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Chapter 46: Three Sheets to the Wind

Updated: Feb 8

”That was… That was very productive,” Eni said as she staggered out of the Wet Drydock.

She was careful to enunciate her words as clearly as she could, but she couldn't tell if Tsar had understood her. The wolf was looking at her in a peculiar way, his expression entirely unreadable. When he didn't say anything, Eni kept speaking as she tried walking down the street in a straight line. ”Now we know the Archivist was poisoned with a… with an Almara.”

Eni frowned. She hadn't gotten the word quite right, and she searched her mind for what felt as though it was on the tip of her tongue. ”With an alkaline,” she said, but that wasn't correct either.

Walking was surprisingly difficult, the cobbled stones underfoot feeling unusually uneven, and Eni could barely concentrate on finding the right word until it at last came to her. ”An alkaloid!” Eni cried triumphantly, raising one arm, and she immediately lost her balance.

The ground started rushing up toward her before her fall suddenly stopped, the world still shifting and swaying around her. ”You're very drunk,” Tsar said, and Eni craned her neck to look up at him. He had caught her by the shoulder, heaving her arm across his back, and he was gently supporting her weight as though it was nothing.

”I don't usually drinked,” Eni replied, looking into his eyes, ”Drank. Drink. Have you ever noticed how funny Circi is? Consummation is easier in Jarku.”

She giggled. ”Conjugation, I mean,” she said, and her voice sounded rather slurred to her own ears.

It was no wonder, really, that she kept saying the wrong words. She had lost count of how many shots she had shared with Professor Lannike somewhere around the sixth. Or maybe the eighth. Eni's memory of the past hour didn't feel very trustworthy, and her eyes widened. ”Tsar!” she said suddenly, a bit louder than she had intended as she clutched at his face with her free paw, ”Tsar, this is important.”

His fur was soft and sleek, warm to the touch as she cradled his muzzle and held his gaze. ”Are you… Are you going to remember what the hippo said?” she asked.

”Yes,” he said quietly.

”Good,” Eni murmured, letting her head fall so she was looking at the ground, ”That's good.”

She had a vague recollection of when they had moved from the tavern to Professor Lannike's apartment immediately above it, where he had a rather impressive little chemistry laboratory taking over his sitting room. He had been extremely enthusiastic about analyzing the traces of poison left on the chalice by that point, but the hippopotamus's words didn't feel as though they had stuck in her mind very well. There had been something about the university. Or timing. Both, maybe. Eni's tongue poked out of her mouth as she tried concentrating, but whatever it was Lannike had said swam out of reach.

Eni gave up trying to think, letting her paw swung limply away from Tsar's face, and she leaned into him as they kept walking along. It had begun to drizzle, the rain refreshing as it hit her face. ”Careful,” she mumbled, ”You're weaving.”

Their advancement along the street was rather unsteady, quite unlike the wolf's usual grace. ”That's you,” Tsar replied.

”Oh,” Eni said, ”Makes sense.”

She stayed quiet for another minute, or perhaps it was five or ten. Time didn't feel as though it was flowing quite right; they passed the familiar memorial to members of the City Guard who had died in the line of duty, but Eni couldn't remember walking up the block that led to it. ”Know where you're going?” she asked.

”Following your directions,” Tsar replied.

”You are?” Eni asked; she couldn't remember giving him any.

Then again, they were only four blocks away from her apartment, so she must have. Eni laughed suddenly as a thought crossed her mind. ”Can't smell a lie like you can,” she said.

”Don't think you're lying,” she added hastily, and she reached over and awkwardly patted Tsar's head with the paw not slung around his shoulder, ”You're good.”

He didn't say anything, and Eni smiled as she stared out into the canal. The water was peaceful under the night sky, the stars and moon rippling serenely as they were reflected. ”But it's gotta mean more, right? When someone says something, and you know it's true?”

”Yes,” Tsar replied, so quietly that Eni could barely hear the word.

”I… I wish I could tell. Sometimes… The cold… I want this to be real,” Eni said, her own voice a low whisper.

”It is,” Tsar said.

Eni smiled, placing one paw on his chest and circling it around until she could feel the steady rhythm of his heart. ”I… I trust you, Tsar,” she murmured, ”A lot. Just want you to know that.”

Tsar glanced about, but the street was empty except for them. ”You should be careful,” he said, but Eni just giggled.

He was acting as though a monster would somehow burst through one of the shuttered shop windows or leap out of the canal, his concern so serious it was undeniably comical. ”Right,” she said, smiling, ”Won't drink so much again.”

”It's dangerous,” Tsar replied, and Eni's smile wilted.

