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Chapter 42: Papers, Prattles, and Professors

There were at least half-a-dozen beer halls in the general direction of the university and Eni's apartment, but only one would do. The Library wasn't just slyly named as cover for the academics who spent almost as much time drinking as they did teaching; the number of subscriptions it maintained to periodicals from across not just the Circle but also the Cradle was completely unrivaled.

Except by the University itself, of course.

But as Eni navigated the meandering bridges and cobbled footpaths that crossed Terregor with the ease of long practice, she was certain she was making the right choice. She didn't want to knock on the Archivist's door quite yet, not until she had a better idea of what the city was dealing with. She was sure the Archivist would be more than happy to help her catch up on everything that had transpired in her absence, but his time was much too valuable to waste any more than she absolutely needed to.

Besides, it was the perfect time to stop by a beer hall; it was nearly noon and the regular lunchtime crowd would make for lively conversation. Indeed, Eni obviously wasn't the only one with the same idea; she kept having to step out of the way of mammals going the other way. Some of the streets in Terregor were so narrow that she couldn't have fully extended her arms, but Eni didn't mind. She had never found the city cramped, not even when there were so many pedestrians bustling about that it was almost impossible to move. Terregor was cozy, like a good book and a warm fire to read it by, and its gracefully soaring buildings all but exuded a friendly invitation to stop by.

Eni regretfully passed her favorite book store, not allowing her gaze to linger too long on the window where the gilded pages of an illuminated copy of The Mother's Light demanded a closer look. Instead, she glanced over her shoulder to see how well Tsar was keeping up. The wolf slid through the traffic with all his usual grace, moving so efficiently that it almost seemed as though he knew what everyone else was going to do an instant before they did. His eyes met hers, and Eni suddenly knew that they had always been on her since they had left the docks.

”What do you think of Terregor so far?” Eni asked, gesturing to take in the sights as grandly as she could without accidentally punching a passerby in the face, ”Is it how you imagined?”

Tsar considered the question for a moment, and when he answered it was only one word. ”Taller,” he said, and Eni laughed.

”I thought the same thing when I first got here,” she said, a smile crossing her face, ”In Siverets, there isn't a single building more than three stories tall. But in Terregor…”

She didn't have to finish the thought. A building with only three stories would be rather short indeed, and Eni wondered if Tsar could see the levels of the city the same way she could. As there had been less and less room to sprawl outwards, generations of architects had instead gone up, building new floors on the roofs of old buildings. Sometimes they had taken pains to perfectly match the style, so if it wasn't for the slightest difference in the color of the marble it would have been impossible to tell. Sometimes they hadn't, making charmingly dissonant structures like cakes where each layer was a different flavor. Eni could see where older homes and stores had slowly sunk into the ground, what had once been the third or fourth floor becoming the first.

Tsar simply nodded, and Eni turned her head to look forward just in time to step out of the path of a woodchuck barreling toward her. She didn't dare try talking to Tsar again as the street narrowed even further, the shops on either side squeezing together so closely that their doors had to open inwards. When they were less than a block from the Library, however, Eni reached back and grabbed his arm, pulling him off the street and into one of Terregor's many small parks.

Heading in their direction was a horse pulling a cart so wide that it looked to Eni as though there couldn't have been more than three or four inches of clearance on either side, and while some of the pedestrians going the same way as Eni and Tsar ducked down the nearest intersection Eni knew it'd be faster to simply wait for the horse and her cargo to pass.

As they stood on the immaculate grass, Eni noticed that Tsar was staring at the statue on a thick marble pillar that served as the centerpiece of the little green space, which was barely twelve feet on a side. Eni looked at the familiar statue of Ulmior, the otter's right paw raised and pointing to the sky while a thick bundle of scrolls were tucked under his left arm. ”Students rub his toes before exams,” Eni explained, gesturing at the polished brass that stood out in stark contrast from the rest of the legs, ”For luck.”

Tsar's gaze drifted slightly upwards and Eni coughed as she saw what he was looking at. ”That's, ah, for a different kind of luck,” she said; the otter's groin had nearly a mirror shine.

He made a wordless sound of acknowledgement and his head tilted back down to the plinth on which the otter stood. ”Know…” he said slowly, reading off the plaque, ”Knowledge is…”

Tsar grimaced, his lips moving silently as he sounded out the writing. ”Knowledge is our great… greatest…” he said haltingly, squinting at the last word.

”Knowledge is our greatest treasure,” he said at last, and then glanced at the beatific face of the monument.

