Tsar didn't speak another word as they left Castle Titus, but Eni didn't mind.
It felt as though she had an odd hollow that her thoughts kept falling through, the same way her tongue would poke through the gap a missing tooth left when she was younger. There was that same sense of something missing, but Eni couldn't put a finger on what it was. Even as she walked, trying to put her own mind in order, she kept stealing glances at her companion.
Tsar's expression remained entirely unreadable as they headed back to Rongen's tower, and when Eni told him she needed to mail a letter he had simply nodded, his eyes remaining distant as he followed her to the closest post office. He made no complaints as Eni agonized over what she wanted to tell the Archivist, his last strange letter echoing in her head.
He had told her to hold her questions and comments until her return to Terregor, but the first time she had read his message his words about the city's new Chief Bureaucrat had seemed merely peculiar. After what she had learned from Renald and Kera, though, they seemed horribly ominous. That there was a connection between Ceslaus and the Archons felt obvious to Eni; the identically coded letters could not be unrelated. But did the web of the shadowy cabal extend all the way to Terregor? Had the Archivist spotted something dreadfully wrong with the city's new leader?
Eni repressed a shudder as she hesitated with her pen held uncertainly over a blank piece of paper. The first words were often the hardest to write, and she felt painfully aware of the possibility that unfriendly eyes might read her message. Mentioning the Archons was absolutely out; the very last thing she wanted to do was bring the wrath of a group that had proven itself to be utterly ruthless upon her boss. No matter how child-like the Archivist's enthusiasm was when excited, he was still the oldest mammal Eni knew.
Except, of course, for Tsar, if he really was the Slayer.
But while the most pessimistic estimate of how old the wolf was based on his looks wouldn't have been more than his mid-thirties, every single one of the Archivist's many years weighed him down. He didn't limp when he walked, but he didn't move very quickly, either, his every step slow and stately and done with the aid of his staff. If someone attacked him, there was no question in Eni's mind that the old markhor would lose, and he was in no shape to run away either.
So while Eni wanted nothing more than to allow her pen to spill ink across dozens of pages, she forced herself to keep it short.
Dear Archivist Arctus,
I hope my letter finds you well. I am enjoying my time in Tormurghast; there is as always much to learn and be found in the city. I'm planning on returning to the same bookshop where I found the folio copy of The Codex Monstrum in search of more literary treasures; I was nearly able to get The Malleus Maleficarum for my own personal collection but it was claimed by someone else. I look forward to when my travels will bring me back to you, and as always I will heed your wisdom.
Your humble student,
Professor of Age of Amelioration Studies and Antiquarian of the University of Terregor and the Library of Linrathrous
Eni nearly showed it off to Tsar for his inspection before remembering that he wouldn't be able to read it, and instead simply read it out loud in a low voice while anxiously making sure no one in the sleepy little post office was close enough to overhear. "He'll remember I found the folio in Ghabarahata," Eni said confidently, once she was done, "And he should realize what I meant by referencing an old Inquisition manual on witchcraft."
It seemed to her a perfect way to give the Archivist clues of what had happened in a way that no one else would be able to pick up on, but Tsar was so quiet afterwards that Eni thought at first he hadn't been paying attention at all. When he spoke, though, his question was the last one she would have expected. "You're a professor?" he asked.
Eni blinked. "Yes?" she said, her uncertainty at the point he was getting at making the word come out like a question.
"You never mentioned it," Tsar said quietly.
"Oh!" Eni said, and she laughed a little, "It's not much of a title outside Terregor."
She waved one paw dismissively as she used the other to roll up her message to the Archivist. "It's not like being a knight or a lord or a… or a duke."
A painful lump had come into her throat at the last word that had nothing at all to do with nearly being strangled, and Eni realized what it was she had been feeling ever since leaving Castle Titus. Avamezin had disappointed her. Not because he had fallen in love with a bear; so far as she was concerned that didn't matter at all. But he had married Kera without ever loving her, and for as terrible as what the tigress had done was, it was hard not to see her as a victim. Eni suspected that Astrasa had been the one to plant the idea that Signa was the only barrier to a happy marriage in Kera's head, and it made her wonder just how miserable the tigress had been.
History was full of unhappily married nobles, though, and Eni tried to push the thought aside. "Are you…" Tsar began slowly, "A good teacher?"
