She stuck her head carefully back into the door of the Emperor’s Waiting room, guiding three Claw who she was fairly certain were faithful. Aucheria lowered the bow and nodded.
“Any luck with information?” She and Carrone had been searching side- compound from here for what seemed like hours, but they had only been attacked once, and that by a confused and worried kitchen staffer.
“A few things.” Aucheria gestured to the side, where a Fang of the Serpent was bound, gagged, and looking a bit green. “The potion of tongue-loosening is brewing, but I had trouble getting Mesaruxenne to agree to it, and without his consent-“
Deline nodded. There was a reason that potion was very nearly illegal. It was nasty even in completely necessary situations.
She could definitely argue that this, however, was a completely necessary situation. “Anything useful without?”
“A lot of nonsense about a ‘mongrel regime’ and a little bit about ‘those who deserved to rule’. Not sure who that might be; I haven’t noticed any whispers lately. Of course, the more people get to know me as the wife of the Emperor, the less of that sort of whisper I hear.” Aucheria made a face. “That’s a hazard of the job, I suppose.”
Deline just nodded. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t had similar problems. “So they want someone else to rule, they need us out of the way to do it, they obviously need Mesaruxenne out of the way to do it-“
“Or just have me declared too old,” Mesaruxenne offered dryly. “While I’m not, it’s not that hard, especially with the northern groups, to spin it as ‘lost his facilities’ or ‘too weak to rule.’ It’s happened before.”
“Your great-uncle.” They both knew this stuff, of course. Deline was fairly certain that everyone in the Imperial compound knew the basics. “So they’re looking to replace the rulership. Question is: is this related to the problems in Dekleg? If it is, we have something far too coordinated. If it’s not, then we just have something of a mess on our hands.”
“If it’s coordinated,” Carrone stepped forward. “If they’ve coordinated, then the question is: Is Dekleg trying to destabilize your government? If they’re having issues with their own priesthood – which they are – you know that, you were helping to drive a -” He trailed off and looked around.
“If they’re having issues with their priesthood,” Deline picked up, “which my information suggests that they are, then they might be trying to unsettle us just to make sure that we’re not in a position to take them over. On the other hand, if that’s a feint, then they might be making a move for an actual attack. Considering they did send soldiers to pick me up – a move of such sheer unmitigated affront that I’m surprised their Potentate managed it without a rebellion – then I’m thinking they want an actual attack.”
“They want to attack the Empire.” Aucheria stared at her as if she was speaking in Halorin. “They want to attack us. Even if they could get an army over the river — “
“It’s still a stupid move,” Deline agreed. “Unless they know something we don’t. Obviously, someone in this mess knows at least one things we don’t: they know who is organizing this and what their goals are. That might also know why they think they’re going to succeed. So what we need to know is how they’re going to fail.”
The bound Fang of the Serpent began laughing. He snorted and laughed through his gag until Carrone strode over to him and pulled the gag out.
“How we’re going to fail.” He snorted. “You’ve always been more confident than you had any right to be, Lady Dedenarrion. How we’re going to fail. You don’t even know where we are. You don’t even know why we are.”
Deline didn’t know this specific Fang. She knew all of the Claw directly below her, many of those below them, and probably a quarter of the ones below them. She could not place this one. It didn’t matter.
“And you are my Fang.” She leveled a look at him that should have had him quaking; when he snorted again, she hid all reaction, because something had gone wrong. How high up did the rot go? Who had been undermining her in her absence?
Several pieces clicked together at once. She smiled. She could feel the fangs of the Bear touching her lower lip.
“The title you should be worried about is not Lady, Fang of the Snake. It’s Lead Claw.”
Fox. Eagle. Fang. It wasn’t the children of a specific Guardian she had to worry about. It was, to put it in terms they never used outside of training, the number they wore on their necklace.
She scooped the Fang’s necklace out: a single Fang hung there.
“But the first one is easy, isn’t it? It makes you think the second one will be just as easy. Maybe easier, because you’re already in.” She snorted. “Like the Deklegion company thought it was easy until they were exploding. Slipped over the mountains.” She hadn’t asked Ranger Learone, but the woman had as much as told her in her tale at the inn.
“There’s a couple border crossings there that we more or less ignore, because one would have to go up a sheer cliff to cross them. My Lord Emperor, I’d suggest you send twice as many of your elite soldiers there as you think you need.”
The Snake was staring at her. She looked to Aucheria. “Your potion will help, but I’m going to bet my next year’s salary this has to do with the wash-outs.”
“The what?” the Fang sneered. Deline smiled.
“That would be you, my Fang.” She turned to Mesaruxenne and Aucheria, to Carrone as well. “The first Claw is not all that hard. But some people never progress to the level required for a second Claw, much less a third…” Mesaruxenne had turned ashen. “Mesaxe?”
“Ferassine. Ferassine,” he repeated. “She wears one fox-claw on a necklace. She said — she said that she hadn’t enjoyed it, so she’d left. And since she never did anything particularly Claw-like…”
“She never wore it around me.” Deline found herself getting a little cold. “Tell me, Mesaxe, is she from a particularly aristocratic family?”
“Mm. That’s a good word for them. Rich, definitely. I didn’t marry her for her money—”
“You’re the Emperor. You could’ve married her because her father was the King of Halor and it would make perfect sense. Marrying her because her father is rich is just sensible. But I assumed you liked the way she… danced.”
Mesaruxenne laughed shortly. “I married her.”
“We,” Aucheria cut in. “You and I and Dede married her, Mesaxe. You might be the Emperor, but don’t get too full of yourself. This was a choice of the three of us-“
“Excuse me.” Sapex cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, but ah. But perhaps this is –“
Aucheria laughed brightly. “Perhaps,” she teased, “you don’t want to hear the Imperial wives scolding the Emperor? All right, then.” She turned her attention on the Fang. “Tell me.” The whole room vibrated with the sound of her growl. “Who and where.”
The Fang raised his chin. “I don’t answer to the Bear.”
The air in the room grew thick. Mesaruxenne and Carrone stood where they were; everyone else who could move backed up. Even the Fang tried to lean backwards.
“You do not need to answer to the Bear,” Aucheria growled.
Mother Bear, guide us. Deline mouthed the words. She didn’t want to interrupt. Mother Fox, hunt with us. Father Snake, lend us thy venom. Father Elk, lend us thy speed.
Her tongue flicked out, forked, and tasted the air. The Fang screamed.
“You don’t need to answer to the Mother of the Empire,” Aucheria growled again. Deline did not chuckle, but she smiled around sharp, sharp fangs.
The First Wife, Senior Wife of an Emperor was the Mother of the Empire.
So was the Mother Bear.
“You need to answer to the Parent of us all, because you have been an idiot.”
Deline strode forward. She had felt the Guardians’ presence inside her before. She had run with Father Elk, been guided by Mother Bear.
Father Snake was her and he was pissed.
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