Stupid Bears… Deline found her hands clenching into fists. “Don’t,” she warned Carrone. “Don’t. Don’t say that. Not the Bear, not the Fox, not the Lynx. Don’t.”
His head jerked up and his lips curled back in something that might have been meant to be a smile. “Is there anything else my lady would like to demand of me?”
“It’s not a demand, you bull-headed git. It’s advice. It might be – there are living bears and foxes, living lynx and elk, and sometimes those make us very angry. Or kill us,” she added more quietly. “But we don’t insult them. We don’t insult them because this is the county of the Bear, and because The Bear, The Fox, The Lynx, The Elk, all of them, they are here, and they listen.”
He worked his jaw for a minute. “If it’s not a demand,” he snarled, after a pause so long she thought he might have forgotten what they were talking about, “you might work on your phrasing. Because the damn bracelet has feelings about the matter. They’re not exactly comfortable, if you get my gist.”
“Neither is having the Mother Bear eat you because you spoke ill of her when she had just saved your hide.” She scooped up her pack and slid it on her shoulders. “Let’s get walking. We have a long way to go and I don’t want to spend all day in a cave with you.”
He jerked his head up and glared at her for a moment. She paused, waiting to see if he had anything to say – challenging him, she supposed, to say something else.
He looked back down and, mechanically, started putting his pants back on. “Where does her ladyship – oh, blast it, what’s the title for an empress? – what would you have of me now?”
She could almost chuckle. She didn’t. He was being a child and she had no time for that. “We’re walking west. We can make good time if we don’t encounter any more large animals or other ridiculous threats.”
“You can call the bear ridiculous,” he muttered as he slipped his pack over his shoulders. She ignored him again. He had a point.
She didn’t have anything to say to him when he was in a sullen, childish mood, so she brought down her wards. She was ready to step out of the cave when he put a hand on her shoulder. “Let me.” His voice was so quiet that he might have been mouthing the words.
Deline gave in, not with wonderful grace, and let him go first. It might be as close as she was going to get to admitting he’d been right – about the orders she hadn’t meant to give, about the ridiculous, about going first.
Nothing attacked them. Nothing even looked at them, except, possibly, a bird high in a tree. They got back onto the road – it was more of a trail at this point, without even wagon ruts to mark it as travelled – facing the mountains, heading into them.
The road wound and twisted in graceful, shallow slopes for almost three hours of walking before it took a sharp turn upwards. They were deep into the trees by that point, the pines crowding the sides of the road as if quietly threatening it, and they had spoken little more than directions the whole time.
They would have to break the silence eventually, but as Deline caught her breath and started up the steep climb, she didn’t think it would be soon.
So, of course, Carrone chose then to prove her wrong. Again. “This can’t be a wagon trail. The horses would turn around and bite your faces off if you made them drag something up this hill. Lion’s Teats, I might turn around and bite your face off for it.”
“I like my face where it is, thank you.” She kept pushing up the trail. “No, it’s a hunting trail at best.”
“So we’re not going to run into any more shops, or anything of the sort?”
“Probably not. There’s a hunters’ camp this way, about another hour, and then an hour after that, there’s a – well, a place.”
“A place. Is this, say, an Imperial cottage?”
She snorted. “No. Nothing so fine or so fancy, I’m afraid. It’s a place that we go, sometimes, Claws. It should be empty and, if not, they’ll put us up for a night and there’s another place I know of.”
“All these ‘places’ sound a little bit questionable,” he muttered.
“I’m sorry.” She smiles sweetly at him. “Would you prefer an Imperial Summer House? I happen to know where one is. The problem is, I imagine most of the bounty hunters who are trying to kill me also know where it is, which wouldn’t meet our end goals very well, would it?”
“You mean ‘not dying?’ Well, it’s not like i know where this Imperial Summer House is.”
“Well, I suppose not every bounty hunter in all of Dekleg and Halor knows, then. That’s a relief.” She pushed herself up the next slope, pausing at the top to look at him. “I don’t imagine staying there longer than a couple days, whatever we think of it. So you won’t have to put up with a ‘questionable’ place for long.”
“I’m sure you don’t want to be stuck in a little shack in the middle of the woods with me any longer than you have to. Not when you have-”
She was getting sick of this.
“-a report to make to the Empire and some issues to sort out with the rest of the Claws, a possible information leak to plug, two sister-wives to support, and several other Claws’ reports to take. Yes.”
“Not to mention a husband to get back to.”
“I am sure the Emperor will notice that my mission has taken a while,” she agreed quietly. “But that’s not the matter at hand. That’s-”
“Why is your spouse not the matter at hand?”
“Why are you so interested in my spouse?” She forced herself up to another flat spot.
“I don’t know,” he grumbled. “It might have something to do with the fact that I am bound to you for the rest of my life or until I find some way to get this thing off. It may have something to do that your husband is the Emperor of a nation and not particularly one that my home nation likes. Maybe it’s because you’re an agent for the Claws of the Empire, even if you happen to work for your spouse. I don’t know.” He stopped at the same flat spot and huffed. “Maybe it’s because I am going to be sharing my life with a woman who’s sharing a bed with the Emperor.”
“It’s a big bed.” It was a ridiculous thing to say. She could tell by the way that he huffed that it didn’t help anything. She twisted to look him up and down.
“Do you think you’re good enough to spend the night with the wife of the Emperor?”
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