Judy wasn't quite sure how she had expected Nick to react. Deny it, maybe, the same way he seemed to deflect any conversation that grazed too closely to his past. Make a run for it, perhaps, as unlikely as it seemed. What she was not expecting at all, though, was what he actually said. "Why didn't you come over, then?" he asked, "I could have introduced you."
The question tumbled past Judy's lips before she could even think about it; she felt as though she had to look incredibly foolish. "I could have introduced you," Nick repeated, somewhat more slowly, "Despite what the lieutenant colonel might have you believe, there are mammals who like me."
He certainly didn't have the look of a mammal caught in a web of lies; there was a little self-deprecating smile on his face as he spoke and if he was nervous at all Judy couldn't tell. "She's a... friend of yours?" Judy asked.
Perhaps it was because she had just spent a couple of days by his side virtually every waking hour, but the idea of Nick having friends struck her as odd in a way she couldn't quite put a finger on. It wasn't as though he was unfriendly—in her experience, it was quite the opposite—but that he always seemed guarded in a way. "You don't have to sound so surprised," Nick said, but there was not even a hint of annoyance in his voice, "Fermina's father and I go way back. Oh, the stories she could have told you..."
He chuckled breezily, shaking his head, and kept walking. Judy, however, had about felt her heart stop when he had started saying the shrew's name; she had been so sure that it would be Fernanda that she had almost heard that. If Nick noticed that Judy had stumbled a step, he didn't show it, continuing to easily move down the street. "Fermina?" Judy said, and to her own ears her voice sounded unnaturally high-pitched.
"Fermina?" she hastily repeated, and her tone sounded a bit more normal, "Are you sure that's her name?"
Nick actually came to a stop at that. The press of mammals making their way down on of Phoenix's more crowded side-streets flowed around them, and it seemed to take Nick no effort to avoid being jostled by the larger and more careless pedestrians. Judy, though, could feel mammals bumping into her, but the sensation seemed to be coming from a great distance. Her heart was pounding furiously, and she could feel it in the tips of her ears. Her mouth suddenly seemed full of something sharply metallic that had sucked all her saliva dry, and she realized that for a single moment she had been afraid that her worst, most implausibly wild possibility for Nick's involvement was right.
Nick cocked his head to the side as he looked at her. "Reasonably sure, yes," he said, "Why do you ask?"
"Well... There's..." Judy began, but she couldn't stop fumbling over her words, until they seemed at last to spill out of her far faster than she usually spoke, "Alfonso. Of the New Quimichin Barony, you know him? Not that you have to know him just because he's a criminal and you're a—That is, I mean, of course you don't know him, right?—he was arrested a few weeks ago but his daughter wasn't. Fernanda, her name is. She—she was never caught. Now someone tried killing the princess and they must have been really skilled in magic to do that, right? And Alfonso's a shrew and Fernanda's a shrew and your friend Fermina's a shrew and—and—I saw you talking to her and giving her something and you're good at magic and—"
"Are you asking me if I'm involved with Zootopia's most dangerous criminal in some kind of plot to kill the princess?" Nick interrupted.
He wasn't smiling anymore. His features seemed to have drawn up into themselves until all that was left was a politely neutral expression, like a mammal browsing a shop when they didn't know whether or not they were going to buy anything. "I— Yes," Judy said.
She could feel her ears heating up even as they began drooping. When he put it like that, it sounded completely absurd. But the worst of it was, he didn't sound angry at her. In fact, he didn't seem to be feeling anything. All the good humor had been gone from his voice as he stood, completely still, and asked his question, but there had been nothing else in his tone. "No, no I'm not," Nick said, and once more he seemed almost emotionless.
Before she could say anything, or even begin to formulate an apology, Nick clapped his paws and rubbed them together briskly, a smile suddenly lighting up his face. "Just goes to show there's no reason a bunny can't be just like every other member of the City Guard," he said, with a cheerfulness that Judy found surprising, "You've got a job to do, after all. Speaking of which, why don't we get this little errand over with so you can be back on your merry way?"
