The sun was out, but weak. As if it were far too cold to send sunbeams out for long. I didn’t mind. Swathed in a thick black cloak, my stiletto tucked in my bodice, I almost felt strong. Provided I didn’t move too quickly. It felt like ages since I’d been near an animal of any sort. I wished I could go check in on my horses, Hook and Sinker, but they were still at Sinensis so the hounds would have to do. Jemin walked beside me, looking entirely unaffected by the cold weather. He was wearing a cloak over the blue guard uniform, but he let it blow open as if it were worn only for show. His burly form had no need of additional warmth.

Jemin noticed my glance and returned it. “It’s good to see you looking well, Miss Meredithe,” he commented, his teeth flashing through his beard.

“Thank you, Jemin,” I replied. “You look well, also. Winter suits you.”

“Yes, it does,” his smile lingered as the sounds of hounds reached us. We rounded a bend and came upon the long, low building that housed the royal hounds. The side that faced us had one, double door entrance like a barn, and I could see that large fenced runs jutted from either side, and likely ran around the back of the building.

The doors were standing open, and we stepped inside, greeted by a round of baying and the overwhelming smell of dog. The kennels were dim, lit by the doors and the rows of small windows tucked high on the walls.

A middle-aged man in dark work clothes strode up to greet us, “Afternoon, milady.” He took off his hat, revealing thinning gray hair, and bowed. “How can I help ye?” His voice had the thicker accent of the mountain cities. His skin was wrinkled and weather beaten, and his eyes seemed caught in a permanent frown.

“Good afternoon, sir, I would like to meet your hounds,” I replied, inclining my head in greeting.

“Any type in particular, milady?”

“All of them, if you have the time. It’s been frightfully dull indoors.”

The man grunted, “Follow me.” and turned back into the kennel. He headed down the center aisle. Large kennels, the size of generous horse stalls, lined the back and sides of the building, and the hounds set to baying as Jemin and I passed. The man barked, “Quiet!” and a few of the hounds listened, but not many. The walls were wood till about the top of my head, then iron bars stretched up to the ceiling.

He stopped at the first door and pulled it open. A gaggle of calico foxhounds jumped up and swarmed us from where they’d been curled up on straw with the red-headed child. The child leapt to his feet, and cried “Heel!” and the wiggling swarm turned back on itself and converged instead on the child.

“Naran, give the lady a tour of kennels,” ordered the man. “She wants to meet the hounds.”

“Yessir,” said the boy, Naran.

The man grunted again, and without a word of farewell left Jemin and I standing in the doorway with the boy and the foxhounds.

“You can come in, if you want,” offered the boy, his eyes wide. “They won’t hurt you.”

I stepped in and gingerly crouched down, Jemin leaned on the doorframe. Naran approached, the hounds moved around him like his own personal cyclone.

Naran addressed the hounds, “Say hello.” Then he lifted his eyes to mine, pride gleaming as the hounds—working very hard to contain their energy—came to me with tails wagging vigorously.

I reached out both my hands, palms up in invitation and the hounds’ restraint faltered just a little and they surged closer and surrounded me. Wet noses crowded under my hands and I felt paws trampling my cloak. I managed to pat some heads, but there were far too many to give a really good scratching before another hound pushed into the coveted position. The little boy ran his hands affectionately over the hounds’ backs, moving through them as easily as a ship on the sea.

“You haven’t been in the garden in forever,” said Naran.

I looked up at him. “I have not.”

“Why not?”

“Well,” I paused, “It’s winter.” And I got broadsided by a sword a couple weeks ago.

“Oh,” he looked down. “I don’t mind winter.” He had his mother’s eyes, I decided, and her freckles. But where had he gotten the red hair?

“Did you train these hounds?” I asked.

Naran nodded.

“You’ve done a wonderful job.”

The child beamed. “I teach them manners. Mr. Ewald teaches them to hunt. You want to see the rest of my hounds?”

“Of course.”

With a word, the boy shooed the hounds away from the door and excitedly led the way back into the aisle, closing the door behind us. The baying from our entrance had quieted down, and with Naran as our guide it did not resume. All the hounds clearly adored him—some of the hounds were less sure about us, but most were eager and accepting. We met the coon hounds, the wolf hounds, the bird dogs, and the rat hounds. Muddy paws, inquisitive wet noses and tongues impossible to avoid as I patted and scratched as many hounds as I could while listening to Naran talk about the animals. I was going to need a clean gown by the time I got back to the suite. The thick boned bloodhounds were our last stop, and I was happy to find a bale of straw to sit on while Naran told me everything he knew about bloodhounds—in addition to the quirks of the individuals lolling at his feet. One of them, a gawky red-coated hound Naran called Hew, settled his bulk on the straw beside me and placed one oversized paw on my thigh. I took that as an invitation and obliged him by rubbing his head and his large, soft ears. His limpid brown eyes closed in pleasure and suddenly his head was in my lap. By the time Naran was winding down, Hew had both forelegs and his shoulders in my lap, his eyes closed as I stroked his short coat and ruffled his thick folds of skin.

Naran came and plopped on the straw beside me. “Hew likes you!” announced the child with a grin.

“Seems so,” I replied. Hew groaned.

“He’s really just a puppy,” said Naran.

“This huge thing?” I asked, touching a too-big paw and realizing that the hound had probably not grown into them yet.

Naran nodded vigorously. “He’ll get bigger—much bigger.” He spread his hands to demonstrate. “His sire was wolfhound. It was an accident.” The child was very matter of fact.

I arched a brow. Hew’s coat was longer than a normal bloodhound’s, now that I was paying attention, and his face was more angular. I had assumed his gawkiness was youth, but perhaps some of it was the conflict of bloodhound bones and wolfhound build.

Naran continued, “His littermates were sent to some of the other estates to learn to be guard dogs. Hew stayed here. The Hound Master wants to see if it’s an accident worth repeating.”

Leaning back against the wall I dedicated my fingers to stroking Hew’s soft ears. I could feel weariness seeping into me. Just last month I had been walking and jogging for hours over rough terrain, and today a tour of the kennels made me want a nap.

“Miss Meredithe,” Jemin spoke up from the doorway. “Perhaps we should be on our way.”

I looked up at him, hating to leave and hating that I was relieved he’d spoken. “Yes, we should.” I nudged Hew. “Off with you.” The hound moaned in protest. “Hew,” I commanded, “Off.” I shifted my legs so his weight was now slipping toward the floor. Hew picked up his head, gave me a look, then jumped to the ground. Before I could try rising without assistance, Jemin stepped forward and offered his hands. I accepted, and relied much more on them than a lady should.

“Will you come again Miss Meredithe?” asked Naran, standing with his hand on Hew, both watching me with huge, imploring eyes.

I smiled, dusting off my skirts as best I could without bending over. “I would love to. Goodbye, Naran, Hew.”

Jemin set his hand on my elbow and guided me out of the kennels. The air outside felt especially cold after the warmth of the house of hounds, but it was refreshing also. We started up the path back toward the castle. It was uphill, and we walked slowly, Jemin keeping his hand on my elbow. I took careful, deep breathes and I was pleased to find that no searing pain greeted me, just stiffness and a dull ache if I moved wrong.

Jemin’s step faltered and I looked up at him in surprise. His eyes were fixed on the path ahead so I turned to look. Coming down the path toward us, arrayed in a dark green velvet cloak, two guards and a servant in her train, was the Nether Queen’s ambassador, Khattmali.

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