Running in the Bear Empire 27: Climbing

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The question hung in the air between them.

Deline had started it because he wouldn’t stop about the “wife of the emperor” business, no more than some courtier trying to curry favor or some spy trying to dig up information.  She’d finished the question because she found herself curious, even though she was aware it wasn’t exactly a nice question.

Carrone cleared his throat.  He looked at the next hill before them, looked back at her, and started walking.

Deline followed, setting a pace that wouldn’t leave her looking at the back of him the entire trip.

At a very narrow flat spot, just barely big enough for the two of them, he paused.  “Obviously you think I’m good enough for that,” he pointed out, his eyebrows raised as if challenging her to deny it. “How many nights have we spent together already?

Oh, good.  She barely resisted rolling her eyes at him.  “Clearly I thought you were good enough to offer the choice to.  And you thought there was a reason to take it,” she agreed.

He cleared his throat.  “In Patlian, south of Halor, if you so much as touch one of their King’s spouses, you’ll die.  Slowly.  Very slowly.”

“This is obviously not Patlian.”  She looked at him.  “How do the King’s spouses handle their own other marriages, then?”

“Other – oh.”  He shook his head.  “The King’s spouses marry only him.”

“And the Queen?”

“There is never a Queen in Patlian, even if they need to – what does this matter?”

“It doesn’t.”  She held up her hand before he could start sputtering at her again. “Neither does what the Patliansho do to people who touch the King’s wife.  I’m not the Patliansho’s King’s wife.”

“You said…” He trailed off, looked at the hill in front of them, and started walking again.  Climbing; someone had kindly cut a set of stairs into this incline.  They were nearly at the hunting camp.

Deline didn’t so much wait for him to keep talking as she just continued to pace him.  She had made her point; he’d say something else or he wouldn’t.

They had reached the short wall marking the hunting camp when he turned to her. “You said your… the other wives to your husband, they both have other husbands?”

“Other spouses.   Yes.”  She eyed him, trying to read his expression.  There seemed to be nothing there but thought.

“And you don’t.”

“I’ve been a little busy.”  She began circling the hunter’s camp.  “Not so much now, though.  It looks like all of Dekleg knows that I work for the Empire.”  She rolled her shoulders and looked off at the wooded hillside as if it could provide her an answer.   “Which means that I am ruined as an agent.”

“You don’t have sorc – magery to cover your appearance?”

“Magery can’t do the sort of thing that would hold up under scrutiny.  It does have limits,” she added, before Carrone could say something stupid or irritating. “It’s one of the things that make it less likely to be evil than sorcery.”  She couldn’t look at him.  Ruined as an agent.  It was finally sinking in all the things that this last mission was going to change in her life.  All of the ways everything was going to be different.

“What will you do?”  The tone of his voice had changed.  He sounded like he cared.

“Not be dead.”  She picked up her pace.  She didn’t want to deal  with hunters right now.  She would really, given her way, not deal with anyone at all right now.  She didn’t imagine she would get that, however.

“Right.  Obviously.  Because I failed to kill you.  You know I was doing my job.”

“And yet somehow,” she spun on him, “you have managed to continue to be angry with me for not killing you.”

“You were never going to kill me!” They were lucky the pine trees sucked up much of his volume, because he seemed determined to tell that to the world.  He lowered his voice and hissed at her.  “You locked me into this – this thing and you were never going to kill me.”

“I was going to kill you if you made me kill you,” she countered.  “I don’t make threats.  I don’t ever offer a death I’m not willing to follow through on.”

“Then kill me now.”  He grabbed her knife from her belt sheath; she saw him coming but didn’t stop him.  He couldn’t attack her, after all.

He held the blade to his own throat and, with his free hand, grabbed her hand and pressed it to the knife handle.  “Here.  Kill me now.  It was a lie.  Admit it was a lie and you were never going to do it.”

She curled her fingers around the hilt and watched as the blade – sharp, of course – bit into the skin of his neck.  She watched a drip of blood work down his neck.

She had just saved his life from a bear.

She pressed the knife a little harder against his skin.  His breathing sped up.  His eyes, when she looked up, were on her.

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