Under the lapping firelight of the sconces, the dog with the golden earring gazed at the pack feasting around him. They rasped on the stained remains of a stag. An Elizabethan collar teased the dog's ears, but it was a mark of true nobility that no matter how fine the lace, one didn't give in to the urge to twitch. And Rex Regis was King: the strongest, most cunning, and most noble of all dogs. Let alone the humans.
The girl watched from her place beside his damask lounge, holding a water bowl at the ready. It wasn't quite what she'd trained for, but as the newest human in the Royal Guard, she was automatically the bottom of the pack. At least she'd earned the title 'bitch'. She was recognised as female, if not an individual. Only favourites got names.
Still, it was better than just being called 'human'. She had a collar now; she was owned. She held her head higher.
It was not unknown for dogs to keep select humans as pets. Trusted individuals were allowed inside for a few hours to groom and massage their masters. But Rex Regis had surpassed them all. He was man's best friend that way: no other dog would permit humans inside the house for long, let alone give them responsible jobs.
Her collar had been hard won. Blood marred the memory: the only way to secure a place was to beat a current Guard.
"Give up, pup," the Guard had growled, eyes black with fight-lust, his Staffordshire accent hard. She remembered rain in her eyes, blood trickling down her neck. "Roll over now, and I'll letcha live."
On her knees in the mud, surrounded by a baying crowd, she growled a reply. The crowd whooped in laughter. Slowly, never taking her eyes from him, her arms lowered her body into the muck. Her legs followed suit. At last, she looked away, baring her throat and belly.
The crowd roared. The Guard pounced, yipping in delight, glorying over her defeat.
But she wasn't giving up.
His breath hot on her neck, his triumphant snarls grating her ear-drums, she struck.
A scream speared from her throat. Her legs kicked out. He fell hard. She jumped on his back, rolling him. Her legs vined round his belly. Her fingers circled his neck. Creeping tighter and tighter. He struggled madly, but his legs scrabbled at air.
"I'll kill ya! Liar!" His voice was nothing but a hoarse shriek, foam flying with every wrench of his head.
She held on.
As the feast crunched on around her, the girl felt the scars on the back of her neck, a reminder of that fight. Then her fingers slipped onto the collar that had been her trophy. She smiled.
A spray of kitchen hands carried out dessert: liver-flavoured ices, pork-belly jellies, and a cheese platter of select raw bones. Human were useful that way. Though useless in the hunt, their fingers did make them perfect for fetching and carrying, and making elaborate confections likes ices and lace. But they needed the superior wisdom, social organisation and discipline of the canine race to really get ahead in life. The girl was eager to get ahead.
She thanked the Gods she had been born in such an enlightened time.
"Come on child, they be gnawing at 'em all night." Edith, a matron of the Royal pack, whispered up at her, paw resting on her knee. The pack did look well established on the stag's remains. "Help me with his Majesty's bedclothes, won't you luv?"
Through the dark earthy corridors, the girl followed behind Edith and another Yorkshire terrier. They kept up a constant nattering as they indicated which furs Rex preferred tonight. The girl listened as she prepared the den.
"I remember when he were just Rex Mastiff." Agnes tilted her head to one side, eyes moist with the fondness of remembering.
"Ooh yes, but he were born a right prince still, weren't he?" Edith paced in a tight circle, testing the bed. She settled comfortably. "Even 'mongst his brothers he were king."
"And a fine litter it were too," Agnes sighed.
The girl shivered, eyeing the blankets and the warm hairy bodies longingly. The tides loaded the air with a wet cold that drenched the dens at night.
Agnes slid Edith a pitying look.
"Go on, then, child," Her tail thumped the blanket. "Warm t' bedclothes for his Majesty. Jump off as soon as he comes, mind!"
"Yes, m'lady," the girl whispered, dizzy with delight.
"You shouldn't've done that," Edith said in a half-growl as they trotted out. "You know they're not allowed ont' beds."
Agnes sent her an apologetic glance.
Edith let her shoulder roll into her sister. "Such a softie."
The girl settled onto the furs with a happy sigh. Fatigue addled her bones. She sank into sleep as soon as her head dropped into the pillows.
A cold damp nose tickling her ear woke her.
"Wa-wa-what's this?" A low growl huffed on her neck, reeking of bone marrow. She was thankful for the collar protecting her throat.
Opening her eyes, Rex Regis stood over all in all his golden magnificence. His eyes narrowed as he studied her. She didn't dare move.
He collapsed beside her, shoving her off the warm spot. "Ears," he ordered.
Kneeling by his head, she went to work rubbing the balls of her fingers into the base of his ears. His body deflated, joy rumbling in his throat. Her fingers had never felt skin so soft and velvety. She held her breath, unable to believe her fortune.
Rex Regis, allowing her to touch him. Him!
She blinked, but it was still real.
She massaged til her fingers ached, not daring to stop. Slow, deep breaths swelled in his chest. His body lay entirely limp, even his tail was flung out across the blankets. He slept, surely?
Her fingers withdrew.
A gravel-edged growl cut through the air.
