As it turned out, the existence of Kalb’s daughter was a mystery to all of us, save for the Empress, but even she hadn’t known that Nasha was one of the Old Blood. With Kalb’s considerable abilities, it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise, but I’d never heard of someone of the Old Blood with a bond to a bird. I had a thousand questions, but many were likely not polite to ask, especially in mixed company, just as she would not likely question what I felt with Dog or how our connection went.
After her arrival, I hurriedly introduced Nasha to Tiny, who was livid that his defenses had been circumvented so easily. He predictably demanded to know her secrets, which she explained off as an advantage of having a falcon’s eyesight and ability to scout from the air. As was understandable, his men hadn’t expected a bird to be part of an incursion into their territory. I don’t know how complete her account was, but it was entirely possible that she had other abilities she kept to herself.
With Tiny somewhat mollified, we left Nasha with Tiny for further details, while Nokomi and I went to show the hunk of melted metal to Adish and Barid, so we could see what could be done with it. We found them at the rebuilt forge, discussing techniques with the local smith, whose talents were modest at best from the looks of it. Yet the man was willing to learn, which was a good sign. Barid had already showed the man how to use cheaper metals with lower melting points to mend and weld broken tools and pots back together as a cheaper and easier fix. A place such as this required every bit of use they could get out of things that were not easily replaced, which was just about everything.
Nokomi and I stepped up to the shaded area around the forge, where a canopy had been strung between three trees, keeping the direct sunlight off of the metalworkers. It was hot enough without having the sun beating down on you also. Adish stepped forward to greet us with a smile, leaving Barid to offer more advice to the young man working over the anvil with tongs and a hammer.
“Princess,” Adish bowed, “and Go, what can I do for you? You look like people about a purpose today.”
“What do you make of this, Master Adish? Can it be saved?” Nokomi handed him the remains of her father’s sword.
Adish turned the twisted, melted mass over in his hands, looking grave. Truthfully, much of the blade had warped and melted, the hilt’s crossguards were fused into the lump of the hilt, the leather hilt wrappings completely burned away, and any decorations melted beyond recognition. Had we not been told what it was, I doubt any of us would have known its true origins.
“There is little here left to save.” Adish declared after examining it thoroughly. “What type of sword was it?”
“It was my father’s. He had it with him when he died.” Nokomi replied.
Adish started to stammer a reply, but closed his mouth. He bowed again. “I’m sorry, Princess.”
She nodded, clenching her jaw. “Thank you.”
Adish passing the weapon to Barid, who was curious about the lump of metal. Upon looking at it, he assumed a similarly grim expression. “This is a tortured piece of metal. It must have been exposed to extreme heat. Nothing short of a complete reworking will do.” Barid offered it back to Nokomi.
“Can you not rework the blade and save some part of the hilt?” Nokomi asked hopefully. “I would prefer to have something of my father’s old weapon in my hands when I use it to put an end to my uncle.” She said simply, meeting Barid’s eyes as she said it, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary to ask him to make a tool for killing a family member with.
Barid looked from the princess to me, uncomfortable with the idea of murder. I offered him no reassurance. She was being honest about her intent. There was no hiding what she planned to do with it.
“Can you do it?” I asked.
Adish sucked at his cheek and thought for a moment. “The hilt could be filed down and reworked. It will take some work to get the full tang of the blade into what’s left. The blade is worthless, except to melt down and recast. We certainly can’t fold the metal with the equipment we have here. It will be nothing near the same quality as it was.”
“All of that reworking will reduce the amount of usable metal.” Barid commented. “Anything made from what we have here would be much smaller. Considering what we have available to work with, I’d guess we might be able to make a long knife at best, and, as Adish said, it will be nothing near the quality your father’s blade would have been.”
Adish nodded in agreement at that prognosis. “It is melted slag, to be honest. It would be faster to melt it down and start afresh, but I understand your sentimental attachment to your father’s weapon. I truly wish we could offer more.”
Nokomi nodded. She was clearly not happy about it, but at least it was not a complete loss. She thought for a moment. Then she produced a medallion from within her dress. I helped her unhook the chain and lift it free of her shoulders.
She held it out to the two smiths. We all took a look at what she held, a flame worked in gold with rubies and polished jet set around it. “Can you work this into the pommel? It is from my father, and I want as much of him in the knife as possible.”
Barid took the medallion gently with his two hands. “The chain as well? We can wrap it around the hilt like wire.”
“Please.” Nokomi said softly. It was clear that she was hesitant to part with the keepsake, but she would still have it in the blade.
“We will need time, several days at least.” Barid said, looking to Adish, who nodded in agreement.
“I’m going to need Jahan to make a lot more charcoal.” Adish observed.
“Please let me know when it is done, master smiths.” Nokomi curtsied and left the small forge.
Dog and I fell in beside her, noticing Nasha watching us from across the camp. Her yellow eyes were startlingly when she fixed you in her gaze, piercing even. My step faltered, and Nokomi followed my gaze to where Nasha stood. I stared back, caught in her gaze. Was this one of her powers?
“Go talk to her if you find her so interesting.” Nokomi suggested bitterly. “You two probably have a lot in common.”
I frowned at her, Dog whining beside me. He didn’t like hearing that either. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“She’s beautiful, strong, intense, and she has the Old Blood in her. You were both raised by Kalb…” Nokomi sighed and crossed her arms in front of her.
She shrugged and looked away, refusing to meet my eyes, because I might see the tears forming in the corners of her eyes or feel the trickle of one already running down her cheek. I felt it anyway through our bond.
“Just go.” She said softly.
This wasn’t entirely about Nasha, I realized. It was about her father’s sword, the medallion, her uncle, and everything. I couldn’t walk away. “No.”
She turned to me, giving me an imperious look. “I order you.”
I stared right back at her and shook my head. “No.” Dog whined again, agreeing with me.
She huffed and started to stalk off in the direction of the tent she’d been sharing with her mother and Halina. I caught her by the elbow and turned her back to face me.
“I will go talk to her, Nokomi, but only because I need to learn more about Kalb. I want to know about how he died, because I wasn’t there when he died, and I regret that, even if I needed to save you.”
Her eyes narrowed angrily. “Then you blame me for not being there?”
“Of course not…” She was being ridiculous. “You are my pack, and I will always fight to save you before I try to help someone else. You are more important than anyone else.”
“Except for Dog?” She asked.
“That goes without saying.” I said with a smile.
She pouted a frown, but did not argue that point. She looked over at Nasha, who still watched us with her eerie eyes. “It might be a fair match, you two.”
“Bijan might be a fair match for you, Princess. He’s handsome, well-mannered, and rich. Do you intend to marry him when we return to the palace?” I asked. I meant it somewhat as a joke, but I felt a cold grasp of fear on my heart as I waited for her to answer.
“Bijan is the last thing on my mind right now.” She said quickly. Then she shot me a look. “Nasha is pretty, though. She’s tall and very graceful-looking.”
I wasn’t going to take that bait. Not a chance. “If you like that sort of a thing, but she is not the sort of woman that I am interested in.”
