Carrone was spending far too much time working on the way that the bedroll lay. It wasn’t like they had room to rearrange things, considering that their little cave was barely big enough for the two of them to sit up in and lie down in together. And he’d already cleaned up all the cooking supplies and re-packed them. t this point, it was clear that he was doing anything he could to postpone either looking at her or lying down next to her.
Deline would have bitten her tongue, but she was already holding it very firmly between her teeth. He would say something or he wouldn’t. She’d already said too much.
Eventually, he scooted in to the bedroll closer to the exit. She raised her eyebrows at him as he finally looked at her.
He cleared his throat.
“You. Uh. Sleep inside; I’m not the one people are trying to kill. Directly, I mean. Okay?”
“Okay,” she agreed. She slipped into the bedroll, glad for the comfort-spells. “Thank you.”
He didn’t speak for long enough that she thought he’d fallen asleep, long enough that she was starting to drift off. “So. Uh. You’re an – I mean. You’re the wife of an emperor. You… why?”
“Why what?” Despite the context, she didn’t think he meant why did you marry the emperor. That was a pity; she could have answered that one easily.
“Why.” He was quite for another long time. “Why would you like me? Why would you not just tie me to a promise or sell me into slavery?”
That was a harder one to answer. “I didn’t so much like you when I met you,” she admitted. “You were in the process of trying to kill me. But. I wanted some back-up, I wanted information, and – well, you impressed me. Not many people can track me as well as you did.”
“Two other people have.” He was sullen now, as if he hadn’t liked her answer.
“I don’t think they did, actually. They may have used contacts, as you said. They may have done something else. But they took too long. If they had been tracking me the way you did, they would have been on me at the same time you were, or close behind. So…” She raised her eyebrows at him and found herself smiling. “You did the best job of actually finding me.”
“I deserve a medal,” he muttered. He rubbed at the Bear-stone bracelet on his wrist.
“You deserve to be proud, I suppose.” She patted his shoulder, not sure why she was doing so. “If it’s any consolation – and I doubt it is – I’m glad you took the choice that you did.”
“Just because I saved your life,” he muttered.
“And because I don’t like killing people. But, ah.” She was being stupid. He still hated her, hated everything she stood for, and that was not going to change any time soon. “I was thinking more because I enjoy your company – well when you’re not angry at me.”
“So for five minutes each day,” he smirked.
“Five minutes during the day and most of the night,” she teased back. “If nothing else, you’re warm.”
“You know…” He actually looked thoughtful for a moment. “My mother and oldest sister told me to be ware of that – or not wary, more like know it.” He glowered for a moment. “This language you speak is still clumsy.”
“It’s because it’s several different languages all forced under one totem, like most of the rest of us.” She twisted her lips. “If you ever tell anyone that I said forced, I will – I will be in a great deal of trouble, I suppose. And bring you with me. The Junior wife has been rubbing off on me in some strange ways. She’s Fox,” she added.
“I don’t know what that means.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Or why you’d be in trouble for that. Or why your Junior Wife is…” He threw up his hands and huffed. “I thought i have a very good command of your language. Now, I don’t feel that way at all. The idioms are weird. The way you talk when you’re relaxed, that’s weird too. The way that you say things like they ought to make sense is very weird indeed. And then there’s stupid words like ‘be aware of’ and ‘be ware of’ that mean completely different things. And Fox? What is Fox?”
Deline did not chuckle. She did stare at the ceiling for a few minutes. “The story is that we were all the children of different spirits once, and that some of them — us — joined together to form the Bear Empire. It’s not so much a story as it is a pretty way of describing what actually happened. The Mountain Lion, the Fox, the Elk, the Bear – we’re all still here. Different totems, all of them obeying, folded under the aegis of, the Bear and the Bear Priests. That’s why it’s the Bear Empire.
“So. My sister-wife, Junior Wife, she’s of the Fox tribe. And they’re known for being any number of things, but one of those is difficult. So when she grabs on to something – well, she likes to gnaw it to death. And the thing she’s been gnawing lately, although the line for the whole Imperial Corridor is supposed to be that the Empire is one big happy family, like our marriage, like the council, well, she’s been chewing on the loss of the Fox language.”
Deline tilted her head and looked at him. “Sometimes I think that the River isn’t the only thing that kept us from invading Dekleg. Sometimes I think that the Dekleg are just too different. But if that were the case, than the Halorans would be, reasonably, even more different, right? And I don’t find you unbearably different or strange.” She hesitated. “I suppose you’ve just admitted that I’m different and strange, though.” Her lips curled up, although she wasn’t amused so much as abashed.
“Well,” he coughed. “Sometimes I just feel far from home. But, you know. Well. The Halor have what you’re describing – spirit-protectors. I just always thought the Bear was all under the Bear, considering the Empire holds its name.”
Deline sat up and considered him. “That… that is interesting.”
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