There were twelve soldiers — without uniforms, but Deklegion and Haloran from the looks of them— rushing towards Carrone and Deline.
“Halt!” The commander – had to be the commander, the way he was talking – pushed forward, pushing Teshone in front of him. Teshone clearly didn’t want to be moved, and the commander was using a sword and two of his cronies to do the forcing. “I’m not joking around, Carrone, I will push your friend into whatever trap you have next.”
“He’s not my friend.” Carrone sneered. “Come on, he set me up to be betrayed by you lot. Why would I think he was any sort of friend? I hope he steps in the pit trap.”
Deline was a trained Claw of the Bear and the wife of an Emperor; she did not snigger, even though she was absolutely certain there was no pit trap, when she watched the soldiers around them check their feet.
“We’ll see what you say when he’s burning up like those good soldiers you two burned to death back there.”
“You know-” Deline made her posture obnoxiously casual, despite all the weapons pointed at them. “-I wouldn’t call any soldier who was willing to cross into allied territory to commit a treaty-breaking action a good soldier. They should have taken their commander down at the border.”
“And what would you call someone of the Bear who entered illegally into Deklegion territory to kill Deklegion priests?”
“A lie.” She managed with effort to keep her voice level. “Nobody of the Bear would kill Deklegion priests.”
“And yet it happened.” The commander sneered angrily at her.
“And yet someone said it happened. I can tell you that The Bear Broke no Treaties in being in Dekleg and an Agent of the Bear killed no Deklegion Priests.” There was a tone of voice she rarely used that she called, internally, her Capital voice. She aimed the formal tone at the commander, her back a little straighter, her chin raised. “Deklegion Priests were killed. I have no argument with that. But no agent of the Bear did it. This is truth.”
“This is truth,” Carrone echoed her, although he couldn’t have known of the way the Emperor would say that when he wished to indicate that politics were not in play at the moment, that his words were clear and straight to the Mother Bear.
The commander likely didn’t know it either. He sneered. “You are going to die, and then it will be as good as truth.”
“You have one last chance to surrender.” Deline knew exactly how ridiculous this sounded, but she said it like she was standing with her own army at her back. “Otherwise you are signing your own death warrant.”
“Big talk for a couple traitors trapped in a forest,” one of the surviving lackeys sneered. A scorch mark had removed half of what had once been a proud head of hair.
“The only traitors I see here are in front of me.”
Her ritual circles would last at least from sunset to another sunset. She could stand here trading insults as long as she wanted to. And the more annoyed the commander got, the more likely he was to make a mistake.
He snarled at her and shoved Teshone forward. They were nearly at the first circle, and then everything would be up. “You want to see a traitor?”
“I see Teshone just fine,” she answered calmly. “We are at peace with Dekleg. We are at peace with Halor.”
“You have some pretty fancy words for a nameless Claw in the backwoods waiting to die.”
Was he taunting her, or fishing? Deline raised her eyebrows at him, a trick learned from the Emperor’s older wife, and waited for him to have a point, or to realize he was being an idiot.
He took a half-step backwards. Interesting. “You killed those priests!”
“No.” Next to her, Carrone was shifting. Ready to kill someone? Sick of the conversation? She hoped he could wait.
Next to the commander, his soldiers shifted. They looked uncertain. Maybe because Carrone had taken down so many of them without any work?
She caught Carrone lifting his gaze – pointedly, notably – to the treeline above their heads, as if scanning for something. She didn’t smile. Much. Just enough.
Three of the twelve backed up a good seven paces.
“No,” Deline repeated. “I did not kill those priests. I have never killed a priest.”
“You killed my soldiers! Maimed others!”
“My honor and sympathies to their families.” She bowed shallowly, her eyes never leaving the commander’s face. “But you were sending them to kill me, and I don’t wish to die.”
“Then surrender.” He had taken another half-step backwards. Did he even know he was doing it?
“I think you and I both know that I wouldn’t live long after that. On the other hand, if you surrender, I give you my word as Claw of the Bear that you’ll be given a fair trial in the capital. That goes for all of you,” she added. Two more had backed up. She was too calm. That was worrying them all. Good. She wanted them worried. She wanted these assholes pissing their pants, to be fair.
Somewhere off to the side, one of the people Carrone’s traps had gotten whimpered. She couldn’t see them, but she watched the way the soldiers’ eyes moved that way and then moved back to their commander.
She could tell he wasn’t going to take the offer. Something was driving him that was more important than the risk of being burned alive.
(She really did have to talk to Carrone about those traps — she was pretty sure one of them broke at least one international treaty.)
“You are an idiot,” he proclaimed. “You are going to die here and you are making threats when you should be doing anything you can to prolong your miserable traitorous life.”
“What makes you think, exactly, that I’m not doing everything I can to prolong our lives?” She took in Carrone with a gesture.
One more of the soldiers backed up. The commander sneered.
“Get back here,” he snapped. “You can’t be afraid of two trapped traitors pressed against a bolder. Who raised you? Idiots?”
“Priests,” muttered one of the soldiers. That one was slowly moving back towards Deline and Carrone, eyes on the treeline.
“Smart priests,” Deline murmured. “You,” she turned her attention to the commander, “are ignoring facts in front of your face. You will die if you draw my blood. It may not be quick, it may not be immediate, but you will die.”
The one who’d been moving forward backed up again. Deline did not smile.
Next: 47: You Will DieWant more?