Messages and preparations had come and gone, and the time for action was upon us. The Lord of the Vultures had gathered his soldiers and had moved to harass Navid’s forces at each entry to the city. They had split into several companies, each of which was turning back merchants who tried to reach the city, choking it slowly. Those who were leaving were allowed to pass, but none were being allowed entry.
It was an unofficial siege, but that wasn’t the point of the Empress’ plan. The forces outside the city could no more take the city than they could starve out the city. It was all a ploy to draw out Navid’s armies, taunting them to force him to acknowledge what was happening.
After weeks of hunting for the escaped members of the royal family, here they were, presenting themselves to him if Navid dared to come out and meet them in battle. Of course, he didn’t come out himself. Instead, he sent out his regiments of soldiers on patrols, but they had little luck finding Tiny’s soldiers. The Lord of Vultures had trained his men well. They knew when to hide, how to vanish, and how to avoid larger forces when they needed to. They were naturals at it, and with the help of Nasha’s falcon, Zephyr, they were all but untraceable.
I watched through a spyglass as yet another of Navid’s patrols went out, knowing that the enemy they sought would melt into the wind like a handful of dust. Short of a horse trampling one the hidden soldiers accidentally, they would not find a single man.
Nasha stood beside me, her eyes focused afar, likely on the same things I was watching with the spyglass. With Zephyr aloft, her farsight was incredibly detailed. She claimed to be able to count flies on a dead animal’s corpse at a distance of a thousand paces. I suspected that she was not exaggerating in the least.
Nokomi watched Kalb’s daughter with morbid interest. She still found the girl strange and a bit scary, but Nasha had that effect on people. Mostly, it was those piercing eyes, and she had more than a little bit of her father’s intimidating presence. He had been known to quiet an entire room with nothing more than a glance, and I had no doubt that she would be his equal someday.
Still, Nokomi had accepted Nasha’s service gratefully, on the condition that she would be free to seek her own fortunes after Navid was dead. That part of the agreement had been added at my suggestion, but Nokomi had not argued it one bit. Perhaps, being another young woman, she understood the need to not be tied to something forever, at least not because of the a parent’s wishes.
“Movement.” Nasha announced, swiveling her head toward the northern city gates.
When the gates opened minutes later, an entire column of soldiers emerged, a larger force than we’d yet seen. The city was not being emptied of its defenses by any means, but it was as close to emptying it as we’d likely get. I looked then to Empress Anahita, who nodded to me. It was as she’d planned. After enough time, Navid would have to send a significant portion of his forces out to deal with the insurgents. This was our chance.
The Empress walked over to us, flanked by Halina, who wore leather armor, a helm, and carried a pair of long knives, one sheathed on each hip. The Empress was similarly geared for battle, but she carried a shield and a spear instead.
The Empress looked to Nokomi, smiled broadly, and threw her arms around her. “We will see each other again, daughter. Go get our family’s kingdom back.”
“I will, mother. Be careful. Let Halina guard your back. She saved me back in the palace, and I know she can do the same for you.” Nokomi said, pulling away reluctantly. She wiped a tear and bit her lip to stop her chin from quivering.
Halina gave Nokomi a fierce hug next, eyeing me over her shoulder, as if to dare me to not protect her with my life. “May your aim be true, Princess. Come back to us after you have taken your revenge. If we don’t meet you in the city after disposing this rabble ourselves.”
Nokomi choked out a laugh while crying in honest now. “May the Gods watch you and keep you safe, Halina. Remember, you don’t have to win out here. Just stay alive.”
Halina and the Empress walked back to where their mounts were being held by Barid and Jahan. They had earned the honor of escorting the two ladies, this far at least. The rest of Adish’s family had stayed back at the camp. Sherine was looking after Shapur for the Empress, as well as her own two younger children. If things went poorly today, Barid and Jahan were to ride back to them and flee the kingdom. Had they meant to join the battle, I doubted that Jahan would have been allowed to come this far.
Barid exchanged some words with Halina, who smiled and offered him a kiss on the cheek before he helped her onto her mount. Jahan said some words of encouragement to the Empress, then blushed and looked at the ground while she mounted. Nokomi grinned at the scene, and I found myself doing the same.
With the Empress mounted up, she started out across the sand to where the rest of her soldiers waited. Tiny’s army had not been the sum of the allies she’d been able to gather. Baraz and Anahita had been beloved by many in the kingdom, and several great houses had pledged many swords to her cause, if not nearly as many as Navid could muster. We also knew that some families would hedge their bets by sending support to both sides. Still, the Empress didn’t have to win outside the city walls, not with what we had planned.
When the Empress had gone and the dust of her force’s passing had drawn the attention of Navid’s army, I looked to Nokomi and Nasha, nodding. “It’s time.”
We hurried down the slope of the dune we had been perched upon to where Scar waited with the force of Old Blood soldiers he’d managed to gather. There were easily thirty of them, and I found several familiar faces among them. It heartened me to go into battle with old friends beside me.
I saw Face, whose dog’s large face was marked with more wrinkles than any other dog I’d even met. He was a solid man, and his dog easily outweighed me. Hair was also there, another boy from the Kennel who’d since grown into a man. His flowing locks were nearly as impressive as his dog’s long, beautiful coat. I saw the fleet-footed Sleek, the second fastest dog and man I’d known, second only to Legs, whose sacrifice still stung my heart. Then there was Mongrel, who, along with his mutt, was not particularly amazing at anything, but excelled at everything. I knew he’d be one of the last to fall if things went the wrong way.
Of the others, many I knew from my time in the army and training at the other schools. The rest I had at least met when they’d gathered at the Kennel. Scar and I had gone over the plan together with them, and they were all in this with me, but they also knew that we were but a small part of the Emperor’s Dogs. Most of what remained of the Emperor’s secret army was inside the city, and they all served the current Emperor, as they had been trained. Like Sardar’s pack, most of the Dogs had followed the throne, not their hearts.
Dog stood at attention beside me, as I looked over the small force. “This is our time.” I told them all. “This is not a time for man or beast, but for something in-between. We alone can serve the Emperor’s memory by returning the throne to its rightful owners.”
“For Princess Nokomi!” Scar shouted.
“For Empress Anahita!” Another shouted.
“Down with the false Emperor!” Someone cried, and this became the battle cry that they all took up.
Nokomi nodded at me and mounted her pony eagerly, with eyes flashing and ready to see justice done. Like her mother and Halina, she was ready for battle. She wore her hair tied back and out of the way, a quilted shirt with leather panels, and her father’s reforged knife at her side.
Her pony was well-chosen, as unshakeable as it was fast. Otherwise, all the barking and howling of dogs would have unnerved the poor animal. That pony kept its cool, even as most of us gave parts of our bodies over to our animal sides, taking on the strength and speed of the dogs that would be at our sides when we entered the city.
Our pack ran as only we could, or so we thought…
Nasha ran beside us, her light footsteps hardly marring the sand upon which she tread. As if lighter than air, she floated from step to step, keeping pace with the dogs as they ran. I could have stood and watched her run, but there was no time for such things.
