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Ouroboros: the Endless Cycle

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Time was always the enemy. It wasn't a lesson that anyone had ever deliberately told Bogo, but a conclusion he had drawn himself over the years. When he had been a lieutenant, it was why he could barely patrol his entire beat on a single shift and why so many petty thieves got away when it took him too long to get to the crime scene. When he had been a captain, and he had missed so much of his own daughter growing up, it was because there weren't enough hours in the day to do everything he needed to. And now, as he planned to lead an army to Phoenix he couldn't help but wonder if he would be too late.

For the moment, though, there was little that he could do but wait. For most of the trip out of the center of the city-state the speed at which they were moving was entirely outside his control, which wasn't a particularly comforting thought as he stood watching out the porthole of the office aboard his ship. That he could travel by ship was, at least, a sign that the mammals who had designed Zootopia so many years ago had known what they were doing. The massive aqueducts that radiated out from the center of Zootopia were far wider and deeper than they needed to be if they had only been intended for moving water. They had, in fact, been designed to allow the easy use of watercraft for the movement of mammals and cargo from the center to the Middle Baronies. Each aqueduct also had a companion running the opposite direction, the water flowing from the Middle Baronies back towards the Inner Baronies in an enormous cycle. Where the aqueducts flowing into the Inner Baronies terminated was simply a vast circular canal, but where they ended at the border of the Middle Baronies were tremendous waterfalls with City Guard fortifications built atop them, massive stone grills preventing ships from going over the edge of the Middle Wall.

Bogo had made many trips to the Middle Baronies, mostly for inspection tours, but he had never traveled so fast. The gentle slope of the aqueducts was enough to take an unpowered ship from the center of the Inner Baronies to the edge of the Middle Baronies in about a day, and that was generally fast enough for most cargo. The ship he was aboard, however, had a massive alchemical engine spinning a pair of paddle wheels so fast that he could feel the vibrations coming up through the deck. The cargo area was full of members of the City Guard and their equipment, and he had five other ships all doing the same. All told, there were just over two thousand mammals as part of the expedition, which he could only hope would be enough. If he had the time—or additional ships he could commandeer from the Guild of Water Merchants—Bogo might have been able to bring more soldiers, but the two thousand he had picked were the ones he could trust and that the Inner Baronies could spare. Once again, it all came down to time. Bogo shook his head, repressing a sigh, and forced himself to look away from the porthole and its view of the outskirts of the Inner Baronies speeding past and made his way out of his cabin.

The ship he was aboard was one of the few that the City Guard owned outright; it had been built as an odd combination of a luxury ship for the reigning monarch and a troop transport. What that meant, in practical terms, was that everything below the waterline was as charmless and efficient as any cargo ship, but half of the cabins above the waterline were plushly furnished and the exterior of the ship was extensively and elaborately gilded. Bogo's own cabin, although only about twice the size of his cramped hidden bedroom in his office in the palace, was larger than that of the ship's captain, and the queen had a suite of rooms that were only small by royal standards. It was to the queen's suites that he made his way, having to turn sideways to get his broad shoulders through the cramped passageways; the designers of the ship apparently hadn't considered the possibility that a buffalo would be the head of the City Guard.

Once he was admitted to the royal suite by a pair of guards, the scene was much as he had expected it to be. In what would have been a parlor, had the queen simply been on a pleasure cruise, an ornately carved circular table intended for card games had been re-purposed as a conference table. The queen sat at it with a rather unhealthy-looking greenish pallor to her skin where it was visible under her wool; Bogo knew she suffered from sea-sickness even from the gentle motion of a boat on a lake, and the way the rapidly moving ship vibrated and occasionally bounced in the water had to be an agony for her. As befitted her station, she hadn't so much as mentioned her discomfort, although Bogo strongly suspected that she wouldn't be able to eat anything until solid ground was under her hooves again. At the queen's side, the princess sat, her expression bright and interested; she apparently didn't suffer from water travel the way her mother did and seemed to be actually enjoying the ride. The other chairs at the table were empty, but there were four, intended for Bogo, Corazón, Cerdo, and Cencerro.