"I'm sorry," she breathed, hurrying to correct her mistake. He shrugged her off, humping the warmth of his body away from her.
Her hands fell to her sides. She'd disappointed him. Her stomach curdled into a fist of nausea. She'd failed.
Once she'd crept from the den, she ran. She ran and ran and didn't stop till the suck and wallop of waves wet her feet. Here, her distress caught up. Sobs struck at her body. She shambled to the end of the pier, but couldn't outrun her weeping. In the misty shadow of a ship, she dropped into a coil of rope and let her misery flood.
Four paws hit the deck beside her. She flinched, and snapped into a fighting crouch.
"Easy, little one." A tall black curly-haired dog. A foreigner. "Not looking for a fight. Just come to see what all this noise is about."
The girl glared at him some more and lifted the corner of her lip.
"Apologies, dear lady. I have not introduced myself." The dog sniffed her hand politely where it clawed onto the edge of the rope curl. "Miguel Perro de Agua."
He waited for her name, then remembered. "Bloody Englishers. They don't give you names, do they? I have sailed around the world and never met a meaner pack of dogs." He sat comfortably on his haunches, tilting his head. "What do they call you, then?"
The girl felt her hackles settling. The Perros were sometimes pirates, sometimes traders, but always cordial.
"Bitch," she found herself saying. Her chin tilted upwards with pride. The effect was rather tarnished by her tear-striped cheeks in the moonlight.
"I see." The Perro looked away, ears flinching.
The girl frowned. "I am a Royal Guard. Rex Regis himself lets me-" But here she broke down.
"There, there." The Perro licked her hand and settled down with his back to her. She sunk her fingers into the comfort of his darks curl. The Perro heaved a happy sigh. "Now, if you were my human, I would keep you occupied just with this. I think you will find a tick a little lower." He wriggled closer. She obliged, pinching off the tick and working her fingertips deeper into his skin. Her weeping subsided.
"I tell you what, little one." The Perro's accent slurred a little. She wondered if his words were marred by drool. "If you'll give me your services tonight for a few hours, I'll give you a little present."
The girl wiped her cheeks with her shoulders. "What kind of present?"
"A very special one." He looked at her from under the fluff of the tip of his tail. "A very secret one. One really only fit for the lips of Royalty. You will love it, little one. One sip, and you will clamour for more."
The girl considered this. The sea breeze savoured a salty tang. The wet slap of waves lip-smacked the pylons.
The Perro was true to his word.
As the dawn light tinged the underbelly of the sky, he dropped a purse of powder at her feet.
"Very powerful," he breathed, "They call it 'chocolatl'."
Hand cramping, the girl grabbed it and started to back away. "Thank you."
"Mix it with water and – wait! Come back! You won't drink it here?" he called after her.
She shook her head, and ran back to the King's manor.
A new shift of Guards were marking their territories around the entrance, piss steaming in the infant daylight. Her fingers clawed tighter around her precious gift. She ducked her head and slunk inside.
In the feasting room, his Majesty lay stretched out on his daybed, a bowl of chicken between his paws.
"The Siamese are blocking the East Indian sardine trade again," an adviser noted. The King huffed and licked his bowl clean.
The girl hurried through into the kitchens. She mixed a bowlful of the chocolatl powder with hot water. The smell of it curled upwards and made love to her nose. Heads throughout the kitchens raised. She carried it carefully out to the feasting room even as the King barked.
"What's that smell?"
"A gift, your Majesty," the girl replied, placing it by his paws with a quiet bow.
He eyed her suspiciously, nose working the room. "From who?"
The girl quailed. Her courage failed her. "From…" Me, she was dying to say, but the words decayed under his wary scrutiny. "From the Perros de Agua."
The King humphed derisively. But his nostrils could not stop drinking in the scent. "Taste it."
Obediently she lowered her lips to the bowl and drank. Heaven. Sweet, thick, liquid heaven, melted through her veins. Her legs grew shivery with delight, and a grin broke across her face.
The adviser pulled her back from the bowl with a growl. The King watched her, a skein of drool threatening to fall into his collar. He slurped it back. With one last glance to see that she wasn't poisoned, he licked at the bowl, then guzzled, and drank the lot.
Panting, eyes dazed, he stared ahead.
"Sire?" The adviser crept an inch closer.
The panting slowed.
The royal eyes rolled back into his head. With a thunk the King collapsed onto his side. His limbs jerked about like a bear was shaking him.
"Bitch!" Rex screamed. His words fought through a bubbling spring of bile and drool. "What have you done to me!"
For a heartbeat, horror froze the girl's limbs. Poison! And yet she felt fine – but the King was clearly dying. She pitched her gaze around, but the royal pack seemed entranced by the sight. As a spasm crushed another shriek from the stricken King, she backed towards the exit tunnel. Still, no one else moved. She turned and ran faster than a greyhound towards the port.
The King's howls chased after her. "Biiiitch!"
But half the pack bore that name. The Guards did not think to stop her.
Written for the Review Game's November Writing Challenge Contest, link on my profile. Read the other entries and vote for your favourite from the 7th!