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Ouroboros: the Endless Cycle

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After summoning a guard to search Wilfrido's shop for the platinum piece, Bogo stalked out of the jail and towards his waiting carriage with his mind whirling. He had two mammals, now, who had each independently pointed a finger at a blood magician named Valentina who lived in Phoenix. He didn't trust Wilfrido as far as he could throw him—well, that wasn't quite true; considering how scrawny the weasel was that implied far too much trust. Bogo didn't trust Wilfrido as far as Wilfrido could throw him, and at the image it conjured up in his head his lip twitched slightly. In any event, he was more eager than ever to hear what Lieutenant Colonel Cencerro and his soldiers came up with in Phoenix; it seemed he finally had a very strong lead.

Not that it seemed to be reflected in the information he had on Valentina, though. Bogo flipped through the slim file as he walked, his frown creasing his face. The tigress specialized in feline quauhxicallis, which it seemed both would-be assassins had used. She lived in Phoenix, where it would be far easier to sacrifice a cheetah to make them than it would in the Inner or Middle Baronies. But no matter how he scanned through the file, Bogo simply couldn't see a motive.

Valentina had no direct relation to the sole line of noble tigers (excepting, of course, the possibility of illegitimacy), and didn't even have any kind of business connection to the noble lines of any other species. She had never so much as been questioned for anti-monarchy sentiment, either; Valentina didn't seem to have any vested interest in toppling the monarchy or somehow moving up the ranks of nobility. Her business was neither on the verge of collapse or extraordinarily successful, but there were some things that never showed up in official files. Of course, it was also quite possible that, as Wilfrido had suggested, the tigress was simply greedy and willing to do any blood magic requested of her if the price was right. For all Bogo knew, she might have a terrible gambling habit that she needed money to feed, but he wasn't getting anywhere by ruminating over it endlessly.

Bogo shook his head to clear it as he stuffed the file on Valentina back into its folder, and when he looked up saw an unpleasant surprise waiting for him. There, standing next to his carriage red-faced and looking somewhat abashed, was Lord Cerdo. The sight of the pig triggered a memory in Bogo that hit him like a metal pole. He stopped dead five feet from his carriage as the image flooded his head, almost as vivid as if it was actually happening, of when Jaime had been rushing down the hallway at them. In the instant right before Jaime had taken a massive swipe at Bogo's face, Cerdo had huddled to the floor, cringing as he turned his head away, and squealed, "Please, don't hurt us!"

Bogo still didn't remember anything after that, but considering the way his jaw still ached Jaime obviously hadn't listened. He shoved the memory aside; from his prior experience with concussions there was no telling if he would ever remember any more and he saw no point in dwelling on it. That Cerdo had been of absolutely no help was not a surprise; the pig had never served in the City Guard, and even if he had ever trained to fight it was obvious just from looking at him that he was rather soft. Of the three members of the Queen's Council (or, as Bogo mentally amended, the three other members of the Queen's Council) Corazón was the only one who might have been any help.

If Cerdo had found Bogo's behavior odd, it didn't show. "Lord Bogo!" Cerdo said, and Bogo noted that the pig was puffing as though he had just sprinted over from somewhere, "Allow me to congratulate you on your elevation to the ranks of nobility."

Hearing the fussy pig call him "lord" almost made the whole mess that had come along with the title worth it. Almost.

"Thank you, Lord Cerdo," Bogo replied, accepting the lord's proffered hoof; for a pudgy little pig Cerdo had a surprisingly strong grip.

After pumping Bogo's hoof twice, Cerdo let go, grinning up at him awkwardly. "Please, forgive me Lord Bogo," he said, mopping at the short bristles atop his round head with a frilly handkerchief, "The guards wouldn't allow my carriage to approach, and..."

That would certainly explain why the pig was out of breath, at least; he was in incredibly poor shape to be winded after such a relatively short walk. "A security precaution," Bogo said, "Years ago, someone tried breaching the walls with explosives."

"Really?" Cerdo asked, sounding genuinely impressed, "How incredible!"

"It didn't succeed," Bogo replied shortly, "What brings you to Oztoyehuatl's Jail?"

Cerdo gave him that same awkward smile he had favored him with as he shook Bogo's hoof. "I... Well, I wanted to apologize for being useless."

There were many, many occasions Bogo could think of when the pig had been useless at best, but considering the memory that had just drifted up through his mind he knew what Cerdo meant. "You aren't a member of the City Guard," Bogo replied, "Protecting the princess isn't your responsibility."

"Well, no," Cerdo began, "However... I expect you don't know what it's like to be a coward, Lord Bogo."

Of all the things Cerdo could have said, that was about the most surprising. Hearing lords admitting to mistakes was rare as hen's teeth, and Bogo didn't think he had ever heard a lord admit to lacking courage. "I was terrified," Cerdo continued, and he didn't seem capable of meeting Bogo's eyes, "I know couldn't have done anything, but..."

