Read The King’s Mutt I.
I made a mad dash under the tent wall—these cheap walls they called tents were nothing more than worn canvas tied down at the corners, which had come loose. Not that it mattered, the bottomless tents failed to keep out any sort of moisture or drafts to start with. I gave the tail of one tie a hard yank as I passed it, pulling the canvas down on my pursuers.
Had it been only guards on foot, I would have made it to the barrels, then to the bushes, then to the treeline. But it wasn’t only the guards—a panther of a man tackled me, coming down from the shadows of a water tower. Not only was my breath crushed out of me with three times my weight ramming me to the frozen ground, but he snared both my wrists so I was unable to even catch myself. My teeth cut my lip and my forehead smashed against a rock jutting from the frosted mud.
Belle was all snarls and teeth and claws past the ringing in my ears. For several precious seconds, I sat there stunned while the guards gained ground and the man handled a rope about one wrist, taking periodic swipes at the dog. She targeted the throat. I bucked in one burst of energy, and that dislodged the man from my back; a fist landed in my teeth, but my senses were already fuzzed past the point of being any more disorient-able. I dropped a heel on his gut just below his chest while he fended off a frenzied Belle, then stumbled into a sprint. The mutt was hard on my heels, as were the guards. Until they weren’t anymore; I doubted I’d outrun them.
A bee stung my back, then my neck. Except it couldn’t have been a bee; they were hibernating. I was falling again, the ground greeting me with sharp stones I couldn’t feel as the darts released their venom into my body. Belle’s blue eyes filled my vision, her paws scratching my shoulders, her teeth nipping my nose. Get up. Get up. Get up. And I did, twice. I fell quicker each time, desperate to keep hold on my consciousness.
I was wriggling like a worm when the man crouched next to me. I hadn’t heard him approach, but he seemed to be keeping the guards back.
“…cheater,” I said, my voice a hoarse rasp.
“You outlasted the hound.”
I surged to my elbow and snatched the man by the front of his shirt. “Don’t you dare hurt Belle.”
A smile broke onto his chiseled face, revealing teeth that belonged on a fox. “You’re an exciting one.”
I muttered a few words that would have made the princess faint, then the world faded into vulpine teeth and amused laughter.
* * *
I woke to a throbbing head, tingling fingers, and the dull echo of Belle’s bay reverberating through my skull. At least she was still alive. Holding still, I tried to give no indication I was awake, keeping my breath slow and deep while I felt for my surroundings.
I had nightmares of being caught. I always dreamed I would wake up in rat infested prisons with used straw as a bed to soak up the miserable drips and drops from stone walls.
I was not in a traditional prison. Instead of ruined stable bedding, I reclined on a velvet fainting couch; instead of urine and defecation, I smelled pot pie.
“You’re very good at faking sleep.” His voice was rough, as though he had been running in the bitter mornings too long. I couldn’t tell if he was going to be kind or torturous.
“A very curious creature. Blue eyes from the king’s hounds, but her body is much too long and her legs too short. I thought the king put down all the mistakes,” he said, and I knew he wasn’t only talking about the hounds.
“Belle!” I called, louder. It threw me into a hacking cough, and the man pressed a cold mug of water into my hand. I let it fall to the floor, shoving aside his hands and collapsing to the floor in a crazed effort to reach the door. “Belle!”
This threw her into a renewed set of baying, punctuated by barks, howls, and snapping growls.
“Take a seat,” the man said, reaching for my waist.
I bit his neck, sinking my teeth into his flesh and twisting savagely; perhaps I had spent too many nights with a playful puppy for this to be my instinctive response. The man let out a surprised shout, and I found my arm twisted painfully behind my back.
“Let go, or I’ll break it.”
He would, too. I swore I felt the bone already splintering. The mutt was outside the door now, snarling at her guardians and scratching at the door.
I let go and glared into his honey eyes. “Belle.”
The man did not hold a hand up to his neck, where my teeth left misaligned indents red and sunken in his skin. The indent would soon start to swell. He chewed on his bottom lip. “You won’t talk with me unless she is in the room, will you?”
She howled and the door shook with her weight against it; her noises were panicked now, frantic. I whistled a low, flat note. The dog went silent, and I heard her claws scrape on the stone floor as she sat. I stared at the man, at the determined set of his rectangular jaw, at the calculations taking place behind those eerie foreign eyes.
