulating her, spinning a story to attempt to entrap her in a lie or a misstatement. But Renald extended one huge hoof, delicately wrapping his blunt fingers around hers. If he squeezed, he could have shattered every bone in her paw, but he applied so little pressure Eni barely felt it. "Then we are bound by our oaths," Renald said solemnly as he gave her arm a single quick pump and let go.
He pushed his chair away from his desk and stood, his height advantage suddenly even more apparent. "This way," he said, and without waiting for her he walked out of the room.
The guards outside the door were as professional as any Eni had ever seen; although she was sure that if she had been in their position she wouldn't have been able to hide her bewilderment, their faces didn't change at all when Renald announced that he was heading to the room of his delegation's perfumer. Instead, the guards immediately fell into position, forming a protective circle around the king and Eni.
She couldn't see where they were going; each of the guards was so tall that Eni's view of the hallways they passed through was utterly blocked. Their escorts were mostly ignoring her, and Renald was completely silent.
It didn't take long before the hulking soldiers suddenly stopped and smoothly peeled away in lockstep, forming a protective half-circle that enclosed Eni and Renald and gave them access to a single door. Renald nodded brusquely to his guards and then, without any sort of preamble, threw the door open.
"I'm in the middle of a—" a lisping male voice from within the room called out distractedly, and then Eni heard the almost musical tinkling sound of breaking glass.
"My liege!" the same voice yelped.
Eni couldn't see who had spoken, as Renald's considerable bulk filled the doorway and blocked her view of the perfumer's room, but the rhinoceros managed to squeeze in and she hurried after him.
What she saw reminded her a bit of Rongen's workshop, if the raccoon had been forced to shove it into one of his guest rooms. Although there weren't any windows, the room had cozy furniture and brightly colored wall-hangings to liven it up. It would have looked like a particularly nice room in an inn, but every available surface seemed absolutely covered in glassware.
Vials and beakers were everywhere, spilling across a modestly sized desk and connected by a confusion of fragile glass pipes that bent and looped every which way. Renald barely had a spot to stand; the floor's thick carpeting had been rolled up and shoved against one wall, and the flagstones were piled high with an assortment of wooden crates.
Scents assaulted Eni's nose, from something that smelled pleasantly like vanilla or some other exotic spice to something so powerfully pungent that she almost gagged. Seemingly buried among his equipment was the strangest boar Eni had ever seen.
His elegant formal clothes were spotted and stained and hung so loosely about his body that he was hopelessly gaunt, and Eni immediately spotted the source of his lisp. Massive tusks protruded from either side of his mouth, capped with elegantly engraved pieces of beaten silver, and the brown eyes above his snout looked almost fever bright.
The boar was caught in an awkward dance of trying to welcome his king into his space while hardly having the room to turn around, and he fumbled over his words as he tried. "I didn't expect— It is of course an honor, a high honor— But your majesty has never— That is to say, not that he can't— But—"
Renald raised a single massive arm and the boar fell instantly silent. "Count Mavaron," the rhinoceros said slowly, and in a tone that struck Eni as oddly patient, "Miss Siverets would like to speak with you."
Mavaron gave Eni a curious look, seeming to realize that she was there for the first time, and as he glanced from her to Renald it occurred to her why the rhinoceros seemed so different. The boar was the first mammal Eni had ever seen him interact with who was one of his subjects but not a guard, and while he had been far from avuncular he had possessed a certain stately gravitas.
"Ah!" Mavaron exclaimed, clapping his hooves together as he did, "The rabbit the Woemaker choked!"
His face lit up in pleasure at recognizing her and a smile shot across his face, made awkward by his tusks. It vanished nearly as quickly as he realized what he had said and he fumbled with his fingers. "Ah, that is, I hope you're well, Miss Siverets. A terrible thing, really, absolutely terrible."