We stayed in the troughs between dunes and hills, using natural cover where we could. Dusk would be shortly upon us, but we were not waiting for the shadows of night. The Empress might not have that long, though she hoped to use the darkness to escape if she needed to. And, we already knew Navid’s Wolves would find us. We counted on it.
We approached the city on the western side where there was the least amount of city between us and the palace. We didn’t want to have to work our way through half a city of buildings and crisscrossing avenues and open ourselves up to attack from soldiers stationed within the city. No, we wanted a direct and simple route.
When we neared the walls, guards began to take notice of us. Nasha warned us to watch for arrows, but a lucky arrow felled one of ours, injuring his leg too greatly for him to continue one. He snarled and apologized, but other dogs and their companions had already topped the walls and cleared out any further resistance.
“Your fight is over for today. Live to fight again tomorrow.” I said as I knelt beside the wounded soldier. “Get to safety with your dog.”
He growled but did as told, and then the rest of us climbed the walls. Nokomi left her pony then, clinging to my back as I scaled the wall. Her heart hammered against my back, and I grinned, feeling the thrill of the hunt as well. My part would come soon, very soon, if my ears told the truth of it.
When we had all cleared the walls and had moved into the cover of alleys nearby, Nasha’s head cocked to the side and her eyes went out of focus, as if she were not using them.
“Dogs. More of them. Wolf heads on their shoulders.” She pointed in several directions, and then her eyes came back into focus.
“Get Zephyr back here, so he doesn’t take a stray arrow.” I ordered. “They may know to look for him.”
Nasha nodded and went to the edge of the alleyway, where she held out her arm. The bird alighted on her falconer’s glove moments later, arriving almost noiselessly, except for when he opened his wings at the last moment to slow his approach. She grinned at me in the fading light. Her eyes went golden. She was showing off.
I looked to Dog, then. “It’s going to be you and I, here.”
Nokomi’s hand gripped my arm tightly. “Are you sure about this?” Her fingertips traced the scars at the corners of my mouth, where my last great change had ripped my skin as I’d become more dog than human.
I nodded. “I must do this, Nokomi. We can’t fight our way past all of his soldiers, let alone these creatures...”
She bowed her head, putting it on my shoulder for a brief moment of comfort amidst all of the anxiety, a moment that was shattered by a howl from down the street. That howl was taken up by another, and soon the whole area was erupting in bestial howls.
“Steady…” Scar murmured to the other soldiers. His own dog waited, bared white teeth shining against his dark coat, legs tensed and ready to spring.
It was a good thing, as a scraping on the roof above us became a dog-like creature hurtling down upon us. Scar tackled the beast as it landed, going after it with his dog at his side. More attackers burst into the alley, and we quickly found ourselves in a snarling pile of limbs and teeth.
Dog and I pummeled one when it got too close to Nokomi, and I saw that she was poised with a knife over her hand. I shook my head at her. “Not yet. You have to save your heartfire for Navid.”
Together, Dog and I fell upon another enemy, scraping and snapping at each other. Mongrel hit the thing from its flank, piling on top of it to seek its throat. Relieved of a foe, I looked to my fellows and shouted more orders.
“Fight out into the street! Make some noise! Draw them all in!” I pushed past them to the center of the street.
Shadows multiplied in the street, becoming dozens of other beasts and men as we battled. Wounded howls and shrieks filled my ears. I saw some of my allies fall, but still we battled on, becoming a knot of fighting around Nasha, whose talon-like fingers were as fast as they were sharp, and Nokomi, who was ever poised to draw her blood to help us, but trusted me enough to hold off.
Then there was a deep bark from down the street, and the fighting lessened. Their dogs and soldiers fell back, surrounding us, but not engaging. They’d left about half of our force standing, with several others crawling to join us, even if they were clearly not going to be able to continue their fight.
Several of my companions were dead in the street, dogs and boys alike. Somehow, they always managed to die near their partners, boys and dogs never far apart, even in death. The sheer waste of talent, of ability, of life… it galled me. It burned at my soul.
With the taste of someone else’s blood on my mouth, I let loose a howl of rage and challenge. Dog snarled one of his own.
“I knew you would come.” Sardar called out to me, stepping past the front lines of his superior force.
My pack flowed to my sides, letting me past them. I spared Nokomi one last glance and stepped forward to meet him.
I looked at the row of faces arrayed against me, dogs and men alike. “You all serve a false emperor, a murderous traitor. Turn and help your Empress regain her rightful place, in the name of Emperor Baraz’s son and true heir, Shapur.”
Sardar shook his head. “Your Empress cannot win. She is as outnumbered outside the walls as you are inside! This beaten force of yours here cannot stand. You have already lost. We will take the princess back as captive, and the Empress’ son will live in exile or be hunted to the ends of the world.”
As he spoke, our enemies drew forward, encouraged by Sardar’s words. Dog growled and stood beside me, refusing to give ground, no matter how close the enemy crept.
“You tried, Go, but you have failed. Surrender now, before any more of those with you have to suffer. They fought and did their duties, as they thought they should. We cannot fault them for their misplaced loyalties, and they will be granted clemency if you surrender.” Sardar tried to appeal to their senses, but dogs are beasts of passion, not sense.
“All or nothing!” Scar shouted in challenge, his scarred face twisting into an angry sneer. He looked at me with hope, and I knew I could not let them down.
“Emperor Navid!” The enemy called back, taunting us with their greater numbers.
“You asked for this…” I warned Sardar.
Sardar shook his head. “We’ve all seen or heard what you can do, Go. Becoming a beast will not let you prevail, not against these numbers. Even the strongest elephant can be pulled down by a pack of lions…”
“But I am not an elephant, and you are not the lions in this story.” I replied.
He may have been the original recruit at the Kennel, the one with the most experience, but he was not the one with the greatest ability. If I’d learned anything from the story of Kalb’s sacrifice, it was that there was always another step farther you could take things, if you were willing to try.
I gave myself over completely, not to the beast within me, but to Dog. And he gave himself to me, heart and mind. The two of us twisted and changed. He became me, and I became him.
My face and body contorted with the changes that pained me to my very core. My legs cracked and my joints changed. My jaws elongated, and my ears stretched skyward. Coarse hair sprouted across my body as my muscles reshaped to fit the new bone structures of something between man and beast.
The beast had been a powerful but nearly mindless creature filled with rage. I was not becoming a mindless beast. I was taking the form of a beast with the mind of a man, and Dog was doing the same beside me. Despite all of the pain, the knowledge that Dog was beside me, fighting the same changes, made it possible. I heard Nokomi cry out, and that was balm to our shared soul, but it could not change what we’d done.
When I looked up with my new eyes, and I saw my enemies looking back at me in an array of fear, fear I saw in shades stripped of most color. I had done something they dared not do. Dog and I had become the same. I glanced to my side, seeing Dog staring back at me with the same face I now wore, only dappled with patches as his face had been as a Dog.
Dog had become half man, and I had become half dog. We were something not Dog or Go, but the best of both.
