The King’s Mutt XVII

I had to do a little bit of research to make the emotions more believable. Hoping that I wasn’t too heavy-handed in this, but I’d rather take stuff out than have to put it in. Have you ever wondered what your favorite book looked like while it was in the manuscript stage? How about how different it was from the first draft? I’ve always wondered. There are all these great books on editing and writing, but I haven’t seen one that guides the reader through a tale from first draft to publication. What does it take to go from “good” to “embedded in your heart forever”? I’m not positive, either, but I’m going to discuss the changes editing brings about and provide details of what I’m doing and when. My plan is to cite from the reference books I have as well.

Here’s to adventures that never end, and good friends who go along for the ride.

Nicolette

Dawn found me commanding at the clean-up crew, trying to not think about how Father had died, why he had died, and who had killed him. I wasn’t tired, and I was not spending every second ridiculing myself for thinking that I could form a bond with an assassin. I helped the crew in every way that I could think, doing anything to keep my hands occupied and a smile on my lips. When the time came for booths to resume, I laid out new lines for the vendors that decided to join off the streets, answering their questions with more cordially than I did yesterday. Belle trailed behind me, tipping over buckets when she tried to lie down. Why hadn’t someone—anyone—told me before? Was I that hard to reach while I was in the camp? When had it happened, and how had I missed the funeral? Where was he buried? And despite myself, I hated the King for letting this happen to me. But I was not thinking about it.

Though I received a number of examining looks, Deann was the first to say what she thought. “Did you get any sleep last night?”

My eyes were sore, likely red, and my hair had been tied back in a quick bow. At least my clothes were fresh, and my face was washed. “Couldn’t really sleep.”

Deann’s large lips pulled down in thought. “You look like crap.”

“I’m fine.”

“No, you look like you are on the border of spouting out tears.”

I sighed and snapped, “I said I’m fine, and I meant it.”

Two of her sisters, who had come to help her today, cast startled looks my way. My cheeks burned.

“Let’s grab a morning meal, shall we? I’m famished,” Deann said, though I saw bread crumbs on her shirt from this morning. I balked, stilling my mouth from making a scene by getting angry at her.

My resistance broke when she put her arm over my shoulder and lead me to a vendor selling sweetened rolls; Deann bought me one with preserved berries inside, and I instantly made the treat one of my favorites, though as soon as I realized that I was enjoying myself, I felt a wave of guilt, and the laugh Deann had teased out of me died.

“What did Hunter do?”

I jumped, fear stilling my heart. People were watching. Not obviously, but I could catch them when they thought I wasn’t looking. “What makes you think he did anything?”

She shrugged, swallowing a bite of her roll. “My sisters are married, got one still dating. I know that look, it’s either a man problem or a death.”

My fist slammed on the table and I hissed, “You don’t know me. I met you what, a week ago? What makes you think that you can pry into my life? I’ve got enough people barging in like I’m some sort of washroom.”

Deann was not intimidated, but her jovial nature ceased. “Who was it?”

I went for the shelter of the brambles at the edge of the sitting area, and she followed with a handkerchief.

“Belle?”

“I’m fine.”

“No one knows.”

“About what?” I asked between clearing my eyes. Toughen up, you’re strong, I told myself. Stop blubbering and get back to work.

“About what happened. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have you out here…I wondered why you didn’t have a guard with you.”

“I don’t need guards,” I said. “I can rely on Belle.”

“The dog?”

Her surprise gave me something else to focus on. “Yes. She’s a good guard.”

“I know that, but…well, I thought that that wasn’t her name. You know, that people called her that because she was your second shadow, or something.”

“I’m not known as her owner?” I had been while I was in the castle. Or that’s what I thought.

“No,” Deann said, slowly. “She’s a great mark that you have the right person, but you’re more known than she is.”

Deann had let me get off the main topic, or maybe she had directed the conversation that way; in either case, I was glad she was letting me rein in my emotions.

“Why don’t you go back home? The rest of us can contain the festival for a day.”

Home. Back to Hunter’s place. Hunter who would not be contented to let me be in private. Hunter. Hunter, the killer. I always knew that’s what he did, but I didn’t think that he would do it to anyone I knew and loved. I still couldn’t believe it. “Why?”

“I think you should confide in those you care about. They will help, I know they will.”

I wanted to laugh and cry at once. If I talked to Hunter and he denied it, I would believe him not because it was truth, but because it was what I wanted to be true. But I would always know differently. For an instant, I thought about seeking out Mother, but the woman had no time for tears and healing. Her grief took the form of courtly smiles and poison. “Do I really look that bad?”

Deann sighed, smiled a little. “No, no you do not. I’m just observative. Come back with me, we’ll wash your face with the rinse water. It’ll help your eyes look less tired.”

The spicemint lifted my mood and made my aches ease away, and I found I soon really was forgetting about Mother’s news. Deann saw when I had washed my handkerchief in the treatment water, but she turned her head the other way, and I was glad. The longer I used the handkerchief, the more I relaxed, and the more I relaxed, the closer to normal I felt—until a biting hand snared my shoulder and spun me around.

Hunter, and he was not happy.

Good. It was my biggest accomplishment all morning, and I hadn’t even done anything to make it happen.

“How long have you been here?” His voice was an emotionless shell covering a torrent underneath, like a fine layer of ice over the river.

“Probably since you’ve been looking for me.”

“You left without protection.”

“I’ve got Belle.”

“No, you don’t,” Hunter said, darting his eyes to where she snored several booths away.

