(A Houndmaster Novel)
(coming of age fantasy/gay romance)
There’s a time for games…
No crush compares to reality. That’s what La’vii learns when the pregnancy of one of his dogs puts him in close proximity to his unrequited puphood crush. Only, instead of being worse than La’vii’s dreams, reality is far more intriguing than he’d ever imagined.
Co’mil is strong and sure, a steady presence that is everything La’vii’s ever desired. And at this moment, with a litter born and wreaking havoc in his pack’s collective mind, he can use all the support he can get. But Co’mil’s friendly, though reserved, behavior is confusing, his interest evident, but his rejection firm, leaving La’vii conflicted and desperately wanting more.
As his puphood crush dissolves, La’vii finds himself caught between the painful choice of either pushing for more or accepting the inevitable. And by the time he discovers what Co’mil truly needs, La’vii isn’t sure he’s the houndmaster for the job or whether the reward is even worth the challenge.
A houndmaster coming of age novel set in the same world as The Wilds Duology.
The first time I saw Co’mil he’d been schooling my brother on the sands of a doghouse. He won that fight with only three dogs, one of whom who had been gravely pregnant and had mostly just stood growling on the sidelines. My brother, a good seven years older than me with a pack of nine, had been left embarrassed, bloody and bitter in the center of the sands. I’d been left hard and gaping, my gaze locked on Co’mil’s wry expression as he shared a loving, celebratory kiss with one of his dogs.
I spent the rest of that night oscillating between listening to my brother moan about the unfairness of it all and imagining Co’mil’s thick arms around me, pushing me into creative positions that my thirteen-year-old self thought were creatively exciting, but in retrospect were admittedly tame.
Co’mil featured in arguably just about every fantasy I had after that for two years. Then I found flesh and blood partners more than willing to turn those fantasies into realities and Co’mil became nothing but an occasional nostalgic remembrance—as if a fifteen-year-old pup could even understand nostalgia, let alone feel it. The first time I tasted reality, lips soft against mine, nerves sparking, that unrequited crush shriveled to ash.
Or so I’d thought.
Another three years after that, Co’mil became a fixture in my life when he took over the basement at one of the largest doghouses in Crafton. I heard about it through my brother, his grimace speaking volumes on his opinion on the matter as we picked our way along the edge of a marsh-encircled lake by the light of the moon and a beautiful array of reddish-orange gaslights. Course, the grimace could have been from the smell, considering El’mik could complain about anything.
The gaslights of skyclad—the half of the year when our world shone brightest despite the lack of a sun—had only just thickened to their grandest displays of the season. The stars beyond disappeared behind their brilliance, the deep violet sky serving as a backdrop to the stretch of flickering, ever-changing light.
We were on a simple job, clearing out some of the overpopulation of moss hares in the area for the locals so the critters would stop bothering the fields above the marshes. I got the delightful task of carrying the sack full of shorn ears we had to bring back as proof of our kills. Benefits of being younger, I supposed, but I didn’t mind so much for the sogginess of the ground and the tang of algae in the air reminded me of home.
“A dog like that, can’t believe anyone would leave their pups with him,” said El’mik. He tossed his dark hair out of his eyes and kept his gaze focused on Ar’maa, a puphood friend of ours, more his than mine, who usually completed our threesome when we took jobs.
Ar’maa glanced over her shoulder, her hair limp and mud speckling her cheek from when one of her pack had shook beside her. “My dam claims he’s good with them, that he was raised working in a smaller doghouse.”
She shook her head. “No, but I can’t remember where she said.”
“He’s a brute,” grumbled El’mik.
“Didn’t you challenge him once?”
“That fight was unfair. He had everyone rooting for him and you know how they push and prod along the sidelines. One mutt even tripped me.”
Ar’maa hid a smile and exchanged a knowing look with me. “Have you ever tried a rematch when the sands were emptier?” And there was no mistaking the humor in her voice.
“Ah, hells. He’d just find another way to cheat. Til’s chasing down another.” And on cue, one of El’mik’s hounds scrambled off, cleanly diverting the conversation away from Co’mil before I could find out what had caused him to suddenly settle down.
I found an opportunity to ask later while Ar’maa was busy digging some prickles from the paw of one of her dogs. “Did he run afoul on a job?”