Bogo took his seat, nodding respectfully in the direction of the queen and princess first. "Your majesties," he said.

"Lord Bogo," the queen said, her voice somewhat stiffer than usual; Bogo suspected that she was trying to concentrate on anything other than how sick she was feeling.

In better times, the queen had never used the ship built first for her grandfather, preferring instead to travel by ground when she left the Inner Baronies. She had, however, understood the need to move as quickly as possible, and had even been the one to suggest the use of the ship. "The rest of your council will join us shortly," he said, and she nodded.

Again at the queen's suggestion, they hadn't bothered to hold a council meeting to discuss the situation at Phoenix. Bogo had marshaled his soldiers as quickly as possible, and then had simply ordered Corazón, Cerdo, and Cencerro aboard the lead ship, taking a not inconsiderable amount of pleasure from the act. The queen's logic was simple; she wouldn't give them the chance to plot and scheme until they were already aboard the ship. The ship had been underway for almost an hour, and it was time to provide them with an update.

A few minutes went by and the three mammals entered, obviously confused but not daring to voice their displeasure directly. "I acknowledge that the manner in which we're meeting is unusual," the queen began, once everyone was seated, "But time is not our friend right now."

Bogo didn't speak, but he couldn't help but notice that the queen's thoughts seemed to echo his own. But then, he supposed her life had also reinforced the idea that time would do everything it could to slip out of your grasp. He turned his focus to the three other members of the council, and saw that Princess Isabel was doing the same; whether she was seeing anything he could not was impossible to say as her expression was a neutral mask.

To Bogo's eye, Lady Cencerro looked mildly queasy, but perhaps she simply shared the queen's tendency toward seasickness. Or perhaps she was nervous about being found out; whatever the case Bogo mentally filed the observation away. Lord Corazón appeared simply interested, propping his head up with one massive arm on the little table as he stared intently at the queen. Lord Cerdo's pudgy face was creased in confusion, or perhaps concentration, and like Corazón he seemed to be hanging on to every word. "We have received word from Lieutenant Colonel Diego Cencerro that Phoenix was attacked by barbarians from beyond the Outer Wall," the queen continued.

It had been Bogo's idea that she be the one to explain the situation; it would better allow him to focus on how the other members of the council reacted to the news if he didn't also have to share it. "That's impossible!" Lord Cerdo interrupted, and then he waved one arm hastily, "My apologies for interrupting, your majesty, but how could barbarians possibly have attacked? There's nothing but wastelands outside the wall."

"Have you ever been outside the Outer Wall?" the queen asked, and there was a dangerous edge to her voice, polite though it was.

"Well, no, but—" the pig began, and the queen cut him off.

"It is true that what can be seen from Phoenix of the land beyond the Outer Wall is nothing but uninhabited scrublands," the queen continued smoothly.

Although the queen had never been to Phoenix, she delivered the words with perfect poise, as though she was simply sharing an observation of her own rather than what she had learned from reports. Years of those reports had suggested that Cerdo was right; no one had ever observed alchemical torches or even fires off in the distance beyond the Outer Wall. Still, Bogo was more interested in the objection than he was in the truth of the matter. If one of the other council members were to reveal something, it might be by objecting too strenuously or attempting to guide the conversation along certain paths rather than by revealing something only the culprit behind the events could know. And while Bogo didn't suspect Cerdo nearly as strongly as he did Corazón and Cencerro, anything that might save him the trouble of executing his more complicated trap would be useful.

"However," the queen said, raising one finger and looking directly at Cerdo, "We have a very limited understanding of what's outside of Zootopia. The watchtowers along the Outer Wall have gone unused for generations, and Phoenix is our only view out. Were you to peer through a keyhole, you would not dare to say with perfect confidence that you could see everything within the room, would you, Lord Cerdo?"

"No, your majesty," the pig said humbly, bowing his head and averting his eyes.

"It is true that we currently have very limited information to work off of," the queen said, "As of now, all we have is the message that the Lieutenant Colonel provided."

