Suitors. What a horrible thing. A truly terrible thing.
I forced myself to be at ease, wearing my guard’s uniform and sitting across the garden from where Nokomi was entertaining her guest. This was the third one in five days. I hated them all for no reason other than they were here to see her.
Dog shifted at my feet as I pretended to work on notes and orders. For the previous two suitors, I’d made an attempt to appear as a scribe, but the guise had worn thin on me, so I appeared as a guard today, staying at a safe distance. Even so, my ears easily overheard every word that passed between Nokomi, her handmaidens, and her suitors. It was all I could do to not stare at each of these men with hateful looks, so I tried to appear otherwise occupied.
In truth, I was trying to draw Nokomi’s face as I remembered it from our meeting on the balcony a few nights ago, but I was no artist. I could not catch the delicate features of her face or the soulful expression of her eyes. Nor could I get the balance of her lips and nose correct. Anything I created looked like a poor imitation of her at best. It was nearly as hopeless a task as watching these rich and powerful men fawn over the princess, someone who was clearly a prize to be won.
She was not that to me. She was part of a pack, a family unit. We were to be together, in one way or another, but our roles here kept her apart from us. The situation was every bit as bitter as Kalb had told me it would be, but worse. Experiencing it was proving to be far more terrible than hearing it described.
And, there was something different about this one. This suitor, Bijan, was better than the others. I’d happened across another few potential suitors in the palace, screening them prior to them meeting the princess. I’d shared my thoughts of them with her, letting her know which ones bragged of their aspirations, hopes, and dreams for joining with her. Many of the men put on gentle and polite faces in front of her, but their true aspirations were far more lewd and greedy.
Not so with this one named Bijan. For all my attempts to overhear him saying something improper or give some indication that he was not as pure in his motives as he seemed, I’d found nothing. Even when the other potential suitors tried to get him involved in their bawdy jests of forthcoming conquests, he said nothing, excusing himself from their company instead. They all thought less of him for it, but it made me that much more wary of him, for he seemed a truly decent man.
I refused to like him, no matter how fine a person he appeared to be. Even the respectful tones with which he spoke to Halina and Lila were not faked. If he was false in any way, I’d have heard it. I could feel a lie and hear an untruth if spoken. He was nothing but honest with the girls, and he was a gentleman as well. It didn’t hurt that he was far more handsome than I could hope to be.
I had a wild look about my features. It didn’t matter if I shaved, wore a beard, cropped my hair, or put on different clothes – there was always something off about me. My eyes couldn’t fully hide what I was. I might play the part of a human well enough, but you always saw a hint of something not quite domesticated in my eyes. Once you saw it, you couldn’t unsee it. It would nag at you, and you’d always see me as something animal.
Halina had started to pick up on it. I could tell by her expression when she looked at me. I frequently caught her starting at me, trying to figure me out. Leaping from a high balcony and running faster than a normal person could possibly run had certainly done very little to dispel any notions that I was normal.
Nokomi had never minded my nature. She’d always seen me for what I was, going all the way back to our first bloody meeting in the alley all those years ago. There had been no mistaking that I was a wildling, more beast than boy. Growing up had just made me into a bigger, more dangerous animal.
So, I watched Bijan’s fine features, rich but subdued clothes, and graceful manners from across the garden, sitting on my stone bench. Dog was my companion, and this interloper was being entertained by the woman I wanted.
I’d realized it. I’d admitted it to myself, much to Dog’s relief. I was not hiding from it anymore. I just didn’t know how to make it true in this life. I’d been all bravado when I’d told Kalb I’d fight the world for her if she wanted me, but I didn’t know how to go about asking her to do the same for me.
After the better part of an hour of exchanging pleasantries, Bijan dismissed himself, bowing deeply. He touched Nokomi’s hand then, placing it softly between his two hands. Respectful as he was, he did not kiss the back of her hand with his lips, as the others before him had done. No, he was ever cautious with our Nokomi.
Dog stood and growled at this contact, sensing him as a true rival for her attentions. I didn’t chastise him. In truth, I found my own teeth bared as well, and my ink quill snapped in my hand.
Bijan turned toward the source of the noise. His dark eyebrows rose above his insightful eyes, and I quickly closed my mouth, trying to hide my anger with a smile that was hardly convincing. Halina covered her mouth, eyes dancing with amusement. Nokomi’s was far less amused.
“Princess.” Bijan said, swiftly covering his surprise with a smile and another bow.
He made his way from the garden then, eyeing me once very briefly. He wanted me to know that he was taking note of me, but did not view me in a threatening fashion, as if I were of little consequence. In his eyes, I was probably just a guardsman, as my uniform suggested. Dog glared back at him, though my cheeks burned.
Nokomi left the garden with Lila, casting a disappointed look our way as she departed. Halina begged to stay behind and clean up, though there were others who would do that. Her excuse was flimsy, but Nokomi did not challenge it.
After they’d left, Halina strolled over to me, her hand on her hip and her expression imperious. It was almost comical to me, because she had none of the princess’ bearing. It was an emulation of more powerful women, but the walk was anything but perfected.
“Captain Goren.” She sniffed and looked around, as if studying the weather. Aloof didn’t work, not when she couldn’t keep her eyes from my sketches.
I hastily tried to cover them up, realizing what she was looking at, but she moved with surprising swiftness, dropping onto the bench beside me and grabbing the first one she saw.
“These are not badly done, Captain!” She studied the drawing in her hands.
“Really?” I asked.
“What is it, a flying squirrel?” She asked in complete seriousness.
I frowned at her as she burst out laughing. The teasing was well delivered, and I couldn’t help but smile after a moment, even if it was at my cost. “You heard that the other night?”
“I’m a light sleeper. I’m the princess’ protector, so I can’t snore like Lila and let strange men pester the princess at night without any notice. Although, you did have arrive rather quietly and from a surprising direction.” She admitted.
I grinned at that, forgiving her for mocking my artwork. “And Bijan, will you have to protect her from him?”
She shook her head. “I think not. He would not so much as look at her uninvited. He is too kind by far.”
I wasn’t so sure as that. “He is a good man, the only one I’ve met among all of those that seek her hand.”
“That’s why he won’t win.” Halina said with complete certainty, meeting my eyes with her very blue ones.
“Why?” I asked. Perhaps she knew more of these things than I.
Dog sought out Halina’s hands, forcing his muzzle against them. She laughed and played with his round ears. “Because a princess, especially one like Nokomi, needs someone with fire in them, some forcefulness. By being challenged, she will grow to her full potential. Only someone who wished for her and her offspring to never be a threat would match her with such a polite man.”
That made sense. Nokomi was a lioness, fierce at heart and proud. Bijan was graceful and careful, like a gazelle. It would not be a strong match, despite my initial concerns. But, General Navid might push her toward such a match, if he worried her sons might challenge his place. Isn’t that what had happened with her older sister Neema? Hadn’t Nokomi described him as sweet and gentle?
Halina studied the change in my expression. “You are completely besotted with her, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely.” I admitted openly, hand going to my face. I could feel her fire running through my skin. It made my left eye water.
Halina’s hand reached out to touch my forehead. “You’re burning up, feverish.”
I took her hand gently and placed it back on her lap. “I always run warm.”
She looked from Dog to me. She’d just had a hand on both of us at the same time. “You’re just as warm as he is.” A look dawned on her face, and she stood suddenly, heart racing.
“Halina.” I reached out, pulling her back down to my side.
She shivered under the touch of my warm hand, but I let her go. Dog whined, so she resumed petting him with both hands. He, at least, she still trusted. Dog had never hidden his nature from her, but she still eyed me warily. “What are you, Captain?”
“Everything you suspect, I’d wager, and more.” I replied. I wasn’t about to give her the particulars.
“That’s how you could do those things, jump and run and bark… The stories she told of you and Dog, they make so much more sense now.”
I flashed my teeth at her in a smile, though I refrained from growing my teeth or letting my eyes go yellow. Her eyes fell shyly, submissively. I had to admit, I missed the confidence and curiosity she’d met my gaze with just moments before.
“I serve your princess, Halina. That’s all you need to worry about. I will never let any harm befall her.”
“I believe you, but I fear what might happen to those who cross your path…” She met my gaze once more, and I could hear the trust in her voice. “May the Gods save any that get in your way.”
She believed me, and that was good, for there was no more important thing to me than protecting Nokomi. If Halina believed that she and I had the same goals, we could work together to protect her.
“Things are changing, Halina. I can often sense her, but I don’t always know exactly how she feels. Nor can I always be at her side, but I am never more than a shout or a call away. Get word to me if something ever happens, and I will be there as fast as I my legs can carry me. No obstacle will stand in our way.”
“But what of your secret?” She asked, wondering if I was willing to expose what I was just to protect Nokomi.
“I would rather everyone knew what I was than see any harm come to her. We are pack, she and I.” There was no doubt about that.
“Would that I had one so dedicated to me.” She whispered sadly.
I smiled at that, but had no advice or wisdom for her on the subject. I only knew what I wanted, and that was enough for now.
National Novel Writing Month 2019: The Emperor's Dogs