The capital city was one of those cities that didn’t so much as rise into sight on the horizon as pop up suddenly when you rounded a bend in the road. Nestled in the middle of the Bear Mountains, the city had been stopped from expanding further by the need to keep the pass clear through the entire year, including the six to eight months a year where the pass might be covered in snow. There were buildings carved into the sides of the pass, but by regulation and army enforcement, those buildings were forced to stay back from the edges of the track far enough that even the widest wagons could head through with no problems, even in the worst weather.
Thus, they went from the vendors leaning over the edges of their balconies, calling down to them about their fine wares, better prices than in the city, of course, and better quality of manufacture as well, around a corner where no vendors had managed to carve homes, into the gates of the city with the buildings looming up above them.
Deline showed her signet and her Claw, which was all it took to be allowed into the gates, but the guards did look twice at her little train of people.
“This one, he is with me, marked as mine and with the same privileges as me and the same doors to be opened.” She patted Carrone’s shoulder. “The rest are prisoners on parole. They need to go directly to the Claw Station-house.”
“As is your will, Honored Claw.” The Guard gave the feeling of not quite saying “if you want to do something crazy, it’s above my pay grade to stop you”. Deline just smiled.
“It’s good to be home.” It was, in many ways. The place smelled right, it felt right, and it sounded right. She knew within a week she would be itching for the trees and the hills again, mourning her lost freedom as a wandering Claw. That was in a week, though. For the moment, she breathed in the cacophony of smells and smiled.
“Welcome home, your Ladyship. I’ll send Ferole and Lasein with you to help with your prisoners and avoid any… problems… along the way.”
“Thank you, City Guard.” She bowed very politely to the guard and waited for Ferole and Lasein.
Their prisoners were restless as they traveled through the city, shifting in the wagon, wandering to the edges of the group, staring.
“It’s real for them now,” Carrone murmured. “Up until now, they were on some sort of trip or voyage, but now that they’re here, in the Imperial Capital, they have to admit that they are in trouble. And that they’re being held captive by a woman they tried to kill.”
“It’s got to be uncomfortable,” she agreed. “I think you’ll forgive me if I’m not all that sympathetic.”
“Hell, I’m not all that sympathetic, and I’m in almost the same position that they are.”
“You’re…” Deline looked at him, stopped in her tracks, and looked again. He slowed and stopped, looking at her, which had the unfortunate side effect of making their entire entourage stop and look at her.
Deline cleared her throat. “Carry on.” She gestured forward and started walking again, sneaking a glance at Carrone. “It’s just now sinking in?”
“Well, not just now, not exactly,” he admitted, “but this is – it’s not us anymore. We’re back into your world–“
“We’ve been in my world the whole time,” she countered. “The forest. The road. The mountains.”
“But this is a different world, and this one, this one isn’t my world.”
“It is now.” It was a stupid thing to say, but she had nothing else to say to this. He’d known this was coming…
…But then again, so had she, and she’d steadfastly refused to think about what bringing him home meant. She licked her lips and sighed.
“It is now,” she repeated.
He looked at her, turned to look forward, and kept walking, glanced over at her, looked to the other side, and glanced back at her.
They moved for at least three blocks that way, the side streets getting wider, the main street turning twice before taking an abrupt left turn around a boulder the size of a house. And he was still stealing looks at her.
“This is…” he began, and shook his head. “Tell me about this shop,” he asked after a moment.
She glanced at the shop he was pointing at. The front display had jackets hung, heavy with fur. “Jafaren’s Jackets. Also work pants and other such things — mostly heavy-duty leather and fur, the sort of thing you want when you’re going to be out in the middle of winter. She also sells some really good oilcloth long-coats for the rainy season. And her mittens are the best. I have a pair in my pack.”
“What about that one?”
She told him the tale of another store, and another one, until they were climbing up the stairs that marked the Central Imperial Complex. They were tight, narrow stairs, and the wagons would not make it up them; the horses glared in aristocratic disdain.
She gestured to the guards that had been following them. “You know where they go. Lord Eigeran. I trust you to keep your soldiers to their word on their parole as you go with Ferole and Lasein. I will visit you soon.”
“I’m not sure if that’s a promise or a threat,” Eigeran muttered.
“That,” she told him cheerfully, “depends on how well your soldiers keep your parole. I will see you.” She caught up Carrone’s hand in her own and turned back to the last of the tall stairs. “And here we are.”