The queen nodded in Bogo's direction, and he pulled the message out from an inner pocket and gave it to her. With a minor touch of theatrical flair, the queen carefully smoothed it out on the table and read it aloud. Again, Bogo watched carefully as the council members reacted to the terse message and its plea for assistance. This time, it was Cencerro who had the greatest reaction; the little sheep's brow furrowed and her eyes widened. "Your majesty," Cencerro started, a touch timidly once the queen had finished reading, "If I may interrupt?"

The queen nodded graciously. "You haven't heard anything more from Diego? He's my cousin, you know, and the way that was worded... Well, it certainly sounds like Diego, but I want to know that he's fine and he rescued as many mammals as he possibly could," Cencerro said.

That was an interesting tactic, Bogo thought to himself as he repressed a frown. Everyone at the table would know that Diego Cencerro was her cousin—considering they shared a family name, it would be blatantly obvious even if they hadn't known ahead of time—but Lady Cencerro had deliberately called attention to that fact. Was her interest in his safety truly out of familial concern, or was she attempting to portray herself as innocent by being the first to acknowledge the relation as though it was of no concern?

Princess Isabel's expression, Bogo noted, had collapsed into a slight frown, but she quickly reached across the little table and patted Lady Cencerro's hoof. "We can hope he's fine," she said sympathetically, "I'm sure the two of you are close."

Considering the princess's age and relative lack of political experience compared to everyone else around the table, Bogo had to admire her play; she was maneuvering Cencerro into a position to be forced to reveal more than she might want to. Acknowledging a close relationship make her seem suspicious if the conversation drifted toward the possibility that the Lieutenant Colonel had made up the threat, but denying it could make it look like she was trying to distance herself. "Well, I wouldn't say we're especially close," Lady Cencerro said with a nervous-sounding chuckle, "But he is family, and I can't help but worry about him and all those poor mammals. He always was a little strange."

"A little strange in what way?" Corazón asked, "Do you suppose he might be lying? Do you think this might be a trap we're heading into? Your majesty, if there is any chance that your safety might be—"

"I have considered the risk to the safety of myself and the princess," the queen interrupted, her tone firm, "And concluded that it is a necessary one."

Bogo considered the interactions that had just played out. Although Corazón had been the first to raise the possibility that Diego Cencerro was lying, Lady Cencerro had given him the perfect opportunity to ask the question. Coincidence, perhaps, or maybe an indicator that the two were conspiring together. It was also possible that Corazón was doing nothing more than trying to make Lady Cencerro look bad, no matter how full of concern his rich voice had seemed.

"However, I would value your opinion, Lady Cencerro," the queen continued gently, and she put her own hoof atop the other sheep's as her daughter had a moment before, "Do you suppose Diego Cencerro might be conspiring against the throne?"

"Oh, no, certainly not," Lady Cencerro said, "When I said he was strange, all I meant was that he was a little shy when he was a lamb. Almost as though he was in his own little world, sometimes, and I don't think I ever heard him laugh. We didn't see each other very often, but from what I heard he excelled in the academy."

It was a rather definite statement that she had just made, one that would make her seem all the more suspicious as a possible co-conspirator if Diego Cencerro was lying. Which didn't mean that Bogo would consider Lady Cencerro any less suspicious; sometimes maneuvering yourself into a better position involved putting yourself in a worse one first. "Did he, Lord Bogo?" Cerdo asked, leaning across the table to look up into Bogo's face, "Surely you'd be the one to know."

"His service record is spotless," Bogo said simply, "A fact that was taken into account when he was assigned to his post as the head of the Phoenix City Guard."

"Well he certainly sounds trustworthy," Corazón said, gesturing grandly, "Perhaps we might continue, then."

Bogo studied the lion's seemingly guileless face. Had he involved Diego Cencerro in a conspiracy, and was now trying to get the conversation off the topic? The queen might have been thinking along similar lines, for she glanced at the lion briefly before continuing. "Lord Bogo has assembled a combination of the City Guard and the personal guards you have each so kindly volunteered," she said, pausing briefly to glance around the table at each of the council members, "To evaluate the threat. Once we arrive at the edge of the Middle Baronies, we'll rendezvous with Lieutenant Colonel Cencerro at the War Gate—if he's made it that far, or on the road if he hasn't—and press onward to Phoenix."

