Tsar was as silent as he usually was as he left Tormurghast with Eni, but there was something that seemed different to her about him as they passed beyond the enormous gates. She couldn't say exactly what it was, but although his face remained unreadable his mood seemed somehow better.
Eni told herself not to read too much into it; although it was possible he felt like being companionably quiet, it might have been because they were no longer stuck behind the family of travelers who had been in front of them waiting for the gates to open. Eni thought her hearing was better than Tsar's, but he probably hadn't enjoyed listening to the cranky infant who had cried the entire time.
The lamb had been remarkably loud for one so young, and despite how his mother and father fussed over him, relief had only come when the queue finally started moving. Mercifully, the sheep had been heading in the direction of Adlivun, and before long Eni's ears couldn't make out the lamb's tearful wails.
But even if Tsar was simply content that he was back in the relative quiet of nature and away from the endless noise of the city, Eni could completely understand. The air was fresher and the colors almost seemed more vivid as they passed beyond the farms that ringed Tormurghast's outer wall and into the great grassy plains that separated it from the nearest Sovereign City.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, perhaps an hour before midday, Tsar finally broke his silence. "We'll start when we stop to eat," he said without any kind of preamble, simply turning his head and speaking to Eni as though they were in the middle of a conversation and not as though hours had passed since his last word, "You teaching me to read. Then you'll practice Mildeus."
He turned his head forward again, apparently satisfied that he had said everything that needed to be said, and Eni nodded, hoping that her apprehension wasn't visible. She hadn't lied to the wolf about the popularity of her seminars, but she had never instructed anyone in anything but history. Still, she had made him a promise and even if he ended up being an even worse student than the most spoiled sons and daughters of nobility she had previously had the misfortune of teaching she vowed to do her absolute best.
When noon came, Tsar stopped walking so suddenly he might as well have been a clock striking the time, looking around to take in where they were. Eni had to admit it was a gorgeous spot; they had left the portion of the Sovereign Highway that ran from Tormurghast to Vornstrom and instead simply traveled overland. In the winter, or with a heavier pack of supplies, Eni wouldn't have dared to leave the smooth pavement, but even if the walk had been more difficult the view would have almost made up for it.
Tormurghast had receded in the distance to little more than a smudge against the horizon, the Sovereign Highway's might reduced to a thread. Around them was nothing but stalks of grass brushing against each other with a whispering sound as the gentle breeze made them ripple like the ocean. Wildflowers added brilliant spots of color, vivid yellows and reds and blues standing out against the almost dazzling green, and overhead the sky was as blue as Eni had ever seen it with only a few puffy clouds languidly floating across it.
Tsar's cloak billowed around him as he sat down and opened his pack, and Eni took a seat beside him. For a moment, they ate in silence; although Rongen had clearly not forgotten the importance of choosing food that traveled well, there was absolutely no compromise on the flavor. Tsar nibbled fastidiously at a piece of bread studded with dried fruit in between sips of water from his canteen, and when he was finished he turned expectantly to Eni.
"How do you read?" he asked.
"You—" Eni began, and then paused.
His question was so simple, and yet so to the point, that the lesson she had constructed in her head as they walked felt woefully over-complicated. She took a breath, feeling the wolf's eyes on her, and started over. "A book is like a house," she said slowly, "You need to make it out of something. For a house, those are walls. For a book, those are sentences. And the same way that a wall is made out of bricks, a sentence is made out of words. They need to be put in the right order, or they won't make any sense."
Tsar nodded slowly, and Eni hoped her explanation hadn't been overly simple. The frown that crossed his face looked more thoughtful than disappointed, though, and he considered her explanation in silence for a moment. "I need to learn every word?" he asked.
Eni smiled. "You already know the words," she said, "Reading is just a matter of recognizing them. Look."
She pulled out her knife and used its tip to scratch the characters for his name into the earth. The blade cut cleanly, leaving brown symbols that stood out sharply from the surrounding green. "This is what I call you," she said, tapping them with her finger, "Tsar. See, watch my mouth."
