Eni and Tsar had walked most of the way to the university's main tower, where the Archivist's office was, in complete silence, but as the last vestiges of Eni's embarrassment faded she couldn't wait to ask her question any longer. She licked at her lips, glancing at her companion; the wolf certainly seemed to have gotten over what he had seen. His face was as stoic and placid as ever, his eyes fixed ahead as he easily kept up with the pace Eni was setting.
”Tsar?” Eni said, and his gaze turned toward her, ”I have a question about mentalism.”
He made a wordless sound of acknowledgement, and Eni spoke slowly, trying to make sure the words came out right. ”If you can see memories,” she said, hoping that Tsar wouldn't think about the bathtub, ”Could you… change them? Erase them?”
Tsar's brow furrowed ever so slightly, his pale eyes locking onto hers. ”Like Idrun?” he asked quietly.
Eni had, in truth, been thinking about what the Lotophagi had shown her, and she hastily waved her paws. ”That's not—” she began to say, fumbling over the apology.
”Good question,” he said before she could get any further, ”Important one.”
His face seemed to cloud over for a moment, and Eni waited patiently, knowing that he was struggling to phrase an answer. He thought it over for the better part of a block, and as they passed underneath the awning in front of a potter's shop he finally spoke again. ”That story you told the faun,” he said, his voice quiet, ”The… Slayer's Six.”
He spoke the name of the group who had accompanied him to slay the Wyvern with a distasteful air, and Eni wondered briefly at what the six wolves had really been like. She didn't have long to dwell on it; Tsar continued speaking after a short pause. ”Story came from a book?” he said, his voice rising at the end to make it a question.
”It did,” Eni said, and Tsar nodded almost absently.
”The passage in that story… Don't remember exactly how it went. 'The Slayer addressed the six warriors.' Something like that,” Tsar said, and although Eni could have easily quoted the section she held her tongue.
Tsar was speaking of the beginning of the tale, when the seven wolves had assembled before heading off to slay the monster and rescue Princess Almara, but when he continued it wasn't to relate the first challenge they had overcome. ”What if you got out your pen, crossed out that 'six,' and wrote, 'five?'” he asked.
Eni stared at him. ”Well, it'd be obvious it was changed,” she said slowly, ”I'd still be able to see what it had been.”
”And if it wasn't?” Tsar challenged, ”If you could replace it so perfectly no one could tell?”
”Then it'd look like a typographical error,” Eni replied, ”It'd still say six every other time it refers to them.”
”And if you changed all of those?” Tsar asked.
”It'd still look like a mistake,” Eni said slowly, ”You could count them, and it'd be obvious how many wolves there actually were. If you wanted to change the story so there were only five…”
She paused for a moment, seeing the words in her head as she considered the possibilities. ”You'd have to edit out entire parts of the story. Get rid of one of the six segments devoted to each of the warriors, but even that wouldn't be enough,” Eni said, ”You'd have to get rid of all their dialog from the other segments, or give it to another character.”
”Would you still be able to tell it changed?” Tsar asked.
”I… Maybe,” Eni said, ”When I was still a student, I proved that the 'complete' copy of In the Lair of the Lupine Lord gifted to the university was a fake.”
Based on the blank look on the wolf's face, Eni was sure Tsar had never heard of the book, so she hastily added, ”It was published about eight hundred years ago, and all that's left now are fragments from nine different copies. The best anyone's been able to do by combining them is about four-fifths of the text, so it was a huge deal when an antiquarian claimed to have found an intact printing.”
”A lie,” Tsar said, and Eni nodded.
”Someone had tried mimicking the author's style. It was a pretty close match, but…” Eni said, trailing off.
”Not a perfect one,” Tsar supplied, his eyes boring into hers, ”You could tell.”
”I could,” Eni said, and the wolf looked away.
They walked in silence for a while, the Terraces of Gorin looming above everything, and Eni thought about In the Lair of the Lupine Lord. The portion of the book invented by the counterfeiter had been a remarkable fake; the style had matched the authentic parts perfectly. In the end, what had given it away was that it was too perfect; it repeated the inventive flourishes and uniquely creative touches of the real chapters without having any of its own. She was wondering what a similarly suspicious memory would feel like when Tsar spoke suddenly. ”Do you understand?” he asked, and Eni sighed.
