“Write a story about Nikolas and hounds,” my girlfriend said.
In spite of my best intentions, the dog dies at the end.
The first hound Nikolas Avis received in his life was a present from his older brother.
He was six years old, sulking the day after his birthday — which had gone mostly ignored and forgotten, except for a cake slipped to him by one of the cooks. His father had been gone the whole of the summer season, negotiating something or other with Oldhill at Haven City, with the High King mediating, and the assorted gaggle of cousins and hangers-on had been bored without any sort of proper festivities. Nikolas, six years old and still smarting from the loss of his mother — she would have remembered, he knew; she had been the one to organize a small celebration for him the year before, and had slipped him a present of a small bag of brightly-colored glass marbles. He still had it, tucked safely under his mattress, and if the maids knew about it, when they were changing the sheets, they did not say — he knew that for certain, because he checked for it every night, just to know that it would still be there.
They were a poor substitute for his mother, with her soft hands and lavender perfume and her sweet smile — even at the end, she had smiled, and Nikolas clung to that memory harder than he was willing to admit — but sometimes, he would pull the bag ou and shake the marbles out into his palms, rolling them and watching the way the light would catch on the colorful glass.
He had been doing that, in fact, when the door to his bedroom banged open; it was only really because of long practice that he managed to shove his hands under the blanket and hide the marbles there; the only people who might come into his room this way, without knocking, were his father and his–
“Oy! Nikolas!” Reynold Avis cried. He had one arm outstretched grandly, like a conductor before his orchestra; his other arm was curled against his chest, holding something small and dark and squirming in place. His face was flushed, particularly pronounced over his high cheekbones, and his dark hair was tousled wildly. He looked bold and dashing, and like everything that Nikolas hoped he might look like, someday. He strode across the room and deposited the thing he was holding into Nikolas’s lap, and it took him a moment of confused startled fumbling to realize it was wriggling up towards his face, and then licking it with a wet pink tongue.
“Oh, what,” he managed, and then he leaned back enough to get a decent look at the puppy in his lap. It was small and still more baby pudge and uncoordinated limbs than anything else, a dark black in color with lighter brown patches surrounding its muzzle and splashed across its chest and covering its paws, which were really quite enormous for the rest of its size. Nikolas stared for a long moment before he brought his hands up to first cup, then press the creature’s face, which earned him a high little whine and another excited wriggle as the puppy tried to climb up his body, to his face again. “Reynold, what is this–”
“It’s a dog, obviously,” Reynold said. He dropped heavily onto the bed and reached out, putting a hand on Nikolas’s head. It was broad and warm — almost hot — and the fingers were long and blunt. There was a weight to his touch that seemed to press Nikolas all the way down, until he was rooted in place — but then Reynold just ruffled his hair, leaving it a bit on end, the same way that his own was. “And it’s for you. Happy birthday, Nikolas.”
“Um,” he said, and then he hugged the puppy, hard enough that it whined in protest, but even then he couldn’t really make himself let go, just loosen his grip enough that it could wiggle to lick his face. It smelled like warm musky animal, nothing at all like lavender, but for a moment Nikolas’s eyes went hot and prickled the same way they had when the doctors had pulled the sheets over his mother’s face, and her hand had still been warm in his, and he’d stared and stared like maybe he could will her to tear that sheet away and properly scold the doctor for presuming–
“You’re going to be a man soon,” Reynold said. “That means you should have your own proper hound. This one here, that’s a whelp from my own Bianca. The biggest of the pack! Teach him well, and maybe the old man’ll start letting you have more of your own.”
“Ah,” Nikolas said, and he smoothed his hands hard over the puppy’s face, pulling the soft loose skin tight. The puppy wriggled and yipped and when Nikolas brushed his fingers over the muzzle, it latched on and began to gnaw with tiny sharp teeth. “It’s a boy?”
“Of course it’s a boy!” Reynold clapped a hand on Nikolas’s back, nearly hard enough to propel both him and the puppy off the bed. “It’s your first animal, so you need one in the proper Avis tradition! Raise it up strong, don’t give it a terrible name, and do me proud, do you understand?”
“Yessir,” Nikolas murmured, but his attention was entirely taken by the puppy, warm and wriggling in his arms. It was a tactile living thing, moving on its own, its brown eyes wide and curious and clever. Though its teeth were sharp, and they pinched, it didn’t really hurt. It was absolutely fascinating. “I’ll do my best.”
He ended up naming the dog Leaper, because it had a tendency to jump when excited, and though Nikolas eventually trained it to heed his commands, there were times he could see Leaper’s entire body vibrating with the desire to just do as he was named and leap — onto a maid, onto one of his cousins, onto a cart being passed by a servant, a horse, a particularly bad-tempered badger — any number of things. Leaper sired five litters in his lifetime, and Nikolas gave most of those pups away, though he always kept two, when he could — the largest and the smallest, generally, and while he was banned from keeping them in his own room — or even his wing — if there was any one thing he’d learned from his brother in Reynold’s life, it was that sometimes, it was simply easier to just not ask the old man for permission.
(The night after the day he fetched Reynold home from Quertis, his face shattered and half missing from an angry husband’s bullet, Nikolas carried down a blanket and a pillow both to the kennel where the hounds were kept. Reynold’s dogs snapped and growled at his passing, and his father’s stared at him with unblinking brown eyes, but Leaper sprang up on his hind legs, pawing at the door, and he licked Nikolas’s fingers as he unlocked it, and he’d spent the whole of the night curled against the dog’s warm side, with Leaper snuffling occasionally in his ear. He slept better than he thought he should have, looking back, but he couldn’t say he was ungrateful.)
Leaper the hound died one month after Nikolas Avis’s sixteenth birthday, and anyone who’d looked at him before then had known he had been hanging on by a precarious thread, more skin and bones than muscle now, shaking on suddenly-brittle legs and dragging himself more than walking.
The night Leaper died was a hot one — one in a series of unpleasantly warm days for that particular summer. Nikolas, restless for reasons he refused to name, took his pillow and blanket down to the kennels — they were finer than they had been the first time he’d done such a thing, and more of the dogs were his now, who whined their greetings to him as he passed — but Leaper only thumped his tail and watched with mournful bloodshot eyes as Nikolas unlocked his door and let himself in. He was still warm, though not nearly as much as he had been in his prime.
Nikolas put a hand on his flank and sighed. He tipped his head back and looked up at the ceiling of the kennel, as if he could stare through that and into the sky itself, with its scattering of white stars. They were brighter to the east, in the direction of Quertis, he knew. Maybe they had always been that way; he wasn’t sure if he’d simply never noticed, or if he was only beginning to hallucinate in madness. That was his father’s legacy, the one that Reynold had died before properly inheriting.
“It’s all right,” he said quietly, stroking his hand along Leaper’s side, and closing his eyes. “I’ll be all right. One way or the other.”
And Leaper heaved a great deep sigh, enough that his entire frail body rocked with it, and he turned his head enough to touch Nikolas’s arm with his tongue, and his tail thumped once before he went still.
Nikolas remained there the entire night, long into the next day, and when the servants came to cart Leaper’s body away, he directed them to the gardens instead, and to bring him a shovel, and then to be left alone.
He did not mark the grave, and he never returned to it deliberately, but the next spring the flowers that grew nearby were thick and plentiful, and for the season, at least, he wore a sprig tucked into his first buttonhole, and never once agreed to answer why.