“So that’s how you did that knot.”
“What? Oh, yes.” Deline tightened up the last of the spell-rope knots around their would-be murderer with a yank.
“Do they teach that in spy training in the Empire?” Carrone shifted the blade he was holding so that it was in a slightly less threatening position against the assassin’s throat.
“That’s at least three assumptions.” She sat back and looked at the woman, who glared balefully at her over the thick gag of rag and socks. Dirty socks; Deline was not in a charitable mood.
“Hunh? I guess it is. Are you going to give her the—”
“Hsst.” She looked down at the woman. “You have three choices.”
“Hey!” Carrone grumbled. Deline ignored him.
The woman shifted, found that the ropes tightened around her, and nodded carefully at Deline.
“Death. Death is easy. It’ll be a quick, simple dath and I’ll have you buried properly.”
The woman did not move. She was still and silent, barely breathing.
“Slavery. I sell you to the nearest slavers. You will probably survive that. You’re clever. You very nearly managed to kill me.”
The woman flinched very slightly. She gave no other response.
“Or you swear on the Mountain Cat, the Bear, and your own deity that you will do the following, and then you do it: leave this town and this country. Do not attack me or follow me ever again. And tell any other Bounty Hunters that you meet that I am off-limits. That the Deklegion should have called off the contract. Do that and I stay free of attacks for one season, one full season, which means to the end of the summer, and I will send you the fee you would have gotten for my bounty.”
“Are you kidding?” Carrone glared at her. “There’s no way – that’s not-”
“Do you think it has a chance of working?”
“You just offered to pay your own bounty – or to kill her. What do you think? She’ll try. Whether or not she succeeds is up to how good she is and how determined the other hunters are. If there are any left. Why didn’t you offer me that deal?” He was on the edge of whining.
“I wouldn’t have caught her without you.” Deline answered blandly, her eyes still on the woman.
“Well, that’s – hey. You caught me on your own.”
“Exactly. You. Blink once for death, twice for slavery, and three times for the deal I’m offering.”
The woman closed her eyes. For a long moment, she did not open them. Deline counted heartbeats on the woman’s pulse, the way her neck was moving slowly. One, two, three, four.
Death was the least pleasant of the options. Deline steeled herself.
The woman opened her eyes and blinked three times rapidly.
Carrone scoffed. “But she’ll just-”
“Bounty. One year.” Deline removed the gag from the woman’s mouth. “It’s a better deal than a slave’s yoke or a steel knife across her throat. And she knows it.”
“I swear.” The woman cleared her throat, moved to spit, and clearly thought better of it and swallowed twice. “I swear on your Bear and the Mountain Cat. I swear on the Lady of the Deep Waters and the Lord of the Highest Sky, and on my own honor. When you free me I will leave this town and as soon as I can I will leave this country. And I will… I will tell any other bounty hunters I encounter that they ought to drop the contract, and that the Deklegion should have called off the contract. How will I collect?”
“We’ll find you.” Deline smiled grimly. “You won’t be that hard to find if I ask at the Deklegion bounty halls, will you?”
“No.” The woman still looked worried. “They’re not offering enough for you.”
“You’re likely the third hunter to have that opinion. I didn’t give the second one a choice, so you ought to be grateful.”
“Second?” She considered Carrone. “Hunh. I-” She cleared her throat again. “Grateful. Yeah. Not like it’s much of a choice.”
“You should get out of here.” Deline stripped off the woman’s obvious weapons and unlooped the rope holding her. “There. Leave. And don’t come back.”
The woman studied her weapons, touched three places that Deline hadn’t searched, and left, backing out of the room.
“Do you think that will work?” Carrone gathered up the woman’s weapons.
“I think it has a strong chance of working.”
“And you don’t like killing people,” he guessed.
“And I don’t like killing people,” she agreed. She glanced over at him. Would he take that as a weakness?
He rubbed the Bear-stone bracelet around his wrist. “You didn’t give me that choice.”
“I didn’t expect there’d be a double handful of bounty hunters following me, either.” She felt like she was apologizing and didn’t quite know why. “I still don’t know. She might be the last one. but this way, I didn’t have to kill her.”
“Would you have done it? Killed me and left my body to rot in that cabin?”
She picked up the spell-rope and put it back in her bag, thinking about the night when it had been him in the rope. “Would you have done it?” she countered. “Chopped off my head and left the rest of me to rot in that cabin?”
“I was doing my job.” He rubbed the bracelet again. She wondered what he was thinking. She considered, for a moment, making him tell her.
“So was I. So am I. So were you, when you caught that hunter.”
He rolled his shoulders. “You don’t like killing.”
Nothing in his expression told her why he was repeating himself.
“Doesn’t mean I don’t do it,” she offered. “Come on, Carrone. Let’s get a little sleep if we can.”
“Might be a good way to die.” Still, he hauled the blankets onto the floor and tilted the mattress up against the wall, providing something of a shield. “Hunh.” He flopped down on the bed, closer to the wall. “You don’t like killing.”