“Why ever should the puppy dog run off?”
Inside, the Captain’s tent glowed, a skin stretched under the high moon. Even as Khoreia outside padded away, no doubt toward more mischief, Calla lifted himself, languorously, stretching out, from rump raised high to his toes before his nose. But the slightest stiffness back there, he noted in wonder.
And Urska to thank for this. And for his life.
Khoreia, the clumsy plotter, too readily gave up her secrets when the moment seemed her victory. Her overconfidence nearly amusing.
Calla sniffed her snoring man, puffing in his blanket. Her scent reeking on him. Her man’s throat bared. Heart’s blood pulsing under the skin below his ear. She away at more mean play – the puppy dog unguarded here – and his fangs, that might tear. If the pup needed to do murder.
Kill the captain: simple expedience that would end Khoreia’s plan of using the officer, the sergeant, the soldiers, for catching Prince Drakon. And the remarkable beargirl.
One problem resolved, but the other complicated. Calla very much needed to know how these plotters planned to assassinate the King. The need necessitated he play the witch’s pup some while longer.
Pushing his snout out the tent flap, Calla spied her moving off, like some unnatural creature, the hair wild down her back silvered under the moon, and firelight dancing on every throw of her able hips. As she stepped among the men, cheery around small smoky fires until her approach, their bantering and laughing abruptly ceased: those afoot turned aside while the captain’s woman passed.
Careful under that bright moon, Calla paced after her in the shadows. Each huddle of soldiers she had passed markedly quiet still. She went to exchange pleasantries with Sergeant Esben. The man sitting, back against a tree, smoke curling blue from the pipe between his teeth. Curiously, those thirteen townsmen, eyes big like unsure children, huddling by him. Calla crept under fringing bushes as close as he dared, and listened.
“Settled in, you and your…fresh conscripts, I see – Reece, and I, am most happy you returned. Truly, Esben – I might kiss you – call you Good Friend.”
“You have your pups, woman. I have mine.”
“We are not so dissimilar, perhaps, then, Good Man. “ – and Khoreia crouched before him, put her smirk and hooded stare and her open shirt before Esben smoking his pipe – “My mistake…perhaps…in giving my affection to a man not deserving it…Sergeant –“
Esben puffed blue smoke – “Your perfume spoils my pipe. You have a point? It is late.”
“Most excellent man…Tomorrow, turn us north. Reece should do better in the north.”
“Then it’s north.”
Calla stole away as Esben and Khoreia bade each other Good Night. Swiftly and unnoticed returned to the captain’s bower, the good pup had already settled in his corner, and his head on his paws, when she flipped back the tent flap perhaps somewhat more energetically than she intended.
North of the soldiers and their smoky camp, beyond three shaded streams and a marshy lake, tramped a she-bear, a giant fearsome-seeming boar, with an iron ring through his snout, and a clumsy leggy cub. Remarkably, the wild trio led by a boy. And the boy leading his small company ever farther north through the beechwood.
“Madame, the big boots lock the children in – ALL DAY! –“
“They takes your liddle ones down the cellar rooms, Madame. In ones and twos. They bark like angry dogs at your liddle ones –“
“The children come back CRYING, MADAME! –“
“I were ‘bout t’tell that, too – Y’never lets me finish –“
“Ohhh, Madame, whatever can we do?” cried Steiffa.
The expedition of rats from the school stood on hindlegs, chittering through the bars with little Steiffa inside the charmed cage. Madame, the magpie, prisoner too, perched above, hunched on her twig. All too much for Quant, hot tears welling in his eyes.