Eni was impressed; it was the first time he had ever read something she hadn't written herself, and his effort had been obvious. Before she could congratulate him, the wolf spoke. ”Who was he?” Tsar asked.

”Ulmior was the first Archivist of the university,” Eni said, ”He founded the city with his own fortune.”

”So he actually believed that,” Tsar replied, but he sounded more interested than dismissive.

”Do you disagree?”

Tsar shrugged. ”There's a difference between knowledge and wisdom,” he said quietly, and Eni nodded.

”Ulmior has a quote about that, too,” she said, ”'To know but not understand is not to know at all.'”

Tsar grunted. ”Heard that before,” he said, and for a moment his eyes took on a reminiscing look.

Then he shook his head slightly, with almost the same motion that had started his full body shake near the hot spring, but he didn't go any further. ”Horse is past,” he said, pointing with the tip of his tail, and Eni nodded.

With the horse and her cargo no longer blocking the path, it was only a matter of minutes before they were in front of the doors to the Library, which were painted a buttery shade of yellow that had always made Eni think of daffodils. She pushed them open, and for an instant Eni felt as though she had been transported back to her days as a student.

The Library, so far as she could tell, had resolutely refused to change over the years; there was perhaps a bit more gray in the fur of the beaver standing behind the bar but everything else was the same. There were the same twin staircases that led to the upper floors, nearly hidden behind thick support pillars. The overstuffed chairs circling the enormous carved fireplace looked the same as they ever did, filled with mammals reading and taking sips from thick tankards. Most of the floor space was taken up by the low shelves that held every peril paper worth reading, no matter where it was published, for the past few weeks.

The array was utterly dizzying, and the only real difference that locked in the year. Aza's face looked up at Eni in a finely done woodcut illustration from a paper in Jarku with the lurid headline, ”Assassination Attempt?” Right next to it was one dominated by the words, ”Treachery at Tormurghast” and another that bluntly read, ”History Will Bury Mendacious Grass-Eaters!”

The peril papers in Circi were somewhat calmer in tone, but none of the headlines were particularly good. It didn't look as though anyone quite knew what had happened in Tormurghast, but whereas the papers from the League were dominated by coverage of those events the ones from the Circle had moved on to more recent news. Eni reached out to grab one that had most of its front page taken up by the words, ”'Storm of the Century' in Ghabarahata,” but a mammal appeared in her path before she had the chance.

”Could I take your order, Miss?” a smiling young doe asked pleasantly as she curtsied, pulling a small notepad from her apron, ”Have you ever been to—”

”That's Professor Siverets there,” a booming voice interrupted the waitress, ”Still drinking Carcosan smoked cider?”

The beaver had abandoned his position behind the bar to waddle over, beaming as he grabbed Eni's paw with both of his and shook it firmly. ”If you've still got it, Corlin,” she said; years ago she had picked it for being the least alcoholic item on the beer hall's sizeable menu, and at some point she had actually started enjoying it, ”But please, you don't have to call me—”

”Ah, ah, ah,” Corlin cut in, waggling his finger, ”You're faculty, Professor, and you know what that means. Forgive Sherlasa here; she started after you left. It's been a while, hasn't it?”

Eni repressed a sigh; one of the Library's traditions was that members of the university were always called by their proper title. Sometimes she missed hearing her name, but Corlin was stubbornly insistent. ”It has been,” Eni agreed.

”Oh!” the doe exclaimed, placing one slim hoof to her mouth, ”You're Professor Siverets? I expected…”

The deer cleared her throat delicately. ”I'll get your cider, Professor,” she said, turning hastily and walking toward the bar.

”So who's your friend?” Corlin asked, glancing up and down Tsar, ”Finally take on a research assistant?”

The wolf looked utterly nonplussed; Corlin and his waitress had both completely ignored him until that moment. ”This is Tsar,” Eni said, ”He's an Elrim storyteller.”

The lie fluidly slipped out of her mouth and the beaver whistled between his teeth, clearly impressed. ”Is that so?” he said, and then turned to Tsar, ”Tell me, son, do Elrim drink? First one's on the house for a friend of the professor.”

Tsar looked down at the much shorter mammal. ”Tea,” he said at last, ”With honey.”

Corlin blinked; whatever he had been expecting the wolf to order it certainly hadn't been that. ”Ah, no tea, I'm afraid,” he said, ”How about a mead from Staltset Abbey? It's made from honey.”

