What began as a one-shot here or there depicting young/pre-Wardens Alistair has spun off into a beast of its own. Several users commented that they'd be curious to see more of young Cailan's reaction to that chance meeting at Redcliffe. Thus is born "Sneaking", a collection of linked shorts about Cailan's quest to find out more about the stable boy that interested his father so. While not necessary to read either "Questing Eyes" or "Second Born", it's recommended for context.
The kennel master was a solid man with wide shoulders and a thick neck, not unlike the Mabari hounds he was tasked with keeping. Just now he tilted his head to the side and fixed the young man before him with a quizzical stare. "You want to do… what? Pardon my impertinence, Highness."
Cailan waved the apology away with his hand and smiled even more brightly. "I wish to see to the hounds. A future king must be well-versed in the customs of his people," he said, quoting his father as smoothly as he might quote the Chant of Light. "That includes a familiarity with the hounds that mark Ferelden from the lands around it." For a moment the kennel master regarded Cailan, and the Prince could see the man's mind at work. He wanted to believe the boy, but wasn't sure how much trouble he'd be in if he didn't. Cailan fixed the man with a pleasant smile and stood, making it clear that he was not going anywhere.
The kennel master sighed. "As your Highness wishes," he said. "Though I must insist you stay away from the puppies," he added. "They're nearing the age where they may imprint, and I don't fancy having to explain a puppy to his Majesty."
Cailan's chuckle was warm as the mulled cider he'd sipped before coming out to the kennels. "No, of course not, my good man. My actions are my own," he said. But he did pull a sovereign from his pocket and slide it into the kennel master's palm. "For your silence," he added, meeting the man's surprised eyes with a meaningful stare until the kennel master nodded quickly.
The first thing that struck Cailan was the smell. He'd overheard foreign dignitaries complain that Ferelden constantly smelled of wet dog, and he'd felt a blend of curiosity and offense at that. Ferelden smelled the way a country should smell: of tilled earth and rain in the spring, of cold and wood smoke in the winter. Highever smelled of ripening orchards in the summer and the village of Redcliffe always had the tang of fish from the docks on Lake Calenhad. But wet dog?
Cailan stood uncertain in the entry of the kennels, alone but for the whines and low growls of the Mabari hounds around him. He sniffed the air, fighting to keep his nose from wrinkling, and there it was. A pungent smell somewhere between rot and mildew tingled through his nose, and Cailan was certain this scent would stand out to anyone not so completely born and bred Fereldan as he was. Or as his father was. Or…
He strode forward, trying not to grimace when his boots trod the squishy earthen floor, strewn with moldy hay. He'd purposely worn his old boots, the ones nearly worn through, that Cornelia insisted he get rid of; yet he stubbornly clung to them for expeditions like this. He'd had to stoop to a stealthy trip to the laundry to find a pair of stained breeches and a nondescript tunic, and he'd left a sovereign out where it could not be missed. He hadn't been lying when he told the kennel master that his actions were his own. He also knew the potential said actions had to get him into the worst trouble of his life, and wasn't above exchanging gold for silence.
Cailan spared only a brief glance at the pen of Mabari pups, rolling mounds of fur and paws and tiny pink tongues. He smiled, but wiped the expression away almost immediately and kept his eyes forward. Mabari hounds were scary-smart, and read facial expressions as easily as hand commands; they responded not only to commands, but even to idle conversation. He knew that even looking at a puppy just ready to imprint could result in just that. And he didn't really care to explain to his father how he'd managed to get a puppy to imprint on him, either.
As he ventured deeper into the kennels, the smell enveloped him. His eyes watered and his nose protested, but Cailan kept his step resolute. Back here the air was heavier and it was darker. Back here the older Mabari kept to their pens. They were used to nurse pups or help in training the new regiment, and when not doing that, were afforded the rest they'd earned after years in battle, like retired soldiers. A few snub noses lifted to sniff as Cailan passed; a few quizzical whines inquired about his presence. "Just visiting, if that's okay," Cailan told a grizzled dog who leapt to his feet, stubby tail wagging. The dog gave a small growl of contentment and turned around in the hay before flopping down.
At the very back of the kennel Cailan found what he was looking for. One of the pens was empty, but used for storing hay. Heaps of gold piled against the three walls. Cailan looked about, but was alone save for the dogs. And as intelligent as Mabari hounds were, they weren't about to go telling the kennel master, or worse, his father, what he was doing. Cailan got his footing on the rail of the gate and vaulted himself over.
It was supposed to be a smooth and graceful leap, but Cailan was unused to such movements and tumbled over and into the stack of hay on the other side. Rough straw ends poked his eyes and scratched his cheeks and the dust clung to his nostrils and made him sneeze as he fumbled to right himself. At last he was right side up, sitting in a Mabari pen, with straw clinging to his hair and pilfered garments.
It's not as soft as I thought it would be, he thought, reclining. His borrowed bed made crunching noises under his movements, and stuck into his clothing, leaving him itchy. And then he wondered what sorts of bugs or other vermin would be crawling beneath him and he very nearly vaulted back over the gate and ran out of the kennels. But he forced himself to stay there, itching in the rough straw and smelling the stink of wet dog.
Gradually he settled into the hay and it conformed to his body. Cailan was surprised to discover how warm it was, and how the clinging smells of summer and the harvest mingled with the dog smell into something that was oddly… pleasant. Nurturing. The low growls and whines of the older Mabari were a gentle song, with the faraway squeals of the puppies a rousing chorus. And then Cailan realized with a start that his eyes were closing.
Cailan sat upright and blinked the sly, pleasant drowsiness from his light blue eyes. This was absurd. He was the crown prince of Ferelden and he was about to nap in a kennel? He could order a servant to play the lute or harp for him while he burrowed into his feather mattress with the finely woven sheets and wool blankets. He didn't need hay and whining dogs. He got to his feet, cheeks aflame at his own idiocy and began to painstakingly pick the hay out of his hair and brush the dust off his clothes.
And then he stopped. Yes, he could do all those things because of who he was. Being his father's son had afforded him certain privileges that he'd come to understand as fact. But he was the lucky one.
Cailan climbed out of the pen and shook his blond hair out one last time and strode out of the kennels.
"Find what you needed, Highness?" the kennel master asked Cailan's retreating form.
Cailan turned and gave him a crooked grin. "No, not yet. But I have other places to look."