With an ear-shattering roar more befitting a bear than a dog, we stepped forward on our strange feet, human-like with the claws of a beast.
Sardar regarded us with something between horror and fascination. He stood stock still as we charged, unwilling to challenge what we’d become. Dog and I snapped our jaws in front of his face, snarling and fully willing to rip his face to pieces, even if he didn’t fight back.
One of Navid’s Wolves jumped at my flank, but I turned and tore him to pieces with claws that would have made a lion jealous. Dog kept his jaws at the ready right in front of Sardar, ready to end him without a moment’s hesitation.
“Your emperor is false…” I growled, not recognizing my own voice, mixed as it was with Dog’s. We acted and spoke as one.
Sardar knelt before me then, averting his eyes and going low. His dog hid its tail and rolled belly up. I growled at them, and they flinched away, expecting death but not finding it.
Dog and I let loose another ear-splitting howl.
The larger share of those present, other men and dogs that had been part of the Emperor’s Dogs, froze. Slowly, they all showed ways to demonstrate their submission, by lying down, going belly up, averting their eyes, or whimpering.
The only ones that did not want to give any sign of giving up were the ones who had never served with us, the ones recruited by Navid himself. His wolves would never submit. I could smell it on them, see it in their body language.
“His wolves are false.” Dog and I proclaimed, effectively ordering their deaths.
It was not pretty, seeing dogs turn on each other, but all of those who had served with me before were now mine. By submitting, they had chosen me as their new pack leader. They would not serve Navid again, not while I lived.
Outnumbering Navid’s Wolves some three to one, my dogs slaughtered the wolves in the streets. It became an utter rout, and the streets ran with the blood of man and canine. Dog and I savagely defended our own, killing any of Navid’s creatures that strayed within our range. Scar and Mongrel were a wind of death just beyond my reach, finishing those that dared not challenge me.
When it was over, I looked back to Nokomi and Nasha. Nasha regarded us as we knew she would, with her head tilted and her too-large eyes fixated upon us. It was Nokomi that mattered, and it did not please us to see her watch us with a pained look on her face. She’d known that this wouldn’t be a bloodless effort. She’d even prepared herself to kill her own uncle, but this was more than she’d ever imagined she’d have to witness.
“Go…” She said softly, but I heard it, the pain of loss in her voice. She feared she’d lost us forever.
I reached out through our bond and gave her reassurance. We may have changed, but Dog and I were both still here. Her expression eased a bit, but still looked as one might look upon watching a loved one hurt and suffering.
I didn’t know if there was any going back from what we’d done, but I knew our work wasn’t done. There was still hunting to do, and we could not rest until Navid was dead.
“All or nothing!” Came the cries from the Emperor’s Dogs… no… the Princess’ Dogs now.
I could smell it on them, their need to please me to please her. I didn’t dwell on what that might mean. Instead, I used it. I let them ride their emotions like a wave, using them as a smith might use a hammer, and what a hammer they made!
We charged through the streets, killing our way to the palace. Nokomi followed in our wake, a cupped ball of fire ready on her palm and her father’s reforged knife in her hand, begging for her uncle’s blood.
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.
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.
Adish opened the door with a lantern held up, finding me standing in the dark alley outside of his home. Nokomi had known roughly where he lived, but it had been Dog’s keen sense of smell that had led us through the alleyways to his door.
Thankfully, we’d been given cloaks by the master gardener to conceal ourselves with as we’d fled. That quiet old man had almost seemed to expect us during the chaos back at the palace. He’d worked quickly to smuggle us out through a passage under the palace walls that I hadn’t known of and would never have thought to look for.
The passage had been dark and poorly maintained. It had likely been years since any had thought to check it for soundness, but it had not collapsed. That was not something I ever would have wished to discover, though I had certainly imagined it when we’d crawled through those claustrophobic tunnels. Trapped in dead-end passage, Navid could have easily smoked us out, filled us with arrows, or sent a blast of fire down the passage to roast us all alive. It hadn’t come to that though.
We’d passed a few blocks south of the palace and emerged in a small shed on the grounds of a modest estate, exiting through a cleverly-hidden door that I doubted the occupants even knew about. There were only two candle lights in the second floor of the estate, and everything was terribly quiet.
Even so, I’d carefully lifted Dog up onto the wall surrounding the estate. He’d hopped down by himself, and, once he’d scouted it out and decided it was safe, I’d lifted the ladies up onto the wall as well. I had them crouch low on the wall’s top until I could climb over myself, and get down to help each of them down in turn.
After that, we’d kept to the shadows. We’d avoided a few patrols, each one creating a frightening few moments as we wondered if we’d be discovered and have to dispatch of them before they could raise the alarm and bring an entire army down on us. This time, I doubted there would be another favorable intervention, and none of us had much energy left with which to fight.
After what was seemingly hours, Nokomi’s memory and Dog’s nose had led us here, to the stoop of the only family I felt I could trust in the whole kingdom at that very moment.
Adish blinked at me, taking in my face in the low lighting. I’d allowed much of my humanity to return, but there was still something wild about it, inhuman for sure. My eyes were still those of a canine, and the tears on my cheeks from where my jaws had split them open were red, open wounds. They’d probably leave permanent scars when they healed – if they healed.
Adish’s tongue caught in his mouth, and his eyes widened. He made as if to back away, but I caught his wrist with my clawed hand. “Adish.” I growled.
A look of recognition crossed his features, and some of the fear faded. “Go? Is that you? What has happened to you? Who are these with you?” He looked past me at the hooded figures that hunched beside the building.
Nokomi lowered her hood and nodded to Adish, who knew who she was instantly. I hissed, and she quickly covered her head once more.
“Come in, come in quickly!” He whispered, stepping aside to let us in.
I waited for the three of them to go in first, following them inside only when I’d cast a look back and forth down the street to make sure no one had marked our arrival. In this, it seemed that the explosions and battles through the street had worked in our favor, since most people were locked in their homes, waiting and hoping for order to return with the rise of the sun.
Adish bolted the door behind us. I noted that it was a solid piece of work, one that would not easily be broken. He’d forged it himself. Dog whined and nosed at Adish.
“Stop, Dog.” I gave him a tug on one of his ears, but he insisted on saying his greetings nonetheless.
Adish laughed quietly, giving Dog a rub on the chest, carefully holding his lantern while doing so. Then, realizing that all of us were standing in the entry waiting for him, he cleared his throat embarrassedly.
“I apologize, Princess Nokomi.” Adish bowed deeply. “Let me see you in. I must wake my wife, so she can help see to your comfort.”
“You needn’t bother her, good sir.” The Empress replied, lowering her hood also now that we were inside.
Adish did a double-take and then shot a dark look at me. I shrugged. It wasn’t as if I was going to announce that the Empress had tagged along for this visit while we’d been standing in the street. Under Nokomi’s cloak, Shapur made a noise.
“Gods! She has the heir under there, doesn’t she?” Adish asked me quietly.
When I nodded, I thought he might pass out. He nearly had the entire royal family in his home, and he was only wearing his sleeping clothes.