Now Barid and Jahan, they might have another opinion in the matter, especially since the princess was a bit unapproachable, unattainable. I’d never had that feeling with Nokomi. She’d belonged to me as much as I’d belonged to her since the day we’d met.
“If she is not to your liking, what is it you’re looking for then?” Nokomi asked innocently, the beginnings of a smirk on her face.
“About chin height.” I held up my hand to indicate her exact height. “Dark haired. Irresistible eyes. Dangerous, more so when she doesn’t get her way.”
She broke into a grin at that description. “That could be ay of a thousand girls across the kingdom.”
“Oh, but I like a specific one with a scar on her hand and fire in her veins.” I replied, reaching for her hands.
“Getting a little more specific.” She whispered, taking both of my hands.
“I like what’s right before me. I’m not looking for anything or anyone else. You’re my ‘all or nothing.’”
“What’s that?” She quirked an eyebrow at me.
“Our pack, back at the Kennel. We had this thing we said as Pack Sefr when we all joined together: ‘All or nothing.’ It meant that we were all in it together and completely, or we meant nothing.” I felt foolish explaining it, but it felt right.
She nodded, and a slight smile came to her face. She tugged on my hands, pulling me over to her. “If that is the way of the pack, I can live with that.”
“So what will it be then? All or nothing?”
She made me wait before answering, enjoying every painful moment I waited. “I’ll take it all.”
I put my arms around her and kissed her deeply. When we parted, I felt a calmness in our bond, contentedness that hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. She slowly pulled herself away from me and took a step toward her tent.
“Go talk to Kalb’s daughter. I’ll be here when you’re doing talking.” She walked off through the sand, glancing back at me once before she pulled aside the flap to her tent and vanished inside.
I stared at the tent for a long moment, before realizing that Nasha was still watching me, observing. For that matter, Barid and Adish had been as well, though they both made a show of being very busy when I looked their way. Snorting a laugh, Dog and I went to go speak to Nasha.
I heard them before I saw them, the subtle shuffle of skin and cloth against sand. Dog’s hackles rose, and I signaled for the caravan to halt from my lead position.
I let my eyes go along with my nose and ears, taking a share of Dog’s senses. Then I turned slowly, looking for any slight movements that would betray their positions. My left ear perked and I narrowed my eyes on a spot beside a scraggly tree, where cloth had been cleverly covered with sand, hiding the watcher beneath it.
Dog and I sprang toward the shelter, seizing the fabric and ripping it aside. Dust and sand kicked up as I shook the cloth, and a surprised soldier in dun-colored clothing was revealed. He grabbed for his spear, but Dog’s teeth dissuaded him from actually grabbing it. Behind us, I heard the sounds of bowstrings being pulled taut.
“You might not want to do that.” I growled over my shoulder.
They didn’t listen to my warning.
When I heard the twang of an arrow being loosed, I spun to the side, letting the arrow pass through the space I’d just occupied. I roared a challenge to them, and they lowered their bows slightly. They kept the arrows nocked, but pointed them away from us.
“Take me to the Lord of the Vultures. We’re old friends. He’ll want to see me.” I said with a toothy smile.
The two bowmen exchanged glances beneath their headscarves. They nodded to one another and trained their bows on me once more.
“Stop!” Nokomi shouted from the wagons, quickly dismounting and rushing our way.
Instead, the two men turned to aim at her instead. Halina jumped down to put herself between the men and the princess, which meant that foolish Jahan had to do the same, despite his mother’s frantic cries.
“Nokomi!” I growled. She’d just put herself in an impossible situation. I wasn’t going to be able to stop two arrows before they got to her. No matter how far I let myself go toward the beast’s side, that would be beyond my speed.
“That’s quite enough.” A deep voice called. A great monster of a dog crested a dune, followed by a man nearly as broad as he was wide.
At his command, the soldiers stood down, putting away their arrows and standing at attention, their short bows held in their left hands.
“This is some welcome you had waiting for me, Tiny.” I called over to him, letting my displeasure carry in my tone. Dog kept our man cornered in his shelter, though he put his teeth away, giving his snarl a pause.
Tiny’s deep laugh echoed in the little depression between hills we were caught in. “When I smelled you and Dog on the wind, I just had to see how rusty my old Pack Leader had let himself get.” He grinned widely, his lips parting to show jagged teeth beneath his scraggly beard.
He shuffled down the sand with all of the grace of a rolling stone. Sand tumbled ahead of him, cascading down the slope. I waited for him to make his way down, observing the costume he’d assembled. He wore simple desert garb covered in a grey cloak that looked as ragged as any beggar’s, and he’d worked hundreds of long, dark feathers into it. They blew in the wind, surrounding him like wings. Shiny stones had been worked into the cloth of his head wrap, giving him the illusion of having eyes and a beak. He had taken the title of Lord of the Vultures very literally, it seemed.
He stopped some five paces away from me, with his beast of an animal beside him. Bear had definitely not gotten any smaller since I’d last seen him. If anything, he was larger, which was impressive. I’d been a young man when I’d first met Bear and Drum, Bear’s original partner. Bear had seemed huge to me then, but after rebonding to Tiny, the animal had grown. I was certain that at his current size, he was even larger than Teeth. That didn’t even begin to cover the changes in Tiny, who had been the smallest boy at the Kennel. I might have still been a bit taller than him, but Tiny was more broad and solid than even Adish.
“I see you’re well-fed in the desert.” I remarked casually.
Tiny laughed. “You’re just upset that you can’t call me ‘Tiny’ anymore.”
“You’ll always be Tiny to me, oh majestic Lord of the Vultures.” I gave him a mocking bow, grinning across the space between us.
Tiny threw open his arms and walked into an embrace. I hugged him back fiercely. Dog and Bear reacquainted themselves in the way of dogs, allowing the cornered soldier to finally escape and go to join his fellows on the hill.
“By the Gods, you smell as if you eat like a vulture.” I grumbled, exaggerating a bit. My nose was sharper than a human’s, so I did pick up on some interesting smells about him, likely from the feathers.
“It’s part of the mystique.” Tiny tried to look offended, but couldn’t manage it. He flapped his cloak like wings.
I wrinkled my nose. “I’m surprised your enemies don’t smell you coming.”
“Enough, enough!” He gave me a playful punch on the shoulder with a meaty fist, which actually hurt, even when he didn’t put much force into it.
“Go?” Nokomi called over.
“Is that who I think it is?” Tiny asked. “From the statues?”
I smiled at that. They’d put statues of the whole royal family up at the Kennel. Drum and Bear had defaced Nokomi’s statue with the whole of Pack Chahar, precipitating a fight that ultimately led the further conflict and the death of Tiny’s first dog. Losing his dog had nearly killed Tiny, and I’d put down Drum like a sick animal because of it.
I was not innocent in the whole scheme, because I’d been as unwilling to back down as any of them. The unfortunate thing was that Tiny had taken the brunt of the suffering, not me. I still regretted how it had all happened, even if Tiny and Bear had been able to connect and save each other from the death that inevitably claimed any who lost their master or their dog.
