“A good day, mmm?” Carrone took a long drink and then responded to Ranger Learone’s pointed tale with his own story, something about a swan who had decided to follow a man around, until eventually, the man brought the swan home. The swan would attack him — of course, it was a swan —but it wouldn’t leave, either, so he fed it and let it follow him around, until eventually people started calling the swan his wife.
Since no-one else, Carron continued, could get close enough to him to wed — the swan was possessive — eventually he gave in to this tale, and he ended up with a swan living with him until they were both old and cranky.
The stories went on and on until they all stumbled to bed, and then they continued the next day, and the next, until finally, the weather had cleared and the roads were open.
It wasn’t ’till they were on the road again that Deline tilted her head at Carrone and asked “so, am I the swan, or are you?”
“Let’s see. Prickly. Possessive. Likely to bite. Following the other one around for the rest of their lives…. I’d say it’s both of us.”
He looked unbearably pleased with himself. Deline paused long enough to tap her forehead to his and touch her nose to the tip of his. “You,” she purred, feeling amazingly affectionate towards him at the moment, “Are something else indeed.”
“I think I’m a swan,” he joked. He was turning a nice reddish brown color, though, and he couldn’t quite look her in the eyes. “So—” his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again. “So, how long until we get to the Imperial Pal- Cast-“
“Compound. Probably tomorrow morning, the way we’re moving. It could be tonight, but we’d have to push the horses, and with the wounded—”
“It’s kind of funny,” he admitted. “We wounded them. They were trying to kill us and we — well, we killed some of them and hurt a bunch of the rest and now we’re trying to make sure that the trip isn’t too hard on the wounds we inflicted.” He twisted his lips up. “Being a bounty hunter was less complicated.”
“Well, I’m not surprised.” Deline patted him on the back companionably. “Politics is always difficult, sometimes convoluted, and often completely nonsensical.”
“Is that what this is? Politics?”
“Well — yes.” She looked back at the wagon full of wounded and the other prisoners trudging along as if they hadn’t just had a three-day break in the inn. “Yes, because it’s not war, and things dealing with other nations that aren’t war are generally either spycraft, which this also isn’t, other forms of espionage—”
“Which, as a Claw of the Bear, you’d be familiar with,” Lord Eigeran interrupted. Deline glanced at him; she hadn’t been aware he was close enough to be listening. “My pardon,” he continued, with a little bow. “I didn’t particularly mean to be listening in, but I heard the word politics, and it does sort of catch one’s attention, when one is me, of course.”
“Of course.” She shook her head. “Politics — why you and your wounded are following me home like some lost puppy, in this case. And yes, of course I’m familiar with espionage.” She twisted her own face up and huffed. “Or I was.”
“Again, there are ways to—”
“Sorcery,” she agreed quietly. “Which is generally not held in high regard in many circles.”
Including with Carrone, she thought – and he was tensing.
“Sorcery,” he repeated very softly.
“I don’t — I don’t really consider it an option,” she reassured him gently. “I never have.”
“It’s a tool,” Lord Eigeran insisted, “and nothing more.”
“And that,” she answered, perhaps more sharply than she’d meant, “is why you are the prisoner and I am not dead. There are tools and there are tools, and they are not all the same thing, any more than a sword is a shovel, even if you can use it to dig a hole.”
She was startled by her own outburst and took a step backwards, not taking her eyes off of Lord Eigeran. He raised his eyebrows and, slowly, bowed. “You are correct; I definitely misstepped in the attack on you two.”
That hadn’t been what she said at all, but she raised her eyebrows and waited.
“And I don’t know what, if anything, the Bear Empire thinks of sorcery, but it is a tool. Perhaps not one for digging out of this particular hole…”
“No,” Carrone told the lord in a croak, “it’s more good for digging yourself into one.”
Eigeran looked at Carrone as if trying to decide what to make of him. “You’re Haloran. I thought Halorans liked sorcery.”
“Some do,” Carrone allowed. “Some. Not many, and not me. Besides,” he snorted, “I’m not Haloran anymore. I’m hers.” He pointed a thumb at Deline.
“Indeed. Well, I believe you get the better end of that deal. Claw of the Bear as she is, and -” The end of Eigeran’s sentence went up like he had curled it for a fish hook. Deline wasn’t going to bite and, from the look on Carrone’s face, neither was he.
“And she owns me, yes. Better fate than happens to a lot of bounty hunters that get careless, I have to say that.”
Lord Eigeran fell silent at that, and they walked along, quiet and a little bit moody, as the sky suggested that maybe the rain storms weren’t completely over.
Next: 54: This Means W-