Adish ushered us through the entry to his home and into a small sitting room. He set the lantern in the middle of a table, and we could see the entire room. The room was comfortably-sized, but modest. It had been decorated with simple, but well-made furniture. Pieces of art clearly made by children’s hands adorned the wall.
“I must wake my wife, or she’ll be quite incensed with me, I fear.” Adish apologized.
“She may be either way.” The Empress offered, smiling and patting his hand familiarly.
Adish let out an uncharacteristic nervous giggle, nodded, and vanished into a side room though a hall that smelled as if it also included a kitchen.
Halina shrugged off her cloak and sank into one of the chairs. She placed one of her long knives on the table in front of her and refused to take her hand off of it. She looked exhausted, but I knew there was no way she would sleep.
The Empress helped her daughter remove her cloak, something Halina should have done, but none begrudged her a moment to sit in peace. Something was clearly on her mind.
Shapur, emerging from the dark beneath the cloak, kicked and wriggled anxiously. He seemed to like the light from the lantern, for he kept reaching toward it. Nokomi laughed at that, but showed no fear of him getting burned. Only the most intense fires could hurt one of her family.
The Empress took her child then, transferring the sling from her daughter back to her own shoulders after she’d settled onto one of the dark wood chairs that surrounded the slatted table. She offered Shapur her breast, which he took to greedily.
“He seems quite alert for a child his age.” I commented. I’d always heard that children rarely did more than eat and sleep for the first few weeks of their lives, but Shapur was quite active.
“Babies in our family become aware much sooner than most.” The Empress agreed, smiling softly down at her child. It was a tender, sweet moment in the midst of all that had happened.
I watched Nokomi move behind Halina. She put a comforting hand on Halina’s shoulder, and Halina began to shake. I must have truly been at the end of my limits, because it took me a moment to realize that Halina was crying. Nokomi sank beside her, wrapping her arms around her handmaiden. The Empress watched with a carefully neutral look on her face.
“Was it Masih?” I asked.
Nokomi shot me a look, as if I were insensitive for bringing him up. I lifted my hands and shrugged.
Something about how he’d suddenly saved us and sent Halina down the escape passage had stuck with me. I replayed our meeting outside the Empress’ room in my head, realizing that, while he had indeed been comforted by the Princess’ presence, it had actually been Halina’s approach that had put the guardsman at ease with a creature such as I.
Halina nodded, and spoke through tears. “He and I, we were close.”
I withheld any comment, though I knew that Halina was much younger than guardsman was, or than he had been. I doubted he still lived. He didn’t seem like the type to stay alive long enough to betray her or us. No, I suspected he’d died valiantly, making sure he could not give up our secrets.
“My goodness, so many people here at this hour!” Sherine’s voice carried from the hall. She might have just gotten up, but she had a nice dress on, probably the finest she owned, and her hair had been quickly but skillfully tied up.
I smiled at the woman, remembering her kind words, kinder voice, and excellent cooking from my childhood. She looked older now, but her kind eyes had not changed. My stomach growled, as did Dog’s beside me. Sherine snorted a laugh, clearly well-acquainted with hungry men. She did have three boys to feed, as well as a young girl now.
Sherine came over to present herself to the Empress, curtsying and bowing her head. “Mistress, I am called Sherine. Welcome to our humble home.”
“None of that now.” The Empress shook her head and reached out for Sherine’s hand with one of her own, the one that wasn’t holding Shapur. “We are imposing on your home. In your own home, you are the Empress, not I, and we deeply appreciate your shelter.”
Sherine raised her eyes and smiled at that. The two women were of a similar age, but the similarities ended there. They were of different backgrounds and lineages. Anahita’s breeding showed on her fine features and stature, a warrior mother. On the other hand, Sherine was beautiful in a matronly way, making her a great match for Adish.
Sherine eyed Shapur in that loving, knowing way that mothers looked upon each other’s babies with, as if the two women were part of a special club that one such as I could never understand. Truthfully, I doubted I ever could understand what it meant, and I did not try.
My stomach growled again, of its own accord. “I promise you, I have no control over that.” I offered apologetically.
Sherine’s eyes took in my face with pity and concern, but no fear. “Adish, see to his wounds!” She ordered her husband, though he was still in the other room. “I will see to their stomachs.”
“We couldn’t impose.” Nokomi looked worried to bother the woman, but Sherine shook her head and walked off, rolling up her sleeves.
Adish made himself present rather quickly after being called. He had dressed properly and had splashed a little water on his face. He moved nervously, carrying a small bundle of bandages and assorted medicinal unguents.
At the doorway to the kitchen, where a lamp was now lit, Sherine cleared her throat. Adish nodded and sketched a hasty bow to the Empress, pointedly keeping his eyes averted from her face or the feeding child. He was a polite, careful man. He did the same twice more to the other ladies, not knowing that Halina was only a handmaiden, and probably not caring either way.
“Thank you for having us in your home, Master Adish.” The Empress offered warmly. Shapur had finished feeding, so she fastened the clasps of her dress once more and transferred him to her shoulder to burp him.
“Please let me know if there is anything we can do to make your visit more comfortable.” Adish offered a warm smile, still not meeting her eyes.
“Your wife is seeing to our bellies, so if you could see to Captain Goren’s injuries, it would be most appreciated.”
Adish nodded, and turned to me. It was only then that I pulled back my hood and sat down, so he could get a better look at me.
“Gods...” Adish just stared at me. “What has happened to you, Go?”
I shook my head and spoke carefully, for my face truly ached now. “There is more to my story than you know, Adish.”
He took one of my hands in his own to inspect it. “Like yellow eyes and claws?”
I laughed, but it hurt to do so, and I cut it short. “There is a bit of Dog’s nature in me. There always has been, ever since I was a child.”
Adish regarded me skeptically at first, but seeing the remnants of my animal side on my features still, the tips of my ears, the sharpness of my teeth, and the sharpness of my fingertips, he began to believe. “The dog soldiers? The ones that serve the Emperor? You are one of them, from the Old Blood?”
“You have heard of us?” I was surprised.
Adish dabbed gently at my face with a dampened cloth, cleaning away crusted blood, dust, and bits of gravel. He winced as he regarded the tears at the corners of my mouth. Taking a bit of salve on his fingers, he began to work it around the wounds. “There are stories they tell, but I didn’t believe any of them. I’d just assumed they were tales of the sort that drunken men made up to frighten and entertain each other, exaggerated truths at best.”
“If you’ve seen one of us, truly, you would know that any stories they tell are not nearly frightening enough.” I replied.
Dog licked at Adish’s hands while he worked on my wounds. When I was hurt, Dog felt it. The opposite was also true, so he also benefited from the relief I was feeling. The numbing, cooling feeling of the ointment was almost pleasurable, but not nearly so nice as the smells that were coming from the kitchen.
Adish quietly finished cleaning me up as best he could, but suggested that I might want to use an ewer of water in the next room to clean myself up more. He had already prepared a set of his too-large clothes for me, but I suspected that any clean clothes, even the wrong size, would feel wonderful.
