First: Running in the Bear Empire
A knock on the door pulled Deline out of her comfortable half-sleep many hours later.
She propped herself up on one elbow; next to her, Carrone had reached for a weapon, his eyes open and his posture worried. “Announce yourself,” she called.
“Pethiarrie, Your Sharpness.” The voice came in clearly; soundproofing was not considered a priority for Imperial chambers — if anything, it was the opposite.
Carrone tugged the sheet up to his mid-chest, covering his knife. Deline shifted so she was mostly blocking him from the doorway. She didn’t reach for her own weapon, but she made sure her spell components were laid out on the table to the side of the bed.
“Come in, Pethiarrie.”
Pethiarrie pushed the door open and stepped in. Her hands were empty; she bowed as she entered. “Lady Dedenarrion, Chief of the Claw of the Bear. I have people here with food for you, with clothes for you, and –” she frowned in disapproval – “with reports for you.”
“Bring them all in. Thank you.” She raised her eyebrows. “I was Lady Deline yesterday.”
“Yesterday, the Emperor was naked and you were with a stranger.” Pethiarrie was clearly a little irritated with her. “Yesterday, you were dressed as and being a Claw. Not The Claw. I may not be a Claw, Imperial Wife Dedanarrion, but I am not an idiot.”
“Mmm.” Deline watched the woman for a heartbeat, made a decision, and bowed from her sitting position. “You’re right, Pethiarrie. I apologize.
“But you won’t apologize for interrupting His Grace in his bath,” the woman muttered.
“No, I’m afraid I won’t.” She smiled, trying to remember her court manners. “Ah, Pethiarrie, Chief among the attendants to His Grace, may I present Red-Night Carrone hy’en Doroon of the West–” She was a little surprised she could remember all that. “Carrone, my companion and travel partner, who has saved my life several times along this trip.”
Carrone shifted behind her, just enough, she thought, that Pethiarrie could see him. “Greetings,” he offered, and then continued in Haloran. It was rather long and dressed up, but came down to something like I am honored to make your acquaintance.
From the expression, Pethiarrie did not speak Haloran. She bowed briefly back at him. “Greetings, companion of the wife of the Emperor. Will you be needing your own room?”
A pause, laden with questions, hung in the air. After a long moment, Carrone asked, gently, “Deline?”
“He’ll need a place nearby, yes. Halorans are – well. He may not wish to be here should his Grace choose to spend the night here, and if that is the case, I’d rather he have a place to go.”
“I’ll get Yernarre working on it right away. His Grace missed you.”
“His Grace has plenty of companionship.” Deline shifted a little as she watched the woman. Weren’t there people waiting outside?
“Yes. And he missed you, his sharp one. I know these things, Lady Dedenarrion, Chief of the Claw of the Bear.”
Deline nodded again, feeling as if the ground under her was unsteady. “Thank you, Petharrie.” What was going on? “Food, you said? I’ve missed the cooking here.” Now that was entirely true.
“Food, yes.” Petharrie frowned. Clearly that hadn’t been the right answer. “And clothes, and such. And… reports.”
She stepped out of the doorway and ushered people in. First, trays of food set up on the bed. Then, two people with stacks of clothing, which they set on the chest near the foot of the bed. Then, four of the Claws of the Bear, who bowed and waited until everyone else was out of the room.
And yet Petharrie lingered. “Thank you,” Deline repeated.
“You will see him today, yes?”
“He is the Emperor. He will call for me when he wants me.”
“You should see him today.”
Deline smiled carefully and nodded at Petharrie. “I’ll do my best to get in to see him today,” she agreed, because otherwise the woman was not going to leave.
Finally, finally, Pethiarrie left.
And yet the Claws stood, waiting.
Deline smiled, small and sharp, took Carrone’s arm, and held up the wrist bearing the Bear-Stone bracelet. “He serves me in all things,” she explained quietly.
One of her Claws – Floren – hissed. “It’s worse than we’d heard.”
“Well, that’s a question.” Deline shifted into a cross-legged position, releasing Carrone’s arm as she did so, and considered her lieutenants. “What have you heard?”
They proceeded to tell her.
Four minutes in, Deline was swearing.
Six minutes in, Carrone was swearing.
Eight in, all of her lieutenants were as well.
And by ten minutes in they were shouting, all of them.
Deline stood up on the bed to get the room back under control. “All right. Let’s start from the three most salient points.”
“Dekleg framed you for horrific murders and then attempted to have you executed for the same, a move which would have stripped the Empire of a prized officer and likely started a war.”
Gacharre, the Talon of the Eagle, had always been to the point.
“They didn’t know – probably don’t know – who she is,” Carrone pointed out. “They know she’s a Claw, sure, but outside of the Empire, people are pretty unclear on what Claws really are. Nobody knew – I’m at least fairly certain that nobody knew – that she’s the Emperor’s wife.”
“You know,” pointed out Pakkon, the Fang of the Snake.
“She told me long after she put me into her service, and it’s not like I can tell anyone else. As far as I knew, she was a northern sorceress who had killed priests and raised havoc in Dekleg and she had – probably still has – a very sweet bounty on her head.”
“But that,” Floren frowned. “That bounty is on–“
“On her, uh.” He cleared his throat. “It has to do with the sorcery they used.”
All three Claws hissed. Deline nodded slowly. “I thought I was blown for covert work when I knew they had my face,” she admitted to them. “This -“
Pakkon leaned forward. “I think that’s a treaty violation – not because of who you are, but the magic in question. I’ll have to do some looking into it, though.”
“The question is,” Floren added, “do we want a treaty violation?”
Carrone laughed. “You don’t have to go looking for one of those. Not after– Deline?”
“I may have the survivors of a Deklegion troop in captivity,” she admitted with a smirk. “Including one of their lords. And I might have ah, helped to foment rebellion within their Rangers, as their Ranger was very irritated at being set to a task which was based on a lie and inherently against the treaties.”
“Only you,” Gacharre snorted. “Only you, De-de, would end up capturing a Deklegion troop on a mission to whisper some secrets.”
Carrone tensed obviously beside her. Deline did her best to ignore it and made a face at Gacharre instead. “In my defense, I was not on the mission. I whispered the secrets. I’m certain that you are not questioning my ability to do my job, Gacharre.” She let her voice snap out at him, not because he’d called her De-de, but because of the snort.
He raised his eyebrows and placed his fist to his chest in salute. “Never. You are the chief among us for many reasons, Lady Dedenarrion. But then you managed to capture a troop while returning home?”
“Capture a troop, kill one bounty hunter, suborn another, and capture a third,” Carrone put in quietly.
“I killed three,” she corrected just as quietly. “Two before you. It was a very exciting return trip,” she told her Claws, deadpan. “We have gotten far off-track. Let’s regroup again. We hit Dekleg in a vulnerable spot. They responded by murdering scores of people, framing me, sending bounty hunters after me, and then sending a troop after me.”
She met their eyes, one by one.
Floren nodded. “You’re right, of course, Chief Among Us. We need to hit that spot again.”Want more?