He never quite met her eyes as he spoke; his own darted about, as though his attention couldn't be forced to linger on any one point for very long. Eni surreptitiously wiped her right palm against her shirt before offering it to the boar to shake. She guessed that Tsar had wanted her to touch the boar in order to learn something from his scent, and while she didn't know if what she had done would do much to prevent Renald's smell from confusing the wolf's nose it didn't seem as though it could hurt.
"A pleasure to meet you," Eni said as firmly as she could manage, her voice still coming out weaker than usual.
"Indeed, indeed!" Mavaron said brightly, and he vigorously shook her proffered paw, seeming to appreciate her taking the lead.
"How is it that I can help you?" he asked, "Are you looking for the perfect perfume for yourself? I haven't done any work for rabbits. Well, not nothing, but not since—"
He seemed to lose the thread of his thoughts for a moment, his head cocking to one side and tilting back before he looked at her again. "Three or four years ago," he finished, as though there hadn't been any sort of pause, "But I pride myself on being able to suit each client, yes, no matter their natural odor or who it is they, uh…"
Mavaron trailed off, glancing down at Eni's Fanglands-style loincloth. "They wish to appeal to," he continued with an awkward chuckle, "Yes, yes. Or are you here about that dreadful matter with that— that—"
The boar cut himself off and then continued in a whisper that was difficult to understand due to how he slurred his words. "Assassin!" he said, and he seemed afraid to even say the word.
Eni had thought that he would keep speaking, but he stopped and fidgeted nervously as he glanced first at her and then at his king. "If the count and I could have a moment, King Renald?" Eni asked, trying to phrase the question as inoffensively as possible.
She wasn't sure she had succeeded, considering how raspy her voice still was, but Renald's face didn't change. He gave a single sharp nod and then backed out of the room. Eni waited until the rhinoceros was gone, and then looked into Mavaron's face. He certainly didn't seem like the sort of mammal who could easily hide a secret; his puzzlement was plainly written across his face and he was fidgeting with a small vial of clear liquid.
"So, uh, what are you here about?" the boar asked, first setting the vial back down on his overcrowded desk, picking it back up, and then putting it down again.
"What do you know," Eni asked, choosing her words carefully, "Of theurgy?"
"Theurgy?" Mavaron repeated, "Is that… Is that another perfumer? I don't recognize the name, I'm sorry to say."
His blank expression would have been enough, even without the words, but Eni didn't want to leave things to chance. "That's fine," Eni replied, and she took a deep breath.
Her heart began pounding in her chest, and she wished that Tsar had been able to join her. That, or for her trident to be in her paws rather than safely tucked away. But no matter what happened next, she'd have to handle it alone, and her vision pulsed at the edges as she licked her lips. "I came here in Nergora's name," Eni said, as smoothly as she could.
Perhaps it was just a trick of the light, or perhaps it was Eni's own power reaching out, but she would have sworn that, just for a second, the flames in the lanterns lighting the room burned a little brighter. It might have been in her head, though, because Mavaron didn't react with anything more than a frown and a furrowed brow.
"You, uh, have me at a loss," the boar said with a chuckle, reaching up and scratching the back of his head with one hoof, "I've never heard of either of those mammals."
Eni sighed, her heart slowing down as she did. "But I could probably mix up a perfume just as good, if you have a sample for me," Mavaron continued hastily, seeming to misread her disappointment as in being with his particular skill.
"That's fine," Eni said, "King Renald offered your services."
Mavaron smiled and leaned in slightly, as though he was about to tell a secret of grave importance. "He's very fond of the cologne I make him," he said, glancing this way and that first, "It's like my father always said. A leader doesn't just need to look the part. They need to smell it. And the king's personal scent is, if you won't mind my saying so, my finest work. Utterly unique, as it should be. Notes of petrichor, to show his connection to the lands he rules. A touch of citrus, for the boldness. It's— Well, I shouldn't say too much."
He laughed, and Eni smiled. She had the feeling that the perfumer could have happily spent hours talking about fragrances, and when she bid him goodbye he appeared genuinely sorry to see her go.
