“You can’t tell me you’re not nervous.”
“I can tell you that,” Deline contradicted. Carrone’s hand was sweaty in her own. “But why are you nervous?”
“I’ve been sleeping with the Emperor’s second wife,” he muttered, “in case you didn’t notice. And — and here is your bracelet on my wrist saying that I’m pretty much stuck with whatever you want…”
“Which means that nobody is going to yell at you, even if someone was going to, for sleeping in the bed I wanted you in,” she pointed out.
“I’ll note you didn’t actually say you weren’t nervous.”
“Darn.” She eyed him. “Yes. I’m nervous. There was nearly an international incident—”
“There was an international incident. Someone tried to kill you. And not just me,” he added in a quiet mutter. “There were armed Deklegion troops—”
“Lower your voice, if you please.” They had made it to the top of the stairs. Deline considered her options and, in the end, decided to get it over with; she brought Carrone in through the main entrance.
While nothing in the Imperial Complex was particularly palatial, the main entryway was built to impress. The double doors were twice Deline’s height and each one was as wide as her spread arms and as thick as her splayed hand. A second set of doors, moderately smaller, were just a few paces within. From there, the halls were made of polished stone and carved niches with ancient statuary. To either side of them, the Mother Bear greeted them in statue form; the Empress Bear, with the head of a bear and the body of the woman, stood posed across from the Emperor Fox, who had been known as the Captive King.
Deline paused by the third statue on the left, a tall woman with a chin much like hers. She brushed her hand over the Claw Empress’s stone hands and bowed her head quietly for a moment.
They did not pray to their ancestors and predecessors, not as they prayed to Mother Bear and Mother Fox, for instance, but it was nice to think they were watching over them, and, right now, Deline felt she needed a bit of watching over.
They were halfway to the Emperor’s Greeting Room when a flunky found them — an unkind assessment, Deline supposed, but not all that far from apt, either.
The woman stopped, looked at Deline and Carrone, looked again, and bowed. “Lady Deline. If you wish to go and clean up, to change, to leave your… friend… in a waiting room, then His Grace by the Claw of the Bear Herself will-“
“I’m sure-” Deline cut the woman off with a tone she hadn’t been sure she’d remember, the haughty Command Voice “-that my husband will see me now. And as my business with His Grace by the Claw of the Bear Herself is business of the Claw and is important, I’m not going to fuss around with a bath before hand.” She tried to remember the woman’s name. It was something oddly complicated, one of those southern names. Peri- something? Peni-?
The woman bowed again. “Well then, of course you must go. Guest of the Head Claw Lady Deline, I am Pethiarrie. If you will come with me, I will bring you refreshments and find you a place to wait.”
“I go where she goes,” Carrone growled. “I stand where she stands.” He shifted a little closer to Deline’s side.
“I’m sure that’s all very good on the road, but the Emperor-“
“Are you saying I cannot bring my guest into my husband’s presence?” Oh, by the Mother Bear, she hated being in the capital. She hated being the person that she had to be with people like Pethiarrie if she wanted to do anything. She despised being pushed around because she was dirty and unkempt and had blood, she was sure, somewhere on her clothing.
“Lady Deline, Head Claw Lady Deline, the Emperor is in his bath.”
She hated being an idiot because she was impatient.
She cleared her throat and considered.
“This guest, I believe, should be there nonetheless. The Emperor sees certain people in his bath, after all.”
Pethiarrie’s gaze raked over Carrone. “He needs a bath of his own,” she opined dryly. “I hope he’s not going to hop in with the Emperor. The body servants might be horrified.”
“He won’t jump in with the Emperor. Now may we—” She gestured in the proper direction.
Pethiarrie huffed. “I suppose, being the Emperor’s wife, there is no point in trying to bar you entrance. But Lady Claw of the Bear, it has —” She looked at Carrone and huffed again before dropping her voice to a whisper. “It has been a bad week.”
Deline felt everything about her soften. “This late into Spring? It’s generally the cold-“
“We had a week of hard rain and some hail.” Pethiarrie’s tone, too, gentled. “Just remember that. I’ve been doing well at keeping the — you know the type — away, but Herself has been…” She cleared her throat.
“Understood.” If the Emperor was having a bad week, it generally meant that his joints were swollen and his old battle-injuries made it hard to move. Generally, only the coldest parts of winter were truly bad.
Pethiarrie nodded crisply and headed off, probably on one errand or another. Deline glanced at Carrone.
He was flushed. “I really don’t —”
“The Halorans have public bathing. I know they do.”
“So do some of the Empire. We don’t bathe with our king.”
“Well.” She raised a playful eyebrow at him. “How about bathing with your Emperor?”