”I think so,” she said, ”It is possible. You could use mentalism to put an idea into someone's head, or get rid of something that's already there… But it'd be difficult.”
”Very difficult,” Tsar said, nodding, ”I couldn't do it.”
They were approaching the grand main entrance to the university's central tower, and the sound of running water filled Eni's ears. It cascaded down the sides of the terraces in sheets, shimmering and dancing red-orange in the fading light of day, and Eni remembered how awed she had been the first time she had seen the building. There was a sense of grandeur to it, elegant and timeless in a way that made it feel as though the university had always existed.
”Perhaps you could,” Tsar said suddenly, ”No one noticed your forgery.”
Eni winced and glanced around to make sure no one had overheard him talking about the visa she had faked for him; to her immense gratitude there was no one nearby, just a flock of crows out of earshot overhead. When she looked at the wolf, there almost seemed to be a glint to his eye, but it might have just been a trick of the light. A moment later his face looked as though it had been carved out of granite, as hard and solemn as a statue. ”Promise me you won't try to manipulate your own mind,” he said, and his voice carried a steely tone of urgency, ”Promise.”
He didn't warn her of the possible dangers, but Eni didn't need him to say anything. She could have tried scrounging up another punch card if she had made a serious mistake in creating Tsar's fake visa, but if she ruined her mind or Tsar's she doubted it'd be anywhere near as easy to start over. Eni reached out and grabbed his paw with hers, intertwining their fingers. ”Ai-daek en ya'alf,” she said, and the strange Elrim words felt almost natural coming out of her mouth.
Tsar held on for a moment, his paw warm and rough against hers, and then let go. ”Thank you,” he said, his voice quiet and his head so close to hers that his face was all Eni could see.
For an instant, Eni thought he was going to say something else, but then Tsar turned away and looked at the massive doors that led inside the Terraces of Gorin. ”Lead on,” he said simply, and Eni did.
With classes done for the day, the plaza around the building was virtually deserted; under normal circumstances there might have been students aimlessly chatting or wandering the grounds, but there was no one. Clearly everyone was taking the curfew quite seriously; there was even a pair of guards waiting at the door. They were polite and almost apologetic for the hassle, but they still didn't allow Eni and Tsar to pass until Eni had shown her faculty identification and explained her reason for entering. ”Can't be too careful, Professor Siverets,” one of the guards said, respectfully putting a finger to his helmet, ”You have a good night.”
Once inside Eni could almost forget the dire state of Terregor as she took in the familiar sights. The Terraces of Gorin were like a temple dedicated to knowledge, and just like a cathedral the interior was awe-inspiring. The center of the building was hollow, the ceiling so high overhead that it wasn't even visible, and the foundation was sunk so deep into Aerodan that it almost looked as infinite as Eni's mind had been in its metaphorical guise as her apartment.
Massive cantilevered support beams and flying buttresses, each so large that they would dwarf a typical tavern, grew organically from the walls, anchoring not just the building but Terregor itself in place. Nearly half the buildings in the city, Eni knew, were connected to the mammoth substructures of the university tower, which were sturdier and more elaborate than any other. Despite its strength and size, though, the interior of the Terraces wasn't simply a drab expanse of gargantuan stone. It was alive with plant life, a riot of hanging gardens that filled the air with vivid greens and a faintly floral scent, leaving it cool and dry. But even the multitudes of flowers and vines, growing in enormous planters the size of city parks, couldn't overpower the true smell of the building.
It was like an exotic perfume, and Eni breathed in deeply as she looked around, a smile coming to her face. Tsar glanced about, taking in the seemingly endless balconies and doors, and then he turned to Eni expectantly. ”The lift is this way,” she said, beckoning the wolf after her, ”I don't know about you, but I don't feel like walking up thirty flights of stairs.”
He nodded and followed Eni to the small carriage, where a smartly dressed attendant was waiting. ”Professor Siverets!” the ferret cried when he saw her, craning his neck to look up at her face, ”Welcome back!”
”It's good to be back, Relin,” she said, ”How are you?”
The ferret waved a paw airily. ”Oh, you know, operating a lift has its ups and downs,” he said, grinning broadly at his own extremely tired joke, but his smile quickly faded even as Eni groaned good-naturedly.
