"I must say, Lord Bogo, I'm quite happy to see that you trust me so much," Corazón said as he took his seat.
Bogo simply looked at the lion for a moment, but there wasn't the slightest hint of sarcasm in either his words or his face. Corazón seemed entirely sincere, and as he watched the lion settled more comfortably into his chair with an air of perfectly calm relaxation. "I don't follow," Bogo said.
A slight smile touched Corazón's features. "Come now," he said, "The three of us are alone in this carriage. Between myself, Lady Cencerro, and Lord Cerdo, I'm certainly the most physically capable. If I did wish to harm the queen—and I don't—you wouldn't be able to stop me. What else can that be besides trust?"
Bogo kept his face as neutral as he could, trying to puzzle out the meaning behind Corazón's words. Was he making a subtle threat? Simply mocking Bogo, needling him for his failures in front of the queen? Or was the lion actually arrogant enough to believe he stood a chance in a fight?
His musings were interrupted by the queen coughing politely. "I certainly hope we need never learn which of you would prevail," she said smoothly, "But Lord Bogo has my full confidence."
Corazón leaned forward slightly. "Even after what can be generously described as repeated failures?" he asked, looking right at the queen.
He's going on the attack, Bogo thought to himself. It was interesting, and not quite what he had expected. An aggressive posture meant one of two things in Bogo's mind, and that was true whether it was a desperate criminal lunging at an officer of the City Guard or a noble twisting under royal scrutiny. Either the mammal on the attack was absolutely confident that they would win—and despite torcs, he had seen the results of plenty of criminals who thought themselves incapable of overpowering a guardsmammal—or it was because attacking was their only remaining option.
Corazón was trying to grab control of the conversation, trying to put words in the queen's mouth and lead discussion away from himself and onto Bogo, of that Bogo was certain. But as to what it meant, he wasn't confident yet. "Yes," the queen said simply.
Corazón frowned and shifted back in his chair slightly, but his posture become no more deferential. "Surely, your majesty, you must know that mammals are wondering why the capable captain general has not gotten to the bottom of the matter yet," he said, and he spread his paws in an expansive gesture, "There is talk of him being involved."
That, Bogo was sure, had been a deliberate slight. He wondered if Corazón suspected that, even as they spoke, his personal belongings were being carefully searched by a few of the mammals in the City Guard Bogo trusted most, each one watching over another for added scrutiny. Certainly he had not simply invited Corazón into the queen's carriage the instant after the princess had left; he had spent some time carefully working out his strategy before putting it into motion and had the lion searched prior to being admitted. That Corazón was acting as though it was a simple social call to go before the queen and the head of the City Guard with no other mammals present certainly said something about him, but Bogo wasn't sure what it was. Desperation or confidence? He didn't know which would be worse.
The queen smiled politely, her own face the picture of neutrality. "Of course there is," she said, "Anyone close to me or the princess is not above scrutiny. Why, I do not doubt that there are some mammals who say I am trying to kill my own daughter, and spinning the most outrageous and insulting motives possible. That I am jealous of her, perhaps, or have always harbored a secret hatred for chimeras."
Her words were even, but a coldness crept into Queen Lana's eyes that struck Bogo as particularly dangerous. "When I hear such rumors," she continued, "I wonder at the motives of the mammals who spread them."
She folded her hooves primly in her laps and fell silent, seeming to scrutinize Corazón without doing anything as obvious as stare at him. The lord did, at least, have the good sense to look somewhat abashed. "Certainly, your majesty," he said, but his words were not hasty; if anything he had allowed the pause to be deliberately drawn out, "A wise course of action for any rumor."
He bowed his head slightly, and then looked back up at her. Bogo had positioned himself on the queen's right side, facing Corazón, and he studied the lion's face as carefully as he could without being obvious about it. "I asked you here for you to answer some questions," Bogo said, bluntly shifting the conversation back to his own intended route.
"Anything I can do to help your investigation, Lord Bogo," Corazón said agreeably, and then he glanced briefly at the queen and added, "Anything your majesty requests."
Bogo let the implied insult pass unremarked; if Corazón was hoping to get him angry and force him to say something he hadn't meant to he'd end up sorely disappointed. After Captain Nicholas, a fox of all mammals who had never even met Bogo before that day, had managed to get beneath his skin Bogo knew he couldn't afford another outburst of emotion. He pushed his rising anger down and continued on as though Corazón had remained silent. "Diego Cencerro is dead," Bogo said.