“Nokomi.” I agreed, waving her over.
“You made it back to her after everything.” Tiny said admiringly. “Good for you.”
I smiled at that. “She is everything I ever wanted, and more.”
“And does she actually want you back?” He asked, half-joking, but also pointing out that what we are does not make relationships easy.
“I think she does. I feel that she does.” I answered.
Tiny watched me watching her and realization dawned upon him. “She is part of your pack.”
I nodded. No use denying it, not to one of our kind. He’d know I was being false with him. “She has been ever since that day when I was a boy. She bonded herself to me, and Dog and I claimed her at ours.”
Nokomi approached slowly, with Halina and Jahan flanking her and leading by a half step, acting the part of her bodyguards. Jahan didn’t have either the size or the walk to pull it off, but he tried. I could see Adish and Sherine arguing about their son’s sudden bravado, but they made no move to stop him, which I am sure he appreciated. It was hard to be a tough guy with your mother watching. Barid wisely stayed out of it, managing to keep Jaleh and Radwan out of harm’s way while their parents argued about their older brother.
“Princess.” Tiny gave her a low bow that was surprisingly graceful for such a broad man. Truly, it was hard to see that scrawny lad in this mountain of a man.
She inclined her head in a stately manner, curtsying ever so slightly. “I am not sure what to call you in return, other than ‘Lord of the Vultures,’ but it is a mouthful, and it does not exactly seem flattering…”
“Ahh, but you don’t understand the compliment my enemies have paid me by naming me thus. Vultures are survivors. Like them, my men and I are quite good at finding food and riches in the desert, and in this place,” Tiny turned to indicate the desert around us, “there are many unsuspecting treasures to be found.”
Nokomi just stared at him, unsure of what to say. She smiled politely and waited until I cleared my throat.
“Zamir.” Tiny offered hastily. “I would be honored if you called me, Zamir, Princess Nokomi.” He smiled toothily.
I glanced sideways at Tiny, surprised that he’d shared his private name with her. I knew that he’d sought out his family after he left the Kennel. Apparently, he had found them, and he’d learned his birth name. Perhaps it was more fitting than ‘Tiny.’
His smiled faded, his face turning all business. “Now, what brings the illustrious Captain Goren and the beautiful Princess Nokomi out into my wild kingdom of sand and snakes?”
“She has not come alone, Lord Zamir.” The Empress announced, joining the conversation. She knew how to make an entrance, appearing both regal and maternal as she strolled up to us with her son on her hip, letting the wind tug at her hair and simple clothes. She looked like a desert goddess.
Tiny looked to me in surprise. If he’d recognized Nokomi from her statue, then there was no mistaking who this other woman was. “What exactly have you gotten me into, Go? First the Princess, now the Empress, and if I’m not mistaken, that is the heir?”
With him, I would not mince words. Our history was too deep. I would not and could not lie to him about the business we were about. “Civil war, my friend. We are about civil war and the opportunities such a thing brings for men of heart with strong swords and vicious dogs.”
Tiny silently regarded the lot of us, pausing before answering. “I had heard of some disturbance in the capitol. Merchants fleeing the city before it could be locked down carried with them the most curious news.”
“What you’ve heard is true. The Emperor, my husband, was murdered by his brother.” The Empress met Tiny’s eyes with her own formidable gaze. Her voice nearly cracked, but that was understandable, and it lent her a vulnerability that spoke of her strength as well. “My daughter, my son, and I have fled, and we are looking for friends.”
“I am most sorry for your loss, Empress Anahita.” Tiny’s sad expression swept to take in both the princess and the baby heir.
The Empress shook her head. “Now is not the time to grieve, Lord Zamir. Now is the time to seek revenge and reclaim what should belong to my children, not the murderous swine that now sits on my husband’s throne.”
Tiny’s eyes glittered with a hungry sort of excitement that I knew meant we had just found our allies. “This is not a conversation meant for the middle of the desert, fair Empress. The sand has eyes and ears, they say, so let me invite you all back to the comfort of my home, that we might plot and plan your triumph.”
“That would be most appreciated.” The Empress admitted.
Tiny whistled and more of his men appeared, popping out of hidden places that even Dog and I had overlooked. No less than a dozen soldiers had appeared, far more than I likely could have handled on my own.
“This is my kingdom, Go.” Tiny said smugly when he noticed the look on my face. “And I knew what you’d be looking for.”
The Empress met my eyes with a look of approval. She found Tiny and his secret army acceptable. Tiny was a hard man now, the sort of man it took to survive out in a place like this. He and his kind were exactly the type of men we needed beside us in times like these.
I’d done right by bringing them here.
The desert was an old friend.
I’d spent most of my adult life traversing its unpredictable sands, chasing one enemy or another for Emperor Baraz. It was no different with the royal family in tow. In the desert, you do your best to cross the sands and hazards they hold as quickly as possible, while conserving energy and water when possible. But the desert is a fickle place, and a storm can come up quickly, or the heat can be endless. You watch and wait for something to happen, knowing it is unlikely to occur, but watching lest it catch you unaware. Being unprepared, uninformed, or found lacking in the desert means death more often than not.
Barid had a fair knowledge of many of the major trade routes to neighboring cities, so that, coupled with my own experience and memories of local maps would make the going less treacherous, but no less onerous. Straight out of the city, I did not have the luxury of caution. I had to catch up with the others.
It was nerve-wracking being apart from them. We’d separated at the city, where Halina’s sweet-talking of the city patrol had been their ticket out of the city. They would have failed, had it not been for her. Barid’s own smooth words had not quite been enough to convince the guards as to the need for bringing whole families along with him on a trading run. They’d made it past the checkpoint, and that was all that I’d needed to see.
After that, I’d worked my way through the city using side streets and back alleys. When we approached the gate, I changed clothes and put Dog in a burlap bag. He’d hated it, but dressed like a simple wanderer, I’d managed to leave without question, whereas with Dog walking beside me, I’d likely have been recognized or at least stopped for questioning. I’d had to exit the city heading west, while the others went north.
Dog had been much relieved to be let out of the bag, even if he’d only been in it for a few minutes. I promised him to never do it again, and we had begun the race to catch up to the others. The city was a large thing, and the others had a head start on us. We cut across hours of scrubland to catch up, no easy feat, even if they were only traveling by cart and pony. While Dog and I enjoyed each other’s company, no amount of peace and quiet could have alleviated the terrible anxiety of waiting to see if they’d made it clear of the city without incident.
Yes, they’d been allowed to leave the city, but there was nothing to say a patrol wouldn’t have caught up with them afterward. Bandits could have waylaid them, or any number of other unfortunate things could have occurred to them since we’d split up.
Cresting a rise and seeing the two wagons trudging on had been nearly the best feeling I’d felt in days, other than that moment before I’d gone out on the rooftops and Nokomi had showed me just how much she worried about me. Thinking of that brought an extra layer of warmth to my heat and exertion-warmed face.