Eni had to force down a smile, because she thought she understood exactly what had made the wolf ask. "There's always a waitlist when I give lectures," she said, not doing anything to keep the pride out of her voice.
Since she spent so much of her time on the road, Eni didn't have a permanent class schedule the way most of the other instructors did; she generally only held three or four seminars a semester, but she had never had a problem getting students to sign up. She was tempted to tell Tsar that her most recent session, concerning rare peril papers, had filled the university's largest lecture hall three days in a row and still hadn't allowed everyone who wanted to attend to make it.
But that would have been much more boastful than she ever wanted to be, and instead Eni tried keeping her face neutral as she looked at the wolf. Tsar simply nodded, and then he lapsed back into his thoughtful silence. Eni supposed, as she gave her sealed letter to the postal clerk, that he had plenty to think about, and she managed to wait until they were back on the street to ask the question that had been burning in her mind.
"What do you know about Archons?" she asked, and Tsar's placid face resolved itself into a small frown.
He didn't answer for several blocks, his tail swinging side to side as he considered the question, and then as Rongen's tower was coming into view he at last answered. "Little," he said shortly, "There are always societies trying to…"
He trailed off, and Eni felt a frown of her own slowly forming. The wolf seemed to be groping for words, unable to string them together in the way that he wanted. His eyes narrowed to little more than slits as his ears canted backwards and his lips peeled away from his teeth in a distasteful grimace. "Make the world to their liking," he finished after a pause of several seconds.
"You've… encountered them before?" Eni asked, a touch hesitantly.
Emotion seemed to boil off the wolf in almost the same way it had when Rongen had made a slip of the tongue and talked about having children in front of him. Then, at least, Eni had understood why Tsar would be touchy about the sacrifice he had chosen to make in the name of not risking the creation of powerful and dangerous mages. But now there seemed to be a barely restrained fury underlining his words, written across his face so strongly that a family of beavers walking the other direction down the street crossed to the other side and averted their eyes as they scurried along.
"Perhaps," Tsar answered ominously, and the air around him felt momentarily as oppressive and heavy as a thick blanket on a warm night.
But then the moment passed and his features smoothed out again. His entire body seemed to close off, and when he produced the key to Rongen's gate he did so without a word. As they crossed the lush lawn to the tower, Eni could hear sharp and repetitive noises coming from the raccoon's workshop; it sounded as though he was hammering something. When they entered the home, the sound stopped and Rongen hobbled into his grand sitting room, his fur smudged with grease and sticking out at odd angles. "Well, that's an interesting outfit," he said, wiping his paws against his thick apron, as he looked Eni up and down.
It occurred to Eni that she hadn't bothered to return Kera's loincloth or get her own trousers back, but that hardly seemed to matter. Rongen seemed to find her mismatched outfit amusing, though, and he kept talking. "What's the occasion? No, no, let me guess: peace declared! The Jaws and the Horns are the best of friends now!"
He grinned sardonically as he gestured in the air, as though he was spelling out the headline to a peril paper. When he apparently didn't get the reaction he was aiming for, his own face fell. "By the Mother, was it that bad?" he asked, his brow furrowing, "What happened?"
Tsar looked to Eni expectantly, and she bit back a sigh. "We figured out what was going on," she began, and then she explained the events of the day.
The raccoon appeared utterly enraptured; when one of his maids came to tell him that his dinner was ready he absent-mindedly motioned for her to bring it into the sitting room even as he urged Eni to continue. She did her best to tell the story as well as she could in between mouthfuls of a spiced pumpkin soup with crusty brown bread. Her throat still bothered her somewhat, but cup after cup of honeyed tea helped.
Tsar remained practically motionless, mechanically eating his meal and apparently oblivious to Eni or Rongen. When Eni was done recounting the events of the day, Rongen leaned back in his chair, frowning as he fidgeted with his spoon. "Mmm," he said at last, "Gray, you remember that magistrate in Eirden? You know, the fucker selling prisoners to the Jaws?"
Tsar nodded slowly even as Eni's mouth fell open in horror. "Selling prisoners?" she echoed, "Do you mean for… for nuanro?"
Even saying the word made her sick to her stomach, and the feeling only got worse when Rongen responded. "Yeah," he said, practically growling the word, "Illegal in the Fanglands my striped tail."