Eni greatly exaggerated the movements of her lips and tongue as she sounded out the word, tapping each symbol on the ground as she did so. "Tsar," she said slowly, and then repeated it for emphasis, touching its written form again, "Tsar."
She allowed the wolf to consider the lesson for a moment, and then continued. "So even someone who had never seen this word before would be able to say it if they know how to read."
Tsar's head cocked to the side, and the tip of his tail thumped against the grass. "That's a name," he said slowly, apparently thinking something through carefully, "That's the same in any language."
Eni blinked; clearly the fact that he was illiterate didn't mean he was stupid. "That's right," she said, "I'm teaching you how to read Modern Circi, because that's the easiest language to learn. All of the others would write it differently."
"Show me," he said quietly.
Eni scratched more symbols into the ground. "This is Nihu," she said, pointing at the first set, "It's probably the hardest one to learn to read. Circi has twenty-five basic characters, but to be fluent in Nihu you need to learn about… uh, four thousand."
Tsar grimaced, and Eni almost laughed at his expression of distaste. "Why is it so complicated?" he asked, and at his question Eni actually did laugh.
"I asked the same thing when I was learning it as a kit," she said, smiling, "My teachers really didn't have an answer, other than that was how it had always been done. But there are some advantages. Most of the time, you can convey the same meaning with fewer total characters in Nihu as compared to Circi. And wordplay can be much more clever in Nihu. Like 'Tsar.' The way I wrote it here could also mean 'Storm Iron.' But if I wrote it like this…"
Eni carved a few more characters into the ground. "It could mean 'Flag Soup.' But either one would be said the same out loud."
Tsar looked from one set of Nihu characters to the other, apparently nonplussed. "They're very different," he said.
"They are," Eni agreed; whether he was commenting on the alternate reading or the actual appearance of the symbols he was completely right.
"Classical Word is written mostly the same as Modern Circi," Eni said, touching the next way she had carved his name into the ground, "See how similar the two are?"
Tsar looked from one version to the other and slowly nodded, frowning thoughtfully. "But Word has six extra characters Circi doesn't use, and Circi has two that Word doesn't have. Some of the sounds are handled a bit differently, too," Eni explained, and then she touched the last set.
"Jarku's not as difficult as Nihu, but it's not as easy as Circi, either. Forty-seven different letters, but very consistent rules."
"Consistent?" Tsar replied.
"Every writing system has rules. And exceptions to those rules," Eni replied.
Tsar made a wordless sound of understanding. "Which language is best?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't know I could say any one of them is the best," Eni said; once more Tsar had asked a question that cut surprisingly deep for how simple it was.
"My favorite story is written in Circi, but there are some incredible histories in Jarku. And Nihian poetry is just…" Eni said, finishing with a sigh, trying to conjure up the right words to convey the complexity and depth of imagery possible in her native tongue.
"Sublime," she finished after a moment, and Tsar's head slowly tilted.
"It's a rare language in the Cradle," he observed, and Eni nodded.
"I don't often run into anyone who speaks it well enough to hold a conversation," she replied; with the exception of a couple merchants and a few Avian messengers, the only other Nihian speaker she knew was in the linguistics department of the university, but it wasn't his first language.
"But that's beside the point," Eni said, hoping her expression hadn't become too wistful, "We'll start with teaching you to read Circi and worry about other languages later."
Eni turned to an unmarred patch of ground and began carving symbols, and for the next half hour she started showing Tsar the first five and the sounds they made. He was a remarkably quick study, although for someone capable of such delicacy with a whip-sword his characters were quite uneven and shaky. Eni told herself she wasn't being fair to him as she watched him painstakingly copy her work; she had a doodle and an accompanying line of Nihian text in her journal from when she was six, and neither the illustration nor the writing was particularly good. Tsar was apparently starting from no knowledge of written Circi whatsoever, and when judged by those standards he was more than passable.
But then Tsar glanced up at the sun in the sky and stopped, the dagger he had been using to write freezing in place. "Time for you to practice," he said quietly, "Or we won't make it to Traumweld by nightfall."