With that he set off walking again, more briskly than he had before. Even as she struggled to keep up with him, pushing through the crowd with far less ease, Judy couldn't help but be awe-struck by the view; they were very close to one of the great fissures that isolated Phoenix. There was only a high railing, made of sparkling multifaceted beams of diamonds that burst with color as they refracted the light of the rising sun, to separate them from a plunge into an abyss. Considering how she had just embarrassed herself by jumping to an apparently unfounded conclusion, the idea of being swallowed by such an abyss held some appeal, but Judy looked away to Nick's rapidly retreating back.
"Nick!" Judy called, rushing to catch up, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have spied on—"
Nick cut her off again, waving one arm absently. "I can tell you all about Fermina, if you'd like," he said mildly, although he didn't turn to look back at her.
"Being an alchemist is a useful skill, but not everyone's willing to hire a fox," he continued with hardly a pause, and Judy wasn't sure if she was imagining the emphasis he seemed to place on the last word, "Fermina's father, as a business mammal, recognized the opportunity for the both of us and I was able to help him from time to time."
For the first time since he had started speaking again, Nick glanced at Judy; a wry smile twisted his lips. "Nothing exciting, I'm afraid," he added, "Mostly just odds and ends that members of the Alchemist Guild overcharge for. Anyway, it was always Fermina's dream to become a messenger, but that's not an easy job or a safe one. I've heard of riders that get eaten by their mounts, you know."
Nick was speaking smoothly, just as he had on many occasions when they had been on the road together, and yet there was something different about it that Judy wasn't sure she could describe. Nick certainly didn't seem particularly upset that she had all but directly accused him of high treason, and yet things didn't feel the same. Maybe it had only been because, while they had been traveling, she had genuinely enjoyed his company and had thought he felt the same way. Now, it seemed as though he was in a hurry to be rid of her, even if he wouldn't say it. "Not that Tonaltzintli would eat her, of course. She has him too well trained for that, and even if he tried I expect she'd just cut her way out."
Nick chuckled at his own wit, and Judy was once more overcome with a sense of how close and yet so different his behavior was from what she had come to expect of him. If it hadn't been for the fact that he wasn't looking at her as he spoke, it might have almost felt normal. "Now, Fermina ran a few deliveries for her father's business, but on her last trip to Phoenix she and Tonaltzintli got attacked by a wild hawk. She was fine, but he was hurt pretty badly and was in no shape to fly back. Her father couldn't get his paws on a complete philosopher's stone—there aren't many mammals who can, really—and I can't exactly make one myself, but I could do the next best thing and bring it here."
"You brought her an incomplete stone," Judy said, her voice barely above a whisper, and her insides seemed to twist themselves into knots.
"Clever bunny," Nick replied with a nod.
Not only had she spied on a mammal who had been closer to being a real friend than anyone she had ever known, but he hadn't been doing anything wrong. He had, in fact, been using his rare and certainly hard-earned knowledge to help out the daughter of an old business partner, even though what she had heard of their conversation made her think Fermina's father and Nick were no longer on the best of terms. He, a fox, had been behaving about as nobly as it was possible for a mammal to act. And she...
"No, I'm not. I'm sorry," Judy said, and she could feel tears welling up in her eyes, "I—"
"Oh, don't worry about it," Nick said, and she might have been seeing what she wanted to see, but even only able to see his back she thought he seemed touched by the raw emotion in her voice.
That, or it was just making him uncomfortable. He did slow down somewhat, and he turned and offered her an elaborately embroidered handkerchief that had seemed simply to appear in his paw. "Most mammals don't even believe a fox alchemist is possible, you know," he said, "I'm very suspicious."
He waggled his fingers as he said it, and let out a rueful little chuckle that struck Judy as deeply bitter. She could only guess at what he had experienced in his life that had brought him to this point; it occurred to her, for the first time, that an alchemist as skilled as he was should be doing much better than traveling the length of the city-state entering bids for jobs. Nick could have been the court alchemist of a minor noble or a wealthy commoner merchant, even without a membership in the Alchemist Guild, and lived a life of leisurely patronage with all the funding for pet projects he could dream of. What did it say about him that he wasn't? It didn't seem as simple as him being uninterested in such a job, and Judy wondered what he had thought to himself as she had described the obstacles she had overcome to become the first rabbit to join the City Guard.
Judy gave a watery little laugh as she dabbed at her eyes. The handkerchief smelled like Nick, a scent like lavender mixed with something undeniably masculine and primal even if it was completely unlike any buck she had ever met, and she somewhat regretted not being able to keep it. "But not to Fermina," she said, "She's lucky to know you."