"Well?" Renald asked, once they had left Mavaron's combined workspace and bedroom behind and were once more surrounded by the king's escorts.
"It's not him," Eni said, and the rhinoceros made a mildly disapproving sound in the back of his throat.
Eni couldn't be quite certain, with the guards once more blocking her view of where they were going, but it didn't feel as though they were returning to Renald's study. She didn't have much time to dwell on the feeling, however, because nearly the instant it occurred to her Renald stopped walking and motioned for the guards to step aside, revealing that they were in the hallway where she had left Tsar behind.
Incredibly, the wolf didn't appear to have moved so much as a muscle since Eni had last seen him. He was standing so still that it put the guards nervously keeping an eye on him to shame; he could have been carved from stone.
"Before you leave, Miss Siverets," Renald said, his voice a low murmur that Eni felt in her lungs as much as she heard it with her ears, "You've gotten something of value, but it wasn't a gift. Remember that."
With that ominous pronouncement, the rhinoceros gave her a fractional nod of his head and then turned on his heel, motioning for his guards to follow. Eni was left standing in place for a moment, wondering if she had made the right choice after all, and then hurried over to where Tsar was waiting.
The instant she was at his side he seemed to come alive again, his eyes locking onto hers before he turned with a flick of his threadbare cloak. He walked in silence until they were out of earshot of the guards who remained to watch the corridor, Eni hurrying after him, and then he spoke.
"You did it," he said, and it wasn't a question.
"I did," Eni replied, still hoarse but proud, and she held up her right paw.
Tsar came to a sudden stop and just as suddenly grabbed her arm. His touch was quite light against the cloth of her shirt as he brought her fingers to his nose and inhaled deeply. Tsar's eyes were closed, but she could see them move behind his eyelids, and his nostrils flared in and out.
Eni could feel the insides of her ears turning red, but she had no idea why. The wolf's actions felt weirdly intimate in a way she couldn't put into words, even though all he was doing was gently grasping her arm to keep it steady while he considered the scent.
"Boar," Tsar said at last, opening his eyes and letting Eni's arm go, "Male. Mid-forties. Wears a cologne made from jasmine and sandalwood. Mixes a lot of other ones."
Eni kept her arm up for a few seconds as she looked at Tsar incredulously, and then she let it drop. "You can tell all that just from smelling my paw?" she asked.
"Yes," the wolf said bluntly, and then he kept walking.
"But what does it mean?" Eni asked, and he didn't hesitate before answering.
"The boar didn't make the poison," he said, "His scent is…"
Tsar paused, seeming to struggle to select the right word. "Like cutting a tree in half. The rings. Layers. They're all there."
"Oh," Eni said; it was peculiar to think about how much better his nose was than hers. It was the same sense, but it was as though she was blind and he could see. "Is that why you fought the Saber-General?" Eni asked, "Were you trying to… To smell her actual scent?"
The words came out sounding rather stupid to her own ears, but Tsar cocked his head to the side, seeming to consider them seriously. "No," he said, "I was testing her. Like how she tested you. Pushing harder and harder to see if she'd use magic to win."
"Is she the mage?" Eni blurted, unable to hold the words in.
"No," Tsar said, "There were… traces of magic on her. I could smell it. But it wasn't…"
He trailed off, apparently at a loss for the right words. "It wasn't hers," he finished at last, although Eni got the feeling that there was more than he was telling her.
Or perhaps it was simply more than he could say, and Eni nodded. "What if she… I don't know, put her magic out somehow? You said magic was a bit like a flame inside a box, right? What if she extinguished it to hide it?"
Tsar took in what she had said for a moment. "Your satchel is large," he said abruptly, gesturing at it, "Could you fit inside?"
Eni stared at him, unable to immediately come up with something to say. Her satchel was large enough to carry the provisions she needed while traveling alone, but it certainly wasn't anywhere near as big as it would need to be for her to crawl into it. "Of course not," she managed at last, "I'm bigger than it is."