Eni pulled a candle out of her satchel and tried to will her heart to go slower. She still didn't feel as though she was progressing at all, and she wondered if her frustration was making it harder. Not that knowing that would make it any easier; it wasn't as though she could simply force herself not to be annoyed. She could try, though, and Eni took deep and steadying breaths.
"Magic is harder than reading," Tsar observed, and Eni looked at him in surprise; the words had almost sounded encouraging.
"Thanks," Eni said, feeling a smile spread across her muzzle.
Tsar looked at her, his expression quite unreadable. His blue eyes seemed utterly fathomless, and Eni wondered what he was thinking about. "Sit up straight," he commanded, "Legs crossed."
Eni hastened to follow his instructions, trying to seat herself comfortably. It had unfortunately been her nicest pair of trousers that she had left behind in exchange for Kera's loincloth, and the ones she was wearing instead were just a little tighter at the waist. She resisted the urge to shake her head to banish the idle thought; trying to avoid thinking about anything seemed only to make her painfully aware of every possible distraction.
She closed her eyes and heard the pop and hiss of a match lighting, followed by its faintly sulfurous smell. She could feel Tsar's breath against her neck, soft as the touch of silk, as he reached over and lit the candle she held. "Focus," he said quietly, and he eased the lit candle out of her paws.
"Cup your fingers," he said, even as Eni was already trying to position them as he had first shown her.
For several seconds, Tsar didn't say anything, and Eni took slow and even breaths, feeling her lungs empty and fill. The sun overhead was warm against her fur, a pleasant contrast to the slightly chilly bite of the breeze, and Eni felt as though she could see the scene before her even with her eyes shut. From the mild heat near her paws, Tsar must have still been holding the candle close to her, although he had to have settled himself a bit further away from her because she could no longer feel his breath.
Eni could still hear him; his ragged cloak flapped when the wind whispered past, and his heart beat a slow and steady rhythm that seemed to synchronize with the faint sound of his respiration. Tsar's musk was there, too, strangely spicy and utterly unlike anything else she had ever smelled. "Reach out and grab the fire with your magic. Envision it."
Eni's pulse seemed to get louder and louder in her own ears as she squeezed her eyes even more tightly shut. She tried to imagine the light of the candle, feeble and dim under the midday sun, but thoughts kept drifting through her head no matter how she pushed them aside. Frustration welled up in her gut like a pry bar wedging itself into her focus, and Eni told herself to let everything but the flames go. The next lesson she taught Tsar didn't matter. What happened with Aza and Renald didn't matter. Everything but the flame was irrelevant, and as Eni hesitantly reached out with her power everything narrowed down to nothing but the candle.
It didn't matter that she couldn't see it; that was as meaningless as all the thoughts and memories that tried distracting her. The flame was dazzling in her mind's eye, casting its radiance into an endless yawning void around it. As Eni watched, its random flickering stopped and it began pulsing slowly in time with her heart. The shape of it evened out, becoming a perfect sphere, and she imagined it floating to her.
The fire obeyed her wordless command, and its small voice called out too low to hear. The words didn't matter, though. Eni realized it was utterly beyond anything as mundane as language; whether the flames spoke in Circi or Jarku or whatever bizarre language The Lamentations of Nergora was written in, it would speak with her voice and she would understand it.
This is all you want?
The words came in Nihu, carrying the same accent that Eni recognized as her own. The sounds were soft and musical, familiar and yet somehow alien.
Eni thought her response back to the fire in kind, allowing her imagination to spool out her desires like a ball of yarn being kicked. She pictured the flames pulsing in perfect synchrony with her heart even as the sun went down and the moon came up, flawlessly responding to her need for control.
That is all?
The voice changed, somehow. It was still Eni's, reflected back at her, and yet it had a quality her own words never did. There was a tremolo that shook her to her core, so full of power that it was like a physical blow.
This is all?
The fire spoke again, so loud that Eni's ears filled with a painful ringing.