Corazón's face shifted into an appropriate mask of surprise. Perhaps too perfect, though. There was no question in Bogo's mind that Corazón's had a loathsome talent for apparent sincerity, but the lion's shock seemed almost grotesque to his eyes. "What?" Corazón said, "How could that have happened? Was it another assassin?"
His eyes darted around the room theatrically, as though there would be a blood-stained corpse he hadn't previously noticed just lying around. "His last words were particularly interesting," Bogo plunged on, deliberately ignoring Corazón's questions, "He said you were his co-conspirator in his plot."
It was a lie, of course, but no less useful for that. Corazón's response was a touch more genuine-looking than his surprise at the sheep's death; the lion's ears pressed back against his skull and his jaw fell slack, his noble features suddenly almost comically foolish with real surprise. "That's... That's absurd," Corazón protested, and while his voice was as rich as ever there was the slightest note of panic in it.
Whether that was because he was being falsely accused or because he thought the game was lost was another question entirely, and Bogo pressed his advantage, taking an almost savage pleasure in doing so. Lords of the court like Corazón seemed to delight in playing their word games, scoring slights in language so carefully chosen as to plausibly deny any deliberate intent, but Bogo was an experienced interrogator. "Is it?" Bogo asked, and then he pulled the book Totchli had recovered from Cencerro's office from an interior pocket of his uniform tunic. It was small in his massive hoof, but the contents were no less distinctive for that when he pulled it open to fan the pages before the lion, "We have the code book. You've been in touch with Cencerro long before this all started."
It had been at the queen's suggestion, as they had gone over their roles prior to bringing Corazón in, that Bogo had said "long before." It was, Queen Lana had said, appropriately vague to imply they knew more than they actually did, but not specific enough to let Corazón know that they knew less than they wanted him to think. If Bogo had said "weeks" when it had been months, or maybe even years, Corazón might have been tipped off. "Your majesty, please," Corazón said, rising to stand and face the queen.
He pushed a paw to his chest pleadingly, his tail lashing from side to side in agitation. "You cannot—"
"Sit. Down," the queen ordered, the full force of her authority in those two words uttered no louder than she normally spoke.
Corazón stumbled back into his seat, sitting so heavily it was as though he was a puppet with the strings cut. His nostrils flared with each breath, and Bogo wondered if he was at last seeing a genuine reaction or if it was simply a testament to Corazón's skill as an actor. "You say you aren't a co-conspirator of Cencerro," Bogo said slowly, drawing the words out.
"By all the gods I swear I'm not!" Corazón replied, and his voice almost broke, "I don't even know what you've accused Cencerro of doing."
He seemed entirely stripped away of his normal air of power, desperate to avoid punishment. But then, treason was a serious charge and it was true that the only mammals who had heard the testimonies of Tochtli and Nicholas were the queen, the princess, and himself. An innocent mammal, believing that Cencerro had nobly held the line for as long as he could against a barbarian horde, would indeed be surprised by the turn of events.
And a guilty mammal would be equally vehement in his denials.
"Can you prove it?" the queen asked, her voice soft but not gentle, "If there is anything you can tell us that might point to the true culprit, anything you've been holding back for political points later, now is the time."
Corazón's silence spoke volumes, and Bogo wondered at what it meant. If Corazón was guilty, surely he would try placing the blame on anyone else, no matter what, as he tried to save his own miserable hide. "I can offer nothing but my word," he said at last.
"I'm afraid that's not good enough," the queen said, "I'll need to have you confined for the time being."
Imprisonment was one of those things that any noble would have normally raged against as one of the ultimate insults to their rank. But Corazón was almost meek, as though his pride had been broken under their questioning. "As your majesty commands," he said.
Once Corazón had been taken away, the queen turned to Bogo. "What do you think?" she asked.
Bogo sighed, rubbing at his eyes with one hoof. He had honestly hoped that Corazón would have broken and the whole affair could have ended, but it seemed that he wasn't quite so lucky. "He's either innocent or an excellent actor," Bogo said at last, and the queen nodded.
"I know you don't care for him," she said.
"I don't," Bogo said, "But we may have tipped our hand too early."
"We still have Cerdo and Cencerro," the queen said, "As well as using the princess and me as bait. Perhaps this questioning will at last goad someone into action."
"Or it might convince them that acting is too dangerous," Bogo countered.