He snorted, his face twisting in disgust. "This magistrate made sure plenty of young, healthy prey mammals were getting arrested. The ones with families did their time or paid their fees. The ones who didn't have anyone who'd miss them… Well, I don't need to tell you what happened to them."
He didn't. Nuanro was a barbaric tradition Carnaron had outlawed as one of their major concessions during the Pact of the Three Pines, when the Second Scourge had made them desperate enough in the face of monsters to give up the ritual of adulthood. As far as Eni understood it, the practice had been quite simple: one or more predators of noble birth would form a hunting party, tracking down a prey mammal given something of a head start and only stopping once their quarry was killed and eaten or they gave up in shame.
An image, bright and horribly vivid, formed suddenly in Eni's mind, and she saw herself desperately scrambling alone through a forest as Saber-General Astrasa chased after her, the leopardess's contemptuous voice calling for her to yield. For an instant it felt utterly real, cold air rushing in through her nose as red-orange leaves fell from the trees. Her heart pounded in her chest as she willed her legs for every last bit of speed they could give her, but she stumbled over roots as branches whipped against her face. There was no path before her, and as Eni tried squeezing through the two closest trees she suddenly stopped, their rough bark tearing at her clothes and trapping her.
Panic welled up inside Eni, and she shook her head desperately to banish the terrible fantasy. "I know," Rongen said, giving Eni a sympathetic look.
Eni took deep breaths, willing her heart to slow down as she looked around the room, trying to reassure herself that it had only been her imagination. "What happened?" Eni asked, and her voice sounded remarkably steady to her own ears.
Tsar was looking at her, his expression showing mild curiosity, but the wolf's attention returned to Rongen as the raccoon explained. "Put an end to it," he said, his voice steely, and Eni had no doubt that whatever had happened to the magistrate had been entirely permanent.
"But…" Rongen continued, his tone turning thoughtful, "It always seemed damned odd to me. We never did figure out how that deal got made. And if there is some kind of group without a nation…"
He trailed off, but Eni could see where he was going; there were almost too many possibilities that jumped to mind. Any kind of vast, shadowy cabal would need money, and a lot of it. Somehow, it didn't seem out of place to imagine them engaging in all sorts of unsavory activities to fill their coffers, making the sorts of bargains that no one else could. The nobility of Carnaron who longed for the old days, Eni was sure, would pay quite dearly for the chance if it was offered.
And not necessarily only in currency, either.
Favors had a power of their own, and if history proved anything about governments it was that a certain amount of corruption was inevitable. Eni could practically see a tangled web of bribes and threats floating before her, knitting together mammals from all over the Cradle, and she let out a low sigh. "Damned if I know how you'd prove it, though," Rongen said, his brow creased together in a frown, "Just have to keep your eyes peeled in Ghabarahata, I guess."
He let out a bark of laughter at the look on Eni's face. "Of course I know that's where you're going to go," he said, "You've got everything short of a fucking engraved invitation pointing that way. And I know Gray. Once he catches a scent he doesn't give it up. Isn't that right?"
Rongen looked to Tsar expectantly, but the wolf didn't react. His eyes were hooded as he stared into the fire, the flickering light playing across his face. "Trap," Tsar said slowly, as if it wasn't a complete non sequitur, and Rongen sighed.
"Yeah, maybe," Rongen answered, shrugging his shoulders, "The fucking Woemaker seems the type to toy with you first. And damned peculiar, the way you couldn't get a read on her."
Rongen, at least, seemed to have understood Eni's explanation of that part of her recollection; Tsar hadn't interrupted with any corrections. "Can't remember that ever happening before," he said, scratching at his head.
"No," Tsar said shortly.
Eni noticed his paws were squeezing the arms of his chair, although his answers sounded calm enough. She felt almost as though she was intruding on him and Rongen; they seemed to be having a conversation she couldn't quite understand herself. It must have been how they had spoken in their glory days, when it would have been the raccoon at Tsar's side as he traveled to Ghabarahata instead of her, and she felt a sudden stab of envy.
There was an unspoken trust that she could only hope to one day earn, and she swallowed another sip of her tea to have something to do as she watched them. "Mmm…" Rongen said, looking up out the skylight set far above their heads, "If you're going to Ghabarahata anyway…"
The old raccoon lapsed into silence for a moment as he seemed to consider whether or not to speak his thoughts. "Maybe you ought to stop in Traumweld," he said at last, "Give Old Athel a visit."