Eni screamed it as loud as she could in her own head, but she couldn't even hear herself over the flame. The ball was growing, larger and larger, and Eni desperately willed it to stop. Her power refused to let go, and when she tried opening her eyes to beg Tsar for help nothing happened. She was still in the featureless plain of her imagination, and the flame was still before her. It was nearly the size of her fist when it started to rise, suddenly floating before her head, and for an instant it was like a terrible eye, a merciless void of a pupil wreathed in red-orange flames staring her down.
See what you can have, leveret.
The fire shot toward her so quickly that Eni cried out in surprise, but rather than hit her in the face it slid down her throat. It should have hurt. It should have lit her ablaze with terrible agony. Instead, it only burned like fine liquor, warming Eni from the inside out. Liquid heat settled into her belly, and Eni gasped as her every nerve tingled with it.
Will you take what you want?
The voice had grown knowing, crooning in Eni's ear even as it came from within her. She tried answering, but conscious thought was beyond her. The flame had become a pleasure beyond anything she had known, and her heart beat faster as she gasped without managing so much as a single word. Images flashed and strobed before her eyes as though her very mind was being flipped through like a book, and when Tsar came into view she grabbed at him, desperate for any kind of lifeline. The flames inside her only laughed, and when her arms wrapped around the wolf's shoulders the heat at her core exploded.
It was a feeling beyond anything she would have thought possible, her hips bucking helplessly as her mind simply blanked out, the dull roar of nothingness overtaking her once and then a second time as the feeling came again. Eni cried out as her entire being unraveled, every fiber of consciousness splitting apart as her memories fell out in a jumble.
Eni tried to pull herself back together, but her mind had become a storm. Thoughts battered at her as she tried desperately to focus, the flames at the center of her being burning ever brighter until everything else was blotted out. The fire roared louder and louder, beyond what any mortal throat could have made, and where its laughter ended and her screams began she couldn't say.
Eni didn't know where the strength of the word had come from, but it rose like a bird taking flight, her voice so resonant that every disparate part of her being vibrated with it. The fire's assault didn't stop, but for a moment that was also an eon it slackened.
It was enough.
Eni was suddenly together again, and with a vicious cough she expelled the ball of the fire that had entered her. It pulsed far slower than her own heart, which was pounding so rapidly that each beat was barely distinct, and Eni centered herself around the sound. She was alone in a void with nothing but the flames, and then Eni pulled as hard as she could on her power, reeling it back in. For an instant, nothing happened, and then the ball of fire fizzled and went out. Eni watched the spot where it had been, desperately hoping that it wouldn't come back, and then she—
—opened her eyes and groaned.
Eni felt worse than she had after the Woemaker had strangled her. At least then, only her throat and paw had ached, but now her body was somehow raw and overly sensitive. She felt painfully aware of her clothes, which itched maddeningly against her fur, and her head could have been stuffed with cotton judging by how sluggish her thoughts were.
Eni thought at first she was still in the empty nothingness she had seen in her mind, but as her eyes adjusted she realized it was simply night. The stars were out overhead, but they bounced and jostled in an odd fashion that made everything seem to spin. "You're awake," Tsar's voice came suddenly, but it sounded impossibly close, as though his head was right next to hers.
Eni tried turning her head and immediately regretted it; not only did it make her sense of vertigo worse but she collided with something as hard as granite. "Ow!" she yelped, her voice sounding weak, and when she tried pushing herself away absolutely nothing happened.
Her limbs were bound as tightly as though they were encased in iron, and Eni squirmed, feeling her chest pressed up against something utterly unyielding even as what felt like iron bars dug into her thighs. "Stop struggling, rabbit," Tsar snapped, "You'll make me drop you."
"Drop?" Eni asked blearily, and then her mind finally seemed to catch up to what was happening.
The stars were bouncing around because the wolf was carrying her on his back. His voice had sounded so close because it had been close; her head must have been up against his, which was what she had accidentally head-butted. Which also meant, then, that it wasn't metal bars gripping her legs, but Tsar's fingers.
Even as she came to the realization, the wolf had dropped to his knees and smoothly swung Eni off his back, his long tail wrapping around her waist and steadying her until he could turn around. "Can you stand?" he asked.