Dog yipped excitedly and broke off at a full speed, dodging scraggly bushes, barrel cactuses, and dusky-colored lizards alike as he ran. Even tapping into our shared abilities, I was unable to keep up with him. My feet always sank more deeply into the sand than his capable paws did. He was built for this type of terrain.
We were noticed as we approached, not that Dog’s excited barks or my dessert robes billowing behind me gave us any hope of surprising them. Adish’s children quickly pointed out Dog. They’d been quite taken with him, and they were nearly as eager to have him back at their sides as Nokomi felt to have me beside her once more.
I had felt our bond growing stronger as we’d neared each other, and with that closeness came shared sensations and emotions. I wasn’t sure what all she felt from my side of the bond, but it was not likely much. From me, there was little more than anxiousness, sand, sweat, the oppressive sun, and breathing to take in.
From what I could sense of her, I knew how cramped she’d found the space between the crates, which was oppressively hot and cramped, even after they’d loosened the straps that held the canvas down to let in more air. I had been able to feel the sweat trickling down the nape of her neck as assuredly as if it were my own neck. I knew her left leg was cramping, and her shoulders hurt from the position she was sitting in.
I also knew the crippling fear that had taken her upon learning that we had left her alone. Not alone, truly, but without us, without her pack. Pack was something she’d begun feeling more keenly these last few days. She’d already lost her father and Kalb. Her sister had been captured by her uncle, betrayed by her intended husband. That didn’t even count the number of servants and palace staff she’d been close to that had been killed when Navid had taken the palace, people like Lila or Masih. The potential for also losing me had been more than she could handle. She’d been reduced to tears at feeling the distance in our bond. Her soft crying may not have been heard over the noise of the wagon, but I’d felt it.
She’d had enough when she heard Dog’s approaching barks, and the canvas was peeled back finally for her to climb free. She jumped down, stumbling as her stiff limbs protested at suddenly being put to work after being cramped in that space. Then she came striding across the last twenty or so paces, her sweat-streaked face flushed for half a dozen reasons, some of which she probably didn’t even want to admit.
“How dare you desert me!” She clenched her fists tight and glared at me as Dog jumped and yipped and tried to get her attention. She had none for him at that moment.
I broke into a laugh. It wasn’t funny, not really, but I was out of breath from running, Dog was resorting to all sorts of antics to get her to look at him, and Nokomi looked more out of sorts than I’d ever seen her.
“What’s so funny?” She demanded.
I shook my head, still catching my breath. “I don’t know.” I finally managed.
“Then stop laughing like an idiot and hold me.” She growled.
That, I could do. Talking, not so much. I threw a rough embrace about her and panted, placing my chin on the top of her head.
“You’re sweaty.” She mumbled her complaint against my chest.
“You’re not far behind me.” I replied sweetly, plucking a sweaty strand of her hair from my face.
She pulled away and took a step back, glancing over her shoulder long enough to note that we had an audience, not that there were a lot of other things to look at out here. At least Dog had moved on to more receptive audiences. He was chasing all three of Adish’s kids. With our arrival, everyone had halted and dismounted to stretch legs and relive themselves as needed.
Nokomi leaned in toward me to give me one last warning. “Don’t ever leave me like that. No one told me what was going on until you were gone.”
I gave her an apologetic look. “They would’ve looked for me, and I don’t think that there was room enough for Dog and I in that coach with you.”
“Still. Never do that again, not without telling me first.” She put her hands on her hips and leveled her most regal expression at me.
“Okay.” What else could I say to that?
She reached out and shyly took my hand in hers. That made me smile – inwardly, since my face hurt. She’d just hugged me and publicly declared her affections for me in front of nearly everyone I knew and most of her family, but now she could barely take my hand.
With a gentle tug, she led me back to the others. Barid met my eyes with that sort of look that one young guy gives another when he sees him doing well. I nodded to him, and indicated Halina with a raised eyebrow. She stood nearby him with her arms folded across her chest, watching Nokomi and I. Barid grinned back, but tried to hide the source of his amusement from her when she noticed him smiling. Halina shot me a suspicious look, but I looked away when Nokomi spoke again, this time loud enough for all to hear.
“I believe it’s time for you to tell us where we’re going, Go. You gave Barid general directions, but no specific destination.”
“We’re going to see the Lord of the Vultures.” I answered lightly, as if it were not a big deal.
“What?” Adish looked taken aback. I didn’t blame him, considering that we had his whole family, including the women and children, with us.
“The bandit?” Jahan asked. Even one as young as he had heard of the notorious figure.
“Why would we go to see this man, and who is he?” The Empress asked quickly. Living in the palace, a folk figure like the Lord of Vultures might not be spoken of in front of her, especially if it was something the Emperor hadn’t wanted her to know of.
“He’s a bandit lord, and he travels with a lion the size of a horse!” Jahan filled her in. The young man was grinning madly, clearly imagining meeting the man already.
“It’s not a lion. It’s a dog, and it’s actually closer to the size of a bear.” I remarked calmly, trying to ignore the steadily increasing pressure of Nokomi’s hand upon mine.
Empress Anahita’s expression took on an unpleasant cast. “Explain yourself.”
“I went to school with him. We are old friends.” I explained. “I trust him to shelter us, and, if we can convince him to join our cause, we may very well have an army behind us next time we meet Navid.”
Barid stared at me in wonder and a little bit more respect than he’d had just a moment ago. “You went to school with the Lord of Vultures? Exactly when was that, and what sort of school as this?”
“It was at the Kennel, where boys of the Old Blood were trained to serve the Emperor. He was one of my closest friends until his dog was killed by a boy that became unbalanced. After I ripped out the murderer’s throat for the Emperor, the bereaved boy was able to successfully bond himself to the dead boy’s dog.”
“You killed someone?” Jahan’s jaw dropped. Sherine gave him a look.
Dog gave me a look, and I knew I had to clarify. “Well, it was more for vengeance than for the Emperor, if I’m being honest. He offered me his sword to deal the justice unto the murder, but it was more fitting for a dog to be put down the way I did it.” I elaborated.
Adish looked away, a pained expression crossing his face. He suddenly took to studying the scrubland vegetation instead of me. Beside him, Sherine sighed a motherly sigh, the kind you just couldn’t help doing when a bad child just admitted to doing something far worse than you’d expected of them... and they were proud of it. She gave me a pitying look and led her children aside to go relieve themselves, rather than hear more talk of killing.
“And what makes you think that he would wish to help us? The Empress asked. She had no qualms about the justified killing of a murderer.
“I know Tiny. He will help us.” It was the best answer I had. Regardless of his path since we’d parted ways, he would not harm us. He would either turn us away, or he would join our cause.
“The Lord of the Vultures is named ‘Tiny?’” Barid laughed.
“Yeah, but he’s not so small anymore, so I wouldn’t say that name in earshot of him, unless you want to lose your tongue.” I told him quickly.
“And you trust this man?” The Empress had a lot riding on my word. I was vouching for him, and the safety of her family depended upon it.
