First: Running in the Bear Empire
Mesaruxenne and Aucheria, his two bath-attendants and two Claw guards, stared at Deline as if she had gone insane.
No, she realized in half a heartbeat. They were ready for trouble already, weapons all aimed at the door, and were staring at her as if they’d nearly just shot her. Three people she didn’t know cowered off to one side; five people lay unconscious or dead off to the other side.
She tapped Carrone’s crossbow and he lowered it; she sheathed her blade and bowed deeply. She could barely see Carrone doing the same to her right.
The part of her mind that assessed risk pointed out that she was exposing herself to a bunch of people with weapons, trained fighters and mages, and if Mesaruxenne wanted her dead, she’d just offered up her neck.
Of course, if the Emperor of the Bear wanted her dead, there were easier ways to do it than a coup.
“Dede. Rise. I’m pleased to see you still alive. Carrone of my wife, please come here as well.”
Deline took a seat to the left of the platform. “You’ve been attacked.”
“Twice now. Aucheria was also attacked on her way to the Magpie Quarter. The Elk Horn Riano saved her life.”
There was an intonation to his words that made Deline bow her head. “May Father Elk and the Parent of us all let me shed his enemy’s blood until Riano can swim to the other side in it.”
“May Mother Bear guard him in his next life and bless your blade in his vengeance.” Mesaruxenne bowed his head for a moment. “We haven’t heard from Ferassine or from Gacharre. I know you were meeting with your lieutenants—”
“I sent them off before the attacks. I’ve sent word to them, but I don’t know who I can trust and who I can’t.” SHe frowned, her eyes raking over the Claw who were here. “THe woman who attacked me was an Eagle Talon. Not one of mine, not one of ours, but still. An Eagle Talon. She’s in my trunk.”
“I look forward to her answers.” Aucheria sounded nearly as bloodthirsty as Deline felt. A glance showed her teeth had extended to fangs; running her tongue over her own teeth showed that Deline’s had done the same.
“Mother Bear blesses us.” Mesaruxenne breathed it out quietly. “Thank you, Mother.”
“Mother Bear blesses us.” Deline stood a little taller. She patted her pouch – not that that would do much good at this point – and looked at Carrone. “That’s – that’s good.” And not just because she could feel the strength and the blessing of the Empire’s Guardian coursing through her, although that was a strength she was glad to have. An Emperor who lost the blessing of his Guardian, an empire that lost the blessing of the Bear, that was doomed to failure. Deline felt too strongly about the Empire she served to see it end.
“What now?” Sapex was a good Claw, a good servant of mother cat, but never had been particularly willing to take charge, nor particularly innovative. Diane looked at her Claws, at her Emperor and at her sister-wife, and thought
“We have three goals. The first goal, with its own internal order of importance, is to keep the Emperor alive and safe, Imperial Wife Lady Aucheria alive and safe, and to keep the rest of us alive and safe-”
“If I may,” Mesaruxenne put in with one finger raised.
Deline bowed. “Of course, my Emperor.” She was unused to giving orders while being observed, and she was painfully aware that it showed.
“I would change that priority to: keep the Emperor and his wives safe. Of course, we still need to find Ferassine, but when we do, we should also keep her safe. You two ladies first, however.”
Deline bowed again, ignoring the smirk on her husband’s face. “First priority: keep the Emperor and his wives safe, and keep the rest of us alive. Second priority: discover what is going on, who is behind it, who is behind them, and who we need to stop to stop it.” She paused, but Mesaruxenne had no interruption this time. “Third priority: we stop them. We punish them, We gain Vengeance for our fallen!”
The room cheered. Diane blinked and took a half step back. They were cheering. She raised her hand up in a fist and her Claws did the same.
“Quadrants, then?” Zetas asked.
“We need more of us.” She was thinking out loud; her Claws should be used to it by now. “We have a full complement of Claws here, and we need more than just the six of us. Right.” She nodded sharply.
“Sapex, you and Peta guard the emperor and his first wife. Honored First Wife Aucheria, if you would-” Deline bowed yet again “-please guard these two claws and the emperor.” She shared a smile with the woman that suddenly made her feel as if they were kin and kind and not separated by a generation in age. “My honored husband, please stay alive.”
“Zetas and Tama, I want you two to head up-compound. Carrone and I will go side-compound. If you find Claws and they do not try to kill you, bring them to lady Aucheria to verify. Aucheria?”
“Well within my ability.” She smiled toothily. “And if they fail?”
“I leave that to your discretion, senior wife to my honored husband.”
“You two are terrifying,” Carrone muttered. Deline didn’t so much ignore him as take it as the praise it was meant at.
“Everyone clear? Loop back here periodically to check on our status and so we can dispatch any other Claws.” She straightened her weapons belts. “Fight strong, fight clever.”
“Fight with the might and wisdom of the Guardians behind you.” Tama, small and slight in her attendant’s tunic, put a fist to her chest and bowed; the other Claws, disguised or not, followed her lead.
“Go with my blessings as well.” Mesaruxenne took Deline’s hand, tugged her close to him. “Keep yourself alive, Dedene.”
The kiss that followed reminded her that Mesaruxenne might be old but he was not yet infirm; the sharp teeth that brushed her tongue reminded her that he, too, was a mage.
“A slow death to to our enemies, Mesaruxenne.”
They’d lingered long enough, more than long enough. There was too much to do and people might be dying.
Deline gestured her team out the door; Carrone and she followed moments later.Want more?