"I— I think so," Eni managed to say, and his tail neatly unraveled from around her.
She stumbled a step but caught herself; the feeling was oddly similar to when Eni had first disembarked from the ship that had carried her from the Nihuron Peninsula to the Cradle. After so long at sea even solid ground had seemed to tilt and shift, and her equilibrium felt similarly off. Eni closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and when she reopened them the worst of her disorientation had passed. "What happened?" Eni asked.
Tsar regarded her carefully for a long moment, and she supposed it had been a fairly foolish question. It hadn't been long past midday when she had tried to control the flame, and now there wasn't so much as a trace of the sun left on the horizon. "You passed out," Tsar replied quietly, "After holding the flame for almost a minute."
"A minute?" Eni repeated, somewhat numbly; it had felt like an eternity.
"Then you…" Tsar began, hesitating briefly before finishing with, "Screamed. You wouldn't wake, so I carried you."
"Thank you," Eni replied, but the wolf didn't so much as acknowledge her gratitude.
"What did you see?" he asked, his tone sharply curious and his eyes seeming to bore through hers.
"I…" Eni began, but she couldn't put it into words.
It wasn't that she couldn't remember what had happened; it actually felt impossibly vivid in her mind, as real as the wolf standing in front of her. "The… The fire asked what I wanted and… It was like it was… Like it was…"
Eni shook her head. "Like I was a book being read," she finished.
Tsar regarded her in silence, utterly still except for the twitch of his tail side to side. "And then I kind of… Pushed it out," Eni said, feeling like a terrible storyteller.
She wasn't sure words alone could have gotten across what she had felt; anything she could have said would have been woefully inadequate. "What does that mean?" Eni asked, when the wolf kept his silence, "It was my voice, but it was…"
Possibilities flew through her mind before a word suddenly came from her mouth before she knew it would be the one that fit. "Wrong," she added.
"You need to learn control," Tsar replied simply, and then he turned.
Eni almost protested that she was trying, but she bit her tongue. He hadn't sounded angry or upset, and she certainly couldn't disagree. He stood, his back to her, for a moment before he spoke. "We're almost to Traumweld," he said, "Can you walk?"
Eni winced, glad that he couldn't see her. Tsar had planned on them reaching the village before nightfall, but he had obviously not been able to travel very fast while carrying her and both of their satchels. She couldn't be entirely sure, but she guessed they were no more than two or three hours away from midnight, so far past when the sun had set that they were nearer to it rising again.
"Yes," Eni said, and without another word the wolf scooped both their bags off the ground and started walking as he smoothly swung them across his back.
Under other circumstances, she might have protested that she could manage her own belongings, but even though Tsar hadn't set an overly harsh pace Eni was barely keeping up. Her body still felt both sore and oddly loose, as though she had just spent an hour in a hot spring after a day of brutal hiking, and after perhaps a quarter hour she was beginning to feel almost normal.
But not quite.
Before long, Eni caught sight of a welcoming red-orange glow coming from off in the distance, although as they got closer no buildings stood out in relief against the night sky even though they began to pass through neatly tended fields. As they approached Traumweld, the reason soon became apparent as the light resolved itself a recognizable form. Eni gaped once she could make out the details; it was a village unlike any she had ever seen before.
Traumweld had most likely been a quarry centuries or perhaps millennia ago, but where there had once been a great scar in the ground master stonemasons had evened it out into a great oval perhaps as long as eight city blocks and as wide as three. Stone ramps spiraled elegantly around the sides of the great pit, and into the dull rock elaborate façades had been carved and painted for the various shops and homes nestled into the solid earth. Lantern lights blazed all around the edges, and perhaps a hundred and fifty feet down at the bottom of the pit was a great pond surrounded by a carefully tended park. At the lip where the ground fell away, large banners had been stretched across on cables so thin that they appeared nearly invisible, announcing Traumweld's name in characters two feet tall.