Knowing Belle would not allow his men to approach the door, the man crossed the room and swung open the door, standing behind it. She saw me, and her tail thumped three times on the floor. She growled me a greeting, front paws lifting up and down restlessly, her skin writhing with energy and excitement, but she stayed put like I’d told her to.
“Come,” I tried to say, but it came out hoarse. I motioned with my hand instead, and she bounded across the room, stopping when the man closed and locked the door behind her. Hackles up, she braced herself between us and snarled.
I whistled again, and she slid to my feet, accepting a pat from the head before turning back to the man with a growl. Much as I hated to think it, she liked him, and I was terribly inclined to trust her judgment. I wondered if he fed her treats, then hoped those treats had not consisted of cheese. She had been well-fed, I could see it in the bulge of her lean belly, and that made me feel further inclined to like him. I did not want to like the man who tackled me from a water tower, shot me up with sleeping darts, and dragged me off to a new place.
The man was careful to keep his eyes on the dog only. “She has been very well-mannered aside from barking and pacing. And aside from me being the only one who could tend to her.”
She had been groomed. The black fur shone and the white fur was no longer brownish-gray; I’d bet she had not appreciated the bath. The stink of wet dog came from me, not her. I was jealous.
“Will you take a mug of water now? Pray don’t break mine, it’s a favorite,” he said, pouring from the pitcher into the mug with three white lines decorating the red mug. He held it out to me.
“You drink first,” I said, concerned one or both of the mugs had been rimmed with some sort of toxin.
He raised his eyebrows at me. “Do you think I would use anything I already wasn’t immune to?”
He did, and I accepted the mug, but only took enough to wet my throat and lips.
The man sat in an armchair near where I sat on the floor, stroking Belle down her back. She soon laid down and groaned in contentment. She really did like him. I was in trouble.
“Who’re you?” I asked.
He smiled his fox smile and leaned back. “Interviewing the interviewer?”
I did not think of this as an interview. “Well?”
“Call me Hunter or Sir. I am the king’s best man.” I knew that really meant assassin, and my heart sunk past my stomach when he cordially leaned forward, offering me a plate of cheese, meat, and fresh bread. “And what of yourself? Who are you?”
I absently stroked Belle’s fur and ignored the tray. He slid it back in place.
“I know you’re from the king’s court. It’s the only way you got one of his blue-eyed hounds, be it a mixed blood or not. I want to know how close you were, before I get persuasive.”
In my weakened state, I wouldn’t last five minutes. “Pass the meat.”
Hunter held out the tray, then pulled it back before I could reach for one. “Name.”
I smiled, because I knew he wasn’t going to believe me. “Belle.”
His eyes darted to the dog and he frowned. “I’m not in the mood.”
“My name is Belle. I wanted to name the pup Rose, but the dog went everywhere I did and she learned to respond to my name instead of hers. Meat.”
He watched me thoughtfully as I took four rolls of thinly sliced meat and stuffed them in my mouth, closely followed up by bread and cheese, then washed down with half the mug of water. I didn’t care about toxins anymore; the pain in my gut was worse than any illness had ever made me feel.
Hunter pulled the tray away, but I didn’t care. I already ate more than I usually did at one seating.
I considered not answering for a second, then decided on a half-truth. “Maid.”
“A maid got a royal hound?”
“No,” I said, draining the last of the water and handing the mug back, “a madwoman with a broom charging a ‘king’s best man’ got a hound for her services.”
“I will instruct that all brooms be kept locked away.”
“Mops, too. Water.”
He poured me more and watched me drink, this time more slowly. He seemed to be debating what to say next, so I took advantage of the silence.
“What do you want from me?”
“Tell me where the remaining royal family is.”
I snorted, letting slide my cultured accent and falling into my hillfolk speak. “Ain’t they never trust me none with that sorta sensitive info’mation, why, dat p’incess took fahncy ta me cuz she thought Ah wuz kinda homely an’ Ah’d make hur look bettah in hur fancy dresses.”
He blinked at me again.
He blinked at me for a good ten seconds.
Then he said, “I take it the hound was to keep you loyal.”
She sure was one devil of a white elephant. Too precious to give away, too unique to have her master mistaken as ordinary. I considered my situation, but he was clearly considering his much harder. I shrugged. “Yuh goinna eat the resta the meat?”