"What if you were chopped into pieces first?" Tsar asked, and she realized what he was getting at.
"It'd kill her if she did it, you mean," Eni said, a bit disappointed that her idea was worthless.
Tsar nodded. "There's magic in all things," he said, "She has some. Larger than usual, but still small. Much smaller than yours."
Eni wondered if that was the wolf's way of trying to make her feel better about herself. Considering that he was adamant about the dangers of magic, Eni thought she was still at a significant disadvantage if the leopardess ever tried to strangle her again, but it was nice to know that she had something the Saber-General did not. Unless, that was, Rongen's gloomy worst-case scenario prediction came true and she lost control of herself.
Eni shivered; she tried her best to avoid thinking about that, but sometimes, when she least expected it, the memory would pop unbidden into her head. It was worse when she was training, though, when no matter how hard she tried her power refused to obey her. "So there's something off about Astrasa's scent the same way there's something off about Aza's?" she asked, trying to think of something else and springing on one of the few clues he had given her earlier.
"Different," he said, shaking his head, back to single words as though explaining himself had been exhausting.
"Did you figure out why his scent is wrong?" she asked.
The wolf didn't answer immediately. His tail flicked from side to side as he seemed to mull the question over in his mind. "Yes," he said.
Eni waited a moment, but he didn't continue. "What—"
"Tell me about the rhinoceros and the boar," Tsar interrupted, and Eni felt the small and petty urge to simply refuse until he told her more of what he was thinking.
But maybe he was simply trying to avoid theorizing when he was missing information; Eni could certainly understand if he didn't want to bias her own thinking by filling her head with conjecture. It was the kindest possible interpretation she could make, but that didn't necessarily mean it was wrong. If he was, Eni thought he would appreciate how she recounted what she had done while they had been apart; she did her absolute best to stick only to the facts.
Tsar listened attentively as they continued walking through the maze of corridors that made up Castle Titus, his eyes so very nearly closed that Eni marveled at how he avoided running into walls. He didn't seem to have any trouble navigating, though, and he made turns at intersections without the slightest pause. The wolf didn't interrupt, and when Eni needed to stop talking and rest her injured throat he waited patiently for her to continue without so much as a single word of prompting.
When at last she had finished, he came to a halt in the corridor, his tail curling up upon itself and then unfurling over and over like an illustration Eni had seen in a book about lizards. Eni watched, fascinated, while he stood still with his eyes closed, apparently unaware of what he was doing. "We're almost there," he said quietly, suddenly opening his eyes, but there was something about the way he said the words that sent a chill down Eni's spine.
Eni had never heard the wolf laugh or so much as chuckle, and the only way she could tell he enjoyed eating was the vast quantities of food he ate when it was available. But there had been an almost savage pleasure to his words, something that struck her as dangerously predatory. His eyes had narrowed, their vivid blue looking especially pitiless, and his lips had curled away from his wickedly sharp teeth.
And then his face smoothed over, the traces of emotion disappearing like water being poured from a bucket.
"Where are we going?" Eni asked, but he didn't answer.
He started walking again, his pace increasing until it was just short of running. Eni struggled to keep up, every breath burning as it passed through her tortured neck, and just when Eni was sure she couldn't possibly go any further he threw a door open and dashed in, throwing his cloak aside and pulling out his whip-sword as he did. Eni chased in after him, nearly losing her balance as she skidded to a stop on the slick floor.
They were in a large and beautiful circular room made entirely of polished marble. The walls vaulted gracefully, twisting up into a domed ceiling as though they were standing inside of a vast flower bud. The air was stiflingly warm and humid with steam that drifted gently toward the open door. Water cascaded down from hidden pipes, filling enormous pools of water set into the floor. An ocean-like smell of salt tickled Eni's nose as she gaped at the scene, which under any other circumstances would have been quite peaceful.
But Tsar was standing just inside the doorway, his whip-sword loosely coiled on the tile and his hackles visibly raised. Across the room, a massive female wolf and a far more modestly sized cheetah had both drawn swords, and caught in the middle, sitting in one of the pools, were Kera and Sabor.