“What?” El’mik tore his gaze away from Ar’maa’s backside to give me an irritated glare. “Who are you talking about?”
“Co’mil. Did he take up in Crafton because he’d been hurt?”
El’mik snorted and shifted to lean against a nearby spineleaf tree. “Fuck if I know. I can’t say I’d be sad about it though.” He returned to his examination of Ar’maa, a slight scent of arousal sifting into the air around us.
“It’s not shallow, La’vii. It’s fact.”
“He’s a good man. A good houndmaster. You shouldn’t be wishing him harm. What if it happened to you one day? Out on a job, get your leg messed up and suddenly your body can’t handle even a single run. Forget the hunt. Forget pacing your pack or chasing that next high. You’d be useless in the sands and in the field.” I paused, then added softly, “That’s a horrible way to retire. I hope that’s not what happened.”
El’mik shot me a strange look. “I don’t know. Ask him next time we hit up the doghouse.” Then he purposefully strode away, shaking his head slightly.
I crouched and wrapped an arm around Sed, her pale brown coat long enough it’d been picking up debris all day from her time in and out of the soggy edges of the marsh.
“I will,” I mumbled softly under my breath.
The rest of my pack—Ris, Mit and Aim—still sniffed around the bushes, searching for a recent trail. They sent flashes through our collective consciousness, reminding me that the hares were more numerous further in, away from the wetness of the encroaching lake and the hordes of biting flies.
“I know,” I said as I pressed my cheek against Sed’s dirty coat. “We have to check everywhere though, you know that.”
Then they sent me images of Co’mil from the night he’d bested El’mik. As if I needed their help to remind myself how he’d looked. Like a dog blessed by the ancestral bitch herself, his hair holding the tiniest hint of red as it curled in an unruly mop on his head, his eyes a piercing gray I wouldn’t have minded staring into as he’d thrown me to the sand.
Mit’s thoughts rumbled through my pack’s collective, wondering whether I’d be challenging him myself finally. I gave him an assertive, resounding no. When he asked why, confused that I wouldn’t want a chance to prove my worth to someone I so obviously wanted, I had to explain to him, with more than a little embarrassment, that if El’mik couldn’t beat Co’mil, the chances I could were so slim I might as well turn belly-up and beg for attention.
Just the thought of that outcome had me ducking my head in shame.
Back in Crafton, El’mik’s spirits high from the small bonus we’d received for also removing most of a burrow network of dirt rodents, I managed to convince them both to head to our favorite doghouse early. They wanted a real fight, their packs aching for something more fun than the simplest of prey; I wanted to see Co’mil, just to ascertain he wasn’t in bad shape.
Ris thought I was hilarious, reminding me over and over that I didn’t even know the man. I scowled at her as we stepped into the doghouse, the lull of noise from the sands pouring over me in welcome. People crowded in and around the ongoing fight, though only a spattering of others ranged across the first floor. Dogs and houndmasters alike draped themselves along the wide, chewed up railing above us, most of them observing silently, though a few cheered, likely in support of whichever houndmaster they’d placed their bets on.
The lower level bar stood empty but for a couple of dogs gathered in the corner, sleeping out their boredom. My own pack bounded up the steps to our left, their thoughts a jumble of unrestrained excitement as they found perches along the upper tier’s edge. Their angle didn’t show much along the ground, but they sent back occasional flashes of the two grappling houndmasters. Ar’maa and El’mik disappeared upstairs as well, probably to find a couch where they could cuddle and flirt while they waited for their turn on the sands.
I watched the fighting from down below, leaning against one of the support beams for the floor above. Though, I didn’t truly notice who fought or who won because my gaze kept wandering, focusing in on the employee doors behind the bar.
As the doghouse slowly began to fill, many of my sire’s friends arriving and stopping to chat with me before they were swallowed into the throng of betting, bloodthirsty mutts, I worked my way around until the main door to the pup basement came into view. It sat propped open, the frail sounds of youthful pup fighting echoing up whenever the noise from the sands dipped.
“You have pups down there?” asked a young woman I’d come to stand beside. She had long dark hair, two tiny braids of it wrapped around the crown of her head. A couple of huge golden dogs hovered near her, barking whenever the crowd became too rowdy.