Tsar simply nodded, but Eni could have sworn there was actual eagerness behind his blandly unreadable expression. ”Third floor, Professor?” Corlin asked, ”There's a rather lively debate going on up there about Age of Ascetics semiotics, or so I hear. Or the second?”

”I need to catch up first,” Eni said; although she couldn't deny the attraction of an academic discussion, the Library's second floor was for talking about the news.

”Second floor it is,” Corlin said cheerfully, ”Your drinks will be waiting for you.”

The beaver gave her a formal bow somewhat undercut by a wink, trundling back to his bar while Eni gathered up a few of the peril papers to review. On one there was a crude illustration of a wolf the size of a cottage, his eyes burning with fire, underneath the headline, “The Slayer?” ”I'm sorry,” Eni told Tsar in a low voice, glancing about to make sure she wouldn't be overheard, ”It's not too much, is it?”

While the explanation that he was from the strange and exotic reaches of Aerodan might be enough for others to give him some latitude for his peculiar behavior, it seemed to Eni that it might not be simple indifference to social norms on Tsar's part. She was sure that to him, Corlin's attention had been both unwanted and unpleasant, but he only shrugged. ”You talk,” he said, his voice just as quiet, and he followed Eni to the staircase to the second floor without another word.

The din of the room met Eni's ears before she had ascended so much as the first step, dozens of voices overlapping as patrons discussed and debated the news of the day over their drinks. It was too much to make out individual words, but as they reached the top of the stairs Eni saw that Corlin had been as good as his word.

Spread across the room were a multitude of tables, each with five or six chairs around them, and almost all of them were occupied. Mammals from all walks of life chattered happily, from ones dressed in the simple clothes of laborers to those wearing finely embroidered silk. There was even a crow at one table, his harsh voice somehow friendly as he gestured at the badger sitting across from him.

But at one table there were two empty seats, and atop the tablecloth were two brass plaques; one read ”RESERVED FOR PROFESSOR SIVERETS” and the other ”AND GUEST.” Eni smiled as she saw the place settings; she remembered when she had first been made a professor and the plaque had been waiting for her the very same day. Their drinks were at their spots, the mundane magic of the Library's dumbwaiters doing their job.

Already sitting there were a sheep, a goat, and an otter, all paying attention to a cow seated at the table's head. She had a look of smug anticipation on her face as the others apparently considered whatever she had just said, and as Eni pulled out her chair the sheep spoke. ”They're both tall?” he ventured.

”No, no, you idiot!” the cow said, slopping beer out of her tankard as she shook with suppressed laughter, ”They both come in pints!”

There was a heartbeat's worth of silence before the assembled mammals erupted into howling gales of laughter. ”But I'm being rude to our distinguished guest,” the cow said, grinning widely, ”Pleasure to have you join us, Professor Siverets.”

”Professor Orlioch, from the geology department,” she said by way of introduction, offering one massive hoof for Eni to shake.

She was perhaps forty or so, powerfully built but with a slight paunch, and the cow's grip was quite gentle despite how easily her meaty fingers enveloped Eni's entire paw. When she let go, Orlioch indicated the other mammals at the table in turn. ”Marsellus Telstrom, visiting lecturer on architecture from Renaica's third-rate university,” she said, pointing out the sheep, and he chuckled at the teasingly delivered jibe.

His dark wool was neatly shorn, his horns capped modestly with silver tips, and even if Orlioch hadn't mentioned where he had come from there would have been no mistaking it based simply on the way he dressed.

”That's Professor Yelwyn; she works in the hydrology department,” Orlioch continued, carelessly indicating the slim otter, ”No idea why anyone would study water when rocks are so much more interesting.”

”She doesn't know what she's talking about,” Yelwyn said, shaking her head and hiding a smirk.

The otter had an elegant build that her sleek dress emphasized, and her movements had nearly the same grace as Tsar's. ”And I'm Glennus Kozelen,” the goat cut in, his voice reedy and as pleasant as his charming smile, ”And not only am I capable of introducing myself, Professor Orlioch, but—”

”But you're lucky we let you sit with us, on account of you not being a professor and all,” the cow interrupted, and Kozelen just laughed.

”Administrative services,” he said, smiling, ”I've processed your expense reports before, Professor Siverets. I must say, you're much more careful with the university's funds than some professors I could mention.”

Orlioch's laughter was as husky and booming as her voice. ”You've got me there, Glennus,” she said, miming the act of wiping a tear away from her eye, ”So who's your guest, Professor?”

Eni was painfully aware of everyone's eyes on Tsar, doubtlessly taking in his rather shabby cloak and the way he stared down into his mead instead of looking back at them. ”This is Tsar,” she said, trying for a smile, ”He's an Elrim storyteller.”