The two tigers had apparently been relaxing in the heated water, although it was so cloudy with minerals that all Eni could see of them was their heads and arms. Sabor looked utterly stunned, his broken arm held awkwardly out of the water and his eyes wide, while Kera regarded Tsar much more calmly.
"I am afraid you are intruding upon my son and me," she said in perfect Jarku, although Eni thought she heard an undercurrent of tension in her voice, "Did you not notice that the door was locked?"
Eni glanced back behind her and saw that Tsar had opened the door with such force that where it met its frame was nothing but a splintered ruin of hardwood and twisted bits of metal; when she looked back to him she saw he was still holding the doorknob in his left paw. He didn't respond, staring down at the archduchess even as the royal guards slowly started moving forward. "Reslova and Meritam will see you out," Kera added with a smile that looked utterly forced, gesturing first to the female wolf and then to the cheetah.
Reslova was taller than Tsar by such an enormous margin that there was no doubt in Eni's mind that the guard was a warwolf, but Tsar gave no sign of being intimidated. "You ought to leave," the gigantic she-wolf said quietly, her voice polite and yet still forceful.
Tsar still didn't budge, his eyes remaining fixed on Kera. "You must have made an honest mistake, Mister Tsar," Kera said, and Eni thought she heard the tigress's voice waver slightly, "Depart and we have no quarrel."
Rather than answer with words, Tsar reached behind himself and pulled the door closed. Eni didn't dare look away from the two armed guards, but she could hear metallic squeals as he forced it shut and twisted the lock back into place. "I know what you did," he said quietly, looking the tigress right in the eyes, "I know what you are."
"Miss Siverets, please, do be talking sense into your bodyguard!" Kera cried, switching to Circi, "This cannot be coming to a good end."
The tigress swallowed hard, and then reverted to Jarku. "There will be more guards!" Kera nearly shouted.
Eni hadn't noticed before, but there was more than one way in and out of the steam room. There appeared to be two other arched doorways besides the one she and Tsar had entered through, each equidistantly spaced around the curved walls. It seemed likely that there were changing rooms beyond the other two and the door she had used was meant only as a passage for servants, but the tigress was right. Eni could hear voices coming from the other rooms, and at Kera's cry more predators in the uniforms of the Carnaron military began flowing in until she and Tsar were outnumbered ten to two. The newly arrived guards were muttering among themselves as they raised their weapons in warning, and Eni caught snatches of their conversations even as her mind tumbled through the accusation Tsar had just made.
Kera was the mage?
It didn't make any sense to her; she couldn't understand why she would try killing her husband. Even as she thought about Aza she heard the guards calling for someone to alert him, but the words seemed distant and far away. "It is me you want, Mister Tsar?" Kera asked, and while she was sitting unarmed in a bath there was an almost fearless tilt to her chin as she stared back at him, "You will not harm my son?"
Tsar shook his head but his eyes remained fixed upon the tigress's. "The kitten can leave," he said slowly.
Sabor's face twisted momentarily in what might have been indignation, but he scrambled out of the pool as quickly as his bad arm would allow, not seeming to care as Meritam wrapped him in a thick robe but keeping his eyes on his mother as guards stood protectively around him. Tsar's grip on his whip-sword was unflinching, and Eni could plainly see what all of the guards were thinking; any of them who had seen him use it knew he was impossibly fast with it. The threat of being able to decapitate the archduchess before anyone could blink didn't seem as though Tsar needed to say it. If anything, the fact that he was so plainly confident even while being desperately outnumbered only added to his menace.
Eni, though, still couldn't figure out what Tsar had seen that she had not. "You tried killing the archduke," Tsar said, his voice hard as he glared at Kera, "You're a spy. You're a mage. Tell me who you work for."
The guards were muttering more loudly, but one voice carried above the rest. "That's absurd!" Aza cried.