”The Archivist's been trying to keep things going as usual, but… Well, I'm sure you've heard about what's going on,” Relin said, his face serious under his peaked cap, ”Everyone's complaining about the security, but if you ask me I feel better knowing the City Guard's out in force.”
The little ferret turned to Tsar, who had an advantage of two or three feet and at least sixty pounds, and added, ”Although your friend looks like he can take care of himself. Who's this?”
Eni made her now-familiar lie of introduction, and Relin babbled on excitedly about what he knew about Elrim even as she requested her floor. The ferret eased the lift into motion so smoothly that Eni only felt the slightest dropping sensation in her stomach as the hydraulics went into action, but Relin didn't stop talking all the while. The ground floor grew smaller and smaller through the gaps in the brass grate surrounding the carriage, Tsar seeming to ignore both the view and the monologue of the friendly ferret.
”He's always like that,” Eni said apologetically, once they were off the lift and well out of earshot, ”But Relin never forgets a name or a face.”
”A blessing and a curse,” Tsar replied dryly.
The Archivist's office wasn't at the very top of the tower, as many first-timers assumed, but with the other offices for department heads. Eni could see the glow of lamps coming from underneath a number of the doors they passed, the busy clicking of typewriters filling the air as the professors remained hard at work. As they went around the faculty lounge where a fountain burbled quietly surrounded by lush waterlilies, Eni paused as she caught her reflection staring back at her.
The Cissican Mirror had been the largest mirror in the world when it had first been made, and although New Rushaya claimed to have surpassed it Eni doubted the quality could be any better. The image of herself and Tsar had no distortions whatsoever, reflecting them so finely that it almost looked as though the ornate frame of the gigantic piece of glasswork was a doorway through which their twins were waiting.
Although Tsar was standing so close to her that their shoulders overlapped, he still would have been in the enormous mirror if he had been six feet away. His head was cocked ever so slightly to the side as he considered himself, and Eni wondered if he was impressed. ”It was a gift to the university from Lady Cissica of Vornstrom,” Eni explained, gesturing at the mirror, ”Her descendants still make the lenses in the telescopes the astronomy department uses.”
Tsar was turning his head from side to side, examining how his reflection changed as he did. ”Better than a pond,” he said quietly, ”Sharper.”
”Is… Is this the first time you've seen yourself in a mirror?” Eni asked, and Tsar looked at her reflection to stare her in the eye.
”First time in one so large,” he said, ”Noble ladies had mirrors. Small ones.”
He gestured vaguely, suggesting a circle about six inches in diameter. ”Invited me to see bigger ones in their estates,” he continued, ”In their…”
Tsar paused, seeming to search his memory for the right word. ”Boudoirs,” he said at last.
”Ah,” Eni said, ”So none of them succeeded, then.”
”Until you,” Tsar replied, and there was a certain levity to his face, the stern line of his mouth curling ever so slightly into something that wasn’t quite a smile.
Eni laughed and brushed one paw against her head, combing away the tuft of fur draping down into her eye. ”I'm glad to hear I'm so special,” she said, nudging Tsar playfully with her elbow before she could even think about what she was doing.
She half-expected him to tense up, but his expression didn't change. ”You are,” he said quietly, and Eni could see his tail reflected in the mirror, slowly swaying from side to side.
”Not as much as you are,” Eni said, kicking at the floor, ”It'll be nice, being able to tell the Archivist who you are.”
Tsar's features grew solemn again. ”The Archivist,” he said softly, and Eni nodded.
”Let's keep going,” she said, and she pulled her eyes away from the mirror as she continued down the hall.
Tsar followed without another word, and before long they were at the grandly carved door that led to the Archivist's suite of rooms. Waiting in front of the door, though, were four burly mammals with the unmistakable appearance of guards.
Eni had never heard of any previous Archivist having armed soldiers posted outside their door, let alone her own mentor, and the mammals weren't wearing the uniforms of the City Guard. They wore fine but simple armor without any decorations or insignias, and although their weapons were rather plain they were clearly well-made. Eni could make out voices coming from behind the door, but the Archivist was almost entirely inaudible.
”I've been complying with all your requests, my lord,” the markhor said, his voice weak raspy, ”And I must protest the—”
”I’m in charge. Protest all you like,” a rougher and stronger voice Eni had never heard replied.
