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Chapter 50: At the Altar of Ice



”Impossible,” Tsar said flatly, and Eni raised her paws.

”I don't think it was actually the Mother,” she said, ”But…”

The Archivist was looking at Eni as though he could see through her, his kindly eyes sharp behind his spectacles. ”But this Visitor… She was with child, wasn’t she?” he asked.

Tsar's expression changed in a way Eni didn't recognize; Eni thought she could read surprise on his face but it was mixed with something else. ”She was,” Eni said, nodding her head.

It was perhaps the one factor that was nearly constant across every religion that worshiped the Mother. No matter whether the goddess was depicted as the Veiled Lady with her face hidden or as a recognizable member of a particular species, her belly was always gravid with the promise of new life, and Eni's eyes widened as she remembered another detail.

”The last thing she said… It was just the same as the Archons,” Eni said, nearly fumbling over her words in her haste to speak, ”’It is promised.’ She told me my time would come.”

Tsar glanced away, and Eni was forcefully reminded of what Rongen had told her about the wolf's attitude toward mages having children. ”We can speculate endlessly, Eni,” the Archivist said, quite gently, ”Whoever this… Visitor was, it seems likely that she at least wanted you to believe she was the Mother. She may have wanted to warn you, perhaps.”

”Perhaps,” Eni echoed, sighing as she stopped her pacing and took a seat on the bed, ”I just don't think it was the Woemaker. It doesn't… It doesn't feel like something she'd do.”

“Ah, our lovely leopardess,” the Archivist said, letting out a long breath that ended in a weak cough, his arms trembling with exhaustion and his shoulders stooped. 

”There was a time I would have thought myself perfectly capable of judging what Lieren Astrasa could do,” he said, and Tsar's attention was instantly on him.

”You know her?” he asked.

”As I know every pupil who studies here,” the Archivist replied, gesturing vaguely to take in the Terraces of Gorin, ”Before she earned her sobriquet and became known and feared as the Woemaker, she was a model student. Quite brilliant, in fact, and rather modest. Never any trouble, as I recall. When she graduatedonly a year before your own arrivalshe returned to the League and enlisted in their military immediately. And from there…”

The old markhor offered Eni a bitter smile as he trailed off. ”I believe someone's being played for a fool,” he said, ”Her studies in Terregor must not have been limited to what the university's curriculum could teach.”

”It's not your fault,” Eni said softly, ”Plenty of nobles in the League send their children here.”

It occurred to Eni that she didn't know whether or not Astrasa was of noble birth, but from the leopardess's haughty bearing it seemed more than a little likely. ”How could you have known what she'd become?” Eni asked, and the Archivist sank back in his chair.

”I pride myself on my foresight, Eni,” her mentor replied, ”But I suppose the future isn't written in stone.”

”It's not,” Tsar said quietly, and there was a strange gleam to his eyes as he considered the Archivist, ”Warning. Message. Doesn't matter.”

”Mister Tsar is quite right,” the Archivist said, sitting up a little straighter, ”Hypothesizing is unlikely to be of any help.”

”I suppose not,” Eni said, reluctantly trying to push her vision aside.

The implications were too enormous to ignore; if Wordermund really had seen someone he believed to be the Mother herself, it gave a tantalizing clue as to the truth about the legends that swirled around the lion. ”Right now, we have one of the three items you said the Archons would need to try translating Derkomai,” Eni said, doing her best to maintain an academic tone as she addressed her old mentor, ”Where are the other two?”

”The other half of Wordermund's lexicon is hidden in Gorin's Crypt,” the Archivist said, and Eni frowned.

”Gorin's Crypt?” she repeated, ”I've never heard of it.”

”A fact that would please Archivist Gorin, no doubt,” the markhor said, and despite how feeble his words were Eni could hear the good humor in his voice, ”When Ulmior founded the university… Well, perhaps you can explain for Mister Tsar.”

The Archivist looked rather out of breath, and Eni tried picking up the thread of his explanation, even though she had no idea what point he was trying to make. ”Archivist Ulmior founded Linrathrous and its university, but he didn't start from nothing,” Eni said, ”The only thing he built from scratch was Ulmior's Vault, out past the lake, so there'd be a safe place to house his collection while the restoration was ongoing.”

