One drop of blood slid down Carrone’s neck. Deline watched it. He hardly breathed.
He could stop her. He didn’t have – she didn’t think he had orders against stopping her. Perhaps she should have written down everything she’d ordered him to do.
“Why?” she asked. She was proud of herself that her voice sounded mostly casual. She didn’t feel in the least bit calm, casual, or laid-back about the matter. She was actually a little bit fond of him. “Why would you want that?”
“This.” He didn’t move much, but the wrist with the Bear-stone bracelet on it twitched. “This. You have me. Forever. You have my mind. And it’s not like you picked me up to – to-”
His swallow moved his throat very close to the knife. A second drop of blood followed the first.
“I wanted someone to watch my back. I was impressed with your skill in tracking me, although now I have to wonder if you were using Imperial spies of some sort to track me.”’
His eyes widened. “No.” He looked like he wanted to say it more forcefully, but with the blade where it was, it seemed he’d decided to remain rather calm-voiced about things and, presumably, avoid cutting himself until she decided that it was time.
“No?” she asked. Her fingers wanted to twitch; she forced them to remain still. If she was going to draw any more of his blood, she wanted it to be on purpose.
“No. Some people do that. That’s – that’s fine for amateurs. I tracked you the hard way. Me and two others, and they lost you two towns and three before I found you.” He looked at her straight in the ey. “You were impressed with the tracking skill of someone trying to kill you?”
“Yes.” She held his gaze. “I’ve been impressed with your fighting skills. With your way with other people. With your climbing. Everything but your, ah.” She considered her words. “Manners.”
“Sorry if I wasn’t- Mmrf.”
She had put her free hand over his mouth. “That. That’s what I’m not impressed with. This … sudden sullen ridiculousness. I’m still the same Imperial Agent that you were going to kill.” She moved her hand, although she wasn’t certain she wouldn’t regret it. Her knife she left where it was.
“You’re not – I’m not… What?” He huffed. “Yeah. You’re the same person I was hired to kill,” he agreed. “Except that I was hired to kill an Imperial Agent. And now, of course, nobody’s ever going to hire me again.”
“That’s a different matter. Well, also potentially untrue,” she added thoughtfully. “Do they really blacklist bounty hunters who don’t kill every target? It seems like a good way to run out of potential bounty hunters really quickly.” She shifted position, moving the blade slightly away from his neck. He huffed.
“They don’t- No.” He stared at her. “Haven’t you been paying attention?” He held up his wrist, sticking the Bear-Stone bracelet between them. “This. This thing.”
“…I know that it’s common to think that the Empire doesn’t use bounty hunters, but do you really think that you won’t be allowed to work again?”
“I-” He threw up both his hands. “Forget it.”
They had, once again, gotten completely off track. And again, she was getting tired of him sulking when he had been, by his own admission, trying to kill her. “I will. This way.” She sheathed her knife and started walking again, circling around the camp. She could hear him following her. She didn’t turn to look at him. She was already sick of his arguing and they still had days to go, even if they were heading directly for the capital.
Which, of course, they couldn’t, because of-
“Why are you complaining,” she asked, despite herself, “when I am the one who has bounty hunters tracking me over the Empire because -”
“Oh, because you happened to piss off Dekleg – ALL of Dekleg? There isn’t some grand surprise why they sent hunters after you, and it’s not like the hunters are to blame for you angering a whole nation, doing some pretty awful things to two of their priests -”
“I did what?” She stared at him. “I do not recall doing anything awful to any priests.”
“Well, there’s- what?” He took a breath, as if she’d knocked him off his stride, and stared at her. “Can you say that again?”
“I didn’t do anything to any priests. Well, if I did, they weren’t declared as such. I revealed some pretty nasty secrets. I put a few people in the awkward position of having to explain what they were doing to a nation that thought they were doing something else – and they’re saying I defiled their priests?” She was torn between laughing and crying.
“They were very vague on it but left the impression that you had done things that were sacreligious and disrespectful to the priests, to the priesthood, and to the temple.”
“If I stepped in a temple in this trip into Dekleg, it was not marked as such.” She sat down on the ground with a thump and put her hands over her face. “I suppose it’s a good thing they don’t know who I actually am, or this would be even worse. But… defile a priest? Priests?”
“Not unless they are using their word for ‘defile’ to mean ‘handed a bunch of information to the priests, because they are inviolate and their word is trustworthy… oh, those bastards.” Deline could see a picture in her mind now. She knew her voice sounded small as she continued. “They said I did that?”
“They said, ah, that the person they were sending us after had defiled and murdered several priests and had desecrated a temple…” He trailed off. “Are you okay?”
“They killed those priests. I was making sure that information was set out properly, and they killed those priests because of that. Those bastards.”
“Hey.” He took her shoulders in his hands. “I believe you. Which is not really… probably what you care the most about? But you need to get up and keep moving, okay? They may have been spreading a lie to send the bounty hunters, but their gold was real. And we don’t know if they’re still coming. And, ah. I think if I carry you you might actually finally kill me.”
“That should make you happy, shouldn’t it?” She let him pull her to her feet anyway. “Come on. We don’t have much longer to go.”