Deline pushed backwards, arched her back, and shoved into Carrone as she dodged the dart.
“Those blasted things.” he swore as he caught her, stumbling backwards.
Deline dragged a hand into her belt pouch and pulled out some desiccated herbs and a pile of flower petals. They weren’t quite the right ingredients –
“Mother Bear hear me,” she whispered. “Mother Fox-” The air seemed to hit her in the face. “Mother Cat, hear me. Father Elk, hear me.” She chanted out the proper incantation, tossing her not-quite-right herbs and sands and petals out in semi-circles in front of them. “Parent above us all, hear me please. For my emperor, for my husband, for my country, for my people. Hear me, mothers, hear me fathers, hear me Parent.”
She finished the chant, the words of Old Bear spilling out of her and pulling around them, and pulled a shield up around them. “Sorry,” she murmured to Carrone in Haloran.
“I’ll take it over not dying,” he whispered back in the same language.
She nodded shortly. They still had to get to the Emperor. They still had to figure out what was going on.
This time, he headed out in front of her, scooped up the dart that had missed both of them and tossed it out in front of him. Deline heard a short grunt and a thump.
“Blasted poyekkye,” he muttered and strode forward, scooping up another dart off the ground. It must have hit her shield. She murmured another incantation to hold the shield firmly and followed just behind him, knife out and watching his back and flanks.
He threw another dart just as one thudded into her shield, this one making a pinging sensation she could feel. She hadn’t pulled up a shield like this in a long time; it was going to wear her out if she wasn’t careful.
Better worn out than dead. Carrone scooped up that dart, too; the motion of him leaning down let Deline see that his second target wasn’t all the way out. She tossed her knife as the half-collapsed enemy shifted to throw something.
Her knife lodged in the man’s arm, pinning it to his side. He cursed in surprise and glared at her. “Traitor,” he hissed.
“I think you’re confused.” She recovered her knife, held the man’s hand down with her boot, and knocked him out with the hilt of her knife.
“Should’ve asked him how many more there were,” she muttered as he sagged to the ground.
“He’d probably have lied,” Carrone soothed her. “I mean, this doesn’t strike me as people who want to stop and have a chat. How much further?”
“Almost there.” She gestured down the hall. They had no more corners to go around, nothing except actually going in to the Emperor’s audience chamber.
She found she was tense. If the Emperor – if someone had killed him – “Carrone. If we’re leading assassins – “
“Lady Dedenarrion . I’m going to remind you that you’re the head of the Claw and that you are the smartest person I know.” His voice was far too formal. It made her stop, look at him, breathe, and think.
“…They’re not following us, we’re running into them.” She nodded shortly. “Thank you.”
“Just reminding you who you are. It’s harder when it’s your family. Everything is harder then. But you’re strong, you’re smart, and you lead the Claw. This enemy; they’re flooding the complex. So the question is, what is their goal?”
“Other than killing me?” She knew it was a stupid question. She asked it anyway.
“Yeah, because there’d be more of them by your rooms if they were here to kill you.” He shot her an amused look. “You’d think you’d be used to people trying to kill you.”
Three people came around the corner at the end of the hall, looking like Imperial guards. One of them raised a weapon towards Deline and Carrone.
She pushed every bit of energy she could into her shield and stepped forward. “Guards, greetings! There are assassins in the Imperial Quarter—” Three crossbow bolts hit her shield.
Carrone’s knife hit the first bow-wielder in the throat. Deline’s hit the second in the heart. That left one more, reloading his bow.
“Surrender,” Deline hissed.
The man dropped the bow and fell to his knees.
“What is going on?” Carrone crossed the distance, kicking the bow out of the man’s reach. “Why are you firing on Lady Dedenarrion?”
The guard put his hands over his head. “I didn’t recognize her! Someone said there were assassins in the Imperial Quarter —”
“That was me.” Deline’s growl felt good, like Mother Bear herself was riding her. She showed her teeth. “Someone trying to kill me. Why did you shoot me?”
He hissed as Carrone bound his wrists. “I said. I didn’t recognize you.”
“How many others are there?”
“The head of the Claw should know how many guards there are, shouldn’t she?”
Something about the way he said it set her teeth on edge.
“How many are trying to assassinate the royal family?”
“Not the royal family,” he snorted. “That suggests a level of royalty. No, the only people—” he caught himself “-the only ones that I’ve heard anyone was trying to kill weren’t really royal at all.”
Carrone tied a rag around the man’s mouth and gestured in question.
“Leave him there.” She held her breath as she moved towards the Receiving Room door. There were too many assassins too close to here. If Mesaruxenne, if they’d — if they’d killed the Emperor, it would risk destabilizing the nation. He’d been Emperor for a long time. But it would destabilize her a bit, too. She’d always known there was a good chance she would outlive him, but that was — that was not what this was.
Carrone set a hand on her shoulder, his off hand. He was holding a loaded crossbow in his dominant hand.
She nodded at him and opened the door.
Next: 65: An Emperor Indeed