The mammal speaking was obviously male, and he spoke slowly, as though he was trying to carefully enunciate each word, but his speech still had an odd affect quite unlike any accent she was familiar with. Before Eni could overhear any more of the conversation, one of the four guards in front of the door stepped forward. ”Halt!” he said sternly, his eyes flashing in warning as he held out one paw palm out, ”Take out your papers. Slowly. And state your business.”
The soldier was a massive wolf; he didn't look any taller than Tsar but he was much broader, his limbs and neck thick with muscle. ”I'm Professor Eni Siverets,” she said, cautiously and carefully pulling her identification free, ”This is Tsar. I'm here to see the Archivist.”
The wolf glared suspiciously, his nostrils flaring as he sized Eni up and down before turning to Tsar with a vaguely contemptuous sneer. Tsar simply stared back at him, his expression unreadable. The guard opened his mouth, clearly about to say something, but then the Archivist's voice came from within his office. ”Eni?” he said, speaking more loudly than he had, ”Is that you out there?”
”It is,” Eni said, speaking a little more loudly, and the wolf in front of the door scowled.
”Please, let her in!” the Archivist said, but the guards didn't budge.
”Do it,” the unfamiliar voice in the office with the Archivist said, and the four soldiers instantly snapped into action, stepping aside as they pulled the doors open.
Eni walked in, Tsar just a step behind her, but she froze as her mentor came into view.
Kurlan Arctus had been old when Eni had first met him, and even then he had shuffled around slowly with the aid of a great and twisting staff that echoed the elegant spiraling curves of his horns. His fur had always been shot through with gray, and if his long beard had ever had any black in it the color was long gone. But despite how thin he had always been underneath his flowing robes of office, and despite how his eyes were sunk deeply into their sockets, the markhor had always had a certain vitality to him. Eni had never seen him show anything less than the enthusiasm and energy of a much younger mammal, his age nothing more than an annoyance that he tolerated rather than something that defined him.
She had never seen him as feeble as he was before her.
A bed had been moved into his office and he lay on it, his back propped up by pillows and his head held upright with obvious effort. His eyes were red-rimmed and his breathing labored, and when he gestured at Eni his movements were weak and slow. ”Come in, come in,” he said softly, ”You'll forgive me if I don't get up.”
He smiled at Eni, and there was a fraction of his usual warmth and kindness in the expression. ”I was just having a conversation with our city's Chief Bureaucrat,” the Archivist added, and with one hoof he indicated the mammal Eni had heard.
She hadn't even noticed Procerus as she had entered the room, but he was standing by the Archivist's bed, his grim features not brightening as he turned to face Eni. Eni hadn’t seen the wolverine in the flesh before, but if anything the woodcuts of him that appeared in the peril papers were flattering. Almost half of his face was a mess of angry scars that had clearly been left by slashing claws, and his left eye was a milky white. One of his scars reached the corner of his mouth, tweaking it upwards in a perpetual sneer. From what Eni recalled he had been attacked by a condemned prisoner trying to escape execution, and from seeing Procerus she could believe that he had dealt with it himself.
The wolverine was lean and muscular underneath his fine clothes, and he carried himself with an easy self-assurance that bordered on arrogance. ”Evening, Professor Siverets,” he said, and Eni realized he spoke so slowly to avoid slurring his words, ”And Mister Tsar, was it?”
”It's an honor to meet you, Lord Warden,” Eni replied, giving Procerus a formal curtsy; she desperately wanted to ask the Archivist what had happened to him, but the last thing she intended to do was cause trouble for the markhor by failing to observe protocol in front of so important a guest.
Even Tsar bowed to the wolverine, clearly following her lead, but he didn't speak a word. ”I can leave if you're still talking with Archivist Arctus,” Eni said, trying to find the right words for the situation, ”I'm sure—”
”No, no,” Procerus interrupted, waving one paw, ”Don't mind me, Professor. What do you have for the Archivist?”
His one living eye, which was a brown so dark it was nearly black, remained focused on her, and Eni resisted the urge to swallow. Behind the wolverine, the Archivist caught Eni's attention and glanced at Tsar, and then shook his head minutely. ”I… ah, I recovered an interesting artifact from the Nazdya River. Here, just a moment,” Eni said, digging through her satchel.