”Restoration?” Tsar asked; Eni had expected him to sound bored, but the wolf seemed interested in what she had to say.

”Of Minri,” Eni replied, nodding, ”The fortress city that used to be here before Terregor. In Ulmior's day, it was nothing more than ruins from the Age of Anarchy, and the Terraces of Gorin were just a half-sunken foundation full of water and debris. Ulmior rebuilt some of the original outbuildings, but he died before he could get very far. His protégé, Ogastra Gorin, became the second Archivist. His research led him to find the original plans for Minri, and he paid for the restoration.”

”Resulting in the Terraces of Gorin,” the Archivist said, ”Although he wasn't pleased to have the tower named after him. He found it rather immodest, but once something is given a name it can be rather hard to lose it.”

Tsar didn't reply, and the Archivist continued speaking. ”Gorin realized that the university was faced with quite a dilemma, you see. Although he, too, died before his vision could come to fruition, he knew what the Terraces of Gorin would become once complete. The very same thing that Ulmior's Vault already were, as a matter of fact.”

The Archivist paused, and from how he looked at Tsar Eni knew he was waiting for the wolf to answer rather than catching his breath. ”A target,” Tsar said, and the markhor smiled.

”Very good, Mister Tsar,” the Archivist said, ”Yes, a target indeed. The library and the vault were designed to resist every imaginable threat the natural world could throw their way, from fire to flooding. But Gorin recognized that the greatest danger to many antiquities is one of the most basic: thieves. He therefore built a crypt that no one but future Archivists would know about, a place where the most valuable items could be protected by the simple fact that a mammal cannot steal something if he doesn't know where it is.”

The old markhor looked winded from talking for so long, but he pushed himself on. ”To that end, Archivists are not supposed to make a habit of visiting it or using it frivolously, lest the secret becomes known. I myself haven't entered the crypt in nearly thirty years, but its index is here.”

He tapped the side of his head with two fingers, and Eni knew he wasn't boasting idly. His recall of every item in the university's collection was legendary; Eni had never seen him stumped when asked where something was located. ”Where's the entrance?” Tsar asked, his voice quite business-like.

”Through my sleeping chambers,” the markhor replied, ”But—”

”Can we get there with these tunnels?” Tsar interrupted, gesturing at the trapdoor on the floor of Tylinora's study.

”Well, yes—”

”Tell me how,” Tsar demanded, but the Archivist shook his head.

”It's not quite so simple, I'm afraid,” he said, ”You need the key.”

To Eni, it almost looked as though Tsar was smiling, although the edges of his mouth didn't curve upwards even slightly. ”I don't,” he said simply, and Eni jumped in.

”He's probably right,” she said; she had never seen a lock pose more than a mild inconvenience to the wolf.

The Archivist looked doubtful, stroking at his long beard for a moment. ”I suppose there's no harm in trying,” he said at last, ”Especially compared to the alternative.”

”Why?” Eni asked, ”Who has the key?”

Somehow, from nothing more than the way the markhor paused before replying, she knew what the answer was going to be before he said it.

”Lieren Astrasa,” the Archivist said heavily, ”She took all of my keys when she and Procerus came to see me during my convalescence.”

Tsar exchanged a look with Eni before glancing back at the Archivist. ”Did you tell her about the crypt?” he asked, his nostrils flaring and his eyes hard, and the Archivist looked gravely insulted by the implication.

”Tsar,” Eni said gently but firmly, placing an arm on the wolf's shoulder, ”The university has thousands of students. I doubt the Archivist spoke more than a dozen words to Astrasa while she was studying here.”

She smiled at him, and Tsar looked down at her paw. She could feel his heart pulsing, slowly and steadily, and she brought her fingers away as he watched. Tsar made a wordless sound that could have meant anything, but when he stared back to the Archivist his gaze had softened slightly.

”I have never spoken to Miss Astrasa about the location of Gorin's Crypt,” the markhor said, and Tsar considered him a moment before nodding sharply.