I wanted to argue, to tell him that we couldn’t stay, but Nokomi nodded to me. After all, Adish had the others’ wounds to see to as well. Halina, the Empress, and Nokomi all had their own cuts, scrapes, and bruises, as well as some burns.
I relented, letting them go about caring for their wounds while I retreated to the next room. I found it to be filled with two sleeping boys, or at least boys who pretended to sleep and kept peeking at me through half-closed eyes whenever they thought I wasn’t looking. I played along, letting Adish’s boys bother Dog while I cleaned myself up.
When I turned back around, I found the two boys sitting up on their sleeping mats. They were staring at me in something between fascination and disgust. They had probably never seen someone so badly wounded before. I could feel the mass of bruises on my body, some from the changes I’d endured, but many from the explosion, and that didn’t even count the arrow I’d taken through the forearm or the other cuts and wounds I bore.
“How did you get hurt?” Radwan, the younger, asked, almost afraid of the answer. His older brother, Jahan, nudged him with an elbow, although he’d been just as curious to ask.
“I fought a lot of bad men today.” I replied simply. I pulled on their father’s clothes. Without their father’s broad shoulders and large muscles, the clothes were much too large for me, but they were clean.
They turned their attention back to Dog then, petting him and brushing the dust and crumbling, scabbed blood out of his fur. I helped them, showing them how to care for my friend. A wet rag did much to clean him up, and Dog snorted appreciatively.
“Did any of them die?” Jahan asked, unable to take his eyes off my fingertips.
I thought about how to answer. “Sometimes, good men and bad men get hurt. I serve the Emperor, so I try to make sure that good men get hurt less than the bad men.”
I heard Sherine near the door, and I could hear from her breathing that she approved of my answer. She stepped into the doorway and gave her boys a look that said they should be asleep, though we all knew that there was no way the boys would sleep through something like this. “Your meal is ready.” She announced, and I watched her expression soften upon seeing me dressed in her husband’s clothes.
“What is it?” I asked her.
“Would that the world were simpler, that you could have remained at my husband’s forge. We might have had a life like this, together.”
I shook my head. Wishes like that were useless, if sweet. “It was not to be, Sherine.”
She nodded, sniffing sadly. “What now, then?”
I stepped over to her, moving into the hallway. Dog followed reluctantly, having enjoyed the attention from the boys. I closed the door behind me and lowered my voice. “The Emperor is dead, Sherine. His brother, General Navid, had him killed. He got tired of waiting for his chance on the throne, a chance that would never come with Shapur as heir.”
Her hand went to her mouth. “Then none of us are safe here, are we?”
“I had nowhere else to go, Sherine. I am sorry.” I bowed my head.
“I am not faulting you, Go. I am glad that you brought them here. My parents told me of the war, when Emperor Baraz and his kin came to our lands. I know what happens to women and children when a kingdom topples. I would not wish that on any, certainly not that family out there.”
“But we will have to run away, Sherine. All of us, including you and your family.”
Sherine took a breath and stared at me resolutely. “Homes can be rebuilt. Families cannot. We will do what we must.”
Nokomi cleared her throat from back by the kitchen. She’d heard everything. “Let me help you with the food, Sherine. It is the least I can do for all that we’re inconveniencing you.”
“Alright then, Princess.” Sherine smiled wistfully. “Let’s see about filling some bellies. I fear we’re going to need a lot of energy if we’re going to flee the city.”
We ate then, and while it hurt my mouth to eat, it tasted better than anything I remembered, better even than the street merchant’s roasted rat Dog and I had loved when we were young.
Afterward, we spoke at length and planned our escape from the city. Adish’s children came out to join us eventually, unable to sleep with the excitement of late night company. The Empress was joyed to meet their little girl, Jaleh, most of all. She loved their kind, curious little boys, but she had a spot in her heart for girls, having had two of them for so many years.
Shapur was passed around to sleep fitfully on this shoulder or that, although he seemed to sleep best on Adish’s broad shoulder. I smiled at that, for the three-time father beamed while holding the baby. In that moment, for just a brief second, I thought I saw a bit of the Emperor in him. They’d both had three children, and I pondered the thought that maybe ranks and stations had not made the two men so different after all, not when they were both fathers.
I fell asleep at some point, surrounded by the voices of those I considered my family and my pack, and that night of pain, death, and suffering finally ended.
The hallways were indeed filled with soldiers, but they did not all belong to Navid. Once we were in the hallway, Halina surrendered her sword to me, switching back to the knives she knew so well. She produced a pair of forearm-length daggers from the folds of her skirts, from where I did not know. I raised my estimate of the girl once more, appreciating her preparedness.
I may not have loved using a sword, but I was a fair swordsman in my own right. Given my skills and the beast-given reflexes and strength I had, I cut through the soldiers that stood in our way with a business-like efficiency. I left a tangle of severed limbs and dying men in my wake, while Dog and Halina made certain to leave no one behind that might tell of our passing.
We found a troop of soldiers holding the hallway outside of the Empress’ chambers and another group assaulting the barricade of shields and tables they’d set up. It was clear to see which side the attackers were on, and I fell upon them from behind, catching them unaware, ripping through them like claws through silk.
Seeing the sudden assistance, the soldiers holding the hall surged forward, helping me dispatch the remaining soldiers loyal to General Navid. Half a dozen tired, wounded men congratulated each other and looked to me as their savior, choosing to ignore my beast-like appearance, if only because Princess Nokomi was beside me. Or, perhaps you don’t really care what your help looks like so long as it’s killing your enemies and saving your lives.
While Halina saw to slitting throats and stabbing downed men through their hearts, Princess Nokomi stepped forward and took charge. “Masih, where is my mother?”
The soldier removed his helmet, bowing quickly. He had a face lined by age and weariness, but a kindness about him. “Princess, she remains within her chambers. She has hidden there since the explosion, and we’ve been holding the hall against General Navid’s men.”
“How did you come to be here?” Nokomi asked.
“Minister Kalb had us stationed in the residence before they left. When the explosions and fighting started, we gathered and tried to secure this floor. We were overwhelmed and many died fighting. This is all we have left of us…”
I cleared my throat. This was all well and good, but we couldn’t very well stay out here and talk when General Navid was in the middle of a coup.
Nokomi nodded to me, and turned back to the guardsman. “Thank you, Masih. Take me to my mother now. We need to get her out of the palace as quickly as possible.”
“But what of your father? What of the Emperor?” Another of the guardsmen asked, his voice full of hope and concern.
“My father is gone. He was murdered by my uncle.” Nokomi answered bitterly.
“He’s dead?” The man echoed in disbelief. The soldiers exchanged glances.
I wondered at the wisdom of sharing such news with the men at this point. If they saw their plight as hopeless, they might very well abandon us on the spot, or even switch sides, hoping to secure the favor of General Navid and their own safety by turning us in. I growled low in my throat.
Masih, the lead guard, appeared to know what I was thinking. He sensed it and held his hands up. “Peace, Captain.” He swallowed hard as he met my eyes, but he did not look away. “Know that I have served this family faithfully for many years, and I am not about to betray the Princess. I will see her safely out of the palace, no matter the cost.”
