They walked – catching rides from local farmers twice – until the sun was just threatening to disappear behind the mountains. By the time they clambered into the slight curvature of the hill that made something that could, with generosity and broad definitions, be called a cave, they had been trading bad jokes and worse stories for more than an hour, started when Carrone told her one about a bear – the animal sort – that walked into a tavern.
“Can you…” He waved his hands.
“I can. Are you sure you want me to?”
He pointed at the sky. “It might not be planning on one of your stupid man-killer storms, but it’s going to do something tonight, and I don’t want to sleep wet. Or bug-eaten.”
“I don’t, either.” She dug into her bag until she found everything she needed; he, in the meantime, laid out the bedrolls (there was just enough room for the two of them pressed against each other in the dubious shelter they’d found) and then dug around for cooking supplies.
Her stomach growled as she set up the protection spell and the “travelling accomodations” spell that would make their bedrolls more comfortable and the place as a whole seem more hospitable.
By the time she was done, Carrone had managed a decent gruel of some sort. “We need meat,” he sighed, “but not tonight. Maybe tomorrow while we’re walking.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” she agreed. She had to force herself to stay awake long enough to eat, despite the growling and grumbling of her stomach. “This isn’t bad.”
“You sound surprised.”
“Pleased.” She smiled crookedly at him. “Possibly surprised. That would be the third time you’ve surprised me today.”
“Third? Asking for the sorcer – witcher – magic stuff, and…?”
“Asta ri bren,” she murmured. “That was a bit of a surprise.”
“Oh.” He flushed and looked away, though there was nowhere to look in the cavelet. “Well.” He cleared his throat. “I mean. Nobody is expecting you to be travelling with a lover, none of the bounty hunters – I mean, until the one you let go gets to them.” He huffed again. “Could’ve killed her, you know. Should have.”
“You were saying?” She scooped some more food into her mouth and watched his face.
He glowered at her. “I was saying, well. If they think you’re travelling with a lover, it’s less likely that they’ll connect you with a lone Imperial agent on the run. So if I’m going to be, ah, stuck by your side, I might as well act like I enjoy it – at least around other people.”
“Hunh.” She ate slowly, giving herself time to think about that. “That’s pretty clever. I wish I knew how they keep finding us, though. We’re not leaving that wide of a trail.”
“Decklegion agents,” he muttered. “There won’t be a lot of them, but we’re still pretty close to the border, all things considered. What?” He frowned at her expression. “Of course there’s agents. You’re an Imperial agent that was just on-mission in the middle of Dekleg. A mission that was enough of an annoyance to them that they sent at least three bounty hunters after you. Probably closer to ten, with the price on your head.”
“They’re in my country.“ She rolled her shoulders as if that would shake the feeling off. “They’re sneaking round and spying in my land.”
She stopped, because Carrone was looking at her with a strange look. “What?” She tilted her head at him. “It is. I mean-”
“Why,” he asked slowly, “do I have a feeling that you mean something different than if I said Halor is my country?”
She winced and tried to recover her slip. “Well, do you work for Halor as I work for the Empire?”
“Well, no.” His eyes narrowed. “Do you work for the Empire, then?”
“I’m an Imperial Agent. You said so yourself.”
“But did you say it, or did I just assume because you were Imperial, and in Dekleg, and they were chasing after you?”
Deline sighed. She wasn’t going to be able to keep it from him any longer, not and be comfortable travelling with him. Why she was comfortable at all with it was a question she still hadn’t answered; after all, they’d met each other by trying to kill one another.
“I am an agent of the Bear Empire. I am…. they call them Claws.”
“The Claws of the Bear are a myth.”
“But they also exist.” She looked at him steadily. “They’re a secret. There’s not just the Bear Claws, there’s the claws of the Lynx, too, and so on. There are many Claws, and they serve the empire.”
“The myth says that they rule the empire.” Carrone’s voice was shaky. “Did I try – did I try to kill an Empress?”
“At the moment,” Deline started. Her voice was kind of level but she knew that she was going to have trouble dissembling enough to fool him without lying to him, “there is only an Emperor. There would only be an Empress if the Emperor had married in a marriage of equals. I’m not sure how much history you know, but that’s only happened three or four times in the history of the Bear. Besides,” and now she could smile. They’d made the joke enough times amongst themselves, back in Claw training, “there are quite a few Claws. Even with extended marriages, even with stepped marriages, it would be hard for all the Claws to be married to the Emperor.”
“Well, there is a rumor that the claws are always the wives of the one wearing the Bear Crown,” he muttered. “You said..” His head lifted up slowly – “that Dekleg didn’t now who they were trying to kill.”
“I was having a bad moment,” she admitted. “I was, ah. Throwing a tantrum.”
“So who did I try to kill?”Want more?