Nick grinned as he took his handkerchief back; for a moment it felt as though everything between them was exactly how it had been the previous night. But then Nick's face seemed to close on itself again—not entirely, but slightly, as though his good humor was no longer entirely natural—before he responded. "Every mammal who knows me is lucky to know me, Ensign Carrots," he said cheerfully, and Judy couldn't help but be cheered a little by his use of the nickname she hated.
"Could I meet her?" Judy asked, and before Nick had the chance to do much more than open his mouth, she hastily added, "Not because I want to ask her anything about secretly being Alfonso's daughter or anything. I'd just... like to meet her."
Nick smiled briefly, and it was his usual self-satisfied smirk, as though he knew something particularly amusing that no one else did. "Fermina would probably find it all a funny story. But your opportunity to meet her has passed, I'm afraid. Tonaltzintli should have been back in flying shape hours ago, and she was going to leave Phoenix as soon as he was ready."
"Oh," Judy said, and she couldn't hide her disappointment.
It would have been nice to meet someone else who knew Nick. Not just to help show she had been badly off-track when she had suspected him of a heinous crime, but also to get a better sense of him. There was something about him that was just endlessly interesting in a way Judy had never experienced before, and it wasn't just when she had spent the previous night worrying about what to do that Nick had occupied her thoughts. "Maybe you can look her up once you're back in Zootopia," Nick said, "She is a very good messenger, if you ever need one. You must have about a thousand brothers and sisters to write to back in the Tochtli Barony, right?"
"I don't have that many siblings," Judy protested, but Nick simply shrugged.
As they continued walking, he didn't speak again, leaving Judy alone with her thoughts. It had been ridiculous to assume that what had to be the most serious threat the royal family had faced in decades would simply fall into her lap, and Judy felt shame welling up once more, completely unbidden. She had spent the previous night nearly sleepless, agonizing over how to approach Nick and what she had overheard meant, but that hadn't been all she had thought of. Some small part of her, no matter how much she had tried to ignore it, had spun out the fantasies of what it would mean if she had been right and she had caught a critical part of an assassination plot. She had imagined an immediate promotion to lieutenant, maybe even to captain, and the sort of glory and honors even the members of the Queen's Council could only dream of.
No matter how much Judy told herself that those things didn't matter compared to keeping Zootopia and the royal family safe, it would have been nice to be able to show, once and for all beyond any reasonable doubt, that bunnies could be valuable members of the City Guard. Still, she actually found herself more grateful than she would have guessed that Nick really did have a perfectly rational explanation for what she had seen and heard; if she had to prove herself the hard and long way that's what she would do. And who knew? Perhaps she could have more opportunities to be with Nick and—"Well now," Nick said, interrupting her thoughts, "We're nearly to the shop."
Judy looked around, but the part of Phoenix they were in didn't seem particularly special. In fact, it looked a little run-down. The buildings, although all made of white stone as seemed customary for Phoenix, had a nasty grimy appearance to them, soot turning them a dingy gray. The street had narrowed, too, and the crowds had thinned out; it looked especially seedy to her, an impression that was not helped at all by the mammals who walked past. The street traffic in the part of Phoenix they had found themselves in looked especially rough. She saw a stoop-shouldered camel, his arms covered with scars and scabs, shuffle past as he pushed a cart covered with dirty little stones that were nonetheless intricately carved. In front of a store, a grimy badger seemed to be playing a game of chance with a crew of equally filthy mice all with little brushes set down near the board.
At first none of the mammals made sense, and then suddenly they did. These mammals, she realized, were the ones who went down into the ruins Phoenix was built atop to salvage useful or interesting centuries-old trinkets, and some of them seemed to have paid dearly for it. In the dim shadows of an alleyway there sat a legless ferret, horrible scars visible on his chest through the tattered remains of his clothes. He simply stared ahead, silent and nearly corpse-like except for his occasional blinking, next to a crudely lettered sign that read, in three lines, "TEGUIXINCATL TOOK MY LEGS AND MY PARTNER. NEED MONEY FOR REGENERATION. ANYTHING HELPS."
Although he was the most dramatic example, he was not the only mammal who appeared maimed; Judy saw others with burn scars, missing fingers, and even one poor stoat with an arm that looked strangely withered. "Treasure hunting's even more dangerous than riding an eagle," Nick said in a low voice, giving Judy a nudge, "Come on, this way."
