First: Running in the Bear Empire
Carrone was staring at Deline. She didn’t care; she had a whole pack to go through. “Seriously,” he complained, “why are we looking for a pebble in our packs? Do you know how long I’ve been carrying this pack?”
“Possibly as long as I’ve been carrying mine?”
“Probably longer! What are you looking for?”
“Something larger than a pebble that isn’t something you packed,” she reiterated. “Carrone, I will go through your whole pack myself if I have to.”
“No, that’s, uh, that’s all right.” He moved further down the bed and began pulling things out of his pack and attached side-packs one thing at a time. “I just,” he muttered, more to his clothing than to her, “i want to know what you’re doing. I mean, you could just order me to do whatever you want, and I know it. So what – what are you doing?”
“I think I might know how someone has been following us – and why they stopped. But I’m not certain, and I won’t be until I find – damn. A pinecone.” She set it aside anyway. It would burn nicely, even if she was fairly certain that it wasn’t enchanted.
“So it has something to do with unpacking our whole bags? This is getting more and more out there, I think you know. And it’s -” he shrugged.
She didn’t ask him what he had been going to say. She really wasn’t sure she wanted to know. She started folding her shirts again, shaking them out one more time.
He pulled out knives and rope, a few stoppered vials and some packets of something the didn’t recognize; he pulled out a thin set of lockpicks and a long ice pick.
By the time Deline had finally packed her bag back up, Carrone was on his third small bag. He sorted through a few weapons and some papers before he stopped – almost froze – suddenly, looking at the bag in front of him.
“This thing that you’re looking for, is it sorcery?”
“It could be. It would be a lot easier to do with sorcery than magery, and if not with that, it would have to be a god-touched thing, and considering the current state of the priests…”
“Can I touch it?” He sounded half-strangled.
Deline glanced at his bag, but he was blocking her view with his body. “It shouldn’t hurt you to touch it. What did you find?”
“Shouldn’t.” He took a step back, wiping his hands on the tails of his tunic like he’d just touched something disgusting. “I don’t like the sounds of it.” He glared at the small bag, no bigger than a hip pouch. “This was in Teshone’s storeroom. It was -”
“Is your big friend bribable?” She stepped in front of him so she could get a look at the bag. Nestled between what she was willing to bet were poisons – the way they were in a vial within another thicker-walled vial was a giveaway – was a flat sea-tossed rock the size of her palm. Carved so deeply into it that, in places, it went through the other side were four letters in Old Deklegion.
“Teshone? No – I mean… I suppose probably.” He took another step backwards. “I don’t want to think it of him, but hey, if the money was good -”
“That would have to mean that they knew you were with me, which is interesting. Unless someone is stalking you.”
“Maybe it was a back-up plan, and we killed the Plan A? I mean, we did change plans completely on the road. More than once.” He shifted until he was standing next to her. “What is that? I mean, I think I can read it, but that doesn’t mean I can guess what it means.”
“‘Alhapthu’. It’s a word that means ‘find me.’ So what it does, if I’m right – that’s the problem, of course – it leaves a trail or a signal of some sort that someone or someones who know how to find that signal, or have the matching stone – sometimes they’re a pair – can track down. But.” She frowned. “I think the wards around the cabin should be keeping the signal from being sent. Which means, ah. If it’s a trail, then we have a trail leading almost exactly to us. If it’s a signal, we have to hope they lost it far enough back that there’s some chance they won’t still be able to walk straight to us.” She sighed. “It does mean that there’s probably not a spy. There’s someone tracking us, sure, someone who wanted to use less, uh, use worse methods than you did, but not a betrayal.”
“Except Teshone, yes. I’m sorry.” She twisted her lips as she considered that. “You’d worked with him for a while?”
“More than that. He was a drinking friend, the sort of person I would trust to watch my back – he looked out for me.” He looked at the tracking stone. “I suppose there’s a chance he thought he was still looking out for me. He’s not Bear, even if he was born in the Empire. He might not have known what killing you would do to me.”
“That’s a possibility,” Deline agreed carefully. “There’s also the chance that he didn’t know what it would do, that someone lied to him about what it was. Or that he meant to tell you but then I showed up and disrupted everything. Or that someone snuck it into your pack in his storage facility.”
“That last one is pretty unlikely. It’s why I use his place – why I used it before he turned out to be a pretty great friend for a while. It’s very secure.” He stared at the stone. “What do we do with it?”
“We bury it in ash and salt and lime, within the wards. We cover it with a set of magery markers that ought to hide it more and then, just to be careful, we cover that with rocks.”
Deline sighed, a load coming off her shoulders, and found that she was smiling.
“And then, tomorrow, we head for home.”Want more?