Eni supposed that was about as close as Tsar would come to apologizing, but her mentor didn't look as though he was holding Tsar's suspicion against him. The Archivist's features were placid but tired, his breathing still labored as he looked at her. ”The Woemaker might still figure it out,” Eni said, her stomach squirming with fear as she imagined the cruel leopardess beating them to the crypt, ”Especially if she has the key.”

The Archivist smiled, and Eni could feel a little of the tension left in the room drain out. ”Perhaps,” the markhor said, ”But what better place to hide a key than among other keys? The keyring she confiscated was rather sizable, and all of the keys on it look much the same.”

”Could have Archons trying every single key,” Tsar said bluntly, ignoring the Archivist's optimism, but Eni frowned.

”Maybe she doesn't trust Procerus or any of his collaborators,” she said, and Tsar cocked his head thoughtfully to one side.

”Perhaps,” he said, and then he looked expectantly at the Archivist, clearly waiting for directions to his office.

”I'm afraid I shall have to ask for assistance once more,” the old markhor said wearily, and Tsar helped him to his feet quite delicately.

Eni gathered herself together and pulled the trapdoor open, exposing a few steps before the staircase down was swallowed by inky darkness. The unlit passage smelled musty and slightly damp, unlike any other part of the Terraces of Gorin, and when Tsar pulled a lamp off the wall to illuminate their way Eni saw the stone passageway was rather crudely carved. Tsar began his descent, the Archivist leaning into him, and Eni followed.

The view was rather unremarkable at first; it was simply a narrow and spiraling staircase, the light of Tsar's lamp catching cobwebs here and there. After several minutes of travel, the Archivist wheezing all the while, they reached the first landing, where a number of passages split off. The stairs kept going down, but there were also three curving corridors that led away. The Archivist feebly gestured toward the middle one, and Eni winced.

The walls were so close together that Eni could tell that Tsar's shoulders were too broad to pass through, and the ceiling was so low that the Archivist's horns would scrape. It was, as she had expected it would be, slow going to make their way along the corridor, all of them having to turn sideways. The Archivist went first, holding his head at an awkward angle and clutching at his staff with his leading arm while using his trailing one to cling to Tsar's paw, and Eni went last.

The stone was cold where it pressed against her, as though it was trying to steal her warmth, but after what felt like hours they emerged into a much wider junction. ”The… second from… the left,” the Archivist gasped, his arm trembling as he pointed, ”And then… up the stairs.”

Eni was sure that he would have collapsed if Tsar hadn't been supporting him; his ears were flushed with exertion and she could hear his heart pounding much too quickly in his chest. ”Do you need to rest?” she asked, reaching out and squeezing his hoof gently.

The Archivist's fingers felt as brittle as dry twigs in her paw, but he took a deep and steadying breath and shook his head slowly. Tsar wordlessly scooped up the old markhor, cradling him in his arms and holding the lantern aloft with his tail. Compared to the way they had just come, the passage they had entered was mercifully wider, and Tsar carried the Archivist as though he weighed nothing as he silently padded along. The wolf's breathing remained perfectly steady, even once they reached the next set of stairs and began climbing.

The steps seemed nearly endless, and Eni's legs began to burn with the effort of keeping up with Tsar's pace. Her vision throbbed at the edges as she pushed herself to stay right on his tail and in the narrow circle of illumination that his lamp provided. Besides the wolf's back, there wasn't much to see; the stairs spiraled around a vast cylindrical gap with a sturdy railing of carved granite to keep them from falling in, but there wasn't anything in the way of decoration. Eni found herself wishing desperately for a lift as she began to pant for air, and as though he had read her thoughts the Archivist spoke.

”I'm sorry,” he said, his tone quite apologetic as he looked over Tsar's shoulder to lock eyes with Eni, ”The lift has been out of service for the past five hundred years.”

”I'll be fine,” Eni gasped, waving his concern away; she supposed that over the past few centuries there hadn't been an Archivist willing to share the secret of Tylinora's passageways with someone qualified to repair hydraulics.