Eni remembered Rongen mentioning the name before, and another memory suddenly clicked into place. "Wait," she said, holding up both paws, "Old Athel is a mage?"
"You know her?" Rongen asked, sounding equally surprised.
"No, no," Eni said hastily, "I… uh…"
She trailed off, trying to pick her words carefully. Eni had never been to Traumweld, but she had heard stories of the half-blind herbalist in other nearby towns from farmers visiting the taverns. Nothing she had heard about the elderly Aberrant had made her think she had any genuine knowledge of magic, but it seemed rude to tell Rongen that Athel sounded like a mad hermit. "Just by reputation," Eni finished, somewhat lamely.
"Mmm," Rongen said, glancing at Eni, "Well, what you've heard is probably mostly true. She is as fucking crazy as a summer day is long, but she's got a knack for knowing things. Says the spirits whisper her secrets."
Eni shot Tsar a worried look; from what Rongen was saying it sounded as though Athel had utterly lost herself to her own magic, but the wolf didn't appear perturbed. "Her light is very dim," he said quietly.
"Anyway, it wouldn't be much of a detour," Rongen said with a shrug, "She helped Gray and me once or twice."
"You trust her, then?" Eni asked, and the raccoon hesitated before answering.
"It can't hurt," he said at last, "And if there's something going on in Ghabarahata that's not making it into the peril papers, the gossip'd hit the closest towns first anyway. So if it is a trap, at least you can be walking into it with your damn eyes open, eh?"
Rongen offered Eni a smile that was more of a grimace. "I wish I could help more," he said, "Fuck, I wish I could go with you. But Vivianne isn't ready to fly yet, and with my damn leg…"
He sighed, pushing himself to his feet with his cane. "Leaving tomorrow morning, then?" he asked, addressing the question to Tsar.
"First light," the wolf said.
"No," Eni cut in, "Eight bells. The gates don't open until then."
She delicately left out the reason she knew that and Tsar hadn't; they had passed signs pasted to public notice boards declaring the change in when the gates around Tormurghast would open and close. Apparently Queen Marsenn was being cautious when it came to her guests' safety, but it also meant that Astrasa would have nearly a full day's head start on them. Eni half expected Tsar to propose that they try leaving the city early anyway, but he simply nodded. "Eight bells, then," he said.
"Then it's time for me to call it a night," Rongen said, holding his cane in both paws and stretching until his back popped, "See you in the morning."
He stumped off in the direction of his own chambers, leaving Eni alone with Tsar. "Practice with a candle again," he said, without any prompting, and then he started up for the stairs himself.
"Tsar, wait," Eni called, and the wolf came to a stop.
"Is it…" she began, "Is it possible to see the future? With magic, I mean."
The wolf looked back at her, his response nearly instant. "No," he said, quite firmly.
"It's just… When we were speaking about nuanro… For a moment I could see myself being chased by Astrasa," Eni said.
"Are you afraid of her?" Tsar asked.
"I—" Eni began, and then she paused.
The obvious answer was yes. The leopardess could have easily killed her, and it obviously wouldn't have bothered her at all to do so. But somehow it didn't feel like the right answer, although Eni couldn't put a finger on anything else in her vision that had been as awful as the Saber-General herself. "No," Eni said, and the word felt at least mostly true.
"Do you know what a mage sees when they create an illusion?" Tsar asked abruptly.
Eni shook her head; it wasn't a question that had occurred to her before but now that Tsar had said it she wondered what Ceslaus had seen as he tried to fool them. "The same thing as everyone else," Tsar said, "Imagining something doesn't make it happen. Doesn't make it…"
He trailed off for a moment, and his tail flicked from side to side. "Real," he finished.
"I thought that was what magic was," Eni confessed, "Taking your will and making it happen."
"You still haven't mastered the Mildeus," Tsar replied, but his tone was surprisingly gentle, and Eni thought she understood his point.
No matter how hard she tried to will the fireball to stay steady, it didn't work. Clearly, magic wasn't simply a matter of wishing things to be so and having reality bend to match. "I'll practice more tonight," Eni promised, and Tsar nodded.