Nokomi realized her error, and I could hear her heart race as she searched the faces of the men around her. They were not all so well-known to her as this Masih. Between Dog, Halina, and I, none of them looked like they wanted to test us, but I could smell the unsurety on them.
“Help me get my mother and brother to safety, you six, and I shall forever be indebted to you all. After that, I will ask no more of you. You may stay at my side, flee, or even join my uncle. I only ask that you grant me this one last favor.” Nokomi pleaded.
The six of them nodded, one or two reluctantly, but they all nodded.
“Quickly then. Time is of the essence.” She urged them.
We moved onto the Empress’ door, where Nokomi knocked. After some calling and convincing, she managed to get her mother to open the door.
Empress Anahita somehow managed to look graceful, even in the bedraggled state she was in. Her face was tear-streaked, her hair was a mess, there were stains of blood and char upon her fine clothes, and a wide-eyed baby was clutched against her, but she managed to look regal nonetheless.
“Daughter…” She fell into Nokomi’s arms, looking smaller despite being the taller of the two women. They had a moment of silence, until baby Shapur between them began to fuss.
Nokomi whispered to the Empress, but I could hear it easily enough. “Mother, we must flee now. The palace is lost.”
“We still have allies, Nokomi.” Her mother took a step back and stood taller. She tried to look as if she might stand and fight, but it was her pride talking, not hear head.
“Follow me.” I insisted. “We must go now, Empress. There will be time to fight later. If you stay here, Navid will win.”
The Empress regarded my animalistic face with something between fascination and surprise. She most certainly recognized me, but stories of what I might have been clearly had not prepared her for the ugly truth of it. I couldn’t help but grin at her, knowing what a monster I must look like.
Dog turned toward the end of the hall, where I could hear the sounds of more fighting downstairs and rapidly-approaching footsteps. Empress Anahita looked as if she might argue further, but then she heard the footsteps, too.
“Give the baby to Nokomi.” I ordered her. “You need to be able to run.” Her dress wasn’t exactly conducive to running.
Any other time, she might have looked askance at me for giving her orders, and rightfully so, but she did as told this once. Nokomi took the baby and the sling it was in, putting it around her shoulders. She cradled the child carefully and we made for the stairs to the third floor.
Dog and I led the way, followed by the three women. The Empress and Halina kept Nokomi between them, and the six soldiers, led by Masih, brought up the rear. We nearly reached the stairwell to the third floor without incident, but then soldiers spilled out from the nearest landing, coming from the ground floor.
“To arms!” Masih called, drawing his blade once more.
All six men formed a wall at the bottom of the stairs, and they backed up one stair at a time, using the high ground to hold the stairs as the ladies and I hurried ahead of them. On those narrow stairs, six stalwart defenders could hold an entire army at bay for some time if they were careful. If they’d had better shields, they might have held even longer.
Babe in arms, Nokomi kept right behind me as we ascended the stairs. Halina pulled the Empress along with her. Anahita was a strong woman, but giving birth and losing her husband in the space of a few days had taken a lot out of her. She suffered Halina’s assistance without complaint, following us into the royal library.
I fought the urge to barricade the doors, but that would have given away the fact that someone had been in here. That, with our apparent disappearance, would likely give away the fact that there was a secret passage hidden within the room, expediting their pursuit of us.
I glanced around at the collection of trophies, books, and scrolls. These were Emperor Baraz’s prized things, his private collection, or at least it had been. Now it was merely another spoil of war. It had been the last place I’d seen the Emperor and Kalb at peace, I thought mournfully. Dog sensed my feelings, whimpering, but urging me on. I nodded to him.
Halina rushed over to the ornamental statue, seeking out a secret lever that was hidden amongst the twist of horns and antlers. With a quick pull, the entire thing slid aside, revealing a passage beneath the pedestal, complete with hidden ladders and dark passages that I hoped would lead to our freedom.
I gave the dark passage a sniff. It was free of the scents of animals or men, so I deemed it safe. “It’s clear.”
“It’s dark.” Halina declared.
I had momentarily forgotten that they couldn’t all see in the dark as well as I could.
“No matter.” Nokomi declared, flicking her finger. A mote of fire born of a speck of blood floated down the passage, gently illuminating as it fell. “You should head down first.” She said to me then.
I stared at her in surprise. I’d planned on being the last one out, so I could guard our retreat.
“You go down first, and then get Dog to jump down to you. After you’re safe, I’ll hand Shapur down to you. Mother and I will follow, and Halina will be last, as she’s the only one who knows how to close it.”
“Can it be closed from the inside?” I asked.
Halina nodded, but her emotions were mixed up, and I could not fully tell if she spoke the truth. I didn’t have time to dwell on it, because the sounds of fighting from the stairs grew louder. Masih and his men would not hold much longer. With a growl, I slid into the hole, grabbing the sides of the ladder and sliding down to the landing below.
Dog’s face appeared in the light of the hole above, and I waved him down. He could not descend, I realized, not as he was, so I shared with Dog then, giving something of my humanity to him. We already shared lifespans and souls, and I often took much of his nature into me, but rarely did I share my humanity with him.
The women stared in shock as Dog shuddered and the toes of his front paws split and elongated. Then his dew claws descended toward his ankles, becoming a simple sort of half-thumb. He shivered, much like he would have had he just taken a bath. Dog backed awkwardly toward the passage, descending tail first, much like a person, if bent over like a man bent from age.
When Dog was safely down, I went back up a few rungs of the ladder, just enough to reach Shapur when he was handed down to me. His eyes flared and he looked as if he were about to cry when he was passed off to a creature such as me, but Nokomi whispered something softly to him in a language I did not understand, and he calmed.
I descended back to where Dog waited for me, holding the child gingerly in my arms, as if I might break him. I’d never held a baby before, and I certainly didn’t want to do it wrong with the Emperor’s heir. Shapur’s eyes flared with inner light as he stared back at me, as transfixed by my yellow as I was with the dancing light within his innocent eyes.
When the Empress and Nokomi had followed us down into the passage, using sparks of light to illuminate the way, I handed the baby back to Nokomi. Then, Halina began to close the passageway.
“She’s staying behind!” I shouted in alarm, louder than I probably should have.
“It’s her duty.” Nokomi remarked sadly. She nodded up to her handmaiden, who she’d likely never see again alive. They were not family, but they were certainly friends, despite the differences in their ranks and positions.
“We’ve lost so many.” I protested weakly. Dog whined at my side.
There was a scuffling noise above. I heard Halina say something and an agitated response. Halina slid down into the passage abruptly, all but falling down the ladder. I steadied her at the bottom, helping her regain her feet. The pedestal above us closed fully, plunging us into darkness. Footsteps led rapidly away from the room then, followed by shouting.
“What was that?” I hissed.
“It was Masih. He closed it. He saved me.” Halina whispered, her voice both shocked and relieved. She broke into a sob.
Halina had been prepared to die just then, I realized. I hadn’t even noticed. That only marked how tired I really was. My senses were failing me in my exhaustion.
The Empress held up her hand then, casting firelight around the room. A puddle of blood sat upon her palm, burning softly. Like a wick burning within a pot of oil, it burned slowly, rather than consuming all of its fuel all at once.
“We need to keep moving. We need a place outside of the palace, somewhere safe.” The Empress said, taking the lead now that we’d gotten her this far.
“You know a place, don’t you, Go?” Nokomi whispered, her eyes bright and wide in the near darkness.
I nodded. “There is a family I trust.”
“You will put their lives at risk if they aid us.” The Empress warned me. “Are you willing to do that? Will they be willing to shelter us if they know what could happen to them?”
“He sheltered me as a child. He will do it again.” Dog gave a noise of agreement. “When we leave the city, we will take them with us. We have no choice for now.”
I didn’t want to lose any other friends, not after all of this. I’d make them come with me. I’d convince them one way or another.
“Lead on, then.” The Empress ordered.
Morning found me at the palace gates, or near them anyway. I watched from one of the covered pavilions that faced the gates, which I’d discovered upon my initial entrance to the palace grounds almost two weeks before. They made for a great vantage point, as I was able to see over the outer palace walls and into the city beyond.
I leaned on a polished rail, looking southward at the approaching procession, and it was definitely a procession. Some officials might travel with just a party of soldiers to guard them, an honor guard or escort, but General Navid traveled with half an army. I heard them and felt the vibrations of hoofbeats and footsteps before I saw the column approach. What was the point of it? I frowned at the whole affair.
Emperor Baraz was generally well-liked, especially considering that he was something of a conqueror. His family had taken this land and reforged it as a kingdom. He had been fair, if stern, and the people had prospered in the years since they’d taken power. His wife and daughters were considered nothing short of beloved treasures of the land. So what was General Navid getting out of this parade?
It was then that I noticed the reaction the column was having on the village south of the palace, where all of the officials and merchants held their estates. All of the most important folks of the city were witness to his arrival, and I imagined that the rest of the city had been similarly impressed as he’d wound his way through the streets with this column. It was a show of force and support, one that rivaled anything the Emperor had shown in recent years.
Then again, the Emperor was not one that required frivolous pomp or ceremony. He wouldn’t bother the people with a march of force through the city just to look important. He was the sort that led out front, by example, not by show.
I saw many of the troops halt as they approached the palace gates. Clearly, the entire military column would not be permitted entry. There were not enough lodgings for such an enormous troop. Many of them would shelter in the city or quarter themselves in the lodgings south of the palace. It was a contradictory thing, because quartering soldiers in private homes was not the sort of thing that endeared you to the populace, which seemed to be part of the purpose behind this parade, but it did make a very strong show of force.
The lead portion of the column split off, which included General Navid and his most trusted advisors. Dog stood at attention as this separate cadre approached the gates. I knew why. My eyes narrowed, focusing on a group of six soldiers on foot beside the mounted officers. Each of the six soldiers had a dog running beside them, and I could make out a red wolf’s head painted on each of their left shoulders. One, in particular, I knew.
Legs. He’d been a timid boy when we’d met in the Kennel. Fate had thrown him into the same pack as me, and we’d become friends. I still remember the way he’d looked on that first day. He’d been taller than me, with a long-limbed running dog as his companion, both of them skittish and afraid. Even in the time we’d served together on the borders, I’d never met a faster man or dog. Now, he was wearing a red wolf’s head on his shoulder and accompanying General Navid in his honor guard.
What had I missed in the short days since I’d left the front lines? We had not been stationed in the same area, but I had never head of these wolf’s head soldier markings.
I descended from my place along the rails of on the third floor, finding it too crowded for my liking. Dog didn’t care for all of the pointless chatter beside us anyway. I waited in the crowd that was beginning to gather along the ground level. Curiosity was certainly getting the better of some people, and Navid was the Emperor’s brother after all.
Dog and I moved through the crowd, finding a place where we could be out front and see what was going on, but also remain obscured by shadows and the crowds, but not so much that the dog soldiers couldn’t see us. Kalb had asked us to follow General Navid, but I felt very strongly that Legs would be a better source of information, and I wanted to make sure he saw us. We didn’t have long to wait.
General Navid easily cleared the guard station, and his officers fell in alongside him. Three dog soldiers trotted easily along at each flank of the entourage. Legs and two others I did not know were going to pass us by on our side. That I did not know them said something as to the widespread nature of the Emperor’s Dogs. I knew at least a hundred of our kind from training, drills, and tours on the border, but there were always others I did not know.
We waited, watching General Navid shout encouragements and wave at the people that gathered to witness his arrival. Flowers and palm branches were thrown down in his pathway, and people bowed to the Emperor’s brother. I watched him swell with pride, shouting out about how he’d just returned from conquering our enemy’s strongholds.
If that was so, why had he pulled half of the border guard with him to march back home? How would they hold Saluud against the Kingdom of Arven? I spat on the ground, uncaring of who saw me. I liked Navid not at all, finding him to be a smugger version of Baraz. He was not his brother. My nostrils and eyes told me all I wanted to know of this man as he passed.
Dog barked as Legs trotted past, and he came to a quick halt, his long-legged dog sliding to a stop beside him.
“Captain Goren?” He stared at me in surprise.
I smiled at him. His face was long and narrow, much like his dog’s face. His ears weren’t long, furry, and droopy like his dog’s though. Still, the two of them shared much in the way of appearance and mannerisms. They were both very alert and jumpy, but I knew him to be a steadfast companion. Maybe that’s why it hurt me to see him wearing the red wolf’s head device of General Navid.
I stepped out of the crowd and drew Legs into a hug. “I’ve missed you, Legs.” I wouldn’t use his civilized name, even if I knew he went by Zarek in normal situations. To me, he’d always be Legs, part of Pack Panj, from our time in the Kennel.
“It is good to see you, Go.” He grinned, using my familiar name as well. It was the way of our kind. If we knew our true names, we would use them amongst ourselves.
“We need to talk.” I whispered into his ear, tone relaying my seriousness completely.
He nodded ever so slightly, replying, “There is much to tell, Captain.”
“Seek me out in the scribe’s village north of the royal residence as soon as you can get away.”
Legs nodded and fell back into his position in the honor guard without a second look back. He was swift enough that it seemed as if he’d never missed a step, but General Navid had noticed. Our eyes met, and I held my face expressionless, even as his darkened.
Did he know what I was? Likely, seeing Dog beside me. Did he know who I was? He was a clever man, and it would not surprise me if he recognized me, even though we’d never been formally introduced. I was not a thing to hold his attention for long, at least, because he had more officials and courtiers to impress with his arrival, but I doubted he’d forget me.
I followed them, using my knowledge of the layout of the palace to circumvent crowds and obstacles. Dog and I were like shadows, mirroring the General’s movements as we recorded the faces of those who seemed most pleased by his arrival, as well as those who seemed least enamored of his boastful proclamations of victory at Saluud. A few, I could put names with faces, but they were few indeed.