“No,” I said. “Not yet. I think one of mine is considering it though.”
In all honesty I had no idea whether Sed or Ris were considering pups and for my assumption, Ris snorted in my mind, though Sed was strangely quiet.
The woman glanced around, obviously searching for my pack.
“They’re upstairs.” I pointed to where Mit and Aim were shoving each other in rough estimations of loving hugs and sent a silent warning to them not to tip over the edge. Aim sent back an image of the crowd breaking their fall causing me to chuckle under my breath.
“They seem young,” said the woman. “One’s already thinking about pups?”
I shrugged. “She’s a pup lover.”
“You’re allowed downstairs to see what you think in case you’re scouting for a trustworthy place to leave your dogs in the future. We’ve even just hired a new basement manager. Co’mil knows pups and he’s not one to be too easy on them so you come back to find them spoiled and rotten and needing to have their sense of entitlement run out of them by your pack again.”
“You work here.”
My heart did a little roll, an instinctual worry playing up my fears that she’d tell Co’mil I’d been waiting to see him. Logic reasserted itself, but only after my heart decided to pound about ten times faster than it should, loud enough she must have heard.
She smiled slightly as she pulled her loose hair off her chest and flicked it toward her back. “Most of my life,” she agreed with an unworried gesture. “We’ve got a whole hall of rooms in case you’re looking for basement rights for yourself, plus we’re also working on building another set. They’ll be brand new in a couple of years if you’re looking for something for the future.”
“Cha’ree,” she said with another wave of her hand. “Go ahead and check it out. Take whichever of your dogs is thinking of having those pups too so she can make a decision.”
Right. Because my seven-year-old nocturn hounds were just eager for parenthood. But Sed sent a thought for me to wait and came bounding to my side a moment later. I gave her a hug for her trouble and flashed a grin at Cha’ree.
Hard wood steps led down into the basement, while decorative carvings of playful pups lined the entire wall along one side. The other side fell away after the first couple of steps, opening into a view of another sandpit, this one shallow and filled with well-chewed bones and overly-loved rag toys. Pups of amber, brown and auburn leapt around the sands, sending huge swaths of it flying against the walls. A couple of older dogs lay with their eyes narrowed to slits at the entrance to the pup zone, one of whom watched me intently.
With Sed following more slowly, I meandered through the maze of the basement, finding feeding rooms, sleeping dens filled with torn pillows and shredded blankets, a huge bathing room filled with a dual set of built-in shallow basins, and two separate hunting grounds, complete with a forest of underbrush and fronds and even a tiny, bubbling stream with glowfish blinking within its depths.
“Wow,” I whispered to Sed when we stepped into the second, larger hunting ground, yellow lucevine flowers grazing my shoulder where the vines grew over the top-half of the entrance. “I don’t know about you, but I for one would have loved to hunt in something like this as a pup. I didn’t even know this was down here.” Sed sniffed at the foliage, holding out on a response.
The ceilings had been smeared a deep, deep blue with the constellations painted on in stunning accuracy. The trees, while necessarily squat, grew until their branches spread out against the makeshift sky, their leaves drooping downward to thicken the hunting zone. The soft sounds of rodents and hoppers scampering across the soil caught my ear and something splashed along the other side of the expansive room.
I chased after Sed as she trotted through the mix of spineleafs and ice-fire eucalyptus, surprised at the erratic pattering of my heart until I recognized one of the scents lingering in the air, mixing among the strong smells of the flowering blackflower vines and random dognettle shrubs: Co’mil.
I tried and failed to control the thundering in my blood. And when I stepped free of the mottled-barked trees, their trailing leaves grazing my shoulders, and into a tiny meadow of taller grass, I swayed slightly at the sight of Co’mil crouched nearby.
“Co’mil,” I said, my voice cracking slightly.
His gaze remained focused on a pup stalking a pale green bird that sat perched inside a low heathery bush, though he did put a finger to his lips, acknowledging my presence.
The pup gave a vicious growl and leapt, proceeding to completely miss the bird as it swooped away before rising into the canopy. A larger dog, one I recognized as one of Co’mil’s pack, appeared from between the trees and nudged the pup.
“Don’t growl, love,” said Co’mil, as if he was repeating himself.