"By the Mother, I should travel off the Highway more often," Eni said, taking it in; she had spotted a storefront with bas-relief images of books and scrolls carved into its surface and wondered if they'd have enough time to take a look inside the bookstore, "I suppose they always keep it this bright? It'd be horrible to fall in."
She repressed a shudder as she looked at what would have been an incredible fall; there was a low railing circling the artificial basin the village was set in, but a sufficiently tall mammal could have easily stumbled over it in the dark. Most villages weren't too much brighter than the empty countryside after nightfall, but Traumweld seemed to have a very good reason to keep their lanterns burning.
"No," Tsar said, a frown crossing his features, "Wasn't like this before."
He didn't slow down, exactly, but his movements seemed to become more cautious as they approached the ramp that led down into the village. His nostrils flared as he apparently tried scenting for something out of place, and Eni strained her hearing to do the same. To her, despite the unusual lighting and design of the village, Traumweld seemed much the same as any other. She could hear the usual ever so faint sounds, from mammals snoring in their beds to muffled music that must have been coming from a tavern. The thick stone that every building was carved into made it hard to pick out any specifics, though, and Eni eyed the sleepy little town carefully for anything out of place.
All that met her eye, though, were more examples of exquisite stonework almost good enough for a Sovereign City like Adlivun. "Where does she live?" Eni asked, realizing as she spoke that it was in a whisper.
For a moment, Eni thought Tsar was ignoring her as he headed down the ramp, stalking forward with a determined air. "Something's wrong," he muttered, his voice nearly as low as Eni's, "I smell it."
She hurried after him as he spiraled down closer and closer to the base of the village before he suddenly stopped in front of a well-worn wooden door. From the frothy mugs engraved above it, and from the sound of music emerging from within, it was obviously the village tavern, but when Tsar threw the doors open and strode in, something seemed oddly off.
In many ways, it was just the same as what could be found in any town. It was cozy and a bit cramped, large enough for perhaps four dozen mammals at most to sit at the tables scattered about the long but relatively narrow main room. That there were mammals still up so late and drinking wasn't in itself unusual, but there were far more than Eni had expected to see, and it seemed as though everyone in the room had jumped at Tsar's entrance. The music and all conversation stopped dead as the wolf strode in, and Eni could feel the eyes of the villagers burning into her and her companion as Tsar approached the bar.
Most of the patrons were moles and gophers, but even the bartender, a thickly-built badger, was short by comparison to the wolf. "What'll it be, stranger?" the badger asked, looking Tsar up and down as he polished an already sparkling-clean mug.
"Where's Old Athel?" Tsar asked, his tone blunt and his eyes narrowed.
A great cry suddenly went up from the patrons, and the bartender staggered back. "Why'd you say that name?" he moaned, "Mother save us from the pestilence you'll bring upon us!"
Eni looked around, and for a moment she wondered if the villagers were playing some sort of elaborate practical joke. But then she felt a chill run up her spine, and from how everyone in the tavern but Tsar shivered in unison she realized with horror that she hadn't been the only one. "Out! Out!" the badger cried, pointing toward the door with his rag, "Get out, the both of you, before—"
A wailing moan cut him off, and the badger suddenly trembled with fear, his eyes going wide as he staggered backwards and fell. Eni glanced around the room, but the sound seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. "Why won't the witch leave us alone?" a mole demanded, his voice shrill with panic, "Why?"
"Look what you've done!" his drinking partner cried, pointing to the center of the room, "Look!"
A haze of dust and wind had started whirling like a miniature tornado, sending utensils rattling to the floor. "You've called her shade upon us!" another voice screamed, high and wavering.
Eni felt her own eyes widen as she stared at the whistling and moaning cloud, which was only vaguely mammal-shaped. And then, as she watched, a pair of brilliant spots as bright as torches suddenly flared to life in its misshaped head. The awful eyes seemed to fix Tsar in view, and then a sepulcher voice called out. "Promise," it cried, and every strand of fur on Eni's body stood on end, "Promise."
Eni felt rooted in place, but Tsar simply threw his cloak aside and drew his whip-sword. His muzzle curled into a snarl as he faced down the wraith. "How did Athel die?" he asked firmly.