He had appeared from one of the connected rooms, Signa in tow a pace behind him as always. But while the massive polar bear was the largest of the guards following him, more streamed in after Signa. For the first time, Eni gave a nervous glance back behind herself to see what Tsar had done to the door they themselves had entered through, since if she had been a guard going the long way around and surprising Tsar from behind would have been her first choice.
What she saw, though, made her think that the wolf had bought himself more than just a few minutes. Not only was the door's lock twisted closed, but one of its large reinforcing metal crossbars had been pulled off and driven into the floor at an angle, wedging it shut. She had no idea how someone so slim could have the strength to push iron clean through marble, but he had obviously done it. And more than that, done it without looking. It made her understand why even the guards who hadn't been present for Tsar's display of martial prowess with his whip-sword were being so wary; Eni doubted any of the predators present short of Signa could have managed what the wolf had done.
"Eni, what's going on?" Aza demanded, bringing her attention back around, "Why is your bodyguard accusing my wife of… of witchcraft and high treason?"
He looked as bewildered as Eni still felt, but she didn't have to answer. "She tried to murder you," Tsar said, and while he was speaking to Avamezin his eyes didn't leave Kera's.
"I would never try to murder Terrinar!" Kera said fiercely, using Avamezin's given name.
Eni heard it so rarely that it sounded strange to her, as though it wasn't actually a part of him, but there was such raw and powerful emotion in the tigress's voice that Eni took a step backwards. Kera stood, apparently unconcerned about what Tsar would do in response to the sudden movement, and water cascaded off of her. She was beautiful and terrible, like a well-forged knife, and her perfect features were twisted into an expression of defiant anger as she boldly stared Tsar down. "I have loved Terrinar since I met him," she declared, "And that love has never wavered. Never. How dare you question it?"
Some of the guards had averted their eyes, their need to protect their archduchess apparently coming into conflict with their need to avoid seeing her bare, but it seemed to have been the emotion and not the nudity that got to Tsar. For the briefest of instants, Eni saw his grip on his whip-sword loosen ever so slightly before his fingers tightened again. But there seemed to be a hesitation to him that hadn't been there before, and Kera laughed. "You know I'm telling the truth. The famed augury of the Elrim, is it?" she asked, her teeth flashing, "Apologize for the insult and I'll have mercy."
Eni swallowed, looking from Tsar to Aza to Kera. She could see that creeping doubt that hadn't been in the wolf before, and she tried desperately to think of what to say. Nothing came to mind, and then Tsar seemed to find his certainty once more. "You knew about the affair," he said.
For a moment, the only sound in the room was the pleasant trickle of flowing water. Kera's face dropped, as did Aza's. His noble features no longer looked quite so refined; in his shock he appeared foolish and irresolute. "He hid it well. A perfume to eliminate the scent, but it's not perfect. You used the same trick to hide the scent of the potion that went on the blade. Used the same perfumer as the archduke. The royal one. Other signs, too. You don't share a bed… She's not good at hiding how much she loves him. I noticed," Tsar said, rather dispassionately.
Eni's mind whirled. She had never suspected Aza of having anything less than a happy marriage, but looking back she should have known. He happily discussed Sabor every chance he got, but he almost never spoke about his wife. Even upon meeting Kera for the first time, it should have occurred to Eni that the two tigers rarely talked. They were almost never even together, either. But that wasn't the most important thing that Tsar had just said. "So you decided to kill him," Tsar continued, "Or maybe your master ordered you to. But you—"
"No," Eni interrupted, and suddenly everything was clear to her, "No, Kera didn't try killing Aza. She…"
The words were out of her mouth practically as the thought formed. "She tried killing Signa," Eni said, and she turned to look at the massive polar bear, "It just looked like Aza was the target because Signa was protecting him. Which means…"
"I am a she-bear," Signa said, nodding, and then caught Aza's eyes, "There is no point to lie anymore."