He had a week’s worth of stubble on his face, the hair groomed and trimmed and not at all matching the unruly mess on his head. His low, quiet voice stirred longing, eliciting thoughts of how it would feel to have him speak just like that to me. Soft, somewhat rough, maybe even telling me not to growl as we slid together.
The pup ran into his arms, yipping excitedly, unrepentantly happy despite her failure to catch the bird. As Co’mil stood, lifting the pup so she could lick along his jaw, he said, with a glance at Sed, “She’s too young to be thinking about a litter.”
Obviously assuming I was here about basement rights for my own pups. It was better that than have him notice the tendril of arousal in the air that seemed to be stronger than the heady scent of it drifting down from the upper levels of the doghouse.
“That’s not—” I was going to say “That’s not up to you,” but stopped myself when Sed gave an indignant snort and snarled at him. So I gave a sheepish smile and shrugged. “She doesn’t exactly agree with you.”
“Huh.” Co’mil turned his face so the pup could lick at his cheek, then bent to let her run off into the hunting ground. “What’s your name, pup?”
“Sed,” I volunteered. “She’s the steadiest of my pack, always making sure the others take care. If any of them could nurture a litter, it’d be her.”
Co’mil’s expression turned wry, reminding me quite clearly of the frozen memory I had of him from the day he’d beaten El’mik. “I was asking for yours, not hers.”
My heart sank, but I wasn’t going to embarrass myself further by arguing over whether I was a pup or not. I’d watched El’mik do it enough to know it was the only surefire way to prove, in no uncertain terms, that you were indeed a pup.
“La’vii,” I said, with a grin I hoped didn’t show my disappointment. “I’ve three others, all of them litter mates.”
“You look familiar? You from Luirton?” His dog pulled herself to her feet and ambled off in the wake of the pup, her giant mass shaking the fronds.
I shook my head slowly. “No, I’ve never even been there. My dam and sire grew up to the southeast, in the wetlands by the coast.”
“Huh. You look… Didn’t I best you once on the sands? You had longer hair then, all styled up like you were worried it might get dirty?”
Now the disappointment became crushing. “That was my brother,” I hurried to say. “El’mik.”
“Right, that’s what his name was.”
I laughed and scrubbed a hand down my scalp, pushing Mit and Ris away mentally as they mocked me for my crush on a man who’d never even noticed I’d existed and worse, had lumped me in with a man who whined more than he fought.
“People don’t normally get us confused.” Before Co’mil could embarrass me any further, I quickly added, “Cha’ree said that you’d just started working here and that you were really good with the pups.”
“Don’t know about being really good, but we treat them as we’d treat our own. Sed’s not seriously considering a litter, is she? How old?”
“Seven, close to ei—”
“She’s barely out of puphood herself. She isn’t no human hound; no need to rush. Give your body a few years, love. There’ll be plenty of time for chasing pups later. It’s a job in itself to simply teach them to hunt for themselves.”
Sed snarled at him, crouching slightly, her mind tugging on mine, wanting to challenge him. I caught the rough of her neck, and though I didn’t pull her back, I did attempt to remind her that Co’mil had bested El’mik, who was older, stronger and had a larger pack. She claimed she didn’t care. Of course she didn’t. And with Mit riling us all up, the others were starting not to care either.
Co’mil raised a single judgmental eyebrow at Sed’s reaction. “I don’t take care of the prices. You’ll have to speak to either Wa’ol or Cha’ree for a quote if you’re legitimately looking.”
I grinned widely. “Thanks, but we were hoping to get an idea of how you worked.”
He shrugged. “We keep to a pretty strict schedule out of necessity, but we do accommodate any serious delinquencies in development.” The way he said “serious delinquencies” gave me the distinct impression that were they to exist, he would be quick to blame the houndmaster and the dam involved. “Pups get a lot of time on the sands, learning to fight one on one and in groups.
“They bed down with their litter mates to keep them bonding. Plus, I always make sure they get solo time in here to learn how to care for themselves. Sometimes with me, sometimes with one of my pack. Any sickness occurs, the pup or pups affected are quarantined in a couple of rooms we’ve made for that reason. They’ll still have plenty of space to roam while they’re recovering, but that way we won’t have an entire basement full of disease. Any specific questions?”