"Perhaps," the queen said, and Bogo thought he saw the burden of power in the way her head sagged slightly as she spoke, "But we are committed now. I don't think it wise to stop before questioning the last two of my advisers."
Bogo nodded. "Lady Cencerro, then," he said, "I'll have her brought in."
He rose to walk to the door of the carriage and make his request of the guards, but before he could put a hoof on the door knob the queen spoke. "Incidentally, Lord Bogo," she said, "What I said about your having my full confidence is true. So long as you're at my side, I'm sure none of them can hurt me."
A curious feeling rose in Bogo's chest that he wasn't sure had a name. It wasn't pride in the compliment or shame that she felt the need to encourage him. It was a feeling somewhere between despair and resolution, and Bogo simply nodded, glad his face was away from the queen. "Thank you, your majesty," he said.
"Diego's dead?" Lady Cencerro gasped, her tiny hooves flying to her mouth.
She had been far meeker than Corazón had been when she had been first brought in, but then she wasn't nearly as bold as her ally and sometime rival. If she had wondered at why she had been called in alone she hadn't shown it, although her face upon hearing the news was full of nothing but surprise. "We were never close, but... What happened to him? Was he hiding an injury from those awful barbarians? That'd be just like Diego."
Bogo would have been more suspicious if she had reacted more strongly; he would have seen tears as all but an admission of guilt, considering that she and her cousin must have only seen each other on rare occasions. Her choice of words, though, was particularly interesting. Was she guilty and trying to subtly suggest that she knew nothing by bringing up a detail from the story that Diego Cencerro had told, or was her surprise actually genuine?
"Before he died, he said you were working with him," Bogo said.
For Alba Cencerro, they had decided it was best if the queen stayed as silent as possible. It seemed likely that it would put her more on edge, considering her usual closeness to the queen, and there was no denying that Bogo was the more intimidating mammal between the two of them. Well, usually at least; when Queen Lana had ordered Corazón to sit Bogo thought a rampaging elephant would have yielded to her tone alone. He resisted the urge to shake his head as he brushed the stray thought aside, turning his focus solely to Cencerro. Her eyes had widened, and she was glancing from the queen's stony silence to Bogo and back again. "Working with him on what?" she asked, "I don't understand, what's going on?"
"We have the code book you've been using to encrypt your messages," Bogo said, pulling the little book out for the second time, "We know the two of you have been plotting for some time."
"Wh— What are you saying, Lord Bogo?" Cencerro demanded, her voice higher and more shrill than usual, "I have no idea what you mean, I've never seen that book before in my life. Please, your majesty, you know I would never plot against—"
"You deny any involvement with Diego Cencerro's treasonous plot, then?" Bogo demanded, cutting her off.
The little ewe looked almost to be hyperventilating, and if it wasn't a matter of the lives of the royal family Bogo might have felt some sympathy for how pathetic she looked, cringing under his glance. "I swear! By anything and everything I swear!" she said, "Someone must be framing me, that's the only answer. Please, just tell me what you have and... and... I'll do anything to prove I wasn't involved."
Tears actually started building up in her eyes as she spoke, and the little sheep became a whimpering mess. That, at least, seemed an appropriate response. "Alba, please," the queen said, speaking at last, "Anything you know about the plot on my daughter's life, you must tell me."
Cencerro's entire body shook with her sobs. "I don't know anything about it, I swear," she managed to say.
Bogo and the queen exchanged a wordless glance. "I'm afraid you can't return to your carriage yet," Bogo said as he stood.
The look of what seemed to be genuine fear that appeared on Cencerro's face didn't quite make Bogo pity her—he still had his suspicions, after all—it would have been quite the act to fake it. He saw her out of the carriage and under the watchful eyes of the guards before taking his seat at the queen's side again. "I don't know how you could stand interrogating mammals for a living," the queen said after a brief pause, "I feel awful."
She didn't elaborate, but then she didn't have to. Bogo knew that watching mammals pulled to their emotional limits was not a job for everyone, and to see two mammals that the queen had a decent amount of respect for must have been even harder for her. There were, Bogo knew, some interrogators who took a great deal of pleasure in breaking mammals with nothing more than their words, but he had always been suspicious of such mammals. "It's not easy," he admitted.
The queen sighed. "I may be permanently damaging some of the most important relationships to the smooth running of the kingdom, and we might not even learn anything useful."
"That's true, your majesty," Bogo said, inclining his head, "But it's a reasonable risk."
The queen considered his words for a long moment. "Then we may as well get this over with. Have Cerdo brought in."