“I managed to survive before her.”

Hunter lost control for a second, and his face reddened, his fingers twitched. Then he let out a slow breath. “You weren’t a liaison before.”

“No, I wasn’t. And my life would be much simpler if I weren’t.”

A predatory smile crossed his face. “It would. You’d be dead.”

Fighting a sudden urge to slap him, I said, “Maybe I’d prefer that.”

The smile disappeared, and was replaced by a scowl. “What’s gotten into you?”

“You have, though you haven’t any business to be butting into mine.”

“What did I do?”

My jaw dropped. I barely kept from saying what rang through my head. You murdered my father, that’s what you did. That, or I thought about shaking free of his hand and demanding to know what had happened to this Tailor person. No, I reminded myself. No, I needed to be sensible about this. I needed to harness my emotions, use them as a weapon, not be controlled by them. I sighed, and felt a real pressure ease off my shoulders. I rubbed my forehead. “Nothing. You did nothing. I’m just feeling overworked, and I’m taking it out on you.”

Hunter let go of my shoulder, smiling weakly as a type of apology for having clamped down so hard. “I shouldn’t have been so upset. I should have come checked here before searching the ditches. Come, let’s get Belle to her room so she can rest without being stepped on.”

It really was a sensible idea, and one that I could see my mother encouraging me to do. I swallowed hard, and pretended that the night with my mother had not happened, and that everything could be restored to normal.

When I woke, Hunter was gone from the parlor. I had fallen into a drugged sleep on the floor, curled up with Belle and a blanket Hunter had grabbed. It smelled of leather, smoke, and light sweat. It smelled of him, and a stab of betrayal struck my heart. Groggy, I tried to cast away the blanket and only succeeded in tangling myself up in it. I fell asleep twice before waking up entirely. I shook it out, folding it back up for my still-slumbering hound. She had found my kerchief and had chewed all the treatment out of it.

A note fell to the floor.

I thought it was from Hunter, but when I opened it, it read:

Fountain Tonight. Urgent.

I read it over a few times before carefully folding it and tucking it into my sock.

Belle groaned and stirred.

“Stay. Go to sleep.”

Her tail thumped twice on the floor and she wriggled into the blanket.

“Good girl.”

It was close to nightfall, and I made my way towards one of the secret doors, just in case Hunter had posted Ash or Clyde outside the main door.

A heavy knock came, jolting me from my sneak upstairs.

The person knocked again, but louder, more urgently. I was at the door in no time, yanking it open as the boy outside raised his fist to knock again. He was one of the King’s messengers.

“Yes?”

He cleared his throat, puffed up his chest, and said, “Your presence is required in the King’s quarters immediately.” He smiled, becoming a child again. “Right now, that is. And thanks for letting me practice my authority voice. If you’ll follow me, because it is so hard to walk across the hall and down a little, especially for the castle’s former maidservant.”

In the time it took for him to finish the sentence, we were at the King’s door. I had been right about Hunter posting the two royal guards, but they were at the other end of the hall, making loud and rowdy jokes. They did not seem to have heard the boy come fetch me.

The kid pulled open a door and shut me inside quickly, not bothering with a formal introduction.

The King’s private lounge was dark but for an open window and a few candles; had he been the former king, I would never have entered the lounge alone. His appetite for women was extremely well-known. But this Phinneus was not that sort of a man; I had never heard of even a childhood sweetheart. The natives whispered that perhaps he had no desires at all.

“Liaison? Is that you? Come into the writing room.”

I followed his voice, and found him standing next to a window, a crumpled letter in his shaking hands.

“Sire? What is wrong?”

The King hastily set down the letter on the desk, smoothing it out, then dropping it into a drawer with other letters, letters much more cared-for with lots of flourishes ornamenting the letters. It was the same desk I had dared to search through after I had first arrived as a maidservant. The portraits of the old king’s lovers were gone, replaced by fine stationary scented with perfume.

“I want you to be the Maiden of Hope and ride the unicorn during the Hunt.”

I blinked at him. He was supposed to have the Maiden ready to mount the horse by now. “Sire? I thought you had a special woman selected.”

He blanched. I could see it even in this light. “They’ve broken a carriage wheel and cannot arrive on time. I have some of my finest men out to escort them through the night, but…I need someone for the Hunt.”

I wanted to ask him to find someone else. I wanted to go join Momma’s meeting.

But I saw the pain etched over his face, and there was a part of me that understood what he had to lose, because I was in the same place that he was.

“The Maiden has to be someone the people will look to during the upcoming year,” King Phinneus said. “I had thought it would be my bride, but in her last letter, she said she was looking forward to having a strong woman who could guide her in the ways of the kingdom. And now…it seems fate has decided.”

I knew he wasn’t going to order me to go. I was going to decline. Then I found myself saying, “Where’s the robe?”

He gave it to me. I changed into it down at the stables.

They had the horse ready, complete with a bull horn tied to his bridle. I mounted the unicorn, pulled the cloak over my head, and slipped down a side path into the forest. When I thought of the meeting I was leaving behind, my chest felt freer and my head more clear; but when I thought of Hunter coming to find a vacant lounge once again, my gut got a painful knot in it.

There came a chorus of trumpets and the baying of hounds as the hunt began, but someone was already in the forest near to me; I could see his silhouette against the rising moonlight, pulling back an arrow aimed straight for me. I knew him, and I shuddered, calling out as he released it.

“Bart! It’s me!”

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