Away from maddening Berengar and high in a tree, all her plans for the day simply in ruin, and not one soldier's ear near enough and any use to her, not one Scarlet's, not even one of Esben's rabble, Khoreia wrapped her cat paws about the branch under her, held on as tightly as she could.
"KILL YOU!" Urska hurled her she'bear bulk again, trembled the tree below like it might break and fly from the world.
More bears than ever Khoreia had seen at one gathering here paced the forest below. An impressive bear army: all she had found in all the day wasted searching for her beloved brother. Evidently, these bears would stay so long as Urska wanted to murder her treed cat. Even old Marron, the circus dancer, had kept this remarkable she bear company these many weeks, loyal as a husband, the iron ring yet in his snout.
The tree cracked up to the darkening sky. Khoreia scampered over the branch. The next tree stood close. She sprang, all her heart in the leap, like she might fly. She caught the next branch, a most precarious perch, her tail twirling and hind legs scrabbling at the bark. The tree behind groaned, swung down with a thud, shook the forest.
"STAY, YOU!" Urska shook this next tree.
Khoreia embraced the branch she had settled on. She laughed. It was the one gesture left to her in this long day without command. "A cat won't Stay, silly Urska. I know a dog, though, who might. Let me down. I'll take you to him."
Urska stood herself on hind legs. Swept high her front paws, her claws curved like daggers. But not so high. Khoreia stayed put.
"My lost brother. Urska. Have you seen him?"
The she bear glared. Khoreia saw it in her eyes: it was murder Urska intended.
She was trembling, Urska, in her bear shape, Khoreia saw, too. Transforming. Holding the tree in her great paws. It was plain to see, even in the twilight gloom settling over the mountain and forest. Then bear became girl. The girl hammered her fists upon the tree.
Night fell. Khoreia did not return. In His Majesty's tent, pacing about and wanting no comfort from his throne of cushions, Prince Berengar shrieked his displeasure before officers assembled expressly for hearing him. Calla waited among the forest of legs. His brushy tail wagged, nearly enough to betray him, again, again, though each time he managed easily to stop it. The instant arrived: the Prince's face had darkened the desired shade of red.
"Your Majesty. I must speak. If I may." Calla dipped his shaggy doggy head in deference.
Berengar swallowed, his left eye wide, tic'king. He had once a fine face, the striking likeness of his regal father. "Calla. Always. Loyal friend. I know I can rely on loyal Calla, when all others have abandoned me."
Berengar's officers shifted in their boots.
Calla reserved his attention for the Prince. "I fear the lady Khoreia has come to harm. She would not prefer a cold bed in the wild over her tent, your safe camp, your bright company, we can be sure. Doubtless she has been taken. The night all around us must conceal Vagari rebels awaiting the moment to strike. We must act quickly. Safeguard Your Majesty. Strike the enemy first, put him off step. Our Scarlets — the Empire's finest soldiers — properly belong where best they will serve, guarding Our Young King, and holding the camp. The Regulars must range out. They must go now. In strength — perhaps every able one of them. They must beat the bushes — flush out the rebels, terrified as rabbits before your martial prowess. Your Majesty, we cannot delay."
Berengar's officers growled in enthusiastic agreement.
Berengar had only to puff out his chest and command they do it: his officers rushed from the tent.
The Prince's brow smoothed. He settled among his cushions. His smile returned. He appeared again so like his regal father. He was not.
"Good, loyal Calla. I am relieved. See, I am relieved? Now that I have played my soldiers well upon the board I can return my attention to Borysko. And torture the man, as I certainly should."
The Pretender waved a ringed hand. A boy in scarlet livery flitted from the shadows.
"Stir up the kitchen for my nightcap. For cake. Away." Berengar's stare, and smirk, was reserved entirely for Calla. "Father's Borysko, Calla. Did you hear he has fallen into my hands? To do with as I determine. I was never...determined enough, in Borysko's eye. He shall see it."
Borysko's capture perhaps was inevitable. Calla had given the possibility sufficient thought ahead of this night: he answered the Prince by wagging his tail, enthusiastically. "Indeed. 'Majesty, if I may."
"Always, Calla." Berengar was smiling.
"Though it would please me, if it pleases Your Majesty to allow Calla, to watch the man suffer justice. He's a dog kicker, I can attest."
"Then father's Borysko shall lose his skin for the crime, too. Be assured, Calla."
"Calla is grateful. But, 'Majesty. I have news that may necessitate postponing the satisfying spectacle of Borysko's deserved torturing. I have heard reliable talk Borysko fell out with your royal father. Over training of your small and insignificant brother. Perhaps, this night, rather than torture Borysko, Your Majesty might send your loyal Calla to him. To sniff out where Borysko's loyalty now lies. The man may show himself most useful in the deciding days to come."
"Ah. Wisely reasoned, Calla. As always." The gleam faded from Berengar's eyes. "Practical needs must come before torture, I see. Go. Sniff the man."
Calla bowed his doggy head. "'Majesty." He backed from the gloomy Prince the respectful three steps, spun about, slipped out of the tent as Berengar began braying at his attendants for hurrying the cake.
The Scarlets already had stirred the camp noisier and busier and dazzling bright in smoky torches. The place now more jolly than the King's garden on Mid-Summer's Eve.
Before the royal tent, Armel, the toy sergeant, barked orders at Esben, his two corporals. The Regulars not invited to the Prince's tirade. Plainly, the good sergeant cared not at all about the affront to half the army, nor the omission. He puffed his pipe, nodded his head as Armel barked at him.
Calla dallied, sniffed a bush one of the camp mutts had soured. He stole glances, to catch Esben's recognition of this night's perfect opportunity.
A man's eyes, in a single unguarded glance, could betray his heart. Armel repeated every fine suggestion the dog had fed the Prince and his elites. Esben's eyes blazed, narrowed behind his curling pipe smoke.
It was enough.
He looked to his corporals. "Aye. Fall 'em in, lads. Full kit. I'll see to the irregulars." Esben turned with his corporals, done with the Scarlet sergeant, not once glancing toward the King's dog.
"Esben." Armel rocked on his heels, picked at the short sword on his hip: perhaps it did not hang just as he liked. "This is a night such as makes captains."
Esben did not face him. "I'll be happy if in years to come plain men sing about Esben over their beer."
"They will, Esben!" Armel strode away like he had a stick up his back.
Calla trotted after him, as far as the parade ground the Scarlets had stamped out near Berengar's baggage carts, the hospital ground, the kitchen. Predictably, the Scarlets were parading: they pulled their mean short swords, barked, stabbed at the night about them. The camp mutts barked along with them.
A quieter perambulation among the tents brought Calla back to the Regulars. A squad of Scarlets stood back, waiting to cover their posts. The Scarlets were snickering.
Esben had divided his assembled platoon into four squads. By the time yapping camp mutts announced the cook, four servers, the cake, and trailing officers, all arriving at the royal tent, Esben had marched out the last of the Regulars. And Captain Reece, Calla noted, afterward sniffing Khoreia's unoccupied tent. Esben had never relented: Reece on a stretcher was conveyed away in the night by those odd thirteen townsmen; and witnessed only by the King's dog.
His tail high, like a pennant, Calla trotted lightly over the cleared ground where Esben had camped his platoon. A small noise pricked his ear, stopped him. A small something rustling in the scrub. Very near his lowered snout. The vole shot out. Calla lunged, snapped him up, in two, three, four juicy bites. The vole sweeter than any treat from Berengar's table.
And just the treat to warm his doggy belly, before going to turn Borysko to treason.