Signa's voice didn't sound the way it usually did; it was still a bit low but it had become throaty and unmistakably feminine. It was hardly any wonder that the bear rarely talked; it must have been hard for her to pitch her voice unnaturally deep to try to sound male. And looking at her features, Eni felt a bit abashed that she hadn't spotted it sooner; Signa's face was almost delicate for a bear and she wore quite a bit more clothing than predators from the Fanglands usually did. Eni doubted that the thick leather top under the bear's concealing cloak was merely armor, either; she had to be binding her chest.
"Then let's not lie anymore!" Kera shrieked, jabbing a finger angrily at Signa, "When I first heard…"
The tigress swallowed back a sob, but tears were running freely down her face. "I thought… I thought I could understand. Sabor was the end of what little we had! But I made peace with it. I thought I knew why… Knew what his position demanded. I didn't judge him for it. I… I could handle it. I still loved him because I believed… I believed he was given something I could never provide. I thought it made sense."
She laughed, but it was bitter and terrible, her body heaving with her sobs. "But you're just a bear!" she said, her voice cracking, "Just a bear. So you're right, Miss Siverets. I thought… I thought…"
"You thought if you killed Signa, I would love you," Aza said, his lips curling back from his fangs.
"Why wouldn't you!" Kera demanded, and she waded through the pool and threw herself against Aza's chest, nodding as she bawled helpless tears and her arms desperately skittered against his.
Tsar's whip-sword didn't so much as twitch as she moved, the wolf silently watching as Kera pressed herself against her husband. Aza didn't embrace her; his body went momentarily rigid as she tried to pull him closer. He took a half step back and then pushed her away, his face twisted in disgust. "Our marriage was political," he said, "You knew that."
Kera cried, utterly beyond words, and if either of the tigers cared that they were being watched not only by Tsar and Eni but by a number of their own guards, neither showed it.
Sabor was watching from behind one of the guards, his ears and tail drooping despondently. Eni couldn't imagine what he was feeling, watching his parents' relationship so publicly implode, and she wondered what he had seen for himself. "Kera, I… I don't know what to say," Aza admitted, "You got two mammals killed in this… this plot."
"Oh, who cares about an ibex!" Kera said, but despite the venom in her words she didn't meet Aza's eyes, "And Lieutenant Teristres was honored to give his life to help disrupt this sham. We all know the Caiser wants the Circle for—"
"Kera!" Aza said sharply, and for a moment he almost looked like Tsar at his most intimidating, "You've undone months of work and left the League to Renald's mercy, and you… You're going back to Carnaron as soon as the city gates open tomorrow. I'll… We will speak once I've joined you."
He took a steadying breath, absently running one paw across his head. "By Roren, I have no idea how I'll smooth this over with Marsenn and—"
"Because that's what you care about," Kera sneered, "Not our kind, but what lesser mammals think."
Her tone turned pleading. "You can be better than this, Terrinar" she said, and even as Aza shook his head she plunged on, "You'll see. She promised. We don't have to appease sheep; Carnaron will prevail. Just wait for Ghabarahata."
Aza grabbed one of Kera's arms. "What's going to happen in Ghabarahata?" he demanded, and Eni had an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Ghabarahata was the Sovereign City closest to Tormurghast, and from the look on Kera's face Eni doubted it'd be anything good. "I was never told," Kera said, "Ask the Dragon."
Eni's heart froze in her chest, and when she glanced to the side at Tsar she saw he was similarly motionless. She thought she had seen the full picture before, but she hadn't.
Her mind reeled and the room seemed almost to spin around her. It hadn't been coincidence that Kera had tried killing Signa during peace talks, Eni was suddenly sure. Someone had carefully manipulated the archduchess from the beginning, feeding her information and helping to arrange things. Someone who had been at Kera's side even while plotting against her family, perhaps even hoping for the ibex to kill Aza if he could. Perhaps it had all been about the chaos an attempt would cause, especially if Renald could have been framed for it. That, at least, could have been a cruel and calculating decision on the Caiser's part, risking his own son's life for political gain.
But Eni knew it wasn't.
