The guard made his first mistake of setting his lunch down on the stump he used as a table; he made his second when he stood up to talk to his companion.
“Geddit,” I whispered, not moving from my fold in the neighboring tent flap.
Belle, who had been watching the diners and waiting, bolted from my side and in two leaps she had the entire bundle neatly secured between her teeth. Instead of racing away with it—the way she had done much earlier in the season, before I stole a belt for a ranged disciplinary tool—Belle returned to me, hiding in the tent. One of the remaining residents saw the theft, but he kept his mouth shut tight; we had rescued his wife from gang rape just after the encampment was established, and he wasn’t going to report a few stolen lunches. Food was more scarce than ever, and with all the tents disappearing as each occupant was integrated into culture, so was my cover. I had only four acres of camp to hide in, and with the increase in guards, that was not going to be nearly enough.
The guards wouldn’t feed me. I used to serve as handmaiden to the youngest princess, and I was very much on the wanted list so the king’s assassin could hunt down the remaining royalty who had not been fond of public appearances or portraits.
I stared at the mutt at my feet as I ripped the bread into chunks and dropped her equal portions, but I reserved most of the cheese for myself as Belle grew very gassy when she ate cheese—and all I needed was for a dog fart to give me away. The dog had been a gift from the king after I chased off a very poor assassin with a broom. Hounds were not fit for a lady, the king had said, but a lady would hardly assail an attacker. Instead of punishing me traditionally, he gave me a puppy from the hound who escaped their keeper and returned pregnant. The headstrong, independent puppy had been a challenge to raise while we were in the castle, and when the troops fell to our longtime enemies, the almost-dog nearly got me killed in the camps. I tried to lose her, but it never happened. She was bonded to me and that was that. One night, after a very close call with the guards, I almost ended her life. I could have lost the connection to the king and royal family. I could have blended in with the rest of the camp members, started a new life. A less glamorous life, granted, but it could have been what it was before the princess took fancy to me and demanded I serve her.
But when I look Belle’s trusting neck into the crook of my arm and thought about squeezing and not letting go, I realized I could not murder my only friend. I would rather steal and hide and run several times during the night than give up on my loyal companion. It wasn’t her fault that she was from the king’s kennels and everyone could tell.
Keeping Belle had a few advantages—stealing meals was one, making people avoid me was another, and she was a very good warning alarm. I didn’t know what would happen if I was captured, but the ones before me had been publicly executed; the crowd said it was very generous the king had not maimed them first. Call me a traitor, but I did not want to die for a crown that razed nearly-harvestable crops for their new amphitheater, levied taxes on all land farm-able or not, and drafted every eligible male not rich enough to buy a mercenary to go in their place. Call me a hypocrite for also not wanting to turn them in to a new crown who evicted city residents and dropped them into camps. At least they fed us, and gave us blankets, and wood to burn throughout the winter.
I dropped the last of the bread crumbs; it was time to move again.
Snapping down a chunk of bread, Belle gulped, held her tail erect, and lifted a paw just before a subtle growl came from her throat. She was pointing to the tent opening.
It was too late.
We’d been found.
The tale is continued at The King’s Mutt II.