I nodded. “We would not be going there if I did not. I swear it to you.”
The Empress looked past me in the direction of the city, frowning. She scanned the horizon, as if searching for other avenues open to her, but we both knew there were none. “Our neighboring kingdoms will hesitate to interfere in what might very well become a drawn-out civil war. We need to act swiftly, or we must flee the country and never look back.”
Nokomi shook her head at that. “I’m not leaving Neema in that monster’s clutches. I’ll see my uncle dead, and maybe Dastan with him.”
“And I am with you, my Princess.” Halina said coldly. “Lila’s death requires blood repayment.”
The Empress smiled at the bloodthirsty women around her. “Then I don’t see as we have much choice but to trust this Lord of the Vultures.”
“Where do we find this friend of yours then?” Nokomi asked.
“We just keep going this way. He’ll find me. He must answer my call.” I smiled. Dog’s tail wagged excitedly. It had been a long time since we’d last seen Tiny.
Barid was much like I remembered him to be, but he’d become an older, sturdier version of himself. He’d gone from being an apprentice blacksmith to being a successful craftsman in his own right. He was also older than last I saw him, seeing as I’d been at the Kennel and serving as a soldier for several years. He was a grown man now, the sort that should have been married and starting a family. Somehow, that hadn’t happened yet – surprising for a successful craftsman of growing fame.
“I don’t want to include more people in this, Adish. He’ll be putting his life and business at risk for us.” I’d argued.
Adish had insisted. “He is like a son to me, and he would no more let me risk my family alone than he would cut his own hands off.”
“But if you love him, why would you expose him to this danger?” I’d countered.
“Go, he loves my children as if they were his own. He would do anything to help keep us safe, and we need his help.”
Despite his closeness to Adish’s family, I still wasn’t sold on the idea. “Why do we need him?”
“A shop such as mine would draw unwanted attention if we suddenly packed up two wagons and traveled to a neighboring city to sell goods. I have no way to get you out of the city without gaining the type of attention that we want to avoid. Barid is known in these parts for his craft, and he ships his product as far as Epim.”
And so, Barid had become part of our escape plan. Adish’s eldest boy, Jahan, had been made to peel himself away from watching Nokomi and Halina with puppy dog eyes to deliver the news to his father’s old apprentice. The boy was of an age that he had started taking notice of pretty faces, and those two were certainly worth looking at. It didn’t help that Halina liked catching the boy staring at her, and was quite good at making the kid blush with something as simple as a smile or a wink. There was one thing that Jahan liked more than pretty girls, and that was being part of secrets and doing grownup things, so he went without complaint to fetch his Uncle Barid, as they referred to him.
Barely an hour later, before the sun had fully come up over the buildings of the neighborhood, I’d watched as Barid came rolling up with two wagons full of product, each pulled by a pair of sturdy desert ponies. Crates and careful stacks of his metalwork had been covered with heavy canvases to protect them from the wind, sand, thieves, and prying eyes. Barid entered Adish’s home, leaving Jahan to tend to the wagons. He’d driven the second one anyway, and seemed to have a good manner about the animals.
Adish and I met Barid at the door. Barid had grown taller than me, and he had a firm grip and a smith’s build about him, even if he was not so large a man as Adish. I clasped arms with him, and we eyed each other. He wore a beard along his jaw, kept short to keep it away from sparks and hot metal. He also wore fashionable, if sensible clothes. He was clearly doing well for himself.
What did he see when he looked at me? My eyes still had no gone fully back to their human colors after my last change, but I knew from looking at my face in a glass that some of the green and brown of my hazel eyes had returned. I’d been unable to shave after splitting the corners of my mouth wide, and I knew I looked even wilder for the growth of beard on my face and the sharper teeth that hid beneath my lips. Dangerous, predatory even, I imagined is what he thought. If he felt any fear of me, he hid it well under a warm smile. That surprised me.
“Jahan told me about you, Go. No matter how you look now, you’ll still be the boy from the alleys who loved rat meat and could hardly speak a word.” Barid said with a laugh, patting my hand companionably, as if we were old friends.
I grinned at that, feeling the gashes on my face tug uncomfortably. Thanks to our shared bond, I healed faster than normal, but these were not wounds to heal in a day. Still, in the presence of a handsome fellow like Barid, I felt strangely self-conscious about my face.
Dog surged forward to greet Barid, recalling him well and deciding that this was no foe. As Dog was a great judge of character, I felt myself accept this at face value. Sardar might have turned on me, or at least withheld his aide, but Barid was genuinely here to help.
After offering his affection to Dog, Barid swept into the home with a familiarity of the layout and lack of pause that showed he was still a frequent guest. He hugged Sherine, spinning her around as he affectionately kissed her cheek and then he darted off to find little Jaleh, who he put on his hip and carried around.
Nokomi and the Empress watched the charismatic, young man with amused looks on their faces. He was still carrying Jaleh when he sobered and remembered why he was there. He bowed to each of the three ladies as best he could with the little girl in his arms.
“Empress. Princess. Mistress.” He said to each in turn, his eyes lingering longest on Halina’s brilliant blue eyes. “Your coaches await, though they are not as fine as comfortable as you might be used to.”
An appraising look crossed Halina’s features, and I knew from the lurch in her heart rate that she’d found him very acceptable. Nokomi noticed, too, and a look passed between us.
“Master Barid, I’m told that you are risking your life and livelihood for my family, and I cannot thank you enough. True friends of our family are not forgotten.” The Empress offered, bowing her head slightly in thanks. She rocked Shapur gently.
“Adish’s family is my family. Go is an old friend I am glad to be reacquainted with, and any friends of theirs, no matter their station or plight, are friends of mine. I am pleased to be able to offer my assistance.” Barid replied.
Then Barid bowed a second time so deeply that Jaleh had to cling on for dear life and started laughing. He grinned at the little dark-haired girl, made as if to drop her, and then straightened back up.
“Thank you, Master Barid.” Halina offered a curtsy, then she made a face at Jaleh, who giggled.
Adish’s youngest was a little charmer, and had quickly become a favorite of all the new visitors, much to Radwan’s chagrin. He’d been the youngest and cutest for a few years before his baby sister’s arrival, and he’d never quite been able to regain that status. The little boy milled around at the edges of the conversation, watching closely.
Nokomi, now being a middle child, sensed his feelings, and moved to give the boy some attention while Barid explained the plan. Jaleh climbed down from Barid’s hip and hopped over to try to steal Nokomi’s attention as well, but she was not so easily fooled by that ploy.
Barid looked to the three women and frowned slightly. “You three ladies are much too distractingly beautiful to hide in plain sight. I’ve brought some simple clothes – nothing as fine as you deserve – that you can switch into. We will have to cover and bind your luxurious hair and hide those regal faces. Face covers might be best. Then we can get you into the wagons.”
“Are we to ride out in plain sight?” Nokomi asked, alarmed. Clothes alone would not hide the three ladies’ identities.