He trailed off, rather lamely, and Bogo took a closer look at him. He had never particularly cared for Cerdo, but he supposed that the pig was extending an olive branch by admitting his weakness. They were, technically at least, equals now, and Bogo was sure he could use allies more than enemies as a full member of the Queen's Council. "You likely would have died if you had tried," Bogo said, and that was his own olive branch.

The pig might be a coward, but at least he admitted it. "You have nothing to apologize for," Bogo said, and Cerdo nodded gratefully.

"Thank you, Lord Bogo," he said, "There's a council meeting being called and I volunteered to collect you."

The pig's expression briefly darkened, as though a shadow was passing over it. "I didn't want to take any guards away from the princess," he said, with a shameful glance at the ground.

Bogo nodded and gestured toward his carriage. "We can take my carriage back," he said, and that was how he found himself riding back to the palace with Cerdo chattering away incessantly and yet saying nothing.

It was a mercy when they finally returned to the palace; Cerdo had first invited Bogo and his wife to a dinner party and then spent the next ten minutes explaining, in excruciating detail, how all of the guests were related and where the rare ingredients for each of the courses had been sourced. Bogo thought himself rather talented at ignoring distractions, but the pig's droning voice seemed to pierce his head, which was still aching from the lingering effects of how Jaime had hit him. As he unfolded himself from the carriage, Bogo thought back to what he had considered on the ride. He had enough evidence to suggest a conspiracy involving Jaime and Valentina, but did it extend any further? Cerdo's admittance of cowardice had made him think that Corazón's actions were rather more suspicious than he had initially thought. The lion was rather prideful, and likely would have thrown himself on his own sword before admitting to cowardice. He was also, unlike either Cerdo or Cencerro, a large and strong predator in excellent shape. A large, strong predator who never turned down the opportunity to play the hero when it came to politics but had apparently stood by and done nothing as Bogo nearly got his head knocked off his shoulders.

Bogo made a mental note to himself to follow up on the investigation he was having done into Corazón's potential linkages to blood magicians; if the lion was a co-conspirator he would happily arrest him while he still had the authority to do so. For the sake of thoroughness, though, Bogo set that happy thought aside and followed Cerdo through the palace. Rather unsurprisingly, considering the pig's substantial girth, he elected to take the lift rather than the stairs to get to the queen's suites. It made sense, from a safety perspective, to move the meetings of the Queen's Council from the traditional room, low in the palace, to the greater protection afforded by the royal suites.

Still, the break from tradition was somewhat disturbing, and even if everyone was at their usual positions just in a different room, it just didn't feel right to have a council meeting in an airy sitting room rather than the brooding council room. Of course, part of that might have been the guards that stood as grim sentinels by the door—four total, two on each side of the door—and part of it might have been that it was Bogo's first meeting as a full member of the council rather than just a representative of the City Guard. He and Cerdo were the last to arrive; Cencerro and the queen were in the middle of an earnest yet rather forced sounding conversation about the latest products for taking care of wool, which the princess seemed to be only half-paying attention to, her eyes continually darting to the door and windows. Corazón was sitting quietly, reading through a packet of papers he seemed to have brought with him. Before Bogo could catch sight of what they were, though, the lion slipped them into a sturdy-looking sharkskin case and looked up at him. "Now that we're all assembled," the queen said, breaking off her conversation as Bogo and Cerdo entered the room, "Allow me to formally introduce the newest member of my council, Lord Bogo."

None of the mammals in the room seemed particularly surprised; Bogo felt a pang of regret that he hadn't had the opportunity to see how any of them had reacted to the queen's decision. The princess applauded the announcement enthusiastically, and one by one the members of the Queen's Council joined in with significantly less spirit. "I am honored to serve, your majesty," Bogo said, inclining his head stiffly.

It was the traditional way for a new member of the Queen's Council to formally report in, and even if he was likely the first new member of the Queen's Council in centuries to make the statement anywhere besides the official chamber, it felt appropriate. "With that happy business addressed," the queen continued, "Lord Bogo, if you could please summarize the current standing of your investigation?"

Bogo exchanged a wordless glance with the queen, silently asking her if she was sure she wanted the entire council to hear it. She nodded slightly, and Bogo stood to address the others, hooves clasped behind his back. The queen, he noted, was paying far more attention to the other members of his audience than to him, and he realized what she was doing; she was seeing if anyone reacted. Unfortunately, so far as he could tell, no one did, and from how the queen's expression didn't change he guessed that she hadn't seen anything either. When he had come to the end of his recitation, Corazón was the first to speak. "A mammal with no face?" he said, and the skepticism in his voice was obvious, "Isn't it more likely that this weasel made it all up?"

"It could be some kind of alchemy trick," Cencerro cut in before Bogo could say anything, "Not that I'm an alchemist."

The little sheep chuckled slightly and seemingly nervously, and Bogo nodded. "I would like an alchemist to weigh in," he said.

"I'll ask Tomas," the princess said, seeming rather proud to be able to contribute.

"And as for your question, Lord Corazón," Bogo continued, "It is certainly possible. However, I don't think it's likely."

"You are the expert," Corazón replied, an insincere smile stretching across his face.

