Kalb was not one to stick spies and cutthroats around the royal family without them knowing of it. So, he quickly came up with excuses for me to happen across the royal couple at different places over the next few hours. Or, rather, I should say that he’d already planned for them ahead of time, fully expecting my cooperation. I’d say that was presumptuous of him, but he knew me well.
The meetings were deftly managed, with each one happening without any pomp or circumstance. It was done in such a way that it didn’t seem as if I were an understudy or assistant to him, so others wouldn’t take note of me traveling around the palace with him. Rather, it was more like he was introducing them to a new tool they would have at their disposal. He simply told me when and where to meet him, and he had things arranged beforehand to work out.
We met first with Emperor Baraz, as was only right. He’d been a prominent figure in my childhood, even before I knew his position. After all, he’d been the one who had broken up the joyous first meeting I’d had with Nokomi all those years ago. His soldiers and Kalb had stumbled across me bleeding on his daughter in that alley, standing over the corpse of the dead desert cat. I’d fled and hid safely away that time. My second meeting with Nokomi and Kalb had not ended with another escape.
The Emperor had changed little since I’d last seen him, though I could only count our meetings on one hand. He still dressed more like a general than a king. He wore fine clothes, but he wore them in a simple military fashion. Even the expensive sword buckled at his waist was a functional weapon, one he knew very well how to use, I’d heard. As of yet, I’d never seen him draw and use his sword, though he had offered it to me once to execute a fellow student at the Kennel. In the end, I’d used my own teeth and claws to kill him instead, avenging a friend and pack member whose dog had been murdered.
The Emperor was a man used to avoiding small talk. He had always been about business when I’d seen him. I imagined he had softer moments when he was alone amongst family, but it was difficult to imagine him being anything but the rigid, imposing leader I saw before me now.
We met him in a library, of all places. I knew how to read, but did not relish in it, unless it happened to be orders detailing a particularly favorable new assignment back at the palace.
The Emperor’s library was an immaculate, richly-outfitted hall with row upon row of glowing reddish shelves, all stuffed with carefully labeled scrolls and books. A few attendants hovered near the entrances, maintaining their posts in silence, waiting to be called to assist in finding a specific material. The Emperor was leaning over a table, reviewing a large scroll that he’d spread across the table. Kalb arrived from the south door, and I approached from the east just moments after him.
Emperor Baraz did not look up as we approached and took our places across the table from him. My eyes roamed across the scroll, actually a map detailing troop positions and border garrisons. I recognized several areas I’d been, where the dog soldiers and I had shifted some of those lines in our kingdom’s favor. This one was more up-to-date than the last I’d seen, I assumed.
After clenching his jaw and frowning at the map, the Emperor looked up at us. He nodded briefly to Kalb and Teeth before looking over and Dog and me. What he saw when he looked at us, I could not tell, but he certainly knew who we were. We’d left quite an impression on him when he’d seen us shift into the beastlike creature we’d become to kill Drum, the boy at the Kennel. Even in the years since, on the rare chances we’d crossed each other’s paths, he still had a guarded look about him when he looked upon us.
“Captain Goren, returned from the border.” Baraz said smoothly. A significant look passed between him and Kalb. He clearly knew the reasons behind our return.
“Sir.” I bowed deeply. Dog actually lowered his eyes to the floor, too.
Baraz shook his head. “It is still so strange to see the two of you together. I’d always thought Kalb to be something special, and yet here you are. Here we are. The things we’ve done together, they’ve built a stronger nation. Our borders are secure. My lineage is secure.”
“And we wish to keep it that way.” Kalb said warily. Teeth growled deep in his throat.
“Vigilance… I know.” Baraz nodded. “Things are about to get more difficult from here out. I am glad to have someone else I can trust, someone that Kalb trusts to keep an extra eye on my family. There is no duty more important that I could ask of either of you.”
I lowered my head again in a slight bow, not knowing what else to say or do.
“Go with my blessing, and do Kalb’s will. Listen to him, learn from him, and protect my family.” Baraz dismissed us with that, going back to his map and a smaller scroll, where he scratched notes with a quilled pen.
I did not bother him with a response, empty words about doing my best or seeing to it. Instead, I bowed stiffly at the waist and retreated from the room, exiting from the same way I’d come in.
We met with the Emperor’s wife, Empress Anahita, next. She was someone I’d never met. I’d seen statues and paintings of her, but I did not know what to expect. Baraz was such a hard man, and Nokomi was like a breath of fresh air to me. What sort of woman could handle the Emperor and produce a daughter such as Nokomi? I found myself looking forward to the meeting.
This second meeting was in a private garden, one nestled between the palace and the royal residence. As I made my way there from the expansive halls of the palace building, the royal residence came into view. It was a giant domed building with a second dome built atop it. The lower dome was broad and wide, with a shallow incline to its ribbed roof. The upper dome was smaller and more steeply rounded, built with sparkling copper tiles that glittered like snake scales. That second dome was topped with a modest turret and a flag bearing the arms of the royal family: a flame at the center of two crossed swords set upon a red field.
At the four corners of this large residence were towers, each attached at an ordinal direction. The nearest of these towers to me was the northwest tower, which was topped with a bell-shaped structure painted in blue. I could see the southwestern tower further away, that one topped in green. Between these towers was the Empress’ private garden, but to get to that, one had to pass through another set of walls.
As I’ve said before, the palace was a series of walls within walls, each one more exclusive than the last. To get to the royal family, you had to pass through several checkpoints, and this was no different. Kalb had given me a pass, an engraved metal signet I could show when needed. I wore it on a chain around my neck, as I was not going to start wearing rings. Rings might very well cause serious difficulties if I were to bring out my beast, perhaps even slicing off a finger.
With the signet, I was allowed beyond that wall. The guards silently let me by, but they carried themselves very professionally. These were some of the best I’d seen yet about the palace. One more gate brought me to the Empress’ gardens. Not just anyone was allowed in. The Empress would already know I was coming, or I’d not be permitted to enter.
Kalb was already there, sitting in a corner, far away from the action. He played with his dog, lavishing Teeth in a rare show of affection. His momentary display of youthfulness made it clear he would be ignoring the Empress and me as we spoke.
The Empress was unattended, surprisingly. There were not servants waiting to wipe her hands for her, to fetch her a cool drink, or to carry her on a sedan chair. It was just her in the garden, which was modest when compared to the palace courtyard, but not small by any means.
This garden, unlike the courtyard, made no attempt to be lush and verdant. No, this one was a testament to the harsh beauty of the desert. Instead of fish ponds and flowering shrubs that needed constant watering, this garden was filled with barrel-shaped cactuses and desert trees that needed little tending. This is not to say that they could not be beautiful. They could, certainly, but they hid their beauty, waiting for one of those rare rains, after which they would reveal their hidden treasures for those who happened to be patient enough to wait for them.
Empress Anahita stood beneath a tree I recognized as a myrrh tree. Its resin and sap could be collected and used in remedies or gathered for its scent. The bark was rough, and the tree was twisted and gnarled, but it had been artfully pruned and shaped.
I approached slowly, so as not to seem overly eager or to startle her, since she appeared lost in thought. Dog’s feet whispered across the sand beside me.
The Empress tilted her head up to look at the tree, smiled to herself, and turned to face us. So I was able to see her truly for the first time. I could see where Nokomi got her warm eyes. She had much of her mother in her, though her mother’s hair was thicker, falling in dark braids to her waist, which was swollen with child. She wore simple linen, but had no need for ornament, because she had one of the most stunning faces I’d ever beheld. Even though she was older than Nokomi, her face had aged well, offering a mature sort of grace that was only accentuated by her pregnant state. She radiated fertility and nobility, and the heat that came off her skin was noticeable from even a pace away. Fire-blooded indeed.
“Empress.” Dog sat at my feet, tongue lolling out as I bowed.
Strangely, faced with the Empress instead of the Emperor, Dog felt no compunction to offer any humility or show of submissiveness. Instead, he rolled over on his back and put his feet in the air, scratching his back happily on the sand. After sneezing once, he regained his feet and looked at me.
The Empress’ mouth quirked into a smile as she regarded Dog. “You are the boy and dog I have heard my husband say so much about over the years.”
I lifted my head and met her eyes briefly, noting genuine warmth within them. “I suppose I am, although I did not know he spoke of me at all or often.”
“Oh, get him and Kalb together, and you come up in conversation often enough. They have plans for you, Go, many of them. Plans and expectations.”
I smiled softly, pleased that she knew my real name. “And do you have plans of your own for me, Empress?” I inquired quietly.
She took a step over to me, reaching out her warm fingertips and touching me on the chin to lift my face until I stared back into her eyes. Her warm eyes flashed with inner light, reflecting the fire that ran through her veins. I felt a tremble of something inside me, something I could not put a name to.
“Women of have special powers, Go. We can do things that even the men cannot. Oh, my family may all have the fire within us, the ability to destroy, but only the women can create. Baraz is very good at what he does, conquering and holding on to what he has taken, but to truly keep it, he needs what I have inside of me.”
“Your son.” I whispered.
She smiled, letting my chin go finally. My skin felt feverish where she’d touched me, and the scar upon my forehead burned.
“He will be part of it, but we do not have a single child. Neema and Nokomi will be important if we are truly going to hold this land. They will have to make connections to secure our future. Do you know what that means?”
I said nothing, going very still. Dog whined at my side.
“They will marry, Go. They will take generals, or the richest merchants, or the sons of neighboring kings as consorts. We will cement ourselves into this place until you cannot remove our family from this land, because we will be the root of it. To do that, we have to connect.”
“And where do I fit in that?” I asked.
“Where indeed?” She placed her hands on her swollen belly and stepped back toward the tree, rubbing her fingers across the resin and bringing them to her nose.
“Nokomi will need someone beside her,” she said thoughtfully, “someone to keep her safe, to be her friend. Someone to help her navigate her way through her suitors.”
“Suitors?” The word tasted foul in my mouth. I hoped it did not show on my face.
“She will be meeting with those who wish to use her position for gain. I will have you there, a shadow watching over. You will report back to me what you think of them.”
“You want me to spy on your daughter when she meets these men who would marry her?” I didn’t know how I could remain loyal to Nokomi and spy upon her, but Kalb had insisted that I follow the orders of all of the royal family.
The Empress’ head swiveled my way. “You can do that, can’t you?”
“Yes, Empress.” I bowed my head. I would have to, no matter how little I liked it.
“Good. See to it.” She said it in a dismissive way, and I knew I was done with my audience. “And Go?” She called as I started off toward the gate I’d entered through.
I turned back. “Yes, Empress?”
“It was nice to meet you. Kalb has told me you are to be trusted, and I take his advice much to heart. Thank you for your service.”
I bowed deeply, and then hurried off. Kalb made no move to join me this time. I knew to head to my quarters then, and it was just as well. I wanted to be alone with Dog, to think.
Kalb regarded me and gave a gruff bark that was something between reproach and greeting.
After meeting the princess, I’d proceeded into the palace, leaving behind the pleasantness of the courtyard to find my way through the labyrinth of passages to the offices of Minister Kalb. If Dog and I had less keen senses of smell, we’d likely have had to ask directions a dozen times, but we knew Kalb’s smell very well.
As one of the Emperor’s advisors, he maintained his own meeting rooms within the palace. This was one of such rooms. It was spartan in style, lacking comforts that he did not require. Kalb was a hard man, and it would unnerve most visitors who expected opulence from an important advisor, not a hard, militaristic aesthetic.
I cared little of his décor and much about what he would say. I knew he was not truly angry with me, no matter how gruff his front was. Even so, his yellow eyes were still piercing, even with the cataracts that were beginning to cloud them. At his side, his massive dog, Teeth, was licking his chops.
Teeth was easily one of the largest dogs I’d ever met, and I’d met a lot. I could only think of one or two other dogs near his size. He was thick and heavily muscled with a thick coat of short, dark hair and even thicker skin. He was easily as heavy as a grown man, heavier than most, and twice as strong. I’d seen his teeth puncture pieces of plate mail once or twice. His canines had sunk into flesh even through leather and metal gauntlets.
“Sir… or should I call you minister?” I inclined my head respectfully to my closest teacher.
“Go.” Kalb said my true name, not the one I’d taken in an affectation of a civilized man. “Your little stunt out there greeting the princess will not go unnoticed. There are eyes on her at all times. Now, you will be of interest.”
I nodded. Clearly our meeting had not gone unnoticed if he’d already heard of it. It didn’t surprise me that one of the Emperor’s closest advisors had spies in the palace. It probably would have surprised me if he hadn’t heard of my meeting with the princess. It just meant he was doing his job in watching over the royal family, and I knew from our years of association that he took that duty with full seriousness.
“The blue-eyed girl, Halina. She carries a knife.” I remarked.
Kalb grunted and settled heavily into his chair, an old piece of furniture that was well-worn around the arms. “And she knows how to use it. The girls I put at the princess’ side are more than just pretty faces that know how to serve tea.”
“Good.” I meant it. Her safety meant everything to me. We were pack. “I take it I will also be set to protecting her?”
Kalb waved me closer. I approached one of the hard-backed chairs that was arranged in a semicircle in front of him, but chose to stand instead. Kalb noticed my reluctance to sit.
“You’re a beast, Go, more comfortable in the wilds than in places more civilized.” He observed.
“I know.” I admitted. Dog gave his best impression of a human grin. If he could have smiled, he would have.
“It was not a judgement. I understand it well. You have no idea how often I wish to tear my clothes off and run wild in the sand and scrublands, away from these careful streets and the unpleasant complexities and niceties of palace life. How I wish to run with the dogs, to hunt and kill with my teeth.” Kalb sighed, sharing a look with Teeth, who clearly echoed his sentiments.
“But you have responsibilities that make such a simple existence impossible…” I offered.
“That’s part of it. The other part is getting old.” Kalb answered. “Do you know how old I am?”
I shrugged, but knew he wanted an answer. I took in the grey in Kalb’s beard and the deep lines creasing his forehead and the corners of his eyes. His hands, too, looked old. The knuckles were redder and more swollen than I remembered. “Sixty-five?” I guessed.
Kalb laughed. “Do I look so bad as that? I am only forty-six, Goren. We age quickly, as a balance to our dogs living longer.”
There was some truth to this. I knew that most dogs only lived perhaps a dozen years, maybe eighteen at the most. Yet all of the men I’d trained had been with their dogs for five to ten years, some even longer, and their dogs still moved with the vigor of youth, as if they were only three to five years old.
“There is so much shared in our bonds, Go. We share scents, thoughts, and feelings. We gain the strength and speed of the beasts, and they gain some of our intelligence. Our lives are also shared, as a measure of our lifespans are given to the dogs, keeping them alive with us. The trade-off is that we cannot live as long, but would we wish to live longer without our dogs beside us?”
“No.” I answered without hesitation, feeling the truth in my answer. Dog pressed his muzzle against my leg reassuringly.
“Time, Go. I’m running out of time, but our enemies won’t relent when I’m gone.” Kalb announced, clenching his hands into fists.
I’d never heard Kalb speak this way. He was always wary, protective, and dedicated to his path. Now, a bit of self-pity was creeping into his voice, but it came from a deep need to do his duty, something he seemed to feel he was becoming incapable of doing.
“What do you need of me, sir?”
“Emperor Baraz’s wife is pregnant.”
“Empress Anahita is having another child?” My mind whirled with the possibilities.
“It’s a boy.” Kalb whispered, just loud enough for me to hear. Even if our meeting was being listened upon, no one except one with the hearing of a dog would have been able to hear his words just then.
“How do you know?”
Kalb smiled toothily under his beard, amused that I would question him. “It is the way of their people, the fire-blooded. A woman of the New Blood knows.”
That meant a lot of things. Emperor Baraz had two daughters, Neema, his eldest girl, and Nokomi, the younger one. Neema’s consort, when she took one, would be well-positioned to make a move on the throne, but Baraz’s brother had a stronger claim on the throne.
General Navid was an ambitious man, a pragmatic sort. I’d met him once or twice, mostly by accident, and always after a battle. He might not have known who or what I was, but I knew exactly who he was. He looked much like his brother, but taller, with a hawkish nose and a hard glint about his eyes.
Except, with a boy on the way, what would that mean for the line of succession? Even as a younger sibling, this baby would be the firstborn male in the line. His claim would take precedence. Even if something happened to Emperor Baraz, the girls would help raise him until he came of age. He would be the Emperor-in-waiting with the Empress or one of his older sisters serving as regent.
I chewed on that for a moment, and Kalb saw the realization settle in.
“So you see why you were recalled from the dusty edges of our land and brought back to a place where you might be used more usefully?” He asked.
“What I did there was important.” I protested weakly.
Kalb favored me with a smile. “It was a delay, a chance to keep you out of the scenes for as long as I could, Go. Now, I have no choice. I needed someone here I could trust.”
“There are others…”
Kalb shook his head. “None like us, as you well know.”
Of the hundred or so dogs and boys I’d met, none were so close to the beast as Kalb and I. Others could take on some aspect of the beast, growing taller, becoming stronger, and perhaps even producing slightly elongated teeth or some simple sort of claws, but that was as far as they could go. Kalb and I, we were different. We could let the beast take control, becoming creatures that were neither man nor dog, but somewhere between the two.
I took a breath and met his eyes. “What would you have of me? Of us?”
“I had you stationed far away to keep your nature secret from those who should not know what we do. Now, you’re going to be my eyes and ears in the palace, my knife where it is needed. You cannot play these roles if you call too much attention to yourself. You must be circumspect in your actions, and you must be present without being noticeable.”
“Sir.” I nodded in acknowledgement. These things I could be, so long as they brought me near Nokomi, and so far it had.
“However,” Kalb favored me with a sad look, “I know this will be hard for you to hear, but I must insist that you stay away from the princess, as much as you can do so without slighting her.”
He waved a hand, cutting off my response. Dog growled, but Teeth growled louder, not that it made Dog back down.
“They can’t know of your connection. We serve the Emperor. We must protect his interests, and that means his whole family, not just Nokomi.”
“What you need, I will do.” I agreed reluctantly. He hadn’t said I could have no contact with her. I just needed to let her initiate it, or meet in secret, away from prying eyes and ears.
“Good.” Kalb relaxed visibly. “You must understand that with the news of this new child, the risk of attack has grown infinitely. I fear that our enemy’s patience will grow very thin. He will make a move, and in his haste, I hope he will finally expose himself.”
“And if he does, what do we do?”
“We tear his throat out to protect the ones we love, Go.” Kalb grinned ruthlessly.
I nodded. “We tear their throats out, sir. Every last one of them, no matter who they are.”
Kalb slid from his chair. He walked down to cast his arms around my shoulders. “I am glad you are home, Go. There is so much to do, and I fear we will not be able to do enough. We cannot fail.”
He was my most trusted teacher, and while I did not love him as I did Adish, who had been a very brief father figure to me, I did feel some affection toward the yellow-eyed man. He was the closest thing I had to a peer, the only one who understood what I was, what we were.
“Your eyes, ears, and your knife. I will be them all.” I promised him, meaning every word of it.
Dog growled in agreement, making a similar vow to Teeth, who barked in response.
I’d never been to the palace before. It was not a place that a child visits when he lives in the streets, as I had. No, my time in the city had mostly been spent sleeping, scavenging for food, and avoiding the human predators that prowled a big city’s dark and narrow side streets. Many times I’d found that people were nastier creatures than the beasts that lived in the wild.
The palace was expansive, making up an entire section of the city by itself, a different quarter than I had lived in. The palace itself was a complex of buildings, all walled in, with walls within walls and more small buildings within those walls. Surrounding the palace was something of a second city, where the scribes, attendants, officers, and officials lived, as well as those who served them. The farther you lived from the palace grounds, the lower your rank.
I approached the palace through this surrounding village first, marveling at the luxury even the lowest of them appeared to live in. Their grounds were all well-kept, with manicured shrubs lining the approaches and decorative flowers sitting in expensive pottery. Many of these estates had their own walls, with two to four buildings within them. Their roofs were tiled, lofting above the walls and gates that surrounded them. Here and there, I could even see second or third stories, where men and women went about their morning work on balconies that overlooked their neighbors.
Dog and I looked at each other. We’d lived on cots in dusty tents or worse for the last few years. The Kennel, where we’d first been trained, had initially offered no better than moldering old blankets and hard-packed dirt floors. We’d changed that, so we’d eventually slept on straw-stuffed mattresses, and we’d taken to eating our meals at the low kneeling tables that were now in favor. Still, we couldn’t imagine living in such comfort, and we hadn’t even seen the palace yet.
The last few houses we passed even had soldiers out front, guards with halberds that brought to mind the auburn guards of the Kennel. Like these soldiers, the auburn guards had always watched us to make sure we remained more man than beast, never stepping out of line. Not that they’d been able to always control us. No, Dog and I were wilder than what they’d dealt with before our coming, and everyone we’d met there had been changed because of our meeting.
We finally approached the palace, or at least the outer wall of the palace. A low wall, perhaps the half again as tall as I was, marked the outer perimeter of the palace. A simple gate with a tiled roof and heavy wooden doors wrapped in iron marked the entrance. A squad of soldiers, eight total, stood by. I knew from the low roof just beyond the gate that there was another score at least waiting by in a the guardhouse. It was a pretty standard setup for any fort in the kingdom, but there would be even more guards stationed here than I was used to. Security would be tighter, more levels of defense stacked upon each other.
Beyond the gate and wall, I could see ornamented watchtowers, including at least two where bells could be rang to signal attack. If the bells sounded, soldiers would pour out of their stations and move to bar doors and lock down each section of the palace. Attackers would have to make their way through at least half a dozen gated walls and obstacles to get to anywhere significant, more if they wanted to get to the royal family and the highest advisors. I smiled at this, thinking about how my mind had been trained to visually probe for weaknesses.
The guards halted me, eyeing Dog and I warily. I wore no signs of rank, though I was effectively a captain in the army and outranked all of these men, except perhaps whatever officer they had in charge of this gate, although he was not currently visible.
Smiling, I offered my orders to the men, who took them and read carefully. Upon reading my name at the bottom, two of the men looked at each other, whispering my name amongst themselves. Clearly, they’d heard of me or my exploits.
“Captain Goren, proceed in.” One of the said quickly. They sketched a hasty military bow, stepping aside.
I nodded and entered the palace, scanning from side to side and ignoring the soldiers’ whispers, though I could still hear them. Two large covered pavilions were ahead of me to my left and right with another, smaller gate just in front of me, a long stone’s throw away.
The large pavilions stood on both ends of the massive C-shaped building beyond them. They were open to the air, with heavy wooden stairs leading up to three floors of walkways and seating areas. Soldiers, officers, and palace workers were evident on each floor, walking, talking, and taking tea together in discussions of politics and intrigue. I cared little for them, noting that Nokomi was not among them.
I could sense her, somewhat distant, but so near to me, nearer than I’d felt her since I was a child. Dog and I quick-stepped toward the small gate between the pavilions, working closer to the palace proper, feeling that it was the correct way to go to reach Nokomi. Once more, I flashed my orders and ignored the whispers.
Now I was inside the palace grounds. Rounded, onion-shaped towers were at my left and right, the endcaps to the largest building I’d ever seen. The building was in the shape of a large open rectangle with a missing side, with the open end toward me. Built in the space between the three walls was a long courtyard, cast in shadows by the palace. This section of the palace was impressively large, the largest building of the entire palace complex in fact. Only the royal residence was close in size, but it was merely half as large as this giant structure.