Barid shook his head. “The Empress will have to hide, as will you, Princess. Adish’s family will ride in one wagon, with the Empress hidden between crates along with the baby.”
“And I will be hidden in the other wagon with you?” Nokomi surmised.
“Yes.” Barid nodded.
“And what of me?” Halina inquired.
“They will not be looking for you, not without the Princess beside you. Therefore, you have two choices: go separately and meet us outside the city… I have a pony you can borrow.”
Halina’s eyebrow rose. Clearly, she didn’t like separating from Nokomi. Her hidden knives would do no good if she wasn’t there to use them. “Or?”
Barid colored, clearing his throat. “Travel as my wife, sitting beside me on the driver’s bench.” His hand scrubbed through his hair, and he offered a roguish smile.
Halina slid to his side gracefully, putting on a smile that made Barid blush more deeply. “That sounds much better, husband of mine. I would not want to leave the Princess’ side. I need to see her safely outside the city. One can never be too careful in these trying times.” A knife quickly appeared in her hand, which she used to playfully poke at the underside of Barid’s chin.
Barid cleared his throat again, put his hand on her dainty but dangerous wrist, and met her gaze. “You have nothing to fear from me, Mistress Halina. My intentions are honest.”
A little bit of hidden tension melted out of Halina then. She took the knife with her other hand, hiding it once more in the hidden sheath inside her skirts. “Then we should be off, Master Barid. The longer we wait, the greater danger there is of discovery, danger to this family and the royal one.” She said, still not taking her eyes off of his.
Barid released her wrist reluctantly. Then, as dramatically as he’d entered, he swept from the room, returning moments later with simple travel clothes he’d brought with him. The muslin fabric was simple and coarse. The cuts would not flatter any of the women’s figures, but they certainly did not look as if they belonged to any woman who lived in a palace.
Within minutes, with Sherine’s help, the women were disguised as best they could be. They’d even seen to some makeup, painting both Nokomi and the Empress in a way that declared them to be locals, hiding their rich skin tones and dramatic eyes. With their hair bound and covered, it was almost hard to see who they were. Only someone who truly knew them well would be able to identify them.
After that, Adish and Barid loaded up the children. Sherine cast a worried look back at her home, and then mounted the coach, sitting beside Adish. Radwan sat between them, and Jaleh sat on her mother’s lap.
Barid and I made a show of loading goods and supplies in the wagon, which was really just a distraction to allow the Empress to settle in the open space between crates. When she was as comfortable as she could be on the small straw mats with the babe huddled against her, we cinched the wagon cover back down.
Next came Nokomi. We repeated the process with her, allowing her to settle in before covering her. Halina climbed up on the bench beside Jahan, who was still seated as the driver. He was pleased to have her beside him, even dressed in simple garb that hid much of her beauty.
Jahan started to grumble when Barid made him scoot over, taking the driver’s reins, at least until he realized that he would have to sit even closer to Halina. He grew very quiet and very red in the face. Halina made it worse by taking his hand in hers companionably. I shook my head at her, but she just grinned. It was good that she could find some levity in such a bad situation.
Barid looked to me then from the driver’s seat and motioned me over. I stepped over and he spoke to me in low tones. “I will see them safely from the city. You will meet up with us outside the city?”
I nodded. “They’ll be looking more for me than any of you. I’d give you all away.”
He offered me a hand. “Be careful, Go.”
I seized it and gave him a firm shake. “Get them there safely.”
Halina cast a questioning gaze my way, but understood when I did not board either of the coaches. She knew what it might mean to be seen with me, and there was not enough room in the coaches for Dog and I to hide.
Barid turned his gaze back forward and snapped the reins, kicking the ponies into action. He led the way, with Adish’s family following on the second wagon. Adish nodded to me as they passed. He did his best to appear calm and collected, but I could smell the apprehension on him.
Sherine started singing softly as she went, a traveling song for children that carried over the clop of hooves and the clatter of wagon wheels on the street cobbles. I watched them leave, feeling a piece of my heart go with them.
Dog and I sprang into action then, shadowing the convoy from a block or more away. We would see them to safety, no matter the cost.
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.
Our next breakfast was much the same as the day before, a fight with the others for our meal. This time, we knew what to expect, and we came out a little bit better off than we had our first time around. Dog and I also helped gather food, mostly by running interference for Tiny and his little partner. Killer, as the day before, guarded our food.
Legs struggled after his initial plunder, because speed only works for the first strike. After that, he lacked the initiative and aggressive nature it would have taken to push through to get more. He apologized, but it wasn’t necessary, as he still managed to get the nicest piece of meat in our haul. Additionally, Tiny had been far more effective, mostly because Drum and Bear were stalking Dog and I, leaving some of Chahar’s potential haul vulnerable.
We ate in silence, not relishing the food, but certainly not wasting it. After what we’d eaten the night before, we certainly weren’t going to attack sandy piles of food with a whole lot of gusto. No, I ate somewhat more carefully, dusting off the food and eating around smashed spots. Looking around, I saw the others were doing the same. I suppose we’d become something of food snobs after a single basket of nice food.
“This is a strange place.” I whispered conspiratorially to my pack. They all looked up to listen, waiting for me to go on. “One moment, they encourage us to act like animals. The next, we’re treated like people.”
“Which one are we supposed to be?” Tiny wondered aloud, touching on something we all felt.
“Like both.” Killer suggested. “The Emperor will have need for men who can be both.” Red had said as much, and Killer’s words made it seem all that much truer.
We were let out through the east gate to wander the yards and stretch our legs. I mulled over what we’d experienced and couldn’t find any flaw to his thinking. It was a strange path we walked, straddling the line between beast and man, the best of both words wrapped in a dangerous package.
Dog and I ran a bit, alternating it with walking. We kept to ourselves, stretching our legs and letting our food digest. I wanted my food to be settled before our next class. It would be either Blue or Grey today, and Blue seemed more likely, as we would have it more often than Grey.
Dog and I had always run a lot in the alleys. Even though we’d only been here for two days, we both missed it. You did that sort of a thing, dodging through narrow passages and avoiding detection or capture. Despite surviving by taking things from other people, I’d never thought of myself as a thief. We’d just been hungry. Dog and I had needed something that other people had plenty of. Even the best thieves couldn’t always get away clean. When we grabbed something from a market stall or an open window, we were seen sometimes, and we’d have to run away. Hearts hammering in our chests, it was almost like a game, one where getting caught might result in losing a hand or getting thrown into jail. Running in the yard gave us a little of that sense of freedom, even if it was quite limited, and if it lacked the thrill of the escape.
Dog and I had lived for years by ourselves. We’d always been able to come and go as we pleased. There had been no place we couldn’t go if we put our minds to it. Now, we came and went as they told us, on a schedule set by men we didn’t know.
When we were summoned back inside by the bells, we lined up once more in front of our instructors. This time, we were called forward to stand beside Blue, who held up the symbol for our pack. Once more, we were paired up with Chahar. That didn’t bode well. Surely they’d want revenge for yesterday. Although, truth be told, other than the initial bout between Drum and I, it had mostly gone their way. We’d all tried to give as well as we’d been given, but I was sure we had a larger share of bruises and scrapes than they did. Chahar had more training than, and it showed. We certainly had a lot of catching up to do.
