The princess swallowed heavily at the words, but before either Judy or Nick could say anything she spoke. "What's the pass phrase?" she asked.
Her voice wavered slightly with an adolescent crack but there was a firmness to it as well, a ghost of the queen's commanding presence. There was no immediate response from beyond the door. The princess licked her lips as she reached into the cabinet and pulled free a sabre—one with a sharpened edge—and hefted it in her paw. Judy did the same, drawing her own sabre free of its sheath. Nick, meanwhile, had pulled out his alchemical focuses and was setting them carefully on the table. "This door won't open unless—" the princess began, but she never got the chance to finish.
There was suddenly a horrible banging noise as something hit the carriage, hard, and then up and down traded places with a stomach-churning speed. The princess and Nick both cried out in alarm as the carriage rolled with bruising force, the air suddenly full of missiles as everything not securely fastened to something became a projectile. The incongruous scent of cucumber-flavored water filled the air as the delicate carafe smashed to pieces and created a storm of shards. The back of Judy's head hit one of the light fixtures mounted to the wall of the carriage hard enough that she saw stars and felt a hot and sticky trickle of blood going down her neck as the carriage bounced one final time and came to a stop on its side. Shrieks of pain and shouts Judy couldn't quite make out over the sudden throbbing in her head came from outside the carriage, but inside the only sound Judy could hear was the princess taking short and tight sobbing breaths.
Dazed, Judy looked over, her head seeming to move sluggishly. She was sitting on what had been a wall, and the princess was in the opposite corner cradling her wrist. Her right arm had developed a disconcerting bend to it, obviously broken by the tumbling of the carriage, but the young chimera was doing her best to keep on a brave face despite how terribly it must have hurt. Nick was sprawled between them, flat on his back, bleeding from at least half a dozen small cuts in his face but still breathing. "Are you alright?" Judy croaked; her voice sounded terribly faint and far away to her own ears.
Nick simply groaned in response, but managed to push himself up to a sitting position. The princess nodded. "My— My arm is broken," she said, her voice tight, "But I think that's it."
"We landed door side down," Nick observed as he unsteadily made his way to his feet, "That's something."
He was right. The carriage only had a single door, and the wall it was in was now the floor. Judy forced herself to stand and was suddenly overcome with a wave of vertigo she did her best to hide by fumbling around for her sabre and picking it up. "What about you, commandant?" he asked.
Her new title sounded odd when Nick said it, but there was no missing the frown of concern that accompanied the words. "Hit my head," Judy said, relieved to find that the slow spinning of the room was stopping even if the pounding in her head barely lessened, "I'll be fine. Someone might still try to get in."
Judy gestured with her sabre to take in the carriage as she spoke. With the door suddenly inaccessible—except perhaps by a mole—there wasn't any other obvious way in. For the sake of what Judy could only assume was the protection of the royal family, the carriage had been built without windows. The light fixtures of alchemical torches, one of which had a smear of blood across the crystal from where the back of Judy's head had hit it, meant the interior was bright rather than oppressively dark as it would have been otherwise; although there were presumably vents for air to the outside they were either so cunningly hidden or so small that Judy couldn't see them.
Judy did her best to marshal her thoughts and ignore the pain radiating from the swelling lump on her head to try to listen to what was going on outside the carriage. There had been, she was quite sure, mammals screaming as the carriage had flipped. The horses pulling the carriage seemed like the likely candidates for that; they might have taken a nasty tumble. There were voices speaking outside the carriage, but so many and so far away that they were difficult to distinguish.
"I'm guessing you don't want me to make a door," Nick said, speaking in a low voice as he moved to stand at Judy's side.
She shook her head, focusing intently on trying to figure out what was happening. The princess's carriage had been at the back of the procession heading toward Phoenix, where it would have the greatest protection from any threats coming from the settlement. The number of guards around the carriage had been surprisingly small; it was almost as though Bogo was trying to provoke an attack. Not that Judy seriously believed the stolid and dour buffalo would be so reckless, but it was odd.
"We guard the princess until someone comes with the right pass phrase," Judy said as firmly as she could.
"And what if that never happens?" Nick asked, his voice still low.
"Would you be able to make a tunnel to safety from the door?" Judy asked, gesturing at the door.
If, by some catastrophe, the queen, Bogo, and everyone else they had trusted was dead, she'd fight to keep the princess safe for as long as possible. But it would be a senseless waste to have Nick and the princess die with her. Judy gripped her sabre more tightly, and found that she really hoped it didn't come to that. "I can't promise that it'll lead to safety," Nick said, and there was a wryly cynical cast to his features, "But I can definitely make a tunnel. Let me see if I can do anything about her arm, first."
Nick's steps as he walked away were somewhat ginger, but other than the shallow cuts in his face from the broken carafe he looked fine. Judy turned back to face the wall that had once been the floor, examining it closely. The carriage had been very solidly built; so far as she could tell nothing had buckled or broken even after it had flipped. The former floor might be the most obvious weak spot, though, depending on how the wheels and axles connected to it. Judy tried remembering, but she couldn't think of anything that had particularly stood out.
And then the wall exploded.
For the second time in a matter of minutes, Judy found herself tumbling through the air again, and the pain from hitting the lump on the back of her head against a wall brought tears to her eyes. Her ears were ringing, and when she tried pushing herself away from the wall it felt like she was trying to wade through a swamp. The princess was coated in dust, still huddled miserably against a wall and clutching at her broken arm, which had been partially splinted. And then when Judy saw Nick her heart almost stopped. He was moving feebly, pinned beneath a large and twisted chunk of metal that looked like it might have been part of the carriage's axle, and Judy called his name in a voice she couldn't even hear over the ringing in her ears. But then she caught a flash of motion out of the corner of her eye and turned instinctively.
It was a decision that saved her life. A male sheep, burlier and with longer wool than Diego Cencerro, was rushing at her with truly unnatural speed, a spear pointed right at her as his mouth twisted in a furious sneer. Her arm snapped up reflexively, the instinct long trained in, and somehow her sabre was miraculously still in her paw. Judy clumsily deflected the blow, feeling the shock of it all the way up her shoulder; the sheep had unnatural strength in addition to his unnatural speed. Judy's paw felt suddenly nerveless from the force of the strike, even though it had barely glanced by the blade as she redirected the strike. The sheep was still coming, though, even though the deadly tip of his spear was already past her. He lowered his head, pointing his curling horns right at her, and before Judy could disengage her sabre and do anything with it he head-butted her.
The blow felt like she had been swatted aside by an elephant; Judy felt her breastplate crumple under the sheep's charge and slam into her chest so hard it knocked her breath out. Judy's legs buckled underneath her and she slipped to the floor, landing flat on her back and sliding a few feet as she reached up with her free paw and wrapped it around the shaft of the sheep's spear.
She might as well have been a mouse for all the difference it seemed to make to him. The sheep was snarling something wordless as he pulled his spear up so fast that Judy barely managed to stay along for the ride, and he gave it a hard jerk to try to shake her loose. Judy whipped outwards, her paw burning from the friction as she slid a good six inches, but then she managed to bring her sabre up and make a strike at one of the sheep's wrists.
It was a clumsy blow, nearly as artless as the swing of a hatchet, but the sabre Nick had made her was incredibly sharp. It sliced through the thick black tunic the sheep wore and bit into his arm with almost no resistance, and Judy was rewarded by the sheep's grip on the spear loosening. Judy took advantage of the room she had gained and swung again, managing to catch the sheep in the gut.
The ringing in her ears had subsided enough that she heard his horrible squeal of pain, although she wished that she hadn't; it felt as though it was burning itself into her mind. And then the attacker collapsed as though he was boneless, his eyes rolling up into his head and the spear clattering to the floor as he lost his grip on it an instant before he fell too. Judy watched him for a moment, and it felt as though the details she had only noticed in passing before were flooding into her mind. She didn't recognize the sheep at all, which was unsurprising considering that she didn't know very many sheep. His clothes vaguely resembled the cloth parts of a City Guard uniform, all made of thickly quilted fabric, but they were a dull black rather than vivid red. The torc at his neck was bronze, as Nick's had been, and just as unadorned with any sort of marker of affiliation. His chest didn't seem to be rising or falling and his eyes were closed, so Judy turned away from him to look at the Princess. "Are you alright, Princess Isabel?" Judy asked gently.
The chimera didn't look to have suffered any additional injuries in the explosion of the side of the carriage—something she'd have to ask Nick about, since it seemed like alchemy could have been at work—but for the moment she focused on her duty no matter how badly she wanted to run to Nick's side.
"I'm fine," the princess said in a small voice, "I'm fine."
"Good," Judy said, slow relief filling her, "That's goo—"
"Judy, behind you!" Nick's voice interrupted her.
She whirled around just in time to see the would-be assassin lifting a small knife, his arm cocked and prepared in a throwing motion. Judy swung her sabre down at him without the chance for any conscious thought to pass through her head. The sheep stopped moving at all after a final violent spasm and Judy stared down at him, the fingers holding the sabre suddenly numb. It was the first time she had ever killed a mammal, and a sick feeling welled up in her chest. He had been trying to kill the princess, and he had nearly killed her. But everything he had ever been or would ever be was gone now, and she was responsible.
Judy wobbled on her feet, feeling hot tears forming in her eyes. The academy had tried to prepare future officers for the possibility that they might have to kill a mammal in the line of duty. That sometimes there would be no alternative to deadly force. Judy had listened attentively to those lectures, taking her usual copious notes, but some part of her had always assumed that she would be one of those officers who never had to kill. It had been arrogance, she realized, arrogance of the sort that did not befit an officer. She had always been so confident that she could find another way, that if she had been in the position of any one of those officers who had come in to speak of the time they had killed she would brought the suspect down non-fatally. But in the heat of the moment, she had seen for herself exactly who she was. There had been no hesitation, no demand for the sheep to drop his weapon. She had seen only the danger and reacted without as much as the chance to think about it.
"Commandant Totchli," the princess's voice suddenly interrupted Judy's thoughts.
She turned slowly, feeling almost as dazed as she had the first time she had bounced off the walls of the carriage. The princess had managed to stand and walk over to her, although her broken arm must have made that difficult with how it was constrained by a sling. Nick was still on the floor, pinned beneath a chunk of metal, but he was looking at her, his eyes steady and focused as he futilely pushed against the piece of debris holding him down. "You... You..." the princess continued, stammering, and then she seemed to lose her words.
She pulled Judy into an awkward one-armed embrace, squeezing Judy tight with a surprising strength. Judy was shorter than the chimera, the top of her head not even coming up to the bottom of Princess Isabel's chin, but she could feel her fine clothes and the peculiar texture of her woolly fur. "Thank you," the princess managed at last, "Thank you. I was afraid. So afraid. And you..."
Princess Isabel trailed off, still hugging Judy tightly, and Judy looked past the princess to where Nick was pinned on the floor. He didn't seem to be in any immediate danger—a loop of metal, Judy saw, had miraculously gone around his leg at just the right spot where it had merely trapped him like a manacle instead of punching through flesh and bone—and from the symbols he had started drawing in the dust she supposed he was planning on using his alchemy to free himself.
"You did what you had to," Nick said, his tone rich with sympathy.
Judy rolled the words through her mind, trying them on for size. The assassin would have killed her. Had tried to kill her, in fact. And from there, he certainly would have killed the princess. Maybe even Nick, too, if he had thought the fox to be a threat. Neither one of them would have been in any shape to do anything about it, either, the princess incapacitated by pain and fear and Nick trapped under debris. Killing the sheep still didn't feel good; the question of what she could have done differently felt as though it would plague her for the rest of her life. But she had done her duty, protecting the mammal she had been assigned to protect and saving the life of the mammal she loved. "If you didn't regret it," Nick continued slowly, his voice low and nearly drowned out by the sobbing gasps for breath the princess was making into Judy's shoulder, "You wouldn't be..."
He trailed off for a moment, seemingly in an effort to find the right word. "You wouldn't be a good mammal," he finished at last, and Judy nodded slowly.
Maybe Nick was right. It was nice to think so, anyway, but if nothing else she had saved him. That had to count for something, and Judy did her best to make her peace with what she had done as she slowly and gently turned around with the princess still sobbing into her shoulder to keep watch through the ruined side of the carriage.
Nick and Judy were never informed of the plan Bogo and the queen worked out to try using the royal family as bait, so here Judy is musing that it almost seems like Bogo is being reckless and encouraging an attack. It may be something of a case of the pot calling the kettle black there for Judy to think someone else is being reckless, but there you have it.
On an unrelated note, you may have noticed that I have a new avatar now. It was a gift from TheWyvernsWeaver, and the full piece can be viewed here:
It was a fantastic gift that I'm very happy with, and if you've never checked out his work before Weaver is an amazing artist whose pieces are I think among the best in the fandom.
As always, thanks for reading! If you're so inclined as to leave a comment, I'd love to know what you thought.