She emerged with a carefully wrapped bundle, pulling away the cloth to reveal the dully gleaming metal. ”It's an astrolabe,” Eni explained as she held it out for the Archivist and the Lord Warden to inspect, ”Nearly four thousand years old, I believe.”
”How remarkable!” the Archivist murmured, his face lighting up.
Usually, interest made the markhor look younger, but as feeble as he was it simply made him look even older and sicklier. ”Fascinating,” Procerus said, his tone completely at odds with the word, ”I'll leave you to discuss it.”
The wolverine headed for the door, brushing past Tsar without a second look at the Aberrant wolf. ”I'll be back tomorrow, Arctus,” Procerus growled, and then he nodded to his guards.
They shut the door and then were off; Eni could hear their footsteps receding away as they doubtlessly headed for the lift. The instant Eni was sure that they were too far away to overhear anything, she turned to her mentor. ”What happened?” she asked, ”Are you alright?”
”Angor of the heart, I'm afraid,” the Archivist said, offering Eni a weak smile, ”An ever-present risk at my age, you see. But enough about my health. Please, let's take a look at the treasures you've brought back.”
His eyes roamed from the astrolabe in Eni's paws to Tsar, studying the wolf. For his part, Tsar seemed to be inspecting the Archivist just as closely; his brow was furrowed and a slight frown crossed his muzzle. ”Are you sure?” Eni pressed, ”Have you seen a doctor?”
The Archivist smiled at her. ”Really, my dear,” he said, ”Do you think I'd be here if a physician hadn't permitted me to resume light work?”
”Yes,” Eni said immediately, and the markhor chuckled ruefully, shaking his head.
”Your point is taken,” he said, nestling his head against his pillows, ”But the worst of it was five days ago and I've been doing everything I'm supposed to do since. Please, come here.”
Eni crossed the remaining space that separated them and hugged him as gently as she could. The old markhor felt nearly insubstantial to her touch as he gently patted her back. ”It is good to see you again, my leveret,” he said as they separated, ”Even if you ignored my warning to avoid Terregor.”
”It seemed like the right decision,” Eni replied, and the Archivist nodded.
”That astrolabe… I suppose you were on the ferry that suffered an unfortunate accident, then?” he asked.
”We were,” Eni said, offering him the ancient mechanism, and he took it carefully, turning it about as he sighed.
”It was a monster,” he said, fiddling with the gears, ”Wasn't it?”
”A Lotophagi,” Eni replied, and the Archivist winced.
”It didn't… hurt you, did it?” he asked carefully.
Eni didn't answer at once, but she didn't need to; the Archivist could clearly read her expression. ”Oh, Eni,” he said, his voice full of sympathy, ”I'm sorry to hear that.”
”Thank you,” Eni said quietly, and she tried to avoid thinking about what she had seen.
The Archivist squeezed her paw gently and then turned to Tsar. ”You slayed it, didn't you?” he asked curiously, ”I see in your cloak where it struck at you, I believe.”
Eni was glad to see that the Archivist's powers of deduction were apparently undiminished, and Tsar nodded slowly. ”Good,” the Archivist said, ”Good. I'd never forgive myself if something happened to Eni.”
The markhor turned his head to look at Eni. ”And he treats you well, I hope? You deserve nothing less than the very best,” he said with a quick wink.
Eni's ears burned suddenly as she realized what he was implying and she revised her assessment of the Archivist's mental faculties. ”We're not a couple,” she blurted, sure that the Archivist had to be even sicker than he let on to make such a wild conclusion, ”We've never— We're not.”
”My apologies,” the Archivist said, gravely inclining his head, ”But it has been many years, has it not?”
A frown crossed his face. ”What was his name?” the Archivist began slowly, ”That hare in the literature department. B—”
Eni interrupted him with a cough, and the old markhor shook his head slightly from side to side. ”Yes, well,” he said, clearing his throat, ”You are sure this wolf is the Slayer?”
His attention had gone back to Tsar, who hadn't looked away from him for an instant. ”I am,” Eni said firmly.
”Then I suppose we have weightier matters to get to than what you do in your free time,” the Archivist said with a sigh, ”Or astrolabes or the stunning manuscript of The Seven Labors you mailed me. Please, tell me everything you've learned.”
”And I'll tell you what I can,” he added, his tired eyes gleaming behind his spectacles.
Eni looked to Tsar, and then she cast her mind back to Ctesiphon and began talking.