The way Carrone was holding his jaw, Deline wasn’t sure if he was afraid he might say something wrong or that he might vomit. She held his hand anyway and led him into the Emperor’s bathing chamber.
Unlike Pethiarrie, the two Claws standing guard didn’t give Deline any trouble. She nodded very politely to them – Seliarre, an Eagle Talon, and Teran, a Fox-Claw – and led Carrone over the tub.
You’d want me in your bed with the Emperor there., he’d asked, way back in the cabin, before things had gotten even more complicated.
What are you doing to do? Glare him to death? she’d countered. The way Carrone was looking now, she thought it might be a concern.
The Emperor was up to his neck in water, one bath attendants in the tub, kneeling in front of him, while the other was massaging his scalp and his long white hair with a scented soap. He opened his eyes as they entered.
“My wife. Chief of the Claw of the Bear. I greet you.”
Only he would be that formal while naked in a tub. Deline bowed deeply. “My husband. Emperor of the Realm of the Bear. I greet you.”
“Dedenarrion. I was worried about you.”
He wasn’t exactly smiling, but he looked affectionate. “Mesaruxenne. I’m sorry I worried you. I hope at least my preliminary report reached you?”
“Your preliminary report, and then another one which said Dekleg is trying to kill me.” His tone was chiding.
Beside Deline, Carrone shifted back and forth slightly. Deline might not have noticed if she wasn’t still holding his hand. She bowed her head again.
“They were. They spent a great deal of effort and lost themselves at least three bounty hunters and many soldiers in trying to kill me. And they failed. We struck a nerve with our last move.”
“I’m unsurprised. That is,” Mesaruxenne added, “I’m unsurprised that we touched a nerve. That they managed to identify you, that is surprising.”
“They didn’t.” Carrone spoke up, then bowed so deeply his head nearly touched the floor before straightening. “Emperor of the Bear, Lord of the Snow-capped land, Dekleg didn’t identify her.”
“Did you, then?”
He snorted. “No. I’m – I was a bounty hunter. I go after the targets I’m aimed at. They used death-magic to identify her. To send us after her.”
The bath attendants had frozen. Seliarre and Teran were tense. The Emperor, however, was not.
He was very thoughtful-looking, stroking the beard that was mostly in the water. “Death magic. I’ve heard rumors, but that’s dark even for Dekleg.”
“It gets worse.” Had he known he was sending her into a trap?
And what if he had? He might be her husband, but he was her Emperor first.
“Sit, both of you.” He gestured to the bath attendant who was still dry, but both his attendants were still frozen. “Oh, relax. All of you. My wife is not here to kill me, and if she brought a bounty-hunter here who had been aimed to kill her, don’t you think she’d be sure he was defanged first?” He clucked. “First, have some faith in Lady Dedenarrion. She’s the lead Claw of the Bear for a reason.” He gestured again, and this time the bath attendant pulled forth two comfortable chairs from the side of the room. Deline sat. She looked up at Carrone, still frozen as well, and tugged on his hand until he, too, sat.
“Much better.” Mesaruxenne nodded. “As I was saying, Lady Dedenarrion is a profoundly competent Claw. The Mother Bear and the Imperial Bear could not wish for a better agent.”
Deline ducked her head and smiled. She knew Mesaruxenne was using the praise as a bludgeon to the others, but it was still nice to hear.
“She would no more kill me by bringing in an admitted bounty hunter than she would, for instance, show up to stand a duty watch with one panel of her armor on backwards.”
From the shifting behind her, she had to wonder whether Seliarre or Teran had done that.
“Secondly, are you not trained observers? Yes, even you, my very muscular bath attendants. I, too, am not an idiot, and I am a trained observer. Tell me, my lovely wife, how long have my attendants been your Claws?”
“Since that suspicious fall on the stone steps of the Citadel.”
His eyes narrowed at her. “Nobody knew about that.”
Deline laughed. It felt good to properly laugh again. “I’m the head of your Claws, my husband, and I, too, am a trained observer. Weren’t you yelling at your staff?”
“I don’t yell.” He smirked, looking far too amused. “I’m told that it makes me sound like an old man.”
“Can’t have that,” she agreed in deadpan. Carrone shifted in his seat but said nothing.
“Ah, yes, My staff. If you will notice, all you Claws of the Bear — except Dedenarrion, who one presumes noticed — the interesting piece of jewelry the man with her — yes, the bounty hunter with her — is wearing.”
The room was quiet. With a huff, Carrone held up his arm bearing the Bear-stone bracelet.
Seliarre — Deline was fairly certain it was Seliarre — hissed. “Mother Eagle,” she muttered.
Carrone dropped his arm and leaned forward, his hand reaching to his hip.
“Easy,” Deline murmured. “Yes,” she added, this time to Mesaruxenne. “I gave him a choice. I gave him a true choice. And I bound him to my will.”
“In her defense,” Carrone muttered, “I was about to kill her otherwise.”
The room tensed again, even Mesaruxenne. “You are very lucky that you did not,” the Emperor informed him.
Carrone bowed from his seat. “I realized that later, your greatness. But all I had at the time was a face and a name.”
“That would not have saved you.” He was grim, almost growling. Deline watched her husband, a little surprised at the fire in him.
“No, I don’t imagine it would have. If she was my wife, it wouldn’t have saved a bounty hunter, either.”
“It didn’t save the one that came after us,” Deline pointed out, amused. The air in the room was getting thick, and she didn’t think it was the steam in Mesaruxenne’s tub.
“Good.” Mesaruxenne nodded. “And you are hers now, for life or for death.”
Carrone rubbed the bracelet with his other hand. “I am. For life. I blew up the last attempt at killing her. I’ll blow up the next one, too.”
“It sounds, my wife, leader of the Claw of the Bear, like you have had an interesting trip.”
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