Duchess stuck to Dom's side like a grey and orange shadow.
He realised early on that he had little choice in their new arrangements and submitted without argument. Wolset thought it hilarious to address the cat as if she were the squad's sergeant. "We all know who's really in charge," the corporal had said with a wink as the rest of the men guffawed. Duchess rode in Dom's saddle bag and supervised as he set up his tent and rolled out his bedroll each night. When they were lucky enough to bed down at a wayhouse, Duchess would groom and then curl into a ball dead centre on the bunk. He became used to sleeping around her. He addressed her as "Your Grace," and she would purr and twine about his legs.
Sometimes Dom suspected that Duchess thought him somewhat dim, and wondered why she stuck around in those times when she seemed to regard him as if he were beneath contempt. Perhaps she thought he needed a keeper. This was one of those times.
It was not long after dawn when he heard a soft plop of velvety paws landing on the floor, and a quiet scrape as Duchess pulled the unlatched door open just enough to squeeze through. He went back to sleep. Duchess often left early in the morning to beg for kitchen scraps in the mess. He had just began to doze again when she returned, purring and patting his face with her paws. It was a cold morning, and a Saturday. He attempted to ignore her. She patted his face with claws extended. He whimpered and pulled the blankets over his head. A few moments later he heard the hesitant scraping noise of a jar being batted across the surface of his desk.
Dom threw off his blankets and glared at the cat. Duchess yawned, the picture of feline nonchalance.
"All right, all right, I'm getting up," he moaned.
Duchess chirped and leapt down from the desk to wait by the door while he dressed, teeth chattering. Midwinter was only a fortnight away, and the north wind had already arrived for an extended visit. He revived the fire from the embers in the hearth and trotted to follow Duchess, who now meowed urgently in the hallway.
"Really Duchess, you could get one of the cooks to let you outside," he muttered.
A single half-turned ear would be his only acknowledgement as he trotted behind her down the barracks hallway. Dom paused for a moment to read a slate on the wall outside the mess hall.
Duchess squawked impatiently.
"Yes ma'am," he said, and entered the mess room.
He went to the serving window and helped himself to a bowl of porridge and a mug of hot tea. He turned and was hailed by a grinning Kel, the realm's second lady knight and his good friend. Her quarters were near the Own's, and she often joined the men for meals. Dom grinned back and let his glance slide to Kel's left, where Duchess sat on the table and daintily licked milk from what he assumed was Kel's porridge bowl.
"Traitor," he muttered as he slid onto the bench opposite the tall knight.
"Not you, her grace," he said, jerking his head to indicate the cat, who ignored him.
Kel smiled and seemed to examine him.
"What?" he asked.
"Nothing. Didn't your mother teach you not to talk with your mouth full?"
"Probably," he replied over another mouthful of porridge. He grinned. "What are you doing up so early? And since when do you wear dresses to breakfast?"
He'd noticed her attire immediately when he saw her. Kel wore a forest green wool dress over a buttery cream shift, a combination that looked very well on her. Very well.
"Since I'm going to the markets today," she retorted. "And because I want to."
"I've barely had time to think about it since we got back from the border. I don't like to leave it this late."
"Thanks for reminding me," Dom groaned, then laughed. "I still need to do mine."
He looked up and nodded acknowledgement as a few men staggered, bleary eyed, into the mess. Kel followed his gaze and nodded also. Then she looked at the bowl next to her that was now completely spotless.
"If you're not busy, you could come with me. I'm hoping to beat the crowds," she offered, not looking at him.
He felt a little jolt in his chest, then became aware of more men trickling into the mess. Rumours would fly, though it would be nice to chat to Kel without interruptions, he thought ruefully.
"Thanks, but I think I'll go back to bed. I was having a nice sleep before I was rudely awoken," he yawned, glaring at Duchess. The cat seemed to have been following their exchange, in that eerily human-like way of animals exposed to the Wildmage.
"Oh well. I guess we can catch up later, then?" Kel smiled, and stacked her crockery on her tray.
Did she just sound disappointed? Dom wondered. He never used to be this confused about her.
"Of course," he smiled back.
She picked up her tray and left, and Dom concentrated on eating his porridge. He looked up and noticed Duchess had him fixed with her most disdainful glare.
"What?" he demanded.
She twitched her ears back half-way, where they stayed, and flicked her tail. You stupid, stupid boy, she seemed to be saying.
"But I didn't do anything!" he cried.
Not even a flinch.
"A peace offering for your grace?" he said, pushing the remnants of his porridge toward her.
Duchess ignored it and continued to glare.
Cats, thought Dom with disgust.