There were appreciative murmurs from around the table. ”Does he speak any Circi?” Telstrom asked curiously, ”I'd love to hear more about how the Elrim make their yurts.”

”Yurts?” Orlioch said, shaking her massive head, ”By the Mother, Marsellus, could you pick a more boring topic?”

”What, do you want to ask him about the rocks out east?” the sheep replied dryly.

”He, ah, doesn't speak much Circi, no,” Eni lied awkwardly when Tsar remained silent.

”Shame,” Yelwyn sighed, ”I've forgotten most of the Jarku I learned as a pup.”

”Do Elrim speak Jarku?” she added, giving the wolf an appraising look, ”Or do they have their own language?”

”Yes, to both,” Eni said, and although Tsar hadn't moved an inch she could all but feel the growing irritation coming off him at the meandering conversation.

”We'll have to look forward to your next lecture, then,” Telstrom said, ”I've heard from some of your colleagues in the history department that they're not to be missed. I just hope I'm still in town when the time comes.”

The sheep sighed gloomily. ”My family's been sending letters just about every day, begging me to come back,” he added, staring glumly into his drink.

Eni jumped on the opening in the conversation he had left. ”Because of the murders, you mean?” she asked, and Telstrom nodded.

”I've lived here my whole life and I can't remember anything this bad,” Orlioch said, ”But you're the historian, Professor Siverets.”

”I actually just got back in town today,” Eni said, ”So this is all news to me.”

The other mammals at the table glanced at each other, and Eni was surprised when it wasn't the cow who was first to speak. ”I don't recommend trying to get the truth from those peril papers,” Professor Yelwyn said, the otter's voice so quiet that Eni could barely hear her over the other conversations in the room, ”The Chief Bureaucrat has been… Leaning on them.”

”Censoring them, you mean,” Orlioch said, her voice a low grumble, ”Only covering the murders and not the disappearances.”

”The latter probably leads to the former, let's be honest,” Kozelen said, ”Procerus is just trying to prevent a panic.”

”Procerus,” Eni repeated, ”Chryson Procerus? The Lord Warden?”

Eni had never met the wolverine, but she had seen his name come up here and there over the years; the Lord Warden of Terregor was more or less equivalent to the Chief Magistrate in other cities. It was an important role, but not one that tended to dominate the headlines, and even as Eni cast her mind back she couldn't remember anything particularly notable about him. His public statements had never been particularly eloquent or outrageous, amounting mostly to exhortations for a strong City Guard and calls for swift and fair punishment of criminals. ”That's the one,” Orlioch said, ”Helthford resigned back in Septim.”

Eni nodded slowly; that would have put Procerus's rise to power right around when she had been in Ctesiphon, exactly as the Archivist's letter had suggested. ”In any case, I don't envy Procerus,” Kozelen said, bowing his horned head, ”He's got more soldiers than I've ever seen in my life patrolling the city at night and…”

The goat put his hooves together and then pulled them apart, exposing his empty palms with a flourish. ”Nothing,” he added.

Eni frowned. ”So they're always at night, these murders and disappearances?” she asked slowly.

Orlioch nodded. ”So far, anyway. There's a curfew now, too. If you don't have someone to go with you, you can't be out after seven bells. Groups of three or more recommended.”

The massive cow gestured to take in the others at the table. ”Which is why I've been cultivating so many drinking buddies,” she said, and while she tried for a humorous note Eni could hear the edge of fear.

Telstrom grimaced. ”You'd think if it was someone acting alone, the City Guard would have caught them by now. Or a would-be victim would manage to slip away. But…”

”Just hoaxes,” Yelwyn jumped in, nodding at the stack of peril papers Eni had on the table, ”There was a boar last week who claimed to have escaped from a ripper.”

Eni remembered vividly what Normion had told her as she had entered Terregor, but before she could say anything Yelwyn continued. ”He admitted he made it all up two or three days ago,” the otter said.

”And it's not like there haven't been predators getting killed, either,” Orlioch said, ”Did you hear about that bear last night?”

”A bear?” Eni asked, as the other heads around the table nodded grimly.

”A brown bear, yeah,” Orlioch said, and then took a swig from her beer, ”But I doubt it would have made a difference if it was a polar bear. Something tore him in half.”

