First: Running in the Bear Empire
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“Are you sure you know how to hunt things that aren’t people?”
Deline was teasing Carrone – mostly. They had been living in the cabin for four days, and she was beginning to get more on edge than she wanted to admit.
It was easy enough to settle in to a routine – gather and hunt in the morning, cook a big meal in the afternoon and settle in to bed in the evening. It was easy enough to pretend that they were just having a little rest stop along the way, getting to know each other. But Deline knew that they were hiding, and she knew that she had to get back to the capital, and she knew that with every day she didn’t – with every day she didn’t make it back, there was a chance that they wouldn’t make it back, and if they didn’t, her information died with her. And that wasn’t acceptable.
So she was teasing Carrone for losing another deer.
He snarled at her, with no real heat behind it. “Your deer up here are more spirit than animal. They know what they’re doing. They know what I’m doing before I even do. They’re unnatural!”
“They’re the results of being hunted by hungry, cold people and surviving long, cold winters. They’re pretty smart.” She grinned at him lightly. “Like us.”
He grumbled at her. “Yeah. I know you’re smart. But I’m not usually this stupid.”
She suddenly felt bad about teasing him. “You’re not stupid. You just have to research your prey, the way you do with anything else. You knew where I was going, what I was doing. So you’ll have to learn about this sort of deer.”
“Great,” he muttered. “Usually when I have to learn about my prey, I’m not going to eat it.”
“Just kill it.” She snorted at him. “That’s so much better.”
“You’re going to ruin my appetite for bounty hunting ever again.”
“There’s always Live Catch. I know that there’s a market for that-” She trailed off at Carrone’s sour look. “Anyway. If you don’t mind me getting today’s dinner, I can show you something.”
“I don’t want you getting in danger,” he muttered. “If you’re out there, I can’t see if I need to protect you.”
Deline kissed his cheek. “I am not going to get you killed by getting myself killed hunting a couple rabbits. I’m really not.”
“All right. But if you’re not back in an hour, I’m tracking you down. And I’ve already proven I can track you down.”
“Yes, you have.” She gave him a longer kiss, this time on the lips, and took her slingshot and her bow into to the woods.
Rabbits were more plentiful than deer, but that didn’t mean they were easier. Snares would be the better choice, but snares left an obvious sign that someone had been in the area, a sign the wards and spells around the cabin couldn’t cover up.
Carrone was cranky, too, she realized. She wondered what he did when he wasn’t hunting, when he was home between jobs. She wondered if enforced stillness was going to drive him as mad as it drove her.
What would he do in the capital? Surrounded by hard people with hard opinions and sharp tongues and wearing her bear-stone bracelet for all to see?
What would she do, without being able to run off to another country when the sharp edges got to be more cutting than her blades or her claws and she had no patience for politics and governance?
She moved carefully through the underbrush, keeping her eyes peeled for the signs of any animal life. The image of the Imperial Compound in her mind was suddenly less of a target to aim for and more of a cage she was hurrying towards.
Her husband. His wives. Her mission. Her Claws.
She set a pebble in her slingshot, aimed, and landed a fat rabbit. She gathered it up, snapped its neck, and kept moving.
The cabin. The man who was shifting restlessly already and wondering about the rest of his life.
What did a Claw do when she couldn’t go undercover any more?
Who had betrayed her?
Were they in the Capital now, whispering lies, picking up information to put more Claws at risk?
Had she just made a mistake and put the whole team at risk on her own? Could it be that simple? She’d just – done something wrong?
A second rabbit joined the first one, and a handful of wild mushrooms and some early ramps were added to her pouch.
The forest was dark and heavy with possibility, moist in spots and covered in snow in others. It took longer for spring to truly reach here, this far in the mountains.
It seemed to take longer for everything to reach here. The world seemed very far away. Like her possible mistakes could wait forever while she stalked one more mushroom.
A snap of a twig behind her was enough; she turned around and let loose a pebble in one smooth movement.
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Dangerous vacation, that. c.c