”Is that why you never drink?” she asked timidly, ”Not the mead… Not the whisky… Not even wine.”

Professor Lannike had offered him the bottle several times, Eni suddenly remembered, but the wolf had always demurred. She dimly thought Tsar had claimed to be on duty as her bodyguard, or something along those lines, but the hippopotamus hadn't seemed particularly put out. Or maybe he had been, and she just hadn't been able to see it.

Tsar was silent for a moment, and Eni could feel her eyes growing watery. She was suddenly sure she had horribly offended him, but before she could blurt out an apology he spoke. ”I… I came close. To… decisions I'd regret,” he said, speaking slowly and even more awkwardly than usual, ”Easier not to drink.”

Eni nodded sagely, and for a brief instant it felt as though gravity had reversed itself as her head spun. Tsar looked noble and somehow sad, his fine features put in sharp relief by the light of a streetlamp, and her heart suddenly ached for him. It just wasn't fair, for someone to sacrifice so much for so long and yet have so little to show for it. ”C'mere, lemme tell you a little secret,” she said, whispering conspiratorially, and Tsar obliged by bringing his head down until one of his ears was against her mouth.

”Alcohol don't taste very good,” Eni murmured, his fur tickling her mouth, and Tsar cocked his head to the side and stared at her.

He suddenly turned his head away as she broke into a fit of giggles, but Eni thought that maybe, just maybe, there might have been another voice laughing along with her for an instant. Or perhaps not; when he looked back at her his expression was as sober as ever. The idea sent Eni into another fit of giggles that only worsened in the face of how serious he looked.

Eni tried to get a hold of herself, but she couldn't; she was laughing so hard that tears were welling up and her stomach started hurting. ”Tsar!” she said, struggling to speak, ”Tsar! We gotta stop. I need this alley.”

Over the pain in her belly she could feel an unwelcome pressure starting to build, and her apartment was suddenly too far away. The wolf came to a halt, holding Eni upright as she gestured emphatically down a narrow side street, her laughter forgotten. ”For what?” Tsar asked.

Eni crossed her legs. ”I need it,” she said, and his eyes widened marginally.

”You'll fall over,” he said, ”Just hold on.”

With effortless strength Tsar scooped her up, lifting Eni's feet off the ground and cradling her close against his chest. He began sprinting down the road, the buildings on either side blurring past. Eni clutched at his neck and squeezed her legs together even more tightly. The wolf was incredibly fast, but the way Eni bounced up and down with each and every one of his strides wasn't helping and she gritted her teeth together.

The next thing she knew she was fumbling through her keys, trying to get the right one for the front door of her apartment building, but her fingers were slow and clumsy and the pressure in her bladder was only getting more distracting. Tsar snatched the keys away with one paw, hurriedly finding the correct one and throwing the door open with a loud bang that probably woke up half the building.

Eni was beyond caring, and even as Tsar kept her close to his chest with one arm he was selecting the key to her apartment from the ring. Maybe he could smell which one it was, or maybe he just remembered what it looked like, but he got the door open on his first try and hurried up the stairs, depositing her in the lavatory and then closing himself outside it.

When Eni had finished her business, it took two or three tries to get the door open again; the knob seemed to jump away from her touch. She hadn't made a mess of either the lavatory or herself, though, which at the moment felt like quite the victory. Even with the support of the wall, staying upright was surprisingly difficult, and Eni's eyelids had never felt heavier. ”Tsar?” she mumbled, the word stifled by a yawn.

He appeared out of the shadows filling her apartment, at first only the piercing blue of his eyes visible. It was hard to tell where his body ended and the night began, the two blurring together into something vast and unknowable. ”I'm tired,” Eni said, as the arms of the phantasm slowly pulled her away from the wall.

”Sleep,” Tsar replied, and his voice seemed to come from everywhere, ”Talk in the morning.”

Eni's eyes closed and she leaned against him. She felt as though she was floating as delicately as a dandelion seed caught on the wind, peacefully drifting along without an ounce of effort. ”Tsar?” she said, her voice small; there was something else she meant to say, something that felt important, but as she tried grasping for it sleep claimed her.

Eni groaned.

There was a terrible throbbing in her head, centered right behind her eyes, and her throat felt as parched as the Demosthene Desert. She sat up and every single one of her muscles complained as she took stock of her surroundings. She had somehow ended up in her own bed, and when she threw her sheets aside she was almost fully clothed. Only the armored panels from her trousers and her belts were missing, her memory too hazy to recall taking them off. When Eni glanced to the side of her bed, she saw the metal plates neatly stacked and the lengths of tough sharkskin carefully coiled, and she supposed Tsar must have done so.

