Deline woke to find herself pressed up against Carrone and his arm draped over her in turn. She moved slowly, trying not to wake him. She needed to get her thoughts together and form a plan. “Head off into nowhere” was more like a flight in terror than an actual battle plan, and it would take her longer and longer to get home.
That would, of course, probably make Carrone happy. Out here, he could still pretend everything was more or less the same – except the part where he was bound to her and they were being hunted by bounty hunters that had been his associates.
Come to think of it, that wasn’t much the same at all, was it? She glanced over at him. She knew nothing about him, except that he had tried to kill her – twice – and failed – twice and then saved her life from another bounty hunter.
She knew he claimed to be from Halor, and he looked enough like it to be telling the truth, and that he worked in the Empire enough to have a contact here.
Then again, what did he know about her? Not much except that she’d irritated Dekleg enough for them to send bounty hunters after her, and she certainly wasn’t the only one of those.
“Your teeth grind when you think.” He tilted his head up at her and blinked sleep-filled eyes at her. “Or you’re thinking of killing me and getting rid of the body, but I don’t think I snore that badly.”
“How are you at mountaineering? Surviving outside of towns?”
“I’ve done it. Not my favorite thing, but I can manage it. I mean, the easy thing is tracking people through mountains or wilderness. Actually living there is another story. I’m a city boy.”
“Well, hopefully, we won’t have to live anywhere for long. I’ve sent in coded reports, but it would be nice to actually get home and report.”
“What were you doing, anyway?”
“My job.” She held up her hands. “I’ll tell you. But I’ll tell you when we’re secure and we’re probably not being chased by Deklegion-hired bounty hunters anymore. I don’t like the idea of spreading national secrets where someone might be listening.”
“National secrets?” He sat up and looked at her. “You are important. They’re under-paying.”
“They – hopefully – don’t know. I’m just another Imperial agent, hopefully.”
“That’s what the brief said. So. I don’t know this area. Where are we heading?”
“The best idea would be to find a couple horses. Failing that, we’re going to go up into the mountains and take my favorite pass. From there, we’re going to do a couple weird loops, lie low for a week, and if we hear nothing in that time, make one more loop and head to the Imperial seat. “
“And if we hear something?”
“If what we hear doesn’t kill us, then we’re going to take one of the back routes I know and lay low for another week. And hopefully lose the last of the hunters.”
“Since you nearly lost me with your first evasions, I trust you.”
“But I didn’t lose that guy in the carriage,” she countered.
“Devin. He’s sneaky. He’s a tracker, specializes in people like you. Well, he was. Not my thing, not a lot of people’s thing.”
“But there’s more?”
“There are, hrn. Two more that I can think of. Neither of them are Empire specialists like Devin was. There’s not so much call for bounty hunting up here. People here generally either stay in the Empire or stay out of it, not like – not like you.”
She stretched. “I’m a rare case. And since Dekleg doesn’t really like us, I’m not surprised that there’s not much cross-traffic. It’s an open enough border, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s a friendly border.”
“What did you do to piss Dekleg off, anyway?”
“Me? Or the Empire?”
“Me? I broke some laws. Some of them – most of them – aren’t laws in the Empire – and the one I was there to handle, well, it’s, ah, the reverse of it is illegal in the Empire and the Empire has strong feelings about some things.”
“I didn’t think a nation could have feelings.” He smirked over at her.
“You just asked me how I pissed off a nation,” she pointed out. “So, the Empire and Dekleg disagree on almost everything, politically. And then there’s the matters in which they more than disagree.”
“So like poaching. Why doesn’t one just invade the other and be done with it?”
“Poaching’s a minor example. And terrain and our neighbors – like your home nation – make that tricky at best, deadly at worst. They’re stuck, the Empire and Dekleg, in a bit of a tug-of-war.”
“Sometimes you say ‘us’ and sometimes you talk about the Empire like it’s not you,” he pointed out.
“Both are true. Sometimes it depends on how I’m feeling.”
“How can – you know, forget I asked. You’ll tell me when you want to, or you won’t, and I’ll – well, I’m stuck with it.”
“Shouldn’t have tried to kill me if you didn’t want to end up playing by my rules.” She stood up, slowly, stretching.
“You know, usually when I target people, they end up, well, dead, not dragging me around the countryside… down! Hsst.”
She dropped down to the ground as he darted across the small treehouse on all fours, peering out a crack between two boards.