”Something,” Yelwyn repeated, ”You still think it's a…”

The professor glanced at Eni a bit nervously, as though afraid that she would laugh in her face, but before the otter could say anything more Orlioch finished her thought for her. ”A monster?” the cow asked, ”Why not? You've read about what happened in Ctesiphon. Tell me it doesn't fit.”

”Oh, come on. In the Circle?” Telstrom protested, ”Rumors. The city's falling apart and someone is making things up. Just like that boar.”

”Where did you say you were coming back from?” Orlioch asked abruptly, turning in her chair to look at Eni, ”You must have at least come through Ghabarahata.”

”I, uh, I was in Ctesiphon,” Eni admitted, trying to think quickly, ”But I don't know about a monster.”

”Mmm,” Orlioch said at the exact moment Telstrom said, ”You see?”

Eni could feel her heart pounding, and she picked up her tankard and took a sip of her cider just to have something to do. It was warm and sweet with just the slightest hint of an alcoholic bite and a richly mellow smoky flavor. But even as her drink seemed to flow through her, Orlioch had another question. ”What about Ghabarahata, then? Some damn funny pieces of news coming out of that city, that's for sure.”

”You think we've got a rajah in the storm drains too?” Kozelen asked, but his tone was dead serious rather than mocking, ”Can rat-kings, you know…”

”Rip mammals in half?” Orlioch finished, ”I don't see why not. You saw the pictures of what the thing they killed in Ghabarahata looked like.”

The cow shuddered. ”It was nearly as big as I am,” she said, and the table fell silent for a moment.

Everyone except Tsar took a sip from their drink; Eni realized that after giving his mead an experimental sniff the wolf hadn't touched it. ”Well, if it is a rajah, I'm sure they'll find it eventually,” Kozelen offered.

“I’m sure the Slayer will take care of it,” Orlioch said, her voice not quite as joking as Eni was sure the cow would have wanted; there almost seemed to be genuine hope in it.

No one at the table laughed; Kozelen’s face grew thoughtful. “I wish I could have seen him myself,” he said, “But how does a twelve foot tall wolf just vanish?”

“If he is the Slayer, you know the answer to that,” Telstrom replied in a hushed tone, “But if he’s not coming here… Well, Procerus will catch it.”

The sheep’s voice had been a touch more skeptical when it came to the wolverine’s abilities compared to the Slayer’s, and Eni resisted the urge to glance at Tsar.

”Soon, I hope,” Yelwyn said fervently, ”We don't need a rajah or whatever that awful thing that crawled out of Wordermund's tomb was.”

Eni did her best to keep her face neutral at the otter's comment, but she was spared having to answer when Orlioch did. ”If that was Skavacar,” the cow said, ”It'd certainly explain why the prudes in Ghabarahata had a rajah to deal with. And us, too, if the damned thing got away.”

”Well, she's the historian,” Telstrom said, pointing at Eni as he looked at her, ”Could there really be a Skavacar?”

Eni didn't mind being put on the spot, considering that it was a question she could freely answer without a single lie. ”Just Skavacar,” she said, effortlessly slipping into her academic voice, ”Not a Skavacar. The Wormtail's not like Wordermund or even Abraxas; there's no proof he ever existed. It's possible there was an Aberrant rodent, in the distant past, who really did fancy himself the Mother's true firstborn, but…”

Eni shrugged. ”It would have been so long ago I wouldn't expect any evidence to survive,” she said simply, ”But I can't imagine him living for thousands of years.”

”Unless he's a ghost,” Telstrom said, ”Maybe Wordermund trapped him in his tomb, and now he's free.”

Orlioch rolled her eyes. ”Always looking on the bright side, are we?” she said, and although it looked as though the sheep was about to reply he didn't get the chance.

A clock gently chimed the time, not overly loud but still quite audible, and across the room mammals at all the tables hastily downed the last of their drinks and finished their meals. ”We ought to be getting back to the university,” Orlioch said, and then turned to Eni and asked, ”Care to walk with us?”

”I think we'll stay a little longer, thanks,” Eni said, and the cow nodded.

The little group said their goodbyes and shuffled down the stairs along with at least half the other mammals that had been on the second floor. Eni waited until they were alone and then leaned across the table to look at Tsar. ”What do you think?” she asked, ”Could there be another rajah?”

”Don't smell one,” Tsar said shortly, ”But there's a lot of water. Easy for scents to wash away. And…”

His head cocked to the side, and behind him his tail wagged slowly from side to side. ”There is something. Very faint, but there.”

”A monster, you mean?” Eni asked, but Tsar's head simply tilted to the side.

”Don't know,” he said, ”Magic always reeks.”

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