Eni stood up gingerly, and for an instant it felt as though an icepick was being rammed through her skull. Even as she gasped with pain, the worst of it disappeared, settling down to a dull ache. She touched her head carefully, relieved that it didn't feel twice its normal size, and then brushed an untidy lock of fur out of her eye. She glanced around her bedroom, which looked the same as ever without a sign of Tsar, and stretched her arms over her head.

Her joints popped and cracked in a supremely satisfying manner, and when she bent over to pick up her belts she didn't feel overly stiff. Her fingers seemed to have lost their clumsiness of the previous night, and when she re-threaded the belt loops of her trousers she was able to do it without a single mistake. As Eni connected the armor plates back together, she tried to piece together more of what had happened, but her memory was frustratingly incomplete.

She supposed she'd have to simply rely on Tsar, and she crept down the stairs, trying to stay quiet just in case he was still asleep. All of the curtains in the windows were tightly drawn, but from the quality of the light peeking around their edges she thought it had to still be rather early.

When she got to the second level, she saw that she didn't need to have bothered; Tsar was seated at the table in her cozy kitchen, a teapot with two mugs in front of him. ”Good morning,” Eni said, as the wolf wordlessly poured tea and offered it to her, ”I… Ah…”

She felt her ears flush as she accepted the drink. ”I hope I didn't embarrass myself too badly,” she said apologetically, kicking at the floor with one foot, ”I never drink that much.”

”You mentioned that,” Tsar said, a peculiar lightness to his words, ”And you didn't.”

He wasn't acting any differently than he usually did, and Eni was supremely grateful for that. She took a seat across from him, cupping her mug in both paws and letting its warmth seep into her. ”What do you remember?” Tsar asked, and Eni frowned.

”Not much,” she admitted, ”We met up with Professor Lannike… He insisted I drink with him… We went to his personal laboratory, in his apartment over the tavern… He gave me some alcohol he distilled himself, I think?”

Tsar nodded, and Eni continued. ”I don't really remember what he said when he analyzed the goblet. The poison was an alkaloid, right?”

Tsar nodded again. ”That's about it,” Eni said, shrugging her shoulders.

”The hippo was a good chemist,” the wolf said quietly, ”Not as good as Rongen. Braggart.”

His expression became mildly distasteful, and Eni wondered if she should be glad not to recall what the professor had prattled on about. Tsar pulled a scrap of paper from inside his cloak and put it on the table, pushing it across to Eni. ”You wrote it down,” he said.

Eni picked up the slip and stared at it; she couldn't remember having recorded anything but the writing was obviously hers. Or at least, it vaguely resembled her usual writing. The characters were uneven and lopsided, and she could barely read what it said.

Poison is rare alkaloid. Sny Synth Made by expert chemist. Good equipment. University lab 27? Prob from a fish extra. Decays rapidly. Didn't get full does or was left too long?

”I couldn't read it,” Tsar said, and Eni winced.

”I'm not surprised,” she admitted, ”It's… Not very well written. Why'd I give it to you, anyway?”

”You said you were afraid you'd lose it,” Tsar said, taking a sip of his tea, and considering that Eni hadn't even remembered making the note she supposed her drunken thinking hadn't been too far off the mark.

”Right,” she said, ”Well, this is all really good information. Whoever we're looking for is an expert chemist with access to exotic ingredients and expensive tools. Likely someone working at the Terraces of Gorin.”

Eni sighed. ”Which means the Archons have worked their way into the university itself, then. Poisons do seem to be their favorite way of doing their dirty work, don't they?”

She held up one paw and counted off on her fingers. ”The Blight in Ctesiphon, the coating on that dagger thrown at Aza, whatever caused the apoplexy in Chryson's predecessor, and this alkaloid used on the Archivist. All totally different, but still poison.”

”'Poison, like wine, achieves its most exquisite vintage in the courts of power,'” Tsar said, and Eni blinked at him.

”You know An Elegy for King Sarvis?” Eni asked, amazed that he could quote such an obscure text.

”You said it last night,” Tsar said, and he paused for a moment.

”You talk more when you're drunk,” he added, ”And your Nihian accent comes out.”

Eni cleared her throat; she had the distinct impression that the wolf was teasing her, although his tone was quite gravely serious. ”Ah,” she said, ”Well, it's true, isn't it? The Archons clearly have expert chemists.”

”Not good enough for the most recent two,” Tsar countered, but Eni shook her head.