Although Bogo could appreciate the care that had been put into making Zootopia's aqueduct system a viable means of transport, their design also betrayed something of a paranoid streak that he couldn't bring himself to disagree with. Although they formed the fastest route to the Middle Wall, they didn't have a direct path through the wall. The long-ago designers had staggered the gates apart from the aqueducts such that they'd have to travel part of the distance around the inner curve of the wall before leaving. It was, Bogo knew, intended to make the city more difficult to invade; attackers would be unable to take a direct route from the edge of the Outer Wall to the heart of Zootopia. Of course, the very existence of the War Gate proved that it was a better idea in theory than it had been in practice. The War Gate was not only a monument to the long ago war when the Oveja dynasty had taken power but also one as to how they had done so, marking the point where the Middle Wall had been breached to circumvent the existing gates.

Still, it meant that there was a reasonably fast path from the aqueduct that pointed most closely in Phoenix's direction to a way through the Middle Wall, and Bogo wasn't about to complain about it. "May I ask why you have decided to accompany this force?" Corazón asked, "Begging your pardon, your majesty, but would not the palace be safer for you and the princess?"

It was the question that Bogo was sure everyone but the princess and he himself was wondering, and it was interesting that Corazón was the first to ask it. It was also the second time that Corazón had suggested his concern for the queen's safety, and again Bogo considered the motive. The problem, he supposed, with being confronted with the existence of a real yet murky conspiracy was not knowing precisely how paranoid it was appropriate to be.

"In light of the recent attacks on the princess, I consider ourselves safest while in Lord Bogo's presence," the queen said.

Everyone turned to look at Bogo, as he knew that they would; the queen had strongly implied that she trusted him far more than any of the others. What they drew from that conclusion, Bogo couldn't say; Cerdo had simply nodded to himself while both Corazón and Cencerro kept their faces neutral. In Cencerro's case, at least, as neutral as she could look while still seeming vaguely queasy. "I see," Cencerro said.

The queen smiled slightly. "You're wondering, I'm sure, why I've brought all of you along. I'm sure you can all understand the need for smooth cooperation between the members of your own personal guards you've volunteered and the City Guard," the queen said with a casualness that Bogo found impressive.

She had managed to make it sound like a trivial detail, and he hoped the others wouldn't catch its true importance. "Lord Bogo will meet with each of you individually to go over the arrangements. That covers everything for now, I believe; you are all dismissed."

There it was. The queen had provided him, as they had arranged, with the perfect opportunity to set out his bait for the council members to see. And, Bogo thought as he stood up from the table, while none of the others knew it yet, at least one of them would be walking into a trap the instant they entered his cabin.


Author's Notes:

The aqueducts that the army is using for the first leg of their journey have been mentioned a few times before in this story; in chapter 12 Bogo watches the setting sun glint off the water in them from the palace, and in chapter 13 Judy notes that they only go as far as the ends of the Middle Baronies. Although the Romans, easily the most famous of aqueduct builders, didn't really use theirs for the transport of anything but water, that hasn't always been the case. In the 17th century the building of navigable aqueducts became more common as a means of linking canals to get cargo around more easily.

It took Judy about a day of travel to reach the edge of the Middle Baronies traveling from more or less the center of the city-state, but Bogo and his army are moving significantly faster. Rank, after all, does have its privileges, and taking ships as fast as they can go on a straight-path water way helps.

Paddle wheel driven ships were the major predecessor to modern screw-driven ships, and are significantly faster than either rowing or using a sail. Screw drives didn't become common until around the 19th century, but experiments with putting paddle wheels on boats date to about when steam engines were first invented. The ship Bogo is aboard has an alchemical engine rather than something that burns wood or coal; the modern era of this story is not without its marvels.

Unlike some mammals, but like humans, sheep can vomit. Seasickness also isn't a uniquely human phenomenon, as some animals will also become ill.

Chapter 13 did mention that beyond the Outer Wall there appears to be nothing but scrublands, and this chapter goes a bit more into what's been observed out there. The War Gate is the same gate that Judy left through all the way back in chapter 1; as mentioned there it was built where a hole was punched through the wall long ago.

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