Eventually, most of his guards peeled away, leaving only Navid and two of his most sturdy companions, both of which moved with the deadly confidence only the most efficient warriors managed. I frowned and continued through the palace to a meeting room where the Emperor, the Empress, and Minister Kalb awaited General Navid.
Kalb had let me know where to meet them, so I’d hidden my court scribe’s uniform ahead of time in a nearby room. I made the switch quickly, and proceeded into the room ahead of the General’s arrival without Dog. Dog disliked leaving me in a situation like this, but he obeyed. He understood the need for stealth when stalking prey. A dog would draw too much attention, even if I wore a disguise.
I’d not been in this audience room before, not for any official purpose, but I knew what it was, and I’d peeked in from three different entry points during my explorations. I chose the most discrete entrance and slid in quietly. Kalb noticed me immediately, raised an eyebrow as I took an inconspicuous location at the side with other officials, and then studiously ignored me. The Emperor and Empress gave no sign whether they’d noticed me or not, but I suspected that both had.
From my seat, I ignored curious glances from the other officials near me, studying the room instead. It was stately without being overstated or lavish. The raised platform at the end had simple chairs, not thrones, but when the Emperor sat on a chair, he elevated it to the status of a throne. He was just that sort of person. Similarly, the Empress sat with grace upon a cushioned chair beside him, making it both elegant and stately by her pose and the simple sophistication of her silk gown, which carefully emphasized her growing belly.
I smiled at the signal the Empress was giving to what she clearly thought of as a rival. It was clearly done on purpose. The Empress played a dangerous game. Did she know how dangerous? Did she suspect Navid as I did, or was this just a game of position and jockeying for strength?
Navid entered at long last, not waiting to be announced. He doffed his helmet and carried it at his side, under his arm and upon his hip. If he’d just traveled across the kingdom, it was hard to tell. His clothes had little sign of dust, and his face, having been under the helmet, had only the slightest trace of sweat upon it. He strode in powerfully, his other hand resting on his sword hilt. He offered the slightest bow, smiling broadly at his brother and his brother’s wife.
“Navid.” Emperor Baraz named his brother with obvious displeasure.
“Brother.” Navid responded warmly, ignoring any negative expression on his brother’s face. He nodded to the Empress next. “Sister.”
She was not his actual sister, obviously, but he named her so with familiarity because it placed him on a level with her. She was his brother’s wife, and a sister-in-law was much less of a threat than an Empress.
The Empress inclined her head, neither warmly nor coolly. It was just a simple shift of her head. She adjusted her skirts and crossed her legs the opposite way, resting both hands on her belly, once more emphasizing her pregnant state.
Navid’s expression tightened ever so slightly, likely imperceptibly to anyone without my senses. “I have come with great news of victory, brother!”
“You mean of war?” Kalb interrupted.
Navid looked taken aback at being questioned by the minister. “War? Far from it. We have taken Saluud almost bloodlessly and we hold it with ease. The Kingdom of Arven has very little chance of retaking it without a terrible cost. We hold the upper hand for certain.”
Kalb glared imposingly down at the general from where he stood beside the Emperor, looking twice his height even without the steps. Teeth stirred at his side. “And what of our other neighbors? Will they not turn their favor from us? Will they not see us as an aggressive threat? If we take every city that benefits us, we are conquerors, not peaceful neighbors. You overreach, thinking only of the short term, Navid.”
Navid shook his head and laughed derisively. “Strategy from a dog.”
When Teeth stood and growled, the two helmeted soldiers beside the general shifted their feet and twitched their hands, readying to pull blades if necessary, but Navid held up his hand. “Peace, minister. I mean only to speak to my brother, but, as always, you seek to interject your wisdom.”
The Emperor cleared his throat. “I have the utmost confidence in Minister Kalb’s assessment of the situation. I told you to watch the borders, not move on a neighboring, friendly country. Now, all of our neighbors will sharpen their sword and wonder which of them is next. Instead of seeking more favorable trade agreements, we will have to allay their fears and offer some recompense to Arven for taking their land.”
“A wolf does not apologize for its nature.” Navid scoffed. “Why do we bow and scrape and dance around the issue? We needed that port. Saluud was a necessary annexation if we are to build our nation’s economy!”
“And I had plans for that, plans that would have assured a peaceful transition. Why do you think it was so unguarded? Was it a mistake that they had but a bare garrison in that city?” The Emperor steepled his hands, frowning deeply.
Navid looked lost for words. He swallowed hard and waited. The Emperor looked ready to say something in anger, but the Empress reached over and placed her hand on top of her husband’s hand. It had a calming effect, but the anger was still palpable.
“People fear a conqueror, kingdoms even more so. This is not how we build our nation.” Baraz said at last.
“I was seeking to create a future for our kingdom and our family.” Navid protested.
Emperor Baraz shook his head. “No, brother, you thought only of your own glories. You are not supposed to decide such things. That is why I am Emperor. You are a general, a leader of soldiers, and you go where I ask and fight when I ask you to fight.”
“I will never stop fighting to guarantee a future for my nieces and this family,” Navid’s eyes strayed toward the Empress at this, “and some day in the future, they will have need of a kingdom that has no fears from its neighbors.”
Kalb took a step down, lifting a hand like a proper statesman. “Arven is a kingdom of merchants and sailors. They understand trade and honor their deals. Contracts are law to them, and they always follow the letter of the law. You’ve slapped them across the face and taken with force that which we would’ve been given for proper compensation. We will still have to compensate them, only more for their losses and this insult to their honor. Future dealings with them will forever be fraught with doubt because of your deeds.”
Baraz glanced at Kalb, who stepped back without being told to. “Amongst kingdoms, there must be trust. My word, the word of our nation, it must mean something, or we are just bandits and raiders. Is that what you would have of me?”
“No, brother.” Navid put on an expression that indicated he had been properly chastised, but I could hear in his breathing and his heartrate that he was anything but. “What would you have of me? Would you have me deliver the payment to Arven? I will make amends if I must. It is, after all, my fault. Perhaps if you’d told me what you planned instead of keeping me in the dark…”
Baraz saw where this was going. “I tell you what you need to know. Do not think to shift blame to me.”
Navid winced. “I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t mince words with me. I know you too well.” Baraz snarled.
“Brother, tell me what you would have of me then.” Navid implored.
“You can do nothing. Sit in the palace and stay out of trouble. The Kingdom of Arven deserves to hear this from me. I am responsible for you, and I will have to handle this.”
The Empress grimaced. She did not want to be separated from her husband, not when her child was due soon. For her sake, I hoped he’d at least be able to stay until the child was born before heading to the border to meet with the merchant’s council of Arven.
“As you wish, brother.” Navid lowered his head, jaw tight, but was there the slightest hint of a smile there?
“Yes, as I wish.” Baraz repeated, waving his brother off.
Navid’s face as a complicated mask of control. He longed to say something and react, but he did not. He swallowed it down and bowed deeply. Then he turned on his heel, replacing his helmet. His soldiers fell in beside him.
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.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs