It was Jared's chore to tend to the gardens.
They needed to be weeded, watered, picked, and trimmed.
In eighty degree heat at noon, while six months heavy with a litter, the chore was becoming increasingly difficult for Jared. He was filthy—covered in old layers of sweat, dirt, come, and blood—and had spent his morning outside longing to turn the watering can upside down on his head. Breeders were not allowed the luxury of wasting water intended for their Master’s land. Master would know and it is not worth the risk; neither was it worth mulling over and wasting time. Jared forced himself to stop thinking about his own comfort.
Vegetables for dinner don’t pick themselves.
Hands rough, cracked, and bleeding, Jared dug into the soil, small grunts with every movement. He paused every few minutes to catch his breath and adjust himself. His belly wasn’t as big as it should be with the litter he was carrying, but it was big enough to get in the way and make his chores painful. The last Doctor to visit had paid him two minutes of attention; enough to proclaim to Jared’s Master that they would make the yearly quota for pups, and that he expected Jared to carry to term. There were supposedly six heart beats inside him. Jared sat back for a moment to wipe the sweat from his eyes. He placed a hand on the top curve of his belly. Six new lives for the government.
Six hearts he would never see or feel again after birth.
The sound of a carriage pulling up snapped him back to his present task. His bin was almost full.
Hurriedly, ignoring the pain, he dug up three more carrots and wrestled them from their roots. It required creative maneuvering to stand and pick up the bin, but he managed. Waddling as quickly as possible, he slipped into the kitchen from the back porch door. The soft silk slippers he wore made no noise as he padded over to the largest sink. With effort and a somewhat loud grunt, he managed to dump the vegetables in. Three buckets of water had been pulled earlier in the day—before the sun had too much of a chance to burn—and one was used to wash his harvest.
This was all part of what he had been born to do.
Despite their handicaps, his hands completed the task efficiently.
The only sounds in the kitchen were of his peeling, scrubbing, and labored breathing. By the time he finished he was drawing ragged breaths, shaking slightly.
He had attended one of the best academies for breeders, where he had excelled at all of his studies. High marks had been given to him in cooking, cleaning, sewing, service, and obedience. Most of his peers had admired him for being so talented and eager to please. He gave his best at everything.
It was better not to think about those times.
Jared sighed and sank to the floor, promising himself he would rest for only a moment—a small moment, just one. He closed his eyes and tried to access a calm place inside his mind. It was hidden away and locked from him, but eventually found. As he began to settle, he heard himself wheeze.
Cutting through the sound of anything else, the front doorbell rang. Panicked, Jared awkwardly stood up, beginning to slice the vegetables into appropriate sizes. They were having guests tonight. A menu had been given to him to follow exactly, with threats that if it was not up to standard, he would spend the night in the trash bin with the failed food.
A few glances over at the trash bin, the bottom of which had turned into a murky green color, were motivation enough. Cut faster. Light the oven. Do better.
These were his chores and he would see them done properly, as Master wished it so.
“Jared! I want to change the entrée.”
“Change it?” Jared asked hastily, without thought. “Yes, of course.”
“These are extremely important guests, Jared,” Nathaniel said, excitedly clapping his hands together. “We should have something grand! Rich! We want to impress our guests, not feed them some paltry country dish.” The country dish on the original menu Jared had painstakingly put together called for every vegetable he had spent the entire morning digging and pulling from the earth, but he was forbidden from questioning the first breeder’s decision. Nathaniel walked over and handed Jared a revised menu, declaring, “I am sure you can manage just fine.”
With only glance at it, Jared’s mouth hung open in shock and panic. “But… but sir,” he gasped. “A meal like that will take hours and I still need to…”
Nathaniel smacked him once across the right side of his face, stinging and causing his vision to falter.
“You make things so difficult, Jared! Do as you are told! It’s not my responsibility to manage your time. Get to it.” With that, the first breeder marched out of the kitchen, towards an unknown destination elsewhere in the household.
Alone, Jared nodded to no one and set the piece of cream-colored cardstock down on the nearest and cleanest countertop. He dipped a rag into the dirty pail of water he had used to wash the vegetables and held it to his cheek, carefully reading through each course, assessing what he had on hand and what he might have to stretch. If he used stronger wine on the roast, he hoped it would be enough to make the beef as tender as possible. He would need to prepare a simple side dish for such a heavy entrée, but he figured roasted vegetables might balance it out nicely.
As he leaned against the counter, a few of the pups kicked and shifted, causing him to shudder. It felt strange, even though he had carried them this far. The sensation of life inside him was difficult to get accustomed to. They were getting more active by the day—a good sign, but their movements were sometimes painful. Think positively, Jared chided himself, rubbing the underside of his belly and taking as deep of a breath as he could. At least he wasn’t throwing up every hour anymore.
Being the first breeder of the household, Nathaniel only carried one child per term, and the two breeders were nearly the same in the number of weeks along they were. Jared often wondered if it felt better to only have the weight of one pressing down on his ribs.
Jared forced his emotions aside and ignored the bitter taste in his mouth. With a scrub to his face and an adjustment to his robes, he decided that it was time to get to work. He would make this menu work no matter what.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in a dizzying blur, spent cleaning, preparing, cooking, and serving Nathaniel. The first breeder didn’t allow Jared to touch anything on the table, preferring to set it himself, but he did order Jared to polish the silver thoroughly before placing it on the delicate tablecloth, which Jared had hand washed the previous day.
Polishing every piece of silver until it shone was the most peaceful part of Jared’s day, after all of his running around. He focused on the forks the most, concerned about each prong.
Working in the dining room, Nathaniel chatted, not caring if Jared was listening or not. “Madison and I are dining with Meridian’s newest Doctor tonight.” Jared did listen, in case something was brought up that he should know about, but paid more attention to the time. He would have to check on the beef soon. “Madison says he’s extremely well-connected and wealthy, perfect for our acquaintance, naturally.” From his place on the floor, rag in hand, Jared glanced up at the first breeder, who had set out stationary to write out elegant, gold place cards. “If Madison decides he likes the Doctor, he will become our family’s physician, and from what I hear, he’s quite handsome. I’ve also heard that he hasn’t taken a first breeder yet, so I suppose it will be my duty to properly introduce him to the few adequate ones I know. We are so rare these days, I swear. Quality is quite uncommon.”
Nathaniel continued on, pleased by the sound of his voice, gossiping about the first breeders in town and who he thought might make a suitable match. Jared took an opportunity to crawl over towards the kitchen, unnoticed once again, to check on the beef.
Any breeder could be a first breeder—the only breeder who held a position of any power and command in a household—but it was a title fiercely fought for. Many first breeders came from families of wealth and connections, so that a match would be advantageous to their Masters and future offspring.
Thinking of this, Jared burned himself on the oven, but hardly reacted to the pain.
Once the beef was tended to and the vegetables slid in alongside, he prepared a large salad and a light gravy. Master would be in charge of the wine and liquor for the evening, but Jared had a pail of cold water ready to be poured into a crystal pitcher alongside the alcoholic selections. The icebox held dessert, which had thankfully not been changed from the original menu. Jared had spent the better part of yesterday preparing it. All he had to do now was melt chocolate and drizzle over the tray of creamy napoleons.
Finished in the kitchen, prepared as much as he could be, Jared tread lightly back into the dining room. Nathaniel had stopped chatting, and had started humming contentedly to himself, finishing the place cards. He had an elegant hand for it, one that Jared knew he could not pull off. There were only two guests for the night—making the party four total—but Jared gathered that tonight was particularly important to his Master, judging by the amount of trouble the household was going through for the evening. Befriending this new Doctor would be beneficial to their household, but most importantly to their Master. Jared wasn’t exactly sure how this would bring them all profit, because second breeders didn’t need to know such things, but he was determined to be on his best behavior for the evening and serve his household well.
Only six months had passed since Jared was purchased and brought here from the kennels. There had been many opportunities for him to learn, but he still found himself making mistakes. As the doorbell rang again, Jared resolved himself to be more like Nathaniel. He could learn a lot from the first breeder, who got up from his chair elegant and without having to pause for breath. Answering the door was Nathaniel’s responsibility, but Jared followed, in case he was needed. As he approached the door, Nathaniel thrust a large bouquet of flowers into Jared’s arms. He winced, as it hurt his belly, but managed to carry the flowers into the dining room.
“Don’t touch them any further,” Nathaniel snapped, motioning for Jared to leave. “I’ll handle them.”
Jared nodded and went to finish the rest of his chores for the day. At six, he had everything that needed to be warm inside the oven at a low temperature. The salad, starters, and finished dessert were sitting in the icebox, ready and perfectly arranged. He was trembling with fatigue, but he had managed to complete everything required of him and more. He hoped someone would do the kindness of taking notice of the quality of the food, even if it was a small mention of how perfectly cooked the beef was. There were cheese and pear soufflés for starters, a light salad tossed with shrimp, beef wellington for the entrée, roasted vegetables for a side, and napoleons for dessert. His stomach rumbled with hunger as he dragged himself away from the kitchen at Nathaniel’s call.
“For god’s sake Jared, wash up! You’re a disgrace looking like that!” the screech of displeasure caught Jared off guard.
Flinching, Jared bowed slightly and muttered out, “But Master said not to…”
“Leave that to me,” Nathaniel sniffed. His nose scrunched at the scent of Jared. “I am ordering you to wash up! I won’t be serving. I can’t in my condition. You can do it. Provided you that you don’t spill anything. Now go, they’ll be here any moment!”
Though he wanted to protest, or at least ask Nathaniel to consider, Jared didn’t have the energy. He had been looking forward to spending the evening out of sight and unneeded, but something in his head told him that the opposite would happen.
Leaving the kitchen, Jared reprimanded himself. He should be proud to serve his household in any capacity needed. He could get through this dinner. He could.