Nevertheless, Eni was quite grateful when they finally reached the top of the staircase, putting her palms on her knees as she doubled over and caught her breath. They were in front of a rather peculiar-looking door; it was made out of a single slab of stone that had been carved in such a way that it looked like an enormous and complicated piece of a puzzle. Eni supposed that its outline blended with the blocks on the inside of the Archivist's office, and when Tsar cautiously pushed the door open Eni saw that she was right.

The actual opening was hidden by the tapestry behind the Archivist's chair at his desk, but even if the elegantly embroidered fabric hadn't been there Eni doubted she would have noticed it. When Tsar closed the door behind them, its seams vanished almost completely, the wall it was in looking no different than any of the others. Eni had never visited the Archivist's private bedroom before, but as she glanced around she thought it suited him perfectly.

The modestly sized desk was perfectly organized, a typewriter positioned in the middle next to a few slim folders, and the matching chair looked quite comfortable. A large bed, draped with gauzy shades, dominated the center of the room, the mattress under the neatly made sheets looking soft and inviting. A nightstand stood at the side of the bed, a number of thick books with ribbons protruding from between their pages neatly stacked atop it next to a small bottle of a sleeping draught. An antique sextant and a globe so old that it didn't even show the League stood proudly on display beneath one of the massive windows that gave the cozy room an airy feeling. Being able to see outside was a welcome relief after the dark passages, and Eni took in the golden pink glow of a coming sunrise over the horizon.

As she watched it occurred to her that she must have been unconscious for several hours after touching Wordermund's book, and the feeling of lost time was as unsettling as it always was, her stomach churning uneasily. She only managed to tear her gaze away from the peaceful view of Terregor in the early morning when the Archivist spoke, and she nearly jumped at the word.

”There,” he said, and as Eni turned she saw he was gesturing at a fireplace that stood on the wall opposite the desk.

It had a mantle of elegantly carved wood, depicting a series of open books intertwined with flowering vines, but as Eni got closer she saw no obvious keyhole. There was no fire in the grate, just the ashes of the last one to have burned, and the Archivist hobbled over with Tsar's help. The old markhor reached into the fireplace, feeling around with one gnarled hoof, and Eni could hear his fingers scrabbling around for something before there was a low metallic click.

”You said there was a key,” Eni said, and her mentor inclined his head.

”It's hidden twice,” he said simply, and he gestured for Tsar to grab a piece of the mantle and pull.

When the wolf did so, the entire fireplace swung smoothly open, its hinges hidden as cunningly as the door they had entered through. Behind it was yet another spiraling staircase, and Eni resigned herself to even more steps.

Mercifully, the staircase went down rather than up, and it was pleasantly wide. Tsar had no difficulty carrying the Archivist again as they descended, the stairs continuing for so long that Eni was sure they ended up far below Tylinora's hidden study. When at last they came to a stop, Eni clutching at a stitch in her side, it was in a small and rather unremarkable room.

It was about half the size of the top floor of Eni's apartment, with a low ceiling of carved stone, and it was mostly full of dusty racks of wine bottles. A few wooden casks stood scattered about the room, and there were three wooden crates stacked neatly against one wall. Eni turned in a slow circle, looking about, but to her eye it seemed like nothing more than a neglected wine cellar. It certainly seemed to her like a reasonable place to conceal a hidden door; most mammals would likely assume they had already found the secret and give up looking.

Tsar, however, was moving toward the far wall as though it was pulling him closer. He set the Archivist aside with a sort of careless absent-mindedness quite unlike his usual grace, and then began running his paws carefully along the wall before freezing suddenly. ”Tsar?” Eni called quietly, but he didn't answer.

Eni approached him, straining her eyes in the dim lantern light, and then she saw what he had his fingers on. The wall was rough-hewn granite, chisel marks standing out against the dull gray, but here and there were glittering bits of rose quartz. Tsar was touching the largest inclusion, which was nearly the size of Eni's fist and faceted into a squat four-sided pyramid.

As Eni got closer, her fur suddenly stood on end, and she could hear something.

It wasn't a voice, exactly, but it wasn't just a sound either. There were no words, but there was a pattern to it, something that danced out of reach like something spoken in a foreign language. And then Eni realized what she was hearing and she jerked back. 

It was the sound of a mournful wind howling across a vast and snowy abyss.

”Tsar?” Eni whispered, her mouth suddenly dry, and the wolf abruptly pulled his head back, shaking it vigorously, before looking at the Archivist.

”Didn't say it was magic,” he said bluntly, and the markhor considered him for a moment, leaning heavily against his staff.

”I did not,” the Archivist said mildly, ”You did claim, however, not to require a key.”

”We do,” Tsar replied, his ears flicking back, and Eni felt a frown crossing her face.

”Why didn't you mention it was a magical key?” Eni asked, and her mentor sighed as he wearily sat down on one of the crates.

”The Slayer of the past would not be stopped by something so trivial,” the markhor said, looking at Tsar, ”Surely, to a mage strong enough to slay a wyvern, a key would be a feeble trick overcome with the same ease as any physical lock.”

The Archivist's voice had taken on a steely tone, his eyes flashing behind his spectacles as he stared down Tsar. Even as weak as he was, his every breath raspy and weak, Eni got a sense of his old energy, and as the wolf remained silent he kept speaking. ”Generations of Archivists, most of whom lacked even the slightest spark of magic, have been more than capable of using that key. Its power must be paltry compared to that of the one who mastered forces beyond mortal reckoning, who remade Aerodan through sheer strength of will. So I ask you, Mister Tsar, where has that strength gone?”

The old markhor's voice had grown louder and louder as he spoke, and he practically shouted his last question, the words ringing in the still air of the cellar. Tsar's face was a perfect mask as he stared back, utterly without emotion, and he answered just as blandly. 

”Too dangerous,” he said, and the Archivist seemed almost to deflate on himself.

There was a long and awkward pause as the two mammals considered each other, and then at last the Archivist spoke. ”Forgive me,” he said at last, his voice full of a quiet dignity, ”I had hoped to see the Slayer in his element once more.”

Eni hesitated a moment, and then she pulled her glove off her right paw and flexed her fingers. Tsar and the Archivist turned to her curiously, but she ignored them, shuffling forward as she reached out for the wall. 

”Eni?” Tsar asked, and when Eni glanced back at him she saw his arm reaching out for her and yet not quite touching.

Their eyes met and he pulled back, giving her a slight nod.

Eni turned back toward the wall, squeezing her eyes shut as she tried to blot out the crypt. She blindly groped for the lump of quartz, and when her fingers met it she was overwhelmed by how it felt.

Cold.

It was all around her, the wind cutting through her like knives as snow pelted her head.

Always cold.

There were no landmarks, just an endless expanse of blank whiteness beneath an empty sky.

The trail is—

Eni pulled her paw back, clutching at it as she cried out in alarm. She shivered suddenly, and it had nothing to do with the temperature in the crypt. ”I… I can't,” she said, shaking her head forcefully to clear it, ”I'm… I'm not strong enough.”

Tsar looked at her, staring at her paw, and when Eni couldn't make her fingers stop trembling she clenched them into a fist and dropped her arm to her side. ”We… We're going to need the key,” Eni said, desperately attempting to keep her voice even as she addressed the Archivist, ”Are you… Are you sure Astrasa has it?”

The Archivist accepted the change in topic quite gracefully, running his fingers through his beard as he considered the matter. ”Although she was the one to take the keys, the responsibility for their care is one that the Lord Warden took on,” the markhor said, ”More likely than not, they shall be in his office.”

”Then we go to his office,” Tsar said, and Eni thought she could hear a slight edge of anger to his voice.

His unhappiness with the Archivist was just as understandable as the markhor's attempt to force magic out of him, but Eni chose to ignore it, hoping that the wolf would listen to what she had to say. ”I… I don't think it'll be that easy,” Eni said, and her heart felt as though it had become encased in ice.

Cold fear trickled down into her belly, but she swallowed hard and kept talking as Tsar and the Archivist both looked to her. ”We still don't know if the Woemaker reports to Chryson or the other way around. If we go to his office, and Astrasa is there to guard it… Well, you've fought her twice, Tsar, and each time it was to a draw. Do you really think…”

Eni glanced at the floor, hesitating before she awkwardly finished. ”Do you really think you could beat her?” she asked, and she hated having to say it.

”While keeping the Archivist and me safe, and getting the key, and defeating any other Archons, and slipping away, I mean,” Eni added hastily when Tsar didn't immediately respond.

The wolf's pale eyes glittered as he glanced at her, and when he spoke it wasn't much more than a whisper.

”No,” he said, ”I…”

She saw his throat bob as he swallowed. ”Couldn't be sure,” he said, his voice just as soft, and Eni grabbed his paw and squeezed it gently.

The gesture seemed hollow and meaningless to her, but she had no idea what other comfort she could offer him. ”I understand,” she said, ”That's why…”

Eni trailed off, the fear in her belly suddenly more like fire than ice. ”What are you about to propose, my dear?” the Archivist asked, his face creased with concern.

”We need a way to ensure neither Procerus nor Astrasa are in his office,” Eni said, ”Something that would draw them both away long enough for the key to be found.”

”A reasonable proposal,” the Archivist said, but his voice was a touch cautious, and Eni wondered if he understood what she was about to say next.

”I'll surrender myself to the Lord Warden,” Eni said.

There was an instant of silence, and then the Archivist and Tsar spoke at the same time. ”Absolutely not!” the Archivist said, his voice overlapping with Tsar's as the wolf said, ”No.”

Eni held up her paws to stop them. ”I'm the best choice for a distraction,” she said firmly, ”Sir, you know what the key looks like and how to get around the city.”

She gestured first at her mentor. ”And Tsar, if there are any Archons standing guard, you'll be able to get past them,” she said, indicating the wolf next.

”The two of you need to go to his office together. It's early enough in the day that, if we hurry, I can be sure that the City Guard will bring me to Procerus's residence. All I need to do is stall long enough and I'm sure he'll…”

Eni found it suddenly difficult to talk, but she managed to choke out the words. ”He'll summon the Woemaker,” Eni said, ”You'll have the perfect opening.”

”They might kill you,” Tsar said flatly, but Eni shook her head.

”I don't think so,” she said, ”I told you about the vision I had. Whether it was Astrasa or not, I'm sure the Archons have a plan for me.”

”There are things worse than death,” Tsar said, and although the wolf's worry sent a cold stab of terror through Eni she tried forcing a smile onto her face.

”If Wordermund really did see this Visitor, her plan for him was to forge an empire and rule it for centuries,” she said, attempting a light tone and failing horribly, ”It wouldn't be so bad if she wanted me to do something similar, would it?”

Tsar didn't laugh, but she hadn't expected him to. ”Eni, your plan might let Mister Tsar and I obtain the key, but what about you?” the Archivist asked, his voice heavy with concern, ”At best, you'd be Procerus's prisoner. Surely you can't expect us to leave you behind?”

”If you have to,” Eni said, and she was surprised at how steady her voice was, ”Stopping the Archons is more important than I am.”

”Eni…” Tsar said, nearly growling her name, and she looked up at the wolf's face.

”You can come find me when you're done,” Eni said, ”Just like Almara.”

The wolf took in a long and shuddering breath, but then his face smoothed over. ”Maybe you'll escape first,” he said, ”He'll underestimate you.”

Eni laughed; she could tell he hadn't meant the words to be funny, but there was something almost charming about his simple faith in her. ”Maybe,” she said, nodding, but the Archivist still looked unconvinced.

”This strikes me as being terribly dangerous, Eni,” he said, but she shook her head.

”Your part in this is hardly any better,” she told her mentor softly, ”You've been pushing yourself too hard; I can see it in your face and hear it in how you breathe.”

The Archivist sighed, but he didn't deny her concern for his health. She had the awful sense he was getting worse, not better, and he held her gaze for a moment before reaching up to his chest and removing his golden sigil of office. ”Should anything happen to me, I want you to continue in my place,” the markhor said, placing the medallion in Eni's palm and folding her fingers over it, ”I can think of no one better suited to the task.”

