Deline found that she was staring at Carrone; rather, she realized that she was staring at him when he shifted uncomfortably.
“So,” she spoke carefully. “You want a life, a life that isn’t being a bounty hunter any more. You want someone to go home to at night, or someones, a marriage or a joining. You want people you can look at as partners, as equals; you don’t mind being the junior in a marriage, though, as long as you have a place. But you were planning on settling down and then you went after the wrong rabbit. Am I close?”
“That’s – that’s it, yeah.” He huffed and lay down on the floor, staring through the glass at the fire. “That’s it. So you see why you – you being the wife of the Emperor, that means that you’re in line for the throne when he dies, doesn’t it?”
“Don’t – you probably shouldn’t make it sound like it’s an imminent thing,” she protested.
“Well, he’s a lot older than you. At least, unless there’s some magery at hand – “
“No, no, he’s a bit older than me. His first wife – his first wife is the same age as my mother,” she admitted quietly. “He’s a good man. I don’t want to see him dead.”
“I’m sure nobody does, other than possibly Dekleg.” His tone had changed, gone softer. “But you’re probably going to outlive him. I don’t really get how the Bear succession works-“
She snorted. “Nobody does, if they weren’t born into it. If you’re wondering, I wasn’t born into it. But I have a chance of being Empress after him, yes, as I understand it.”
“I don’t know why you can’t just keep things simple…”
“Because then we’d end up with three-century dynasties like Dekleg and Halor had, and all the mess that came with that.” She shrugged a bit. “Why does me being the wife of the Emperor matter?”
“You —” He shook the wrist with the Bear-stone bracelet at her. “Where does this leave me, when you have one husband and he’s the Emperor?”
“I think…” She picked her words carefully. “I think we have two problems here. One, you’re equating that bracelet with slavery. It’s not the same, socially. It has a lot of similarities, yes. But you can own property and you can cast a vote in the region in which you reside, when matters come to ballot. And you could marry.”
He gulped hard. “Who would marry someone whose will was completely sublimated to another’s?”
“Who would marry someone whose first duty was to the Emperor and second was to the Claws of the Bear?” she countered.
“You said there were two problems,” he answered, or, rather, chose not to answer.
“Oh.” It was her turn to swallow. “I think you are putting too much weight on an old adage. That’s all it is, an adage. It isn’t the requirements of marriage. I am not, although he might wish otherwise — although I might wish otherwise — um.” She had gotten stuck in fancy speech and flapped her hand, not sure how to end the sentence.
“You weren’t married to warm the Emperor’s bed but to annoy and harass his enemies,” he offered.
“Yeah – yeah, that’s a very good way to put it. It wasn’t a love match, of course, although it’s a match of mutual respect. We’d been working together for quite some time before, ah, before. And it wasn’t, well. He’s fun to talk to, he’s fun to be around-”
“But, possibly, he’s not who you would have first invited into your bed? And probably not who you first invited into your bed. I, uh, I hope…?”
“You hope?” She raised her eyebrows, suddenly feeling a spark of indignation and confusion. “You hope?”
He cleared his throat. “You’re a clever, adept, beautiful woman. I think you know that. You’ve probably used it in your job. I hope you got a chance to know what-”
He trailed off.
“…You seem to think that marrying the Emperor locked me in some sort of block of ice where I won’t be let out and I won’t have a chance to ‘know what…’” she imitated his tone and watched him wince, “which makes no sense, since I also only have the one husband, and moments ago you were contemplating…” She shook her head. “You make no sense. Is this a Haloran thing or is this just you?”
He seemed to have a tickle in his throat. “I don’t think it’s just me. But I’m not sure if it’s Haloran. Perhaps it’s just that I, ah.” Now he looked away again. “You’re attractive. You control the rest of my life. Surely you can understand my interest?”
You’re attractive. “You make it sound… very cold. Clinical.”
“Well.” He stood up and paced the cabin. “If I make it sound anything but clinical, we end up.. I am going to sound either angry or like I want to. ah. I am going to end up sounding rather intense, if you understand me? I don’t seem to have a middle ground.”
That she understood. “You feel very strongly.”
“You control my life!” He turned to look at her. “You are my life. That’s intense. And I don’t know. I don’t know how I’d feel if you didn’t but there’s still a bounty on your head, so I think I’d mostly feel the need to protect you from people like me. I don’t think I could kill you anymore,” he added thoughtfully. “I think I’d kill anyone who tried. I don’t think that matters anymore, except that it makes me a far less effective bounty hunter.”
“You were talking about retiring anyway, weren’t you?”
She was letting herself get distracted, but maybe that was what she needed. Maybe they both needed it. “And, besides, being unable to kill one target-“
“Once you start making judgements like that, then you start making other choices, and then you’re the guy who only kills left-handed rangers or something and you get one job every ten years, at which point, you’ve pretty much retired. I’ve seen it before,” he added, sounding defensive. “Hunter decided they couldn’t hunt any of their spouses’ families and one of their spouses had one of those ‘the whole tribe is the family’ sort of lines going on. And then they married again and…”
Deline didn’t try to stop the laugh at Carrone’s expression. “All right, so. You’re retiring. Sort of an unplanned earlier retirement than you planned. And…” You’re attractive.
“And what do I do now? Bodyguard to a Claw? You hardly need it.”
“You’ve already saved my life twice,” she countered.
“But that’s-” he floundered. “You could’ve…”
“I can actually let my guard down, because you are good at what you do. I don’t, necessarily, need a bodyguard, but right now it’s very nice to have one.” She looked at his face to see if he understood.
The twist on his lips said maybe. She wasn’t sure if that was good enough.
He cleared his throat. “You want me to keep protecting you. I can – I can do that. I’m good at it,” he added, still sounding defensive. “But what about when we get back to the capital? You’re in a hurry to get there,” he added, almost a mutter. “So I think it’s fair to want to know.”
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