While I floundered, Sed sent one to my mind. “Are you here because you want to be here or because the hunt was taken from you?”
Co’mil’s grudging attention suddenly sharpened. “How is that relevant?”
Instinctively, I glanced over him, searching for tells that he might be hiding an injury. I didn’t find one, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something lingering that might rear its head at the worst possible times. When I met his gaze again, the thin line of his lips told me my examination hadn’t gone unnoticed and had not been welcome.
Softening my voice in the hopes Co’mil wouldn’t take too much insult from my words, I said, “Sed thinks that if you’re here because you want to be, you’ll make a pretty good pup handler, but if you’re not, you might take any bitterness out on them.” I held steady under his gaze, though he had to have heard my heart rate pick up speed.
Matching my tone, Co’mil said, “You could challenge me to judge for yourself.”
My pack went quiet within my mind. All flashes of the sands upstairs ceased. All pup thoughts from Sed faded. I could feel them, their emotions taut and ready, anticipation of a fight teasing our collective.
I, alone, felt numb.
I could say yes and end up embarrassing myself when he bested me in a quarter of the time it’d taken for him to best El’mik. Or I could say no and embarrass myself by being too much of a coward to accept his challenge. Either way, I lost face, lost worth and lost any chance I had at ever proving I could be someone worthy of his time, effort or friendship.
“I think Sed had a perfectly legitimate question,” I said firmly, with a slight smirk, trying to deflect his indirect challenge rather than answer it.
But Co’mil was likely too used to pup tactics because he smiled grimly with a closed-mouth. “So fight me. Let me prove my worth to her.” And just that quickly the indirect challenge became a direct one.
I wanted to crawl under a rock. My pack wanted to try and take Co’mil on, see if he’d gotten any worse in the past few years. I highly doubted it and told them so. I also told them if I fought him, everyone could watch my defeat, making my embarrassment that much more complete.
If we never made it to the sands, then only my pack and Co’mil’s would know of my choice. So I took the more pathetic option of the two. The choice that made me even less than a coward and not much of a houndmaster at all.
With a laugh to brush off the tightened coil of mortification inside my gut, I shook my head and said, “We already know how that would end. You’ll get no respect from anyone for besting a pup.”
Co’mil’s expression didn’t change. “You’re not even willing to try? Afraid to lose?”
“I can handle losing better than most considering I have two older siblings who greatly enjoy destroying me, but I much prefer when I have half a chance at learning something from the fight. And with the way you’re looking at me right now, you’re probably far more determined to force me belly-up within seconds rather than attempt to show me anything worthwhile.” Before he had a chance to respond, I gave a playful snap of my teeth and added, “Thank you for your time. It was…a pleasure to meet you.”
A pleasure I could have gone without for another five years. That hadn’t gone anything like how I’d imagined it might. None of the thirty million different versions I’d dreamed up. I turned and strode back through the pup hunting grounds, trying to pretend I wasn’t tucking tail and running.
Upstairs, back in the roar of the now boisterous doghouse, I sifted through the crowd until I got to the bar. Cha’ree stood behind it, brightly laughing as she poured drinks and tossed scraps to the dogs who poked their noses underneath. I settled against the end, scoring a mug of Prey’s Scent after she’d finished serving an entire group of houndmasters who’d just come off the sands.
Later, when the influx had died down, I challenged her to a friendly round. I lost, which I expected, but I had a grand time against her. Cha’ree moved fast, but not entirely in sync with her pack, a couple of them chafing too badly to remember their defense. Mit and Ris got a couple of good bites in and I managed to knock Cha’ree to the sand on two separate occasions before one of hers got a grip on my throat that spelled the end of the dogfight.
I laughed when she offered her hand and playfully yanked her so that she spilled between Sed and Aim. She scooped up a handful of sand and threw it at my mouth in retaliation before we were shooed off the sands so the next two could go.
Off the sands I saw Co’mil watching, his head lowered slightly and his hands shoved into his pockets. Still high from the fight with a cheerfulness that made me giddy, I blew him a kiss with two of my fingers.
I couldn’t read his response, not with all the people between us and the noise of the doghouse resounding in my ears, but I saw him leave a few moments later, heading back downstairs to be with all those pups.