Cerdo arrived to the carriage puffing for breath and mopping at his forehead with an elaborately embroidered handkerchief in one flabby arm. He murmured something beneath his breath as he stood in the doorway, and Bogo blinked. "What was that?" he asked.
"By the gods, today's a hot one," Cerdo said with a somewhat abashed smile, "I can't stand it."
In Bogo's opinion, the day was not particularly warm, but the pig's clothes were thick and elaborately embroidered, his stubby fingers festooned with rings, and Cerdo was undeniably fat. Small wonder, then, that he was uncomfortable. "A glass of water, then?" Bogo asked.
The gesture was a small one, but Bogo thought he'd have an easier time reading Cerdo's round and pudgy face if the pig wasn't also panting with discomfort. "That'd be lovely, thank you Lord Bogo," he said, and then collapsed into a chair.
Still, despite the fact that Bogo suspected Cerdo the least of the queen's three advisers, he paid more attention to the pig than he did to the carafe of cucumber water—a favorite of both the queen and the princess—and glass that he extracted from a cabinet in the wall of the carriage. Cerdo, however, seemed to be too beset by the heat to do much more than sit as he waited for Bogo to give him the glass, pulling at his stiff collar with one fat finger as he did so.
"Thank you, Lord Bogo," Cerdo said gratefully, lifting the glass and saluting him slightly as Bogo took his place at the queen's side.
Bogo waited until Cerdo had drained his glass—which didn't take very long—and set it aside on the table. "Diego Cencerro is—" Bogo began, but he never finished.
Cerdo had broken into a coughing fit, barking hoarsely as he put one hoof to his mouth and raised the other apologetically. But rather than ending, his coughs became louder and horribly wet sounding, the pig's jowls shaking with the force of each one before he suddenly stopped. Cerdo clutched at his throat, white foam coming from his mouth as he gagged, his eyes screwed shut in obvious pain. The pig shuddered as the pink skin of his face darkened first to red and then almost to purple, making awful and inarticulate noises as he flopped out of his chair and thrashed on the floor of the carriage. The queen rose, her eyes wide with surprise, but Bogo rushed over to Cerdo before she could move. "Stay back!" he roared.
Possibilities flew through his mind. Poison was the obvious answer, the carafe of cucumber water still on the table the obvious means of delivery. Unless Cerdo had been poisoned before entering the carriage and his apparent discomfort with the heat had been the first symptom. But if it had been the water, had it been meant for the queen? Or perhaps Cerdo had been poisoned neither before entering the carriage nor by the water and he was faking his response? But if Cerdo was faking it, perhaps planning on springing up and taking Bogo and the queen by surprise, he was doing an excellent job of it. His feet beat against the floor as he gasped helplessly for breath, and Bogo scooped him up easily despite the pig's significant bulk. Bogo ran for the door, keeping an eye on the pig's struggles for breath as he did so, but if Cerdo planned to harm him he gave no sign of it. The dying mammal's attention seemed to be focused entirely on keeping enough air in his lungs as his movements became increasingly weak.
Bogo banged on the door to the carriage with one massive hoof as he cradled Cerdo in the other. "Get me an alchemist and a doctor now!" he bellowed, but no response came from the other side.
"Guards!" he cried, as an uneasy twinge of alarm worked its way down his spine.
The guards outside the door should have never left under any circumstances, but after a horrible moment of silence broken only by the feeble gurgling coming from Cerdo, there was suddenly a pounding coming from the other side of the door. "Your majesty!" a voice cried, which Bogo vaguely recognized as one of the guards, "Someone's attacking the princess's carriage!"
In the real world, lions do sometimes prey on cape buffalo. However, buffalo are not exactly easy hunting if they're not sick or young, and in a one on one fight a lion's odds are not particularly good. Cape buffalo are enormously strong and have horns well suited to goring attackers, making them quite capable of defending themselves. Bogo, at least, is not intimidated at all by the potential threat that Corazón might pose.
Although the common phrase "sweating like a pig" is used to suggest that someone is sweating profusely, the truth is that the phrase is actually unrelated to the animal and that pigs don't actually sweat very much. The origins of the phrase comes from pig iron, which forms condensation on its surface, resembling sweat, as it cools. And for the mammals, while pigs do have some sweat glands they don't really have enough to rely on evaporative cooling as humans do.
As always, thanks for reading! If you're so inclined as to leave a comment I'd love to know what you thought!