”Sir—” Eni began to protest, her eyes growing wide.

”You'll make a wonderful Archivist, Eni,” the old markhor said, speaking over her, ”I wish we had more time, but…”

He shrugged, his thin shoulders rising beneath his robes. ”Consider it a means by which to show the Lord Warden that I am still safe, if nothing else,” he said, ”Or motivation to return safely, perhaps.”

”I'll give it back to you,” Eni said, squeezing the cold metal of the sigil tightly, ”I promise.”

The old markhor inclined his head gravely. ”We shall see, my leveret,” he said solemnly, ”But now we must hurry. The sun is rising, and our window of opportunity is short.”

Tsar didn't protest any further, but when he picked up the Archivist to carry him back up the stairs he also swept Eni off her feet. ”Faster,” he said simply, and then he began all but sprinting up the staircase as he held the two of them.

”If you do free yourself,” the Archivist said urgently, trying to keep sight of Eni as their heads bobbled with the wolf's rapid pace, ”There is a secret to finding the entrances into Tylinora's passageways. They're hidden behind tapestries woven by Queriston. Only the originals, of course; do you know where they are?”

Eni searched her memory of the Terraces of Gorin and nodded before realizing that the jostling Tsar was subjecting them to might make the gesture difficult to make out. ”Yes,” Eni said, ”I do.”

”Excellent,” the Archivist said, and then he fell silent, looking quite ill as Tsar kept racing up the stairs.

He made the trip up much more quickly than they had made the descent, and in no time at all they were back in the Archivist's bedchambers. Rather than heading for the door that Eni knew would lead to the office she had first seen him in upon her return to Terregor, she paused by the bed. The sleeping draught on his nightstand caught her eye and she grabbed it, hiding the small bottle up her sleeve. She wasn't sure if Chryson was the sort to take drinks in the company of prisoners, but it didn't seem like it could hurt. 

Eni took off her satchel and passed it to Tsar. ”Keep this safe for me, would you?” she asked, ”I don't want anyone else going through it again.”

The wolf nodded, loosening the straps and slipping it onto his own back. Eni expected him to return immediately to the hidden passageways lining the tower so he and the Archivist could try slipping out, but he didn't. Tsar stood there for a moment, facing her, and then he bent down until their heads were on the same level and their noses were no more than an inch apart. Tsar reached out and delicately embraced either side of Eni's head in his paws, his eyes boring into hers. ”Stay safe,” he said with surprising gentleness, and for an instant Eni thought he might do something more.

Instead he let go, standing up straight and walking over to where the Archivist waited. ”Good luck, Eni,” her mentor called, and Eni nodded. 

”You too,” she said, ”Both of you.”

Tsar was through the hidden door a moment later, and the last of him Eni saw before the wolf vanished into the shadows was his eyes, their pale blue seeming almost to glow. Then the section of wall slid smoothly back into place, the tapestry falling over it and concealing it once more, and Eni turned to face the door.

She wasn't sure, after the fact, how she had managed to pluck up her courage. She could barely remember leaving the Archivist's chambers and wandering down to the lobby; Eni couldn't even recall whether she had taken the stairs or the lift. Everything seemed to slide past her, very nearly dreamlike, and she had no idea what it was she had said to the gendarmes at the main door as she approached them.

Her heart was beating much too fast for her to hear anything, throbbing in her ears and blocking everything out, and she couldn't have retraced the route she had been led on to Chryson Procerus's home if her life had depended on it. Eni had the vague impression of being surrounded by soldiers, but nothing more; the trip seemed to end almost instantly and then he was there, standing on his doorstep.

The wolverine was already dressed neatly for the day, his fine clothes sharply pressed and without as much as a single wrinkle. His dead eye considered her blankly as the pupil of his living eye widened ever so slightly, the scars across his face turning his smile into a terrible leer. ”Miss Siverets,” Procerus said, speaking slowly and quite precisely, ”What a pleasant surprise. Please, do come in.”

Eni took a deep breath, willing her pulse to slow, and then she did as he asked.














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