Twenty-One: Revelations in the Bear Empire

First: Running in the Bear Empire
Previous: Surprises in the Bear Empire

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Deline wished for some sort of storm, some intrusion – even a beast or another bounty hunter.  If she closed her eyes and tried, if she prayed her hardest, would a Bear show up from The Bear?

It was unlikely.  She took a few breaths and smiled at Carrone, although she thought the smile was as shaky as she felt.  

Damnit, why did this matter?  He’d already tried to kill her.  He’d already saved her life. He already hated her for using magery.  And she already wasn’t all that fond of him for trying to kill her, along with everything else.

“I haven’t lied yet,” she told him slowly.  “My name is Deline.”

“That’s common in the Bear Empire like Carrone is common in Halor,” he pointed out.  He was watching her very carefully.

“I’m the Emperor’s Second Wife.  I am also the chief of the Bear Claws, and one of the Empire’s main agents abroad.  Or, well… I was.” She had been ignoring that for days. She sighed and leaned against the wall of the cave, ignoring Carrone’s expression for the moment.  “It seems my cover is truly blown and, without taking on a new persona, which is hard for anyone and nearly impossible for someone who’s known…”

“How are you an empress running covert missions in another country?”

“I’m not an empress.”  Now she looked at his face.  He looked – he looked betrayed.  Why?  What right did he have to be getting all upset about these thing.  “I’m not,” she insisted.  “I’m the second wife of the Emperor.  He has three. The other two have at least one spouse each. I’m, ah, a little behind in that matter,” she shrugged, “but I suppose now that I’m blown for international work I can have time for more interesting matters.”

“You’re an empress.”

“Would you stop saying that?”  She glared at him. “I know Halor has line and stepped marriages.  I know you have morganatic marriages.”

He huffed at her.  “Our King or Queen marries once, to avoid issues with succession.  Whose children come next?”

“It’s, well.  It’s more complicated than that.”  She looked at him sidelong. “I do hope it doesn’t come to that for a while.”

“Well, if the emperor is your husband, I can imagine that you wouldn’t want him to die.  But what about him?” He leaned forward. “How can he be your husband, be your spouse, and send you off into a mission that nearly killed you?  Might still kill you?”

She looked away.  She had nowhere to move, but the intensity in his eyes was too much.  “I was a Bear Claw – The Claw – before I was the Emperor’s wife.  You’re right. The Claws are often in important positions in the Empire. They could rule; they’re always in a position where they could inherit the throne, at least the chief of each of the Claw’s Hands.  But we don’t, we almost never do.”

“You’re an-”  He shook his head.  “No wonder you said that Dekleg would regret it if they killed you.  You’re –  what are you you doing running around the backwoods and mountains of the Empire with a bounty hunter?”

“Avoiding getting killed by other bounty hunters because my last mission went worse than anyone expected.”  She stared at the other side of their little shelter. “There was bad intel. That much I know. And I’ve got to get home and get that information to them.”  She had been trying not to think too hard about that.

“If you die on the way, nobody gets the information,” he pointed out.  “You can’t even order me to take it for you, because I’ll be dead, too.”

“I know.”  She bit her lip. “And I don’t trust it to any messenger service.  But the longer we’re out-”

“The longer you’re out, the longer whoever gave you the bad information is still there giving bad intel, right?”  He looked sympathetic. “Maybe what you did with that last one will work. Maybe we’ll go a month, two months and nothing will happen, and we’ll just be holed up quietly in the middle of the mountains…”

He trailed off, a look going over her collarbone to her shoulders and then away, as if he had thought of something all of a sudden.

The way his hand went back to rubbing his wrist, Deline had an idea what he was thinking of.  “Maybe not… months. Maybe… weeks.”

“Well, if we go more than three nights without someone trying to kill us, it’ll be a new record.”  

“All right.  Let’s worry about not being killed for a while first.  After that – after that, we can get ourselves back home.”

“To the capitol, you mean.”

“Yeah.”  She lay down slowly, wriggling into the bedding.  “I haven’t been home in ages.”

“I’m never going home again.”  He lay down next to her, his back to her, staring out at the outside of their little cave.  “I always knew this job might kill me. Maybe I should have just – maybe I should have taken the offer of death.”

Deline stayed quiet.  She had a feeling he wasn’t really talking to her, anyway.

“You’re – you’re the Emperor’s Wife.  Not his first wife, sure.  Not actually an empress. I have no idea how the Empire does these things.  I thought, uh.” He coughed and didn’t say anything for a few minutes. “For a while, I thought maybe you’d kidnapped me because you liked me, or because you – I mean, not liked me.  Maybe was impressed by me?  I was trying to kill you.  Needed the help?”

Deline knew she shouldn’t say what she was going to say next.  

She also knew that she was going to say it.

She cleared her throat.

“You weren’t wrong.”

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