He took a step closer to her, and his face was utterly inscrutable as he reached out. For a moment, Eni almost thought he was about to hug her, but instead he gently took her left paw in his and began unwinding the bandages. "What are you doing?" Eni asked, and Tsar looked back into her eyes, his head cocked to the side as though it should have been obvious.
"You'll light the bandages on fire," he said simply, and he pulled the blood-stained fabric away.
"But my paw is still—" Eni started to say, and then she stopped as she looked at her own fingers.
The white fur was stained a dull brown in places, but she could see where her skin had scabbed over. Her wounds didn't look hours old; if she had been looking at someone else's paw she would have guessed at least a week had passed since their injury. "You don't have any scars," Tsar said, phrasing it as a statement instead of a question.
As Eni looked down in wonder, waggling her fingers and marveling at the utter lack of pain, she realized he was right. "Two years ago," Eni said, "I slipped off the path along Gwared Mountain. I caught myself, but…"
"I grabbed a piece of obsidian," she continued, "It cut right through my glove; I had to put in five stitches to stop the bleeding."
She looked down at her thumb, which was completely unblemished. There should have been something to show where the razor-sharp rock had sliced her paw open. Even if it had been nothing more than a faint pink line where the fur hadn't grown back, there should have been a mark.
"It's part of being like… being a mage, isn't it?" Eni asked.
She had almost said "like you," but she had caught herself at the last moment. Tsar nodded gravely. "Mages are dangerous," he said, and with that he turned and walked away without another word.
Eni stood in the sitting room, looking down at her paw as she flexed her fingers. If Tsar was the Slayer, he was a hundred and sixty-five years old. Eni tried to imagine herself at that age and simply couldn't. The idea of living another hundred and forty-one years without aging so much as another day didn't seem possible.
It didn't seem right.
But most of all, it seemed terribly lonely.
Eni let the warmth of the fire bathe against her for a few minutes longer, but it didn't seem able to penetrate her skin. When she at last climbed the stairs to her guest room, the tidily made bed didn't tempt her at all, but she didn't seem capable of keeping her focus on anything for very long. Eni bounced between trying to update her journal and continuing to work on the outfit she was making Tsar before giving up on both, sighing as she stuffed her notebook and the bundled fabric into her satchel. "I'll finish on the road," Eni told herself, her voice just below a whisper, and then she took up a candle, trying to push her churning thoughts into some semblance of order and taking a seat at the room's desk.
She had been so sure that she wouldn't be able to fall asleep that she nearly fell out of the chair when a knocking came at the door in the morning. "Breakfast is ready, Miss Siverets!" a chipper voice called from the other side, "Master Rongen invites you to join him."
Surprise had rendered Eni more wide-awake than anything she could have possibly imagined; her heart had barely slowed back down to normal by the time she had finished showering and changing into fresh clothes. By contrast, breakfast was an oddly subdued affair; Tsar was as quiet as he always was, and Rongen was almost as short with his words, moodily pushing his porridge around his bowl.
But after they finished eating, the raccoon fussed over them, presenting both Eni and Tsar with bundle after bundle of wrapped supplies and loading them down so much Eni almost thought she'd have to start rejecting them. Eight bells approached so rapidly that Eni felt as though time had compressed like a spring, and before she knew it she was standing outside the door of Rongen's tower, Tsar at her side.
"Mimos…" the wolf began, and there was a strangeness to his voice that was almost apologetic.
"Don't make me wait another six Mother-forsaken years before you show up again, alright?" Rongen cut him off, his voice gruffer than usual.
Tsar regarded the raccoon solemnly for a moment, his face smoothing out. "I'll try," he said quietly, and Rongen clapped him on the arm.
"Same fucking Gray as always," he said with a laugh, and then he turned to Eni. "What about you?" he asked, "Are you going to up and vanish too?"
His tone was teasing, but from the look in his eyes Eni thought the question was genuine. She swallowed, and it wasn't just the last lingering vestiges of soreness in her throat that made it difficult to answer. "No," she said, "No, I'll keep in touch."
"Glad to fucking hear it," Rongen said, beaming, "Keep an eye on Gray for me, would you? The fucker can't go two steps without getting in trouble."
Eni laughed. "I'll do my best," she promised, and then she followed after Tsar.