The first rule of the camp was that you ate when you got fed, and I did so with a vengeance now, much to Hunter’s amusement.
“Think that food is free?”
“No such thing,” I said, not sure what he would expect in lieu of payment, but very sure that it would not matter how much food I ate, he would have payment in mind. I might as well get a full belly.
Silence stretched thin across the narrow gap between us as the seconds ticked by. Hunter leaned back in his seat. “I want a few rules to be perfectly clear between us.”
“I have a few myself.”
He raised a forefinger, but there was a slight softening in his face that suggested he was intrigued. “I would like to hear your thoughts first.”
Rules were like haggling for pay: The first one to speak loses. It as a good thing that I kept my rules very simple and basic. “Works for me. First, I bed with no one.”
I watched his facial expression; he kept it plain and featureless, like a mask, but he nodded.
“Second, no one touches me, or the pup.” It was a variation on the first, one that respectable people would not need defined, but I was not going to presume that I was amongst respectable people. “Third, the dog stays with me at all times, inside and out.”
Hunter’s mouth tipped downward, not a full frown, but not a look of approval. “The only person with a hound inside is the king, but she is free to stay in the kennels.”
“Make an exception.”
“I want it to be plain that I am under no obligation to do anything you request, and that I have the king’s full faith and my actions will not be questioned nor will they need to be justified.” I do not know how honey eyes could be so icy and cold, but his were. His face was hard again, and an air of indifference and business rested about his shoulders. At that moment, the breath froze in my lungs and I feared what he could do next.
“Tell me, Hunter, have you ever met someone with nothing left to lose, with no one to call on, and with everything to gain?” I asked, and saw a quick shift behind his iced demeanor; he had seen someone very close like that, possibly he had been that way himself at some point. “The dog stays with me at all hours.”
I thought he was going to argue with me, but he did not. Instead, he said, “Is that all your requirements?”
“I will not speak of my past. We start from right now and ignore the past.”
“No. I need you.”
“You want me identify the remaining royalty?”
“Can you?” He raised his eyebrows, as though he was not expecting it. Most in my position could not recognize all the family members, mainly because the princes and the princesses occupied separate wings and did not interact with each other. Portraits were for only the most prestigious, and I had seldom been allowed into the formal dinners which happened every night.
“Only three sisters and two brothers.”
“I thought as much,” he said, though he did not bother to ask which ones I knew. The old royal family was known for having lots of children, and for none of them liking the rest.
“If you don’t want me to help you hunt them down, what do you want me for?”
This made him smile a little. “The locals may not have appreciated their king, but he was their king. Now, there’s a foreign king claiming title to the throne, and there is unrest in the streets.”
“It would help if you had not made those camps.”
He pretended to have not heard me. “The advisers feel it is in the best interest if your traditions were to be continued into the new age.”
There were many traditions, most of which included ample food, drink, and dancing, and was well-accepted by outsiders in general. I wondered which tradition he was speaking of. “Which means….?”
“I want Belle.”
My mouth went dry. The hounds were bound to one person, and one person only. Transference of mastership was nearly unheard of. If he wanted Belle, he needed me. I wanted to object that Belle was a cross, a mistake, a mix-breed, not a true King’s Blue Hound; but Hunter knew this already. He must have spent the entire winter looking for blue-eyed hounds and not discovered one. The proud royalty would have died in battle with their dog, and the cowardly ones would have slain their them to avoid capture.
“What do you want with her?” I asked, though I knew.
“I want to rejuvenate the Blue Hounds, to mate her with my king’s breed. It would be representational of the merging of our two kingdoms.”
I swallowed hard, the palms of my hands suddenly sweaty. “You know our tradition? With mating the hounds?”
He winced; the owners of mated hounds were to wed. I had never thought that anyone would want to let Belle have puppies, so I’d never concerned myself with the idea of being married. The prospect was just as uncomfortable to Hunter. “That is a tradition best left behind us.”
It felt wrong both ways. It felt wrong to commit to someone just for the sake of a hound. It felt equally wrong to not commit, to be unable to hold up my head in the crowd with my own dignity, knowing that I sacrificed not only my personal pride, but that of the whole kingdom. I do not know if Hunter had planned it ahead, or if he misread my expression when he said:
“I will pay you ample compensation, provide you a luxury suite in the castle.”
I bolted upright, slamming the tray down furiously on the table, my face growing hot. “This is no issue of compensation, this is an insult, worse than an insult! You intend to provide the country with a symbol of unity, but this is yet another act of disrespect and plundering. Just another way to conquer.”
“Then the answer is no?” He asked, too calmly.
I wasn’t thinking right. I wasn’t thinking at all. I wasn’t thinking of the impact my actions would have on me, and on Belle. It seemed like all of the survival instincts I had cultivated since childhood had just left my body, and all that was left was a sense of something. A sense I hadn’t felt before. Protectiveness, perhaps. Knowing that suddenly, there was more at stake than my own skin. There was hers, and her future puppies, and the honor those blue eyes carried for the kingdom. I took a slow, steady breath.
“The answer is no.”
Hunter sagged visibly in his seat, the weight of the world on his shoulders now. “In that case, you will pass the time in prison until Belle has her litter.”