”I'm not sure either Helthford or the Archivist were supposed to die, now that I think about it,” Eni said slowly, staring down into her tea, ”It's a bit more obvious that someone's been poisoned if they die suddenly. But the Archons got what they wanted, even without murder. Helthford stepped down and the Archivist was incapacitated long enough for them to get everything they need to control the library.”

”Two is suspicious,” Tsar said, and Eni gestured to concede the point.

”That's true,” she said, ”I suppose they're getting desperate, though. Especially if the Woemaker is around to demand results.”

Eni shuddered; she didn't want to think about the cruel measures the leopardess might go to in order to get what she wanted. ”Did you learn anything else from Lannike?” Eni asked, ”Was he telling the truth?”

She could vaguely remember talking about the matter of divining the truth with Tsar, but the specifics escaped her. The wolf shifted ever so slightly in his seat before he answered. ”He didn't lie,” Tsar said quietly, ”No more than usual.”

”What about this note about laboratory twenty-seven?” Eni asked, tapping the scrap of paper, ”Why'd he bring it up?”

Eni knew very well that the Terraces of Gorin contained far more than just the university's main book collection and offices. It was practically a miniature city; besides the classrooms and lecture halls there were even shops and apartments that would have been quite tempting if Eni spent less time on the road. But there were also laboratories, dozens of them, covering every conceivable topic which might require specialized tools. The history department alone had four massive rooms filled with the equipment needed to preserve and restore artifacts, and Eni couldn't even guess at how many laboratories the chemistry department had.

She guessed that laboratory twenty-seven was one of them, and she watched Tsar as he considered the question. ”Said it was his bet for where the alkaloid could be made,” the wolf replied.

”That's a wonderful lead!” Eni said, and the pain in her head felt as though it was diminishing as her excitement grew, ”We have to go there and talk to the researchers who use it.”

Tsar paused for a moment, idly running one finger around the rim of his mug. ”Something you ought to see,” he said at last, and he unfolded himself from his chair and beckoned Eni after him.

She curiously followed him down the stairs to the first floor of her apartment, wondering what he could possibly have to show her. As she reached the last step, she suddenly saw it, and her eyes widened in horror and her paw grabbed the railing so hard that it hurt.

There was a corpse in her study.

The body was small; if the hedgehog had been standing she would have been shorter than either of Eni's parents. The deceased mammal was indisputably an adult, flecks of gray in her fur, and she was dressed in a peculiar outfit. Her smock and trousers were thick and roughly made out of layers of fish leather in a manner so bizarre that it didn't seem possible anyone could find the look fashionable. The hedgehog looked to be in her late thirties, her face heavy with the beginning of jowls that would never have the chance to develop to their full potential, and her muzzle was twisted into a grotesque expression of agony.

It was immediately obvious what had killed her; her body and clothes were crisscrossed with jagged burns that split apart like the branches of a tree. Eni could faintly smell the corpse, which had an awful charred scent to it, and her mouth dropped open as her stomach heaved. ”What…” Eni began, and then an awful possibility came to her.

”Did I… Did I kill her with my magic?” she demanded, whirling on Tsar and desperately grabbing at his shirt, ”When I was drunk, did I…”

Her tongue was thick in her mouth and the words stopped coming out, but Eni had to know. She stared into Tsar's face, silently begging him to absolve her, and the wolf gently grabbed her paws and pulled them away. ”No,” he said, looking her in the eyes but not letting go, ”You didn't do this. I didn't either.”

Eni's relief was so great that if Tsar hadn't been holding on she would have fallen to her knees. ”That's…” Eni said, ”That's…”

”I know,” Tsar said quietly, ”I'm sorry. I should have known…”

He trailed off, his face seeming to cloud over, and Eni knew what he meant. If anyone could understand the horror of losing control and murdering an innocent, it was him. ”No, no,” Eni said, ”This is… This is all still new to you too. Having a student, I mean.”

”It is,” Tsar said, and he held Eni's gaze a moment longer before he let go of her paws and gestured at the hedgehog's corpse lying flat on the floor.

”While you were asleep, I went to the laboratory,” he said, and seeming to anticipate Eni's question he added, ”Can't read very well, but I know numbers. The hippo gave directions, too.”

”So what happened?” Eni asked.

”I smelled burning flesh,” he said, ”Opened the door, and there she was.”

”Took her back,” he continued, rather unnecessarily, and Eni frowned.

Her shock at seeing the body was fading, and knowing that neither she nor Tsar was responsible helped her consider the matter more objectively. ”So why did the Archons kill her?” Eni asked, and then she looked at the bizarre burns covering the hedgehog, ”And how?”

”I told you,” Tsar said, ”City reeks of magic.”

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