This part of the palace had been built with marble columns that supported two very tall balconied stories, the upper of which was lined with hundreds of horseshoe arches. It had been built in a style that marked it as a remnant of our old rulers, the leaders of this land before Nokomi’s family had come and conquered our lands. Only the onion domes at the ends of the building looked to be new additions to this part of the palace. Their copper plating burned like the sun itself, making me look aside.
The courtyard I stood at the entrance to was covered with a crisscross of graveled paths that led between ornamental plants and flowering or fruited trees. Benches and covered sitting areas were placed strategically around the long courtyard, and there were also several small ponds with decorative bridges spanning across them. People in ornamental clothes and official garb gathered in the sitting areas or walked and talked as they enjoyed the grounds.
On any other day, Dog and I would have likely to do the same. We would have stopped to explore, watching the fat fish wriggle through the warm ponds, or taken in some shade beneath a fragrant tree. Today, we only had one goal, and she was growing nearer by the moment. I could feel it in my forehead, which had gone from a tingle to a warm burn. She knew we were coming, and she was hurrying to meet us.
My jaw tightened and my heart leapt. I continued through the gardens, gravel crunching crisply beneath my booted feet as we headed toward the far end. We approached the far end after a good walk, and I could see taller trees, but they were spindly and decoratively pruned, so as to not offer any visual barriers to the guards that patrolled the balconies of the second floor.
I could feel Nokomi growing close, ever so close, but the trees obscured my view. Dog whined beside me, feeling the same anxiousness that I felt. We shared a soul, he and I, so how could he not feel as I did?
Abruptly, I halted, Dog coming to heel beside me, sitting in the gravel at my right side. My hand reflexively went to his head, resting between his ears. His bristly hair was familiar and comforting against my palm and on my fingertips.
She was here at last, and my forehead burned feverishly. I caught scent of her at the same moment I saw her through the trees as she exited the palace. Her perfume carried to me, the same perfume I knew from that day in the market and from the handkerchief my instructors had used to play with my emotions back at the Kennel.
She took the steps two at a time, holding her skirts as she went. The two ladies-in-waiting beside her struggled to keep up. She skidded to a halt at the bottom of the stairs and her eyes widened at the sight of me, chest heaving. She was breathing heavily as if she’d just ran, but I felt the same way; I struggled to keep my breathing steady. Like two monumental forces coming together, we were finally staring at one another, and there was no one here to keep us apart. I’d waited most of my life for this. We took a measure of each other from a safe distance, some twenty paces perhaps.
What did she see when she looked at me? Did she still see my hazel eyes, green in the center and brown around the edges? I knew my skin was darker than it had been, from years in the desert sun, and I was certainly taller and heavier than the scrawny boy she’d known from the streets. My clothes, other than travel dusty, were certainly not the rags I’d worn the other two times she’d seen me. I had my adult height and size about me now, and I carried myself with confidence. I was not a scared kid hiding in alleyways any longer – I was a successful officer in her father’s army.
And her, even at this distance, I could see the warm, reddish-brown of her eyes that complimented the healthy glow of her skin, as set off by her silken gown and gauzy headscarf, both cream-colored but embroidered with tones of yellow, scarlet, and greenish-blue. If her scent was the same, her face was not. She had grown into her face and was certainly more stunning for it. Her eyes were surrounded by dark lashes that set off her large eyes, which were set to either side of her shapely nose. Her mouth was small, with lips of a lively red color, and a slight cleft on her chin only drew more attention to her well-balanced face. Her hair had been carefully braided into a complicated scheme that I wished to run my fingers over, exploring each delicate twist.
We began stumbling toward each other at the same moment, Dog at my side and her two attendants flanking her. She clutched once more at her silk skirts, gathering them in her fists so she would not trip over them as she approached. I blinked away the burning feeling that had spread all across my face and was threatening to sink down into my the muscles at the sides of my neck. My mouth felt dry as I crossed the last few steps to her.
I didn’t know what she was going to do before it happened, but her arms opened and we threw ourselves into an awkward hug. Her head went against my collarbone, and my chin fit perfectly on top of her head. I was certainly taller than her now, though I had not been years ago. Dog found her hand with his muzzle, and I could feel her smile against my chest as he licked her fingers.
“Goren.” She whispered softly, but my ears could easily hear it.
“I’d say that’s not my name, but it’s on my orders now, too.” I muttered.
She pushed herself back a hands width, keeping her arms around me still, so she could look up into my eyes and I into hers. I swam in those eyes for a long moment and a smile came across her face like the sun rising over the horizon. The burning in my face relaxed, replaced by a warmth that suffused through my whole body. I was acutely aware of her complicated scent, a mixture my nose interpreted as flowers, apricots, and honey, as well as the jasmine and bergamot musk of her hair.
I could have stayed in that moment forever, but her lips quirked into a smile and her eyebrow rose with curiosity.
“They made us all take people names.” I explained. “We couldn’t very well go by nicknames like: Scar, Legs, Killer, Mongrel, or Go. I needed a real name, so I took the one you gave me.”
Her lips parted in a smile. “I’m glad you kept it, that you remembered.”
“I remember everything about you, everything that ever happened between us.”
As I said this, I realized the impact our meeting was having on Nokomi’s two attendants, who were trying not to whisper and stare at the two of us, but failing. I smiled at the two of them, watching the prettier, shorter one of the two blush deeply and avert her eyes shyly.
Nokomi released me then, but kept a hand on Dog, fiddling with one of his round ears. “These are my handmaidens, Lila and Halina.” She indicated the shy one first, then the taller, dark-haired one with strikingly blue eyes second.
The two girls both curtsied quickly. They did it with precision, clearly a practiced gesture. “Sir.” They said together.
“And this is Captain Goren of the border guard, recently recalled on the orders of Minister Kalb.” She introduced me in turn.
“It is a pleasure to meet you both.” I said softly, smiling with genuine warmth.
I could smell the kindness on them. They were true friends of Nokomi, and I would treat them as such. With my senses enhanced by Dog, I could often get a scent of people, knowing more about them than even their body language would tell. I could smell lies or mixed truths as easily as I could smell the difference between fear sweat and of the sweat of exertion. There were many things that Dog’s shared senses allowed me to know about people, and these were two that I knew I could trust.
Nokomi knelt to give Dog more attention, which he accepted with great pleasure. He adored her as much as I did, and he was ever one for a good ear scratching. His tongue lolled out happily, and he licked her face. I found myself jealous in that moment, but I knew what her cheek tasted like to Dog through our bond. She’d eaten dates this morning. A tiny bit of sweetness remained on her lips and breath. I suddenly had the urge to eat dates, if only to understand her better.
Nokomi stood and sighed softly. “There is so much to catch up, on, my dear friend, Goren. We must make a point of having tea one day, so we can share stories of the past few years.”
“We must.” I agreed.
Dog yipped, making her laugh. She mussed the fur between his ears and grinned. “You can come, too, Dog.” She glanced up at me, and her eyes indicated that we were being watched.
“How do I…?” I wasn’t sure on the etiquette of meeting the princess and requesting an audience, even if it was just for conversation and a meal. I was suddenly aware of the other faces in the courtyard and on the balconies, many of which had taken note of our meeting. Of course, she’d grown up here, so she knew that her presence would attract attention.
“I’ll set it up. Halina or Lila will deliver the invitation.” Nokomi informed me, suddenly a lot more formal than she had been. Even she had been caught up in the moment.
I got the hint, and I bowed reverently, as was due for someone in my station. “Princess.” Dog grinned up at the two of us.
“Goodbye, Captain Goren.” She put extra emphasis on saying my name, which she’d given me.
I grinned and watched her retreat back toward the arched walkways. Halina cast a questioning glance back at me, her blue eyes curious but cautious. I inclined my head to her and knelt beside dog as they left. That one would definitely want to know more of my story. I imagined that she would have many questions for Nokomi.
I put my forehead against Dog’s muzzle, wrapping my arms around his shoulders. He turned to lick my face. I smiled and inhaled his familiar scent, feeling something I hadn’t felt for a long time.
“We are home.” I said to him at last.
He let out a soft whine of agreement, still staring at the walkway Nokomi had disappeared down.
Returning to the city was a homecoming of sorts. I had no one waiting there for me, no home to return to, and no treasured mementos from my youth. While I had very few fond memories of my life as a child in the city, it was home nonetheless. What I did have, was my memories of Nokomi, but also of a friend, someone who had helped me when I was young.
As badly as I wanted to see Nokomi, there was another that I had to see first.
Adish had been the closest thing I’d ever had to family in my childhood. I found his shop exactly where I remembered it, not far from the market, near the streets where I’d hidden and lived with Dog. The familiar clang of hammers upon heated metal reached my ears before the smell of the forge reached my nose. I found myself grinning with anticipation as I approached. Dog’s steps were excited and quick beside me.
Dog and I stopped and watched for a long moment before going in. The modest shop, which had once only taken up a corner of the building, had spread around the side, now taking up half of the first floor. A tall chimney ran up one side of the building, letting out heat and ash, which had stained the walls on the second and third floors of the neighboring building black with soot.
Large holes had been cut in the walls of the shop, portals where windows would have been in more expensive shops, or places where venting the heat wasn’t such an issue. Here, they just let out the oppressive heat of the forge and let in much-needed light. Heavy wooden shutters attached above the portals could be lowered to cover the shop in case of rain or if the shop was closed, such as on the market days during weekends.
Adish stood over the anvil, pounding on heated metal that his assistant held with tongs. Barked orders let the assistant know when to turn or flip the metal. They had a great rhythm about them, and the assistant was often able to anticipate orders by instinct, having done this many times. They worked with precision, a union that I appreciated as a soldier. In some ways, these two, along with the young boy who worked the bellows, were like a pack.
What surprised me, though it should not have, was that this was not Barid working beside Adish. Barid had been a year or so older than me when I’d started working in the shop. I’d only been good enough to work the bellows for the few weeks, months perhaps, that I’d been there, but Barid had done what this assistant was doing right now. How old would he be now? How long had it been? Eight years? Ten?
Time passes strangely when you’re in the service of the Emperor.
Dog licked my hand, signaling that he was ready to go in. I was as well, so we walked up to the store. We approached, stopping at the main entrance, the one customers would use. The side entrance was for deliveries or workers.
“Just let me put this in the quench.” Adish called over, noticing movement at the door without looking up.
He added a couple more pounds of the hammer to the piece he’d been working on. Then he nodded toward the iron-banded water barrel nearby. His assistant struggled to carry the heavy piece of hot iron over to the water barrel, where he plunged it in. It sizzled satisfactorily. I’d always appreciated that sound.
Adish wiped his hands on a towel he kept at his waist, and started my way. I took a measure of him, grinning widely as our eyes met.
Adish was a large man, broad of shoulders from years of swinging a hammer. You put on muscle working metal, because it was not something that yielded easily to your will. It was not like clay or even wood, which can be easily shaped. It takes heat, muscle, and force to make it do what you will. That is something that both Dog and I understand well.
Adish had aged, certainly, but he did not look old, other than the new wrinkles about his eyes and on his forehead. I could tell that he favored his left shoulder, and he’d probably get a few more years out of his right one before he had to take on a more supervisory position. His eyes were still kind, knowing, and wise. He had a fatherly feel about him, despite my never having known my own. If I ever imagined a father, he always looked like Adish, with his same dark beard, although it was now turning grey at the chin.
His eyes took in me, with recognition slowly dawning across his features as he saw Dog beside me. Suddenly, his steps faltered, and he stumbled toward me, his mouth failing him in forming words.
“Go…” He nearly cried, throwing a giant hug around my shoulders.
We were of a height now, although he was easily broader than I was and ever would be. Where he was broadly built, I was wiry and strong, like the desert hunting dog I called my companion. I clenched him back tightly, taking in his familiar musky scent of iron, smoke, and sweat.
Flashes of my childhood came back to me then, and I smiled, saying his name, “Adish.”
When he pulled away, he laughed and clapped me across the shoulder. “How is it you are here, boy? You and that dog of yours…”
I grinned. “It is a long story, my friend.” My eyes took in the questioning looks from his two assistants.
Adish took my wrist and dragged me to a small sitting area where I remembered eating his wife Sherine’s cooking. He waved the two boys over and we sat together. The boys took to Dog immediately, playing with his round ears and marveling over his mottled coloring. He was certainly not like any dog they’d ever played with, and Dog enjoyed the attention.
As I watched them play, realization set in. “They are your boys.” It was impossible not to see it now. The similarities were undeniable.
“Yes, they are my eldest two children, Jahan and Radwan. They help in in the shop now. Jahan has been learning for a few years, and Radwan has just begun to work the bellows, as you once did.”
I smiled at the memories. “That was some time ago, before everything that happened.” My smile faded. “I didn’t mean to leave as I did. I wasn’t given a choice that day. I was simply taken away.”
“I know.” Adish said sadly.
“Do you?” I thought back. Had Nokomi managed to get word to him? “Then she told you?”
Adish nodded. “Yes, she sent word to me. Apparently, she searched this whole area for everyone named Adish and Barid. It took her some doing, as our names are not uncommon, and she wasn’t allowed back out for several weeks after what happened to you in the Bazaar. Eventually, one of her servant girls found me and told me you had been taken away.”
Dog quirked his head at me. I frowned. Adish deserved the whole story, but what was I allowed to share? Some of the things I’d done were secret, things I could not share. “But you never got the whole story?”
“Oh, but I did, at least what the princess would share.” Adish replied.
“So you met her? Nokomi?”
Adish’s eyebrow rose in wonder. “I would not refer to her so familiarly, but yes. The princess came here. She told me how one of her father’s guards had captured you and taken you away. She also told me how your dog and you had saved her from a desert cat when you were very young, and she’d always felt indebted to you.”
That was one way to put it. Knowing now what I did now about her family’s blood-fire magic, I doubted she had even been seriously in danger, but Dog and I wore the scars of our efforts anyway. My forehead still bore a jagged scar where much of it had been peeled back by the cat’s claws. It had faded, but it was still there. It tingled as I thought about it and her.
“We were taken away to a place to be trained to serve as soldiers. That’s where I have been since then. Dog and I impressed Emperor Baraz that morning years ago. After our training, we were conscripted into his army and have been soldiering on the border territories since then.” I explained. It was true enough, if a simpler version that omitted many important details.
“The life of a soldier is a respectable profession, Go, if a difficult lifestyle. Does it suit you?” Adish asked carefully. He knew I hadn’t been given a choice.
“Well enough, Adish, well enough. However, we are back now! We have bene given new orders that have brought us home, so we wanted to greet you and tell you that we still thought of you after all of this time. Your kindness back then, it meant a lot to both of us.”
Dog yipped in agreement, eliciting a jump and a laugh from Adish’s youngest, Radwan. The dark haired, dark eyed boy favored Sherine, his mother.
“That is good to hear. A familiar face is always welcome, even after years.” He smiled broadly.
“And what of Barid? Where is his familiar face?” I wondered.
Adish put on a proud smile. “That boy, he has much talent. He is a master with a shop of his own now! Your disappearance did us well, not that I would wish it upon you, but the attention of a princess on a humble shop such as this does not hurt!”
“I noticed it was a larger shop now…” I glanced around once more. Adish had prospered. He had always taken care of his tools and shop, but the expansion was not the only show of fortunate times. He had more tools, a new forge, and several other telltale signs of a business doing well.
“Well, after she came here, we set to talking more than once. Sherine joined us when she could. Radwan was so young at the time, and my daughter, Jaleh, was just a babe. The princess took a liking to my wife and children, and she made sure the palace always sent some of its simpler work this way. They always have a need for tools, horseshoes, and the like.”
“That was kind of her.” I imagined Nokomi sitting in this same chair, talking to Adish and his wife. It made me feel closer to her, even though I hadn’t been here to witness it.
“Things like that get noticed. Soon after, we started getting more business from higher clientele. Barid, that boy… he got it in his head that we should start creating pieces that were not just functional, but also decorative. At first, I laughed it off, for a good hammer does not require a delicate leaf pattern upon it, nor does a horseshoe need grapevines along its side, but I indulged him. He had the deft hands and skill to make the intricate designs, so I let him play around.”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
Adish shook his head and laughed. “I found myself swimming in orders. I don’t think I took a day off for nearly a year, unless Sherine forced me to. Barid and I stayed busy for a good while. We prospered, and, while he is gone, I learned something of his methods, and I’ve worked to make my designs both functional and decorative.”
“And where is he now?”
“He runs his own shop across the way.” Adish nodded toward the window and down the street in the direction of the Bazaar. “He works with softer metals now. He never liked the heat and the heavy hammers that much anyway, but his pewter and silver designs are very fashionable. I imagine he’s richer than I am already, despite having only started off on his own a couple years ago. I wish him well. He is a hard-working lad.”
I could hear the pride in his voice. It was good that they were all doing so well. “Things have worked out then, for all of us. I should like to see him again, at some point, if just to say hello. I doubt he much remembers me anyway.”
“Oh, there is not a one of us that forgot your face, Go. You and that mysterious dog of yours, you two are something of a legend around here. That rat-meat seller never forgot you, either!” He laughed deeply, from his belly.
I grinned. My command of language and my understanding of the value of money had both improved a lot since those days. “I’m glad to have made such an impression.”
“You have indeed, Go. I shall have to tell Sherine you visited. She will be delighted to hear of your return. We always wondered… I just know that she would insist on cooking a meal for all of us, Barid included, if you ever have the time to come back down our way.”
“I will make time.” I promised, standing. Dog hopped up beside me, stomach rumbling as he shared my thoughts. Adish’s kindly wife was an excellent cook, and I very much suspected that her meal would help Dog and I forget months of military rations. “For now, I need to get to my post at the palace.”
“The palace, then? You must be a fine soldier indeed.” Adish surmised.
“The best, Adish.” I grinned wolfishly. Dog shared a toothy smile as well.
He gave the both of us a look and nodded seriously. “I don’t doubt it. You have that look about you. You both are much more than you seem on the surface.”
I would not respond to that, but with that, we hugged once more, and then Dog and I made for the door. As we walked off, I could hear Adish telling his boys more about us when they bombarded him with questions, most likely more about Dog than about me. Even having known what Nokomi had told them of our fates, he’d never really got to hear what happened to us after we were taken away. Now he knew that we were well, and I hoped it was a weight lifted off of his shoulders.
We had not been his responsibility, but he had taken us on, and he was the sort that carried those burdens on his heart. Now, he could think of us and be at ease.
My first memories of Nokomi were of her warm eyes, her fine linen clothes, and her feet dirtied by treading in the filthy streets where I lived. They were of a pomegranate shared between us, the quiet peace of listening to her voice, and our comingled blood dripping in that alleyway.
I could never forget our first meeting. I had been nothing more than a street urchin with a wild dog at my side, and she had been a kind, beautiful girl about my age. We’d bonded that day, sharing fruit while she told her stories that we couldn’t understand, and later as we’d fought the desert cat. By accident, her fire-filled blood had worked its way into the wounds that the cat had inflicted upon me; I feel it still in my forehead when my emotions run high. And then Dog had licked my wounds clean and transferred some of that same blood into his own wounds when he cleaned his own torn flesh with his tongue. The three of us had become a pack in that moment, and everything I’d done since then was to get back to her.
That perfect day had ended when soldiers arrived with her father, who I’d later learned was the Emperor. Seeing how I had been covered with blood, they’d made the snap judgement that I had been a threat to the princess. I understand it, but it had made Dog and I part from Nokomi. We’d fled and ran to hide, though it had been like tearing off a limb to separate from ourselves from her.
Years had passed, years with her unnaturally severed from our pack, but always on our minds. I’d learned words, enough to speak at least, and I’d taken to working at the side of a blacksmith, growing more human to better understand Nokomi’s world. We’d done our best at growing and learning until we happened across her once more in the Bazaar, the city’s great market. She had grown and changed as we had, but we knew her immediately. The bond between us had not broken or faded, even if we had been apart.
Our second meeting was one that Dog and I hadn’t been able to escape from. Instead, we’d been taken away as captives to work in the Kennel – a school for special boys like me with an affinity for beasts.
You see, Dog and I were special. We weren’t just a kid and a dog living in the streets together. We were a pack in more than just the social sense. We shared everything, from scents and feelings to food. I could taste what he tasted, feel what he felt, and hear what he heard. We shared pain, the excitement of the hunt, and thoughts. We were two creatures with one soul, and the bond made each of us more than what we would have been alone. There was no truer thing than that.
Without Dog, I would’ve died in those alleys as a small child. Without me, Dog would have been caged and killed in the fighting pits, made to fight animals until he finally lost a match and his life. Together, we survived, grew, and connected to each other on a level that went beyond thought and life.
So it was that the two of us, a wild dog and an even wilder boy of the streets, came to that special school. We changed things there, too. Changes have always swirled about us, intentional or not. We created a single pack out of the dozens of boys and dogs there, taking the splintered pieces and forging them as a whole. After all, that was what the Emperor had wanted, even if it came about differently than he’d expected. It had not been a painless process. We’d lost friends, and I’d had to kill for the first time, feeding the beast side of my nature.
Despite all of that, the Emperor still needed us. He wanted a weapon unlike anything our kingdom or any of our neighboring kingdoms had ever seen, and we gave it to him. We of the Old Blood, men bonded with animals, were a leftover from ages past, before Emperor Baraz and his fire bloods had come and conquered our savage land. With my help, we’d unified the boys and created a special army for him. All I’d done, I’d done in the hope of returning to Nokomi’s side.
I’d taken boys like Legs, the fastest kid and dog I knew, or Killer, a stout and stoic companion, and Sardar, a quiet source of wisdom, and I’d made loyal soldiers of them. Under the guidance of Kalb, the Emperor’s own dog man and the original source of inspiration for this army, I’d done everything asked of me and more, but nothing had carried me back to Nokomi.
I’d taken our regiment out amongst the regular army, blending our beast-like natures until we were nearly indistinguishable from the other soldiers, at least until one of our dogs decided it was time to show our true natures. All it took was one sight of what we could do, and the other soldiers never forgot that we were a breed apart. The illusions were dispelled and the masks were pulled back. It was impossible to unsee one of us in our true form.
With the army, or sometimes in small strike groups formed of our own kind, we’d worked the borders, rooting out insurgents and spies. We’d fought in battles against bandits and would-be invaders. I’d killed with my bare hands and with my teeth, Dog snarling alongside me the whole time. I’d lost allies, pack members that I’d personally trained. I’d seen members of my pack go mad from the loss of their dogs, and dogs refuse to live after the loss of their human companions. Death was a constant companion, like the scent of smoke that worked its way into clothing, never to be completely removed.
Despite all of this, I never got closer to my true goal of being once more beside Nokomi, the Emperor’s daughter and the third true member of my pack. Until now, that was.
After five years of training, teaching, and fighting, after the grueling weeks and months on the road, with all of the dust and sand and blood, I was finally being called back to the capitol. The payoff for all of our hard work was finally here.
Standing in the desert sand away from the tent city of our camp, with the morning wind whipping grit into my face, I reread my latest orders, so fresh that I could smell the fingers that had sealed the wax mingled with the scent of the courier. Dog was there beside me, and he knew what was coming before I even spoke to him. He knew my thoughts and could feel my exultation.
“We’re going back, Dog.” I said contentedly, and the weight of the years of service fell from me as I scratched between Dog’s ears. “Home.”
He barked and thumped his tail on the sand, turning his head in the direction of the city, even though it was several days’ travel away. We always knew where Nokomi was, and I suspected that she could feel the same.
We were pack, after all.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs