By the time they reached the cabin, Deline was thinking that maybe she should have let Carrone carry her after all – except he was not in any better shape than she was.
She stopped him when they could see the stone roof of the building and walked widdershins twice around the place until she could find the wards and their key, and then used her personal token as Claw to unlock those wards – in this case by taking her necklace and, with a quiet incantation in a language that had been, if her sources were correct, already old when the bear made this land, sticking the necklace into the hollow of an ancient tree.
“Now we can go in.” She gestured him forward.
“What would have happened if you hadn’t done that little dance?”
“The house might have eaten us in our sleep – or possibly, nothing at all might have happened. This way, it will keep other people a decent distance away.”
“Your magery is a strange, strange thing.” He shuddered. “I don’t know how it isn’t sorcery.”
“So you’ve said.” The necklace also served as a physical key to unlock the ornate and complex lock on the front door of the cabin, which led them into a very small room, just big enough for a bench on each side and another door on the far side. “Boots off.”
He sat down and pulled his boots off as she did the same. Then she unlocked the interior door.
“I’d ask if you and your people were a little paranoid about attackers, but-”
“-But someone paid you to kill me?” she finished wryly. “It does tend to make one a little paranoid.”
“But this place.” He thumped the thick stone that was the wall up to hip-height. “This is older than you, far older than me trying to kill you.”
“Well, people try to kill Claws quite a bit. They try to kill the Bear Emperor sometimes, too. So it’s good to have very safe places to hide.” She stepped into the cabin and set her bag done with a grateful sigh.
It was a small house, even if it was designed for the Emperor: on this floor, the pantry sat to one side of the wood stove and a large collection of firewood on the other; there was a bread oven and several hooks for cooking over the fire. There was, because sometimes the Emperor who came here was elderly, a stairway rather than a ladder leading up to the sleeping loft, but up there would likely be just one very large bed. Despite the precautions, Deline climbed up to look.
The bed could fit the entire Imperial marriage with room left over for friends, and it took up a good quarter of the upstairs, a monster of a thing with its headboard reaching to the peak of the roof and its side against the stone chimney. Curtains were currently pulled back but would make it a tent, albeit a tent suited for a general, not a private soldier.
Deline flopped down on the bed. It was as soft a mattress as one could hope for. It smelled slightly musty, but a quick scattering of the right herbs and the right spell and she could have it smelling just like…
Just like an Emperor’s bed ought to smell.
Or maybe she’d leave it a little musty.
“Your stove draws weird,” Carrone called, and, reluctantly, Deline pried herself out of the bed and headed back down the staircase. “What’s going on?”
Carrone was kneeling in front of the wood stove, grumbling at the way the smoke was sneaking out and getting in his face. Deline observed the situation and then twisted the damper adjustment until the stove was drawing properly. “That should work better. We get some crazy winds, and sometimes you don’t want too much air coming back down the stove.”
“Hunh.” He finished getting the fire going and closed the stove door. “This is an intense stove. It looks like you could cook a whole pig on it.”
“Not at once – we’ve had some big meals here. But when the Emperor travels, he travels with company.”
“And a retinue.” He looked sour all over again. “And his wives?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes, some of the wives.” Deline shrugged. “Because I’m a Claw, most of my time is spent with Claw duties, and not with, well, whatever you’re thinking of.” She wrinkled her nose at him.
“I’m thinking of being the wife and partner to the Emperor. What do you *think* I’m thinking of?” He turned to his pack before she could answer, yanking out his inventory with a violence that the bread or sausage probably didn’t deserve.
Deline stared at him. “Halor has political marriages.” It wasn’t a question. It *shouldn’t* be a question. “They have line and stacked marriages.” That one she *knew*.
“So it’s not that you’re not familiar with the concept of making a first marriage for expediency, or for title, or because it’s expected of your position, and then-“
He flapped his hands at her. She didn’t hit him. It was a close thing.
“And then the second marriage for pleasure or love. We even had a saying about it: ‘Marry first for your legacy, second for your heart, third for your loins. It’s normal. Not the Emperor, though. Wait.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re the Emperor’s third wife.”
“I am.” She met his gaze without flinching. “And I am head of the Bear Claws.”
“And you…” He turned away and fussed with the fire.
“Look, we’re going to be together for some time, and we’re going to be alone in a cabin together for at least a few days. You might as well get it out of your system.”
“You can’t marry me,” he muttered. “Even if you wanted to. Even if I wanted to.”
She blinked at him.
That was not where she had been expecting this to go.
Before she could ask him to – to elaborate? To explain? To get his head out of the swamp? He kept going.
“I can’t have anyone else. So I’m pretty much stuck now for being your errand boy and bodyguard. Forever. And alone. You know, I was thinking about retiring to something a lot safer after this mission.”
“Retiring? You’re hardly old enough to-“
He cut her off with another hand-flap. This time she balled her fists and pushed them into her legs.
“Look. I know you think I’m being an idiot. You’re probably right.” He huffed and glared 3 her, not looking like he thought she was right about anything. “Try to be in my shoes for a minute.”
She looked down at his boots — well-worn but durable, expensive when new, cared for, the dye and polish black.
She raised an eyebrow at him and waited hoping he could make some sense of this.
He sighed, long, loud, and put-out sounding.
“All right. You get caught, enslaved. Your best hope for a normal life after that -no chance of escape, not in this scenario – is that your new owner doesn’t really want much to do with you, has other slaves, and lets you live with one of them eventually.”
Deline nodded slowly. She’d heard of relationships like that. They were a little fragile, all things concerned, but that didn’t stop them from happening.
“Your owner happens to be a clever person, one who caught you, a competent one, and strong. She also happens to be beautiful, which can start to be a bit distracting. She has a price on her head, and that should make her less appealing and instead makes you interested in knowing what, exactly, really happened. After all, you’re stuck with her.”
Deline waited. Compliments were compliments. Where was he going with this?
“So, your thoughts change. Being the possession of someone interesting – best option is still that she ignores you to let you have an almost normal life, right? Eventually, you’ll get to her house. She can leave you there and if she has other slaves or lives in a block with people who do, you can maybe settle down. You’re still thinking this is the way that the spirits are telling you to stop being a bounty hunter, to start a life. But there’s other factors, things your brain keeps introducing. She might be married – clever, strong, and gorgeous; she ought to be, but on the other hand, she does things that get people like you after her. That’s not a life most people invite into their marriages.”
It was a little too on the mark. Deline winced. “Most people wouldn’t,” she agreed. Most people hadn’t.
“Yeah. Bounty hunters, either. So not married, that leaves you either completely free to have a new life – or ending up as her bedroom pet. Not the worst life, since she seems to value your skills; bedroom at night and still using the rest of your brain and body during the day? It’s tolerable. Married twice, that’s not bad. She still doesn’t have a ‘marry for your loins’ sort and if you can slide in there, well, it’s not a real life, but like being a bedroom pet, it’s okay. Married three times, ideal. Puts you back to having a life of your own, because three spouses is enough for most people.”
“…You didn’t say anything about married once.” She was speaking slowly, because she wasn’t entirely certain she knew what was going on.
“No. Because then you have someone who’s married for power or status, probably. Made a life choice – OR she made a love marriage first, but then I didn’t imagine someone like that would be out annoying the Deklegion. Those tend to be really close-knit marriages, no matter how many spouses they have. People stay close to home.”
“They do.” She wanted a drink. She settled for sitting down on her butt and considering him.
“So, married for power, still looking for love and loins. That sort of thing, okay. There might be a place in there for someone, but it’s not a place for a slave. It can’t be. That’s not the place a bedroom pet slides. That’s the place someone she can look at in an equal marriage should go. That’s…”
His voice cracked.
“That’s not me. I mean. I don’t know. I don’t know anything else. I know that you’re not in a position to marry a former bounty hunter, slave or not, if you had any interest in that. I know I tried to kill you. I know I nearly let you kill me. I know-” His voice rose up to a shout. “I know it’s stupid! I know it’s just the stupid – this damn bracelet and the adrenaline and there’s nobody else that can be in my life and why couldn’t you be happily settled with three husbands? Then I could just orbit your life and still have a life! But no, you’re the damn Chief Claw, you’re the blasted third wife of the Emperor, you’re the blasted- scratch it.” He flopped down onto the ground and looked away from her. “You see?”