"Indeed," the queen said, and Bogo thought he heard a note of warning in it; certainly Corazón's smile vanished.

"I think—" the princess began, but there was a sudden knock at the door and everyone in the room jumped a little.

Bogo saw the insides of Cencerro's ears flush in embarrassment at having been startled, and even the queen's poise took a moment to reassert itself. The two guards on the inside of the door went through a rushed and quiet verification—Bogo heard the sign and countersign being spoken—before opening it. A breathless moose in the uniform of a City Guard lieutenant rushed in and saluted Bogo crisply. "Captain General, sir," the lieutenant said, "We haven't received any messages back from Phoenix."

Bogo frowned briefly. It was true that, by now, he should have received an acknowledgement that the Phoenix City Guard was actively looking for Valentina, if not a confirmation that Lieutenant Colonel Cencerro had taken her into custody, but communication with Phoenix wasn't always perfect. Caravans of supplies only went to the settlement every few weeks or so, banding together for mutual protection and to lower the shipping costs, and while messenger birds were much more frequent they were still too expensive to be really common. Besides, messengers sometimes got blown off course by heavy winds shrieking through the gap in the Outer Wall or attacked by wild hawks, but it was for those reasons it was the standard policy of the City Guard to send important messages with two independent messengers. Still, it wasn't entirely outside normal delays quite yet, and Bogo answered, "Thank you for the update, lieutenant. Let me know when we do receive a message."

Bogo could remember being an eager-to-please lieutenant himself, and while the interruption to report that there was no news was mildly irritating, it certainly wasn't worth publicly dressing the guardsmammal down over. Rather than taking the obvious cue that he was being dismissed, however, the lieutenant shook his head. "Sir, you don't understand," he said, "It's been two days since any message has come back from Phoenix."

"Two days?" Bogo repeated.

"Yessir."

For as long as Bogo could remember, at least one or two messenger birds had always made their way back from the settlement every day, even if it was only at the behest of one of the more powerful guilds. For Phoenix to suddenly be completely cut off... Bogo felt an icy sensation forming in the pit of his stomach. Something was deeply, deeply wrong, and he had no doubt it was connected to the mysterious blood magician Valentina and the attempts on the princess's life. "Assemble a recon squad and march them out to Phoenix," he said, barking the orders even as he thought them up, "Have them pay a messenger to go with them, whatever the cost. And pay a messenger to fly out there and come back, too. I want a report the instant we know what's going on there."

The lieutenant saluted and dashed out of the room, and Bogo turned to look at the other members of the council. He had almost forgotten that they were present, but as he took in the stunned faces, the queen spoke. "Captain General," she said, her voice somewhat faint, "In the name of the gods, what's happening in Phoenix?"


Author's Notes:

I skipped the author's notes on my last chapter for dramatic impact, but I did have a few points to mention, so I'll get to those before the ones for this chapter.

The risk of being eaten by your mount does seem like a very real possibility if you're a shrew and ride an eagle. Indeed, considering how badly a horse can injure a human rider, it seemed realistic for it to at least be a concern; horses at least won't eat you.

Attempting to kill a member of the royal family is one of the go to examples of high treason in countries with a monarchy; depending on the reason for attempting regicide it might also hit a bunch of other charges of high treason like aiding a foreign power. All things considered, Nick takes the implied accusation remarkably well.

"Teguixincatl" isn't a real Nahuatl word, but is one that I made up by combining the words for a kind of lizard and spider. I figure that's the sort of creature of nightmares that you really don't want to face, and is simply one example of why venturing into the ruins under Phoenix is so dangerous.

Considering the type of magic that is available in this setting, I figured it made sense for the regeneration of lost body parts to at least be possible, albeit extremely expensive.

As mentioned in the notes for chapter 14, gold is an excellent material for making a long-lasting record. Of course, in chapter 14 it was Bogo who was in the royal library and saw books with gold pages; considering Judy is from a minor barony and is a low-ranking member of the City Guard, I thought it made sense for her to have never seen one before.

In a world where mammal leather is verboten, fish leather seems a practical substitute; it is possible to make and can be quite durable.

Anything more about chapter 21 would be spoilers, so I hope you'll understand as I now proceed to the notes for chapter 22.

One thing that the movie does show, that I've tried to capture as well, is that while Bogo is stern and unexpressive most of the time, he does have some depth, including a sense of humor. That he finds the idea of a weasel trying to throw him amusing is, I suppose, not the strangest thing about him.

The existence of alchemy seems like it would make explosives generally easier to create, and keeping strange carriages away from a jail seems like a fairly sensible precaution to me.

Cerdo did in fact admit to being wrong in chapter 10, as Bogo recalls in this chapter.

The chamber the Queen's Council meets in first appeared in chapter 2, where it was noted to be an old room low in the palace. Considering that an assassination attempt happened in that room, relocating to somewhere else probably seemed prudent.

Sharkskin can indeed be made into a sort of durable leather, which is typically called shagreen.

As always, thanks for reading! If you're so inclined to comment, I'd love to know what you thought!