First: Running in the Bear Empire
“You know, we could probably live here pretty comfortably forever.” Carrone looked at the door of the cabin and back to Deline before setting his pack on his shoulders. “I’d get better at hunting eventually.”
“I’m not sure you’d say that in winter.” Deline smirked at him, although she could guess easily enough what was going on in his head. They were leaving, which meant they were going to the capital. When they got there, everything could change.
“In winter-” he pulled her into an embrace which surprised her and, from the look on his face, might have surprised him as well “-we could keep each other warm.” He planted a kiss on the side of her head. “And that bed would keep us toasty.”
“We’d still have to get out of bed eventually.” Deline’s protest was rendered less effectual by her chuckles. “Eventually. Come on.” She squeezed his hand. “We still have a ways to go before we can reach the capital, and we’re burning daylight.”
Carrone sighed. “I suppose,” he agreed. “Just remember, when we get back there and you’re thinking how nice it would be to have some peace and quiet, that I offered.”
It was her turn to kiss his cheek. “I know. It’ll be all right.” She didn’t release his hand. She didn’t need to; she didn’t want to. “The good news? It’s almost all downhill from here.”
“Almost.” He made a face. “I find I’m not all that encouraged by that.”
“Well, there’s a few hills still. I mean, the Imperial complex is in the middle of a mountain range.” She started along the path, glad that he followed without being pulled, even if he was still complaining.
“Is there anything in your nation that isn’t in the middle of a mountain range?”
“The parts that are in the middle of a group of lakes?” she offered. “Or, I suppose the parts that are valleys.”
“Those are still in the middle of mountain ranges, though.” He wrinkled his nose at her. “Everything around here is either climbing up or going down just to get up again.”
“Well, that’s a metaphor for life, isn’t it? Even when something is easy for a while, you end up having another climb ahead of you.”
He snorted. “No wonder everyone thinks Bear people are so tough. You think life is a mountain instead of a nice, sensible river.”
“Well, maybe if we had nice, sensible rivers, we might think differently.”
“See, that’s what’s wrong with your people-”
It was nice to banter with him, nicer to walk with the sun on her face and be heading home. She didn’t rush them, but she found she was walking at a comfortably fast pace as they headed downwards in a casual zig-zag that took them down the mountainside in a much more sedate way than they’d originally gone up it.
“Should’ve come this way in the first place,” Carrone commented at one point, but even he noticed that they were going further and further north as they went down the mountain.
As the sun started its descent, Deline scoped out a camping site for them, but, as he had done before, Carrone found them a place, a small cabin wedged between two upshoots of rock. It was unoccupied by anything but mice and looked like it’d been that way for some time, but the mostly-stone construction and doors and shutters thicker than her wrist had kept the weathering out.
It was dark inside, and tight, clearly not designed for more than one person, but they cuddled close on the narrow bed, having chased out bugs and mice, and Deline found herself smiling. “This is almost as good as the imperial bed,” she murmured. “Close, comfortable – and on the way home.”
“Home,” Carrone repeated. “You’re quite happy about that.”
“Well, yes.” She kissed his cheek in almost an apology. “It will be fine. It will be! But I want to go back to my own place. I want to report. I want -” She sighed, her happiness slipping away. “I want to figure out what I’m going to do next.”
“And what I’m going to do next, too,” he reminded her. “Since that’s also in your hands.”
“It is,” she agreed slowly. “At least partially.”
“What do you mean, partially? Did you forget this thing you locked around my wrist?”
“I did not.” She wrinkled her nose at him. “I assure you, I remember that quite clearly. Especially after our run-in with that Harloran spy. But I’m not going to make any of these decisions unilaterally. You’ll have a say, too.”
“So you keep saying, and I don’t understand why.” He glared at her, but it was a weak expression with no real heat behind it. “You trapped me. As you pointed out, I was trying to kill you at the time. The trap I walked you into – Teshone – nearly cost both of us our lives at least one more time, maybe more. Depends if you count the bear or not, and I do.”
“The bear was a risk of life and limb,” Deline agreed, feeling like she was picking her footing more with her words than on the smooth path down the mountain, “but probably not Teshone’s fault, except really peripherally.”
“We were running from bounty hunters at the time,” he countered. “So I’ve risked your life several times and cost you a nice smooth trip home-”
“I’m willing to blame much of that on the Deklegion and not you,” she argued.
“Be that as it may.” He set his shoulders and stared at her. “My life is still in your hands, and I did try to kill you.”Want more?