The mammal acting against Aza hadn't done it at the behest of the Caiser or the Unicorn King; whatever purpose the Archduke's death was to serve wasn't to benefit the League or the Federation. It was the Archons, pulling strings toward whatever inscrutable plot they had in mind; it was the only possible way a scheme could have manipulated predator and prey alike from the two rival powers.
"Tsar," Eni said quietly, so only he could hear, "Are you sure Astrasa isn't a mage?"
He didn't answer with words, but his face was enough. Tsar's focus had turned inward, his pupils constricting so much that his eyes looked like icy and endless pools. The wolf's muzzle twisted into a frown as the tip of his tail lashed back and forth, and Eni's blood suddenly felt as cold as the steam room was warm. He clearly knew the answer, and yet somehow he was still baffled by what the leopardess had done. The Dragon of Karanor had managed something not even the greatest expert on magic could explain, and Eni felt a stab of fear run through her heart.
"She is," he said, in a voice little more than a whisper.
Eni didn't have very long to mull on his answer because there was soon a reminder that they weren't alone in the room. "The Archduchess is going back to her suite," Aza said loudly, and the mass of guards scrambled into action.
The Jaws soldiers had remained quiet while the drama unfolded before them, although Eni was sure that they'd be swapping stories of what they had witnessed before long. Kera was bundled up in a robe and gently led away by her own massive wolf bodyguard, and the steam room emptied until it was just Eni, Tsar, Aza, Signa, and Sabor left.
The young prince hadn't moved, and he looked down at the floor, apparently stunned. "I'm sorry it happened like this," Eni said, walking over to Aza, "I never meant…"
"I understand," Aza said, waving the apology away, "I understand everything."
The gesture was somewhat feeble, lacking the tiger's usual certainty, but when he chuckled it almost had his signature charm. "Well, almost everything. Sending you that damn dress was too petty by far for Kera, let alone Leya."
"I know who did," Eni said quietly, and turned, "Prince Sabor?"
The young tiger's tell had been very slight, but she had seen how his eyes had cast to the side ever so slightly at his father's words. But he would have had the access to make the exchange, and from how his face set into a scowl she was sure that he had. "I wanted everyone to see you for the whore you are," Sabor spat, glaring at Eni, "So Father would too and stop cheating on Mother."
"Sabor," Aza began, his tone steely, "I will not allow you to speak to—"
"I hope the vermin were worth it," Sabor said coldly, but Eni saw tears filling his eyes, "You don't deserve your title; you don't deserve Mother or me. You deserve nothing!"
He stumbled away, still crying, and while Aza reached out Signa grabbed his arm and forced it down. "Terrinar," she said softly.
Heartache filled Aza's face, but he nodded. "He…" Eni began, but she didn't know how to finish.
They all stood in silence for a moment, and it was almost companionable before Eni broke it. "What happens now?" she asked, and Aza gave her a small smile with none of its usual power.
"Tomorrow, my wife and son will be gone and my reputation will be in shambles. That much I brought upon myself; I'm afraid Sabor's right about what I deserve. But…"
He let out a long breath that was almost a sigh. "I'll keep trying to make peace work," he said at last, "That's all I can do. And as much as I'd like for you to stay…"
Aza looked at her, and Eni thought she saw something she had never seen him show before. He had always appeared so strong and noble, but he had allowed his wife to nurse a one-sided love for him and cheated on her. And perhaps, as some of Eni's books on history showed, that was not uncommon for nobility, but she had never seen such an ugly side to her friend.
"It's best if I go," Eni finished for him, and Aza nodded.
"You have to keep moving, Eni," he said, "I hope…"
He paused. "I hope you find what you're looking for," he said simply.
Eni thought about what would come next; she was sure that Tsar would want to go to Ghabarahata, and she did too. Perhaps they'd find Astrasa there, and Eni almost hoped they did. But Eni simply nodded, and then followed Tsar out through one of the changing rooms; there wasn't anything more to say.