“-And then we made our way here.”
Deline took the drink that the bath attendant – Tandio, her pick for the position and quite good at both ends of the position – offered her and sipped it slowly. It had not been a quick report. Her Emperor was now robed and sitting comfortably on a divan while the other bath attendant brushed his hair and braided his beard. Carrone had spent much of the early part of the report eyeing her with some surprise and, occasionally, some worry.
“You have indeed had an interesting trip.” Mesaruxenne nodded solemnly at her, although his lips were turned up with a bit of a smile. “I am – I am very glad you survived it, Dedenarrion. If I had known –“
“If you had known, we still would’ve had to send someone.” Deline shook her head. “It’s done. My face is too known now, though — and if they used death magic, and I trust Carrone on this matter, not just my face, but my essence.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m no more use to you in Dekleg.”
“You may not be able to work as a covert agent anymore, although I wouldn’t give that option up just yet, best of my Claws.” Mesaruxenne smiled at her now, affection lacing his voice. “But do not sell yourself short. She,” he added, looking directly at Carrone, “has a habit of doing that. She sees one set of skills she is good at — and, don’t get me wrong, she is very good at those — and sees it as the road for her. It’s curiously short-sighted for such a brilliant Claw. I’d task you with reminding her of her other skills–“
Deline cleared her throat. “But,” she prompted her husband, more amused than she let herself sound.
“But,” Mesaruxenne agreed with a smirk, “it’s not my job to task you. Until or unless you bend knee as a Claw or otherwise in my service – and as a Claw, Dedenarrion would still be your direct boss.” He chuckled. “Anyway, I make a policy of not interfering with my spouse’s lovers if at all possible.” He winked at Carrone.
Carrone shifted, shifted again, and cleared his throat. “I-“
“You’re Haloran, yes.” Mesaruxenne chuckled. “Or you were. Do you still think of yourself as Haloran?”
“I- That is-“
“Mesaxe,” Deline chided gently. “Is that a fair question?”
The Emperor laughed. “Ah, Dedene, I’ve missed you! I have to admit, I’m not entirely upset by the thought that you might not be able to do missions in Dekleg or Halor anymore. I like having you around – I know, I know, you don’t like the capital so much. But it likes you!” He leaned forward and planted a kiss on each of her cheeks. He turned to Carrone and winked pointedly before turning back to Deline and kissing her full on the lips.
She leaned into the kiss, remembering for a moment when she’d been ten years younger and freshly married, nervous around this man, this Emperor, and he had been still much older than her but kind and, above all, affectionate. She opened her eyes to find his blue eyes looking back at her, a smile visible in the crinkle of the wrinkles. “Ah, so you did miss me too.” He chuckled. “That was, perhaps, a little much of me, but it’s nice of you to allow an old man his foibles.”
She opened her mouth – to say what, she wasn’t sure. He would be irritable if she insisted that he wasn’t old, and perhaps rightly so; he was old.
Carrone spoke first. “Your Grace, you seem not an old man, but a wise one, and a lucky one.”
Mesaruxenne’s laugh this time was loud enough that he startled his bath attendants, broad enough that his eyes crinkled and his teeth all showed. He took Carrone’s hands in both of his own and shook them.
“Well done, Harloran Bounty-Hunter. I am impressed with you, and that is no small thing.”
“Thank you, your Grace.” Carrone cleared his throat. “But I think you mean, ah, slave of the Bear Empire, not Haloran.”
“Well done, young man, well done. Dedene – may I suggest you show this man your rooms and help him get comfortable here? Perhaps you could join us for dinner tomorrow, and then on the day after we can discuss what happens next, Best of my Claws.”
Deline stood and bowed. “As you will it, my Emperor.”
“As your husband suggests, my wife.”
“As always, one and the same.” She kissed both his cheeks, as he had her, and then his lips, as long and as slow and then a little more than he’d kissed her. When she opened her eyes this time, she could see something not at all old in his expression, and a rueful quirk on his lips.
“Hurry,” he suggested. “Or your man will be getting a slightly different welcome to the capital.”
She chuckled back at him, took Carrone’s hand, and, as her Emperor had ordered, hurried.
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