He led her off the main street and into a narrow alleyway that was completely empty, albeit filled with the powerful smell of rotting vegetables. "This book you want, it came from the ruins?" Judy asked in a whisper, despite how alone they were.
"Yes," Nick said briefly, "It's called the Golden Codex. You can remember that, right? It's about this big, this thick, and all the pages are gold."
As he spoke, he vaguely sketched out the dimensions in thin air of what would be a sizable book, at least for a bunny. "And it's made of gold?" Judy asked; she had seen her fair share of books, but never one made out of metal of any sort.
"Very thin sheets of it, yes," Nick said, "Anything printed on paper didn't survive the last few centuries."
Before she had the chance to do much more than wonder how many books had survived the cataclysm that had befallen Quimichpatlan Barony, Nick thrust a heavy fish leather bag into her paws that produced the musical clink of money. "Here, this should cover it. I'd go in with you, but I think he wouldn't sell it to you out of spite if I came along, the stubborn old goat. It's that shop there."
Nick pointed out a storefront that seemed noticeably cleaner than either of its neighbors, and Judy nodded. "I'll be right back," she said, and Nick smiled.
"I'll be waiting."
Judy made her way across the street briskly, climbing the creaking and splintered wooden steps that led up to a front door set deeply into the thick stone wall. When she opened the door, a little bell atop it jangled and she stepped into the gloom of the bookstore. It was rather poorly lit; the store didn't have any windows, and towering shelves and lopsided stacks of books seemed to block most of the light of the few alchemical torches that had been set into the walls. The air was full of the musty smell of old paper, but there was something else in it, something unpleasant and harsh. "Hello?" Judy called out, but there was no answer.
She took another step forward, carefully maneuvering around a pile of books each nearly as large as she was, but she still couldn't see the counter. The wooden floorboards groaned under her feet as she kept moving, until suddenly one of her feet was wet. Grimacing, more in annoyance than anything else, Judy looked down to see what she had stepped in.
At first, she told herself it was just ink. Just a spilled bottle of red ink, going somewhat tacky from drying. But there was a lot of it, a lot more than would be in anything but an elephant-sized bottle, and the liquid didn't have the splash pattern a dropped bottle would make, and ink didn't have a nauseatingly rich coppery scent. The puddle she had stepped in was, in fact, part of a massive streaky red mess flowing from near the back of the store where the floor wasn't quite level.
It was blood.
Judy tightened her grip on her spear, took in a deep breath, and called, "If there's anyone in here, this is the City Guard. This is your last chance to show yourself."
She strained her ears as much as she could, but all she heard was something slowly dripping. Judy took another step forward, keeping one paw near her quauhxicallis, and some isolated part of her mind noted how strange it was that she had been more nervous about confronting Nick than being on what had to be the scene of a murder. At first, as she got closer and closer to the back of the store, she wasn't sure what she was seeing. The source of the puddle was a lumpy mass, and once she got close enough Judy realized that it had been a goat, once upon a time, but it was barely recognizable as a corpse.
The poor goat seemed to have exploded from the ribs down, creating a mess of spongy bits Judy didn't want to think about that coated the floor and the walls. The goat's upper body had survived in better shape, but the gore of his terrible death had coated his head and arms and soaked into his fur. Despite that, an expression of terrible agony was visible on his face, and Judy was suddenly aware of her fur standing up stiffly from her body.
The goat had to be the shopkeeper Nick had mentioned wouldn't sell him a book, and he was unquestionably dead. Whether that had anything to do with the blood magicians that the Phoenix City Guard was looking for she couldn't even guess, but it was her duty to report it. Moving as quickly as she could in the dim light, Judy retraced her steps to the front door of the shop, but before she could even touch the handle it swung open with the chime of the bell on the top.
The sudden brightness of the light made it hard to recognize the mammal at first, but as her eyes adjusted Judy saw it was Lieutenant Colonel Cencerro. Behind him, sandwiched between two burly members of the City Guard, was Nick. His paws had been cuffed together and his head muzzled, and he hung limply like a puppet with its strings cut. Before Judy could call out to him, Cencerro spoke in a commanding tone. "Drop the spear, ensign."