Packs Do and Yek were lined up with Red today, and Pack Se was lined up with Grey. The members of Pack Se seemed pleased by this. Perhaps we’d have something to look forward to with Grey’s lessons? I couldn’t recall how Pack Yek had looked after our lessons yesterday, having been too exhausted to care, so I didn’t remember if they’d returned to their room as exhausted as we had been. That would have to wait and see. Perhaps tomorrow, we’d learn.
Blue led us into the same hallway as yesterday, only we were the next large room over. I expected to find another room with weapons on one side and fighting circles on the floor, but was confronted with an entirely different room. It was not at all what I expected, but it seemed as if it might just be a good thing.
We were staring at a maze of passages, all made from movable walls too tall to see over. Because many of them had been closed off overhead as well, the passages between them were often dark, and we could not see past the first bend down any of the three routes offered.
“As servants of your Emperor, you will be asked to perform many tasks. Some will be difficult. Some will be routine. Today’s task is to search for a handkerchief.”
“A handkerchief?” Drum scoffed.
Blue’s sharp gaze swiveled his way, and he quickly looked at his feet. “It is not your place to question what is asked of you. If the Emperor gives you a seemingly strange order, it is still to be followed, as you may not understand the importance of what is being asked of you. After all, you are his dogs, and he is your master.”
“What does the handkerchief look like?” Tiny, standing beside me, asked.
Blue’s face shifted into a mysterious smile. “That, is a good question.” Even if it had been a good question, it was a question he refused to answer.
He chose three of us seemingly at random, making each student first bark and bow to the portrait of the Emperor that hung over the doorway. Only, this portrait also included other faces. The Emperor was at the front and center of the portrait, dominating the frame. A dark-haired and beautiful woman, likely his mate, stood behind and to the left of him, and two younger girls filled the portrait’s right side. One of those girls I recognized immediately as Nokomi, while the other was similar and yet different, likely an older sister.
“As the Emperor wills.” Blue announced, sending Legs and two members of Pack Chahar into the maze, one at each entry point. Legs cast us a forlorn look, and then vanished into the wooden passageways as he’d been directed.
The rest of us waited, standing there and listening to the noises of dogs and boys as they progressed through the maze. This room was somewhat wider than the one we’d trained in the previous day, although the ceiling was of the same height and it appeared to be about the same depth.
Once or twice, we heard baying, as one of the hounds from Pack Chahar seemed to have scented something. Occasionally, we’d hear scratching or some sort of scuffling about. Then we heard a yelp, and some grunts of pain and struggle.
“What’s in there?” I asked our instructor.
He smiled and shrugged. “It will be different for each group. Life is an ever-changing series of challenges.”
We waited, watching and listening. After an unknown amount of time, a time that seemed close to an eternity, a red flag on a long pole waved from the back end of the room. This seemed like the signal for the next batch of us to enter the maze, but Blue held us back with outstretched hands. Anxious to see who was next, we waited for him to make his choices.
Instead, we heard clanking, grinding, and shifting inside the maze. Once or twice we saw flashes of auburn. Were there guards inside the maze? What purpose did they have? Would we have to fight them? Were they moving the obstacles? I’d have to wait to see. I could do nothing else.
A green flag waved from the back of the room, and Blue finally chose three more of us, again seemingly at random. Tiny was chosen, along with a long-haired dog from Chahar and a small, brown mongrel from Chahar.
This round went much like the last, except we heard snarling and L.D.’s excited yips at one point. After several minutes, the red flag waved again. Once more, the maze shifted around. This time, a few of the closer walls moved. I could see the tops of the obstacles being readjusted.
Killer and I were all that was left of Panj. From Chahar, there were also two members left: Drum and another boy with a shaved head and a wrinkly, short-haired dog that seemed little more than a pup. Both the wrinkly dog and the boy had a kindly look about them.
When the green flag flew, I fully expected Killer to be sent in with the boy, and then Drum and I would get paired up once again. Instead, Blue indicated that I was to be sent in alone.
I sent a questioning look at Blue, but his expression was unreadable. He said nothing, except, “You’d better go quickly.”
Killer gave me a reassuring nod, and I did not wait any longer. I had three choices of paths, so I took the one that looked, at least from the start, to be the least straight-forward route. Sometimes, I’d learned, going the hardest-looking route was actually the easiest. I hoped it was true this time, too.
Dog and I sprang forward, darting into the course. We opened our noses as we ran, taking in the scents and odors. We smelled wood and the chemicals that had been used to treat the panels that boxed us in. The scents of the dogs and boys that had passed this way before also filled our nostrils. Still, there was a hint of something very faint in the air, something familiar.
The passage ahead narrowed, closed off from the ceiling and the floor. Only a small crawlspace existed. Dog and I negotiated that easily enough, having been squeezing through small spaces for years. A large animal like Drum’s dog wouldn’t fit through.
The passage forked. We went straight instead of heading in the direction I knew the flags were. The far end of the room was where the flags were being waved, but I didn’t want to get out of the maze. No, I needed to find something, so Dog and I let our noses lead the way.
Up ahead I heard the whispers of feet on packed clay. Dog looked at me and I looked back. We both smelled a trap. Grinning at each other, we tiptoed forward warily, only to find the walls starting to collapse around us. Dropping low, we crawled as the obstacles crumbled above us, leaving us barely enough room to move beneath them.
Clear of the collapsing walls, we continued after the scent, which grew stronger as we moved deeper into the maze. Dog’s led the way, so it was his paw that caught on a string that ran across the passage floor; flares burst afire around us, and the flashing brightness made our pupils contract. I shielded my eyes and untangled Dog’s paw, pushing forward once more.
From the entry, I heard movement. A deep growl filled the room, and a whoop of glee I knew came from Drum. I’d known him all of two days, and I recognized his voice easily. What was this? In other places, I also heard movement.
Now, Blue’s words made sense. Dog and I were being chased. Not only did we have to find the handkerchief, but we also had to do so before we were caught by the last three participants. Blue’s words echoed in my ears: “Life is an ever-changing series of challenges.”
Well, Dog and I weren’t going to let those challenges get the better of us. We pushed forward into a series of darker passages, covered overhead with musty-smelling, heavy fabric to cut the light down to almost nothing, all the while messing with our senses of smell. Dog and I were no strangers to mildew and rot. Like a sweet undertone, I could still sense the scent we’d been hunting.
The bright flares from before made it hard to see. Our eyes had not adjusted back to the darkness, but our ears were still sharp, and we heard someone rapidly approaching, although the echoes made it hard to tell from where they were coming. Unexpectedly, the young boy and his wrinkly dog burst out from an unseen side passage and came upon us. Much like Red’s class from the day before, we were forced into grappling combat. I was larger than him, and probably stronger, but he’d gotten the jump on me. He had me pinned against the wall, while his dog tried to subdue my Dog.
As we fought, breathing heavily and shoving each other back and forth into the walls, I heard Drum and Bear cursing back the way we’d come from. Had he gotten stuck in the narrow passage? Killer would be closing in, too, and that was one fight I dared not participate in. I knew I’d lose.
I stuck my leg out behind the boy’s foot and gave him a heavy shove. He stumbled backward into the wall and ended up in a pile on top of his own dog. The boy groaned as his head bounced off the wall. Dog snarled in their faces and we bolted further down the passage. Time was running out.
Abandoning caution, we threw ourselves headlong down the passages, darting right, going straight at a fork, and vaulting over a series of uneven crates that shifted as we climbed over them. Up ahead, I saw auburn. Dog yipped excitedly. The smell was stronger than ever. It was floral, delicate, and intensely familiar.
Three guards stood around someone on the floor, someone kneeling. My heart thundered wildly, my eyes opening to their fullest. The smell, the dark hair, and the white dress. Could it be?
The guards rounded on us. They stood in a four-way intersection, facing outward in a triangle formation, surrounding the girl that was kneeling between them. Dog’s round ears perked as the girl turned our way. We saw a flutter of a colored handkerchief in her hand, but we could not see her face.
“Nokomi!” I shouted, darting in, Dog beside me.
Just days ago, we’d lived through this. We’d been separated from Nokomi by guards. Kalb had separated us, and now we’d get her back. This time, we’d not be kept apart. The guards wore padded armor and warded us off with blunted spears and wooden swords, but they might as well have been fully armored and using metal weapons for all we cared.
We fell upon the guards with a fury I’d never felt before. We’d always fought to survive before, never to protect, never to rescue a friend. It was an alien feeling, and yet a good one.
Dog was not much heavier than myself, but he was a jumper. He threw himself at the right guard’s face. Instinct dictated that the man would cover up to protect his face and throat. That gave me an opening. The middle guard, who’d thought I was going to attack him, found himself without a target. Instead, I went after the right guard as well, knocking his legs out from underneath him.
Snarling, I stomped heavily on the man’s chest and latched myself on the next man’s legs, biting and snarling as Dog backed me up. I felt a blow on my shoulders, but shook it off, biting harder as the guardsman screamed and struck at my head and tried to shake me off.
With a shove, I threw the man into the walls. The temporary structure collapsed, leaving him in a pile, covered by wooden planks. A scream filled my ears.
Dog and I threw ourselves at the last guard. He deflected my attack with his staff, shouldering me into a wall. When he brought his staff back around too slowly, Dog latched himself on the man’s arm and took him to the ground. I recovered quickly, shaking off my daze, and pounced on the man, pummeling his face.
More screams, from Nokomi. We turned to her, expecting to find one or more of the guards recovered enough to threaten her once more, something we would not allow. We’d kill them all if need be. Bloodthirst - it was a new feeling for me.
Instead, we found a stranger’s face staring at us with a look of terror upon it. Dark-haired and dressed in white this girl might be, but it was not Nokomi. It was even the same scent upon her handkerchief. Dog trotted over and sniffed at her, but he knew the truth. His head swiveled my way and his ears drooped in a very human look of disappointment.
Drum and Bear stood at the end of one passage, some ten paces away. The look he gave us frightened me. Even Bear, massive though he was, didn’t want anything to do with us right now. I could smell fear on them both.
The guards started to recover, but they were all bleeding and bruised in one way or another, and they made no move to stop us from taking the handkerchief from the girl. She shied away from us, flinching back as we took it. She, too, feared that we might hurt her, as if we would turn upon her and devour her like wild beasts.
We exited the maze then, walking right past Killer and his dog. He and his dog looked at us differently, too, but it was not fear we saw and smelled on them. It was satisfaction. It was loyalty. It was servitude. Had our portrait been upon that wall above the entry, I had no doubt he would have barked and bowed to us at that moment.
The rest of packs Panj and Chahar waited for us outside the maze. A pair of guards in auburn looked at us with pale faces as we exited. I didn’t need a looking glass to know that we had blood on our faces.
They waved the last red flag of the day.
For years Dog and I lived on the streets, but life was not as it had been. We grew craftier, smarter, and more human. We’d realized that we needed to grow, not only in size and stature, but in knowledge. Nokomi had taught us that, whether she’d meant to or not.
Many hours were spent listening to the folk of the markets and city, learning their tongues. It was very confusing at first, and it came as something of a breakthrough one day when we realized that these peoples were as different from each other as birds and elephants, so they spoke different languages. How odd it was to think of all these people knowing so many sounds, but still be unable to converse. It was an enlightening and despairing day that led me to nearly give up on ever speaking.
Then we received a job one day. A metalworker’s assistant had gone home sick, and he’d struggled to work both the bellows and the metal, and he’d seen me watching him. I loved the sparks and fire. Dog and I found the little fireflies of light that danced around his falling hammers to be hypnotizing. A few gruff syllables later and a lot of gesturing, I found myself invited in to work the bellows.
Warily, I began to work the bellows, earning an education beside this man named Adish. He instructed me, first with gestures, and later with words that I learned to be commands. Dog watched with great amusement at first when I overworked the bellows, working up a great heat as a tired myself out. Eventually, I learned to get it just right, and with it, I understood the value of words.
Now Dog and I were not working for charity, mind you. After a day’s work, Adish offered us a few shiny pieces of metal. When we had little use for them, he offered us food and drink. Those we took, eagerly. He didn’t seem surprised when we showed up the next day, looking for the same arrangement. His assistant was back, but he had the boy show us what needed being done, and we learned more of their sounds.
After a few days in a row, Dog and I always expected Adish to be there with his food. Strangely, one day he was not. Our stomachs rumbled and grumbled that day. Upset at our fortune, we set about the market and rustled up some food from some unsuspecting smoked meat sellers.
We’d given up on Adish, but it didn’t sit well with us. We passed his way a few days later, only to find him hard at work again. It was confusing, but we were welcomed in again, and his food was as delicious as ever, if strangely flavored.
It was thus that we learned of weeks and numbers. Barid, the boy who worked for Adish, taught us the way to count with fingers, and the names of the eight days. We came to understand that of the eight days, there were two on which there was no work to be done.
This became our routine, Dog and I would visit Adish’s shop to learn words and metalworking on six days out of eight, and we would wander the Bazaar and the Lower Market the other two. We never went hungry, and, in fact, we both grew quite strong and healthy for the first time in our lives. Barid even gave me some of his clothes, ones that were too small for him, as he was a few years ahead of me, as he told it, but I was quickly gaining on him in size and I suspected I’d already surpassed him in strength.
And there was one more lesson we learned for Adish and Barid, that being the meaning of those curious rounds of metal that jingled in people’s pockets. For us, they unlocked the secrets of money. As our worth to the man grew, we began getting paid not only in food, but also in coins.
It was with those coins that we went into the market one day, one of the two days that Adish did not work. It was those coins that brought us once more into Nokomi’s presence.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs