Someone was on her trail.
Deline knew it. She could feel it in the prickle on the back of her neck, the way that sometimes it seemed like there was an extra shadow to her shadow, the unsettled feeling that left her leaving her bed in the middle of the night and hitting the road again.
She had been moving for days – no, weeks. She had left Dekleg behind more than five days ago, and with it the laws that she’d broken. And Dekleg did not talk to the Elherion Empire, nor the Empire to Dekleg, much less exchange prisoners. Deline was not even sure if they had any laws in common – which, since she’d spent the last ten years before Dekleg in the Empire, was how she’d gotten in trouble in the first place.
But someone was tracking her, and she didn’t imagine they were doing it to ask her to work for them or to shake her hand for the fine things she’d done in deep Dekleg, where she had dealt with some frankly horrible things.
And she was going to catch them before they caught her.
She overnighted in a small cabin, the sort of place that looked like she was helpless – all out in the open, nobody to rescue her – and made sure she’d locked the doors and the shutters. Then she waited.
When the knife went down on her bed, she wasn’t in it; her lariat dropped onto the attacker’s shoulders and up around his neck while her feet slammed into his face. This cabin had very nice rafters.
It wasn’t a nice move, but he’d just proven his willingness to kill her, and that made him fair game. She landed on him while he was still recovering and bound his wrists behind his back with a quick-knot spelled rope.
“Citizenship?” she snarled. If he was Dekleg, she could do what she wanted, but-
“Halorin,” he coughed.
She relaxed. Halor didn’t like the Empire, either.
“Why did you try to kill me?’
“Contract. The Deklegion are paying well for your head on a pike.”
“Yeah, I’m somehow not surprised. You, however, are not cashing in that bounty. I’m going to give you three choices.”
“Isn’t it usually two?”
“Maybe in Dekleg. But here, well, with me, you get three.”
“I’m listening. “
He was also trying the ropes, but she knew what she was doing when it came to ropes.
“First. I kill you. Even if I thought I’d get caught, killing someone trying to kill me is legal in the Empire, especially for me.”
“Especially for — what does that mean?”
“You really ought to learn who you’re attacking. Second. I sell you to the slavers You’ll have a chance of getting away — I imagine you’re smart, since you found me, but on the other hand, you didn’t notice that you’d walked into a trap, and I have a feeling you don’t know much about the Empire.”
“The Empire doesn’t have slavers.” He had figured out the trick about the rope — it didn’t get tighter as you struggled, but it did get sharper. He stilled.
“No. Slavery in the Empire is a lot more genteel than that. But we’re not that far from a trading down, and Deklegioni and Carrup slavers are allowed in there. It’s a gamble — but it’s a slightly better chance of survival than me slitting your throat right here.”
“Makes a point.”
“What’s the third choice?”
“Third choice is the Bear-stone bracelet and you work for me.”
He tensed up again. “So, slavery or slavery… or death”
“Hard labor with a chance of escape, or occasional moments of stabbing people with no chance of escape at all. Or death.” She sat back on her heels and watched him. “I’d apologize for hard choices, but you did just try to kill me.”
“The Deklegion are paying really well for your head.”
“So there will be more coming, good to know.”
He pulled himself into a sitting position.“So. Three bad choices, with varying but high chance of death in all of them.”
“Yep.” She smiled humorlessly at him. His knife was still buried in the bedding. It wasn’t like he didn’t know death when he saw it. “What will it be?”